Author: Natasha

Forget Wikileaks for a bit and ponder this: Social media journalism

While many are arguing nowadays whether Wikileaks is a new kind of journalism, and whether journalists should learn from its founder Julian Assange or just stay away from him as much as possible, I want to discuss a new kind of journalism that has knocked my socks off: Social Media journalism.

This is a term I coined after reading a heart-wrenching Washington Post story about a DC area-based family who had to endure a tragic circumstance after the birth of their baby boy. I’m not going to ruin the story for you, but the most fascinating part for me was the format in which this story was told. The journalist who told the story chose a “Facebook format” in which he narrated tear-jerking events using real Facebook status updates that were written by the family members who were involved in the story.

After each update or comment, the author added factual information to make the story complete by explaining for example how the couple in this story met and how they relate to the people that they have as “friends” on their Facebook page.

The Facebook story format. Credit: Washington Post.

I’m not usually the emotional type, but after I read the story I did in fact tear up a bit.The reason for this is simple: the story hit close to home because it used a format that I use on a daily basis to interact with my family and friends: Facebook. By doing so, the author gave the people involved in the story a real life feel.They were not just faceless names mentioned in a newspaper article. They were people who had friends and family who “liked” their news and “LOL” ed their updates and “shared” their links.

This story wouldn’t have the same effect on me personally if it was written in a regular print format. I would have simply thought something along the lines of “How sad” and resumed checking my Tweetdeck Twitter updates.

After reading the story, I couldn’t stop thinking about the impact this social media format can have if let’s say it was used to tell the stories of war victims, or victims of violence or even honor crimes. I might be day dreaming here but these social media formats could probably prompt the audience to lobby to stop certain wars, or create tougher laws to punish those who commit honor crimes. Imagine how important the role of journalism would become in this case as it will improve or even save lives. Does Wikilieaks revelations have the same impact? Maybe, maybe not.I’m still not sure of that, but what I’m sure of is that such social media journalism format has made me shed a tear or two.

Journalism is not dead, long live journalism

Lately, I’ve been driving my husband crazy. I’m always distracted. My mind is simply elsewhere. I’m presently living “on planet Natasha,” to quote his description of my current state of mind. The reason is simple. There is so much innovation going on in the realm of digital journalism and its integration with social media that I’m both overwhelmed and elated. What’s happening in the online journalism arena is so cutting- edge, so creative, and extremely crucial in improving the current human condition that I’m constantly monitoring and watching (sadly, to the exclusion of other things in my life). Really, can you blame me for being distracted in this age of round-the-clock digital innovation?

Contrary to the popular belief that journalism is dying (yada, yada, yada), I think journalism is in its best shape ever. It’s not dying, but rather evolving. The old format of journalism might be dead, but the new one is so fresh and promising that the even the sky is not the limit.

Journalism graduates: Do not fear the future, embrace it!

As someone whose career is in media development, watching trends and monitoring new journalism innovation is what I do on a daily basis, believe me when I tell you that journalism is at the forefront of  digital novelties continuing to further advance the quality of people’s lives everywhere.

One new journalism “tool” that I have been experimenting with is “social curation” using  storify. The idea behind it is really simple: Editors of newspapers, websites or anyone can use this tool to search social media tools for a certain topic, then filter the best items, whether they were tweets, Facebook updates, Flickr, etc, to create a story that can be embedded on a website.

Here is one example. I created a search term for ARJI conference (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism) which is currently taking place in Amman. I chose what I thought were the best social media items and created a story here. Now I can easily embed the story on my blog like this:

Now, the neat thing is that I can go back to this story anytime and update it with any new development and then republish it. The embedded code will update itself automatically without me needing to overwrite it. This kind of innovation is a real gift for website editors who are constantly following breaking news and gauging the community response to a certain event.

Storify has been making waves lately and harnessing a good amount of coverage in the media (here is one example). The creators behind Storify believe that they are building “the future of publishing” by “finding meaning in the noise”. It is a pretty neat idea if you ask me. Here is a an interview with the two founders of Storify:

This is only one of the latest innovative tools currently found in the playground of online media. Recently, social media blog Mashable ran an article about how investigative journalism is prospering thanks to social media. The amount of tools and new creations by and for journalists is simply mind-boggling.

With that in mind, do you really blame me for being distracted all the time? Journalism is not dead. Long live journalism.

