Apocalyptic Signs: how we improvise the search for meaning in disaster


During the last week, daily news of the Boston Marathon bombings and its aftermath has generated fear and a frenzy of analysis. Even though the scale and context is very different immediate references to September 11 2001 proliferated. One witness told the BBC it felt “like new York all over again” another witness described the aftermath to USA Today as “like a scene from 9/11”.

September 11 has become an archetype for contemporary apocalypse and concepts from apocalyptic studies can help us make sense of some of the news and the way it is being processed.

The apocalyptic is a world view found in all religions but in the West one which draws its ideas from the opaque last book of the bible: The Book Of Revelation. This book predicts the end of the world in a series of cryptic visions of wars, plagues, disasters, multi headed beasts and cruel torture that ultimately ushers in a new millennium – a thousand year reign of peace. When disaster strikes apocalyptic thinking creeps in. It has become a deeply embedded Western template for constructing contemporary events. In the words of feminist theologian Catherine Keller many groups from politicians to the news media are in the grip of an “apocalypse habit”.

Rhetorical use of calamity

Scholars have long argued that catastrophic events seed development of apocalyptic fervour. They have looked to the prevalence of social or natural catastrophic events or psychological dissatisfaction among apocalyptic groups to explain how a prevailing anomie or break down of social meaning interacts with a compelling event to produce an apocalyptic mindset. However in arguing for a rhetorical view of the apocalypse Stephen O’Leary argues that sociological or psychological explanations are not complete explanations of either specific or general outbreaks of apocalyptic fervour. He suggests that the persuasive force of apocalyptic argument is often the key facilitating factor:

“Even if we allow that events such as earthquakes, wars, and depressions are experienced as disasters by virtually everyone, not every event of this kind is accompanied by an increase in apocalyptic conversion. Some occurrences, on the other hand, are viewed as disasters because a rhetor succeeds in persuading an audience with this definition; and only rhetoric can turn any disaster, real or perceived, into a sign of the imminent end…The issue is not whether audiences are predisposed by such experiences to accept apocalyptic arguments, but how apocalypse contextualizes disasters as a ”rhetorical use of calamity.”

Although large sections of the media have quickly claimed this as an apocalyptic event screaming headlines of Terror, what has been notable in the response to the Boston Bombings is the restraint with which President Obama has framed the bombings: pleading with Americans to avoid a rush to judgment. Obama did engage with a “rhetorical use of calamity” but he chose to focus on the millennial – hopeful – aspects of the apocalyptic drama not the cataclysmic. He used the catastrophic events to assert that in the response to disaster Americans have “seen the character of our country once more.” In this way he reclaimed the apocalyptic as “revelation” of hope rather than calamity. This is in sharp contrast to President Bush’s post September 11 rhetoric of “an axis of evil” and an apocalyptic delineation of enemies: if you are not with us you are against us.

Semiotic promiscuity

Because the apocalyptic tradition emerges out of a series of cryptic visionary texts a key mark of the “apocalypse habit” is scouring “the signs of the times,” for “wars and rumours of wars” (Matt 26:6) that might confirm the pattern of the end times.

Richard Landes says that for those “who enter apocalyptic time everything quickens” and they become “semiotically aroused”, they seek patterns and meaning in both big and small events. Christopher Partridge calls this tendency to latch onto news and other events and view them through the apocalyptic frame: “semiotic promiscuity”. Albert Baumgarten argues that apocalyptic movements deploy what he terms a “spiritual radar” in this process:

“A spiritual radar goes on to seek confirmation of the millennial message in a variety of contexts, including events of the age, both good and bad (sometimes even good and bad at the very same time), chronological reckonings of different sorts and Biblical interpretation. This search proceeds by triangulation: as many different independent lines of argument as possible are developed to confirm the conclusion that the end is in fact near.”

As Jesse Walker has pointed out this mentality has clearly been on view in the media in the last week. Immediately after the bombings commentators were seeking clues: did this mesh with Al-Qaeda’s tactics, did the date – Patriot’s Day – indicate a homegrown right wing plot. The scanning of CCTV footage and other digital images by both the FBI and ameuter sleuths and the foraging on suspects social networking sites became a particularly contemporary versions of this apocalyptic “semiotic arousal”. But as one moderator of the crowdsourcing site Reddit acknowledged the frantic search for signs and tips can lead to “witch hunts” such as the targeting of missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.

Improvisational millennialism

Michael Barkun points out that many of the contemporary millennial or apocalyptic groups do not fit the standard typology of either religious or secular. Some movements engage in what he calls “improvisational millennialism:” they draw from a variety of disparate sources such as Revelation, Nostradamus, “New Age” spirituality and right wing politics.

