State of the Union address review

Originally published 13/01/2016

President Obama delivered a predictably passionate address in his final State of the Union speech to Congress on Tuesday. In an hour-long speech the President called for increased funding to science, medical research, education and an increased focus on closing cultural gaps within and outside of American borders.

In it he lashed out at claims America was declining economically and militarily under his administration, potentially pointing the finger at Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s comments in December that “America’s influence has declined while [Obama] has destroyed our military, our allies no longer trust us, and our adversaries no longer respect us.”

In the address President Obama said such talk was “political hot air”.

“Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead – they call us.”

Obama’s speech, which some thought might have been watered down going into his final year in office, was otherwise expectedly formulaic. His praise of the United States military, his affirmation of the importance of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist networks, ensuring equality in the workforce for genders, races and religions and his urging of a return to bipartisanship between Democrats and Republicans in coming years follow a similar course in Obama’s speeches in recent years.

The President’s call for cooperation within Congress and across America may well fall on deaf ears, but his calls and similar pleas to his successors will remain pertinent. Which side can produce the most rousing answers to America’s various economic, social, political and military imperfections in 2016 will be in the best place come November 8. Obama’s State of the Union speech was written to stir emotions and to awaken tired congressmen and women. Whether it shook the bed or merely ruffled the sheets may become clear in these next election months.




Bowie and the tragedy of death

Originally published 13/01/2016

The Madaya crisis was alieved temporarily on Sunday when trucks rolled into the western Syrian city carrying enough food and aid to feed and support 40,000 besieged citizens for a month. At the conclusion of tense, often uncertain, negotiations between humanitarian aid workers and militia loyal to the Syrian government the siege was lifted and aid finally delivered to thousands of stranded citizens. The Australian reports at least 28 people have died from starvation in the city, while 400 were ‘on the brink of death’ and 250 others found suffering with ‘acute malnutrition’ at the time aid arrived. The story gained international attention – but the biggest story of the week was not the 28 who perished through starvation, nor the children reportedly seen combining grass and water in a desperate attempt at making soup. The biggest story of the week was the death of David Bowie. And haven’t we just gorged ourselves silly on that.

I’ve a great appreciation for David Bowie and his work. But logic dictates rock stars approaching their 70s are approaching their expiry date at a rapid rate, and it should come as no great surprise (or shock, or any of the other far-too-sentimental reactions spewed across social media) to any person with any understanding of mortality that we are all born and we all die. After Bowie’s long, accolade-rich life, “tragic” doesn’t seem the right word to describe his death. Sad, perhaps, but one which should have been expected and which should have taken few people by surprise. Never failing to pick up the latest western tragedy, Twitter went into top gear and his name still “trends” on the website while Facebook stories explaining how Ziggy Stardust allowed Joe Bloggs to understand their own sexuality continue to be churned out with as much grace and finesse as the operations of low-grade pet food production line. Mechanical, dreary, uninspiring and – if you consume too much – surely not healthy for more than a couple of days.

But Bowie tribute posts and hashtags continue to circulate, bringing us to an important consideration. The Paris attacks; London bombings; Sydney Siege; September 11; Charlie Hebdo: how much did we hear of these? #JeSuiCharlie was a social media steamroller. #PrayforParis came in December on the back of synchronised bombings and shootings in the French capital. Facebook even allowed us to edit your profile picture to include a faded French flag atop your regular image. What did changing your social media colour scheme do? Nothing, but it certainly seemed to make a lot of people think they were in some way personally contributing to the recovery effort. Even in Australia I’m sure a lot felt vulnerable. And when somebody else is made to look vulnerable, or is made to be a victim, we generally show compassion. But our compassion rarely stretches beyond western incidents such as the Paris attacks or the death of a rock star like David Bowie.

On October 20, 2015, 103 people were killed in an Islamic State-supported bombing in Turkey’s capital Ankara. On December 8, 50 were killed and 35 injured in a bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan. On the same day, four were killed in Rafah, Egypt, also in a bombing. Three days later, December 11, 60 were killed and 80 injured in a car bombing in Tell Tamer, Syria. The next day, 16 were killed and 54 injured in another car bombing in Homs, Syria. The same day three were killed and 14 injured in a bombing in the Philippines; and 30 were killed and 20 injured in a vicious melee attack on civilians in Borno, Nigeria by Boko Haram militants. One day later, a bombing in Parachinar, Pakistan, killed 23 and injured 30.

Where were the tributes on social media for those tragedies? Where was #PrayforAnkara, #PrayforKandahar, #PrayforRafah, #PrayforTellTamer? Why was there no #PrayforMadaya these last weeks, or Mosul, or Rawa, Sharqat, Rutba, Qaim, or Ramadi? All cities under constant control and oppression by Islamic State. They didn’t exist. There were no hashtags, nor was it possible to change your Facebook profile picture to one containing a Turkish, Afghan, Philippine, Syrian, Egyptian or Nigerian flag. For the most part, except for in the most extreme cases (such as in Madaya this week) we’re barely exposed to the realities that lay outside our western sphere. Yes, they’re often reported, but by whom and with what emphasis? David Bowie became the latest star to ascend to the top of the music charts posthumously, another memorable achievement from a life of memorable achievements – but how long will it be until we’ve lost interest or forgotten about the tragedies in Madaya, Ankara, Istanbul or Kandahar? With attacks on civilian populations seemingly becoming almost commonplace outside of the west it can and would become exhausting to pay tribute to each indiscriminate killing. But by prioritising Paris, or Sydney, or London, or San Bernardino, or aged rock stars, we do great injustice to the many more who don’t make it into the paper or who are consigned to a news-in-brief column toward the back pages. I place no more priority on one civilian death over another, nor do I think the death of 69-year-old David Bowie is in any way more tragic than the death of one in Madaya a world away from western popular culture and the music charts. But the death of 28 through starvation in western Syria, 30 in Borno, 50 in Kandahar or 103 in Ankara should be given the same tribute as 130 in Paris, let alone the same as an aged rock star dying of natural causes in Manhattan.

