How to actually ‘serve your country’ in China

“I used to be a no body…until I discovered the internet” a young glasses-clad man says as he stares at his computer screen. He proceeds to explain, turning toward the camera, how to circumvent China’s Great Firewall in order to access blocked websites like Twitter or Facebook.

This is Zola, one of the two citizen journalists followed in director Stephen Maing’s 2011 documentary feature High Tech, Low Life. The other, a 57-year old single retiree, is Tiger Temple.

High Tech, Low Life is advertised as a documentary that addresses the challenges of censorship in China, but the film is equally a tale of bravery, compassion, and drive of these two Chinese men aspiring for a country that values truth and transparency over the Party and self-censorship

But while their motivation to risk government tracking or arrest for a greater cause is shared, the two bloggers diverge with regards to their characters and approaches to reporting. Maing follows Zola and Tiger Temple in two parallel story lines, slicing discussions on censorship and propaganda with scenes of scolding mothers and pet cats. Indeed, getting to know these two men is one of the many treats of this insightful and informative 87-minute film.

Tiger Temple is a solitary man who, divorced and retired, has devoted his life to chronicling the plight of fellow citizens shafted by the Communist Party in China.  His resentment toward the government runs deep; he blames Mao’s cultural revolution for making him homeless at 13. But the resulting vagabond life he adopted, biking around the country and meeting the poor farmers that the revolution supposedly served, contributed to a belief that loving his country did not mean loving the government, and provided the requisite inspiration necessary to conduct his risky work.

“I’m in my 50’s. I wont live much longer. I should tell the truth,” Tiger Temple states matter-of-factly as he explains why he keeps visiting farmers whose land was destroyed by government-routed pollution. Stunning scenes of lush fields are juxtaposed with damaged housing and polluted water, evoking an additional element of shame on behalf of the dishonest state for the viewer as the documentary progresses.

The slightly disheveled and reserved man continues despite the fact that government trackers follow him on his journeys and bust into his apartment overnight.  While Tiger Temple understands the personal risks of his work, his commitment to serving fellow Chinese and exposing the lies and injustices of the government, ultimately trumps his fear.

Zola’s mission is similarly infused with threats from the Communist Party; he is blacklisted, barred from leaving the country, questioned at his apartment, and tracked on the Internet.  Perhaps it is his age, but despite these obstacles Zola maintains an air of lightness throughout the film that is notably absent in his co-star’s scenes, who seems gravely aware of the beast he is battling.

Zola’s enthusiasm for writing about and filming victims of government injustice—such as a teenage girl who was raped by a government official or residents of Beijing evicted during the Olympics—is surprising when contextualized. His parents, weathered rural farmers, lecture him that “country comes first, then the individual” at the dinner table. They explain to a son whom they are baffled to call their own, that helping the public may lead to personal benefits in the future. Zola promptly excuses himself from the table, hops on his bike and leaves the family farm.

This is because to this young man, countering to the Communist party and exposing its injustices is the ultimate service to his nation. He claims that, “the truth is I don’t really know what journalism is. I just record what I witness”. While Zola is clearly not so naïve, his simplification speaks to the fact that just recording and publicizing the truth is a provocative and significant act in a country where ‘social order’ and ‘cooperation’ are used as justifications to stifle dissent.

Thus Zola and Tiger Temple both, although in distinct ways, take the Communist Party narrative of helping the country by cooperating and flipping it on his head, suggesting that to actually help Chinese citizens, transparency is the answer.

But although the idea is increasingly popular in some circles, especially as internet usage spreads in China, such work makes for a lonely existence. The viewer is introduced to some of Zola and TIger Temple’s fans, either through blog comments or in person at a blogger convention, but such instances are obviously rare. While the older of the pair has accepted this fate, Zola seems to still be grappling with it: at one of the lowest points of the film, he wonders “if anyone else in this world feels as lonely as I do”.

Ultimately though, it is evident that both men are steadfast in their convictions and hopeful for a major shift in the future. An informative, insightful, and aesthetically gorgeous documentary, High Tech, Low Life gives the viewer hope, through introducing two incredible bloggers, that humanity in China is pushing the world’s most populous nation toward change.

