15 JANUARY 2010


The discussion forum on the state of news media and the rise of new media was organized as part of the U.N. Department of Public Information's ongoing dialogue with Member States, especially those who are members of the Committee on Information, on current communications issues. The forum, which included a panel discussion and presentations by Member States, explored the current state of the print media, discussed new media platforms and their role and heard from Member States about their use of the new media tools in connecting with their citizens.

The forum, chaired by USG Kiyo Akasaka, was attended by Member States, NGO representatives, media and staff members. A live webcast - later archived (www.un.org/webcast) - was made available through the UN website.

Highlights of the discussion:

USG Kiyo Akasaka discussed the growing use of new media by the Department of Public Information:

  • DPI is using new media to inform, engage, and mobilize audiences on UN priorities that it might not otherwise reach. In 2009, it had a number of new media "firsts." It used Twitter to promote this year's General Debate by "tweeting" excerpts of statements live from the General Assembly. Another "first" was the launch of the "Citizen Ambassadors to the United Nations" campaign on the opening day of the General Debate. The campaign encouraged people everywhere to directly engage with decision-makers by uploading videos on the United Nations YouTube channel. Earlier in the year, on 13 June, 100 days before the International Day of Peace, the Department launched a multiplatform campaign dedicated to nuclear disarmament and non proliferation titled "WMD-WeMustDisarm." Launched by the Secretary-General, the Department issued a "reason to disarm" message every day over Twitter, Facebook and MySpace.
  • While acknowledging the power and importance of new media, DPI is fully aware of the existing reality regarding access to new tehnologies in many parts of the world. For much of the developing world, access to the internet is still limited, and traditional media, such as newspapers and radio, continue to play an important role. DPI will use new media to complement its communications work currently being carried out by the traditional media.

Joshua Benton (Director, Nieman Journalism Lab, Harvard University), discussed the current state of newspapers:

  • Newspapers in some developed countries, especially in the United States and in Europe, face a serious crisis owing to declining revenue and dwindling readership. Since 2000, when the newspaper industry peaked in the United States, advertising revenue has fallen by about 50 per cent - from $60 billion annually to roughly $30 billion in 2009 in real dollars. During this time, at least 1/3 of all newspaper industry jobs in the United States have disappeared.
  • The situation is the opposite in many developing countries, such as India and China. In India, there are now approximately 62,000 newspapers. In 1976, there was one newspaper copy for every 80 Indians. Now there is one for every 20.
  • In the pre-internet age, newspapers were the main source of information. With the advent of the internet, that has changed. Newspapers come in bundles, with each newspaper "bundling" several sections together. People usually read only portions of the paper that interest them most, e.g. sports, entertainment or politics, but still pay for the entire bundle. The internet allows readers to "unbundle" according to their interests.
  • We may not care whether newspapers survive or not, but we must care whether the work done by newspapers survives or not. In most countries, newspapers continue to do public affairs journalism, which is then recycled for use by radio, TV and the internet.
  • Newspapers are adjusting to the changing realities. Some have come to realize that they need to generate new kinds of revenue and some have already diversified their investment portfolio. For example, The Washington Post Co. generates more revenue from its standardized-test-preparation business than from its newspapers. It is likely that in the future, newspapers will look different and feel different, owing to the influence of the internet.

Macon Phillips, Director of New Media at the White House (United States), discussed how the White House is making use of new media:

  • The White House is using new media tools to amplify President Obama's messages, to provide an open platform for citizens to connect directly with the Administration and to deliver the Administration's messages, by engaging with the public.
  • The White House maintains several websites (such as WhiteHouse.Gov), and uses social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as a variety of other networks. An e-mail programme allows people to come to the White House website and to obtain updates about the work of the Government. Through web chats, Administration officials dialogue with citizens. Videos, including the President's weekly address, are frequently posted.
  • Behind the scenes, the White House conducts online outreach, including outreach to new media bloggers and to those media practitioners who are focused on specific issues. A blog, maintained on the White House home page, allows Administration officials to announce and amplify policy decisions. Blogs are posted not only by officials, but by staff at all levels and even by visitors. The White House also maintains a photo page, detailing the President's work on a daily basis.
  • As part of the President's commitment to transparency, the White House posts records of visitors to its website. An "open for questions" feature allows the public to submit questions to the President and other Administration officials.. Government staff and officials are also encouraged to submit ideas for improving efficiency through a similar online feature.
  • Technology is fundamentally changing how and where people consume information and engage with one another. The use of new media by the White House is not a reduction of news media, but an expansion of all media.

