Archive - Media & Culture RSS Feed

A Trump Anti-Inauguration Plan

How does a person of faith and a concerned citizen respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump which is only days away?

The question is especially pertinent if you believe Trump is a danger to the country, if not the world, and articulates opinions and policies that are clearly in conflict with the teachings of Jesus.

Much damage has been done to the impression of Christians by white evangelicals and other Christians who voted for Trump despite his obvious moral failings, racism, misogyny, authoritarianism, ignorance of policy and global affairs.

I think it’s important to reclaim the faith from the fear and warped theology that political operatives on the right have used to infect Christian teaching.

And I’m not alone in this. A plethora of email appeals to resist, repudiate, and protest Trump’s leadership and policies come daily. What to do?

Moral Response

A moral response based on faith is not only possible, it can be a witness to the teachings of Jesus from a different perspective.

A recent column by Charles M. Blow, while not written with religion in mind, provided helpful guidance. Blow writes that it’s not enough to be negative. Negative actions must be balanced with constructive response that reinforces principles and values. 

This resonates with me. Christian faith is embodied in constructive action. Faith is a way of living. In fact, in its earliest days, it was called “the way.”

Blow proposes a personal plan for making your opposition known. He says we must also deny that Trump and his behavior are normal. Blow calls it an “anti-inauguration plan.”

Like many others, I’ve been developing my own response to the election of Trump and I find Blow’s plan a helpful tool. 

So, with appreciation to Mr. Blow for his template, here’s my plan:

Pray

Prayer is lifting to consciousness our deepest concerns, hopes, fears, and joys, and baring them before God. Prayer is not limited to petitioning God for personal favors, or blessing others.

Prayer is also about perceiving and responding to the sacred in our lives. It is active engagement.

Since I left the workplace, I have been concentrating on nature and wildlife photography, not merely as a hobby but as a form of prayer.

The meditation time this provides, the awareness of the sacred it brings to consciousness, and the sharing it allows has become more meaningful than I anticipated when I began.

I believe when we bring our creativity to expression in concrete ways, we are are engaging in a sacred conversation. 

My photography not only expresses my creative impulses, it also is a reminder to me of the sacredness of the natural world. And it’s a way to call attention to the need to preserve and protect the whole of God’s good creation.

Protest

Protests are being organized around the country. I will join those in my city who proclaim that the policies proposed by Trump and some of his cabinet selections do not represent values and policies that I endorse. Some are antithetical to civil liberties, immigrants, women, and the environment. I intend to protest these harmful policies. 

Donate

Since the election, my spouse and I have donated to four organizations that are working to conserve wildlife and natural sites, one that is assisting people to utilize sustainable technology to improve their lives, a couple that work in public policy advocacy, and one that is speaking publicly from religious values to call the Trump administration to accountability.

Subscribe

We believe that a free press, flawed as electronic journalism is, remains an important line of defense in these troubling days. While I have stopped watching television news and public affairs programming and eliminated NPR from my information-gathering habits, I have subscribed to three newspapers and a magazine rooted in Christian teachings that focuses on justice and reducing poverty .

Remember that subscriptions also open the channel to online reading of content.

Read

It’s clear that an informed public is essential to the common good. I spend less time with TV and more time reading since we now have a president who seems averse to reading much of anything of substance.

In particular, I am re-reading Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer prize winning “Collapse”, and Dr. Tex Sample’s “A Christian Theology for the Common Good.”

Write

I have made my views known to my national and state legislators in the past but since the Trump election I have been much more frequent in writing to elected representatives to advocate for public policy that I believe is more humane, just, and consistent with the Constitution and the moral imperatives that Jesus taught.

Hearing from me more often, I assume also identifies me to them and reminds them of values that I advocate.

Letters to the editor, op-ed opinion pieces, radio call-in shows, feedback to news media about stories, and outreach through social media are means to voice support for fundamental moral issues of justice.

Connect

I have sought to re-connect with family and friends because we live in a society that is isolating and destructive of community. This disintegration of community is what fed the discontent and fears of Trump voters, and he was successful in exploiting discontent and fear.

People of faith also have local communities called congregations in which they can worship and find spiritual strength, develop friendships, and study the teachings of Jesus that are the basis for a life lived with meaning and purpose.

