The fall of the Wall–and the media’s role

November 9, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

It was 20 years ago that the Berlin Wall, the most iconic symbol of the Cold War, fell, on Nov. 9, 1989.

In recent days, there have been a number of commemorations of the event and news organizations around the world have taken note of what was one of the most important stories of the latter half of the 20th century.

I had the privilege of attending and speaking at one Berlin event organized by Google and Reporters Without Borders. The event, Breaking Borders, took the anniversary as an opportunity to explore how the Internet is playing a role in advancing participatory democracy around the globe. Twenty years earlier, television and satellite technology helped play a role in the fall of the Wall, by connecting people and empowering them with information.

Among those appearing at the event, either as speakers or panelists, were Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe; Jean-François Julliard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders; Rachel Whetstone, Google’s vice president for public policy and communications; Andrew Puddephatt, director of Global Partners & Associates; Rita Sussmuth, former president of the German federal parliament; and Sami Ben Gharbia, advocacy director for Global Voices.

The session was recorded and the presentation is on YouTube.

A common theme at the conference was that, yes, the Internet provides a vastly more powerful way to obtain and share information, giving voice to many who had been muzzled. However, there was also a consensus that the Internet also presents myriad challenges and potential barriers.

How, for example, does one make one’s message heard over the cacophony of voices on the Internet and, as I explored in my remarks to the conference, what should be the role of the mainstream media? Just as Internet technology can give voice to the voiceless, so can it be used by authorities to suppress speech.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

It is an honor to speak to you today and to share a stage with such a distinguished group.

Twenty years ago, I sat with my family in our house in Palo Alto, California, as we watched live television coverage from Berlin. We watched as only a few hundred meters from here thousands of Berliners converged on the Wall, singing, dancing, embracing and, yes, taking sledgehammers to perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Cold War.

Six weeks later, on Christmas Day, we watched again as the American conductor Leonard Bernstein conducted an international orchestra– again, only a few hundred meters from here– in a soul-stirring performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to celebrate the fall of the Wall.

For the occasion, the maestro took some artistic liberty with the text of Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy.” He changed one word. Instead of singing of “Freude” – Joy– the assembled choirs and soloists would sing of “freiheit” –Freedom.

As my wife and children and I watched—along with millions of others from California to Japan—we joined with the Berliners in the audience and on the square outside the Schauspielhaus in weeping with joy. Just as the media had played a role in helping to bring down the Wall—by connecting people and empowering them with information—so now was it connecting the joy of Berliners to the world.

It was particularly inspiring to see among the performers the teenage girls in the Dresden Philharmonic Kinderchor, girls who had grown up in the German Democratic Republic and who now, practically overnight, found themselves playing an important role in a ceremony marking a new era.

Now—20 years later—they and their children have access to information and communication technology that has brought about a new freedom, rendering geographical borders more meaningless and making it more possible to get around government efforts at censorship and the suppression of the free flow of information.

I believe Schiller, who in his poem yearned for the unity of humankind, would like much of the Internet revolution, particularly the democratization of information. However, such a lover of beauty and reason might look askance at much of the content on the Internet.

We have moved into a time when anyone with an idea and an Internet connection can be a publisher, so there has been an explosion of information available to everyone. This explosion has given voice to many who had been muzzled. But it has also resulted in a cacophony of sources—many trustworthy, many not; many beautifully voiced, many not.

We have seen how such wide access to publishing tools and information has been a force for liberation, but we have also seen how information can be manipulated and how easily disinformation can dominate the debate.

We’ve seen how the disenfranchised can use social media and other information technology to organize and get out their message, but we’ve also seen how the authorities can use the same tools to subvert these “Twitter revolutions”.

Social media were justly lauded for their role in breaking through government controls after Iran’s elections in June. When foreign journalists were forced to stay in their offices or leave the country, social media helped fill the information vacuum. Major news organizations, including my own, became dependent on social media for images and information. Practically overnight, we drew up standards guidelines on how information gleaned from social media could be used.

There was a great deal of confusion. Some tweeters from Iran changed their location to escape censorship and harassment. Tweeters from outside Iran contributed to Iran-related feeds— some with support, some with false information, some with irrelevant tweets.

