York: It’s our job to seek out the world

Jillian York’s humble personality prevents her from boastfully speaking about her global impact as a digital activist. With the help of social media, though, York vigorously advocates for international freedom of expression in her full-time work and volunteer positions.

In a digital age when social media complement mainstream news outlets, York’s fingerprints are all over the Internet – Twitter, Facebook, citizen media networks and advocacy websites. Since creating her Twitter handle in 2008, York has gained more than 11,000 followers.

York is a hub based in Boston where multiple networks intersect globally. She is a project coordinator at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, a member of the board of directors and writer for Global Voices Online and a freelancer for Al Jazeera English and the Guardian. Her blog posts and tweets mostly concentrate on freedom of expression, politics, Internet controls and online activism, with a focus on the Arab world.

“When I blog, it is usually about educating people on a certain issue,” said York in an interview at the Berkman Center in Cambridge. “Social media provides a really important voice. And it’s not social media that’s providing it. It’s ordinary people, citizen journalists, bloggers who have lived in that space their entire lives and know more about the subject than anyone here ever could.”

The 28-year-old Dover, N.H., native began blogging in 2001 to share her experiences with relatives and friends while she studied abroad at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. Her hobby has transformed into a digital activist role in her community and the world. She recently posted a response on her blog to Jonah Goldberg’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, criticizing his implication that feminism is no longer needed in the United States.

“I definitely perform journalistic duties sometimes, but I’m by no means objective. If anything, I’m a commentator,” she said. “I think I almost always function as an advocate. There are some issues I just can’t ignore, and a blog is a really good place to have for that.”

In 2009, York and Hisham Khribchi, a blogger and activist based in France, co-founded Talk Morocco. The edited online forum encourages intelligent, open and honest debate on issues relating to Morocco, according to its website. Each month, the co-founders post a question on the website to initiate discussion among the diverse group of bloggers, citizen journalists and other contributors. For example, on March 30 they asked the followers, “What now for Morocco?” At least 10 individuals have submitted their responses to the online forum.

“The general public hasn’t fully grasped [Talk Morocco’s] importance yet. It covers this area that, if it weren’t for Jillian and her partner, it would remain completely uncovered in the English language world,” said Nasser Weddady, civil rights outreach director of the American Islamic Congress and one of York’s online followers. “The landscape of Morocco is almost Martian in the English language, and Talk Morocco is a massive contribution that Jillian has made. Not only because it covers the content, but because she created a model that can be copied elsewhere.”

When she is not busy with her full-time job at the Berkman Center and moderating Talk Morocco, York contributes to the Middle Eastern and North African team for Global Voices. The network (tagline: “The world is talking, are you listening?”) is an international community of citizen journalists who report on blogs and citizen media from around the world.

“What’s interesting about Global Voices is that bloggers are really likely to just say whatever they are thinking more so than any other platform,” said York, who has contributed more than 450 posts to the website since 2007.

York posts in-depth, thoughtful news and commentary on Global Voices and on her blog, said Firuzeh Shokooh Valle, the Spanish language editor for Global Voices.

“She does have very strong opinions about Palestine and the Middle East, and I think that is fine. In that way, she is very courageous,” Shokooh Valle said from a conference room at Northeastern University, where she is a graduate student. “We are in a time when people don’t stand up for what they believe in. If someone right now really wants to understand what’s going on, I think they should follow her on Twitter, read her blog, read what she is writing on Global Voices. I think she is a very important voice that many people should be paying attention to regarding the issues that are unfolding in the Middle East.”

Global Voices relies on 200 freelancers to post stories and commentaries, said Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of the website. Contributors become experts on social media in particular countries and regions around the world, but they don’t earn salaries, he said.

“[York] has become a community leader and really a convener, particularly in the Arabic media space and the Middle East and North Africa spaces. She is really one of the people we most trust on these issues,” said Zuckerman, who is the senior researcher at the Berkman Center. “That has no small part to do with the fact that she’s also, outside of Global Voices, one of the leading scholars on Internet control and censorship. Because she is so deeply knowledgeable about the space, she ends up being a resource for a lot of other people who work on the project, and is really loved by her peers.”

For more photographs from the social media event at Lesley University, click on the image.

Before joining the Berkman Center in the summer of 2008, York taught English in Morocco and wrote “CultureSmart! Morocco,” a guide to Moroccan culture. Throughout her career, she has hosted presentations about using online tools for digital activism in the Arab world. On March 31, York was one of three panelists who discussed social media and popular uprisings at an event hosted by Open Media and Lesley University in Cambridge.