But to be frank about it, some of these communities have not been places where honest discussion of justice and faithfulness to the common good have been addressed forthrightly. It’s time to reclaim this lost territory for religious values that are humanizing and biblically sound, to call ourselves and our religious leaders to accountability before God.

We live in a society that has broken the bonds of community. The mantra of individualism has damaged community. It is based on a doctrine that the interests of the individual are, or ought to be, ethically paramount. Taken to excess, this doctrine today fosters hyper-individualism. 

Our housing developments are not created to encourage community. Houses are made to isolate us. Our social media intercede to substitute for direct person-to-person communication. 

Hyper-individualism is in direct conflict with the call of Jesus to be self-emptying in service to others. In this way, Christian faith is counter-cultural because it calls us to be concerned for one another, especially those who live in poverty conditions and those who are vulnerable.

We are discovering that no amount of things makes up for the loss of friends and communal interaction. We must rebuild our connection with others and re-discover the call to servanthood contained in the gospel of Matthew in chapter 25.

Volunteer

There are myriad ways to volunteer to assist people in local communities, and church people are usually at the head of the line. From groups that serve disadvantaged children, abused women, immigrants, the homeless, environmental protection, to missional efforts through local churches, there are ways to engage to make for a better world and repudiate divisiveness and fear of the ‘the other.”

These are some of the ways that I see myself participating in society today and making a difference. I am motivated by my understanding of the demands of faith, and by my concern that citizenship carries the responsibility to participate in a way that supports and protects the vulnerable.

I’d be interested in hearing about yours.

Hope in a Post-truth World

In a helpful analysis of the uses of social media by the water protectors at Standing Rock, Ginny Underwood points out how social media were used to tell the story of the people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The analysis was published by United Methodist News Service, the news arm of The United Methodist Church.

Ginny points out how the water protectors used social media strategically to overcome lack of coverage by mainstream media. In doing this, she notes the people were enabled to tell their own story, something that’s been more difficult in the past because of lack of access to media controlled by others.

Key to Success

A key to the success of the resistance was the strategic use of social media to tell a story that for many weeks was not told by mainstream media. The water protectors built a movement through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media from a remote hillside in the middle of the country far from the communication hubs of the established media.

They told a story that was easy to understand and with which anyone could identify. When dogs and rubber bullets were used by local authorities and water cannons turned on the protestors, it was on Facebook within minutes. 

Creating a Movement

Out of this communication a movement was built. A movement can defeat the establishment almost every time if it holds together and if it communicates effectively.

There are other components of this story that bear attention.

UMNS published this analysis before any other media outlet recognized the importance of the communication strategy. This is an important and appropriate role for the church’s communication arm to fulfill.

UMNS (for which I once had executive responsibility) should be an authoritative information source for the stories of those without voice, on the margins, and otherwise at a disadvantage in a media environment dominated by big money and big corporations.

It’s not a public relations function that serves on behalf of the church.

Truth-telling Rooted in the Gospel

It is the truth-teller rooted in the church’s claim of the Gospel of Jesus that the truth will set us free.

In the post-truth world of Trump, and the fact-free disinformation of fake news, the mainline religious traditions should be standing in the breach doing truth-telling and fact-finding, and enabling those who lack the capacity to tell their own stories without an assist to do so.

Mainstream electronic media, subject to the greed of corporate executives and the demand for ratings, failed us at truth telling in the past election. Don’t look for this to change.

Mainstream Fail

Mainstream religious institutions have failed and continue to fail to engage the public conversation about just treatment of people, fair wages, economic justice, humane ways to resolve conflict, and the global environmental crisis.

The mainline denominations have decimated their news services. In doing so they have removed their capacity to fulfill one of their most sacred responsibilities, to speak truth to power, and to do what Jesus asked us to do, to identify with the poor and oppressed and to raise our voice on their behalf for justice and equity.

When religious institutions fail to protect us from the principalities and powers, other means must be found. In the DAPL issue, the water protectors are playing that important role.

And it’s important that communicators like Ginny Underwood and services like United Methodist News Service fulfill their responsibilities to tell the stories of the people.

Sacred Stories, Spirit Movement

That’s because these are sacred stories. They will be overlooked by those who serve corporate masters and moneyed interests.

At this moment in global history, there may be no more important role for religious communicators than to be the story-tellers who inform us of the movement of the Spirit to protect, heal and save us from our own hubris, greed and false worship of power.

