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The New Journalism

As the street demonstrations turned ever more violent and deadly in Iran, I watched CNN in an airport lounge in Grand Junction, Colorado. I also read the news online on a laptop and kept Twitter on a cellphone.

I noticed CNN repeating Tweets shortly after they appeared on Twitter. It was startling, amazing and a real concern. As I read the Tweets I wondered if I was getting first-hand information, or fanciful concoctions. I had no way of assessing from my seat in the airport what was reliable and what was disinformation.

Nor did I have a clue about those posting, one way I assess reliability on this public forum.

Therein lies the problem with citizen journalism and it came to the fore in unmistakable fashion during the Iranian protests. Not only were those of us outside left to judge credibility for ourselves, the clamp down on journalists by the Iranian authorities meant we had decreasing ability to compare the online reports with journalists on the scene.

Left to our devices to accept or reject the Tweets, we were awash in information but I kept asking myself, is it reliable? This is the conundrum we face now with an empowered digital citizenry, the blessing and curse of instant media. First reports of major events are now as likely to come from a cellphone account as from a reporter for a news organization.

As the NY Times reports this morning, what happened in the Iranian protests revealed a new methodology for traditional journalism, a willingness by news organizations to pass along citizen information with limited verification, and in some instances with no verification.

As the article notes, it’s a new form of journalism in which we all become part of the gathering and distribution of the story. It raises several significant questions that will take time to sort out, I think. Which elements are truly significant and which are of only passing importance? How many perspectives can we absorb before we become overloaded and lose perspective altogether? What is not seen that contributes to the story but goes unreported because it’s not visible? What is the veracity of the various reports we receive and how do we sort out disinformation?

Journalism has attempted to deal with these questions among many others by developing a set of procedures and practices that strive to assure accuracy, reliability and context. Despite well-known criticism and some breaches in these procedures, journalists have reached for a level of dependability and trust that has given us quality story-telling and a sense that we could rely on the reporting. And even then we sometimes vociferously disagree with the way a given story is told.

With citizen journalism, we’ve entered a new day and my guess is that it will take us time and experience to decide upon how we will check veracity, dependability and context under these new circumstances. My experience on that day led me to multiple sources. I became engaged at a different level than my engagement with traditional print media. It required a different kind of media literacy and my unspoken but very significant cautionary suspension of belief. I took the information in but with held my belief in its accuracy until I could do more searching, watching and comparing.

That places more responsibility on me as I receive information from many sources. I need greater backgrounding in order to assess claims and make judgments, and I need to become my own fact checker as I suspend belief in all that comes to me from so many different perspectives.

The protests in Iran marked a turning point, not only for Iranian citizens who face repression and violence, but also for those on the outside trying to understand. And in both cases it’s too early to know the outcome. Internal conditions in Iran remain uncertain. The influence of citizen journalism cannot be assessed just yet.

But we do know this: the new journalism is launched.

Southern Naming Comes Back to Haunt

It’s coming back to haunt me. Being named ‘”southern,” I was given two names, both of which are abbreviations of full names. I lived with the sing-song “Larry Don” until I was old enough to eliminate one name, and move far enough away so that no one knew me by my two nicknames.

I wasn’t the best of children. I learned early on that when an adult called out my two names in a high pitch emphasizing a hard “D,” it meant I was in trouble. Likely as not whatever I’d done they’d found out. On the other hand, if they slid past the “y” and into a soft, staccato “D,” it was almost melodic. I liked that best.

Part of my lack of enthusiasm about the two names was that I wasn’t alone. There were Larry Genes, Gary Dons and Jerry Dons galore in my neck of the woods. Seemed like a lack of creativity to me.

I had a friend in West Texas whose parents showed real imagination. Herman Caesar Augustus. Now that’s a name with destiny. It carries expectation.

I thought about Lawrence. But it seemed presumptuous. To be a Lawrence you need a yacht and boat shoes. We lived in the dusty high plains of West Texas. It didn’t work.

All of this reflecting was inspired by the TSA. The Transportation Safety Administration says our boarding passes must be identical to our photo IDs.. They want to know me by my full name. Well, actually they don’t care so long as it’s consistent. But my driver’s license is Larry Don and my passport says Larry D. Hate that.

Either way, I’m caught. And it’s beyond protest.

I wonder what Herman Caesar Augustus is doing these days?


Twitter Transparency

We live in the age of Twitter transparency. Yesterday staff of United Methodist Communications and the United Methodist Publishing House met to discuss collaborating on the Rethink Church media and hospitality campaign. It was a good meeting. Lots of enthusiasm and good ideas.

