Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tommy, Can You Hear Me?

If you are not familiar with The Who's 'rock opera', Tommy, I suggest you listen to it and try to understand some of its messages. The capabilities of people who cannot see, or hear, or speak, or generally those who do not fit the norms, are often much misunderstood.

Many misconceptions surround the world of blogging. When it is discussed by the established media houses it is often in terms that are dismissive, as they focus on blogs produced by people not within media, governmental or commercial organizations. Part of me understands that as a natural reaction to something that can be seen as competition and thus a threat. Yet, if one were to point to the whole range of blogs that exist it would be hard to substantiate a dismissive attitude. I look often at what the US government has been doing since the change of administration this year, as reflected on the White House's website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/). The Obama administration is trying to change many things and one of those is access to information about what the President and his government are doing. Technology has allowed the updating of information at lighting speed across the globe, and the White House is keenly aware of that. It's site is very up to date and extensive. And it has several blogs.

From what I see, anyone from the administration may post on the blogs. Its latest general offering, on Small Business and Health Reform, was posted by Christina Rohmer, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Different parts of the White House also have their blogs featured, for instance, the Office of Management and Budget; its Director, Peter Orzag posted the most recent blog on 'Fiscally Responsible Health Reform'.

In similar vein, I have been noticing that the UK's political world has moved not only into blogging but using technology to 'get out the message'. I now follow on Twitter regular postings from 10 Downing Street, the Foreign Office, and a range of MPs.

The major media houses too have moved in the same directions, with blogs, Facebook presences, YouTube videos, Twitter accounts, and more. They have reached out through new technology and social media to reach as wide an audience as possible, and the way that messages are transmitted is much wider now than say just a year ago, and certainly very different from a decade ago. Once tightly reserved organisations, like the IMF, now bombard the world with online updates using many of these same tools. For those who need or want information and prefer it quickly, these developments are a boon. But, they have opened up 'reporting' to almost anyone. The major news organizations have captured that mood by realising that content can come from anyone who can be an eyewitness. Major event where there is no correspondent? Send a message to the world for reports and videos and pictures from anyone who was there.

The general message is that new technologies have extended the reach of opinion shapers and decision makers and use should be made of them to better inform and do so quickly.

My sojourn last weekend into a discussion of journalism from the position of a blogger has left me thinking a lot about the many misconceptions about what people like me do and represent. First, as I said during the radio broadcast, I cannot really speak for more than myself, but there are many facets of what I do that would resonate with other bloggers.

As I read through the days' news online--and that is important because I could not cover them all if I had to read printed versions--and inform myself, I know that the sources of information that I rely on are essentially those of the standard media houses. Why is that? One reason is the belief that a greater proportion of what is written or spoken or portrayed visually is broadly based on facts and accurate. I couch my terms because I know that it's very easy to bend facts with the selection of what to report and all reporting is selective. So, I tend to trust certain media houses for having high standards of fact checking. I know that does not apply to all. I know there is bias and I try to deal with that.

But, I also refer to a range of new media forms. Why is that? One factor is their very different perspectives. When I read The Onion I know that I get an irreverent view on almost any newsworthy topic, but that irreverence really works only if I have an idea of what is really being discussed, such as its report on recently resigned CNN host, Lou Dobbs, claiming 'CNN Host Had Been Living Illegally In Country Since 1961'. You need to know about Dobbs' stance on illegal immigration to appreciate the piece.

I was fascinated to read this morning how the US government has moved to integrate the Chinese blogging community into President Obama's visit to Asia. The Obama campaign and now administration showed the way in using social media for political purposes. Now, the US State Department just held simultaneous press briefings for a select group of predominantly Chinese bloggers in several major Chinese cities, giving a run down of the schedule and taking questions. That reflects several things. One is that the bloggers are felt to be reaching a significant audience that is not under the thumb of the Chinese government, i.e., not the mainstream voices. Another is to push the agenda of press freedom, whether the Chinese government likes it or not. Another is just information exchange by getting a handle on bloggers' concerns and also the problem of access to information in China.

All of that is to say what? I think in Barbados the media houses are missing the point. Blogs are a new part of the collective voice. In the same way that discussions in rum shops and restaurants, or around kitchen tables, or in the hairdressers or barber shops, or in the markets, are all part of the pre-existing national voice. But, by publishing, the opinions can be shared more easily. That's really all. The views are no more or less valid than the soundings that come from a town hall meeting. Where the media houses may get into a pickle is if they think that the blogs are like them in trying to portray events in a certain way or need to adhere to all of the same so-called in industry standards for journalists. I do not think they try to be like like the standard media houses other than in offering their views to the public. But in being different from the standard media, they are also not absolved from responsibilities that apply to any individual or groups, and if they are deemed to transgress then ways have to be developed to redress those transgressions. That may be a challenge but it is not impossible.

Of course a lot of unsubstantiated opinions is hard to deal with, but that is the case wherever it exists, and should be dealt with as usual. Put facts in the open to challenge the opinions. You cannot stop the expression of the opinion, but you can try to show that it comes from a wrong base. People have their prejudices and bias and saying they are irrational or wrongly-based misses the point.

The debate in Barbados on undocumented immigration is a great case. So much of the recent debate has been based around opinions and not much more. The government did not help the forming of better informed opinions by furnishing facts over which people could debate, so largely baseless opinions ruled. As some facts dribbled out, they were still going to have a hard time pushing aside well-entrenched opinions. People like me hope that as the amnesty draws to a close there will be a body of facts about undocumented immigrants that can help discussions going forward, but a lot of opinions are now so hard formed that the facts may not matter much.

It may seem self serving but it is not meant to be so. I hope that those who work in the media houses, government and industry here realise that the blogs are part of a current trend that gives people access to information more readily and gives them also the chance to express their views without much restriction. People can more easily feel that if they do not find their views reflected in what is fed to them, they can feed the world their views quite readily. Perhaps, we used to be limited in doing that by say having to write a letter and mailing it somewhere and waiting for it to be read. Now, we will just post it on the Internet as well as send it to where we want it to go. We are less bothered by the delays of the postal system, or by the slowness of a bureaucracy. By the time that either of those work in our favour, a body of opinion will have formed that will affect decisions eventually (in our favour or against). So, holding on to the old standard will always mean doing catch up. It is now hard to deny people a voice. Radio call-in programs exemplified this before and still do, and whether they are liked or not, it is foolish to ignore them. I say that same argument applies to the blogs that exist.

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