To David Bowie I pay tribute. His music will continue to influence artists for many years to come, and the unmistakable guitar introduction to Rebel Rebel and so many other classics written in his own pen will be blasted through pubs and parties long after his obituaries disappear from newspapers and websites. But let’s not do days of page-long spreads when multitudes are dying who might at best get a small column in the back pages. Let’s save the front pages, spreads and hashtags for the real tragedies.

Issues with non-stop demand for news

Originally published 09/11/2015

Journalistic integrity has been blurred in the enormity of the digital world. For each word you’re reading as many as 30,000 unique Google searches, 3000 Tweets and half-an-hour of YouTube video are made, published or uploaded. This intense flow of content is fuelled by a demand for more: more information, more entertainment and more speed in delivery; and like sardines caught in a net journalism has been swept up in the commotion. With greater demands on journalists and outlets come greater opportunities for errors to be published, for journalists to cut corners and publishers to cheapen the value of their websites to increase revenue. Implications range as far as individuals being falsely accused in the media and errors being introduced into reports to the overall value and quality of journalism dropping. It needn’t be this way. If news publishers recognise they control the online platform and not vice versa, journalism’s online future can be hallmarked by reporters going greater lengths to clarify stories, a higher quality of overall work and greater professional integrity.

In the aftermath of the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings, the name “Sunil Tripathi” became popularised as a suspected bomber. His identity spread across the internet, starting at Reddit before making it onto news websites. Not seen by his family for over a month, Sunil’s identity as the mastermind behind the attack which killed six and injured 264 quickly took root in worldwide news. Ahead of three other suspects identified through a crowdsourced investigation, Tripathi quickly became the media’s lead man.

In reality, Sunil wasn’t linked to the attack. In fact, he’d committed suicide weeks prior in a different state. The media’s other suspects: a Saudi man, a Moroccan man and a man known only as “Mike Mulugeta”, were all unconnected to the attacks; Mulugeta never even existed – the name was fabricated on Twitter before going viral. But for a short period, at least, a number of high-profile publishers ran these allegations as front-page stories. But why did this enormous ethical blunder occur? Because journalism’s culture has changed. The rush to become the first outlet to publish news – even differences of minutes – has taken over, and has resulted in an increase in rumours being published as news, or at least publishing rumours as unconfirmed on the front-page of a website. In this instance, which is one of many cases of misinformation being spread as news every day, Sunil Tripathi was the final victim of the bombings. The overriding fault is that of a failure by publishers to recognise they control when news is published and that they aren’t any longer confined by deadlines harking back to the age of print. Online news must still be timely, but even more so than timely it must be accurate.

Having news websites which take extra time to verify stories and ensure they aren’t publishing false allegations, Joseph Fernandez, head of the Curtin University’s journalism school says, will decide which publishers survive and which do not in the coming years. “I don’t know about whether the public forgives. If people have come to trust you and you betray that trust you lose,” he says.

But where was the Tripathi and co. misinformation sourced from? Increasingly the popularity of forum-based, crowdsourced investigations has made its way into mainstream digital journalism. Message boards like Reddit have become sources of publicly-collated information, but it’s important for journalists and publishers to recognise the limitations – and risks – associated with relying too much on message boards for information.  Explaining the timeline of the Boston Marathon bombings media blunder, Lalit Kundani of explains,

“After the FBI released photographs, [former school peer Kami Mattioli] Tweeted that Sunil resembled Suspect 2. When Reddit user ‘Pizzatime’ … confirmed that Tripathi looked exactly like Suspect 2, a subreddit (forum) devoted to the bombings confirmed it was Tripathi,”

“Within minutes, collages of side-by-side comparisons were posted on the web comparing Tripathi to Suspect 2.”

And that is where journalists came in, picking up the story and running as fast as they could with it. The New York Post even ran a picture of two suspects (later dismissed as uninvolved in the attack) as their front page. How rumours on a message board became front-page news in a matter of hours is the result of journalism’s move away from solo investigations and toward crowdsourcing, in this case running the unconfirmed allegations of anonymous forum users. But running forum hearsay carries with it an incredible vulnerability for the journalist to publishing mistakes or lies. Reporters must get back into being investigators, and not as collators and re-publishers of message board verbatim.

Crowdsourcing can be a great help to the investigative process for journalists and publishers, but basing entire stories on them without giving the proper consideration or clarification only risks damaging the reputation of an outlet if and when they turn out to be not entirely correct. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Karl Bernstein didn’t bring down the Nixon administration by reporting the words and allegations of every person who cared to comment on the Watergate scandal; Nellie Bly didn’t uncover chasms within 19th century British mental health asylums by reporting public perceptions of the system, and instead went undercover and investigated personally. “Inadequate fact-checking and inaccuracy are not unique to journalism but that does not make it excusable for journalism,” says Fernandez. Crowdsourcing has great potential: in 2009 The Guardian effectively harnessed the power of crowdsourcing, asking its readers to sift through 700,000 documents of parliamentary expenses to identify any improper claims, resulting in the resignation of over 20 sitting parliamentarians. But large-scale reliance on crowdsourcing should be used sparingly, or at least should be used with great considerations of the risk associated, and should complement a report and not drive it.

On top of this, “clickbait” culture helps drive the issue. Clickbait has a fantastic ability to bring in visitors who may not be interested in regular nine-to-five news reports. Anything that is lewd, lascivious, salacious and/or outrageous (to borrow a line from Seinfeld) can and is thrown onto news websites to increase network traffic. But for the industry, clickbait-style articles risk damaging the reputation of individual publishers and journalism as a whole. To emphasise how big this style of reporting has become, taken from the front page of just one popular online news site are the articles: “Kanye West reportedly spends more than $700 a day on his hair”, “Daniel Craig was a young sex machine a former lover reveals” and “Sam Frost admits she wet herself during a Bachelorette date with Michael” (just three examples taken from a single website). These articles may increase network traffic, but their prominence alongside genuine news has long outweighed their newsworthiness.

As a means of bringing viewers to a website clickbait can work wonders, but it can also work to damage the reputation of an outlet. Emily Shire of The Daily Beast states “the short term gains in unique views [from clickbait] may cost news sites in the long run.” The biggest stories of 2014 included the Russian annexation of Crimea, the declaration of independence by Islamic State, the Ebola crisis and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 – all genuine news stories. It may sound unimaginative, but the alternative to clickbait – and best way to increase revenue – is to produce genuine, thought-provoking news. The New York Times, long heralded in the highest regard for journalistic integrity, recently announced its one millionth online subscriber – all without resorting to clickbait headlines and articles.  Clickbait undeniably brings traffic to a website, but the biggest stories remain those that are hard-hitting and well researched. Resorting to celebrity gossip, or reporting conclusions made by unauthoritative online forum users to increase network flow and income neither helps the reputation of online journalism or online publishers.

