The Ethics and Responsibility of Paying Attention

The World Blogging Forum proved to be even more surreal than Internet Hungary. (More on that later in a separate post.) We were only give the topics we were to speak about upon arrival, and I was asked to speak about “ethics and responsibility.” What follows is less a prepared presentation and more some meandering thoughts that have been circling in my head over the past few months.

There is a famous saying in the news industry – back when it was still an industry – which said that “today’s news is what happened yesterday to the editor’s best friends.” I suppose that now that saying must be updated. Today’s news is what is happening right now to our own friends.

So, for example, a big news event for all of us in this room is the jail sentence of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada because we now consider ourselves friends of Parvana Persiani. However, we aren’t talking about – indeed, we don’t even know about – the other 185 cases of threatened or arrested bloggers being tracked at threatened.globalvoicesonline.org. We don’t know about them because they are not part of our networks.

Personally, I don’t think that either the old or new model is an ideal way to learn about the world around us. In the first model our impression of the world is formed by just a few powerful gatekeepers. In the second model we each belong to separate echo chambers that are usually built on top of class, popularity, and interest.

Still, there are occasional stories that become so big that almost everyone is aware of them. Usually they have to do with celebrities and reality TV shows. But last week it was something else. On Thursday at 1:30 in the afternoon in Fort Hood, Texas an American-born Army psychologist of Palestinian descent opened fire on the largest US military base in the world. He killed 13 people and wounded 30 others. He was then shot once, hospitalized, and taken to an undisclosed location here he is now recovering. However this is not what the media reported on Thursday. Their main source of information at the time was a soldier from Michigan who was posting updates to her Twitter account. She reported that the shooter was killed and that there was at least one other shooter. Both of those observations turned out to be wrong.

Here is a classic example of poor ethics in the media field. They had spread misinformation in the unnecessary rush to break a story without taking the time to check the facts.

Morbid Curiosity

This may come as a surprise, but I really don’t care about such classic examples of poor media ethics. So, for a few hours the world of news junkies thought that the Fort Hood shooter was dead and then it turned out that he was still alive. What is the big deal? I don’t care about such mistakes because they almost always fix themselves. As Clay Shirky summed up in a nice soundbite, “fact-checking is way down, and after-the-fact checking is way way up.” In fact, the discussion about the discussion of the Fort Hood shooting has almost eclipsed news of the shooting itself. We also saw this during the Iranian election protests. The discussion about the use of technology in the protests became a larger news item than the protests themselves, or indeed, the complex history that led to the protests.

When we speak about ethics and responsibility in the media industry we almost always obsess over the ethics of publishing, but I am much more interested in the ethics of listening. Who and what do we pay attention to and why?

Almost everyone in the world knows about the Fort Hood shootings, but how many people here know about the Akihabara massacre that took place in Japan in 2008? In that case a 25-year-old went on a rampage and drove a rented truck through a crowd in a popular Tokyo shopping district. 15 minutes later dozens of Japanese were lying in the streets bloodied and dying. Meanwhile, crowds gathered, pulled out their cell phones, pressed record. Two observers began streaming live video from their cell phones on Ustream.tv. Within half an hour over 2,000 viewers were watching the streaming video. What did this instant, at-the-scene coverage generate? Outrage. From Chris Salzberg:

So when stories of people crowding like paparazzi around bleeding victims made their way from the streets of Akihabara to people around the country, many were shocked. The weekly papers were quick to react, running articles lambasting the indecency of the Akihabara mobs. The weekly Shukan Shincho featured the story of a university student whose two friends had been killed in the rampage, surrounded by onlookers snapping photos of their suffering. In his Mixi diary, the student railed at the picture takers for ignoring his pleas to stop. “Why did they do it?” he wrote. “It was so horrible, I couldn’t stop crying.” But the mobs persisted, clamoring for the best shot, dodging warnings by police to snap pictures and share them with friends.

Almost all of the after-the-fact-checking which followed the Akahbara massacre mentioned the “morbid sense of curiosity.” Why were so many people interested in watching and documenting others die?

In the United States a teacher taught his young students how to become journalists. But rather than giving them real video cameras, he had them make fake cameras made out of paper. And for the rest of the week they pretended that they were reporters. By the end of the week two of the students got in a fight. All of the other students made a circle around them and were pointing their fake, paper video cameras at the fight. No one helped break it up.