When I returned to the office someone asked me about the meeting and I said it was a good discussion. Another person said, “Yes, so I heard.” As it takes only five minutes to drive from UMPH to UMCom, I asked if she had talked with someone there. “No,” she said, “someone was twittering from the meeting.”

Twitter is an instant megaphone. The moment the words are out of your mouth they can be repeated to the world. This is happening in millions of ways now. It’s disconcerting to some and liberating to others.

Twitter brings its own form of accountability. It’s a tool for transparency. When a speaker’s comments can be sent to the world instantly, accuracy and credibility are on line. Every phrase can be literally parsed and communicated to the world.

Anyone with a cellphone and a Twitter account is now a broadcaster and a content producer. Words of presenters have always been important. But now under the scrutiny of immediate communication, they can be sent around the world before the speaker can take a breath and begin a new sentence. There is power in this, and danger.

It seems to me that it places even greater responsibility on a speaker to be clear, coherent and careful. A mis-spoken ad lib can haunt me forever now. In the past, it may have taken on a life of its own within a small group of listeners. Now the world can mull it over.

And more serious implications can be drawn as well. In an age of great division and controversy, words can incite or motivate in a more immediate way, with good or harmful consequences.

The age of transparency is upon us and with transparency comes accountability.

Did Pres. Obama Borrow a United Methodist Phrase?

Did President Obama or one of his speechwriters borrow a phrase from The United Methodist Church when he spoke on abortion at Notre Dame’s commencement? I don’t know, but I’m getting blog posts and emails from people who think he did.

UMC logo I would have thought it old news, but reaction to the speech still seems to have some energy behind it. The church invites people by concluding its advertising saying, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. The people of The United Methodist Church.” President Obama used a phrase in his speech calling for “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition.”

One blogger critical of Obama’s abortion position speculates that in the Internet age it’s possible an Obama speechwriter found the phrase and wrote it into the speech. (The church was advertising heavily at the same time and the phrase was on television and radio, the Internet, in national magazines, on billboards, taxis, busses and bus stops around the nation including a national launch event in Washington, D.C. In addition, several Internet and print publications wrote about the campaign before and concurrent with the President’s speech.)

The blogger questions the wisdom of using the words of one religious group to address another and attributing the concept to the second group’s tradition.

United Methodist clergyperson and blogger Lee Carey also thinks the President borrowed the United Methodist phrase. Rev. Carey believes United Methodist leaders are “overwhelmingly pro-abortion” and, presumably, the President knows this too and used it for this reason.

As I can’t recall having had a conversation about abortion with the leaders I know, I can’t confirm Rev. Carey’s observation.

But I did think it curious when I heard the President speak the words and immediately sent emails to a couple of staff people to call it to their attention.

If the phrase was borrowed it wouldn’t be the first time. We noted with appreciation that Laura Bush borrowed without attribution a phrase from the Nothing But Nets campaign to encourage people to donate to a campaign to end malaria.

In both cases it’s possible the speakers were not aware they were borrowing language from particular campaigns. There are copyright issues. But if we can end malaria through a global partnership that focuses on the bottom line of saving lives and doesn’t get mired in who gets credit, I’m all for it.

And if we can discuss contentious differences with open hearts, open minds and fair-minded words, I’m for that, too. But I’d like to make note that the phrase is very similar to, if not adapted from, a self-description of The United Methodist Church which is rooted in the Wesleyan tradition.

And on a selfish note, I get a little pleasure when we craft a phrase that people hear, remember and re-use, if that’s what happened.

This was posted at 12:30 pm and re-edited at 6:40 pm.

The British Museum Website

Speaking of institutions, as I did in the previous post, I received a list of recommended websites from StumbleUpon and the British Museum’s site was listed. When I think of an institution, I think of the British Museum.

I’ve done research there and I find it a remarkably interesting place. And I realize even writing that last sentence can offend those who take offense at the very existence of institutions such as the British Museum.

I’m referring to the conversation about the role of museums, their authenticity, their value as archives, their social and cultural function as conservators or as exploiters. Museums are returning cultural objects and human remains to people from whom they extracted them years ago. It’s a conflicted context and a worthy illustration of the interplay between an institution’s mission and the social context in which it was formed. A museum reflects the values that informed the mission when it was organized in addition to the values it seeks to display through its offerings. A changing context calls those values into question and, in the case of museums, demands adaptation and deep change.

That said, this is one of the most intriguing institutional websites I’ve seen. On the face of it, it’s worth visiting for the experience it offers. It’s an example of an old-line institution breaking into the digital world.