_______________________

Postscript: Faith in Public Life (FPL) is providing religious leaders with the means to speak to moral issues by providing a platform for exposure. The Rev. William Barber, for example, is an effective public voice for justice and FPL has assisted him and others with media access. I am a board member of FPL.

The Failure of TV News, Or Why I Have Given Up on TV Journalism

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-7-57-10-pmI have watched one news program on television since the election, BBC America.

I’ve kept up wth the news through online reading and Reuters video among others.

When I started writing this post my intent was to explain why I was turning away from watching TV news. After the way television news programs handled the Trump campaign I resolved to personally boycott TV news. Given a plethora of options for information today, that’s not a radical step, I admit.

But it’s a big change me.  For most of my life I’ve been an information junkie. I’ve worked in and around TV news for most of my adult life.

I devoured newspapers and TV news programs. But, that has come to an end.

Rather than a total boycott, I’ve become a cautious skeptic, watching only to get information about those stories that I know are current and unfolding. (The fires in the Smoky Mountains are the most recent example.)

And I rely on other media for substance and perspective.

Election coverage turned me off TV news. Here’s why.

1.The willingness of TV executives to allow Trump to dominate airtime.

Trump manipulated the media and many TV journalists and program executives were willing accomplices in his manipulation. CBS President Les Moonves made a boast that was irresponsible, greedy, and lacking in civic principles when he said of Donald Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

NBC decided to put Matt Lauer, an entertainment show host, in a primetime role as host of a “candidate forum” which had the effect of mixing politics and entertainment, and subsequently blew up in Lauer’s face when he failed to fact-check Trump and shorted Sec. Clinton.

According to one study, Trump received $3 billion in free air time. This started even before he had begun to raise funds for his campaign and was invisible in the Republican primaries.

He dominated the airwaves not because he had better ideas but because his outlandish comments, media savvy, and constant availability drew an audience and made the TV networks money.

Journalism is about more than money and entertainment. It’s about providing accurate information so people can be well-informed and make considered decisions.

What we got with coverage of Trump was politics as entertainment laced with lies and extremism.

2. Unfiltered airing of Trump speeches including outrageous claims made with virtually no fact-checking until after the claims had circled the world.

Media exposure has a legitimizing effect. It’s invisible, subtle, and often denied. But I learned early in my career as a journalist that when I told the stories of people in poverty in the U.S. and the developing world, it was validating and legitimizing.

Journalism isn’t only about reporting what’s happening. 

It’s about exposure. Under certain circumstances exposure can mean a platform for presenting your ideas. It cannot be otherwise. How this is managed is crucial, and for too long in the primaries and for the early months of the election, this crucial management was treated too lightly by TV news.

By providing a platform for Trump to tell his stories unchecked to millions of people, media exposure served to legitimize extremism and bring it into the mainstream.

3. Applying euphemisms to Trump’s remarks and treating Trump as if he were a political candidate like traditional candidates of the past—as if he had a platform and vision.

The traditional journalistic practice is to present at least two opposing claims with quotes from both sides, giving each equal attention. But Trump is a liar and a demagogue. To give his conspiracy claims status equal to the policy proposals of his primary opponents, and later to Sec. Clinton, was to elevate a charlatan to respectability, and to diminish serious policy discussion.

The traditional journalism model and its business plan undermined responsible decision-making in this election. Where it will lead us is still open to question.

4. Covering the campaign as a horse race without pressing the candidates for substance.

By emphasizing polls and ignoring policy discussions, this campaign lacked vital substance. Polls over policy.

We face a global environmental crisis. We’re hearing about potential mass extinction of wildlife. But the environmental crisis, along with many other critical issues affecting us, was completely invisible during this campaign. Not one question was posed in any debate about our common environmental global future. This was irresponsibility to the maximum.

Journalists covered the election as if it were a horse race. They have done this before. In this election, however, it put us at peril.

5. The hunt for scandal.

Subjecting Sec. Clinton to a higher level of scrutiny over email practices, as if this were scandalous, not to mention a major indicator of integrity (when it was not), diverted attention from a body of historical reporting about Trump that told us exactly who he is.

Past Secretaries of State had followed the same practices as Clinton and Snopes clarified that roughly 22 million White House e-mails exchanged via private servers during the G.W. Bush administration were deleted instead of being archived in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.

The electronic media emphasis on an email scandal that wasn’t created a straw man that continued as a diversion throughout the campaign.

