A Decade to Reflect

It’s hard to believe that today marks a whole decade since my dad passed away. I wanted to share something in memory of him but I didn’t know where to start from the mixture of somewhat faded memories.

Only recently, I have got hold of an autobiography that he wrote before he passed away. I am still reading it and I am finding out things about his past that I never knew before, so I’ve decided to share some of this…

My dad with his older sister and their parents (my grandparents) at a camp in the south coast of England where families stayed while they learnt enough English to integrate into society and work

My dad with his older sister and their parents (my grandparents) at a camp in the south coast of England where families stayed while they learnt enough English to integrate into society and work

He writes of his difficult childhood coming to England as a Polish immigrant family in the 1940s and how he was sent to a Polish children’s home, where the children were forced to abide by a strict disciplinary regime; only Polish was spoken and any challenge of authority was ruthlessly dealt with.

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This was followed by the juxtaposition of the 1960’s rebellion in London and his struggle to adjust to the world of adulthood and find himself. I think this paragraph sums up the era perfectly that shaped this stage of his life:

“Back home Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones were arrested on drug charges. There was a sense that anything was possible. Anarchy was in the air. Social norms and practices that had held together society were snapping like straps on an overfilled suitcase”.

As I said, I am still only in the first few chapters, but it is already reminding me of his sheer determination and strength to overcome some incredible difficulties in his past and manage to turn his life around to become the dad I knew.

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I remember him as an avid runner (running over 10 marathons into his 50s); a passionate University lecturer; his love for music, festivals, travelling and new cultures; his cycling and camping holidays in Southern France; how he took pride in his home and garden; and the funny, generous and loving dad who made me who I am today.

It’s a real shame that he was taken from us far too early and he is sorely missed but I hope others who were lucky enough to meet him also share some unforgettable memories that will stay with them forever.

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My published work

Here are a few pieces of my work which were published in the magazine Taste Italia whilst working as an editorial assistant at Anthem Publishing. I wrote engaging copy about Italian cuisine and culture, including book reviews, culinary tips and holiday destination overviews.

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Social Media: Does it Shape or Break Traditional Journalism?

He was at school when it happened. It was 14:30pm and everyone reacted quickly and smoothly. He thought nothing of it. Students and teachers went outside and huddled on the floor in the middle of the playground, whilst those on upper floors of the building hid beneath their desks. It was then that it struck.

“This was the most surreal moment of my life,” he recalled.

The whole ground started shaking vigorously for about three (very long) minutes and windows were rattling extremely loudly, some even smashed. He saw ten-plus story buildings and trees swaying a good metre from side to side. He felt sea sick. The children were in floods of tears, so as a teacher his main concern was to keep them calm and safe.

“It was only once I got home I realised the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake,” he said.

Back in England I heard the news of the Japan tsunami and, naturally, I feared for my brother’s safety who was teaching out there. But although the channels of communication had shut down for most of Japan, the news was broadcast worldwide as rapidly as the first jolt felt in Tokyo was followed by an aftermath of tragic events.

But it was not through TV or print media that the world was first exposed to the news in such immediacy, but rather it was through social media.

Peter Shankman, Social Media Entrepreneur, reported that within an hour Twitter updates were soaring out of Japan at the rate of over 1,200 per minute, followed by Facebook posts, photos, videos, and blog updates.

“It was entirely relevant. More people found out about the quake and subsequent responses from social than from TV,” says Shankman.

It made me realise the sheer supremacy of social media platforms during international crises; as I was not only instantly reassured of my brother’s safety despite inaccessible phone lines; but I also acquired locative, real-time news updates being fed from a wide spectrum of people on an incessant loop.

“48 hours later and still feeling the occasional aftershock here in Tokyo (I say aftershock but they’re averaging a magnitude of 5!). Going to venture outside for the first time in a bit, take a walk and stretch my legs. Staying positive is the one. March 13 at 4:52am via iPhone.