When York enrolled in college 10 years ago at Binghamton University in New York, she said she “knew very little about the world.” As a result, she chose to study sociology with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

“It was the first time I had started studying global history. I’m from New Hampshire, and our education system doesn’t necessarily emphasize the rest of the world,” she said.

On May 1, York will move to San Francisco to begin working as the director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which confronts issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights.

“I think her new career is basically the logical next step for her. Ultimately, what Jillian stands for is free speech. She’s a free speech lady,” Weddady said from his office on Huntington Avenue in Boston. “On the face of it, people get hung up on the technologies and blogs, but deep down, the core issue is the quest for free speech – questioning it and upholding it in cyberspace.”

With the rise of social media, the boundaries between professional reporters and citizen journalists have been blurred, York said. But the important aspect now is the possibility for cooperation and collaboration between reporters and amateur writers around the world.

“There is so much of the world to grasp, and I think that we can learn so much about it through its citizens and their use of social media,” she said. “There will always be language issues, there will always be translation issues, but I think that all of the technology is bringing the whole world a lot closer to us. It’s just our job to seek it out.”

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Everyone must play a role in Earth Day

As I have mentioned in previous posts, concentrating on the Egyptian revolution this semester has also led me to consider human rights and environmental issues around the world.

The following is an excerpt from my recent column in The Huntington News:

When the recycling bins in my six-person apartment overflow with plastic cans and piles of paper, I can’t help but think back to the days when I didn’t pay attention or care about the small steps I can take to protect and improve the environment. I thought my sister – who loved to recycle – was an environmental freak. She dug through the trash at home when we were in middle school and criticized my parents for throwing away a plastic container or the tiniest piece of scrap paper.

“You just don’t get it,” she would say to us.

Because of my sister’s influence and public awareness about sustainability, over the years I eventually learned the importance of “being green,” even if it means recycling the smallest items. Although I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t buy all organic food, skin and hair care products, it doesn’t mean I don’t recycle, try to live and act as sustainably as possible and care about the environment. Because I do. So do billions of other people around the world who will celebrate the 41st Earth Day next week on April 22.

Each year, Earth Day inspires individuals and organizations to demonstrate their commitment to environmental protection and sustainability, according to the Earth Day Network’s website. The first Earth Day in 1970 was intended to inspire awareness and appreciation for the environment. And it did just that.

The then-Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson took a lead role in 1970 to organize the first Earth Day, or environmental teach-in, with a focus on the United States by responding to widespread environmental degradation. Denis Hayes, an environmental activist, took Earth Day international in 1990 when he organized events in 141 countries. Now, more than 175 countries celebrate Earth Day, which is internationally coordinated by the Earth Day Network.

In the years leading to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, many Americans were concerned about what they saw as unchecked air and water pollution, and the destruction of forests and other ecosystems. Rivers were catching on fire, lakes were dying and the bald eagle was on the verge of extinction. On April 22, 1970, one in every 10 Americans took part in rallies, concerts, educational programs and cleanup projects to raise awareness for this set of issues.

“There were a lot of things happening at the time that really influenced me and other people of my generation,” said Carol Rosskam, sustainability program manager at Northeastern, in an interview last week. “Activism was a really big part of [my life] when I grew up, so I think [Earth Day events] are important. It’s a reminder, and it’s a good chance to learn something new, and to bring everything together and have a little fun.”

The public outcry in 1970 led to political action: Congress passed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, and created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Forty-one years later, the annual observance is a global event with more than one billion people taking part in a multitude of events to encourage people to care about the planet. There has been a surge in environmental activism, and I think our generation plays a major role. At least one dozen student groups and university offices will host Northeastern’s Earth Day event next Thursday. Students can celebrate their dedication to the environment and the end of the semester by attending the Spring Fling event on the International Village lawn between noon and 4 p.m.

“The importance is to use [the event] as an educational opportunity to acknowledge Earth Day 41,” Rosskam said. “It gives us another chance to get people together on campus and look at different educational information opportunities, and also to have fun and celebrate the end of the term.”

At the zero-waste event, which is sponsored by the Department of Housing & Residential Life, Office of Sustainability & Energy Management and Office of Student Affairs, attendees can participate in games, a barbecue, giveaways of energy-efficient devices and a dunk tank. Student groups and university departments focused on sustainability and environmental activism will host information tables. In addition, Melodeego, a Boston-based band that combines their passions for music and an end to human and earth injustices, will perform during the afternoon.