While the internet offers journalists the opportunity to deliver news immediately and harness the power of crowdsourcing, with greater reach come great responsibilities for news publishers. Journalists and publishers must ensure they can verify allegations before publishing, and control the medium instead of being controlled by it. Crowdsourcing can help propel an investigation, but journalists must be wary of relying too greatly on anonymous forum users and their oft unverified conclusions. Forum users are generally not trained media professionals and do not share the same considerations journalists must when publishing news. Rather than publishing allegations as quickly as they can write them, journalists should prioritise considering all the facts surrounding the allegations before submitting articles. Perhaps the user is correct, but it’s still best to check and use your own reasoning. Maybe you’ll conclude the missing student probably isn’t a terrorist. Fernandez says “it is better to be late and credible rather than quick and wrong.”

Journalism’s 500-year history prior to the internet shouldn’t be succeeded by a culture of lazy journalism. Investigations of political corruption should trump stories about celebrities and their sex lives; stories covering political change should outweigh celebrity break-ups; and reports of human rights abuses should outweigh quizzes which claim to determine “Which TV Brother Should Be Your Brother In Real Life?” All too often they don’t. For publishers, avoiding tying the masthead’s reputation to such fluff will only serve their reputation well – and that of the overall reputation of online news – for the future. In the time it’s taken you to read this feature, as many as 45 million Google searches will have been made, 9 million Tweets will have been sent and 7500 hours of video uploaded onto YouTube. The digital community’s size and demand for content should embolden the resolve of editors and journalists who wish to maintain journalistic integrity through the profession’s unclear future. Sunil Tripathi and people like him are too often wrongly targeted by the media; it’s time for online news publishers to take responsibility for what they publish online.

The sooner outlets recognise this and return to existing for the sake of creating good news, the better off online journalism will be.

Reviews of a variety of journalism-related tools

Originally published 21/10/2015

  1. Open-sourcing promises a rich future

Different to crowdsourcing, open-sourcing opens the door for non-journalists to get involved in the journalistic process. It’s a concept which allows members of the public to write news stories about what’s happening around them, and contribute those stories to the workload being published by newspapers and websites.

Open-sourcing works by allowing members of the public write about their community. More news is good news, so where would the sense be in not offering to publish it? Local news is important news – and free local news is even better.

Open-sourcing opens up journalism institutions to the public, allowing them to contribute their own work to increase the output and relevance of media organisations. Programmes such as CNN’s iReport invite people to provide their own images or videos, or even entire news stories, offering the chance that it may be aired on national television.

This type of journalism, known as pro-am (professional-amateur) reporting has become immensely successful. iReport has garnered nearly 230,000 followers on Twitter since 2007. Similar projects have been supported by Reuters.

These days some websites depend entirely on open-source journalism, and invite members of the community to create all (or most) the content on a website. Websites such as and both invite members of the public to write news, reviews and features on sport – all for free. Exposure, the websites say, is the payment for their hard work.

Open-source journalism is the way of the future for journalism. Journalists are no longer a step closer to the action than members of the public – any Tom, Dick or Harry can open a blog in a few minutes and begin writing. By inviting keen members of the public to try their hand at having their own news published, the outcome can only be a greater spread of news and – with greater public participation – a better understanding of journalism and a taking back of any preconceived ideas about journalists and journalistic motives.

However open-source reporting must be moderated. It’s important that all publicly-submitted work is reviewed to meet a particular standard. While it might be beneficial for a media company to have more reporting, it is important that all reports maintain the quality of professional journalism. Sloppy, poorly-written works will only turn readers away from an online news site, but engaging, well-written pieces will have readers asking for more.

For institutions, the secret to unlocking the potential of open-source reporting is in moderation: finding the perfect operating system which allows professional and amateur journalists to create newsworthy articles for a single publication. The more articles and news available to the public, the richer the fourth estate.

Overall, if done correctly, a news publisher’s journalism can only be strengthened by using open-source reporting.


  1. Developing work through crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing has become a major part the news process for some news organisations. The internet allows easy communication between journalists and their audience – and getting the audience involved in an investigation has in modern times sometimes played a key role in developing stories for media outlets.

Briggs states, “In a world where one person can ask hundreds, or even thousands, of people to lend a hand with an investigation or data collection, crowdsourcing becomes a powerful new tool for reporting news.”

Crowdsourcing is the act of a journalist or an organisation reaching out to the community for people who have a background or extensive experience in a specific topic or subject, but who would not necessarily be listed officially as experts. Instead of quoting business owners, academics or professionals for stories, journalists often find themselves reaching out to members of the public who have a personal background in the area being reported instead.

A good example of crowdsourcing in popular journalism would be Triple J’s Hack programme, which largely relies on members of the public phoning in to tell of their own experiences in relation to a set topic. This is talkback radio to a new level – not just retiree-age men and women phoning in to say how things aren’t like they were ‘back in my day’ but people across a nation telling their stories to form a narrative. With Hack charted as the top-rating show during it’s “Drive” timeslot in 2014 (securing 13.6% of the entire radio-listening audience on average), it’s hard to deny the format works.

However, crowdsourcing can backlash. As stated by the Columbia Journalism Review, the days following the 2014 Boston bombing saw innocent men falsely identified as suspects in the attack after photos of supposed suspects were used on a New York Post front-page.

Thus, it is important to always remember crowdsourcing can bring great benefits but can also bring great negatives. By all means contact members of the community who have experience in topics you’re discussing through Facebook and Twitter and send out information you hope can be clarified by the public – but do so with caution. The public are as mistake-prone (perhaps even more so) than journalists. For work such as that done on Hack, crowdsourcing is an effective way to produce news and features. For identifying members of the public as terrorism suspects when no confirmation has been given by the police, perhaps (I’m sure you’ve worked this one out for yourself by now) crowdsourcing isn’t the way to go.