Jordanian Christians are in a fine shape but still a ‘minority’

The most recent horrific attack on Christians in Iraq struck a personal cord with me. Of all the attacks happening daily in Iraq, this one somehow hit home. It might have been the way the worshippers were ambushed during Sunday mass and then slaughtered that’s causing me to lose sleep. It is horrifying to realize that the only reason these Iraqis were butchered was because they belonged to the wrong religion. Being the over-dramatic type, I couldn’t stop thinking about my family in Jordan and wondering what if?

Iraqi Christians mourning their dead. Source (Reuters).

What if they were worshiping at a church in Amman and something similar happens. Al-Qaeda members seem to manage to cross borders so easily these days that a similar attack in Jordan might not be that remote. I know I’m probably going over the top since these things don’t normally happen in Jordan even after the Al-Qaeda-inspired attacks of 2005. But I did think about it, and for a brief moment I panicked.

This horrific massacre of Iraqi Christians has stirred debate of a potential exodus of Christians from the Middle East, with media outlets like Foreign Policy (The End of Christianity in the Middle East) and Voice of America (Al-Qaida Threatens Christians in Egypt, Elsewhere in Middle East) both drawing a very gloomy picture of Christians in the region.

The London-based Arabic publication Elaph also discussed the issue and highlighted this distinct fact: Jordan has become a safe haven for Christians in the region, including Iraqi and Palestinian Christians that are feeling extremism in their home countries.

The article also quoted a piece in the Independent by Robert Fisk in which he referred to Jordan as “the only flame of hope in the region” when it comes to the situation of Arab Christians.

Yes, Jordanian Christians are in a superb position compared with the rest of the region. No one denies this. Coexistence is the name of the game, with many Jordanian Christians occupying senior positions in the government and parliament. Christians and Muslims live in the same neighborhoods and in some cases interact as members of the same family.

However, I don’t think Jordan is completely off the hook. The fact that a Jordanian Christian can’t become a prime minster is a problem that should be resolved sooner than later. The former head of the Jordanian parliament, Abdul Hadi Majali, was actually asked about it in an interview with an Arab Satellite channel. His response was the “minority” can’t rule the majority.

Another fact still affecting Jordanian Christians is the issue of inheritance, where Sharia law still applies to them. The male sibling takes double the share of his sisters and male relatives take a share of the daughters’ inheritance in the absence of a male sibling.

Since I have a big mouth, I have discussed these ticklish issues with many of my friends and coworkers when I lived in Amman. The answer I got most of the time was that Jordan is a Muslim country and we can’t change the rules for a “minority.” Throwing the “minority” label at me never made me feel special, to the contrary, it made me feel like a pariah. I used to respond with: “Come on, you can’t deprive my unborn child from ever dreaming that one day he (yes, a he, she, is another story) will become prime minister. Even minorities should have equal rights.”

But that was back then, when I was young, naïve and passionate. It was back when I thought writing, talking, and arguing would take me somewhere.

I’m now a thirty-something, jaded Christian Arab who has joined the ranks of those who are in the “exodus.” I might not have lots of ground to stand on simply because I packed my bags and left. Ah well, I’m just blowing off some steam on a breezy Friday morning in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Blowing off steam is probably the most I can do at this point since I’m only a “minority”.

While young Muslims deliver flowers, the US media fails twice

While the US media was having a field day with a non-story about a fringe pastor who wanted to burn the Quran, and while Islamophobia and anti-Muslim incidents were skyrocketing including urinating in a mosque and attacking a Muslim cab driver, young Muslims in a small city in the Middle East delivered flowers to a church. This was a “gesture of peace and coexistence,” the group of young Jordanian Muslims who delivered the flowers said.

Photo credit: Thameen Kheetan - The Jordan Times

“Shall we burn a copy of the Bible as a response to that? No, this is not what should be done,” Zeid Oweidi who was among a group of ten Jordanians told reporters at the Greek Orthodox Church in Amman last week. His comments were made against the backdrop of threats by Terry Jones, the pastor of a Florida church who planned to burn copies of the Quran on the 9th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

While extremists in places like Afghanistan demonstrated violently over the planned burning of the Quran, young Jordanians last week simply walked to a nearby church following the evening prayers and delivered flowers.

Following this gesture, I received an Email from someone belonging to the Christian community in Jordan urging fellow Christians to reciprocate by delivering flowers to Muslims after Friday prayers. I guess in this case instead of violence begetting violence, goodwill begets yet even more goodwill.

Sadly, for the US media this was a non-story. Who cared about a small, stable country like Jordan? Who cared about a handful of young Muslims delivering flowers when there were others demonstrating violently? Which one would get readers’ attention, violence or flowers? Sadly, the US media chose violence. Who can compete with death and blood? The sexier always wins.