6. Repeating the politically generated claim that Clinton could not be trusted.

This became a self-fulfilling loop.

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, who has extensive experience covering the Clintons, wrote in The Guardian, that “Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.”

Such reporting, however, was not the norm. The norm was to repeat the polls that showed voters believed the trumped up claim that she was dishonest. Couple this with the on-going crudeness of Donald Trump’s “lying Hillary” mantra and the media provided a platform to undermine the integrity of Sec. Clinton.

And so, we now have President-elect Donald Trump. An idea once laughable is now a reality.

Are the media the sole reason for Trump’s election? No. But they are a significant player through the misapplication of traditional journalistic practices applied uncritically to an untraditional, dangerous, and manipulative candidate. Trump played the media, especially the television journalists.

TV executives who let greed lead them over principled civic responsibility played along. They now bear a burden that they must face as Trump threatens a free press.

There was too much stenography and too little truth-telling, too much greed and too little concern for the common good. Too much entertainment value and too little concern for policies that will shape our lives and the well-being of the world.

This is not good for America nor CBS.

There were journalists, print and electronic, who did not fall victim to the manipulation. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post provided a lesson in investigative reporting on the Trump Foundation, for example.

But in this election, the media lost and foremost among the losers was TV news.

Oprah on Belief

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 9.11.54 PMIn a conference call on Monday night, Oprah Winfrey told the 800 people who connected that her calling is to share ideas through storytelling to connect people.

The call was designed to promote the series Belief that she produced and will air beginning Oct. 18 -24 on the OWN channel.

The series was three years in the making and tells stories of faith from around the world. She said “the way to connect people to their own life story is to allow them to see their story in another’s story.”

“Stories help us to understand what makes us unique but also show us the beautiful things that we have in common,” she said.

The series is built on the belief that the thread of love is the same across all the world’s major religions. When we hear stories of love, we understand each other differently and find out we have more in common that we knew before, Oprah said.

This isn’t a new concept but it comes at a time when religion is being used to divide us and spread hateful rhetoric that does harm.

Jim Winkler, President and chief executive of the National Council of Churches told the group the individual stories illustrate the power of faith for good in the world. He cited the Civil Rights movement as an example of a movement built on moral and spiritual values.

He said the interfaith stories on Belief had inspired him to consider extending interfaith dialogue through the NCCUSA to include conversations with Buddhists and Hindus.

The thought that stories of belief can connect us is a helpful corrective to the pervasive cultural narrative of individualism and isolation in Western societies that has been documented by Robert Putnam and Shirley Turkle.

It’s particularly notable that faith is being presented as unifying. The isolation fostered by technology in common spaces increases our sense of loss of community and connection. For example, sit in an airport public lounge and see how common space has become more atomized as we turn to handheld devices to avoid the invasive ads, noise, and television monitors that distract and annoy us today.

Religious belief offers us many helpful tools, but one of the most distinctive and constructive may be that it provides us with a sense of connection with others and, at its best, a unifying spirit in a world of diversity.

The Belief team is calling on people to organize watch parties and conversation groups and to promote the series on social media.

By using her resources and celebrity to encourage a more unifying spirit and reinforce the thought that belief can have value if it teaches compassion and offers healing, Oprah is giving the world a valuable and timely gift.

About Retirement

 Tail of the Dragon on U.S. 129 with 318 curves in 11 miles. Deal's Gap, NC

Tail of the Dragon on U.S. 129 with 318 curves in 11 miles. Deal’s Gap, NC

I never expected to live beyond the age of 50. Strange as that sounds, I came to accept that death would catch up to me by that time. Insurance would take care of my family and I would be gone.

There was sound reasoning for this unusual thought. In those days I was traveling the world to report on humanitarian disasters—famine, armed conflict, natural disasters—for Church World Service and the National Council of Churches, USA.

I was chasing death around the world.

Not that these organizations put me in unsafe situations. They didn’t. But great tragedies are by nature uncontrolled. Things happen.

A team I was heading was told to leave Somalia or our compound would be bombed. A rival warlord didn’t want us in town. We negotiated to no avail. But we stayed and the bombing never happened, although we did have to leave a few days later under cover of darkness.

Somalia had just slipped into anarchy, a condition that it’s still trapped in.

