A Network of Organizations Dedicated to Journalism in the Americas

Austin Forum Focuses on Digital Journalism and Democracy Austin Forum Focuses on Digital Journalism and Democracy

Members of journalism organizations in 18 countries in the Americas and Europe gathered in Austin, Texas, Sept. 11–12, 2009 for the Seventh Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas. The 48 representatives discussed current and future opportunities for digital journalism projects that will strengthen democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Austin Forum is a network of organizations that focus on media development and training in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is also an annual meeting of those organizations sponsored by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Open Society Institute’s Media Program.

This was the third year that the Austin Forum was devoted to a single topic. Last year’s meeting focused on investigative journalism, and the 2007 topic was "Press Freedom Monitoring and Advocacy in Latin America.

Digital Media and Democracy

The two-day event consisted of panel discussions that assessed the current state of digital journalism and its directions, the effects of digital technologies on journalism and democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the impact of that technology on investigative journalism.

Other panels dealt with the impact of blogs, social media and citizen journalism; and the effects of digital technologies on video production and distribution.

The program began with an assessment of the digital landscape by Rosental Calmon Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. The current growth of technology, has contributed to an unprecedented growth in citizens’ ability to participate in public debates, he said. Large media organizations no longer have the monopoly on reaching to mass audiences, and the “mass media” has, in fact, become “a mass of media” in which citizens can play a role once occupied exclusively by professional journalists, he added.

Many journalists actively embrace technology, but others trail far behind, said digital media consultant Amy Webb, the principal of Webbmedia Group. Webb noted that many journalists avoid Journalism 2.0 features such as social networking and blogging, while others may not be using programs to their full potential. She challenged individual journalists and media organizations to assess their digital capabilities, review their goals, and to adjust their strategies to ensure that all actions are following those goals.

"We are very happy with the success of the Austin Forum this year," Alves said. "The results will be reflected in greater detail in the report that we will publish in a few weeks, but we can make these observations."

"It was clear that, despite the disparities among the countries in terms of access to Internet, digital technologies are already having a strong impact on journalism and democracy in the region."

Several presentations revealed how countries with relatively low Internet penetration have used technology to build outlets dedicated to reporting news and perspectives not covered by mass media, such as Haiti's AlterPresse, which covers the democratic process; and El Salvador's digital newspaper ElFaro (The Lighthouse), which competes with corporate-owned newspapers. Other organizations have built sites specializing in political news, such as Colombia's Verdad Abierta (Open Truth), which focuses on the armed conflicts, and La Silla Vacia (The Empty Chair), which covers politics and power.

Digital technology also allows reporters to expand their information sources, reporting tools, and audiences.

“Investigative journalism, for example, has been helped by the ease of creating independent web sites for covering topics that traditional media overlook. It’s also been aided by techniques based on digital technology, and the creation of databases and Computer-Assisted Reporting,” Alves said.

New Reporting Possibilities

One panel addressed investigative journalism organizations and how they have been impacted by digital technologies. The presentations showed how long-established organizations such as Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) have integrated new technology into their work, and the individual reporting of their members. Meanwhile, the work of newer organizations has been displayed entirely on line. TheChilean Center for Journalistic Investigation and Information (CIPER) was founded on line in 2007 as a non-profit reporting center whose editorial decisions are made independently. The Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (Abraji), founded in 2002, has created databases online that help reporters cover complex topics such as organized crime.

Another panel showed how several organizations have used non-profit models to involve citizens in journalism and the formation of online communities and networks, ranging from the global to local. They include Global Voices On-Line, Gentedeapie.com (Venezuela), SoloLocal.info (Bahía Blanca, Argentina), and Gua 3.0 (Piura, Peru).

In contrast to cases in which advancements in technology have helped journalists and citizens do better reporting, Colombian journalist Hollman Morris presented a case in which technology has threatened journalists through illegal wiretaps. He spoke about "The other side of digital technologies: how governments are use technology to spy on journalists and human rights advocates—the case of Colombia."

“Even those participants at the Forum who arrived without much knowledge of digital technology left Austin enthused with the opportunities that have emerged for journalism and democratic processes, " Alves said. "But they also left worried about some threats and negative aspects that these changes bring.”

See the program of the Austin Forum.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas was created at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism in August 2002 thanks to a generous donation from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Added Mar 25, 09:32, 2010

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The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas has operated since 2002 thanks to the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.