Jay Rosen hits me in the guts

I always find Jay Rosen of PressThink and NYU* interesting, often find him enlightening, sometimes find him original, and on rare occasions my mind gets expanded. This time he really gets me in the guts with this post about the borderline between observation and participation. Rosen tells the possibly true parable of a journalist invited to go along with a sniper during the seige of a city. The sniper gives the journalist the choice of which of two civilians to kill. The journalist chooses neither, so the sniper shoots them both.

The question this brings up for me is one of responsibility. What is the responsibility of the journalist, and how does it differ from his responsibility as a human being?

Rosen cites Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, with the idea that as a war correspondent, “you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” Whoa. To tell the truth, somewhere in my journalism-student-mind (as opposed to my media-theory-mind) I have certainly daydreamed about working in a war zone. Usually in the daydream, I am spending most of my time ducking bullets and diving on the ground, and then a Vietnamese officer shoots an informant in the street and I get the shot. This daydream is not unlike the Cameraman-for-NFL-Films idea I had for about five minutes while I was in film school. As in: it sounds great, but I’m not sure it’s really my goal in life.

Why couldn’t I work in a war zone? I’m not sure I could step away from the immediate situation and not grab for the gun to kill the sniper. Yes, the one sniper. Utilitarianism calls me nutty, reminds me that the good I can do with my pictures or my words will far outweigh the value of that one life (er, make that two).

SJSU Photojournalism Prof. Dennis Dunleavy recently blogged a bit about how journalists deal with death, and he linked to something that blew me away.

If I were the photographer in Sudan, documenting starvation and suffering, would I be able to walk away from the dying child while the vulture gets impatient?


The bigger question: Does participating in that situation by saving a life compromise my journalistic integrity? Will my photos/words still be credible if I save her life? What if I carry her on my back to the next town, leave her at the hospital, and she dies the next day anyway. Then what good have I done? Have I only saved myself the suffering of knowing her fate?

I’m back in school because I believe that journalists, artists, and any creators of media need to take a greater responsibility for the effects of their work.

But what about these direct effects of objectivity? What about all the things I don’t participate in because I am a journalist? Is it relevant that I wouldn’t be there without my press pass? Maybe.

*NYU disclaimer: yeah, I’m an alumnus. So what. I don’t think taking over the university President’s office my senior year really qualifies me as a fan of their work. I also read cjrdaily.

Start at the beginning…

[UPDATE: Yes, I wrote this quite awhile ago, and have updated very little I’m in the process of updating it in September 2005 I updated it in September 2005, then touched it up in March of 2006, then again in September 2007, and yet again way out here in March 2009, but man, things move pretty quickly these days. Grad school’s going swimmingly, and this is my third semester here Grad school is really more of a side project at the moment. Grad school is almost over! If this isn’t recent enough for you, just drop a note in the comments to this post. Tell me what you want to hear more about.]

Just after I started blogging, an old friend wrote to ask me what I was doing in Journalism School.

I wrote the post that this used to be, and it explained things, somewhat. Some of that old explanation is here, and some of it is gone. I don’t think you’re reading this because you want to know every detail of what I’m doing in grad school.

Want the short version?

Ryan Sholin (that’s me), among many other things, is a graduate student in the School of Journalism & Mass Communications at San Jose State University. He’ll graduate with an M.S. in Mass Communications sometime in 2007 2008 May 2009. He writes on this blog about the busy intersection where Media, Technology, and Education tend to get into three-car accidents with multiple injuries on the scene. There are fewer side trips into the realms of Politics, Theory, and Culture these days as I try to focus on New Media and the Future of Newspapers (hint: they’re the same thing). I take all of this quite seriously, but it is not my intent to bore you. I swear. Really. (Did you notice how I stopped talking in the third person in the middle of this paragraph?)
The long version follows…

Maybe I should start at the beginning…

The Short Version of my recent past, for those catching up:

After finishing film school in 1998, I pretended to try and write a screenplay or three while working in independent film, music videos, commercials, and the occasional days on children’s televison. All this was swell, but after some travel in February of 2000, I realized how flat the United States looked to me. I had seen lots of it, the ends and the middle part, and with politics being what they were, I decided that teaching English in Spain would suit my desires to get back out into the big world. I set Labor Day weekend 2001 as the target date to get out of New York, and leave America behind.

May 2001 a friend calls and offers me a couple weeks of work in the Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. Two days later I would fly from JFK to Albuquerque, missing out on far more lucrative work in New York. I was also skipping a planned trip to Memphis for a longtime family friend‘s wedding, where I was also going to meet long-lost relatives, and make the pilgrimage to Graceland.

I promptly fell in love with a girl in New Mexico, flew back and forth a few more times between New York and Albuquerque, and worked many hot days in July and August to pay for the moving truck.

I drove away from Manhattan with all my belongings in a 14 foot Uhaul on September 1, 2001. That’s not a typo. I left on the First of September, as planned, on Labor Day weekend.

Stuff happened in New York after I left, and if you saw the wreckage of the World Trade Center that first night, it was because friends of mine were setting up the lights – yes, those were movie lights that first night.

I spent a year in love in New Mexico. I learned to bartend, got a gig at a small hotel, and immediately joined the film union and went back to work carrying heavy things around. Meanwhile, my girlfriend had been accepted to grad school at UCSC. So we moved all our stuff out here to Santa Cruz, I went back to New Mexico to finish some film work, and proposed marriage upon arrival in California.

She started grad school, I started two bartending jobs, we got married, and late in 2003 I applied to the History of Consciousness department at UCSC.


Politics had turned so disturbing, so fast, that I found myself yelling out all the unanswered questions at rare Presidential press conferences. No one asked the questions I wanted the answers to.