A number of fake feeds were set up, some by the authorities, according to activists.

Just whom could we trust?

In the Telegraph, columnist Andrew Keen wrote that “the early promise of a democratic Twitter powered revolution (had) been replaced by a series of bleak lessons in digital realpolitik.”

A little over a year earlier, in Kenya, the digital revolution helped empower journalists covering the elections there. Let’s remember that in Kenya–and in much of Africa, where Internet penetration is barely 5 percent– the mobile phone, not the computer, is the networking tool.

Journalists were able to transmit news, such as poll results from remote locations, immediately via text messages, circumventing government controls. But later, during ethnic clashes after the elections, the same technology was used to spread false rumors and to threaten journalists.

As Tom Rhodes, who heads the Africa program of the Committee to Protect Journalists, put it, “Though many Kenyans used text messages and blogs to urge a peaceful resolution during the post-election crisis, others encouraged violence.”

Think back 15 years. If today’s Internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter and robust mobile platforms had been available, could they have helped prevent the genocide in Rwanda—or at least serve as a counterweight to inflammatory domestic television and radio broadcasts? Might social media have made it harder for the world to turn a blind eye to the massacres? Or might the voices warning of genocide have been lost in an Internet cacophony of celebrity news, trivia and self-important shouting?

The invitation to this event tells us that, two decades after the fall of the Wall, today’s open Internet is playing a pivotal role in advancing participatory democracy around the globe. I believe that is true. But the Internet is really a utility. It can empower and amplify voices that otherwise would not be heard and it can unite communities of interest into powerful networks.

But how do those voices and networks cut through the cacophony and the disinformation?

It is here that I believe we in the mainstream media have an important role to play.

For far too many years, news organizations had an arrogant, one-way relationship with their audiences. We gathered news, packaged it in ways we thought made sense and shoveled it out to our audiences. If they liked what we delivered, fine. If not, well, they could always write a letter to the newspaper editor.

In today’s media world, not only is feedback instantaneous. Anyone with an Internet connection can be a publisher, can raise their voice, can tell the world what they see and what they think.

But my, what a din! How can anyone know whom to trust?

In the old, arrogant, one-way world, we told you whom you could trust—us! And by and large you did. But over the past 20 years, trust in news organizations – particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom—has plummeted to new lows. A recent Pew Center survey found that barely a quarter of Americans believed news organizations generally got the facts right in a story.

Once that trust is lost, we mainstream news organizations also run the risk of becoming just another lonely voice in the cacophony.

So how do we retain—or regain—that trust, and how do we remain relevant in today’s connected world?

We start by telling the world about the rules we live by and truly living by those rules. We also must be an enthusiastic partner and participant in the newly democratized world of Internet publishing and social media. We need to shed the arrogance and share the standards and values that give us strength and credibility. By doing so, we provide resources to others to create responsible, ethical journalism.

Let me offer a couple of examples of what we at Reuters have done.

First, in July we made the Reuters Handbook of Journalism available to the public for free online at handbook.reuters.com. It’s my hope that the citizen journalist, the student, the teacher, the budding reporter, the blogger will be able to learn and benefit from our handbook. By putting the 513-page handbook online, it will be available to countless thousands who otherwise would not have had access.

We decided to make the handbook available for a number of reasons.

The first is transparency. At a time when trust is such an endangered commodity—in both the publishing and financial worlds—it’s important for news consumers to see the guidelines Reuters journalists follow.

Just as important, however, is the service we hope the handbook will provide to journalists, publishers, teachers and students around the world. As the barriers to publishing have practically disappeared, practically anyone can be a publisher. But it’s also become clear that publishers have varying standards of truth, fairness and style. Our handbook is a good place for a new journalist or publisher to begin to develop his or her own standards.

And there’s a feedback button to tell us what we might have wrong or how to improve the handbook.

But it’s not enough for us to merely share our rulebook. We must be actively engaged in the new media reality.

Reuters journalists use social media to report and distribute news and we are developing new standards and guidelines to help us do that in a way that we can retain the trust of our audience. As those guidelines are developed, they will be added to the Handbook of Journalism.

