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.