As stated by CJR, “Good journalistic crowdsourcing takes into consideration the validity, quality, and ownership of the data journalists are accessing. When used effectively, it is a unique way to engage audiences and gather information that paints a more comprehensive picture of what’s going on in the world.

“But just because it is easy to reach out doesn’t mean it is always the answer.”


  1. RSS is the Twitter of news websites

RSS (Rich Site Summary, or Really Simple Syndication) feeds bring together headline stories from any news website you nominate into a single manageable panel on your computer, tablet or smartphone. It’s a system which allows users to stay in touch with the latest stories from across the web and allows users to customise feeds to suit their own interests. RSS feeds save users time by bringing news to them, meaning users aren’t required to visit each news site individually for stories. For journalists, RSS can be an invaluable source of breaking news.

RSS feeds have been around since 1997, but while they offer a similar format with breaking news that Twitter does, the service has never seen the widespread adoption by the community that Twitter did]. It’s a simple process that provides news headlines from selected news outlets as they are published. As a tool for keeping online journalists up-to-the-minute with news, RSS feeds provide an opportunity for journalists to form a live catalogue of breaking news. While Twitter usually requires stories to be deliberately shared to followers for it to gain attention, RSS takes news straight from websites meaning they provide a user with the whole news and not just those stories which are “trending”.

For online journalists, the benefit of an RSS feed is that it provides them with news headlines as they break. While on Twitter this service is conducted amid potentially unrelated tweets from other users, RSS targets news headlines and only news headlines for the consumption of that feed’s user. The end result is a cleaner, clearer and more concise layout for the user.

Constructing an RSS feed in 2015 is a very simple process. Most news pages carry the RSS logo on the page (seen right) for the convenient addition of a news page to any feed.

To read RSS feeds you will need an RSS reader. These take the form of browser extensions and programmes. Popular readers include:

  • RSS Feed Reader (Google Chrome extension)
  • Digg reader
  • Feedly
  • NetNewsWire (Available for OS X)

For the purpose of this tutorial I will use RSS Feed Reader for Google Chrome.


  1. All the TV reporting tools in your pocket

In bygone days, a television journalist would require a video camera, a microphone (perhaps with a boom), artificial lighting, a cameraman, accompanying bulky, heavy cases for all that equipment and a car to travel it all from location to location.

While the car has remained a staple in most journalists’ day-to-day reporting, the rest faces a sudden extinction.

  • Where there were once TV-quality video cameras, there are mobile phones with video recording.
  • Where there were microphones, there are mobile phones and voice recorders which can capture similar quality.
  • Where there was artificial lighting, there is natural light.
  • Where there were camerapersons, there is a tripod – or just the journalist and their phone.
  • Where there were bulky, heavy cases for carrying equipment, there is a pocket.

Hannah Waldram, of the Guardiancommented on the change of setup for TV journalists in the field as follows:

“I was recently covering the English Defence League protest in the city centre – I was live tweeting, using Audioboom to get short clip interviews with police, using Bambuser to live stream some video when the protesters broke the police line, while also taking still video on a Kodak HD camera which I knew I could edit and upload later using iMovie and Youtube.

“I took pictures on my phone and sent them out on Twitter using twitpic and I was also taking notes using shorthand in a notebook so that I had some extra quotes to write up in a more considered report later – I carried my laptop in a rucksack on my back and cycled to the nearest place with Wi-Fi to upload anything I couldn’t do live. There I’d also write up a couple of pieces while responding to comments, looking for reaction tweets, videos, confirming numbers with the police and so on.”

In a pre-digital age, Waldram would’ve needed to return to the news desk before she could construct and publish her story; in 2015 she had with her all the appliances and accessories necessary to create a news report to a professional standard while out in the field.

Waldram’s effort is an example of the growth of responsibility on individual journalists with technological development. With so many expectations placed on journalists nowadays, whether an institution hires you or the person next to you could be dependent on your experience with mobile reporting.

Journalism is becoming increasingly technology-focused. It will be necessary for journalists of the not-too-distant future to be literate with digital technology, and be able to utilise all the applications of their “smart” devices to develop their work.

If you haven’t started yet, pick up your camera-enabled phone or tablet and get filming; as a TV journalist you’re going to be doing a lot of it in the future.


  1. The world in 140 characters or less

Twitter was founded nearly a decade ago and has since become a staple for all kinds of journalists, not only online. The website (now with a mobile site and an official app, as well as many third-party apps) is reportedly home to more than 300 million active users, collectively tweeting up to 500 million times a day. It’s used by celebrities, politicians, sports teams, and – you guessed it – journalists. It’s centered on “following” and “following back” (akin to Facebook friends), with public “tweets” (akin to Facebook status updates) powered by “re-tweets” (akin to Facebook post sharing) and tweet “favourites” (akin to Facebook likes). If all this seems overwhelming, the platform itself is visually quite simple.

Twitter, like most social media, is a popularity contest. The number of followers you have dictates the number of people who read your tweets. There are few people in the public eye who operate without the service, and well-known figures thrive in the popularity stakes. Katy Perry, Twitter’s current record holder for most followers, has more than 75 million Twitter users hanging onto her every 140-character thought; Justin Bieber has nearly 68 million and United States President Barack Obama is followed by more than 64 million Twitter users worldwide. In a relative sense, Avril Lavigne (Remember her? A big punk-rock star during the early 2000s before she faded out quicker than Myspace) garners the attention of a mere 19 million users.

As said, Tweets are limited to 140 characters, a technique that prizes succinct wit and only fuels the public’s thirst for no-nonsense news and catchy headlines. But while it may seem to be the catalyst for an online click-bait news culture, Twitter also presents various opportunities for online journalists to develop their connections with the public and for institutions to broaden their readership. Every journalist should have a Twitter account.

Twitter has become a staple for breaking news, allowing news outlets and journalists to send out a headline or a story for followers to pick up. The service has become so quick to report information from newsworthy locations that following an earthquake in Virginia, news on Twitter of the incident reached The Washington Post faster than the shockwave.

As stated in a feature on the speed of Twitter, “[earthquake shock] waves travel at around 3 to 5 kilometres per second, whereas fiber signals [(online communications, including Tweets)] travel about 200,000 kilometres per second”.