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4 Hour Challenge: Cory Doctorow’s Book Tour

I have admired Cory Doctorow’s books for a few years now. He has an amazing ability to weave simple explanations of technical concepts into rallying-cry stories. Doctorow recently released a new book, Homeland, and is on tour with the book. I went to his talk in Cambridge today. He is every bit as good a speaker as he is a writer.

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My Aspirations for Journalism: Help Us Navigate the Science Branding Game

In fourth grade science class, I learned that taste buds were divided into regions of the tongue. We even conducted a confusing failed “experiment” in which we were supposed to confirm this with taste strips. Year later, in junior year biology, I learned that this experiment failed because taste buds are, in fact, distributed across the mouth. This taught me that textbooks are insufficient for teaching us the science by which we should live.

The alternative, unfortunately, is a volatile scientific understanding that comes from sources of questionable trustworthiness. One day, we read that coffee is bad for health because it increases blood cortisol levels. A few weeks later, we read that coffee is, in fact, good for health because it is correlated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s. Most of us do not read the journal articles or talk to the experts. We are left to throw up our hands and browse Reddit instead, resuming our previous aggressive coffee consumption habits.

Branding motivations play a major role of knowledge obfuscation. It is well known that pharmaceutical companies and tech companies try to skew public understanding to increase consumption. There is also another, more insidious branding at work: that of researchers trying to increase their influence. Even the most scrupulous researchers are susceptible to branding pressure: mainstream acceptance is influential in faculty hiring and tenure cases. As a Ph.D. student in computer science, I have learned not to tell you why the ideas I propose may never work. If I am lucky enough to get that media interview, I am not going to say why my problem is not the most important problem or why my solution is not the best solution. Because of the public’s short attention span, presenting catchy sound bytes and oversimplified explanations is good for both my interviewer and me. No wonder the science we get from the New York Times, TED talks, and blog posts is so fragmented and inconsistent.

My aspiration for journalism, then, is for journalists to provide context and curation for scientific knowledge. Journalism can publicize not just results but potential motivations, from funding sources to a scientist’s track record of stances on a topic. Rather than presenting stories in a one-sided way, journalists can solicit multiple expert opinions, including experts outside the area who may not have as much reputation and political capital at stake. Rather than pander to public desire for simple panaceas, journalists can teach the public to embrace complexity by giving people tools to help engage with conflicting opinions. The newest research on whether coffee is good for us may be different than what we heard last week, but if we know how this compares with the whole research trajectory on the topic, as well as expert opinions on the validity of the research, we are able to form educated opinions. It is only with this context and curation that non-experts can have any hope at navigating this science branding game.

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Reporter as a “Connector” of Curious Citizens

by ChicagoPublicMedia (CC Flickr)

Figuring out what a journalist’s role ought to be leads me to ask this: What makes her work valuable (if it’s valuable at all) to society, and is that value aligned/misaligned with larger societal goals? Rosenstiel writes that a journalist ought to “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” This seems true, given that we want to be free and self-governing (i.e. a democracy). But if providing information is the whole story, journalists can be replaced by automated data visualization tools. There’s software that can even contextualize financial and sports data. No journalist needed.

But providing information is only part of the story. I think that we also value communities. And although Rosenstiel writes that a journalist’s providing information becomes “the basis for creating community, making human connections”, he doesn’t say how that happens. I would go one step further than Rosenstiel and argue that a journalist’s role is not just to provide information, but to help form communities. What does that mean? By filtering and presenting information via narratives, good journalists can make abstract concepts and distant events relatable. If the story is compelling enough, they can extend the circle of people, events and ideas that readers care about. And that’s a pretty unique and meaningful position to be in. Unlike a novelist who connects readers to characters in history or the imagination, unlike a data scientist who connects audiences to facts, unlike a blog writer who shares opinions, the journalist contextualizes facts in new and interesting ways. She forms a connective tissue out of seemingly disparate parts.

