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Monday, May 12, 2008

All the gear, no idea (but it's probably just as well)

I should be ashamed. Here's me with a laptop, digital sound recorder and a phone and camera that take perfectly good pictures and video. And what did I manage to record and post from the conference I've just been to? Nothing.

Then again, there are good reasons for that, and bad.

On the one hand, I was defeated by technological challenges and tropical inertia. The Global Inter-Media Dialogue conference, on ethical journalism and diversity in reporting, was held in Bali where the temperature is reliably warm day and night with humidity to match. Its electricity is slightly less reliable, however.

I went to sleep the first night believing my laptop was plugged in and charging, only to wake to a laptop on its last legs. I found another power point that worked fine provided I unplugged the kettle, sprawled aross a bed and worked offline since it was on the other side of the room from the internet cable. In the conference room, meanwhile, there was wifi but no power. It took the best part of the two-day conference to get a system going.

Then there was my presentation (an overview of changes the internet is bringing to news delivery). It got cut from 20 minutes to 10mins, of which around 2mins passed with the technician struggling to get my PowerPoint slides up on screen and me yabbering away in a room that had inexplicably been plunged into near-darkness and at one point resorting to dancing as a means of distracting my hungry pre-lunch audience. Finally the slides appeared, albeit the wrong ones, which made for a fairly interesting ad-lib exercise and meant I forgot most of the more important points I set out to make. Serves me right for relying on technology. Should have brought my notes with me, like everyone else did.

As the conference went on, I forgot to turn on my voice recorder and missed the beginning of speakers. I didn't notice when the battery ran out so sometimes missed the middle and end as well. I missed some speakers entirely because I got caught up in corridor conversations, the kind that make conferences so worthwhile. And I took intermittent notes which, frankly, would not hold up should I publish something and be damned.

Just as well no one was paying me to cover this thing. As it was, whenever I thought to myself, 'That's interesting, I must blog about that,'" it always seemed to be nap time, cocktail hour or dinner time. One day blurred into another and before I knew it I was homeward bound.

On the other hand, I had good reason to sit back and reflect rather than covering the conference as it unfolded - namely that a number of attendees could be endangered if an indiscreet comment or photograph were to be published.

Some of the conference was held under the Chatham House Rule, which permits the reporting of content but without identifying the speaker or his/her associations. While this didn't prevent me reporting from the conference, it certainly gave me pause for thought.

Having grown up and practised most of my journalism in safe, stable countries, it came as something of a jolt to hear men and women on stage talking about reporting in conflict zones, of intractable problems in long-term conflicts and of being ill prepared for conflicts that arose in previously peaceful areas.

It was sobering to hear journalists talk about how sources for their stories had been imprisoned, even more so to hear journalists talk about having their life and their families' lives threatened.

Life, but not as I know it.

On a more positive note, there were some hearty discussions held, useful networks forged over morning coffee, lunches, dinners and karaoke, and I will no doubt share a few stories in the coming days.

If I had to quickly sum up the messages of the conference, I would say that journalism is still too dangerous in too many places, that mainstream media still lacks diversity in its reporting voice but that the internet is giving more people a voice than ever before. I would say that the internet is having a big effect on newsgathering and delivery, but only where there is adequate infrastructure and unfettered access - in other words these changes are by no means universal.

I would add that journalists appear somewhat divided on what their role is in society - some clearly want to change the world and feel they have the right and responsibility to do so; others steer clear of agenda-setting.

A case in point would be climate change, which some journalists at the conference felt a responsibility to educate their public about and asked how journalists could best be taught to understand this complex issue (erm, read books and talk to experts?). Others, myself included, lean more toward the journalist's responsibility being to understand the issue and reliably report on what communities, authorities and experts have to say on it - when they have something to say on it.

Either way, it's good to have your views challenged now and then and you can't beat a gathering of international journalists to do just that.


Simon said...

Dancing? That would've been fun.

But having read the vicissitudes of Balinese climate and infrastructure, I think I can forgive the lack of audio and video.

I find it myself when I go to conferences, or out of town. I suddenly realise what an encumbrance all the gear can be. Then suffer major regrets back in normal-ville. Ah well :) All about building habits, I suppose.