It seems that when we have a choice between getting involved to do what is right and documenting what is wrong, that we choose the latter. After all, that has been the standard and accepted behavior of journalists since the beginning of journalism. They were the privileged invisible observers documenting the world for the rest of us. And now we are all journalists, observing, documenting, and not getting involved.

If I were to start strangling Adina here, what would your first reaction be as a blogger? Would you come to defend her or reach for your camera?

Tracking our Media Diet

I work for an organization called Global Voices which was founded by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman. Ethan got his start as an internet researcher when he developed a project called Global Attention Profiles. This project used a few scripts to guesstimate how much attention mainstream media outlets like the New York Times are paying to different countries around the world. So, for example, how often did the Washington Post mention Romania over the past month compared to France?

It was an interesting project at the time, but it is less interesting now. We no longer get our news from just the New York Times or the Washington Post. Now we mostly get our news from our friends via Twitter and Facebook. So rather than monitoring the attention of mainstream media, we need to monitor our own attention patterns.

I use two tools to do this. The first is called RescueTime. It is a free program that monitors how much time you spend on each program on your computer and on every website that you visit. The purpose is to help boost your productivity, but I use it to monitor my media diet. At the end of each week I look at what websites I spent the most time on. Another tool I use is Google Reader. They have a very handy “Trends” section which shows you how much attention you give to each of your RSS feeds. It is so depressing when I look at these statistics. They show me that I spend way too much time looking at software that I will never use and cameras I will never buy. But by looking at the statistics I become more aware of my media diet and slowly I change my behavior so that I pay more attention to the topics that I want to learn more about.

The Economy of Self Interest

I agree with Ritchie Pettauer that self-interest is what governs what we choose to publish. Everything that we publish is meant to make us look better. I am interested in the economy of self-interest. Often self-interest is mutually beneficial. President Basescu came here to speak to us because it makes him look good and makes the Romanian mainstream media look bad. Then we all tweeted that we were in a room with the president of Romania because that makes us look good.

But, from what I understand, President Basescu is actually a pretty unpopular guy here in Romania. And so I was amazed that none of the Romanian bloggers here took the opportunity to challenge what he said. My assumption is that doing so would damage our reputation. We would not be invited to next year’s World Blogging Forum.

We cover an event when it benefits us, when it adds to our own social capital. Loic Lemeur posts a twitter link to the president of Romania because it adds to his profile, makes him look like an important enough blogger that he spends his time hanging out with the world’s most important leaders. (And, apparently he is.)

My observation is that as more of us become absorbed in publishing content we become less talented at listening and paying attention to others. Here today we are not communicating with one another, we are talking past each other. We are more interested in what each one of us is saying – and how others react to what we say – than in what others are saying. We are increasingly forgetting how to listen.

Perhaps this is just the natural evolution of humanity, or maybe we were never interested in listening to others in the first place, but we did so out of social politeness. Maybe listening was always a façade. But, in my opinion, strong morals come from empathy, and empathy comes from listening and understanding the perspectives of others. So it might not be in our own self-interest, but it is in our collective interest to become better listeners and to care about others outside of our own circles of friends.

7 Comments

  1. This is getting on my Mount Rushmore of must-read posts for bloggers. Thanks for reminding us of why we are doing this blogging thing and how we should monitor our own behavior. Food for thoughts indeed.

    Reply
  2. you speak of the human condition .. and the tech of current times is immaterial to this conditon ..

    the only way to developed the actual abilities to be aware in a holistic manner are under the purvey of spiritual practices that expand consciousness to more subtle levels of functioning …

    they are all non-verbal, internal, and rarely mentioned in popular publishing ..

    you want to change character, they are the only tools ..

    Reply
  3. David, as I said in response to your presentation at the WBF after you finished, I don’t think your comment is fair about the case of Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli in relation to Parvana Persiani. As I said, I was covering that case long before I ever made contact with and much longer before I ever met her which was the same night as you. I also said that it would also apply to other bloggers too and I made a point of suggesting we mention Threatened Voices at the forum.

    On the other hand, one thing I’ve noticed. The final statement on Adnan and Emin as well as other bloggers has not been released as it was meant to be today, and also, only a handful of people there seemed interested in the case to me. While covering the trial via Twitter and hoping for some response via the WBF2009 there wasn’t much. And now, a few days later, I also see only a few people bothered to use their blogs to raise awareness either to their case or any others.

    So, perhaps I would say that your statement implies everyone is like that, but I don’t support that view. Meanwhile, I would add that the general approach seems to be “out of sight, out of mind.” Unfortunately.

