SXSW Interactive: Learn from scientists for better journalism

Both journalism and science are about “the quest for truth” said the presenters at the SXSW Interactive panel “What Journalism Can Learn from Science.”

Journalists know something is true when two people say so, said Gideon Lichfield, media editor of The Economist, and Matt Thompson, editorial product manager at NPR and adjunct faculty the Poynter Institute. Scientists are much more rigorous. How can we make journalism more like science?

SXSW Interactive: Health media junkies spoiled with choices

Even though I’m no longer a SXSW Interactive newbie, this year’s huge selection of health-related panels has my head spinning.

The geek in me is drawn to all the mobile application and gadget panels which will showcase eyes-light-up technology that promise everything from help losing weight to pocket-size medical devices that can collect and send data in amazing ways. The reporter in me wants to follow the journalism track all the way through and spend time with my colleagues in our little corner of the media world. But the storyteller in me is drawn most to the panels that blend the tech and human elements of health media.

Read on at

Temptations of Power

Reading about Wikileaks’ release of American diplomatic cables makes me think about our vocabulary around foreign policy. How do we talk about foreign policy and who exactly should have access to information that U.S. representatives abroad collect? This summer, Peter Beinart told me that the public rarely drives foreign policy. In The Icarus Syndrome he called for Americans to engage and push back against abuse of power. He recently wrote in The Daily Beast that Wikileaks’ actions are little more than voyeuristic fodder and add little to public debate, but my conversation with him makes me wonder if the Wikileaks project could, at least, be a springboard for greater conversation about American foreign policy.

I wrote a review of The Icarus Syndrome and short Q&A with Beinart for the Abu Dhabi-based Afaq Al Mustaqbal Magazine, which translated the piece into Arabic and edited for length. It ran in Issue No. 7, Sept/Oct 2010 (PDF with Arabic text). Below is the text as I submitted it.

Temptations of Power

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris
By Peter Beinart

By Angilee Shah

If the power of Fox News is a conundrum to Americans on the political left now, what Peter Beinart chronicles in the history of American politics shows that it is not a new dilemma. The tendency of the political elite to push ideologies to its extremes is cyclical and disastrous, or so goes the lessons of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris.

Beinart’s last book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals–and Only Liberals–Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, chronicled the history of liberals’ foreign policies and called for liberals in 2006 to take a strong position in the war on terror while remembering that power is not always a force for good. The Icarus Syndrome takes a broader view on the same theme. Writing across political parties, Beinart retells stories of political power at the outsets of World War I, Vietnam and Iraq, and sections them into ideological cycles, to remind us that power and success should not make us disregard the limits of our ideologies.

13 posts about careers in journalism

This might have been a better post last week, when I had a nice dozen posts for my new blog at ReportingonHealth, but it’s still a good time to take stock.

Every week since June, I have been writing about career issues that health journalists — and many other types of journalists — face in Career GPS. It’s a bit of a narcissistic task, in a way, because I answer questions that I am interested in for my own career. But in meeting the community on ReportingonHealth, I’ve learned that a lot of journalists have these types of questions too. From getting health insurance to becoming a better writer, here’s a quick sum up of the 13 posts I’ve written so far.

If you like this sort of thing and want to keep up with Career GPS, you can follow the blog’s RSS feed. If you are interested in health journalism, you can follow the site’s full RSS feed or subscribe to the weekly newsletter.

Health care reform, diabesity and the language of health journalism

Since Sunday evening this week, I’ve been spending time with National Health Journalism Fellows in downtown Los Angeles. We’ve visited slum housing, debated the terminology used in news reports about domestic violence, spent an evening at the ER, and dissected the legislative debates surrounding health care reform. You can read my live-blogging from the seminar on at and keep up with later posts, written by other people, on The Fellowships Blog or with @ReportingHealth on Twitter.

But for now, here is a post about one of the panels which I thought merited some discussion, even beyond the health journalism sphere. The speaker gave some specific admonitions about language in news. You can comment here or at the orignal Reporting on Health post.