“The appeal of these collages lies in their claim to provide holistic and comprehensive pictures of the world. The variety of their elements implies that the belief system can explain a comparably wide range of phenomena, from spiritual to the scientific and the political. The combinations also suggest that apparent contradictions can be resolved, and that an underlying unity transcends outward differences.”

The emerging picture of Tsarnaev brothers does not suggest a clear ideological picture. Yes there are extremist videos on Tamerlan’s YouTube channel, but there is rap, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones on Dzhokhar’s Twitter account. The New York Times says they had feet in two worlds but the reality is like most contemporary multimedia literate youth their feet, their eyes and their hearts were dancing fast across many screens, drawn into many worlds.

It is very likely that they were improvising anger – drawing signs from many sources and a range of ideologies – just as we have been trying to improvise hope and meaning as we confront disaster and tragedy. This does not make either their anger or our hope any less real or troubling.


Why you can’t expect any real change from the new pope


Towards the end of the pontificate of John Paul II a genial Melbourne priest said to me: “You just wait until the Pole falls off his perch – the Holy Spirit will rush through the church.” He sincerely believed that John Paul’s conservative leadership was an anomaly and a future pope with a progressive vision would save the church.

It puzzles me that both progressives in the church and journalists continue to talk and write as if change within the church is still possible. There are in fact very few signs that the church, at a structural level, is open to change in any meaningful way.

The ABC’s Michael Rowland interviewing the Sydney Archdiocesan spokesman Fr Brian Lucas, straight after the papal election yesterday asked whether the election of Pope Francis would be a disappointment for moderate Catholics because of the Argentinian’s strong positions on abortion and gay marriage. While in some senses Rowland was absolutely right to raise this, such discussion, assumes the papal election followed the conservative/progressive binaries of other political events. This misses the essential point. There was no progressive candidate for pope. There was not even really a moderate one.

The church will not change its views on abortion: even many of the Church’s most progressive figures such as Jesuit activist Daniel Berrigan are stridently anti-abortion.

While there are windows of hope in other areas of reform – even some Cardinals have broken ranks on the issue of women priests – any such reform will realistically take decades.

I do not hold any real hope for change on the issue of homosexuality and marriage equality. If women priests can conceivably be envisioned in some future church, decades hence, a pro-gay church is a much less obvious, much more distant possibility. But the reality is that the churches are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the legislative agenda around the world as witnessed in the new Pope’s own Argentina where marriage equality was enacted against the then Cardinal Bergoglio’s protests.

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires the new pope said plans for gay and lesbian marriage was a “destructive attempt to end God’s plan.” But even in the strongly Catholic country Bergoglio’s views on gay marriage and adoption won him a rebuke from Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner who said his statements sounded like they came from “medieval times and the Inquisition.”

The election of Bergoglio as Pope Francis took pundits by surprise even though as most of them knew he was the runner-up in the 2005 conclave that elected Cardinal Ratzinger as Benedict XVI .

Although many eyes were on the possibility of a Latin American candidate the 76 year old Bergoglio’s age was seen to count against him. His humble pastoral approach – as we now all know he apparently lived in a sparse apartment rather than the traditional Archbishop’s Palace, cooked his own meals, and traveled by bus – also seemed to count against him in an election where many claimed what the church needed was “Jesus with an MBA”.

As always there are many puzzles presented by this election. They all arise from the fact that the Vatican eschews any sense of transparency in almost any of its internal processes. So no matter what any pundit might predict there are bound to be unforseen twists and turns.

On the one hand Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told the media after the election that the choice of the humble priest who took the bus to work amounted to a “refusal of power” and “was absolutely radical.”

However his inexperience in the Roman Curial machinery may mean he will be incapable of leading much needed reform. Perhaps the election of a 76 year old with only one lung is in fact not “absolutely radical” but a “highly pragmatic” move on the part of the curial block of cardinal electors who wish to hold off effective change.

Many commentators have hailed Bergoglio’s election as signalling a strong concern for poverty and social justice. Indeed some of the new pope’s previous statements indicate a radical stance on social inequality and global social debt.

There are big questions about the new Pope’s collusion with the murderous Argentinian regime of the 1970s. His critics claim a disturbing lack of action, during General Jorge Rafael Videla’s brutal and murderous dictatorship.

Bergoglio claimed in a 2010 interview that he had in fact been a strong opponent of the regime behind the scenes.