Dr. Amy Khor, Chairperson, REACH (Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry@ Home), introduced Singapore's innovative approach to connect with its citizens through new media:

  • Singapore is a frontrunner in encouraging its citizens to interact with their Government using new media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • In 1985, the Government first set up a Feedback Unit to gather public feedback and to consult the public on national policies. At that time, engagement was largely done through traditional channels, such as face-to-face dialogues, mail, phone calls and fax. The Feedback Unit was restructured in October 2006 to move beyond gathering public feedback. The Feedback Unit was renamed "REACH" and was assigned three main roles: gathering and gauging ground sentiments, reaching out and engaging citizens and promoting an active citizenry through citizen participation.
  • Facebook and Twitter are two of the social networks extensively used by REACH. This has been possible largely due to near-universal access to the internet by Singaporeans. REACH also uses blogs, webchats, podcasts and other web tools to engage citizens. However, online discussion forum is the most popular feedback channel for all pre and post-policy discussion. Between January - October 2009, over 13,000 suggestions were received from individuals on all kinds of current issues that concern the citizens most.
  • REACH is still evolving. To remain relevant, it needs to keep abreast of developments taking place in new media and other communication platforms and to continuously review and revamp REACH's feedback channels.

Juliana Rotich, Project Director of Ushahidi, explained the role of cell phones in crisis situations:

  • Ushahidi was originally developed as an open source website to map reports of violence in Kenya at the beginning of 2008 after the election there. Ushahidi is now being developed to allow any person or organization around the world to gather reports of events by mobile phone, email and the web, and to map that information.
  • During the post-election violence in Kenya, Ushahidi set three specific goals: create a way for ordinary Kenyans to report incidents of violence that they saw, using the tools they had e.g. mobile phones), to create an archive of news and reports around those same events, and to show where the majority of the violence was happening. Ushahidi used a pre-existing blog to receive e-mails and SMS messages.
  • The SMS was delivered through a tool called Frontline SMS. An SMS alert was built into the platform for responders to receive feedback. This platform has now been refined to the extent that it is possible to receive information from within 500 metres of an incident being reported about.
  • In Africa, the default device for online communication is the mobile phone, where its growth has been truly phenomenal. In the last five years, there has been a 550 per cent growth in the use of mobile phones. In many parts of Africa, access to the internet is limited, but almost everyone has access to mobile phones. Because of the near universal access to the mobile phone, this device becomes extremely important in any communication strategy involving Africa. For social networkers using mobile devices, the starting point is their address book. When talking about citizen engagement, not reaching out through the mobile phone would be missing out on an important opportunity to reach the masses.
  • Ushahidi realized the importance of enabling SMS reporting in order to reach the everyday people in rural areas. For many in the developing world, who do not have access to the web, their address book is their social network. Inclusion of SMS in the paradigm of new media is helpful for strategic and operational reasons.
  • Information received from the public, as well as from the media and NGOs, is included in the Ushahidi platform, mainly through the use of a new tool called Frontline SMS. This is a free programme that turns a laptop into a hub and allows the information received to be put on a map with a timeline and pictures.
  • The power of the mobile phone is growing. In recent months, WFP has initiated a food voucher pilot in Syria using mobile phones. Similarly, the Mobile Phone Jirga is supporting dispute resolution in Afghanistan. In Ghana, a programme called M-Pedigree uses mobile phones to fight counterfeit drugs. The Ushahidi model has also been used in DRC to report violence and in Namibia to monitor elections

Presentations by Member States

Cape Verde (Ambassador Mr. Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima, Chairman, Committee on Information) discussed the "digital divide" as a major obstacle to equitable use of new media tools:

  • Much of the world is still only a passive witness to the remarkable transformation that the new information and communications technologies have brought about. The promise of a smaller, digitally connected world - the so-called global village - is still a distant dream, if not an outright mirage, for much of humanity.
  • To overcome this inequality, there are three key challenges before the world community:
    i. Turning the current digital divide into digital opportunities for the people in developing countries;
    ii. Making better use of ICT in the fight against poverty and in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals;
    iii. and promoting cultural and linguistic diversity.
  • The digital divide is further compounded by a "content divide". At present, nearly 70 per cent of the world's web sites are in English. The United Nations General Assembly has stressed the importance of linguistic parity among the six official UN languages, because only through multilingualism an the richness and diversity of the international community be experienced.
  • Another challenge is overcoming the monopolization of the media market. The realization of freedom of expression requires not only a free media but also a media which is pluralistic and diverse, which presupposes diversity of forms of ownership, more equitable access to communication, and support for linguistic and cultural diversity