Stephen Farrell, Sultan Munadi and a panel on war correspondence

Yesterday’s news that The New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell was freed from captivity in Northern Afghanistan has been met with mixed emotions. His fixer, journalist Sultan Munadi, was killed in a raid of the compound where the two were being held.

George Packer at The New Yorker explains the often precarious position of fixers–the locals who help foreign correspondents with everything from translation to logistics–and expresses his frustration at what happened to Munadi in a blog post called, “It’s Always the Fixer Who Dies.”

In the course of the work, the fixer is relied on so heavily by the foreign correspondent that an observer who didn’t understand the system might assume that it’s the fixer who is in charge. After all, it’s the fixer’s country, and he or she knows it so much better. And yet the foreigner has the money, the name, the infrastructure, the power to hire and fire, and the ability to come and go, especially if things get sticky.

Packer’s post is exemplary of growing discomfort amongst foreign correspondents about safety for themselves and their fixers. Panelists in the first session of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary Event, four seasoned conflict reporters moderated by CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, discussed the risks of reporting on wars.

A journalist’s role in reporting on conflict

Two Sri Lankan bloggers who I read regularly have recently had interesting things to say about the reporters who write about the long conflict on their island. They raise fundamental questions about the role of journalism in society, a debate that is heightened in conflict zones.

Blogger-turned-columnist Indrajit Samarajiva gave this quick bit in a recent post:

“I don’t get why the international media wants to come in and gawk when Sri Lankans are suffering and the pictures are bad, but doesn’t want to see or help actual improvement. Wait, I do get it.”

Is journalism a civic engagement? James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly has argued for “civic journalism” since his book Breaking the News came out in 1997. Here’s how he sums up his argument in Slate:

“The main argument of the public journalism advocates was that reporters and editors should think of themselves as being inside society, affecting through their coverage the way other people thought and behaved, rather than being wholly detached observers from outside. When viewing a society somewhere else in the world, members of the American press accept this point immediately. They know that the existence and quality of information flow will have a huge impact on other aspects of that society—whether people can hold their government accountable, how realistic a picture they have of other cultures, how unified or divided they seem.”

Journalist-turned-blogger Nalaka Gunawardene has a different take on journalists’ roles:

“What we lack – and urgently need – is plain good journalism that covers development, conflict and other issues as an integral part of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving the planet, or making world peace, sound good at beauty pageants. But these catch-all lines don’t give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism that lacks accuracy, balance and credibility – the core tenets of the profession.”

Gunawardene cites remarks by Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy:

“The reporter is there to report. We should be careful not to weigh down the media with additional responsibilities over and above their primary task of providing information. A healthy media environment is diverse and plural; it is there to explain but not take sides. The profession of journalism needs no justification and no sophisticated qualification.”

I’ve written about access to information in Sri Lanka for the Far Eastern Economic Review and continue to delve into the issues surrounding journalism in wars. I’ll be participating in a panel about reporting from hot spots in July at the South Asian Journalists Association’s annual convention, so I am culling ideas for framing the conversation. Are the main questions practical — how can journalists access information and stay safe? — or is it important to focus the discussion on the role of journalism in violent conflicts? Send me your thoughts, especially if you plan to be at the convention.

yellow shirts see red

Sondhi Limthongkul

When people ask me about Thailand — particularly, if it is safe to visit — I tell them that the political turmoil that has plagued the country for several years has not amounted to violence.

That story has, of course, changed. A friend told me that on her way to the airport in Bangkok on Tuesday, a group of people put shopping carts in the road, blocking the taxi in front of hers. They beat the driver with wooden bats as her own taxi driver swerved out of the way. Certainly, the time of peaceful demonstration, where power changes hands in bloodless coups and elections is over.

Thailand’s protester-in-chief, Sondhi Limthongkul (above), was attacked by gunmen today. The Bangkok Post reports that the media mogul has survived the attack. He was injured by shrapnel to the head from over 100 rounds that were shot at his vehicle. Images of his injuries (left) were published in the Manager Daily, a newspaper Sondhi owns.

