Is your Ebook reading you?

In soviet Russia...

An interesting discussion on NPR’s most recent On The Media podcast about eBook publishers collecting data on how their books are read.

Unique among modern media, it’s been impossible to measure the printed word against metrics. Now publishers can find out with certainty which chapters of 50 Shades of Grey people read more than once, or how long it takes to read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – although I can probably help them with that one. A very long time.

The podcast, well worth subscribing to if you can get beyond the jazz theme music, makes some good points about the privacy issues here. We all joke people about “ending up on a list somewhere” for reading about contentious subjects – sexuality, security or politics – but this collection of data makes those lists a very real prospect.

But the bigger issue for me, and one not fully addressed by OTM, is that this brings a disturbing new dimension to the creation of literature. Sure, publishers claim they’re “not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it,” but the temptation to focus group the last auteur medium is bound to be irresistable. Giving the people what they want is undeniably good for business, but it’s very, very bad for the human race…


Dying to tell the story: Safety advice for freelancers in the field

The Journalists Memorial at the Newseum, Washington DC

The deaths of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik in Syria were an unpleasant reminder of the risks reporters expose themselves to in revealng untold stories. Alongside the official strand of Revolution documentaries this week’s Doc/Fest in Sheffield ran a nervous undercurrent. Is any story ever worth risking your life over?

Vaughan Smith, director of London’s Frontline Club gave a preview of the organisation’s forthcoming white paper, suggesting the development of a safety “kite mark” programme. This would give media outlets and insurers confidence in freelancers, who in turn would be encouraged to follow better practices.

I’ll link to the report when it’s published, but the meantime, here’s a few things to keep in mind in the field, as told by experts from across the festival’s sessions and panels.

Plan ahead

Carefully prepared contingency plans, risk assessment and exit strategies can make a life or death difference in uncertain situations. Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Siobhan Sinnerton said of the station’s safety documentation – rumoured to have reached a record fifty pages – “They piss people off…but they’re important documents. They end up being really useful tools if they’re done properly, for people in really scary places.”

Make sure it’s worth the risk

Photographer Giles Duley said, “If you’re there, you have to make sure you know why you’re there. If you’re there for a reason, that’s one thing. But if you go into places without a real reason, without a story to be told…that is the first risk assessment. Why you’re there. If you haven’t got a reason for being there, you shouldn’t be there.”

“Everyone sees risk assessment as a very boring thing” added Smith “but it is obviously nuts to take a risk without a reward”

Get some medical training

Duley, who lost his left arm and both legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan, said not even the most meticulous planning can keep you totally safe in a warzone.

“No amount of training or preparation. If there’s something like [an IED] it’s going to get you. These things will happen, it’s a dangerous, risky profession. But without people around you straight away who can give you that help you will just die.”

Duley was with a US army unit at the time of the explosion, who were able to act within the crucial “golden hour” after his injury and save his life. Saturday’s freelance safety panel were unanimous that for reporters who don’t have access to medical help in the field, basic first aid training should be a prerequisite.

Vaughan Smith said, “There should be an expectation that nobody should go without having some first aid – being able to look after other people and themselves.”

Protect your sources and fixers

It’s important to remember that by reporting from a dangerous or controversial situation, you’re not just putting yourself at risk. The network of people who help tell the story. In repressive regimes, the consequences of helping foreign journalists can be torture and murder.

Sinnerton suggests care should be taken with rushes. “If we’re somewhere under cover, say Zimbabwe or Eritrea we have very elaborate arrangements in that the team never travel with their rushes on them. They’ll leave them behind to be taken out of the country separately. If you are stopped and you have your rushes on you, the security forces will be able to go through and identify everybody who’s helped you in your programme.”

It’s safest, where possible to ensure anonymity on raw footage, rather than blurring faces after the fact. “If you’re going to obscure somebody, and you know you’re going to obscure them, it makes sense to do that on camera” said Sinnerton.

Emma James, who spent a year filming climate change activitsts for her film Just Do It, had a hard time convincing her subjects she could be trusted to document what often amounted to illegal activity. She went to great lengths – not datestamping tapes, not adding commentary while shooting – to ensure even if her footage was confiscated, it would be of little use as evidence.

For short term projects, activist journalist Leah Borromeo recommends marking tapes and equipment as “special procedure material.”

“Under the Police and Criminal Evidence act 1984, you say this is material of the media, and what you’re holding is a piece of newsgathering equipment. So if people want to take it off you they need a court order.”

As important as protecting sources in domestic stories is ensuring the safety of “fixers.” A good fixer will be your guide in unfamiliar territory, will be able to introduce you to helpful locals and talk you out of sticky situations. Journalists have a clear duty of care towards fixers, who frequently expose themselves to extreme risk. Sadly, that responsibility is not always upheld.

“I my experience the industry is pretty poor with fixers.” Says Smith. “In Kosovo when everyone pulled out there was very little thought for the fixers.”

Still, some take the responsibility to protect fixers more seriously than others. “In the past, I’ve tended to marry my fixers.” Says Smith, to some uncertain laughter from the audience.

“I did. Twice”

Have an exit strategy…and Learn Parkour.

Occupy Wallstreet livestreamer Tim Pool had an altogether more creative answer to the question of what to do when a situation turns ugly.

"The whole time I was at [the protests surrounding last year’s NATO summit in Chicago] I had goggles on my head. However, several of the other journalists were wearing combat helmets and wrist guards, shin guards – a light body armour – because they were worried.