Brazil (Marco Antonio Nakata, Coordinator of New Media, Press Office of the Ministry of External Relations) discussed the use of new media by the Brazilian Presidency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

  • Brazil has initiated two important digital projects - one in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the other by the Presidency of Brazil. Both use such new tools as YouTube and Twitter to connect with a much wider public directly, including those who are not media-affiliated. In the past, a press conference would be attended only by media representatives. By making the press conferences - and other official events - available on the newly created YouTube channel, the Government can go beyond the traditional media and establish direct links with the public.
  • Brazil's Foreign Ministry also uses the Twitter account. The Foreign Ministry will soon launch a platform on Flicker to share official photos on demand.
  • President Lula has launched his own blog, providing a direct connection between the Presidency and the internet public. The main objective of this blog is to promote- through multimedia resources - the speeches, official acts and ceremonies of the President directly to young people.

Japan (Kiyoshi Wada, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Japan to the UN) discussed trends of media use in Japan:

  • With its near universal literacy, most people in Japan continue to receive information mainly from traditional media sources. Japanese people spend an average of over 5 hours per day watching TV - the highest in the world. However, in recent years, the number of internet users has been going up, mainly among the youth.
  • Within print media, two types of newspapers dominate - general daily newspapers and newspapers specializing in sports. There has been a slight decrease in the circulation of daily newspapers. Ten years ago, there used to be more than one newspaper per household; now it is slightly less that one newspaper per household (0.98) , while book and magazine publication businesses have begun to and continue to decline since 1997.
  • In order to tackle the problems of "digital divide", Japan lends financial and technical support through Official Development Assistance to developing countries in the field of Information Communication Technology based on the outcomes of various international forums, such as World Summits on the Information Society, the 2005 UN World Summit, and the UN General Assembly and the Committee on Information.

Sweden, on behalf of the European Union (Peter Ericson, Counsellor and Special Adviser to the Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations) introduced the website of the European Union:

  • The website is the Presidency's most important communication channel. Its objective is to provide citizens with information and to maintain a high-level of transparency, which is of paramount importance to the EU. The target group of the EU website is the general public (including high school students and young adults), as well as communicators such as Government employees, Swedish and international media, and officials in other EU countries.
  • EU citizens receive regular updates by e-mail, text messaging, RSS and Twitter feeds. A number of senior officials maintain Twitter accounts and regularly "tweet". The EU website also includes an elaborate calendar page and contact information for over 1,000 EU officials.
  • The EU website also provides such additional information as Meet the Chair, Questions and Answers and the EU in Daily Lives. More videos are being used and live events are posted. A widget for downloads provides headlines simultaneously all over the world.

Switzerland (Johann Aeshlimann, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN) introduced its new e-voting platform.

  • E-voting (Vote électronique) - introduced in 2001 at local Cantons- is designed to allow citizens to vote from their home - or any work station- through the use of a computer with internet access. Switzerland completed a pilot phase of e-voting in 2008.
  • In the first phase, people with visual impairment, followed by Swiss citizens living abroad, will become eligible to vote electronically. It is expected that by 2015, all Swiss living abroad will be able to vote using their laptops.
  • The Government's main concern is avoiding voter fraud and hacking.

Questions and answers

On possibilities of errors on the web: Macon Phillips (White House) noted that, with the introduction of new technologies and the quick turnover of information products, there was a higher level of risk, both in terms of security and information errors. One lesson that the White House had learned with new media was that "it is OK not to be perfect." It also found that the live chat option was the most useful and easiest to organize. Administration officials found it easier to hold a live chat than to write up an actual statement.

On the complementary role of new media: Mr. Phillips argued that new media had expanded any organization's ability to connect with more people than was ever possible before. With social networks, the basic units were individuals, and behind each web page, there was an individual administering it. More people were now providing information, and a greater number of people sharing and internalizing information. As a result, there were far more people having opinions about what was being said. Obviously, with greater accessibility came the risk of greater exposure.

On internet security: Joshua Benton (Harvard University) noted that while security was a genuine concern, the advantages of social networks outweighed the risks associated with their use. Hackers would do what they have always done. In terms of errors made in the information provided, if the objective was perfection, using these new technologies was not the best solution. He also added that, by loosening control and allowing mistakes, an organization could actually "humanize" itself.

In closing, USG Akasaka announced that DPI would continue the conversation on the state of news media and the emerging role of new media that would bring together international experts, media practitioners and Member States.