I was in a Soviet-made passenger jet once that landed on a rain-filled runway in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It hydroplaned, sliding sideways and throwing us around like bowling pins. I thought my time had come. But the wheels grabbed and we straightened and came to a safe stop.

After I lived past the age of demise, I got depressed for lack of longer term planning. I’ve since learned this is not as unusual as I thought. Others tell me they have had similar thoughts.

And after I figured out that I had to get on with it, I moved beyond depression to the next step in my working life.

I tell you this, because I reached the age of mandatory retirement for my current position this year and I was forced to accept it.

In fairness, I requested to leave a few weeks earlier than planned for various reasons and I’m grateful this was allowed.

But the rule itself is an arbitrary holdover from the past. Retirement is being re-defined. The old concept of sitting on the beach all day lolling in the sun, or playing golf is looking like an anachronism for a lot of people. But stereotypes die hard.

A young man who doesn’t know me well told me I looked so much younger and relaxed after my planned retirement was announced. If I looked younger and relaxed it wasn’t for the reason he assumed.

Those who know me know I don’t embrace rules with a loving caress. I’m offended when anyone tells me what to do, even if it’s a doctor who’s telling me for my own good! But I abide most of them. This one is inescapable.

I understand that some people enthusiastically embrace retirement, or at least they embrace doing their own thing on their own time without the constraints of workplace rules. They take retirement as soon as possible.

I resist the rule and I resist the stereotype. In her book on her retirement Mary Lloyd writes of those of us who have reached this age. She says, “We’re stereotyped as out of shape, in need of huge amounts of medical attention, and focused on our grandchildren and finding the right retirement community.

…We need to see the truth—that when you leave, you may have as much of your life to live as you spent in the workforce.

…There’s so much life left in us when we reach this point. There’s so much to gain by claiming it. If we live our lives authentically after we ‘retire,’ we will be healthier physically, emotionally, spiritually. But, more importantly, we will be on fire with life.

…We need to change the way we undertake this transition. Our assumptions and expectations of the years after we retire need to change—individually and as a society. Those of us who have gotten that far, need to stand up and say confidently, ‘No, that’s not me at all.’ And then go out and be who we really are.”

Now, still on fire with life, I have the opportunity to respectfully lay aside the Book of Discipline, the law book of the church that requires mandatory retirement, and say, “No, that’s not me at all.” And then I will go out and be who I really am.

There are still many roads to ride, many words to write, many photographs to take, many human needs to be addressed, much injustice to confront, and much more to learn. There is a future to be grasped.

Most importantly, there is a life to be lived authentically.

And by the way. I’m not retiring. The rule says so. I say, to hell with the rule.


 

A postscript: According to Age Wave research more than half of the Boomers who are turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 a day view retirement as a time to re-set, not as the occasion for winding down. Colleges and Universities are beginning to recognize this age group as a potential new market made up of those pursuing “capstone” careers.

Campaign anticipates misuse of bed nets

Teresa Ad‹o Jo‹o (second from right) receives instructions about the proper use of her new mosquito net from Ilda Nanjembe during a 2012 distribution by The United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Teresa Ad‹o Jo‹o (second from right) learns about proper use of a bed net from Ilda Nanjembe during a 2012 distribution by The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola. UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Bed nets intended to prevent malaria are used in fishing communities in Zambia to fish for food, which is sold in the local market, according to a report in the New York Times. The nets also trap fingerlings necessary for future stock. This decimates stocks and causes environmental harm.

The issue highlights an unintended consequence of the global effort to combat malaria, an effort that has reduced the death toll by half in the past decade.

The net distributions I have seen by the Imagine No Malaria campaign anticipated the problem of net misuse.

Before a distribution, community health workers and volunteers were identified and trained. During a pre-distribution education period, they learned how to prevent malaria, request permission to enter homes to hang nets, and explain proper use and care of nets.

Media campaigns, community meetings, fliers and word-of-mouth alerted local people to the future distribution. Communities were prepared in advance to welcome health workers and volunteers into homes. The trained volunteers hung nets and demonstrated how to use them.

As followup, health workers were assigned for six months to sectors to monitor net use and record the use rate. This identified issues for future distributions and reinforced behavior change practices that are critical for regular net usage.  For 9 to 12 months after a net distribution, there are regular check-ups to ensure proper use and care of the nets.

In the Bo District of Sierra Leone, for example, health workers determined 98 percent of the nets were in use six months after installation. In addition, Imagine No Malaria nets were not distributed around fishing communities. The use of nets for fishing is likely localized to those communities.