For me, it was a platform of relief and comfort as I felt I could always check if my brother was ok via his Facebook status updates.

But how effective was social media as a news source?

It is a well known fact that every successful journalist must be able to report quickly and accurately, and for one, social media was able to disseminate the latest news faster than any traditional forms of media could have attempted.

Mike Stelzner, Social Media Examiner, said: “I think social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn can be very powerful for Journalists seeking expert opinions for articles or for those seeking first-hand accounts of current activities.”

This highlights a prime reason why social media is so beneficial in reporting, as it provides a rich mixture of opinionated and informative sources. In turn, an increasing number of journalists are beginning to appreciate social media as a valuable tool for newsgathering.

A recent US survey, conducted at The George Washington University, revealed that the majority of journalists rely on social media to conduct research; with 89% turning to blogs; 65% to social media sites such as, Facebook and LinkedIn; and 52% to micro-blogging services such as Twitter.

Steve Ballinger, journalist, said: “We’re really active on social media at the moment, and rely on it a lot to generate story ideas, leads and connect with our readers.”

Likewise, Sarah Read, a colleague, said: “I constantly use social media. Checking my iPhone apps, texting people about meetings, e-mailing progress updates to my editor, and broadcasting work via blogs.”

But along with popularity comes criticism and inevitably some journalists dismiss the value of social media, as 84% of journalists questioned the reliability and accuracy of the information delivered compared to traditional media.

Much of this criticism is due to a shift of power from the news outlet to the consumer. The ability to micro-blog has given people a licence to publish material, regardless of its accuracy. For traditional journalists, accuracy and credibility undermine social media sources.

Such scepticism is understandable as the advent of social media is bound to be daunting for journalists that have relied on traditional news sources for so long but social media, arguably, goes above and beyond these mediums.

Let me explain. It is a basic truth that journalists need to stay attuned with today’s mass audience, yet the generation of today are constantly adapting and have become accustomed to a new age of digital technology.

Henry Jenkins, social media theorist, claims: “a new generation of media-makers and viewers are emerging which could lead to a sea change in how media is made and consumed.”

For this reason, social media acts as an ideal gateway for journalists to reach the increasingly techno-savvy audience of today; it not only enhances primary research but adds an additional narrative layer for both the reader and the journalist as they can feel closer; hyper-connected.

I believe social media can enhance a sense of propinquity through these new ways of expression as audiences can feel empowered by connecting to and sharing interests with a community, which they otherwise would not have access to.

It is also even reshaping the way news is told, through collaborative reporting; in which the witness becomes the reporter and the community become sources.

Vadim Lavrusik, via Mashable, said: “The future journalist will be more embedded with the community than ever, and news outlets will build their newsrooms to focus on utilizing the community and enabling its members to be enrolled as correspondents. Bloggers will no longer be just bloggers, but be relied upon as more credible source.”

Robert Niles, via Twitter, highlights a downfall of social media, specifically Twitter, due to the vast amounts of information it generates such as, endless retweets that often merge into one, making it difficult to differentiate important information.

But Steve Ballinger, journalist, said: “Once you know how to use it properly Twitter is a great way to filter the masses of information circulating the web,” which I think is a valid point that counteracts the critique towards social media lacking validity.

Glen Gilmore, social media advisor, via Twitter, elaborated on this point in stating: “Hashtags let emergency responders, those in need of relief, relief workers and volunteers focus their listening and conversations to streamline the process of providing assistance when and where it is needed most.”

I admired the community feel social media enabled at the time of the Japan crisis in accomplishing widespread support and awareness, to such a degree I had never seen before. This was evident during the Japan tsunami with tags; #Jishin: focuses around general earthquake information; #Anpi: a hashtag for the confirmation of the safety of individuals or places; #Hinan: Evacuation information; #311care: a hashtag regarding medical information for the victims; #PrayforJapan: A general hashtag for support and best wishes for victims of the crisis.