However the question remains: what does it say about a man who is prepared to stridently and publically lead challenges against legislation to give gay men and lesbians equality while he was not prepared to publically condemn a murderous brutal dictator responsible for “disappearing” up to 30,000 opponents?

Certainly the story of Bergoglio’s true role during the post Peronist dictatorships in Argentina will now become the focus of investigative journalists around the world. It has the potential to become yet another festering sore in the ongoing public scandal of the Catholic Church.

No winds of change swept through the church after the death of John Paul II, as my priest friend hoped. His successor Benedict, has in fact, left it in a much sorrier state. The Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires has symbolically linked himself to the poor but he hasn’t shown any strategic ability to lead widespread structural change or stand up to real injustice. That’s what the church needs: not more theatrical foot washing.

Why America is still in the grip of torture

Jessica Chastain play's Zero Dark Thirty's obsessive CIA hero.

Jessica Chastain play’s Zero Dark Thirty’s obsessive CIA hero.

Last week the LA premier of Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was picketed by hood wearing activists protesting its depiction of torture. In Washington, outside the Whitehouse, Codepink, the feminist peace group, were protesting the announcement that John Brennan, a former CIA analyst said to have supported the Bush torture and rendition programs had been nominated to be the Director of Central Intelligence.

Four years after George Bush left the Whitehouse and just as President Obama is about to be inaugurated for his second term. The issue of torture is still a raw wound in the American psyche.

Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, is an Oscars contender for best film but it has been causing controversy even before production began. It begins with graphic torture scenes and its critics say it leaves the impression that information extracted from prisoners under torture was critical in locating the al Qaida leader. Three US senators, Diane Feinstein chair of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Carl Lewin chair of the Armed Services committee and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, found this implication so disturbing they have sent a letter of protest to Sony, the picture’s producers. Naomi Kline went so far as to call Bigelow a Leni Riefenstahl apologist for torture.

The Senators wrote that their staff had reviewed 6 million pages of intelligence material in the course of a recent review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and it “is factually inaccurate” for the film to “imply that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden”.

The senators are fulsome in their condemnation of torture:

The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.

The senator’s language about “going back to these dark times” seems to echo president Obama’s justification for not prosecuting Bush era crimes by stating that he believes the nation needs “to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.

It is striking that in spite of her condemnation of torture Senator Feinstein took quite a different view of Brennan’s nomination, releasing a statement saying:

Clearly, Mr. Brennan has the qualifications and expertise to be the next CIA Director.  He has longstanding knowledge of the operations of this critical agency and also the strength to see that it follows the law.  I believe he will be a strong and positive director.

When it was rumored that Obama would nominate Brennan for the CIA job four years ago, at the start of his first term, Brennan was forced to withdraw from consideration because of his apparent support of Bush era torture policies. As a number of commentators have pointed out (here and here ) that four years on this does not seem to be an insurmountable hurdle. Polls suggest that more Americans now support torture as a valid policy in the fight against terrorism than they did four years ago.

It is tempting to argue that that is because the American public have become inoculated to the horrors of torture through its recurrent use in TV series like 24 or movies like Bigelow’s. That argument is an easy out. The more serious reason is that Obama has failed to hold anyone to account for the Bush torture and rendition policies. Even cases of brutal detainee deaths have been dismissed.  It is not just left wing activists who are calling these Bush era policies “war crimes.” In 2008 Major General Antonio Taguba who headed the inquiry into Abu Ghraib wrote:

“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes…The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

Both Bigelow’s film and Brennan’s nomination have become lightening rods for controversy and protest because as Senator Feinstein and her colleagues wrote in their letter of protest:

The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience.

This stain will not disappear. Perhaps Obama is right that no good purpose will be served by prosecutions but perhaps he should learn from other countries who have initiated strong process of national reconciliation and accountability. In a 2009 conference presentation Paul van Zyl the former executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggested that America needed a similar process in the post-Bush era. It was briefly reported but is not an idea that gained traction.

There have been a series of reports and investigations such as the investigation into the CIA’s practices that Feinstein’s committee has overseen but the report has not been made public. Reports of the details of the Bush torture program have leaked out gradually through the hard work of journalists and activists rather than in a cohesive transparent process that is designed to come to terms with such a fundamental breach of national values.

Just as the Australian federal government has finally decided that only a full Royal Commission can address the national horror around child abuse only a national US commission of inquiry can hope to lay to rest the ongoing American and international horror around state sponsored torture.