“We still need to keep growing the level of discussion and engagement,” Rosskam said. “We need to do what we can in our spheres and influences of life to try to facilitate positive change because who else is going to do it? We still have a long way to go.”

First inserted photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Second inserted photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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A publication that reinvented itself for the changing times

Yesterday my “Reinventing the News” class visited the Christian Science Monitor, which is located at 210 Massachusetts Ave. The international news organization delivers global coverage through its website, weekly magazine, daily news briefing, e-mail newsletters and mobile website. The Christian Science Monitor is a non-profit publication whose revenue has been supplemented by the Christian Science Church since its founding in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy.

As Professor Kennedy pointed out, the tour didn’t include seeing any printing presses. It is 2011, after all. On the tour’s first stop, we observed the 10 a.m. editors’ meeting. Eight people, including two interns, sat around a conference table and discussed the stories of the day, analyzed web traffic and decided when to post articles online. As I listened to the conversation, I noticed a wall that was covered in past magazine cover stories. I enjoyed reading the headlines, which ranged from asking if the Supreme Court should look more like America, to natural disasters and uprisings in the Middle East. Some of the phrases that caught my eye were, “Islam and the West,” “The Rising Cost of Kids,” “Reflection on Us: What the Movies Say About America’s State of Mind,” “A New Era: How the Middle East Turmoil Will Reshape the World,” “The Royals: Do Monarchies Still Matter?” and “Natural Disasters: What Have We Learned?”

Editors view the colon as an important punctuation mark in headlines.

The editor, John Yemma, told us the editorial team has planned cover stories through the end of May. He emphasized the importance of using the colon in headlines to distinguish their articles from similar stories in other publications, such as The New York Times, BBC and the Guardian. The Christian Science Monitor’s competitors are much larger publications. Yemma said he sees The Economist as their biggest competitor.

Editors discussed the stories of the day in the morning news meeting.

In 2009, the Christian Science Monitor shifted from being a daily newspaper to a multimedia news organization. According to an article written by Professor Kennedy, circulation exceeded 230,000 at its peak in the early 1970s. Now, 60 to 70 percent of the team’s effort goes into the website, and the rest is put into the weekly publication. The website received 30 million page views last month. But the editors can’t count on people visiting the homepage because the Christian Science Monitor isn’t geographically based, such as Boston.com. Interestingly, Yemma said most readers who visit the website don’t see the homepage because they access articles through Google News and other online news platforms.

Most of the reporters work in the field, not in the newsroom on Massachusetts Avenue.

The editors mentioned photo galleries, list stories and quizzes as the components of multimedia that have been successful for the Christian Science Monitor. The “Are You Smarter Than an Atheist?” quiz “has gone viral,” Yemma said.

While showing us the newsroom, Yemma said the editors’ and reporters’ main goal is to present the news in ways that interest people. I think the Christian Science Monitor team is wisely using the ideas of multimedia journalism and social media that I have learned in Professor Kennedy’s class throughout the semester.

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Muslim model competes to represent Great Britain

Shanna Bukhari is competing to become the first Muslim to represent Great Britain at the Miss Universe Pageant in September. After entering the contest and advancing to the final round in the United Kingdom, though, the 24-year-old has received indirect threats online for disrespecting Islam.

As a Muslim, Bukhari, of Manchester, is hoping to send a message to other Islamic women that beauty competitions should not be off limits to Muslim women. She believes they should have the ability to adopt Western lifestyles and practices in Great Britain. People in society choose not to work and not to adhere to traditional values, so individuals shouldn’t judge her decision to participate, she said.

Last month, she told CNN:

“I believe the media made my religion and where I come back from an issue and a highlight. My intentions were not to bring my religion into this. I’m proud of where I do come back from … It’s not something I thought I would be getting attacked on.”

According to the Guardian, Bukhari is familiar with intolerance: When she was nine, she went to the hospital after a man screamed racist words and threw a brick at her. As a result, Bukhari suffered a blood clot and required surgery.

Although Bukhari is from Great Britain, the story interested me because of her religion. I am not a fan of beauty pageants, but the story caught my eye because Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country.

I think Bukhari’s struggle with the public and the media is a recent portrayal of how “experts” in the media specialize in the Middle East without actually learning about the region. In the Introduction to Covering Islam, author Edward Said reiterates his concern that the Western media distort the realities of Islam because of opinionated journalists who lack experience, language skills and recognition of historical development. As Said says in his book, the Western media are guided by an evident and disproportionate discourse of fear about the Muslim world, and make incorrect assumptions about the religion and its followers. The “experts” offer the comforting appearance of inside information when, in reality, their observations are inaccurate.