Covering this story and bringing it to the world’s attention is crucial these days. While the average American news consumer is currently being inundated with images of extremist Muslims, a small story like this one should have deserved at least a fraction of the coverage that the Florida priest fiasco received. I understand that this is not a national story and it didn’t happen on US soil but in this interconnected media sphere the location of the story doesn’t make a difference anymore. We have already experienced that. An angry mob in Beirut attacked a Western embassy in reaction to cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper, while demonstrators in Pakistan marched the streets in reaction to an off-beat announcement by a priest in small American city. Nowadays, every story is a global story.

The disappointing fact is that the US media failed twice in this case: first in blowing the story of the Florida priest out of proportion by giving this isolated, planned act (which never happened) more than its share of coverage, and bringing it to the attention of the global audience. The second was in ignoring acts of Muslim goodwill that would have clearly showed that while some Muslims might burn flags and effigies, there are others, like this group of young Jordanians, who would simply deliver flowers.

‘I voted’

For many, September 14 was your regular Tuesday with its heavy work load. For others it was the day when minor elections were taking place in several US states. But for me it was a milestone. It was the day I got out of my car, all dressed-up (in a grey suit and red- stripped shirt), and walked to the entrance of my neighborhood elementary school (to the sound of someone yelling “Kagan for Senate”). I walked through the long hallways and reached the operation center, where I cast my first ballot, ever, as an American citizen.

The election was the primary for the state of Maryland, and I, as an American citizen and Maryland resident, had a say in it. Yes, my lone vote could actually determine who runs this state. When I got to the registration desk the people asked for my name and asked me to confirm my party. I proudly said “Democrat.” I felt empowered to be vocal about my party affiliation, especially since where I was born, belonging to a party was not something to shout over rooftops. The word party, or Hizib in Arabic, had a bad connotation in the Middle East. It signaled membership in opposition groups, a la Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party. Party members were mostly seen as fringe that posed an imminent threat to the regime.

Here in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, though, it is a totally different experience. Everyone is encouraged to belong to a party to such an extent that in some states, not belonging to a party means you don’t have full voting rights in certain primaries.

When my registration was verified I was taken to the electronic voting booth by an older Asian woman. I explained to her that this was my first time voting and that I might need help figuring out how to use the machine. She told me: “Let me call my husband. He’s better at these things.” Very cute, I thought. Her husband, a senior as well, was very helpful. He showed me how to use the electronic registration card and how to eventually cast my ballot. What struck me was the fact that the man, just like me, had accented American English. Here we were: a foreign-born Asian-American man helping an Arab-American woman vote for the first time in the primary elections in the state of Maryland. Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is what I call a lesson in democracy.

After I was done, I returned my electronic registration card and was given a sticker that said in both English and Spanish: “I voted/Yo vote.” I stuck it on my suitcoat and left the room. I know this might sound cliché, but I was overwhelmed. Two years after taking my oath in Baltimore I finally feel that my American citizenship has been consummated. Travelling with a US passport is only part of it. You truly come full circle as a citizen of this great county when you cast your first ballot.

I remember when Obama was running for president I was still a green card holder and couldn’t cast my ballot. On the day of the elections I was going absolutely nuts. I couldn’t focus at work and kept checking voting results online. I paced back and forth around the office like a total maniac. Eventually, I walked into my colleague’s office, who seemed really consumed by whatever work she was doing. I asked her: “Michelle, how can you do this? I’m going crazy here and you’re acting like today is just another day.” She responded: “Natasha, I voted this morning. I did my part. I feel relaxed.” That was when I realized what I was missing.

The only other time I’ve voted was in Jordan in 2003 during the parliamentary elections. I was a bit peeved because for some reason I was registered to vote in the town where my parents were born and not in the town where we resided at that time. I was not sure how the election rules worked back then but I didn’t feel that my vote would actually impact my daily existence. My vote was not going to make any difference in fixing local issues, like the constant lack of clean water or bumpy streets in our neighborhood. I did vote eventually, though, so that I could say: “I voted.”

Here, saying, “I voted,” has a totally different meaning. My vote did actually make a difference. The incumbent governor I voted for actually won the primary (Go O’Malley!). I will make sure to vote for him in the mid-term elections in November against his republican opponent.

All that said, I’ m not totally giving up hope of having a transparent, effective democratic process in the country where I was born. Unlike the early 2000’s, I see more awareness about upcoming elections in Jordan with more civic societies spreading awareness and encouraging potential voters to engage in public debates. Jordan’s upcoming parliamentary elections might be different this time. At least people are discussing them via Twitter. Now, that’s something.