Celebrities should come out

The New Yorker Festival 2012 - "Cloud Atlas" US Premiere, Followed By A Conversation With Aleksander Hemon And The Film's Writer-Directors

Lana Wakowski’s HRC speech negotiates the ethics of publicness much more adroitly than Jodie Foster’s Golden Globes speech


A lot has been written over the last few days about Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech. Foster’s meandering, oblique but strangely compelling speech was an immediate viral hit.

It was a coming-out speech although she didn’t mention the “l” word. But as rhetorician Sam Leith has pointed out this may be part of its power. It was as he points out a very deft performance not despite its ambiguity but because of it.

Last year another Hollywood megastar gave a coming out speech that drew comparatively little publicity.

Lana Wakowski who, with her brother Andy, directed the Matrix Trilogy accepted a Visibility award from the American GLBTI rights group Human Rights Campaign and like Foster gave a quirky, endearing but much more explicit speech about her gender identity.

Both Foster and Wakowski spoke about valuing their privacy and both mocked the pantomime of confessional culture. But Wakowski’s critique has political bite while Foster’s is little more than a jokey jibe.

Foster said that she had already long ago done her coming out to friends and family but “now I’m told, apparently, that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show.”

Wakowski has also been out for over a decade to her friends and family – a process that started in Sydney while she was filming the Matrix – and like Foster she rejected the idea of parading her gender identity through the talk show mill. But unlike Foster her speech has real analysis:

I am completely horrified by the “talk show,” the interrogation and confession format, the weeping, the tears of the host whose sympathy underscores the inherent tragedy of my life as a transgender person. And this moment fulfilling the cathartic arc of rejection to acceptance without ever interrogating the pathology of a society that refuses to acknowledge the spectrum of gender in the exact same blind way they have refused to see a spectrum of race or sexuality.

Foster went on to mourn the lost virtues of privacy. Foster, now fifty, was accepting a career achievement award from the Golden Globes but as she noted she had been a star since she was three.

But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy. Someday, in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.

Wakowski also talks about privacy but not as a nostalgic lost beauty. Again her reasons for valuing privacy and agreeing to give it up are more complex. Neither her nor her brother have done interviews for over twelve years. They valued the “egalitarian invisibility” of anonymity which gives you a particular access to civic space and allows a regular participation in public life, she says.

After completing their last film Cloud Atlas, for a variety of reasons they began to discuss whether they might do interviews. During these discussions Wakowski recalled a line from one of the characters in the film. The character says: “If I had remained invisible, the truth would have remained hidden and I couldn’t allow that.”

Wakowski comments: “she says this aware that even at the moment she’s saying it that the sacrifice she has made will cost her her life…. I start to understand just how complex the relationship between visibility and invisibility has been throughout my life.”

In the rest of the speech Wakowski recounts a number of key incidents in her movement from invisibility to visibility.

We live in a radically new environment that media academic Jeff Jarvis calls “the age of publicness”. He argues that the fact that we now live much of what was once regarded as private in the public domain has brought great personal and communal benefits. It enables better collaboration. It breaks down taboos. It enables the “wisdom of crowds”. And it improves relationships. It enables gay men, lesbians and trans people to live open and productive lives.

Jarvis has written about this both as a media theorist and as a public survivor of prostate cancer. He argues convincingly that by going public about his cancer in talks and blog posts he not only contributed to an environment that may encourage other men to be tested but he gained lots of useful information and support in response.

Privacy advocates are quick to remind us about the ethics of privacy. In his book Public Parts Jarvis argues that we need to think about both the ethics of privacy and the ethics of publicness. While we are certainly obliged to think carefully and act respectfully when handling the informational lives of others, we also need to think ethically about the impact of our own public declarations. Ethics are about how we contribute to the public good and we do this as much through sharing publically as we do by respecting the private lives of others. Jarvis again uses the cancer example. By being public a breast cancer patient might inspire other women to get examined, or her public declaration may even reveal a up a cluster of cancers in her environment that need investigation.

It is strikingly clear that Wakowski has thought long and hard about the ethics of publicness while Jodie Foster remains focused on the values of privacy.

Wakowski realises the public good that comes from visibility – the lives that might potentially be saved – and knows this far outweighs any abstract value that might attach to her privacy. That is often what ethical decision making is about: weighing up the relative costs and benefits of two seemingly mutually exclusive actions. She concludes:

[As a teenager] I couldn’t find anyone like me in the world and it felt like my dreams were foreclosed simply because my gender was less typical than others. If I can be that person for someone else [pause, applause] then the sacrifice of my private civic life may have value. I know I am also here because of the strength and courage and love that I am blessed to receive from my wife, my family and my friends. And in this way I hope to offer their love in the form of my materiality to a project like this one started by the HRC, so that this world that we imagine in this room might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds previously unimaginable.