From Instant Gratification to Deferred Gratification?

Can the U.S. move from a culture of instant gratification to deferred gratification? The question was inspired by a program on NPR this morning. From the car radio I went into a meeting where the same thing was being talked about.

There’s a lot of conversation and writing that says we’re re-considering our personal finances today. We’re saving more and we’re starting to live within our means. Some are asking, “How much is enough? What’s the difference between needs and necessities?”

I heard The Rev. Beverly Wilkes-Null in a meeting today speak about this and found her ideas thought-provoking. I asked her to do a brief Flip cam video interview and she graciously accepted. The video can be found here.

I’m interested in what readers of this blog think. Can we make the move from instant gratification to living with “just enough?”

Health Care: Words That Work

Three reasons we need quality, informed health journalists: Frank Luntz, AHIP and PhRMA.

Luntz is the pollster, strategist for right wing politicians fighting against universal health care. AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) is the professional lobbying association that gave us the Harry and Louise advertising that capped off the disinformation campaign that scuttled the Clinton Health Care Initiative. And PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) is the drug industry lobbying group that prevented Medicare from bargaining for cheaper drug prices and lavished overpayment to private insurers in the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.

As the nation moves into a more focused debate on health care reform it’s inevitable that the words used will be laced with emotion and, unfortunately, obfuscation. Pollster Frank Luntz offers “Ten rules for stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of healthcare.” That’s the opening sentence of his latest research project. Luntz advises Republicans about how to speak of key social issues.

Luntz pioneered the instant response dial. Focus groups respond immediately to the words of politicians by using a tool to dial up or down their reaction to those words. He engineers messages by determining favorable language. His research is being used to build opposition to Pres. Obama’s health care reform measures. There’s an interesting overview of Luntz’s recommendations to Senators and Congressional representatives about how to talk about health care reform on the Campaign for America’s Future blog.

Blogger Bernie Horn writes that Luntz is tailoring messages to fears he unearthed through research. For example, one fear is that a government-run health program will deny patients access to physicians and treatment they need. Unlike the current system in which health insurers control access and treatment based on their own profits, Luntz raises the specter that government bureaucrats will control our health destiny. Fear more than fact.

AHIP and PhRMA have pledged to cut costs and save two trillion dollars over the next decade. But, a moderately skeptical person has to ask, “Where have you been? And why now?” And most pertinent, “What’s in it for you?”

These are same groups that have given us the most expensive and arguably least effective health care system among developing nations. Given their track record on public policy, skepticism and a critical eye are justified.

What we need in the health care debate is accurate information, authentic debate and genuine problem-solving. We’ve had enough inaccurate and intentionally misleading rhetoric. We need health journalists who will cut through the rhetoric and interpret the issues free of the political agendas of well-heeled, self-interested lobbying groups. Health care reform must not be held hostage to politics once again.

Flip Video of Rethink Church Launch

I just posted my first Flip video. It’s the Rethink Church launch event at a Home Depot parking lot in Washington, D.C. last week.

I shot the video with a Flip HD videocam. Edited with iMovie, the basic Mac movie editor. Recorded the narration with a Blue Snowball USB microphone.

Why Mainstream Media No Longer Matter

Mainstream media no longer matter. I’ve defended them, criticized them and pulled for them to survive. But cable news has become background noise. Newspapers are in their death throes. Infotainment, reality television and celebrity gossip have become the profit centers for too many journalistic enterprises.

I’ve also been critical of mainline leaders for not being media savvy. Well, they’re still not. But it matters less today. They have alternatives, and they should use them for all they’re worth.

Last week the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church met in Bethesda, Maryland and conducted a week’s worth of church affairs. They:

  • pledged to raise $75 million to eradicate malaria

  • launched a $20 million dollar media campaign that announced the church is taking a serious look at how it goes about serving people and carrying out ministry

  • had prayer and holy communion with migrant day workers standing in mist-shrouded parking lots

  • agreed to rollback their salaries to last year’s level, in effect, taking a salary cut to witness to their concern for people struggling in the global economic crisis

  • agreed to raise $5 million to complete a $20 million campaign to pay pensions to clergy and surviving spouses in developing nations who have no retirement benefits. (This is a first among religious organizations. There are no reliable pension programs in religious groups in the developing world.)

  • commissioned a working group to devise a plan to reorganize the thirteen-million member global church.

These actions received virtually no coverage in mainstream media. They won’t sell papers or draw viewers. None of the bishops has the media clout of a celebrity megachurch pastor. But they have the capacity to activate a network of significant depth and reach, far beyond the capabilities of celebrity clergy.