The greatest example of informative, engaging and community-driven journalism that I’ve recently seen is WBEZ’s Curious City. The project features an online platform on which listeners can pose questions and then vote on them. The questions are then assigned to a team of reporters. The reporters first talk to the “curious citizen” to find out which facets of the question they’re more interested in. Sometimes, they take the community member on reporting trips and post reporting updates in real time. To come up with the most satisfying explanation, reporters talk to experts, post interactive maps, timelines and other types of media. For example, in a story in which a listener asked “Where does our unmistakable and loveable Chicago accent come from?”, reporters teamed up with George Mason University linguist Corrine McCarthy. McCarthy wrote a script that’s supposed to draw out stereotypically Chicago sounds from people who read it. Then, listeners (361 of them) called in and WBEZ collected voicemail recordings of the passage they read. McCarthy wrote a listening guide for reporters who then evaluated the recordings and created visuals, text and listening tracks to summarize their findings.

In another story sparked by the question “What can you get in Chicago that you can’t from any other place?”, the Curious City team turned to Facebook and Twitter for input, made a list of the community’s “report” and then taped a Chicago musician to make a song out of the most credible suggestions, which they then posted on the site.

Jennifer Brandel, a lead Curious City producer, says that the project aims to flip the power structure of radio. Rather than an assignment editor choosing a story, listeners choose which story they’re most interested in. This defies the idea of radio as a one-way medium. It turns reporting into a community project. Here, the reporter’s job is not to simply provide information, but to connect community members with experts, with each other, with ideas.

This model for a reporter as a “connector” of community members’ questions, expert knowledge, and research seems much more satisfying to me than a reporter as simply a provider of information. Listeners are given agency by being involved in the question-asking, research and reporting process.

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The Future of News, Civic Engagement, and Everything

The future of news is tied directly to the future of how citizens are informed. This connection is confirmed by Starr and Kovach and Rosenstiel. I would go a step further and say that the news is connected to civic engagement and participation. This is increasingly true as participatory and social media provide a way for anyone to join the discussion of events and articles. I think this trend towards greater participation and engagement with the news is a good thing and should continue, but I also think there is a place for traditional media.

Participatory media alone has two opposite problems; either there is so much information on an subject that it is impossible to fully understand the discussion and topic itself or not enough people talk about and analyze a subject. I think traditional media serves two key roles to balance out a mostly participatory news ecosystem. First, traditional media synthesizes and distills the discussions in participatory media and projects this information to a broader audience. Second, traditional media serves as a guidepost for what topics are important for citizens to discuss and investigate.

The traditional media is still in an incredibly powerful and potentially dangerous role. If anything, it is more powerful than before as citizens intentionally or unintentionally base their own increasingly spread beliefs on what they hear in the traditional media. As a result, it needs to be handled carefully. One example of an issue highlighted by Kovach and Rosenstiel is the corporate influence of news. We need to develop ways of minimizing and disclosing these external influences if traditional media is to have its ideas spread throughout participatory media.

Just as participatory media is balanced by traditional, this issue with traditional media can be tempered by participatory media. In the early stages of a story, journalists can listen to the conversations in participatory media, understand them, and incorporate them in the story. We need to make this balancing cycle easier by developing tools and fostering collaboration between professional journalists and citizens.

Aaron Swartz proposed an interesting solution for the future of transparency and news. He suggested that journalists, bloggers, programmers, lobbyists, and people with all sorts of skills work together in investigative strike teams to understand and fix society’s problems. I think this is a great way for traditional and participatory media to benefit from each other in a way that results in not only increased access to information but also tangible improvements to the world.

I also think this is happening naturally in many ways. Leaking organizations are one example of this process. Many leaking organizations are independent institutions run by normal citizens who receive and verify information, find background and supplementary information, analyze documents, and work with traditional media partners to release and explain the information. At their best, leaking organizations work very much like Swartz’s investigative strike teams. We need to encourage investigative strike team-like partnerships, teach people how to make participatory media, and build structures to make it easier to get involved and understand all the information available. I have one specific proposal for doing that in leaking here.

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Warning: this dining experience comes with copious instructions.

For the four hour challenge, I decided to document the legendary wait at a local restaurant. Since I worked with video professionally, I wanted to give amateur food blogging a try with this challenge. Originally posted here.