There may well be complex personal reasons why celebrities remain in the closet but to justify it with a nostalgic appeal to the “beautiful” days of lost privacy is no longer ethically convincing.

Apocalypse 2013

Jaden Smith stars in M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth...1000 years after the cataclysm

Jaden Smith stars in M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth…1000 years after the cataclysm


The last few years have begun with predictions of the Apocalypse hanging over us.

2011 was supposed to bring the Rapture with US preacher Harold Camping first saying it would come in May then readjusting his sights to October. Last year, of course, brought us the Mayan Apocalypse, which passed with lots of parties but no lasting fireworks just before Christmas.

With solar activity expected to reach a cyclical peak in 2013 this year was shaping up as another big year for apocalyptic fears however NASA have recently downgraded their predictions for solar storms. So does this mean that we can have a year off apocalyptic frenzies?

Probably not.

A look at Hollywood’s release list for this year tells us that 2013 will be anything but apocalypse free.

Diabolo Cody’s remake of the Sam Rami classic The Evil Dead continues the zombie explosion of recent years while Brad Pitt also gets to run from a zombie apocalypse and go all out to protect his family in World War Z

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Tom Cruise, Will and Jaden Smith and Guillermo Toro all have post-apocalyptic blockbusters scheduled and this year we even get apocalyptic comedy. The Shaun of the Dead team are back with Worlds End where five mates unite for a pub crawl that could literally end all pub crawls.

Closer to home the National Geographic Channel’s new season of Doomsday Preppers begins this week. Their episode guide promises stories of a tornado-fearing farmer building an underground Noah’s Ark for his animals and a family man preparing for a nuclear-powered terrorist attack. The series brings us weekly stories from the survivalist movement who are going all out to prepare for the worst.

When Doomsday Prepper’s first season launched last year it fitted the 2012 zeitgeist but the new season has a more eerie resonance with the widely reported news that the Sandy Hook school shooter’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was a prepper.

As J. M Berger pointed out in Foreign Policy it is far too easy to blame either his mother’s enthusiasm for guns or her survivalist beliefs for the horrific events in Newtown. However survivalist doomsday beliefs have been associated with a number of other terrorist and shooting deaths. Berger points out that there is very little research about the mental state of preppers. However he believes “anecdotal observations” point to a higher incidence of mental illness among hardcore preppers than in the general population. He adds:

The nature of their beliefs and social networks may create obstacles to diagnosis and treatment. There can be fine lines between reasonable fear, intense fear, and irrational fear, and some preppers subscribe to conspiracy theories that are completely nuts, focused on supposed threats from sinister “chemtrails” to the Illuminati (or both and then some). World ending, conspiratorial beliefs are easy to dismiss as symptoms of possible mental illness but sociologists, psychologists, theologians and literary scholars who have studied apocalyptic narratives and beliefs are more inclined to speak of them as a form of sense making. We do after all live in a nerve wrecking unstable world where in fact preparation for disaster is anything but crazy.

Apocalypse is the Greek name of the last book of the Christian Bible and colloquially it has come to mean a world-ending catastrophe because of that book’s fiery visions of plaques, famines, earthquakes, wars and global slaughter. But the word is Greek for “revelation” or “unveiling”. The proliferation of apocalyptic myths are in fact trying to tell us something, trying to reveal something. And their message is just as much about a possible golden future as it is about a gloomy end. The apocalyptic myth is uniquely associated with the utopian: they are two sides of the one coin. The bible’s Book of Revelation is filled with horrible world-ending visions but it ends with the promise of 1000 years of peace.

Even Hollywood’s slate of apocalyptic disaster films aren’t as black and white as they seem. Western Australian academic Mick Broderick has suggested that rather than analyse these films, which undoubtedly celebrate a dazzling array of cataclysmic moments, under the rubric of the “aesthetics of disaster,” as Sontag famously did, they ought more rightly be seen as being primarily about survival.

The apocalyptic myth, which seems to exist in one form or another in all cultures, is doing what all classic myth does. It is trying to hold in tension two opposite possibilities and imagine what might emerge.

