Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Participatory Nature of OhmyNews

Citizen reporters passionately committed to social change

by Ronda Hauben

Featured Writer, OhmyNews International
Email: ronda.netizen@gmail.com


The following is a talk Ronda Hauben gave at the 57th annual conference of the International Communication Association (ICA) in San Francisco about OhmyNews on May 26, 2007.

Today I want to describe the creation and significance of OhmyNews as a model for a new form of journalism, for a journalism that is appropriate for the 21st century, a journalism that has been made possible by the Internet and the netizens.

I plan to present three different examples of OhmyNews (OMN) related experiences and then draw together their implications, toward understanding the participatory experience provided by OhmyNews.

As a featured writer for OhmyNews International (OMNI) I recently covered the 50th anniversary dinner in New York City of the Korea Society. One of the speakers at the dinner was Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. He explained the problem of $25 million in funds of North Korean money being frozen as part of a U.S. Treasury Department proceeding against a bank in Macau, China, the Banco Delta Asia (BDA). This is a problem holding up the implementation of the six-party agreement to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Hill committed himself to work on this problem until it was solved.

There were several Korean journalists covering the event for their
publications. They were particularly interested in what Hill said, but
Hill's talk in itself didn't seem to represent a newsworthy event.

In the next few days, however, it appeared that an important story was developing.

In the process of trying to unravel the unfolding developments I found one news organization that did a story about the legitimate activity the bank had engaged in for North Korea. The news organization was the McClatchy Newspapers. I also found links to some documents refuting the Treasury Department's charges.

I now had the documents in the case. The U.S. government's findings gave no specific evidence of wrong doing on the part of the bank. The bank's statements and refutation gave significant documentation refuting charges of illegal activity on the part of the bank. The refutation also made the case that there were political motives for the allegations rather than actual illegal activity on the part of the bank. The U.S. government had targeted a small Macau bank to scare the many banks in China. "To kill the chicken to scare the monkeys," as the government document explained, quoting an old Chinese proverb.

At last I had the news peg for the story. I wrote an article, submitting it around 5 a.m. my time to OMNI, using the software OMNI provides for submitting articles. By noon the next day, my story appeared on OMNI. (2) That was May 18.

Also on May 18, the Wall Street Journal carried an Op Ed by the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton. The article scolded the U.S. government for agreeing to return the $25 million to North Korea.

Both of these articles with their opposing points of view could be found on the Internet by May 19 by those doing a google news search on the subject.

I wanted to share this experience here today in order to put the focus of the rest of my remarks about the Korean OMN, the English OMNI and the theme of citizen participation into an appropriate context.

OMN grew out of the experience of its founder Mr. Oh Yeon-ho and the vision he had for transforming the South Korean news landscape. For over 10 years, from 1988 until 1999, Oh was a journalist for an alternative South Korean magazine, the Monthly Mal. One experience Oh uses to help explain the impetus for OhmyNews is when he did a significant story which uncovered the facts about a massacre of South Korean civilians by U.S. soldiers that had taken place during the Korean War. Oh published his expose in 1994. The story had little impact. In 1999, however, some Associated Press (AP) reporters did a similar story. The AP story was picked up by much of the South Korean mainstream news media and treated like a breaking news event. The AP reporters won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.

Mr. Oh realized it is not enough to break a news story. What is judged as news in South Korea (and similarly in the U.S. I may add) is more dependent on the nature of the news organization reporting the news than on the newsworthiness of the story itself. Mr. Oh set out to change this situation by starting OhmyNews.

His goal was to transform the news environment in South Korea which at the time was 80 percent conservative and 20 percent progressive into an environment that was 50 percent conservative and 50 percent progressive. His objective was for the quality of the news to determine its coverage, rather than the finances of the organization publishing the story.

Mr. Oh describes how he recognized that the desire of netizens in South Korea for political change in Korea was reflected in the campaign for the presidency of a candidate who was not part of the political mainstream. Oh was determined to give this story the political coverage it merited. OhmyNews was the means to achieve this goal. The conservative mainstream press was hostile to Roh Moo-hyun. Never in the past had someone won the presidency without the support of the conservative mainstream press. Nevertheless Roh Moo-hyun won a surprising victory in December 2002 due to the active election campaigning for him by netizens and OhmyNews. Mr. Oh describes how when the election was over, reporters from the conservative mainstream press called him and other OhmyNews reporters and congratulated them for having made the victory possible.

In his book "The Rights of Man", Thomas Paine explains the problem of creating a government that will be democratic. The essence of democracy, Paine explains, is that the sovereignty of a nation lies in its people, not in the government officials. Democracy requires the participation of the people and also observation and control over a government by its citizens. The process of creating a constitution is to create the compact of the people that will be the basis for determining and overseeing the actions of government officials. Paine describes this lesson as the gift of the American revolution of 1776 and the French revolution of 1789.

We are looking at the same problem over 200 years later. It has become clear that the existence of a constitution is not adequate as a means for citizens to exercise their control over government officials. A peoples' or citizens' press is also needed as a means of exercising some of the desired control of citizens over their government.

A problem that has developed is that mainstream media organizations as Mr. Oh found in South Korea, often don't fulfill this important function of the press. Fortunately, there are many citizens today who feel the need for control over the abuse of power by government officials. These citizens are eager to participate in carrying out the role of the press as a watchdog over government officials.

In 2000 Mr. Oh was able to start the Korean language OhmyNews with a small staff of four reporters. By welcoming citizen reporters to write for OhmyNews, he was able to augment the content of the newspaper so it could be much broader than the limited finances and meager resources would have otherwise made possible. The staff has since grown as have the number of citizen reporters participating in OhmyNews.

There's a lot more I would like to be able to say about OhmyNews if I had more time. While OhmyNews (OMN) is published in Korean, an English edition called OhmyNews International (OMNI) is available so those who cannot read and write in Korean but who want to know more about OhmyNews can participate and in this manner, learn more about the concepts and practice of citizen journalism as developed by OhmyNews.

Citizen journalism as pioneered by OMN is the continuation of what Michael Hauben described as one of the gifts of the Internet. He wrote that the Internet "gives the power of the reporter to the netizen."(3)

Mr. Oh's vision and practice in creating and developing the Korean OMN is an attempt to give the power of the news media to the citizen, making it possible for news stories citizens uncover to get the needed support and distribution so as to be able to impact the policy agenda and decision making processes of the government.

In this context, OMNI gives citizens and journalists from countries around the world a taste of what it could mean if they had an OMN in their countries. Its intent is to be a catalyst for the creation and spread of other OhmyNews-like sites in other countries besides South Korea and then to support the collaboration among these diverse OMN-like sites. (There is already a version of OhmyNews in Japan.)

There is not yet an OMN in the U.S. So my story about the connection of the U.S. government's policy toward China and the U.S. government actions against the Macau bank is not yet likely to be able to impact how the mainstream news in the U.S. frames the story with North Korea and the six-party talks. But the need for a U.S. model of OMN becomes all the more urgent when one participates in OMNI and thus has the experience of exploring the potential of what it will make possible.

To sum up, Mr. Oh, describing citizen journalism at the OMNI forum in South Korea last July said:(4)

"Though we are an open platform accessible to everyone, not everyone can write a news story. Only those reporters who are passionately committed to social change and reporting make our project possible. The main reason that citizen journalism has not grown and spread more rapidly is the difficult task of finding and organizing these passionate citizen reporters in waiting."

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