News from the Annals of Censorship


China has launched its newest censorship tool, which has been dubbed the Great Cannon.  Unlike the Great Firewall, which stops Chinese inside China from accessing online news, the Great Cannon takes aim at websites outside China. As the Guardian writes,

The first use of the Great Cannon came in late March, when the coding site GitHub was flooded by traffic leaving it intermittently unresponsive for multiple days. The attack, using a method called “distributed denial of service” or DDoS, appeared to be targeting two specific users of the site: the New York Times’ Chinese mirror, and anti-censorship organisation

Writing in Fortune, Robert Hackett said China had “weaponised its internet”, and it could even use these means to disseminate malware.   The term was coined by a team at Citizen Lab, who wrote this report, concluding:

Conducting such a widespread attack clearly demonstrates the weaponization of the Chinese Internet to co-opt arbitrary computers across the web and outside of China to achieve China’s policy ends.  The repurposing of the devices of unwitting users in foreign jurisdictions for covert attacks in the interests of one country’s national priorities is a dangerous precedent — contrary to international norms and in violation of widespread domestic laws prohibiting the unauthorized use of computing and networked systems.

For the technically minded, here’s an illustration from Citizen Lab.

Citizen Lab

Citizen Lab

Meanwhile Turkey has blocked Facebook and Twitter this week, and there are more concerns about Facebook’s plans to to host news directly from partner organizations, especially given Facebook’s record.

Close watchers of the social media site know that most of the time you only see around 6 percent of what your friends post. For organizations who want their followers to see their posts, it’s even less…..Worse, that filtering algorithm has increasingly turned into a pay-for-play system from news organizations. Want more people to see your content? Then “boost” your posts by shelling out some money. This already has turned Facebook into something of a two-tiered content sharing system, where the rich will inevitably see their stories go “viral” (if you can even call it that) much faster than will the poor. This inequality gap will only be exacerbated as more news organizations move over to publishing directly and the pressure—whether it be overt or implied—on those holding out increases.

Final presentations begin tomorrow.  The schedule is as follows:

Tuesday: Robyn, Ella and Rana; Yardian, Evan and Savannah; Taryn, Alli and Carolyn.

Thursday: Christina, Vishal and Collin; Shelby and Kasie.

The State of Journalism




Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre, when American soldiers civilians killed more than 500 Vietnamese in 1968.  Now he’s gone to the scene of the crime to My Lai for the New Yorker.  CJR has a great Q&A where he talks about the state of journalism today:

What is your advice to younger journalists?

It’s real simple. One is: Read before you write. And the other one is: Get the fuck out of the way of the story. There’s no such thing as a sensational story. There’s a story that if you write it right is sensational.

Can you say more about the BuzzFeeds and the Gawkers of the world becoming good for investigative journalism?

There will probably always be a New York Times. And The New York Times, for all my kvetching, it’s still the paper. And it still does great investigative reporting. I can’t stand some of its foreign coverage because it’s instinctively anti-Russian, anti-Iran, anti-Syrian. I don’t like that. My own preference and my own view is: Things are more complicated than you think. There’s nothing like The New York Times, but its prognosis is it can’t be good. I’m not suggesting that its necessarily hemorrhaging money, but it can’t be good…..

What I hate to see, and what I think I see even in the mainstream papers, even in the Times, a story that, they get a tip on something, and they run the tip. Like the whole story about Hillary Clinton’s emails, they did break the story and they got a lot of credit…..I get to the point where I want to know who’s telling what. And because normally if the story hadn’t come, let’s say, from the Clintons—I’m just speaking heuristically—normally if you really got that story from someone on the inside, you would then make an effort on the inside to try and do more with it. You wouldn’t have to pay it off right away. Because when you broke the story you really didn’t know much.

And I’m not crushing his reporting. It was a fine story, and I’m glad it was done. But I just wonder who they owed that story to, because they went real quick with it. I see too many stories that are tips when they get into the paper, when I would take more time and see what’s going on in the story before I make it public.

For my second piece, the CJR autopsy on the Rolling Stone rape story, which found “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.”

“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s [the main source’s] narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.”