In my eyes, social media is a hub of interactivity in which the reader can add to the story, give their personal perspective, or even challenge a journalist on their facts, something that people cannot do with print media so quickly and to such a wide audience.

In this sense, it is clear that the tangible conditions of production in the networked information economy have changed in ways that heighten the accessibility of social sharing and exchange that can outshine traditional marketing methods in the process.

People should see the internet as a cyberspace that although may appear illusory in its presence, its impact is undoubtedly as real it gets, as the borders between the real and the simulated are becoming ever more indistinguishable.

Social media can be seen as revolutionising journalism; by enhancing reporting, interactivity and providing a valuable merge of relevant sources. So perhaps critics should take a step back to appreciate the benefits that social media brings and the sooner journalists embrace this, the sooner they will realise that it contains vast resources that have greatly improved reporting, particularly at times of crisis.

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Social Media: a self reflection

For my course I was asked to experiment with social media tools much in the way a professional journalist would. Beforehand, I wasn’t familiar with Twitter at all and merely saw it as a social networking site for people to moan about their lives and document every minor event of their day. But that’s where I was very wrong, as in fact there is a lot more to Twitter than I initially realised, and I actually ended up learning quite a lot from the task.

As a Communication and Media student it was an ideal way to keep up to date with the latest news, whilst acquiring a rich body of opinions. I also realised there are so many opportunities to stay connected and build up a network of professionals for academic and career purposes.

I began to realise how to put my Twitter account to a better use. I felt particularly passionate towards the Japan crisis as my brother was there at the time of the earthquake, so I started using Twitter as a tool to raise awareness and create support; forwarding people on to related blogs, articles, and witness stories, enhanced with my own opinion. I noticed since doing this that my opinions were often re-tweeted and my followers began to grow. In turn, it was a rewarding experience knowing that you are having an impact on other people within an online space from which your opinions can reach and inspire millions of people, and likewise I can be inspired by millions of people.

I was surprised at how satisfying blogging was; it gave me a chance to express my opinions and experiences whilst exploring the world of journalism and enhancing my own knowledge. I shall continue tweeting and blogging.

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The Regenerated Public Sphere

In the ideal world, journalists contribute towards a public sphere; a space in which information can be exchanged in order to create a platform for social and political public debate. The press acts as the ‘fourth estate’; in control of maintaining the public sphere, which involves and engages the interests of all types of people in society.

On the other hand, Burton (2005) claims that in reality the fourth estate is not truly pluralistic and audiences are not free to debate in a public sphere due to the unavoidable influence of public relations management, and organisational policies, which aim to secure regular and predictable stories, with ongoing topics of public interest dominating the news agenda.

But I believe that this has recently changed and a public sphere has adapted along with increasing technological advancements in society. I believe that it is the internet that has enabled online spaces to become a public sphere.

This is apparent through the accessibility of social media and micro-blogs, which have given people the power to publish information online and in turn, contribute in collaborative debates.

However, this autonomy can also be viewed negatively as the precious public sphere that was once a journalist’s territory has now opened its doors to a whole world full of people, becoming increasingly difficult to censor and protect.

This was evident in the recent difficulties experienced by Wikileaks, which highlighted the supremacy of the online public sphere as it’s described as “part of the phenomenon of the online, empowered citizen”. Re- defining democracy.

Another issue for journalists is that of net neutrality, which refers to the fact that the internet does not privilege one type of content over another. For example, people have a licence to publish material, regardless of its accuracy, whereas for traditional journalists, accuracy and credibility undermine their writing. There is a conflict over who controls these online spaces.

Vadim Lavrusik, Social Media Entrepreneur, via Mashable, said: “The future journalist will be more embedded with the community than
ever, and news outlets will build their newsrooms to focus on utilizing the community and enabling its members to be enrolled as correspondents. Bloggers will no longer be just bloggers, but be relied upon as more credible source
s.”

In turn, this online public sphere is reshaping the way news is told, through collaborative reporting; in which the witness becomes the
reporter and the community become sources; the evolution of the citizen journalist.