Sondhi is a former journalist and owner of the major media company Manager Group. Once a close friend to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, he is now  the leader the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the principal group that staged huge protests and agitated for Thaksin’s ousting in a 2006 military coup. When Thaksin-aligned leaders were elected in 2007, Sondhi took centerstage again and led yellow-shirted protests that shut down Bangkok’s major airports. Sondhi’s agitation ended when the current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was apointed, but Abhisit is now the target of pro-Thaksin red shirt protests which have devolved into riots and confrontations with soldiers at Bangkok’s busiest intersections.

I interviewed Sondhi for AsiaMedia in 2006 and I can remember vividly his outspoken confidence about his place in Thai history. He used his money and influence and media company to publish boldly on Thaksin’s alleged corruption, calling his work “new time journalism” which required a certain amount of activism in the face of serious threats. From the transcript:

AM: What do you say to people who say that this new time journalism isn’t really journalism?

SL: What makes them think that they are real journalism? Time changes, things change. New factors — how do you report news in a country which is completely non-transparent, in a country where semi- or unofficial censorship happens? How do you do it? How do you get the other side of the story?

Let’s say you’re doing a story on corruption, all right? You’re doing a story on corruption and then you pose a question to the people involved, in charge, and they deny it. They say, ‘That’s not true.’ Are you going to believe in what they say, or are you going to go and dig in more? And once you go and dig in more, you’re going to find a lot of sources. And all of those sources are scared to death. They say, ‘Don’t quote me.’ Give me a reliable source who wants to withhold the name. Once those reliable sources who want to withhold the names happens more than two, three, four, five times, you begin to question, are they really your source? You see? So this is the dilemma.

So each society, each country has different ways of doing things. People who are actually critical of what I’m doing are getting too used the way Western media has been displayed. Right here, you can go to the computer and punch some name on it. There’s some basic background or in-depth background coming up. Or you want to talk to the mayor on official record, the mayor will speak to you. But you want to talk to the mayor of Bangkok on official record, and they will say that’s not true. So it literally shut the door. So you have to go on your own. When you go on your own, you are acting like Spartacus because you have to roam around with no direction. You find somebody and you talk to them, and they look around, they look up, look down.

Literally, when I fought Thaksin, my phones have been tapped. I’ve been using five phones. I mean, how could a prime minister tap my bloody phone? This is not happening here [in the United States]. Even though the Bush administration has asked Congress to give him the freedom to tap suspected terrorists — even at that statute, you guys were making a hue and cry.

Look at me. My life has been threatened. There were literally assassination attempts on me. How do you explain this to some guy who is sitting by the Hudson River and writing a story? You guys are used to the rule of law. But there seems to be a rule of law, but only in names, in words, but not in action in Thailand.

Thailand’s army chief has said that he believes no protesters have been killed as soldiers cracked down to end the current unrest. But the state of emergency continues in Thailand and reactions to the attempt on Sondhi’s life are still coming.

my online journalism life

I started reading the introduction to The Elements of Journalism, published in June, 2006. I stopped at this paragraph:

When the flow of news is obstructed, “a darkness falls,” and anxiety grows. The world, in effect, becomes too quiet. We feel alone. John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona, writes that in his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, what he missed most was not comfort, food, freedom, or even his family and friends. “The thing I missed most was information — free uncensored, undistorted, abundant information.”

And it occurred to me that, though I was no prisoner, I shared this feeling when I was living in Singapore. I had comforts and avenues for learning, but I missed the vibrant news cultures of Bangkok and Mumbai and even Los Angeles. Lo and behold, a few paragraphs down, the authors, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, write this:

Journalism provides something unique to a culture — independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture. This is what happens when governments control the news, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. We’re seeing it again in places like Singapore, where news is controlled to encourage capitalism but discourage participation in public life. Something akin to this may be taking root in the United States in a more purely commercial form, as when news outlets owned by larger corporations are used to promote their conglomerate parent’s products, to engage in subtle lobbying or corporate rivalry, or are intermingled with advertising to boost profits. The issue isn’t just the loss of journalism. At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.