Twitter is an easy-to-use, functional platform that only serves to create a greater connection between journalists and news organisations with their readers. The service allows live responses to news stories, contact between journalists and sources sharing information and creates a more personal relationship between readers and journalists.


  1. LinkedIn: The 21st century Roladex

Founded in 2006, business-focused social network LinkedIn is an invaluable way for journalists to find, organise and maintain professional contacts. As of 2015 the social media website has more than 380 million registered users, with 97 million of those ‘active’.

Connections between users is much like that on Facebook, wherein one user must ‘request a connection’ (akin to Facebook friend requesting) to create an online connection with another user. Once a user has confirmed a direct connection with another, they are considered “first degree” connections, meaning each party can send the other messages or view any contact information provided on their profile. As the ability to communicate or find information about people you aren’t connected with is limited, it is only advantageous to have a wider personal network than a smaller one on LinkedIn. Any person not connected with is considered a ‘second degree’ connection if you share a familiar connection, or ‘third degree’ if you share no tangible connection at all. The amount of information you can find on somebody who is a second- or third-degree connection is greatly restricted when compared to first-degree connections, so it pays to develop your LinkedIn network.

For journalists the service represents an enormous database of sources or business contacts. The search function allows users to search for specific people, people in specific jobs or companies and even for job openings at specific companies.

Signing up to the service is as easy as signing up to any other social network, and for a journalist either looking to organise their contacts or searching for contacts it’s an invaluable convenience. When there is a service which provides background for business people and their contact details, how could any organised journalist reject it?

LinkedIn Premium gives users the chance to refine their business image for job applications, gain insights into user trends and to contact up to 15 people whom they have no connections with – but that’s if you can fork out A$600 p.a. for it. In the United States LinkedIn has been offering premium service free to journalists if they attend a seminar, but to the best knowledge of this blogger no such offer has yet reached Australia.

LinkedIn provides a database of sources, business contacts and background information which all journalists should consider. With users updating their own personal information, it’s a digital Roladex which won’t go out-of-date and have you calling up an old phone number – as long as your connections are committed to keeping their professional online profiles up-to-date.

To show how easily the website is navigated, view for yourself the tutorial below. If I wished to connect with a journalist-cum-academic for their broad knowledge on media, I would simply have to follow the steps below. Once the user had accepted my request, I can locate their contact details and find more information on their background and experience.

Afghan conflict failures list seems near-endless

Originally published 30/10/2015

When President George Bush Jr. announced in 2004 “the men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror, and America is proud to be their friend,” one could’ve been forgiven for thinking the Afghan conflict was nearing an end. 11 years later, after immense civilian casualties and Western expenditure exceeding USD$800 billion (AUD$1.1 trillion), a Taliban resurgence threatens to push Afghanistan back into the political, social and economic turmoil which ravaged the nation for the previous three decades. President Obama’s latest delay of the U.S. withdrawal beyond 2017 could stall the militant group’s plans to challenge for power for the meantime, but U.S. boots-on-ground are no assurance of future regional stability. Without a concerted push for Afghan development over the next two years, Afghanistan will become a forgotten victim of Western interventionism in the Middle East.

Flanked by a furled flag and flanked by Capitol Hill, Bush warned acts of “enemies of freedom” had drawn the United States into a fully-fledged war. Behind him, beyond the tall White House perimeter fence, traffic traveling behind continued to flow peacefully.

But far from the order and polity of Pennsylvania Avenue, Afghanistan’s cities, towns and villages would soon be drawn into a conflict neither the U.S. nor any participating nations were willing to commit themselves entirely. In a war which neither invader nor defender was willing or prepared to resolve, the Afghan people would become the first victims of the gung-ho warring culture which characterised Bush’s second Presidential term.

Afghan public life, a decade ago shrouded in mystery to the outside world and – to its own people – restrictive on human rights, has improved since the fall of the Taliban. School attendance figures are 30 times higher than in 2004, and as many of 25% of those are girls. International trade, once highly restricted under the dictatorial rule of a militant Taliban government, is more than 200 times greater than in 2001. The democratic transfer of power from interim president Hamid Karzai (2002-2014) to Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah (2014-present) was the first case in Afghan history the people have had the opportunity to choose their leader. Public access to telephones has risen to more than 10 million Afghans, and 85% of people are able to access healthcare – an enormous growth over the reputed 10% under Taliban rule. But Afghanistan remains a vast, barren landscape where blood has spilled near daily from international and domestic warfare for the previous three decades. For the West the now-14-year conflict will also go down as one of the costliest wars in modern times, and the longest in United States history. With Taliban presence in the country growing strong once again, dire social, educational, economic and security conditions in Afghanistan remain. These are the numbers kept hidden by army generals.

Former Senior Adviser to Defence Minister and Prime Minister of Australia from 1985-1991, the soft-faced, bearded, oval-glasses wearing Hugh White, now Professor at Australian National University, has a lifetime of national-level strategic military operations planning behind him. “The immense scale of resources that would’ve been required to give you any reasonable chance of achieving [success in Afghanistan] would’ve been greater than I think any countries in the West were willing to expend,” he says. White estimates the number of military personnel necessary to maintain order in a disruptive foreign country is approximately one per 100 civilians, but “even if it was only half that, [the West would have] needed to put in much, much more than double the amount of resources than [it] did and for much, much longer periods of time.” Figures following the end of the Second World War and the Gulf War 2 are not far from his estimate. In Afghanistan, however, personnel on the ground never surpassed than one-per-300 civilians, with less than one-per-500 from 2010 to 2012. It’s undeniable that governments were hesitant to commit themselves to this foreign war against a largely unknown militant enemy and apprehension meant the war against the Taliban was lost before it began. “Western governments would have had to be willing to commit much, much larger forces for much, much greater length periods of time than they ever showed any preparedness to do,” says Professor White. Western aid helped developed the Afghan National Security Force, the nation’s 352,000-strong police and military arm, but the ANSF failed to regularly challenge and defeat Taliban militants without foreign support. In Kunduz in September, as few as 500 Taliban militants challenged some 7000 ANSF personnel; poor communication, insufficient training and a lack of preparation forced the ANSF forces to abandon the nearly half-a-million residents living in the city to the nation’s north, surrendering the first Afghan city to Taliban militants since 2001. 2015 has been a particularly bloody year for the organisation as it faces an organised Taliban force for the first time without direct foreign involvement. Casualty rates for the ANSF have risen by 70% in 2015, and as many as 4000 Afghan soldiers and policemen are being killed each month by insurgent forces. Unsurprisingly, Afghan families are becoming hesitant to send their sons to fight with the ANSF, a development which will only help Taliban morale and their chances of success on the battlefield.