Here’s are some useful summaries.  Basic findings:  CALL your sources.  VERIFY any information, no matter how sensitive, from numerous sources.  BEWARE of anonymity. Give those accused an opportunity to respond to the story. CHECK and DOUBLE-CHECK all details.

Details of Tuesday’s class below

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Pulitzer Centre Guests

vietnam_002 PROJECTPAGE

Above are two images from projects by two Michigan alums, Jens Erik Gould and David Rochkind for the Pulitzer Centre.   They will talk to our class on Tuesday about these projects – respectively on TB funding in Vietnam and HIV in Honduras.  You may also want to look at Jens’ Bravery Tapes on the Huffington Post, which combines journalism, music and film.


Watch: The Islamic State (Vice)

Read: Everything You Need to Know about the Deadly Extremist Group Ravaging Iraq and Syria (Buzzfeed)

The Surreal infographics ISIS is producing, translated (Vox)

The Ukraine Crisis Explained in GIFS and Indepth Policy Papers (Clickhole)

Assignment: Write a 500-word piece analyzing one piece of coverage on your country by the non-traditional web-based media (ie Buzzfeed, Vox, Salon, Huffington Post, Vice etc).   How different is it from traditional media coverage? How effective is it? Do the same rules regarding impartiality apply for web-based media as for traditional media?

Robert Nickelsberg: On Capturing Afghanistan

For all who couldn’t make it out Monday afternoon to hear veteran photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg speak, here’s a quick synopsis and some thoughts about the talk (This is Yardain btw, filling in a blog post because my in-class presentation was cancelled).

Nickelsberg first covered Afghanistan for Time Magazine in 1988, when he grabbed a job opening at the New Delhi bureau. Since then, he’s traveled to the country over 50 times, documenting the rise and fall of the Soviets, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and US invasion, among other things.

A young Nickelsberg in Guatemala City in 1982.

Nickelsberg spent the majority of his presentation moving chronologically from ’88 to the present day,  painting a picture — or rather, expounding on already snapped pictures — of a war-torn region and its various groups, both native and foreign, fighting for power.

There were a lot of interesting facts and tidbits Nickelsberg touched on, and since Prof. Lim was kind enough to film the presentation, I transcribed a few of my favorites below:

On why photographers are cooler than writers (jk):

“You don’t get pictures by being behind the writer. And the writers can always push the photographers forward and say ‘tell us what it looks like up there’ and they hide. But that’s just the nature of the profession. It’s not a note of bravery or being crazy. It is where the pictures are.”

On the forgotten difficulties of the pre-digital era:

“I worked for a weekly so I had to get film out by Wednesday so it traveled Thursday to Europe, Thursday to Friday to New York, went straight to the lab and that was deadline for Time magazine, Friday night … And it was not simple and some the gray hair is not just from missing flights, but from trying to get my film onboard, and not get stolen or lost.”

On why the 9/11 plot wasn’t foiled:

“One thing to keep in mind is the United States closed its embassy on January 20th, 1989 and didn’t reopen it until December 17th, 2001. The United States had no embassy there, no representative, nobody picking up information … this was one of the most serious blunders that you can relate all the way back and forward to now into Iraq and Syria. We had no presence.”

And here’s his book!

ISIS Plays Nice: The Softer Side

Thanks to all who made it to Monday’s talk.   I’ve put videos of the first hour of it into Ctools, the third section is uploading at a glacial pace.

A few extra notes:  Brookings has just published a twitter census of Isis accounts.  Here’s just one chart:

accounts_year2 (1)

Brookings Institution


This Newsweek piece analysed some the study:

The authors discovered that supporters retweet content sent by others within the network as a way to counteract the high number of Twitter suspensions of key influencers.

“Part of the reason it is so effective is because it is organic, it’s from the audience that it is going after,” said Shahed Amanullah, a former senior adviser at the State Department. “These young people understand youth frustration, they understand the fascination with violence, they understand that imagery and graphics that you see in Hollywood will attract these people.”

My favourite quote, that sums it all up, “The kumbaya message does not fly through the Internet the way a beheading video does.”

But it’s clear that ISIS suspensions are bothering ISIS, who have threatened Twitter founder and employees.   An ISIS ‘hit-list’ of US military culled from social media sites could also change the online behaviour of active military members, according to NBC news, which writes:

In response, they [the Defence department] advised the service members to stay off social media or limit their use of it.