To me, this is what is exciting and daunting about a life lived, in part, on the Internet. Those worlds of information open up, dare I say, revolutionizing how free information and conversation can be. I did go to the Zocalo talk, “Age of Rage: “Is the Internet Making Us Mean?,” which I mentioned in my last post. It turned out to be more of a discussion along the lines of, “Why are People Mean to Journalists on the Web?” To quote from an article by Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic once more, “Writers can be sensitive, vain souls, requiring gentle nurturing from editors, and oddly susceptible to the blows delivered by reviewers. They survive, for the most part, but the thinness of their skins is legendary.” I think this explains pretty well the focus of Wednesday’s panel, where journalists were the three speakers. And it’s a topic I can sympathize with certainly, but it’s still not as interesting as a more direct conversation about the effects of cyberbullying, Internet hate campaigns and the potential neurological effects of social networking. I’m not as worried about anonymous people burning journalists in comment sections as I am about what is happening to those people who lose their inhibitions (or create new ones) as they go virtual.

Speaking of going virtual, a piece I co-authored for the Far Eastern Economic Review has just showed up as a blurb on their site. It’s subscription only though — yes, some people on the Internet do that.

Two more random links:  Zocalo does some pretty cool stuff, including giving shout-outs to really great writers. And let’s be honest, globalization and connections and entrepreneurship aside, the Internet is pretty awesome.

news and blogs in Phnom Penh

I feel a lot of pressure to make this an excellent post, because I talked so much about the importance of strong writing at Barcamp Phnom Phen on Saturday. Now I look back and I want to recast my presentation a bit: the most important thing, make no mistake, for bloggers in Cambodia is the content they produce.

And that’s something they don’t need a presentation to understand.

Wikitravel today says this about Phom Penh:

For western visitors, even those who have visited other Asian cities, Phnom Penh can be a bit of a shock. It can be very hot and (in the dry season) dusty, its infrastructure is lacking, and it is very poor – much poorer than, for example, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Visitors who cannot adjust to rubbish filled streets, constant harassment from tuk tuk drivers and touts, and large numbers of beggars, may not enjoy the city (though by no means will you experience all of these things.)

My experience there was completely different. We saw live music, ate great food along the Mekong, and bargained with tuk tuk drivers, who were generally good natured. I did not feel harassed in the least. The streets of Phnom Penh (which are relatively clean, I might add) are peppered with Internet cafes advertising email, VOIP and hi5 social networking access. There are computer shops and small web design and tech businesses. It’s a youthful, friendly city where people are interested in learning and curious about the world.

It was important to me that I put what I was seeing into context. I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S-21, where 17,000 passed through the high school-turned-jail on their way to the Killing Fields from 1975-1979. Only seven survived. It was a sobering explanation for Phnom Penh’s youthful feeling; a generation of educated people was eliminated by the Khmer Rouge.

So I appreciated greatly the bloggers and journalists and techies who I met at Barcamp Phnom Penh. I see them as a very important generation who work very hard to revive a professional and literate culture not just for themselves but for people all over the world who want to understand Cambodia. (In English, try the comprehensive writing of Tharum Bun on Global Voices, news tidbits from Soponrith, nice vignettes on, or Seanheng’s sweet photoblog with occasional essays.)

The organizers nudged everyone to suggest topics or lead sessions. I couldn’t hope to repay our gracious hosts – I certainly learned more at Barcamp than any of the campers learned from me – but I talked a bit about the importance of good writing. The campers estimated that there are between 500 and 1,000 English-language blogs in Cambodies – not very many in the grand scheme of things. So I wanted to help those bloggers (or “cloggers” for Cambodian bloggers) reflect on their own writing, since they are helping people all over the world to learn about their country.

(See Dengue Fever for some ambiance music.)