American writer Rebecca Solnit might be described as an archetypal apocalyptic writer. She first came to fame with a book that contrasted the disaster impregnated landscape of the Nevada nuclear test site and the paradisiacal Yosemite National Park. In her latest book A Paradise Built in Hell she has written about how communities come together and surprise with their resourcefulness in times of disaster. Just before Christmas last year Solnit issued a call to arms claiming 2013 was “Year Zero” for the planet. Like other activists Solnit is concerned that we are reaching a tipping point in the ongoing environmental crisis, perhaps a point of no return. But Solnit like a true apocalypticist uses this grave fact to point towards a revelation:

The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens.

She spends the rest of her article outlining the proliferation of creative grassroots responses to climate change rather than the standard list of worsening indicators.

Theologian Catherine Keller calls this attitude “counter-apocalyptic”. It is not ignoring the disaster to come nor is it merely anti-apocalyptic, which runs the risk of buying into easy black and white posturing of its own. It is a posture of hope that stands firmly in the swirl of apocalyptic omens predicting bad endings and dreams a future. A future that Solnit reminds us is only built through imagination, hope and hard work.

A shorter version of this was published in The Conversation


Taking radio journalism online in a multimedia world


Let me just say at the outset that I think the ABC’s response to the new digital media environment has been innovative and outstanding. Not only is their website full of fascinating content from their TV and radio networks but they have also started to produce innovative community projects like Pool, and their mix of commentary at Unleashed is terrific.

But it struck me when I clicked on a story at their website this morning that there is still a way to go. The story “Modern Mag,” from Radio Australia, about the launch of a new fashion magazine for Islamic women is on the news home page under “The best of the ABC” banner. It has a short description: “Aquila Asia is a fashion magazine aimed at Muslim women in South East Asia,” and a picture of a veiled woman (see pic above). When you click on it you get an audio player of the five minute interview with the magazine’s editor. It’s a good listen and challenges some misconceptions about contemporary Islamic women.

However it is – or should have been a visual story – a women’s fashion magazine is a visual medium and one of the main topics of discussion is the use of varied models which reflect the differences in the lives of Islamic women. It would have been a simple matter for the producer in prepping the story to ask for the editor to email a couple of sample spreads and images which could have been loaded onto the program’s website with a brief two para introduction. Or with permission these images could have been taken directly from the magazine’s website.

This would have had two effects: on air, the presenter could say, “If you want to know more about Aquila Asia take a look at our website,” and in the post-live online environment, the presentation of the audio with the addition of simple visuals provides a much stronger representation of the story. The presenter even refers to the magazine’s website during the interview without providing viewers with a web address. Again if the small story had been preloaded, this information would also have been available to readers.

I don’t deny that there are resource implications in this type of approach, but if the workflow is handled well they can be minimal. I have written before about how a multimedia approach demands a simple checklist that associates sourcing of multimedia elements with the traditional checklists already a part of all editorial pre-publication  workflows. As a transitional approach I am not even saying that all radio stories demand this type of treatment but radio producers do need to ask themselves: is this a story which needs additional visual material provided through our website. If the answer is “Yes,” then contemporary listeners will expect nothing less.

American public radio NPR are ahead of the curve in making this transition and show what a contemporary online radio environment should be like. They also have one of the only decent news apps for the iPad.

“The best of the ABC” can no longer be produced in simple one medium format – the best now demands a multimedia approach.

The story can be heard here.

And the Aquila Asia website, which is fascinating, can be found here. They even have a facebook page.

Make convergence part of all your editorial workflows

BAM premiers new film on Alexander Shuglin…The “father of ecstasy” is still a serious scientist hard at work in his home lab despite failing health.

Making the transition from print or simple broadcast to fully convergent, multimedia journalism is not easy and does involve a range of labour and other costs. But I am constantly amazed at how media organisations – from big well resourced mainstream orgs to new and innovative blogs – ignore simple steps because they haven’t come up with a convergent workflow checklist for their stories, which would enable them to quickly add multimedia reader value.

For example, given that many companies now post their film trailers on YouTube there is no reason not to include an embedded trailer with every film review. This is even more important when you are reviewing festival and independent films which may not get wide mainstream release. Cinematical is a great site that covers film culture from mainstream Hollywood to independent arthouse releases. They are a blog product of the new media age, yet even these new comers have failed to take simple – more or less cost free/time free – steps to integrate multimedia clips into their site which is about MOVING PICTURES!

I clicked on this fascinating review this morning of a new documentary about Alexander Shuglin the mavrick chemist behind the development of ecstasy. It’s just premiered at the New York’s BAMcinemaFEST and is unlikely to get to Australia anytime soon, so I immediately went to YouTube to see if the trailer or any excerpts had been posted. Sure enough the production company behind the film had posted the trailer a week ago, so Cinematical could have legally and quickly embedded the trailer in their review. This would have given me instant access to a taste of the film and would have kept me on the Cinematical site and encouraged me to explore it further.