What United Methodists call “the connection” is an organizational network that is the envy of many who tell me they can only dream of what they could do with such an organizational capacity behind them.

The bishops’ actions won’t divide the church, so by the standards of conflict hungry journalism, they’re not news. But they are relevant and they will capture the imagination of the thirteen million members of the church. And this leads me to a reluctant conclusion. These thirteen million people around the globe don’t matter that much to mainstream editors.

For the most part, we haven’t seen ourselves in their editorial decisions for years and that makes their journalism irrelevant to us. But more significant, they’ve been replaced. Google, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Yammer, YouTube, blogs, email. You know them well. Effective, viable alternatives.

I did five interviews in two days. Only one was with a mainstream journalist. But every story was posted and twitted. We were in the top tier of Google searches. Bloggers commented and linked. Websites I’d never heard of reviewed our releases and linked. Almost immediately I began to get reaction.

I still want solid, quality journalism to survive. But because they’ve made the editorial decisions they’ve made, because there are alternatives, because they’ve made themselves irrelevant to most of us in the moderate middle, mainstream media no long matter as they once did.

Rethink Church in the Parking Lot

workers The worker from Eduador spoke of his family back home as he stood in the Home Depot parking lot in Washington, D.C. last week. His brow wrinkled and his voice broke. He’s a long way from home and his existence here is day-to-day precarious.

As I listened, I felt a tug of emotion as well. The air was cool and wet. It was an unlikely day to pick up work. About 100 men stood in small groups dispersed around the lot. They wait here each morning for contractors and others needing day laborers. But if it’s wet they can’t paint, cut grass, install fences or do the myriad other jobs that are their lot.

I saw only one worker chosen this morning. For those left there will be no remittance back home. No food money. No rent earned today.

The bishops listened. They prayed with the workers, served them breakfast and introduced some of them to a staff member of Foundry United Methodist Church who works with migrant day laborers and with an organizer who has created an advocacy group for them.

The conversation was triggered by the launch of the church’s media campaign called "Rethink Church." It’s an effort to ask United Methodists to rethink how to be the church in this new century.

What happened in the Home Depot parking lot, and in other parking lots in metropolitan Washington that morning, was church. Not in the traditional sense. In the John Wesley sense. In the way Jesus did it. Church in the streets.

When Wesley confronted conditions of the poor in London and Birmingham he went to them. Outside the walls of the institutional church. In the fields near the mines where the miners toiled. In the teeming neighborhoods of the poor in the backstreets of London.

He preached, prayed, offered them medical care, taught them to read, led study groups, visited them when they were sick and sought work for them. He took the church outside itself and he started a movement.

The Lord's Supper In Gaithersburg, Maryland , Bishop Minerva Carcano and her episcopal colleagues had a similar conversation. But one worker saw her and said, "Obispo." Bishop. He asked her for holy communion.

There was a flurry of activity. Loaves of bread appeared, and what someone described to me as "some kind of purple liquid." And right there in that place spontaneously, unrehearsed, the Lord’s Supper was consummated. The bishops of the church and the workers who live hand to mouth every day shared bread and "wine" in Jesus’ name.

Bishop Carcano spoke these magnificent words: “I don’t think that it is enough to simply declare that we stand with the immigrant." The launching of Rethink Church at a day laborer camp is "a way of saying to those who are immigrants that we walk with you, we journey with you, Christ journeys with you. Scripture calls us to love you and therefore we are here with you.

Lest you think this was a moment in time, a quick, feel-good diversion, the bishops went to Capitol Hill in the afternoon and spoke to Senators and Congresspersons about poverty legislation and immigration reform. They also affirmed a call to action to address poverty and immigration and committed themselves to raise $75 million for global health. And they agreed to roll back their salaries to last year’s level and called each other to voluntarily contribute to the mission of the church.

I won’t claim I heard the voice of God in that parking lot, but when a reporter interviewing me asked, "What do you think Jesus would say about this?" the following thought came immediately to mind.

I’ve been too wrapped up in bureaucratic and administrative entanglements. I haven’t been here on the street where life happens. At least not as much as I would like and not as much as I should be.

I said, "I think he would say, ‘Welcome. I’ve been here all along. I’ve missed you. Welcome back.’"

By the grace of God we will rethink church and rediscover who we are and where we should be, and we will re-discover that church happens not only in the sanctuary during sacred worship but also in the noisy, wet parking lots where people hustle to get by one more day, places where Jesus is already present, calling us to join him.

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