“For me I’m more interested in being lightweight, because I do gymnastics and parkour training. So when it comes to an exit strategy, I always have an exit if not multiple. And I can train people. I did training on how to avoid getting arrested, and it’s basically, a journalist’s job is to tell a story, not to fight a cop over what their rights are. So if you get pushed out, you can get arrested or you can get shoved out of the event, but at least if you’re shoved out you can stand on the periphery and at least you can still interview people who are exiting. I guess my advice to everybody is always have a way out.”

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Doc/Fest makes video archive available online


Doc/Fest, the Sheffield based documentary festival, has made its massive library of discussion and Q&A sessions available online, for free. 

Each year, alongside the exhibition of new and notable documentary films, Doc/Fest puts together panel discussions, interviews and presentations on a wide range of subjects. These sessions attract some of the industry’s brightest and most influential people, and are usually only available to those with £300 delegate passes.

Archive highlights from last year’s conference include the fascinating panel discussion on Wikileaks with the Guardian’s James Ball and The Frontline Club’s Vaughan Smith and the masterclass with Nick Broomfield.

This year’s festival opens on June 13th, and promises appearances from A.A. Gill, #occupy live streamer Tim Pool and Emily Bell, who will be familiar to listeners of The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast. Students are eligible for a hefty discount on delegate passes from here.

Tweeting in court – a student reporter’s guide

Note: This site is very much under construction, but I didn’t want to wait to post this one. Merry Christmas

The Lord Chief Justice has this morning issued guidance saying journalists no longer need to apply for permission to tweet from court proceedings in England and Wales (but not Scotland).

The full official guidance document can be found here, but here are the important paragraphs (emphasis is mine).

9) Where a member of the public, who is in court, wishes to use live text- based communications during court proceedings an application for permission to activate and use, in silent mode, a mobile phone, small laptop or similar piece of equipment, solely in order to make live, text- based communications of the proceedings will need to be made. The application may be made formally or informally (for instance by communicating a request to the judge through court staff).

10) It is presumed that a representative of the media or a legal commentator using live, text-based communications from court does not pose a danger of interference to the proper administration of justice in the individual case. This is because the most obvious purpose of permitting the use of live, text-based communications would be to enable the media to produce fair and accurate reports of the proceedings. As such, a representative of the media or a legal commentator who wishes to use live, text-based communications from court may do so without making an application to the court.

So, while memers of the public will still have to ask first, reporters will not. The upshot of this for student reporters is that you will need to ensure court officials are aware that you are reporters – particularly if the press bench is full and you are reporting from the public gallery.

It should be obvious, but remains worth pointing out that permission to tweet from court does not override the Contempt of Court Act, Magistrates Court Act or other reporting restrictions imposed by the court. There’s a good amount of trust being placed in reporters to know what they can and can’t report from a courtroom – particularly without the luxury of time to double check copy or obtain legal advice before it’s published.

This is made increasingly difficult because Twitter tends to feel like a “fire and forget” medium when you’re using it, but problematic tweets tend to obtain a life of their own. If you get a tweet wrong, you can’t just remove it – like you would a web article – if it’s been retweeted by others. Once it’s out there, it’s out there – which places a good deal of responsibility on the reporter to know their media law. For your own safety, I would strongly recommend against tweeting from court unless you have passed the NCTJ Court Reporting exam.

Finally, it’s likely that the new guidance will take a while to become common knowledge in regional courtrooms, so it’d probably be worth printing out a copy of the pdf linked above if you intend on tweeting from proceedings in the near future. However, I should also like to draw attention to the final paragraph:

16) Permission to use live, text-based communications from court may be withdrawn by the court at any time.

If I know the wonderful team at, for example, Sheffield Magistrates’ Court – and I think I do – the instances of withdrawal of peromission will be proportional to the vigour with which you make your case. Be polite, be professional and most of all, don’t be smug. You’ll be fine.

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Using the iPad as a reporting tool

Interesting post by Henry Taylor at WannabeHacks on using the iPad as a mobile reporting tool.

There are several advantages to using an iPad in the field over the conventional set-up of a laptop and mobile dongle. For a start, an iPad is smaller and thinner than most laptops and has a considerably better battery life. Weight wise, an iPad weighs far less than a standard laptop and once you add in a protective case (if you need it) and a laptop charger, you’ll quickly wish you owned something lighter after a day spent trudging your patch.

It’s worth noting that while the article refers specifically to iPad 2, there’s nothing in there that can’t run on an original iPad. Also, the purpose of the Photosync app in a world where iOS 5’s Photostream functionality automatically syncs content to your laptop isn’t made clear. Sadly Photostream doesn’t sync videos, Photosync does.

There’s a slightly more geeky and in depth (albeit a little out of date, being pre-iOS 4.2) account of a day in the life of an iPad wielding reporter here. The part about SoundNote is well worth a read.

Running SoundNotes, sitting at the opposite end of the room to the speaker, the internal microphone picked up sound well enough for clear playback (with a slight background ‘taptaptap’ from me typing on the iPad screen occasionally) and as advertised, when I got home to write the article I simply tapped the text for a salient point and got the speaker’s words verbatim.

And while we’re on using tech to make your reporting better, here’s BBC 5 Live’s Nick Garnett explaining how he used his iPhone to report live from the Manchester riots.

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