In the past, nets distributed without such precautions sometimes appeared in local markets and were used for many unintended purposes. But net providers learned and adapted.

Underlying problems

Secondary uses of netting, as with many other items, are common in many communities lacking resources.

While this doesn’t mitigate the environmental harm, it does emphasize that people are using nets to get food and fish for sale. The root of the problem is food self-sufficiency and a healthy local economy.

It’s compounded by lack of awareness of the harm done to fish stocks.

The story also points to the need for alternatives to nets where practical and for more education.

A greater emphasis on screens and doors in living quarters is proposed. Due to construction practices and cost, this is more practical in some areas than others.

Indoor residual spraying is practical and safe, and it is used in some regions.

Responding to the challenge

Media campaigns can encourage proper use of nets and point out the harm done by this particular secondary use. Local leaders can speak against harmful fishing and build community support for prevention.

Addressing the diseases of poverty is a complex challenge. Solving one problem can lead to others. Unintended consequences reveal themselves.

Disease, poverty, education, food sufficiency and environmental stewardship are interrelated, complex human concerns. We are challenged by them to find life-enhancing solutions.

The story points to the need for thoughtful, comprehensive development to address these interrelated issues of life and death.

_____

This post was edited to remove a sentence that said the NY Times article did not refer to new nets. The article quotes a fisherman who says new nets are better because they don’t have holes.

How Would You Like Your News, Mam, On Paper or on Screen?

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 9.16.38 AMWe get two newspapers by home delivery and both have announced a price increase. This comes as no surprise. Costs are increasing. Readership is down. Revenue is in free fall. Readers are growing older and are not being replaced.

The formula is clear. Some day it will be too expensive to distribute news this way. Publishers will no longer be able to print and distribute news on paper, and I’ll no longer be able to afford it.

Millennials get their news in other ways, mostly from the web through social media and websites that package information specifically for them. If they want news in any form, it’s on a screen.

Losing Millennials

Allen Mutter, in his blog “Reflections of a Newsosaur,” concludes that “editors and publishers have only themselves to blame” for losing this generation. They are coveted not only for their current buying power, but because they are the future. Mutter says publishers talked to one another and did not engage millennials to discover their interests, attitudes, and media uses. That’s how they lost them.

To underscore his point, he compares demographic statistics from traditional media audiences to visits to websites that cater to millennials. He used: BuzzFeed, Circa, Mic, Upworthy, Vice, Vocative, Vox and the McClatchy chain. The handwriting is on the wall, or more aptly, on the screen.

The Era of the Screen

We’re in the era of the screen, and screens on various devices result in a sea change. The changes we’re going through are so widespread and disruptive they affect traditional business models, the way we go about our daily affairs, language and culture.

Predicting this would have required an ability to foretell the future with a skill few of us have. Who knew that in 2014 millennials would use four or more digital devices a day, or check their mobile phones 45 times a day? Who foretold that the primary way they would learn about new information is through social media? Or that sharing would come to mean more than letting someone else play with your toy?

The shift from broadcast to hypertargeted media is upending how we communicate. We no longer buy radios because we listen to news, podcasts, and music online, or download them to handheld devices. We watch videos on mobile screens. We select content based on our interests and needs. We’re overloaded with options and we’ve learned to filter out that which doesn’t appeal to our specific interests.

Institutional Change

Institutional authority is changing. It’s too soon to know how this will shake out, but it’s clear that what we’ve known as traditional institutional models must change. And businesses that traffic in information and entertainment such as movies, radio, television, music and news are challenged to change their business models.

Population by Generation

Researchers say millennials want socially responsible information relevant to them. They want entertaining information, often packaged in graphics or video. They rely on friends and sharing to help them filter content options. They are less interested in dispassionate, objective journalism than in writing with a point of view.

Demographics Don’t Define Us

But ad executive David Bohan makes the point that millennials, like the rest of us, are not a lump of demographic similarities. They’re people with distinct interests and lives. Millennials have different interests at different stages of life. They are loyal to brands they trust but also discriminating and savvy.

If there is a message to be gleaned from this complexity it is that we cannot reduce people to their demographic and psychographic profiles. Life is more nuanced than this. We have distinct interests, desires and expectations. Some of us are native to this new communication environment. Others are digital immigrants, subject to the changes that media bring to our lives, uprooting us from the security that institutions provided in the past.