We’ve also reached out to our publishing colleagues in the blogosphere to complement our reporting. I’m honored to be on the program with Sami Ben Gharbia of Global Voices, just as we were honored to work with Global Voices on our news website Reuters.com. Global Voices bloggers have supplemented Reuters coverage of a number of stories, including the Mumbai bombings, the visit of Hu Jintao to the United States and this year’s elections in Iran.

These are small steps in the vast information ecosystem of the Internet, but I believe they demonstrate ways we can help promote responsible, high-quality journalism across the Internet, in a media environment without walls.

We are living in a scary but exciting media world. The world’s financial system is facing challenges not seen since the Great Depression. Mainstream news organizations are struggling, as advertisers cut back and customers cut spending. As news becomes available—for free—from a vast range of sources, we face challenges in adding value to our product.

But we in the mainstream media have a responsibility to be enthusiastic participants in—and moderators of—this exciting and challenging world.

I think again of those wonderful young singers from Dresden in the Christmas Day concert of 20 years ago. The fall of the Wall was their story –and the media of the day shared that story with the world. Now they’re in their 30s and the media they and their children use include the Internet, Blackberrys and iPhones.

What will be their children’s story? Whatever it is, they will be able to share it in ways undreamed of when the Wall fell. And no matter how the storytelling medium changes, we in the mainstream media must be there to help.

4 comments

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The fall of the Berlin wall was symbolic for some other invisible walls to cave in: The wall between the rich and the poor; the walls among races; the walls among religions; the wall between genders. We have to go a long way to demolish these walls. The concrete or iron walls could collapse easily. But the mental walls are so strong that no bulldozer can demolish. A world without such invisible walls is my dream. If God is there, please fulfill my dream. Come on dears, let us go for that.

Posted by Prem Nizar Hameed | Report as abusive

I totally agree with your comment Nizar. There are just too many short sided people in this world for these other walls to fall. It is much easier to tear down a brick wall than a mental wall. It’s really a shame.

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Posted by abbated | Report as abusive

I came across your comment and I really couldn’t agree more.
The mental walls are a lot harder to pull-down and the years of mental anguish, caused by it will take along time to heal!

Posted by mattharper | Report as abusive

I lived in Germany at this time and one thing I remember is the part of the Wall in front of the Brandenburg-Gate. It was hard to get anywhere near it because of the crowds and the crowds of reporters with their cameras. There were so many flashes, it felt like fireworks going off. But watching the crowds standing and dancing on top of the wall sent chills up and down my spine. The air around the wall was always one of quiet, sort of like being in a library or a church. Now with the parties going on in front of the wall and on top of the wall, the atmosphere was more like a huge outdoor concert. No more reverence, it was time to party.

It is ironic that the wall came down on November 9. The fall of the Berlin Wall is not the only historic event that happened on November 9. Germany was defeated in World War I on Novermber 9, 1919; November 9, 1938 is known as Kristallnacht. This is the night when Nazis throughout Germany destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues. The amount of broken glass is what gave the name to this night. It was an eerie suggestion that this night go down in history as a German holiday to commemorate the Fall of the Wall and of communism in East Germany. The Germans came to their senses and chose another date to mark the reunification of Germany But no newspaper, except for the essay by Elie Wiesel in the New York Times, mentioned this fact. Was it ignorance? I don’t know but, I find is strange that all the newspapers quoted JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech over and over again; they mentioned the DM 100.00 and the shopping sprees at least once a day. But no one felt the necessity to draw the historical comparisons. I find that to be poor journalism. We rely on television to show us the moods of the events and moments that shape our lives but, it is the written media’s responsibility to bring these events into their historical contexts. Both newspapers and the magazine failed to do just that. The book also failed to draw the comparisons.

All in all, I feel the media could have done a better job of covering this historic event. Although, I’m not sure anyone who had not lived in Berlin before the wall came down and then actually lived in the city to see it fall, could actually sum up the true feelings of the people at the time. It was one of the moments where you had to be there to feel the true significance of the event. I truly feel blessed to have lived through that moment with all the other citizens of Berlin, both East and West. It is a moment I will never forget.

Posted by Ismael1 | Report as abusive