Sunday, May 24, 2009

New Media: Redefining Journalism

By Fredrick Mugira

Peace Namara is a Uganda female journalist. She has spent eight years working with different media houses in the country. Currently she reports from the western part of the country for one of the leading dailies in Uganda.
Namara is able to file here stories to her news room which is situated about 320 kilometers from her work place with the use of Information Communication Technologies. She does this through with the use of her phone which she uses to take pictures and sends them to her editor. She sometimes writes her stories on phone and sends them to her editor. Other times she sends her stories via email.
Five years ago, Namara was reporting for a radio station –Greater African Radio. She used to write her stories on a piece of paper and deliver the story by hand to her editor.
She says that with in the eight years she has been in journalism, she has truly witnessed ICT revolutionalising journalism. She acknowledges that with new media, journalism is changing at a high speed.

The New Media include the latest form of digital mass communication developed by society, which are slowly over competing radio, television, and newspapers. Such are textual blogs, photoblogs, videoblogs, wikis, podcasts and moblog.
But exactly what are these?

A wiki is a website that allows its visitors to add remove as well as edit the site's contents. It is a simple-user-editable data storage. It was developed in 1995 by one Ward Cunningham to manage increasing number of pages in discussion groups and user groups. Technically, wiki also refers to software that facilitates the function of wiki website using a browser interface.

Blogs are personal online journals which are displayed with the most recent entry on top and are social by nature while technically, blog means a web page to which its owner regularly adds new entries, which tend to be short. Most of the weblogs are primarily textual. However there are others which focus on photographs. Such blogs are termed as photoblogs. Other blogs use video as the primary content. They are termed as Vlog or Videoblog.

Podcasting involves distribution of audio or video files such as radio programmes or music videos over the internet. The essence of podcasting is to create content either audio or video for people to listen when they want, where they want and how they want. Podcast can mean both the content and the method of delivery.
Mablog entails publishing from a mobile device onto Internet. Contents are posted to the Internet from a mobile device such as a cellular phone or a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)

Giving Journalism a new face

With the new media, journalism is changing immensely. It is no longer the sermon like type but rather interactive and the audience is now part and parcel of the information gathering and dissemination.

Blogging, podcasting and mablogging among others have made internet users (netizens) to no longer passively consume media but actively participate in them. However the quality of information disseminated is still questionable. There are no gatekeepers (Editors) in the new media who verify the truth with in what someone has written unlike in the traditional media and in the world of endless information, credibility is an essential ingredient for information seeks.

Similarly wikis and other new media may not always be fact-based insightful, or correct." This draws attention to the fact the people may not trust such ideas. In so doing, they corroborate such ideas with those in the traditional media.

Irrespective of the truth within the posted information, what is most important is that with the diffusion of new media, the audience and the average users of the Internet have been empowered to receive more information than before. Details of issues concerning environment, politics, culture, religion, education to mention but a few are all found in the new media (take an example of Global Voices Online blog). Significant proportion of everyday life including work, leisure, personal interaction takes place in the new media.

New media are aiding netizens to express themselves freely, a right that had been partly denied to them by the traditional media. The world is now experiencing global conversations that offer "extraordinary potential for the expression of citizen rights and for communication of human values" Castells (2001:164). Citizens with access to Internet in undemocratic states where freedom of speech is limited can now boast of expressing themselves unlimitedly through the new media as they "voice their concerns and share hopes" Castells (2001:164). In doing so, new media enhances democracy. However this may not happen to the people "without or with only limited access to the internet as well as for those unable to use it effectively." (Castells 2001:247)

New media are aiding the formation of what Castells (2000, 2001) has termed as "virtual communities" which are primary based on the online communication such as that taking place on some blogs and wikis. Such communities, as Castells (2000:388) has argued bring like-minded people together as they "share interests and values" and "discuss issues of common interest" as Rao (2005: 277) also remarks. Such none physical communities "epitomize the practice of global free speech in an era dominated by media conglomerates and censoring governments' bureaucracies."(Castells 2001:54-55) Through this way, democracy is furthered. On the other side this "new form of socialability" as Castells (2000: 384) notes have led to "de-humanization of social relations" as it make people escape real life.

Problems of 'edit wars' a situation where everyone with access to such information wants to be its editor, vandalism and spam leave information in new media at risk unlike in traditional media where the information is assured of protection.

While all this makes rational sense- it is imperative to note that the new media offer services more or less similar to those offered by traditional media. Such services include of course news and feature sites among others. This surely brings in competition between the two branches of media.

However, the traditional media seem to be failing the competition and in so doing, it is slow taking on the new media's characteristic of interactiveness to include contributions from the audience. Television, radio and print media houses have gone ahead to own websites where they have news, blogs, emails chartrooms music and photos' sites and podcasts of their programmes such as BBC and VOA .

Mobile and satellite telephones, wikis, to mention but a few have made it possible for traditional media houses to get stories from either news reporters or any other person stationed from anywhere. An online wiki for example is capable of being a pool for news stories from reporters and any other members of the community. From this pool, the editor is able to edit these stories before forwarding them to page designers or casters in case of electronic media.

Indeed, this draws attention to the fact that the new media have capacity to change traditional media to be more interactive. With the accurate use of an offline wiki for example, newsrooms can ably coordinate materials, communicate easily with all members of the staff and easily send materials for publication or broadcasting. The question that remains now is, are we likely to see a sweeping change in traditional media following the diffusion of the new media? Yes in the developed countries and no in the undeveloped countries. The most prominent reason for failure by traditional media house to fully incorporate new media tools to advance their daily operations in developing countries is financial constraints engulfed by digital divide (Castells, 2000, 2001; Rao 2005; Singhal et al 2005 and Singhal et al 2001)

In most rural set-up, in developing countries, there is no infrastructure to support this venture. Several scholars (Castells: 2001, Gupta: 2004, Rao: 2005, Singhal et al: 2001) have argued convincingly that computers are expensive for developing countries and their people. There is a high level of computer illiteracy in these countries, which has not spared journalists, therefore even if there were ICT facilities, few journalists might use them. This therefore is leading to a digital divide with in journalism itself whereby journalism in developed countries becomes interactive while that in undeveloped countries remain uninterractive.

What then should happen?

To end this governments in these countries have to help subsidize ICT access so that their local people access them with ease. India has partially done this successfully when it started in 1999 a "US$ 25 million fund" to aid software start-ups (Sighal et al 2001:176). One of the benefits of this fund is that it increased local people's access to ICT. As Sighal et al (2001) elaborates, ICT has helped India develop. This could be copied by other governments and be used to benefit them.

In conclusion, we are witnessing liberation of human knowledge following the diffusion of new media and their easy collection and sharing of information. Subsequently, this is aiding "transformation of information into knowledge and knowledge into action." Castells (2001:259). And for the issues of reliability and trustworthiness of the information disseminated by the new media, observation of journalistic values and ethics could enhance it is credibility.

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