Yume Wo Katare at Porter Square opened its doors last October after much chatter and anticipation. Word of legendary waits spread like so many Ippudo outposts. Having endured long lines at the ramen temples of New York City, I’ve witnessed the fanaticism inspired by this superlative form of noodle soup. But here in Cambridge, could a bowl of ramen really be worthy of lines that snake around the block on even the snowiest and coldest of nights?

According to reviews, people endure those lines at Yume not just for the noodles, but for the experience. In the words of one Yelper:

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And so I gathered up some hungry troops hearty enough to brave a potentially hour-long wait in a wintry mix. When we arrived at 6:35pm, almost twenty people were already waiting outside.

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We studied the rules, helpfully posted on the window in a handy flow chart:

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The restaurant sits a strange half-story above street level, placing tables at eye level for those looking on covetously from the outside.

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And if all that isn’t enough to build up the anticipation, the front of the line is marked by this sign:

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45 minutes later, we were finally in– but alas, the wait continued as we were made to stand against the walls, hovering over the other patrons.

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I expected a museum-like aura in a place with such rigid rules, but the experience inside belied my impression. The hostess was kind, and while a few of the twenty or so patrons ate silently, there was a soft din of conversation over the sound of light jazz playing in the background.

The name of the restaurant means “tell your dreams,” a dictum that was painted on the ceiling above the kitchen

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..and displayed on the far wall.

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Visitors can purchase a spot on the wall for a framed declaration of their dreams at a cost of $10 a month, or $10,000 for 10 years– a long term investment of dubious returns.

In Japan, ramen styles vary greatly according to different regional conventions.
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View The 26 Types of Ramen in Japan in a larger map

Yume serves theirs Jiro-style: in big heaping bowl (“the biggest bowls in Boston,” according to one of their many signs) of pork and soy-based broth, topped simply with thick noodles made in-house, slices of roasted pork belly, bean sprouts, cabbage and minced garlic, sans condiments.

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A bowl with two slices of pork rings in at $12, a five-slice bowl at $14. Extra vegetable toppings are free of charge, though one sign requests that patrons order only so much as they can eat, as leftovers cannot be taken to go.

After the ten minute standing wait, we were finally seated. Chef/owner Tsuyoshi Nishioka called out to us one by one with his trademark demand: 

To which we responded with requests for extra veggies or garlic. Our bowls arrived, as full and heaping as had been described in so many reviews.

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The first few bites were delightfully porcine and just fatty enough to trigger my Pavolovian responses. The noodles, thick as linguine, were cooked to a toothsome al dente and carried the savory soy flavor of the broth. The real trouble, however, lurked below the toppings: bits of melty pork fat flecked the gravy-like broth.

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I suppressed a looming fear for my arteries and managed to finish all the solid components, though not the soup. My companions did no better.

It was a gratifying meal for a cold night, but Nishioka’s fine handiwork wasn’t enough to absorb my full attention. Bite after bite, I remained awkwardly aware of the waiting glances of those standing behind me and outside the window. Next time, I’ll most likely tell my dreams elsewhere.

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Erhardt’s Response to The Elements of Journalism

In working on my response to Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, I read a piece by Ann Marie Lipinski for Nieman Reports drawing parallels between Aaron Swartz and Eugene Patterson, who both happened to pass away around the same time last month. She discussed the comparison with Nicco Mele and recounted his observation concerning the state of the institution of newspapers: “One of the questions raised by the comparison is about the role of editors and journalists in our communities…. Eugene Patterson’s life makes it clear that newspapers were a crucial perch for true leadership—a disappearing perch. And I’m not sure we’ve got any institutions poised to fill that void…. Aaron was, in a sense, the spiritual heir to the crusading editor. How do we encourage more nerds to be like Aaron?”

Mele had earlier cited Swartz’s “moral suasion” as the characteristic which seems to align him with the high principle and high calibre journalist Patterson. This resonated with my current thinking on journalism, which has been to try and reduce journalism down to its basic elements, not unlike Kovach and Rosenstiel attempt to do. What I find is a set of principles and processes, traditionally embodied and practiced by the institutions of the newspaper and the profession, whose members we call journalists. However, I believe these institutions can be separated from the elements of journalism and reconstituted as a civic skill set, exemplified by Swartz at his best, which is to say the pursuit of knowledge, openness, and democracy through principled practice.
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