Citizen Journalists Arise!


CBS reporter Kimberly Dozier was recently embedded with the US military in Iraq when she was seriously wounded and her crew killed by (the insurgents’ weapon of choice) an Improvised Explosive Device. After the incident, an email surfaced that she had sent just before the IED explosion. In it, she explained that she planned to shoot a Memorial Day story about a US soldier wounded in Iraq who was determined to return, a piece about ‘fighting on in memory of those who have fallen.’

US media commentator Danny Schechter wrote : ‘What a tragic loss TV journalists dying not in search of deeper truths but to send back another picture-rich but patriotically correct story.’

Patriotism should play absolutely no role in war reporting, but with notable exceptions such as Patrick Cockburn’s reports for The Independent (UK) much of the mainstream coverage of the Iraq War relies on largesse from the ‘Coalition of the Willing.’ It is therefore largely useless.

The Iraq War is the most dangerous environment for journalists in modern history (a recent report states that more journalists have died in Iraq since 2003 76 than in the 1955-1975 Vietnam War). The risks involved have resulted in a neutered perspective that allows us tiny glimpses of a country descending into chaos. And astute observers have become ever-more reliant on Iraqi blogs and Arab news reports for perspectives that are less Washington- or London-centric.

The depth of mainstream failure when reporting Iraq and the wider ‘War on Terror’ was highlighted by a recent story by leading US blogger Rory O’Connor. He scored an exclusive interview with disgraced New York Times journalist Judith Miller, one of the leading journalistic purveyors of bogus WMD stories before 2003. Miller explained how she had received intelligence before September 11, 2001, that indicated al-Qaeda was planning a large-scale attack on the US. She took this information to her editor but he refused to run it, claiming the story lacked sufficient detail.

It’s impossible to know whether publishing this ‘intelligence’ would have stopped the catastrophic attacks on Washington and New York and Miller’s track record on intelligence matters is sketchy at best but this latest revelation generated virtually no mainstream media coverage. It was as if the ‘story that got away’ was irrelevant, and it took a denizen of the blogosphere to break it.

In an age where the Pentagon proudly boasts of writing a document designed to manipulate public perception of the US-led ‘War on Terror’, journalists seem remarkably unaware of the ways in which they are being manipulated. Some journalists can imagine no other world outside their spoon-fed ‘exclusives’ and sanctioned leaks. Some, of course, are too fearful of losing high-level access.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

So, increased cynicism towards official sources is a healthy development in the gradual overthrow of the embedded mindset.

Faiza al-Arji, an Iraqi engineer, mother and blogger who recently travelled around the US, described her disgust at the local media’s ignorance of a country their armed forces had invaded and occupied:

I started asking people in my interviews: In the past three years, do you remember seeing one Iraqi opposing the war in the mainstream media? They shook their heads and say no. I would then tell them that the US media is in partnership with the Government in this war. You Americans don’t know anything about Iraq, about Islam, about our culture, our civilisation, our religion, I said. All that reaches you is through the lens of a distorted, biased and deceitful media that sows disdain and discrimination and justifies wars and hatred between us.

So what will replace the old media paradigms? The announcement in late May of a relationship between the International Herald Tribune (IHT) and leading South Korean news website OhmyNews International signals a significant shift. OhmyNews is a leading purveyor of ‘citizen journalism’ and the deal could see any number of such writers appearing alongside professional, established journalists in the pages of the IHT.

Although the conservative New York Times owns the IHT, the potential for radical change is clear. Imagine a lead article written by a mainstream hack next to a piece dictated by a non-professional Hong Kong writer explaining the rise of Chinese influence in the country. OhmyNews currently has 40,000 contributors, and an in-house staff of writers and editors decides what to print.

This new relationship will, clearly, still have to operate within a mainstream framework the New York Times is known, after all, for expressing the voice of the ruling elites but the legitimacy of citizen reporting is on the rise. The days of only a few supposed authorities on any given subject are thankfully coming to a close.

Although the democratisation of information is threatening to the media moguls, it is the inevitable path of future development.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.