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  4. Re: Tracking our Media Diet, I’m sure you’ve thought about how this relates to the neuropsychology stuff you studied in college. It seems to me (and I’m sure there are tons of studies out there on this) that we’re hardwired to protect (and therefore pay attention to) those in our circles. It’s simply a survival mechanism. The question is, how do you fight that nature when technology (and world events) is evolving so much faster than we are?

    I love your time tracking idea. I would totally do that, but I know exactly what it would tell me: 90% of the time I spend on my computer gets spent looking at work stuff, and once I’m done with work I barely have time to keep up with the stuff that I’m interested in let alone seek out info on stuff about which I have no context. Google Reader Trends are great, but mostly what I end up doing is scanning headlines. I’ll only really read something if it’s on a topic that already interests me. I feel guilty about it, but it hasn’t changed my behavior.

    Instead what I’ve started doing is taking the front page of the Sunday NY Times to someplace where I’m more likely to read every article (the laundromat, for example). I’m thinking about picking an article every month or so and learning as much about that topic as I can, then blogging about my experience with ignorance. It brings up a whole ‘nother slew of questions about how I pick what I’m going to read up on, how much info I can actually get from just reading crap online or checking out books from the library, etc. Anyway, I’ll let you know if that’s any more successful than Google Reader.

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  5. When reading your conclusion I realized I wasn’t “listening” properly. So I took some time to go through your post again.

    Yes, you’re right, we’re probably not listening enough… We go through a lot of information and other stimulus without paying enough attention to them. Yet, I think this is probably the only way to do it. It is too much, too fast! We’re just not capable of absorving everything. And it is endless! Yet, we are curious/ interested, if not more, in knowing where we can find it, in knowing what others talk about, in being included, integrated, loved.

    I stare at my screen and I have at least 15 website windows open. Am I “listening” to them all? No. But I do try my best to pay attention to the people I care about and the information they share, online or offline. I like to believe they do the same with me. And yes, we focus on our own interests and we do like to impress and look better. It was probably always like that, you say. Maybe not so obviously… But that is our way to keep the attention, which is so vital to us alone, which is what makes “together”. Do I want to impress you with this? Do I want your attention? You bet!!! Micro is macro.

    I read this yesterday, on Keri Smith’s “Guerrila Art Kit”: “To pay attention: this is our endless and proper work” – Mary Oliver

    Are you listening? Thank you. :)

    Reply
  6. Oh, and on listening. I wonder if it’s not so much about listening but how we make meaning of what someone is saying. We could both be “listening” just as intently to the same speaker, but internalize their message in completely different ways.

    Orhan Pamuk was here at Harvard a few weeks back talking about the “center” of a novel. I heard this second hand from Jill (and would link to it if I wasn’t such a dummy), but he said something along the lines of different people finding different centers of the novel depending on their perspective. I’ve had this experience myself–some things that were really resonant at one point in my life just aren’t anymore (take Contact, for example) because my perspective has shifted over time.

    I guess it all comes down to life experience (which goes beyond just listening to others); the more you have the wider variety of perspectives you can take. Once you’ve internalized those experiences, once they’ve become personal to you, it’s easier to find empathy. I mean, by definition, you can’t empathize with someone if you don’t have any personal understanding of their situation, if you can’t relate to the way they’re feeling.

    So then does that mean that people who don’t have much life experience (by choice or not) are necessarily less moral? Hmmm, I’m not sure you can make that jump. Maybe morality comes more from the ability to respect another’s humanness, whether you can empathize with it or not. There’s some level of humility involved there too (recognizing that you don’t know what you don’t know, and that your perspective isn’t the only valid way of looking at the world). Think about how much more peaceful, how much more moral, a world this would be if people weren’t so sure they were right all the time.

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  7. Did I mention lack of free will? If I did that was not the point. In fact, I agree with you, we are more free than ever. That’s probably what is scary: because of that we are more responsible for our own paths than ever before too.

    About Germany, I’d love to visit Berlin soon, but no, I’m not there. That’s what’s lovely about the internet: it fails as much as everything else in life! I’m still in Portugal, Oso. If I leave I’ll let you know.

    Catherine, blessings and respect to your comments! It’s good to know there are more people in the world thinking like you. I absolutely subscribe all you said.

    Thank you, David, for bringing nice people together. And for paying attention to all of us. :)

    Reply

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