April 20, 2009
The Electronic Intifada and the Challenges of Online Journalism (Part 2 of 2)

Last Friday, we ran the first part of a piece I wrote about Maureen Murphy, Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada (EI). The second part of this piece deals with the challenges journalism faces in a spreadable media environment. Murphy explains how being an online-only publication has forced EI to address issues of credibility, crediting, activism, and bias.

Though the internet allows EI to reach--and possibly enlighten--a very large audience, Murphy also has some frustrations when thinking about the internet as a medium. "I think people take web media a little less seriously," she says. This is especially frustrating because the brand of journalism EI offers readers is much more complex--and arguably more serious--than much of what's found in the mainstream press. Still, the internet as an aggregate isn't governed by standards as strict as EI's editorial policy, so the same Google search can direct a reader to EI as well as other sites with varying levels of journalistic credibility. Of course it can be argued that many major newsrooms may have questionable journalistic standards, but there is an implicit level of trust that comes with the colophon of say, the New York Times or the Washington Post.

The internet also allows for content to spread easily through social networks and interest groups. While this is good for EI in many ways, this spreadable environment poses intellectual property issues that weren't apparent in the days of print-only journalism. Murphy explains, "It's harder to keep control of your content because of the viral nature of the internet. Something published on EI will find its way to many other places without us knowing or consenting... The point of EI as an educational project is to have as wide an audience as possible so it's not like we're losing the value of our product. But when someone reproduces an article, you wish they would credit you for originally publishing." Murphy accepts that she can't do much if EI's articles are used, changed, or even plagiarized online. She sees those outcomes as consequences of internet-only distribution, and instead of being discouraged by unaccredited use of EI's content, Murphy sees a way to learn about her readers. She explains, "We try to find ways to track it. Not to enforce crediting, but to see what people are interested in reading and what's making the most impact."

Murphy considers herself an activist. She describes her role in EI, "It is my activism because it's full time work. I think it's the best role I can personally play. Some people might be good speakers, and some might be good organizers. I can use my anal retentiveness about commas to help. To have a broad understanding of the conflict and to be able to make sound judgments on editorial matters is the best role I can play." Murphy's job is not only a job then; it's a way for her to user her skill set to contribute to a cause she believes in.

EI, as a site, also fosters activism. To that end, they are currently in the process of adding community features to the site. Murphy outlines the plan: "We're hoping to develop forums for people to spread the word about cultural events and activism events--to make it a more dynamic resource for people." Murphy sees forums as a way to further engage readers by making them feel connected to EI: "We want to be a community environment where people who feel connected to the issues. We want to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Editorial procedures by nature tend to be more exclusive, so having a forum on the website would help readers feel like they're involved."

The EI team is also upgrading the site's interface to allow for more multimedia content, both and commissioned and user-generated. Murphy explains, "We are doing one thing--publishing articles and that's bringing people into the site, but what we want to do is have more user-created content and more dynamic multimedia content." By getting users more involved in EI, Murphy and her team will be better able to use the publication to encourage activism and conversation.

Activism can also be construed as bias, especially when dealing with ideas of objective journalism. Many of EI's writers are, like Murphy, heavily involved in activist causes. Rather than seeing personal involvement as a hindrance to objective storytelling, Murphy regards activist contributors as an important component of EI's mission: "It's not like they shouldn't be allowed to write about an issue just because they're involved in it. I think dispassionate journalism is more harmful than potentially biased journalism." She explains that uninvolved journalists don't have at much at stake when reporting a story: "The writers won't necessarily have an impetus to dig deeper into the story because they don't necessarily care. They just want to get who, what, where, when, why, but that's not necessarily what journalism should be. Or at least not what alternate journalism should be." Since EI provides in-depth analysis of a single issue, the potentially biased views of its writers can provide valuable insight into the conflict--insight that mainstream, "objective" journalists may not be willing or able to offer.

EI has to present itself as contextually situated while maintaining a level of transparency. EI's editorial policy ensures that the opinions of its staff do not influence the content produced. Readers frequently engage in this conversation as Murphy explains, "People ask us if we have an editorial position on whether we think a one state or two state solution to the conflict is the best way forward. We don't have an editorial position on those issues. We do consider content for whether it makes a well informed and reasoned argument."

Murphy's discussion of bias hints at the fact that all journalists are situated within a particular context and their reporting is influenced by that context. Murphy herself is no exception--she values what some may call "bias" because it allows EI's content to engage a devoted group of readers at a more personal level. Murphy also acknowledges her own activist identity in her work, so she can connect with her job on a personal level and still have the guidelines of EI's editorial policy to inform her decisions and maintain journalistic standards.