The powers that be . . . or used to be?

 Burmese protesters, left, get shot, Danes, right, get tear-gassed. Big difference.

A few weeks ago world attention was briefly fixed on Burma, or Myanmar as it called by the military brutes who shot uncounted numbers of protestors demanding a glimmer of freedom. Last week, young Danes tried to occupy a building in Copenhagen that they wanted to turn into a youth center. Police who used tear gas and other means to disperse a protest that seems to have run the gamut from peaceful march to burning pranks. 

In a moment I’ll pass on some tips about technology the Danes are using to get attention. But first let’s remember that the powers of protest only exists where there is the rule of law. Otherwise the authorities shoot you, as they did the Burmese, and they turn off the pictures, and fickle world attention moves elsewhere. We in the West, whose freedoms were won by people long since dead, have a special responsibility now to figure out how to use these new media and web technologies to turn the powers that be into the powers that used to be.

With that in mind Poytner Institute commentator and Danish broadcast journalist Ernst Poulsen notes how the young protestors in Copenhagen used Google Maps and cell phone text message logs to document police actions. Poulsen writes: 

“This combination of simple “moblogging” (mobile blogging) tools and map-tools allows participants to tell their side of the story unfiltered.”

Poulsen goes on to suggest that journalists covering such protests also need mobile technology and wireless Internet access to be able to cover such events. Absolutely! In fact I had an experience recently, in my day job as an ill-tempered reporter for a middling metropolitan daily, where I wished I’d had my own wireless service (perhaps EDVO) because I had to leave the event to file stories and was unable to blog from the scene. This would be a new expense but without an independent means to upload information the reporter might just as well have pulled a Jayson Blair and “covered” the story from home.

Indeed, whether you’re a protestor looking for attention or a journalist looking to cover an event, exciting new tools exist to better connect the roving reporter to his or her production bureaucrary, which is how I have come to think of the newsroom. Here’s a mass media conundrum.  We need to do more field reporting to retain or regain credibility with our audiences, to give them the action and the verite that will keep them subscribing or clicking or doing whatever it is they do to pay our bills. But every time I leave the newsroom I am cut off from the decision-makers. Were I to witness Jesus Christ leading a host of angels across the San Francisco Bay Bridge I would have a devil of a time contacting an editor, as they seem to spend most of their time lubricating the production machinery rather than nurturing ideas, and even if I did find one editor to listen, it sometimes takes a gaggle of them to get anything done, so the poor editor who takes the reporter’s call from the field — and isn’t usually a call — still faces the task of rounding up the critical mass of editors needed to push the sausage through the grinder. 

Is there a technological fix for this disconnect? Of course. Another  Poynter Institute commentary noted how Twitter, a social networking tool, was being used by newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel, which used this tool to post updates to a pair of space shuttle launches over the summer. (My friend, former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Dan Fost wrote an article about Twitter with enough of the how-to so as to help you make sense of it if you are not familiar with the technology.)

One last thought for protestors and newsies alike. Think of technologies in combination to create capabilities that never before existed. For instance one weekend I happened to chance upon a group of guys who were flying remotely-controlled model airplanes. Apparently it is now within the reach of the ordinary person to put a small model plane or helicopter into the air and to control it from the ground. (See this Wikipedia article for more on that.) The models I saw were small, and the guys who were flying them said they could carry a few pounds into the air. My initial concern was that a remote plane, loaded with a few pounds of say, plastic explosive, could use these toys to wreak havoc. Of course in the media setting, it should be a cinch to put a video camera or still camera into the body of one of these model planes and have aerial surveillance of a protest scene. Alreadt hobbyists are experimenting with what is called Kite Aerial Photography.

The point is we have more and better communications tools than any human beings in history. Shame on us, especially those of us who call ourselves journalists, if we don’t learn how to use them.