Said says the media’s isolation of Muslim people in news reports is offensive and would not be used to refer to any other religious or demographic group in the world. Consequently, I think the media’s concentration on Bukhari’s religion has allowed individuals to threaten her. I support her decision to enter the competition, and hope she advances to the final round.

After the Miss Universe Great Britain competition on May 1, the winner will advance to the final round in Sao Paulo, Brazil on September 12.

First inserted photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Second inserted photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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On the lookout for “good journalism”

With the presence of social media and a plethora of available information online, the boundaries have been blurred between the experienced journalist and the citizen journalist. With the Internet, it is simple for individuals to browse news stories casually and quickly. Often, people only read articles that adhere to their beliefs. The method is known as the “Lazy Shortcut,” said Mike LaBonte, an editor, founding member and reviewer for NewsTrust.net.

By allowing members of the website to submit and review articles, NewsTrust is the public’s guide to good journalism. Readers can rate news stories and opinion pieces from mainstream and independent sources (even Vanity Fair!). The categories that NewsTrust distinguishes as “good journalism” include fairness, facts, sources, context, relevance and trust of publications. Members can also write comments to justify the reasons they reviewed an article with a high or low rating. In addition, reviewers can rate other members to increase or decrease their reliability.

NewsTrust, which was established in 2005, is a nonprofit news service that emphasizes civic engagement. The website is still growing, but it needs an enormous amount of people participating for it to be meaningful to the public, LaBonte said. By using the website, members can become critical readers of the news. In my opinion, though, anyone passionate about news should already have a critical eye when reading and listening to the news. (And consumers who aren’t paying attention, well, that’s an issue in itself.) Journalists and consumers of news need to be analytical – of the mainstream media, bloggers, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other sources, always. I appreciate the platform that NewsTrust provides to rate different aspects of quality journalism. Every day I read various news sources and watch different television programs to learn about the news. As a result, I believe I already assess news reports with similar qualifications that NewsTrust provides.

When I began reviewing five articles for a class assignment, the website was confusing to navigate (I still don’t understand why some articles are “pending”). By my third review, I understood that the article I wanted to read would open in another window on the screen, along with the review page. A few days ago I posted two articles, but later wished to remove them from the website. There were no visible “delete” or “remove” buttons, so the articles are still posted under my username.

I was pleased to see a variety of articles on NewsTrust related to my beat. There are certainly several stories about Egypt and other uprisings occurring in the Middle East. I agree with LaBonte that the website allows the empowerment of citizens and encourages consumers to be critical about the news, but it was time consuming. Sometimes I barely have enough time to check the news sources I visit each day! After I reviewed each article, I browsed through other comments. I didn’t think many of the comments were particularly helpful or insightful. I think NewsTrust is a reliable and resourceful tool to use, if people have time. I reviewed “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” on Sunday, but four days later it was still located under the “Top Stories” heading. I enjoyed the article and gave it a 3.7, but there must be another recent and relevant story to replace it on the homepage. Four days is a lifetime in the news business!

I think NewsTrust needs a faster turnover of stories during each day to keep readers interested and to gain new reviewers. In fact, I didn’t know NewsTrust existed until Professor Kennedy mentioned it in class. I wasn’t aware of their blog or Facebook and Twitter accounts until I read the “About” page. Ideally, the reviews would be less time consuming and easier to access if a link to NewsTrust could appear at the end of articles in various news outlets. Instead of reading a story in The New York Times, posting it and, finally, reviewing it on NewsTrust, it would be simple if members could click a button at the bottom of the page to review a story. Overall, after reviewing five articles, though, I appreciate the emphasis NewsTrust places on paying attention to the aspects of stories that define “good journalism.” The goal of NewsTrust is ideal, but I am concerned the general public is too lazy to read and to rate articles. That might be asking a bit too much. Unfortunately, I am pleased when I see someone simply holding a newspaper and reading it. Forget about asking them to rate a story online.

First inserted photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Second inserted photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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Faculty presentations demonstrate innovative thinking

Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design hosted two events on Tuesday to celebrate the creation of the new college. Instead of attending Professor Kennedy’s class, he invited us to the morning event. After Dean Xavier Costa’s welcome, 14 faculty members from the college’s disciplines each gave short presentations about their current research and project developments.