The Defense Department has already gone to considerable lengths to educate service members on the risks of using social media, from posting geotagged photographs to writing about one’s whereabouts. Its recommendations — deactivate location data, don’t talk about coming travel, don’t accept friend requests from anyone you don’t trust — are similar to those that security experts advise for just about everyone, but with the stakes potentially higher.
Finally, this fascinating Vocativ piece looks at ISIS propaganda in a more nuanced way, finding the messages it sends to people in ISIS areas is quite different.

About 45 percent of ISIS propaganda centers on its efforts to build and sustain the caliphate. Along with roadworks and local infrastructure, there’s messaging on traffic police, charity work, judicial systems, hospitals and agricultural projects…..“It’s really striking, the fact that a lot of the ISIS propaganda is their utopia narrative,” said Charlie Winter, a researcher at Quilliam, a London-based thinktank.

Interestingly, what we see is a small slice of ISIS’s public relations effort.



A Distant War



IMPORTANT NOTE: Our class will be on Monday next week at 4pm in Mason Hall Room 3356.   The photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg will talk about his time in Afghanistan, and his book A Distant War. Here’s a review of it by none other than Dexter Filkins:

[Since 1979], the Soviets retreated, in 1989, ushering in an epoch of civil war that helped to bring the Taliban to power, in 1996. And then, in 2001, came the Americans. Entire generations of Afghans—not to mention journalists, diplomats, and aid workers—have come and gone.  Not Robert Nickelsberg. Nickelsberg, a photographer, came to Afghanistan for the first time in January, 1988, on assignment for Time, to cover the Soviet occupation, and has returned regularly ever since. Nickelsberg has documented each period with searching eyes and a fearless comportment, capturing the novel and the surreal in a war that never ends.


Robert Nickelsberg

Nickelsberg has visited Afghanistan more than 50 times, and continued to take pictures throughout the Taliban years (1996-2001), when photography of human beings was banned.  In this Nat Geo interview, he describes how he did that:

 Each trip was a gamble. You had to register with foreign ministry and were given a guide and were not allowed to work without him at your side. Everything had to come onto a wish list of stories or interviews and they worked on it for you. They’re also reporting back to their seniors about you, what you’re like, if you’re some narrow-minded gringo, did you only want to take pictures of women—or of schools, when schools were closed…..  You could see if they’d take money at the end of the day, ten dollars or five dollars. If they did, you could see what did it get you the next day. You’d have to try everything—luscious meals, heavy meat lunches. If they went for the bait, so to speak, you might have a successful or fairly successful trip, or at least get to every appointment you hoped for.

Look at his website and come armed with questions.  Blog of the Week this week is shared by Carolyn Gearig and Alli Cope for writing about the pressures placed on female journalists.

The Viral President

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Images from Buzzfeed


He’s everywhere nowadays.  He’s done Vice.  He’s done Vox.  He’s done Buzzfeed.  He even made a funny vid for Buzzfeed.   The legacy media has stopped pretending not to care.   The Washington Post even ran a snarky article called Which image of Obama mugging for Buzzfeed’s cameras diminishes the presidency most, ranked.  Meanwhile, Michelle Obama danced with Ellen, having previously done push-ups with her.   For fans of the presidency, here are the White House pool reports or as one journalist called them ‘a mutually agreed upon plagiarism pact‘, courtesy of Gawker.

Thanks to Kasie Pleiness for the blog of the week.


Press Freedom in the US

China Daily


For the sake of novelty, above is a cartoon from the China Daily (note: not an unbiased source) on press freedom in the US, which accompanied an editorial called Myth of US press freedom.

For next Tuesday, please read:

The Obama Administration and the Press (CPJ) 

US Surveillance Harming Journalists, Lawyers (ACLU/HRW)

Where’s the Justice at Justice? (NYT)

BLOGPOST: We have spent a lot of time examining how journalists operate in the different countries we have chosen to blog about.  What about journalists in the US?  How much freedom do they have to operate?  Write a 500-word post about press freedom in the US in 2014 using sources such as the World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House.   Try to analyse the factors behind any change in US ranking when it comes to press freedom.