On top of the more-than-37,000 deaths estimated on both sides of the fighting, as many as 92,000 civilian deaths have been recorded throughout Afghan cities, towns and villages. With the insurgency growing, and with civilian casualties up eight percent from 2014, Dr Susanne Schneidl, who researches contemporary Afghan culture at the University of New South Wales, admits conditions for Afghans are “probably worse than it’s been for some time.” Christopher Stokes, Medicines Sans Frontieres General Director, says nearly half of the people who reach hospitals say they had “faced fighting, landmines, checkpoints or harassment on their journey”. The previous decade of fighting “has not made Afghanistan safer for anybody except the fundamentalist warlords in the Afghan government, and the Taliban,” says Reena, a 23-year-old Afghan refugee. The Western intervention to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban, “has not helped Afghan people in any way,” she adds, and Hugh White agrees. “It’s not clear the women and children of Afghanistan are better off today than had we not intervened at all … The best policy approach is to recognise the reality is that we have no capacities to change.” 85% of Afghan women remain illiterate, and women make up only 18% of university classes. Despite improvements in Afghan maternal mortality rates, a woman dies in labour once every half hour somewhere in Afghanistan. While the West propounds the idea it is able to defeat the insurgency, the harsh realities of health services – or lack of health services – in Afghanistan is all too often forgotten in the drive for more kills and more victories on the battlefield. Continued violence only exacerbates the many faults in the organisation and operation of Afghan health services.

On an abandoned lot, a small white building sits open, unguarded, to the public. Its white walls are littered with bullet holes, the floor around potholed and most of its windows smashed or missing. This vacant building, a familiar image in Afghanistan’s rural areas, was originally a school built with Western dollars. This school, in Deg-e Bagh, near of Kandahar in the nation’s south, is just one in a catalogue of schools across the country built and abandoned. This is the result of a fundamental failure by the new Afghan government and the West to develop a functional education system in post-war Afghanistan. A 2015 investigation revealed “at least a tenth of the schools [constructed with foreign aid] no longer exist.” The lies don’t stop just at school construction: the number of females in Afghan schools was exaggerated by about 40%, and for many people operational schools are simply too far away – and far too dangerous to get to – from their villages. The failure to develop an effective education system has much larger implications than just low literacy rates: a lesser educated workforces has a reduced capacity to work, and in Afghanistan the lure of militancy for unemployed youths is a cause of great concern. “Two-thirds of the population is below the age of 24,” says Dr Schneidl. “They can’t access schools, and [even] if they can access schooling then they can’t get jobs. If you don’t do anything on jobs [to give] some kind of future for the youth, they’re either going to leave the country – many are – or they’ll find alternative employment that we’re not going to be happy with.”

“If you pump money in[to Afghanistan] then we need to be very careful about … working with the government to hold it accountable. They can’t just keep giving it money,” she says. And it’s all largely down to political corruption in the highest offices.

Neither Hamid Karzai’s interim government, nor that of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have achieved legitimacy inside or outside its borders. “There is a … problem with the Afghan government,” says Dr Schneidl. “There’s high levels of corruption. They haven’t addressed nepotism.”

Nepotism in Afghanistan, the practice of favouring family or friends when delegating jobs in power, remains a major issue. A 2015 report by an anti-corruption body in Afghanistan revealed 23 Foreign Ministry employees were related to people in the highest offices of Afghanistan’s parliament. In 2015, it was revealed 48 qualified applicants who had completed tests to be considered for ministerial positions were rejected in favour of family members of those in government who hadn’t even applied for the positions. Special Representative for Reform and Good Governance, Ahmad Zia Massoud, blamed the practice of favouring kin over ability in the army for the loss at Kunduz. As for political corruption, under Karzai two Afghan fuel companies known to have supported Karzai’s presidential campaign received generous donations after he won office. One of them, fuel company Zahid Walid received $74 million in grants between 2006 and 2009. “Legitimacy is as low as ever,” says Dr Schneidl.

Hidden amongst ordinary Afghans, 60,000 Taliban still operate in the nation’s cities and rural areas. Despite initial the conflict ousting the Taliban from power, the group still controls or contests nearly 20% of the nation’s 398 districts. But Dr Schneidl says attempting to eradicate Taliban presence in Afghanistan will forever be a futile cause. “You’ll always have areas that [The Taliban are] controlling and that is already the case … they’ve clearly shown they have the forces to do so,” she says. Kunduz was a reminder insurgents maintain a strong presence in the region, and the loss displayed how unprepared Afghanistan is to defend itself without foreign support. Peaceful negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives were held in Doha in 2013, though no progress was made. After the insurgents raised their level of activity around the same time, the unofficial Taliban embassy was abandoned and no discussions have been announced since. Even while it was operational, many in the Taliban opposed any talks while Western troops were stationed in the country. Ultimately the political experiment – bringing the Taliban to a discussion table – yielded no results.

The failure of the ANSF to develop into a strong defence force has rendered all efforts by the West to rebuild Afghanistan futile, according to Hugh White. “We were trying to win a counterinsurgency [in Afghanistan] on behalf of a government in Kabul which was simply not strong enough to establish stable and effective rule over the country.” In July, more than 100 police officers surrendered themselves and their police base to Taliban forces in the country’s north. Kunduz and the cities and towns which in the coming months and years will be assaulted by Taliban forces highlight concerns surrounding the effectiveness of Afghanistan’s standing army. With a resurgence in Taliban activity in mid-2015, ANSF now average more than 300 casualties a week in the fighting and in some months have recorded as many as 4000 personnel losses; casualty rates were 70% higher in the first months of 2015 than in 2014. In the face of these numbers, White admits the chance of the West scoring any long-term success in Afghanistan against insurgent forces is very low. “The idea that there’s a middle path, that we’ll somehow use our weapons and our force and our money to build you a state when the ‘you’ you’re talking about is a disparate group of people who don’t agree on what that state should look like is a myth,” he says. As the war ravages on and no genuine progress looks to have been made, it’s a sentiment which has grown in popularity across the world. The conflict’s futility has become more evident as the days wear on, the dollars change hands, and the bodies pile up.