All this requires is a different mindset and a new easy step in the final editorial workflow…. Byline. Check. Picture caption. Check. Embedded YouTube trailer. Check. etc. It certainly requires more than adding an embedded film trailer to a review to complete the move to a fully convergent media experience but unless media organisations begin to integrate these first, easy, cost free steps they will never be able to make the bigger moves.

So let me give you a taste of the film:

The problem with iPad news apps

A turtle took a video camera for a swim and ended up on YouTube

I have been loving my iPad. Many of its features make reading the web a much more intimate, easy and pleasurable experience. However none of the mainstream news organisations – except perhaps NPR, which comes close – have managed to produce a fully functional app which matches the breadth and versatility of their respective websites. The real problem however is with sharing via blogging or social media sites.

Earlier today I came across a cute little story on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s new app about a Turtle activating a waterproof camera and taking it for a swim. The camera was found washed up on a beach in Florida and its contents were posted on YouTube. It’s hardly a breaking news story but it is a perfect light relief “share” story and my problems getting the word out illustrate some of the frustrations with the iPad as a creative reporting tool and some of the problems with current news organisations’ decisions around how to produce news apps.

Normally the Turtle story would have been easy to share because, unlike a number of other news apps, the ABC has good Twitter integration – including auto link shortening – for sharing stories straight from the app. However, the app story has no link to the YouTube video. The ABC is not alone here all news apps have decided to forgo links within their apps, so researching connections to related content is difficult. But if I was going to tweet this, I first wanted to view the video and of course I wanted to include a link. So I had to exit the app and go into the YouTube app and search for the Turtle video. I tried a few different searches – including some written phrases from the YouTube notes quoted by ABC – which failed to turn up the video. So I exited the YouTube app and went to Safari, I tried the ABC’s normal website to see if they linked to the video in their web version of the story. Not that I could see. Safari produced a few other news versions and one of them provided a link to the video, which on the iPad opens in the YouTube app. The You Tube app has share via email but no Twitter integration. So to share a simple 140 word tweet I had to:

1. Open the story in the ABC app, press the share via Twitter, which produces an auto tweet of headline and shortened url, which I copied but didn’t send; close

2. Open Twitterific app, paste tweet into new tweet form but didn’t send; close

3. Open YouTube app and find Turtle video; press the share via email and copy the url – as the app has no browser style url field; close

4. Back to Twitterific, open new tweet field which has kept my previous unsent version pasted from  the ABC app, add in the YouTube info and finally send.

It probably seems even more complex than it was. In some ways switching between apps is just slightly more complex than switching between open tabs on a normal browser (two or three finger taps instead of one mouse click), and for some functions I have learned to adapt pretty well, however in this case it was far more complex than it aught to have been. Hopefully all this will improve with the multitasking functions on the new iPhone4 OS but this doesn’t hit iPads till later this year.

However even after all this I had not anticipated one final problem. As I was reading and tweeting other stories, I noticed a message from @marygazze: “That turtle link just raised a huge red flag with bit.ly. Got another?” Hmm. Turns out that the ABC uses “is.gd” shortening and when I transfered it into to Twitterific the already shortened link was reshortened by bit.ly and this caused the “red flag”. I tired to check all this on my iPad but finally I got up and went into the study opened up my big browser and a set of tabs and had the whole thing fixed and retweeted in minutes.

A final interesting point is that when I looked at the normal ABC web story (not the iPad app version) on my large screen desktop I saw that they had actually included a link to the YouTube clip in the sidebar under “related stories.” I had missed this on my initial scan when I checked the normal ABC site through Safari on my iPad:  firstly I was looking for an instory link and secondly the smaller screen didn’t allow the sidebar link to jump out on a quick scan. This in itself is an interesting comment on Nick Carr’s recent thoughts on “Delinkification“. (For further comments on this see Jason Fry’s thoughts at Nieman Lab)

The Turtle story itself wasn’t really worth all the effort. The camera was found in January, so it’s really a strange story for ABC to be running six months later. But it serves as a good case study of certain trends in news delivery and my experience tweeting this story certainly serves as an interesting case study of the tweetability of iPad news. It also signals that news organisations should think harder about the nature of news in the evolving news ecology. If a news organisation is going to run a story in any format about a YouTube video they are simply not providing complete reporting without providing a link, if they can’t or wont provide a link why even bother running the story. Not providing a link demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the nature of viral YouTube videos and web sharing which is after all at the heart of what makes this story newsworthy.

