Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the Future of Journalism

Yesterday afternoon I attended Lokman Tsui’s talk on Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the Future of Journalism at the Berkman Center, where I’m interning for the summer.

I met Lokman last July in Budapest for the 2008 Global Voices Summit, and in February I had the great fortune to spend a week with him and 10 other Global Voices team members in Miami for We Media.

Lokman’s writing his dissertation on how the Internet is driving institutional changes of journalism in a globalized world. His talk yesterday covered the research he’s been doing on Global Voices, a project that aggregates and translates blogs and other citizen media from around the world.

“We really cannot measure the new with standards we designed for the old.”

Lokman argued that we need a new conceptual toolkit to explain what Global Voices is doing. Instead of approaching Global Voices through the lens of professional, alternative or even public journalism (for a more thorough description of these types, see Corinna di Gennaro’s recap of the talk), Lokman proposes a fourth approach: evaluating Global Voices as a tool for communicative democracy, whose purpose is conversation and whose form is hospitality, rather than sheer objectivity.

“He is Ethan Zuckerman. I’m…Lokman.”

Hospitality is important, Lokman explained, because power differentials exist. No matter how far we’ve come in terms of shifting the power of the (exclusively printing) press into the hands of bloggers, the reality is that some people — or groups of people, or countries — have a distinct power advantage over others. But hospitality can subvert this power inequality and help ensure that inclusive discussion takes place.

Lokman used the example of visiting the home of Ethan Zuckerman, one of the founders of Global Voices. As a relative newcomer to the organization, Lokman admitted to feeling intimidated, but Ethan — as all good hosts do — switched up the power structure by treating Lokman as a guest and serving him.

Hospitality is also important because it negates the need for neutral third spaces — meeting Ethan in a coffee shop, for example — where differences between people are bracketed out and ignored. Furthermore, hospitality places important conditions on inclusion — if a guest behaves badly, the host has every right to throw him or her out. This solves the problem of “how tolerant is too tolerant” and allows discussion to remain productive.

I’ve been privileged to be a member of the Global Voices community for just over two years, and in that time I have been amazed by the hospitality that exists among its members. In addition to traveling to each other’s countries and staying at each other’s houses — a more traditional view of hospitality — GV-ers exhibit respect, understanding, and appreciation for differences every day on our authors’ listserve and in our writing, even when it comes to sensitive issues like gay rights and politics in Gaza.

Lokman admitted that the idea of hospitality as a barometer for journalism may be a little “kumbaya” for some people. Hospitality is easy among friends who have common goals and interests, but it’s more important — and more dangerous — among strangers. Lokman closed is talk by expressing the hope that, by emphasizing hospitality in journalism, we can raise the normative stakes.

I definitely fall into the warm fuzzy, kumbaya camp when it comes to Global Voices, as I am ceaselessly amazed by the work GV-ers do to amplify marginalized or otherwise buried voices for a global audience. After talking to several of my fellow Berkman interns today, though, I have a couple of questions:

  • What’s the next step?
    For this shift to take place, the way people — mainstream/traditional media practitioners, citizen journalists and media audiences — think of media needs to shift radically. Citizen journalists seem to be leading this shift, but I worry that not enough people are following. What can we do to nudge this process along?
  • How do we measure success?
    Ethan expressed concerns that Global Voices, despite its accomplishments, is not an unqualified success — it’s not widely read enough, for one thing, nor is it widely respected outside of a particular citizen-journalism-happy community. But how do we know when we’ve reached our goal? This question is tied pretty closely to the next:
  • What does it look like?
    Obviously, mainstream media is undergoing serious changes right now. But once things shake out, will a shift towards hospitality result in the New York Times incorporating more Global Voices-stye aggregation? Will Global Voices become so widely read that it ends up replacing more traditional online news sources?

I apologize if these questions are too basic (or if Lokman answered them, and I missed what he said), but I think they’re a decent starting place. If you have any thoughts, hit up the comments below.

If you missed the talk, you can watch or listen at Berkman Interactive.

  • Eliza

    Very interesting post.
    Here at the Guardian Newspaper in London, we are exploring new ways of reporting on development, promiting transparency and accountability through the website dedicated solely to our joint rural development intiative with African NGO Amref.
    The Katine project features traditional reporting as well as blogs, podcasts and videos from trained journalists, academics, members of the development community and beneficiaries of the project themselves.
    We are always open to comment and suggestions…the concept of measuring success is one that we will be exploring further as the project reaches the mid-term point. Thanks!

  • David

    Wonderful post, and now I'm wishing I heard the talk. I found your blog via the posts written on behalf of GV Advocacy for the Zemanta thing.

    I've discussed this topic with a lot of journalism and "social media" friends of mine as well. While it's clear that technology has fundamentally changed the economics of publishing, So many of my journalism friends look only at the tools and the tactics, and forget the "social" part of social media that is really the transformative engine in all this. They also get tripped up on nomenclature – what's a "Journalist," what's a "blogger" and so on. The one common thread I find in all corporate journalism outlets that are withering is they still insist that the communication be one-directional. They'll use tools like Twitter but only as an alternate RSS feed. Responses are still "letters to the editor" and even those are screened and edited. One of the things that GVO and their ilk understand is they don't control the information, and they accept that readers talk back and talk with each other.

    As for measurement, that's been such a challenge for me as well – I tend to try to use "relationships" as my unit of measurement. It's amazingly subjective but it's the best I've found so far.

  • loki

    Terrific questions Rebekah. Thanks so much for posting them!

    I agree it's at this point very early – and your questions are well taken.

    My hope is that we as citizens – regardless whether we are reading mainstream news or GV or other news sources – we not only ask the question: "How objective or accurate is this?" but also "How hospitable is it?"

    Or more specific: When we are reading about the Olympics in Beijing, that we ask "Where are the Chinese perspectives in this article?" – ditto for other news.

    How to get there? Perhaps we can learn from history – how we got to the point that everybody – not just journalists – but citizens – all have learned to read – and judge! – the news through the lens of objectivity. It's time, however, to expand that lens!

  • Solanasaurus

    Awesome recap. I'm still thinking through the issues too, and intrigued by the idea of hospitality – and especially "hospitality of thought"

  • Joey Mornin

    One of the most interesting questions came from one of the fellows (I don't remember who). Do journalists have to think of themselves as "journalists" (professional or not) for journalism to keep its role in the democratic process? What's your take?