The New Challenge

And if there is a constant in this mix it is that one-way communication has given way to conversation. Multiple conversations, in fact. Communication is about relationships. The new challenge is to venture from the familiar and find a place in the new landscape. It calls for listening and learning. We can talk to ourselves but risk that the rest of the world will pass us by.

The challenge that virtually every institution based on mass membership, mass circulation or mass audience faces today is to find a place in the new landscape and converse with those who inhabit it, and find ways to communicate relevance, authenticity and responsibility. And to do it in an appealing way.

The Music of My Youth as a Commercial Shill

Union Bus Station, Oklahoma City

Union Bus Station, Oklahoma City

I wrote my master’s thesis on the interaction of media, culture and theology. My point was that culture and theology intersect. We can learn much about the human condition by listening to cultural expressions such as contemporary music, and reflecting on them theologically.

The idea wasn’t well-received by my review committee. They asked me to re-write it. I argued and won small concessions. But they rejected the basic proposition that popular culture and theology intersect.

They did not buy my argument that Paul Simon’s song “America” held theological content. I said it is about the search for meaning. It informs our understanding of alienation, loneliness and the search for community. We seek relationship with each other and with God.

The song describes this search, not for God, but for relationships; about how tentative and faltering they can be. It draws a plaintive word picture of youth searching for America. Young adults trying to find their place in the world.

I like to think my struggle with the committee just indicates I was ahead of the times. But whatever the case, I defended Paul Simon and his songs. They meant something more than jukebox background music, or so I thought.

When I heard this song used in a commercial for a credit card company recently, my heart sank. Paul Simon shilling for corporate America. Is this where the search ends? Is this what the young man was looking for–a lucrative licensing fee?

This is America?

I’m wondering. Is this what I fought for, or was the committee correct after all?

No one should live outside the web of connectivity

The national health systems of Sierra Leone and Liberia are barely functioning, and increasing pressure on them risks a complete meltdown, according to reports in popular media. Coordination of services to contain the Ebola outbreak remains fragmented and under resourced.

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to trace people who have had contact with Ebola patients. Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to identify new Ebola cases quickly and isolate patients as soon as they show symptoms.  Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an article as tragic as it is frightening, Adam Nossiter of the New York Times details how people are dying from Ebola in Makeni, Sierra Leone. The article reads like the script from a horror movie with no happy ending in sight.

The story sent shivers down my spine, and it coincided with my return from a meeting near London of IT and communications professionals with major international agencies gearing up to meet this crisis at scale. The fact is, the response is far behind the spreading virus, and while this is belatedly being addressed, it will take long-term, sustained attention to bring the contagion under control. Time is an enemy, and the complications of scaling up are many.

International agencies are dealing with major crises from Syria to Gaza to the Central African Republic. The World Health Organization currently lists eight Grade 3 emergencies, which are situations that require substantial international response. They are: Central African Republic, Guinea, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and The Syrian Arab Republic.

This means the various agencies designed to deal with such emergencies were already being stretched before Ebola struck. Equally frustrating is the fact that this crisis graphically demonstrates how the lack of reliable communication today is a matter of life and death, but communication infrastructure lags behind human need.

The tipping point

Nearly every input imaginable is needed for this crisis from skilled personnel, to vehicles to transport the ill and the deceased, to a supply chain for materials, to communications for internal operations and external messaging, to technical personnel to support the technology, to facilities for isolating ill persons and myriad other physical and personnel needs.

What is called for now is urgent placement of skilled staff in the affected regions, facilities to support isolation and treatment, and material resources such as gloves, disinfectants, medications, body bags, protective suits and equipment.

But too many leaders, including global leaders and church leaders, have underestimated the significance of communication and the infrastructure necessary for it to work. We have reached a tipping point in our understanding of humanitarian aid. It is no longer limited to food, shelter, clothing, water and medicines. Lack of communications capacity has exacerbated this crisis.

The ability to communicate and the quality of the information delivered are matters of life and death. Pure and simple, communication is aid.

And humanitarian aid, like so many other necessary daily functions, is becoming digitized. This means that globally, communication infrastructure, messaging and personal communication devices will become essential for daily affairs, much as they already are in the global North.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola virus outbreak. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola crisis. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

A paradigm shift

In the short-term future, we will see a paradigm shift toward digital humanitarian aid through the use of smart cards and mobile services. And this is changing older methods of providing aid because the new model is faster, more efficient and more economical, and it will reach more people. It also makes aid customizable and personal. And this means it is measurable, and the delivery system can be made more accountable.

