30 May 2007

Voices of Freedom

The following article is posted here for my own records as it does refer to an issue that has from time-to-time been mentioned in passing in the Singapore Blogosphere - namely that it tends to be dominated by the usual suspects, middle-class, educated, males and there does seem to be a lot of 'journalists', lawyers, postgraduate students, undergraduate students, and IT experts dominating the sg blogosphere. So where is the marginalised Singaporean?

Blogs and podcasts enable a powerful and authentic voice for marginalised communities sidelined by mainstream media

Nathalie McDermott
Wednesday May 30, 2007
The Guardian

Prisoners cannot podcast because they do not have access to the internet, but if they could the material would be fascinating. It would be authentic, raw and compelling without being sensational. Instead of the stock answers we hear from prisoners in television soundbites, you might hear "Jamie" own up to the fact that he has never told his kids he is inside because he is so ashamed, and that they think he is at work. Or about how "Bruno" only gets a buzz from crime and feels "the butterflies when I'm on a bit of work", and has never held down any other job. You'd hear prisoners talking to each other, intimately and frankly, from a shared position of trust and common knowledge.

I worked in a prison for three years, training offenders to run a talk radio station, and the thing that struck me most was how much better the content was than anything I have ever heard - or produced when I was a journalist - on mainstream media about prison issues.

People would come to visit the station, listen to the programmes and chat to the prisoners. Without fail, whatever their views on the criminal justice system, they would invariably leave with an entirely different perception of serving offenders and how we as a society deal with crime.

Thrilling tool

This is the power of simple conversation. Citizen journalism - real people speaking to real people through podcasts and blogs - means that we can have those conversations online, and this is what makes it such a thrilling tool for positive social change.

There is a lot of debate in the media about the term "citizen journalism". Many conventional journalists prefer "user-generated content" or "social media" to set it apart from what they have been trained for years to do, which is fair enough I suppose, since the two are distinct. Citizen journalism is content - text, photos, audio and video - that is generated by the public and sometimes, but rarely, makes its way into a mainstream newspaper or broadcast bulletin. It is mostly found in blogs or on networking sites such as MySpace. The main difference between the two mediums is that citizen journalism cuts out the middle man, and the story is told from a position of first-hand knowledge and partiality.

The reason that this can be more engaging is that someone at the centre of an issue can get more out of their interviewees because of the trust that comes from shared experience, background or culture. So while there will always be a need for trained journalists to sift through and select information for cogent analysis, when it comes to really getting to the bottom of an issue, it makes sense to go to the source and hear the people who are directly involved - unedited and without time constraints or word limits.

So how can positive social change be achieved through an abundance of disorganised chat on the internet? I run an organisation that trains marginalised groups and voluntary and public sector organisations to podcast, allowing them inexpensively to produce audio or video from their perspective. They can do and say what they like, as long as it is legal. Campaigners and charity workers do not have to wait for the media to take an interest in their issue - they can produce material themselves that will be of interest to their target audience, as opposed to mainstream media, which must appeal to a much wider audience.

However, most of my time has shifted towards working with marginalised groups because there is something that worries me about the digital revolution. When I surf through blogs, podcasts and content sharing sites such as YouTube and MySpace (examples of internet technology known as web 2.0), it is the same familiar demographic that is generating the content. For example, Al Gore's citizen journalism channel, Current TV, launched recently in the UK and Ireland. My concern is that, powerful as some of the content is on Current TV and sites like it, the people producing it are, on the whole, privileged, confident and articulate members of society who already have a voice and are more accurately represented in newspapers and broadcast media to begin with.

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