Just to complete the strange twists of this story on sharability, I can’t embed the video here because the original poster disabled YouTube’s normal embed settings. Maybe he didn’t want to infringe the Turtle’s copyright! (More likely it’s a perverse attempt to up his view rate) If you want to see it, here’s the link to YouTube.

I have lots of other thoughts on iPad news apps and usability issues which I will cover soon in another post.

Blogging versus reporting

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) introduces Pope Benedict XVI to journalists during a news conference aboard the Pope's plane prior to landing in Darwin July 2008. Photo: AFP

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) introduces Pope Benedict XVI to journalists during a news conference aboard the Pope's plane prior to landing in Darwin July 2008. Photo: AFP

Two recent reports from the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent Riazat Butt show the way mainstream journalists are using bogs and traditional reports to cover their beat. Butt filed two reports of the Vatican communication’s director Federico Lombardi’s defense of recent Vatican press gaffes. What is interesting is that her blog report and her news item contain pretty much the same information but vary greatly in tone. Her standard report begins:

The Vatican’s communications chief has defended his handling of the controversies surrounding Benedict XVI’s papacy by arguing that the furores have benefited the Holy See.

Father Federico Lombardi said that many of the scandals had led people to think deeply about topics such as inter-faith dialogue, anti-Semitism and Aids prevention.

The pope has aroused controversy on several issues. His quoted remarks about Islam being “evil and inhuman” prompted violent protests around the world. Catholic-Jewish relations were severely tested when he lifted the excommunication of Richard Willamson, a priest who was a Holocaust denier. Benedict also angered health campaigners, politicians and activists by claiming that condoms aggravated HIV/Aids.

The incidents meant the pope’s ability and judgment were questioned as never before.

Despite the episodes generating unprecedented hostility towards the Vatican, Lombardi said in a speech in London on Monday night he was “convinced” the question of Christian-Muslim relations had been addressed more frankly following the pope’s 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, in Germany, when he talked about Islam. He also said the “clamorous response” to Williamson’s declarations had allowed the Vatican to reinforce its position on anti-Semitism, and that the pope’s remarks on condoms had led to a “greater understanding” of “truly effective” HIV/Aids prevention strategies in Africa.

Her blog report relates to the same speech but is much more personal – and cynical – in tone:

Last night I had the pleasure of going to mass in search of Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s director of press, who was giving a lecture on communications. It doesn’t take a genius, never mind a religious affairs correspondent, to think that the head of Vatican PR pontificating (ha) on communications is akin to Norway giving masterclasses on getting a joke. Lombardi, an Italian priest who started his press career on La Civiltà Cattolica, working his way up before replacing the long-serving Joaquin Navarro Valls in 2006, has come under sustained fire since taking over at the helm of the Holy See press office.

First there was Regensburg. Then there was the lifting of the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying priest Richard Williamson. I know the decision was unconnected to the Holocaust denial, but it’s not that hard to Google, I do it before every date. Then there were unscripted remarks about condoms aggravating the spread of AIDS that were later edited to say something rather different. Bring in a bit of papal revisionism – he wasn’t a member of the Hitler Youth, oh hang on yes he was – and an almost unintelligible speech that angered gay rights campaigners and dominated news cycles for 48 hours with little or no clarification from the Vatican and we have all the makings of what Catholic and non-Catholic commentators called a PR failure, carnage, nightmare and train wreck. But wait! Apparently, we/I/you/they got it wrong. Citing not so much divine intervention as the law of unintended consequences Lombardi said that Muslim-Christian relations were better because of Regensburg, that the Williamson episode had allowed the church to clarify and strengthen its position on antisemitism and Holocaust denial and that the pope’s intervention on condoms was carefully crafted to allow deeper discussion and reflections on the topic.

Apart from the jokey tone the interesting thing about the blog report is that it links to details of all the previous reports such as stories about Regensburg and the Williamson fiasco. So the blog report is both more personal and potentially more personalised in the sense that it provides vertical history to the story which enables the reader to personalise the story for themselves.

Both reports use the same key quotes from Lombardi. The standard report is clear inverted pyramid style writing which quickly summarises the key points of the story while the blog report also introduces the key elements but does this in a less formal and many would argue a more engaging way. Given that the information is virtually identical in both reports it is interesting to compare the apparent objectivity in the standard report with the clearly cynical tone of the blog post. This is an easy case where the conventions of objective journalism – such as the judicious use of quoted phrases – allows a source like Lombardi to hang himself without any visible bias in the reporting.