This may seem like a pipe dream, but we are, in fact, already seeing how digital tools are being used in refugee settlements in the Middle East, and this will only grow as the systems become perfected.

The Ebola crisis is demonstrating that in this new age of pervasive technology, no one on the planet is so isolated that they can exist outside the global web of connectivity that delivers life-enhancing, and life-saving, information. And it is demonstrating that those concerned with humanitarian assistance to people in crisis situations must be at the forefront of this new era of technology for good because to do otherwise is to allow events to spiral out of control, with tragic results.

______

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

A new front in the Ebola crisis

United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu, chairman of the religious leaders task force, demonstrates to participants a new way of greeting instead of the traditional handshake. New traditions are being created to help prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. Photo by Phileas Jusu, UMNS.

Bishop John K. Yambasu, chairman of the Religious Leaders Task Force in Sierra Leone, demonstrates a safe way of greeting instead of the traditional handshake. Photo by Phileas Jusu, UMNS.

With the killing of a delegation of health officials, journalists and a pastor by a mob of rural villagers in Guinea, an even more tragic page has turned in the Ebola crisis.

The mission of the group was to dispel rumors about the outbreak, but the villagers thought they had come to spread the virus. The people attacked the group with rocks. Eight bodies were later found, bearing signs of having been attacked with machetes and clubs.

The event is a severe example of the irrational fears that are rife across the region. In Sierra Leone, the government’s Emergency Operations Center issued a release to dispel a rumor that soap to be distributed during the three-day lockdown, known locally as Ose to Ose Tok (House to House Talk), had been infected to spread the virus.

Fear drives these rumors. The immediate challenge is to arm trusted local people with accurate information to correct the inaccuracies and dispel the fear. The Ose to Ose Talk during the three-day lockdown in Sierra Leone is an example.

Correcting misinformation

In addition, commentaries on television, radio and in print by trusted leaders such as Bishop John Yambasu, the United Methodist leader in Sierra Leone, are helping to correct misinformation and encourage cooperation with health programs to halt the spread of the disease.

United Methodist Communications is providing text messages to clergy in rural areas as well as cities in Sierra Leone and Liberia. These messages are consistent with those developed by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. The church’s advantage lies in its grassroots network of clergy and leaders who live in the affected regions and are trusted.

Two messages are sent daily. The morning message is usually about health practices. For example, these messages were sent this morning:

Community health workers are trained to help us all and are essential to beating Ebola. Please cooperate with them during the lockdown. – Bishop J. Yambasu (Sierra Leone)

In the Ebola crisis, handle animals with protective clothing. Thoroughly cook animal products (blood and meat) before eating. – Ad., WHO (Bishop J. Innis) (Liberia)

Each afternoon a message based on Scripture is sent. For example: Do not worry … in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) – Bishop J. Innis or Bishop J. Yambasu

We are also distributing solar cellphone chargers to give these messengers a cost-free means of keeping their phones charged.

The long-term challenge 

This crisis underscores a truism: Poverty breeds social discontent and mistrust of unresponsive government. Liberians clearly do not trust their government. At the outset of the crisis, the rumor spread that the outbreak was false, created by the government to bring more foreign dollars into the country to pay corrupt government officials.

In the long term, the challenge is to provide education that leads to better understanding of disease and how to prevent infections. This will require effective public education. It is also necessary to build effective, accessible public health systems, and equally important to establish responsive, transparent governance.

Building public infrastructure that is common in societies in the global North, such as sanitary sewers, clean water, and Wi-Fi and mobile phone systems, is also  a long-term solution.

Addressing inequities 

Africa’s leaders must gain the trust of their citizens by ending corruption and conducting government affairs with transparency, and citizens must have access to the information they need to make responsible decisions. Access to information is a human right in this information rich age. It’s essential to good citizenship.

The stark realities of the Ebola crisis make clear the need for these basic changes. The world must stem the immediate crisis. But that is not enough. We must address the underlying deficits that periodically surface and remind us that inequities in the world make all of us less secure and threaten global well-being when systems break down.

___________

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Page 1 of 6712345»102030...Last »