Professor Kennedy spoke about the New Haven Independent's non-profit and online-only model.

My favorite presentations came from two professors in the School of Journalism, of course. Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism, spoke about his book in progress that will focus on the New Haven Independent (tagline: “It’s your town. Read all about it.”). The “newspaper’s” model is working as a non-profit, online-only publication supported by grants. Costs are kept low because of its online-only component. Five staff members travel the city on bicycles with cameras and notebooks in hand. As a result of the small staff, though, there are few in-depth investigative stories on the website.

Kennedy: If the public doesn't care about the news, then journalism is endangered.

When civic engagement declines, so does the public’s reading of newspapers, Kennedy said during his presentation. If the public doesn’t care about the news, then journalism is endangered. The New Haven Independent has a small readership compared to the city’s daily, the New Haven Register.

Another engaging presentation was given by Distinguished Professor Walter Robinson, who discussed the investigative journalism reporting class he teaches. Before beginning his teaching career at Northeastern in 2007, Robinson (commonly referred to as “Robby” by his students) was a member of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team. Undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in his investigative reporting class have provided The Boston Globe with 18 page one investigative stories since 2007. In fact, I enrolled in his class during the fall 2009 semester. The class, consisting of four other students, produced a page one story about former Massachusetts Treasurer Timothy Cahill tapping firms to the state pension investor.

Professor Robinson's investigative students have produced 18 stories for The Boston Globe.

Robinson called his investigative seminar a “younger version of the Globe’s Spotlight Team.” Students “immerse themselves in the kind of journalism that changes people’s lives, and demonstrate Northeastern University’s commitment to involvement in the city,” he said. In the past, students have investigated Boston firefighters’ work shifts and pensions, which Robinson said has not created a friendly relationship between the School of Journalism and firefighters:

“If your wastebasket catches fire and no one responds, call the School of Journalism. We won’t necessarily extinguish it, but we’ll write about it.”

Other presentations I enjoyed included Justin Townsend’s speech about using light to shape scenes on theater stages. Townsend, an assistant professor of theatre, said he is interested in using real objects to light a space. Hilary Poriss, an assistant professor of music, shared her work that is focused on the history of Italian opera and product endorsement. Richard Strasser, an associate professor of music industry, spoke about the importance of social media when developing a brand image. Ann McDonald, an assistant professor for the Department of Art + Design, informed the audience about a project she is working on that teaches sixth to eighth graders about the effects of their transportation choices on the natural world. Murray Forman, an associate professor of communication studies, has focused his work on hip-hop. He concentrates on the longevity of hip-hop, which has existed longer than many people believe.

From the event, I learned that faculty in the College of Arts, Media and Design are engaged in intriguing projects. Northeastern has several masterminds working on different projects in various departments!

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A new summer itinerary

The university has spoken: The former Dialogue of Civilizations trip to Egypt will now be an excursion to Jordan and Turkey.

Jordan

Turkey

My first thoughts upon hearing the update were filled with disappointment since I spent an entire semester focusing my blog on news in a country I will not visit this summer. But, with that being said, I don’t regret my choice to focus my attention on the revolution unfolding in Egypt. While I concentrated on news from Egypt, I also learned about uprisings in other places in the region, including Tunisia, Libya and now Syria. At the very least, I have increased my knowledge about the world and am one step closer to being a well-informed global citizen.

The blog beat pushed me to attend a rally for the country in Copley Square, which was an event I might not have attended otherwise. It also allowed me to speak with local students, such as Omar Duwaji, who have become social activists in Boston fighting for their parents’ homelands in the Middle East. And, with my final project concentrated on Jillian York and social media from the Middle East, I will continue to learn about the events unfolding in Egypt and elsewhere.

Now I must research Jordan and Turkey, two countries I am not familiar with. I think I can start by understanding Jordan is one of America’s most important allies in the Middle East. Similar to Egypt, Jordan was influenced by the uprisings occurring in the region: On Feb. 1, King Abdullah II dismissed his cabinet and prime minister with the goal of calming street protests that have also been fueled by the country’s worst economic crisis in years.

As for Turkey, the United States’ relationship with the country isn’t as firm as with Jordan. For example, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly challenges the way the United States manages Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The opportunity to act as a foreign journalist for five weeks in two distant countries will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. This summer is my last opportunity to study abroad as an undergraduate student in college. I need to make the best of it!

Jordan and Turkey, here I come.

First inserted photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Second inserted photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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