New Government Meets New Media

One of the interesting discussions at Gov 2.0 Camp New England last weekend was about New Government meeting New Media. How do the two inter-relate? How should people in government use new media to more effectively serve the community? How should people in government relate to bloggers, citizen journalists and others in New Media?

The discussion got started off with people doing introductions. Unfortunately, we all forgot to find a note taker, and I, being one of the few people with a laptop, ended up agreeing to take notes, after the introductions and discussions began. Because of this, I have missed some of the participants and discussion.

Facilitating the discussion was James Turner, @blackbearnh, a Contributing Editor for O’Reilly Media, and a volunteer with the 50 State project. Other participants included Karen Liot Hill, @NHkaren, a City Councilor from Lebanon, NH, Kimberley Isbell, a fellow at the Berkmen Center for Internet and Society, Victoria Chao, who will soon be heading out to KQED, Brad Blake @bradmblake, Director of New Media and Online Strategy for the Office of the Governor in Massachusetts, Jess Weiss, @jessweiss, Project and Social Media Coordinator for, Rick Vogel, Emily O’Brien and Emma Lathan.

James started off the discussion talking about a recent report that bloggers would now be able to get press credentials in New York City. He noted that press credentials can give a person access to areas not normally accessible to the public, as well as a certain amount of credibility. With that, he posed the old question, who is a journalist.

I asked if it really matters who is a journalist, and if so, why. Kimberley spoke about why it does sometimes matter if a person is a journalist. She referred to an important Anti-SLAPP case, Wright Development Group LLC v. Walsh.

SLAPP is short for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. These are lawsuits, typically brought by well funded organizations against people speaking out in public on a controversial issue. While the cases are often without merit, they can consume considerable time and expenses of people who have spoken out and they can have a chilling effect on other people speaking out. Various states have been adopting Anti-SLAPP laws. In Illinois, a defendant moved to have a case removed under their new Anti-SLAPP law. However, a trial court denied the motion “apparently because his statements were made to a reporter not to the government directly”.

The case has been appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard, along with others has filed an Amicus Brief in the case.

Various government officials also spoke about why, in their minds, it matters whether they are speaking to a person in their role as a resident or their role as a journalist. Government officials spoke about the goal of trying to solve an immediate problem when speaking with a person in the role of a resident, but when speaking with a person who will broadly disseminate information, they try to provide additional background and context and focus on how to generally resolve an issue instead of dealing with the specifics of an issue.

One person expressed concern about people presenting themselves as a member of the press in order to wield a larger hammer to fix a problem, instead of trying to seek the truth and report it.

Other government officials spoke about how they could speak to people in their role as residents, but not to members of the press, although it was questioned if it was really in the public interest to restrict government officials from speaking with the press.

This led to an interesting discussion about ‘controlling the message’ and how it relates to ‘clearing the story’. This related to whether the message would be part of a discussion or part of a broadcast. People argued that controlling the story isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is part of trying to make sure that the story is correct.

Traditional journalism, some argued, acted as a beneficial gatekeeper as part of making sure that the real story came out and people were not diverted by small bits of information that weren’t really relevant. On the other hand, concern was expressed about pack journalism and ‘The Boys On The Bus’ controlling the story, and perhaps missing the real story.

One of the dangers of the whole citizen journalism model, one person suggested, was that people don’t get paid and there would be no one to do the hard, investigative reporting. However, other methods of funding investigative reporting, like Spot.Us, where regular people contribute to pay for investigative reporting was brought up as a counter-example. Sometimes, this is even done in conjunction with traditional journalism. The Pacific Garbage Patch story, funded by both Spot.Us and the New York Times, where the story was published in the New York Times was cited as an example. ProPublica was cited as another example of new methods of supporting investigative reporting.

The next topic explored was how do you deal with getting dense budget information out to the public. State officials spoke about connecting the dots of 'what's in it for me' and of why citizen input is important for preparing government budgets. Besides trying to have discussions like this online, the importance of doing budget forums around the state was noted.

Yet some wondered if when you open data up, do you lose the message? Context is important in analyzing data and providing contextual information is important when providing open access to data. It was noted that making more data publically accessible, could end of decreasing the Freedom of Information costs that governments bear. It was suggested that working with organizations like Investigative Reporters and Editors, and especially those doing computer aided reporting, could be a particularly helpful way for governments to find out what information is most important to open up, and what ways of organizing and accessing the data are most beneficial. was mentioned as an example of what Massachusetts is doing and the 50 State Project was discussed in terms of how to bring together different information in different formats from around the country.

The discussion ended talking about the persistent and searchable nature of information online and how this affects what people can and should say online. This was followed by comments about how different groups have used Twitter to report information about accidents, highway delays and outages during blizzards.

There were probably other points of interest that I missed in this great discussion about new government and new media. Please add your thoughts to the comments here, or to the Wiki Page for this session.

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