One of the 21st century’s more controversial conflicts, it’s necessary to acknowledge mistakes and failures in Afghanistan. One of the world’s most arid and remote nations, riddled with political, social and economic corruption prior to the U.S. invasion, any war in Afghanistan was from the outset a gargantuan challenge. Hugh White says “one of the problems of not acknowledging failure when you’ve failed is that it makes it much harder to avoid the mistake next time … the West has withdrawn from Afghanistan without admitting it’s been defeated. Nobody wants to admit that.” In years to come, the dust will settle on the Afghan war and the merits and follies of it will be fully revealed, but for the meantime it’s important to recognise similar conflicts will have the same result in the future. George Santayana wrote in 1905 that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; acknowledging our failures is vital to ensuring one more nation of people don’t yet become the next victims of misguided, mismanaged, and ill-conceived intervention.

Book review: All The President’s Men

Originally published 11/09/2015

All The President’s Men is investigative journalism at its finest. The book details the uncovering of political corruption within United States politics and weighs often on journalist and newspaper ethics. Detailing journalists Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s relationships with innumerable sources, as well as with White House and FBI informants, this book is a modern narrative embodying classic themes of knowledge-versus-ignorance, power-and-corruption and discovery.

The book explains Watergate was not a one-off incident; United States politics had been thick with espionage and underhanded goings on for years before the Watergate-based Democratic National Committee headquarters became the scene of great media interest. All The President’s Men goes to great lengths to explain the damaging actions the Republican Party and Nixon staff had made for years prior to the incident. The book presents the true goings on behind party doors, the subterfuge in 20th century United States politics and, surprising to this reader, the nonchalance with which White House staff were willing to undermine political rivals and disrupt the democratic process. It’s a long text which highlights the unethical, undemocratic and illegal activities of White House personnel during the 1960s and 1970s, all of which was uncovered following the Watergate break-in (though it may be naïve to think absolutely everything was uncovered). The book takes the reader on a journey to the darkest depths of Nixon’s White House, exposing entire, previously unknown, organisations established for the purpose of disrupting the America’s democratic system.

The book is about integrity. Most readers will recognise the Watergate scandal, but what it introduces is the determination and intensity with which these two journalists undertook the investigation. There is no lying to sources, or misleading of contacts to get a story. Woodward and Bernstein present themselves as honest journalists. As protagonists they are authentic and as narrators they are far from condescending to the reader and regularly recognise their own mistakes while developing their investigation. But despite having the opportunity to present themselves as the focus for the story, the narrative focuses only on Watergate and the White House. This is not a biography about the journalists, or a praise of their work; this is an honest account of the work carried out by Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and the Washington Post.

The book introduces a catalogue of characters from a variety of backings: other journalists, editors, FBI agents, White House officials, Deep Throat, previously unknown professional saboteurs working for the Nixon administration, and a series of anonymous contacts who only add to the air of mystery surrounding the incident. There are no shortages of unscrupulous government officials for the reader to become frustrated with and there are a number of laughter-inducing moments (including a scene in which the two journalists were paranoid their editor’s front garden may have been bugged by White House officials). Though the topic of discussion is flatly serious, Woodward and Bernstein bring forward the facts and the suspicions mixed with admittance of their own mistakes and young-journalist impetuousness. All The President’s Men is little more and nothing less than an honest account of the entire Watergate story by the men who investigated it.

However, the text is far from always a thrilling read. Persistent readers are rewarded with a rich, engaging narrative well into the book, but the early chapters are often dry and frequently a challenge to follow. Names of Cuban thieves and low-level White House employees are thrown around so regularly you’ll struggle to work out who is who early on; similarly, the authors were happy to include anecdotes of interviews that got them little to no information to push the investigation – something that brings little to the narrative and, for the busy reader, can be frustratingly time consuming. But perseverance pays for the reader as the novel progresses and the investigation’s intensity increases. Once the story is underway, we are very much involved in the investigation and can recognise the pressure mounting on the Post as the White House moves to protect its reputation. Woodward and Bernstein recount the switching of the tides, the point when the White House became vulnerable to the Post‘s investigation and not vice versa, a major turning point in the narrative. Mounting evidence of corruption within the U.S. government switches the pressure from government to journalist, and this is especially well detailed in the final chapters. If you’re weighing up whether or not to watch the film or read the book, only the whole Watergate story is presented in the book.

All The President’s Men is a long – at times dry – narrative, detailing the successes and failures of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during their investigation of the Watergate break-in scandal and the revelations it uncovered about the Nixon administration. Containing mountains more information on the events than the 1976 film, All The President’s Men describes the long process of investigative reporting and the power of the press. The book brings with it no revolutionary narrative style, but is a bare-bones look at the 700-plus days from the Watergate break-in to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. To a reader with only a basic knowledge of Watergate and its implications, the novel is a great source of primary information and non-fiction storytelling. The book’s anecdotes provide real insight into the newspaper investigation and the perceived dangers to the journalists and sources involved. It remains as relevant to describing the fundamental skills required for a journalistic investigation today as it was when first printed in 1974. For added charm, pick up a first edition copy (as this reader did) – Nixon’s resignation hadn’t yet been announced when it was published, leaving a fairly ambiguous end to the text. Later editions address this.

Globalisation rewards and punishes

Originally published 18/08/2015

From a Western perspective globalisation is a great force for positive change; it renders pre-digital communication and organisation obsolete and allows economic, political and cultural (Editorial: Globalisation, Societies and Eduction, 2003. P. 4-5) communities to quickly and conveniently connect across the world. With regards journalism, globalisation has allowed media to publish across the world and reach a mass audience that would have otherwise been limited by newspaper circulation area. But the change to digital journalism has not been entirely positive for the industry and many now speculate “when” rather than “if” the demise of traditional news media will occur. This essay discusses some of the positive and negative effects of globalisation before looking at how it has effected written journalism.