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The Ethical Dilemma

Since studying journalism, I have begun to realise that there is something that is equally important as truth and accuracy in reporting, and that’s ethics.

The importance of ethical journalism can be emphasised by looking back to a time when the principles were very different, particularly during times of crisis such as, the Gulf war I.

From one point of view, people question: “Should graphic pictures of the dead be shown?” and “should the grief of families who have lost loved ones on the battlefield be intruded?”

This is a basic ethical dilemma faced by journalists.

Although this seems a  fair point due to privacy and sensitivity, one thing’s for sure;  just  because journalists may sometimes have to report distressing information, it doesn’t mean they should conceal the truth from society.

During the Gulf war I, the government imposed strict barriers of censorship for journalists “to alter public perception of the nature of the war itself, particularly the fact that civilians die in the war.” Propaganda was essentially concealing the truth and painting a picture of a war without death; distorting reality and deceiving citizens.

Journalists had to alter language to cover up deaths for example, “collateral damage” read “dead citizens”; “degradation of enemy capacity” read “dead soldiers”; and “laying down on the carpet” read “saturation bombing”. In turn, the war didn’t appear to involve real people, with real human emotions and people could easily dismiss the extent of devastation caused by the war, and convince themselves that it’s not that bad.

I believe this clearly presents a case of unethical journalism. Society has a right to know the adverse consequences of the war and feel for the families affected. In addition, these families deserved to voice their grief and have the world realise the extent of devastation caused.

For this reason, although at the time journalists were considered to be acting socially responsible by following laws that prohibit harmful information.  In reality, they were twisting the truth and it was more likely to encourage society to view wars less seriously, as they didn’t  fully realise its impact.

Thankfully today it is reassuring to know that this has changed and journalists have to abide to basic ethical principles of morality and social responsibility, which includes defending citizens from abuses of authoritarian power.

For example, the Press Complaints Commission promotes ethical journalism and covers four main areas of regulation; accuracy, privacy, newsgath­ering and protection of the vulnerable. Importantly, it encourages a fourth estate of ‘free press’; not restricted by state-controlled propaganda, which John O’Neill (1992) defines as: “A free market brings with it a free press that supplies the diversity of opinion and access to information that a citizenry requires in order to act in a democratic, responsible manner. The free market, journalism and democracy form an interdependent trinity of institutions in an open society.”

Journalists must report in line with decency and provide citizens with a public sphere with all material they need to make rational, informed choices, heightening their autonomy, which is an ethic in itself.

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What Gives a Feature its Edge?

“How do features differ from news stories?” my lecturer asked, and after sometime to contemplate, I realised that’s exactly what differentiates a feature; the fact it’s not a news story.

Let me explain. For me, I see features as having that extra edge. As being able to delve far deeper into a topic than any news story could attempt. Rather than merely stating the facts, features can explore a topic in depth, and paint pictures for the reader; animated with rich details, sources, and opinion.

What enables features to do this is due to a heightened sense of autonomy and creativity, as the writer can provide their interpretation of a topic and put across an argument that they feel strongly about, from their heart.

This sense of autonomy in features is also reflected in the topics they can explore such as, human interest; journalists can write to appeal to our emotions rather than concealing all signs of humanity and restricted to factual barriers; they have more freedom to approach the topic.

Essentially every feature must have the ability to draw the reader in the very moment they start reading. This is only achieved by providing an effective lead, which can capture the reader’s attention in a variety of styles; it can be literary; filled with descriptions and adjectives; or to the point, which some readers may prefer.

But for me I am drawn in when there is a personal element, if I can tell the writer feels strongly about the topic, a passion. It is this personal element that enchants me, that takes me into their world and provides a sense of escapism. That’s when I know a feature’s well written.

Finally, one thing that is universally important for all features is their narrative structure, their mode of transition. The most effective features are those that take you on such a journey that you are unaware that you have moved from one time zone to the next.

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