Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Lion. the Hunter and New Media

by Nonso Christian Ugbode

This is a fairly well known African proverb: "until the lion has his own historians the tale of the hunt will always belong to the hunter." The main point being he who survives the hunt tells the tale of it, controls its meaning, gets to define its virtues - be it dead heads mounted on sticks, or the beauty of grilling in the outdoors. Transpose this proverb with some newer, more general, actors and it becomes a bit more interesting I think. Let's say "the people," "democracy," "media" and "power." So maybe "until all the people have their own media the value of democracy will always belong to those with power." The point becomes a bit more salient. Until every person truly understands and participates in shaping the conversation of democracy - its agenda, temperament, meaning, results - the word might as well refer simply to an unnecessary war with too many casualties, or an over-hyped leader who holds on to power too long.

Stepping off the soap box a bit, this is simply a post about the value of truly public media, media from every perspective, a media that in its very essence gives everyone a vested interest in the story of a free world and its meaning. I believe this is one of the many objectives that keep many media arts and rights organizations alive, even now as investment dwindles across the board. The development of new, smaller format, cheaper audio and video production tools, and the current jostling of experimentation happening in the public media sphere just might bring about a media democracy that changes the very nature of information and its value. (Yes, an optimist, albeit coming in great cynical disguise).

Recently in collaboration with Pen Plus Bytes, an ICT journalism project out of Accra, myself representing the New Media Institute, I was privileged to participate in an ICT journalism training program in Blantyre, Malawi where the country is preparing for a democratic general election come May 19th. The project (found at is a new media journalism training initiative designed to bring transparency and a new dimension to global understanding of what happens on the ground during African elections. After Barack Obama's seemingly magical rise all eyes are on democracy, what it means, and how it manifests itself. It is an important question for us all. At this moment more so than at any other in the last eight years where democracy came with a condescending fist, it is clearer what the average voice contributes to shaping the human understanding of this very fragile enterprise.

As part of the training we discussed streamlining video production for online distribution, and found a very receptive crowd of Malawian journalists. Perhaps the engagement was due to the very cool pocket cameras we were demonstrating with, or maybe it was because we were saying something they hadn't heard before, "everybody is a story teller, and everybody's story matters." A friend recently complained that her issue with the news was that those with the stories to tell where often not the ones with the microphone, they were simply in the background, or looking on desperately while bleeding heart narration played over their faces, or stood in front of them with white safari pants or khaki shorts.

With that all too familiar news scene in mind the value of discussing the nature of new media production, and the accessibility of the tools involved in furthering this new kind of storytelling, should be on the minds of all those now scrambling to define this new technological space be it for those in mainstream media, those struggling to maintain a relevance for public television, or those trying to save the newspapers. From CNN's iReport, to the many other mainstream outlets tripping over themselves to design yet another "we-use-Twitter" graphic, or find us on facebook blah, blah, blah. It's all very cute, but that's not the point of all this. It can't be.

The model of many-to-many information distribution was not created just to be co-opted again by a few. That's why they call it many-to-many. In the loud twitter of public opinion someone is bound to shift the conversation on torture to the question of right versus wrong, just so we don't all get fooled into spending the entire discussion on the technical definition of torture, or whether or not it "works." Or even worse, whether Nancy Pelosi found out about water-boarding on a Tuesday or a Friday. Maybe then we'd all be able to stomach pictures depicting the results of our actions, or lack thereof, no matter how gruesome. Because sometimes democracy is ugly.

So my point? Well, socialism of course, free socialist mobile cameras for everyone (and maybe a brief discussion about zooming and the use of close ups).

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