There is no agreed single definition of globalisation (ibid, p. 4). Friedman (2000, p. 211) states “globalisation is so broad . . . that a comprehensive description now seems almost futile”. Giddens (1990, p. 64) regards it as “the global intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa”. Higgins (1999, p. 78) says “Globalisation [is] the reality that we live in a time when the walls of sovereignty are no protection against the movements of capital, labour, information and ideas”; globalisation is a result of sharing social, economic and technological information and “is driven by . . . purposeful political action and technological innovation” (Albert and Ursprung, 2002, p. 24). Modern globalisation can be seen in the ability to make a phone call from Moscow to Washington; to conduct business meetings in real-time with international stakeholders; and, as stated by Steger (2009, p. 25), “[in] the Cuban-Chinese restaurant around the corner or the Eurasian fusion café next door”. Globalisation generally results in reduced physical, cultural, social and economic barriers that have existed in the past between communities.

Mawdudar (2004, p. 1) states “Globalisation has been in existence since the inception of trade and business and the transfer of knowledge across territorial boundaries”. The East India Company was an early form of modern globalisation (Smith et al., 2000, p. 8), which united cultures through trade. The European colonial period is an example of large-scale, pre-digital globalisation, during which native populations were often forcibly assimilated into their coloniser’s culture. In a Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies article, Steger (2009, p. 19) states “[Modern] globalisation . . . constitutes a multi-dimensional set of process in which images, sound bites, metaphors, myths, symbols, and spatial arrangements of globality [are] just as important as economic and technological dynamics”. He comments it “is inevitable and irreversible . . . benefits everyone . . . [and] furthers the spread of democracy in the world” (ibid, p. 20). However, blurring sovereign borders can undermine traditional customs and laws. As stated by Higgins (1999, p. 78), globalisation has meant governments can no longer provide populations with “effective protection against harm and damage”, such as restricting the import of illegal items now sold online through websites such as eBay, Alibaba and, until its closure in 2013, the illegal drug trade website Silk Road (ABC/Reuters, 2013).

While globalisation presents benefits for technologically- and socially-advanced nations, it’s important to recognise its shortfalls. Smith and Naim (2000, p. 8) state, “Globalisation has carried with it a remarkably uneven distribution of costs and benefits. The result, for the most part, has been to exacerbate inequalities of wealth, consumption, and power within and between countries”; they continue: “globalisation has coincided with a decade of increasing concentration of income, wealth, and control over resources” (ibid). Roy (2008, p. 12) says one example of the negative impacts of globalisation can be seen in social and employment preference toward Anglo-Indians (mix-raced British-Indian persons) following Indian independence; an economic and social barrier of privilege between qualified, educated Anglo-Indians and non-qualified, uneducated Indians “reduced [non-Anglo Indians] to a life of penury and social exclusion” following the creation of the independent Indian state. Smith and Naim (2000, p. 8) concluded, “far from financing a convergence of fortunes between rich and poor people, globalisation has coincided with . . . [an] increasing concentration of income, wealth, and control over resources”.

Reese (2010, p. 350) states, “Technology-enabled connections permit a redistribution of relationships, creation of new communities, and growth of new subnational, supranational, and transnational spaces. Journalism . . . is changing accordingly to serve these newly constituted communities”. The communication technologies and connected culture globalisation has created has forced news outlets to rethink the way they reaches audiences. Worldwide connectivity has resulted in readers turning to the internet for news and has left newspapers behind, with serious consequences for the industry; newspaper publishing is the fastest declining industry on earth (Barth, 2015). Digitalising journalism has benefits: accessibility, ease and price of publication (to name a few), but globalisation has damaged traditional news outlet profitability and, potentially, sustainability. By 2011 worldwide newspaper profits had dropped to less than half of those seen in the 1990s (Newspaper Association of America, 2012). Carr (2009) of the New York Times said “the threat [of bankruptcy] is not just to the companies that own them, but to news itself”. He warns more digital news publishing, and the inherent profit losses from going digital, risks devaluing and eventually halting the output of professional written journalism.

Reese (2010, p. 350) states, “New digital media connect the world and lowers the distinctions between professional and citizen; both can express themselves and be potentially received most anywhere in the world”. Blogging (e.g. WordPress) and micro-blogging (e.g. Twitter) culture allows non-journalists to contribute to the news and provide comments, rather than be recipients only. Reese (2010, p. 344) says communications technology improvements have “dramatically changed the practice of journalism”, forcing it to “include more citizen-based expression” (ibid, p. 350). The major benefit of digitalisation is a larger audience, which increases the scope and power of the news. Furthermore, “professional media [now] take citizens into account and are obliged to embrace their efforts” (ibid). Media outlets and journalists are now usually contactable on Twitter and Facebook and it’s unusual to find a news website without a “comments” section below each article. Globalisation has pushed journalism to become more connected with its receivership. But while the connection between community and journalist is improved through globalisation, digitalisation has resulted in profit drops, job cuts and – in worst cases – newspaper closures due to unsustainability. Newspaper shut-downs are now so common that The Guardian carries an online catalogue of newspaper closures across the world (The Guardian, 2015). While news outlets have embraced their ability to broadcast to a worldwide audience, the move to digital journalism has greatly damaged the sustainability of traditional written journalism.

Globalisation has been a major force for change worldwide. It has brought cultures together and has aided the development of economies and technology, strengthening the global community. We can communicate with friends and business partners across the world in real-time, and learn about global news in an instant. But for marginalised communities and industries including journalism, globalisation has its negatives. The Indian community is just one of a multitude affected by early European globalisation, which has created a social inequality between persons of mix and non-mix race. Globalisation offers written news outlets a greater audience, but at the cost of the industry’s sustainability; digital news has halved newspaper revenue in 20 years, job cuts are frequent within the industry and newspaper publishers have been forced to close because of the effects of digitalising the profession. Steger comments globalisation “benefits everyone” (Steger, 2009, p. 20), but that view is from a Western perspective. To the West globalisation presents enormous advantages; strengthening economic, social and technological ties. However, while globalisation presents positives, it mustn’t be ignored that globalisation does not make all industries more profitable and has been shown to marginalise select diaspora. 


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