So I started wondering why. Why is it so easy to believe what the mainstream media feed us? Why do we believe what we believe? Who do we trust?

I read some postmodern philosophy and semiotics trying to get to the guts of these questions, and applied to grad school with some vague ideas about changing media from the inside.

I didn’t get into UCSC, but there were just so many things I wanted to learn.

Late in 2004 I remembered that there was another university in the neighborhood.

For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed my Highway 17 commute from January 2005 through December 2006. People who stay on one side of the hill or the other think it must be awful. Ladies and gentlemen, I drove about 45 minutes each way through a FOREST. Over a MOUNTAIN.

Once upon a time I rode the F train at rush hour back and forth to work in midtown Manhattan. In the winter, sweaty with the heat on, everyone with thick coats, stinking and steaming on the stuffed train.

Now During my Hwy. 17 commute years, sometimes in the morning when the sun hit the valley fog just right, just after the turn with “VALLEY SURPRISE!” spray painted on the concrete divider (Who the heck buffed that? It was a far better warning than a frigging yellow sign with an arrow gently doglegging to the right, okay?), everything was perfect.

So why J-school, or Mass Communications, or Media Theory, or whatever I’m calling it this week?

Because there are messages that aren’t getting through to the people who need to hear them the most.

I’m interested in how those messages are filtered, and in tearing down the existing barriers to communication, whether they be technical, political, cultural, social, or economic. Yes, I’m an idealist, but there’s good work to be done here. Spreading powerful new communication technology to the places where it can do the most good — that’s a goal.

Other Vital Information:

  • Really Happily Married
  • one cat two cats — does this count as blogging about my cats?
  • historic work experience includes bartending, motion picture lighting & rigging, photo assistantship, administrative assistantship, and retail record store clerkship
  • places I’ve been include about 38/50 U.S. states, Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, Venezuela, and I’m pretty sure I set foot in the Bahamas on a SeaEscape day cruise once
  • Yes, I am that guy you knew at North Miami Beach Senior High School, Highland Oaks Junior High School, Highland Oaks Elementary School, and/or The Cullowhee Experience.

I’ve Been Scobleized!

Robert Scoble, Microsoft Technical Evangelist, spoke today at San Jose State University, where I am a graduate student in the Journalism & Mass Communications Department. Scoble was apparently a student there in the early 1990s and was kind enough to speak first to a gathering of Journalism students in the offices of the school newspaper, the Spartan Daily, and later at the shiny new MLK Library.

I’ve been absorbing as much as I can read about blogs, blog theory, blogs and journalism, and the effect blogs are having on communication, so it was great to hear someone who has been thinking about this for much longer than I have.

Some highlights, and then you’ll have to wait for the paper I write for Prof. Greene’s Journalism 132 class.

1. Blogging is causing the “disintermediation of journalism.” There is far less space now between the reader and the story. A reader can find primary sources in the blogosphere, a reader can compare news sites, a reader can “triangulate in on the truth” from different sources, and can see through any lies or filtering or disinformation.

2. The efficiency of word of mouth networks pushes corporations and news organizations to move faster; the news and information cycles are getting tighter and tighter, to the point where the traditional press-release method of getting information from corporate headquarters to the public simply is not fast enough. The bloggers are outrunning traditional sources of information.

3. Credibility is conferred by the community. A link to my blog from a credible source gives me credibility, and more links give me more credibility, not to mention an ascending page rank on Google. The audience is the evidence that I am a credible source.

4. Authority comes from access to information. By using RSS feeds and an aggregator, one can access exponentially more information from a wider variety of sources than anyone reading websites page by page.

5. Bob Scoble is Microsoft’s man on the street – he makes sure that everyone gets the story right when they write about a topic in his domain (i.e. Tablet PCs) – he has the credibility to push the conversation in a direction that he (and Microsoft) feel is useful/correct/marketable/open and honest.

Bloglines is the RSS Aggregator I’m using this week.

The Nastiest Possible Message

Mark Morford at the San Francisco Chronicle writes a bitter op-ed piece today that summarizes the baseline non-cheerleading stance on the Iraq election:

“The ends do not justify the means. A barely democratic Iraq is fine and good, but you well know that if Bush had mumbled to the nation three years and $300 billion ago that we were going to start bombing this piss-poor country back to the stone age and gut the U.S. economy and put thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis in death’s way to deliver it, all while sending the nastiest possible message to the world and actually increasing the threat of terrorists while turning our backs on every major U.S. ally, I doubt that many Americans would have giddily waved the flag of support…”

Media Getting High On Iraqi Democracy

To all those who are patting themselves on the back for a job well done in bringing democracy to Iraq, including the MSM, journalists who work for the Bush Administration, and blogger illuminati, congratulations. You have succeeded in alienating the Sunni minority, who after having ruled under Saddam for years will now most likely be heartily ignored by the Shiites, if not persecuted. Welcome to the ever-ripening conditions for a civil war. Good job.

Edupodding 101

This guy just spoke in my undergrad journalism class. He’s Steve Sloan, and he’s talking about professors using podcasting as a means to deliver lectures. For some reason I have a flashback to Rodney Dangerfield showing up to class and finding a tape recorder on every seat, and eventually, the prof. has left his recording playing as the joke recurs throughout the movie.

I like the idea that podcasting can be free radio – forget all those scenes of local pirate radio subversives getting raided by the feds – podcasting might not be as inexpensive as a radio (yet), but there it is – a means to get your information/news/propaganda/advertising/ego-trip/music anything you want out online, with your voice and tunes and ideas intact.

For now, when I miss a class, I’ll just copy someone’s notes.