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OhmyNews a 'Marriage of Democracy and Technology'
OMN founder Oh Yeon Ho gives a keynote speech at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Todd Thacker (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-12-15 13:15 (KST)   
Oh Yeon Ho addresses attendees of the Berkman Center Internet and Society Conference at Harvard University on Dec 11.
©2004 T.Thacker
During a keynote address at Harvard University's Berkman Center Internet & Society conference last Friday, Oh Yeon Ho, the founder of Korea's liberal online newspaper OhmyNews, told a group of about 200 attendees about how Korea's netizens were able to change domestic media and politics through "a marriage of democracy and technology."

"Citizen participatory Internet journalism started first in Korea with the slogan 'every citizen is a reporter.' The slogan is not only about changing journalism, but about changing all of society," he said during a seminar titled "Affecting the Outcome I: South Korea Case Study" at the Ames Courtroom of Harvard Law School. Oh's reference to changing society refers to OhmyNews' central role in the outcome of the 2002 Korean presidential election.

"The story of Mr. Oh Yeon Ho and OhmyNews is really quite remarkable," said Berkman Center executive director and seminar chairman John Palfrey. "(It) has put in some ways the most interesting story we could find on the planet to us."

Palfrey kicked off the talk by saying the biannual conference's objective was to look at some of the best instances of Internet affecting democracy and politics. In addition to Oh, panelists Stephen Ward, from University of Salford and the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK, Rebecca MacKinnon, of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi were invited to share their experiences on web-based political communities.

Oh began his keynote by noting that after the 2004 U.S. presidential election, many of his friends asked him why Korean netizens could change the face of politics (in 2002), but American netizens couldn't.

"I believe that many American netizens who are disappointed with Mr. Bush's reelection may have asked themselves the same question," Oh said.

OhmyNews is widely credited with rallying young Korean voters in the final days of the 2002 presidential election, aiding then-underdog liberal candidate Roh Moo Hyun to get elected with its nonstop reporting of a last minute crisis in which Roh's election partner, Chung Mong Joon, suddenly withdrew his support.

"OhmyNews reported Mr. Chung's withdrawal and updated the story of netizens' reactions every 30 minutes, all night long. The number of hits for that main breaking story was 720,000 in just 10 hours. Thanks to the nonstop reporting through the night, OhmyNews was the epicenter of reform-minded netizens," Oh said. Roh is known as "the world's first Internet president."

About 200 people attended the afternoon seminar in the Ames Courtroom of Harvard Law School.
©2004 T.Thacker
To the question of why Korea was the first to embrace online participatory journalism to stimulate radical political changes in the country, Oh prefaced his explanation by saying that the "revolution" did not come easily.

"We Koreans have been paying dearly, since modern Korean history itself is the cost. Struggling against military dictatorship to achieve democracy and living in a divided nation is the cost that Koreans paid in blood," he said.

"The Korean War taught people to keep silent in order to survive. The Kwangju Massacre too. But there has been an endless struggle for democracy and liberating from keeping silent."

Oh said that after years of right wing domination in politics and media, Korean readers yearned for alternative media, and "the nation's superior Internet infrastructure ... made multimedia, always-on service and interactive news service possible." South Korea, he explained, is a uni-polar society and "the entire country can be quickly engulfed by a couple of issues."

In the questions and answers section of the talk, one participant wondered if, in comparing traditional press with participatory journalism, there were any guarantees about objectivity citizen reporting.

Oh replied that OhmyNews citizen reporters are all registered with their real names, social security numbers and addresses, "so that we can easily contact them to check whether their story is correct or not."

"And when the citizen reporter submits an article, we have ten copyeditors who are in charge of fact checking their articles. So I can say, in comparison to traditional newspapers, we've had only a handful of cases which finally ended up in the courts," he explained, adding he thinks that this number is not particularly high when compared to mainstream media.

On the larger issue of citizen journalism reporting style, Oh said that OhmyNews urges its citizen reporters not to follow the "formula" of professional journalists.

"We say, 'Please use your style,' the style and character of the articles are varied when compared to professional journalism," he said. "I think this is the unique merit of OhmyNews."

Interjecting, Palfrey described his visit to OhmyNews' Seoul office as being "just like a newsroom like you read about... humming with all sorts of people managing all the information coming in and being filtered by those very professional staff."

On the question of credibility of citizen reporting, panelist Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN correspondent, said she'd had discussions with colleagues at the Berkman Center about the newly launched news service called Wikinews, and whether it is possible for peer-produced news to maintain an objective point of view.

"It probably can't because the point of view of the news is going to depend on the majority of people participating... but you're better off to have clear biases rather than claiming to be objective when you're not," she said.

"I think participatory journalism is going to have to stop claiming that you're objective and you're just going to have say, 'Look, you know, 80 percent of our contributors voted this way and be very transparent about what their biases and backgrounds.'"

Different cultures look at news in different ways, she added.

©2004 T.Thacker
"OhmyNews is a kind of 'fantastic mix' of the citizen reporters and professional reporters," Oh told the audience. "It has 35,000 citizen reporters and 40 staff reporters whose reporting style is very similar to professional journalists. So they are in charge of the straight news and investigations."

Another conference participant and associate professor of journalism and mass communication at New York University, Jay Rosen, commented that within the blogosphere and participatory journalism these days "readers are writers, consumers are producers, but everyone is aware of the need for a filter -- someone who knows what news is."

Rosen said professional journalists have always held themselves out to be the best filters because they're trained and professionals, but "the filter itself has to be able to learn and be in conversation with the people you are filtering for. And what professional journalists don't understand is that they're not that kind of filter."

"It's true we still need that filter, that accurate information... but I think that's where the strength can be, by combining professional edits with citizens is going to yield a very strong conversation if the filters are also listeners," Rosen continued.

Oh elaborated on his newspaper's editorial model, saying OhmyNews has two levels of checks and balances. "The comments section is where readers can weigh in and criticize the facts, grammar, even the spelling of a particular piece," he said.

There are professional editors and a peer review that are part of a two-way process, he stressed. "In this way, OhmyNews has a kind of authority."
©2004 OhmyNews

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