Lokman Tsui on hospitality, journalism and Global Voices

What do you choose to study when you’re a Dutch media scholar of Chinese descent? You could focus on Chinese internet filtering, a rich, provocative and depressing topic of study. You could study the ways in which Dutch society is wrestling with cultural difference and cultural complexity, with the emergence of nationalist attitudes in the wake of the deaths of Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh. As the son of Chinese immigrants to the Netherlands, raised in Amsterdam, Lokman Tsui doesn’t think much of these two choices: “Would you prefer to have your left or right arm chopped off?”

Searching for a topic for his PhD dissertation, Lokman found himself talking to Andrew Lih, a Chinese-American media scholar who’s research has focused on the Wikipedia community. Lih urged Lokman to study something emergent, exciting and positive, helping explain how an unknown system actually worked. And so Lokman found himself studying Global Voices and the people behind it. “Global Voices solved my identity crisis,” he offers.

(Some disclaimers are in order for me to blog Lokman’s talk at the Berkman Center yesterday. I’m one of the co-founders of Global Voices, so I’ve been one of his research subjects. Lokman is also a good friend and a valued colleague – he’s part of a group called “the book club” at Berkman which provides critique and moral support to those of us working on book-length projects, which means he’s reading the book proposal I’m struggling with. He and I are working on a couple of papers together, and he just oranized the China Internet Research Conference where I presented a paper. I’m in no way, shape or form objective about Lokman or his work.)

Lokman sees Global Voices as a community of internationalists committed to curating, amplifying and aggregating conversations that other media ignore. In the process, Global Voices serves as a community for people whose identities are complicated, for bridge figures who’ve got their feet in different communities, like the Netherlands, China and the US.

Much of Lokman’s talk seeks to situate the work Global Voices is doing in a theoretical framework, looking at theories of journalism and what each model values, and examining how Global Voices aligns and differs from these models. He quotes Hannah Arendt, who worries that we may lose a public sphere if people embrace “freedom from politics as a basic freedom”. This withdrawal from the public sphere might not harm individuals, but it harms society as a whole, because “the world lies between people”. How does this world – the one that lies between people – come to know itself? How does the internet help create and realize this in-between space? These are the questions Lokman hopes to address by examining Global Voices as a case study of cross-cultural connections possible in a digital age.

The public spheres described by Habermas around coffee houses and by Benedict Anderson around daily newspapers may be giving way to new, virtual spaces. “The internet challenges us to rethink and reimagine journalism and democracy,” though we’ve not yet done a good job of picking up this challenge. In particular, Lokman worries that we’re doing a disservice to the field by looking at the internet as harming journalism – more interesting questions focus around building journalism for a world of strangers united by the internet. “How do we designing better instituions fit for a cosmopolitan age?”

There’s a great deal of literature that seeks to understand journalism by engaging in ethnographic study of newsrooms. Lokman sees his work following in this tradition, though with Global Voices, the newsroom has been replaced with rowdy annual meetings and lively online discussion groups. When scholars like Herbert Gans analyzed newsrooms in terms of modes of news production, they established that biases in the production of news had a great deal to do with the processes involved. Journalists weren’t seeking to silence certain voices – they overemphasized government sources, for instance, because they helped journalists avoid credibility issues and because these sources learned to carefully package news for consumption by journalists. By studying Global Voices from a newsroom perspective, Lokman hopes to identify some of the value judgements that are at work in the course of our production of news. He argues, though, that these techniques can’t apply too directly, because we can’t measure new systems with standards designed for older systems.

This tension comes up most clearly around the question of whether what Global Voices does is journalism. Lokman notes that my co-founder, Rebecca MacKinnon, is insistent that GV is not a journalistic organization, because we don’t have methods for fact-checking, don’t seek to be objective (though we do seek to be transparent and fair) and because most participants don’t see themselves as journalists. (My take on the question isn’t quite as strident as Rebecca’s. I think GV frequently commits acts of journalism, thugh I think we often provide helpful, non-journalistic content.) Lokman would prefer we not ask the question, because it’s not that interesting.
“It’s like asking me if I’m Chinese or not – I just shrug my shoulders.” Instead, it might be useful to see GV as a complement to journalism, a different way of seeing. (Here he quotes Susan Sontag, who describes photography not as seeing, but as a way of seeing.)

Lokman identifies three schools of thought about journalism, each of which contains – he asserts – a democratic theory and an implicit purpose for journalism. A professional theory of journalism – as advocated by scholars like Walter Lippman – implies a belief in liberal democracy. In this case, the purpose of journalism is to provide information, either to the public or, as Lippman seems to imply, to an elite group of decisionmakers.

Alternative media is based around participatory democratic theory – democracies function best when they represent a broad range of actors. The purpose of this media is representative. We can judge the success or failure of journalism by how well it represents different groups in society, especially marginalized groups. Public media, advocated by scholars like Jay Rosen, is based around the idea of deliberative democracy – democracy functions when we have the space to discuss and argue, seeking common truths. The purpose of journalism, in this model, is to offer a space for conversation.

This model of three types of journalism and their implicit value-spheres gets complicated by technological constraints, which Lokman points out have changed over time. It used to be extremely costly to access multiple voices and incorporate them into journalistic discourse, so we engaged in “representative journalism”, asking professional journalists to represent the perspective of the individuals they interviewed. But the costs of speech and of production have changed dramatically, and we haven’t really figured out what peer-produced journalism might look like. We need to revise how we judge and value journalism, Lokman believes.

He proposes that we move beyond objectivity as a key journalistic valye towards hospitality. Objectivity as a gold standard makes sense when information is your goal. But if what you’re hoping to do is manage an inclusive conversation, perhaps we need different standards – we need to focus on whether spaces are hositable to conversation.

Lokman invokes Iris Young’s idea of a communicative democracy, a space in which groups are able to find meeting grounds for conversation. Habermas is interested in these spaces, but believes they are neutral grounds – everyone’s equally comfortable or uncomfortable at a coffee house, right? Lokman doesn’t buy this – there are always power dynamics between people having conversations. But hospitality allows a good host to level these power imbalances. He cites a conversation with me at my house – I’m obviously more comfortable in my home than he is, and I have the power to invite him into my space or throw him out… but if I’m a good host, I’ll work to level the playing field and allow as equal a conversation as possible.

This suggests a new model for excellence in journalism, Lokman believes – one way of judging journalism is the extent to which it creates a space for conversations to take place. Good spaces include mechanisms for greeting and welcoming participants, acknowledging where they’re coming from and what their differences are. It values storytelling and narrative, often as an alternative to deliberation. This requires solving some difficult challenges, like the problem of inclusion. Lokman argues that Indymedia’s failure is that it’s never figured out how to tolerate the intolerant. At the same time, hospitality doesn’t insist on unrestricted access, ala Wikipedia – the door is open, but that openness is conditional.

Lokman doesn’t believe that hospitality is a form of philanthropy – it’s a right, granted by the fact that we all share a common world. He traces this idea back to Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace”, where Kant argues that one cannot refuse a visitor if this would lead to the visitor’s destruction. This has implications for asylum, immigration and for language, and offers a rather strong condemnation of hostility – he shows a sign hanging in Gino’s, a legendary cheese steak joint in Philadelphia This is America – when ordering ‘speak English'”. The irony, of course, is that the restaurant is owned by a long line of Italian immigrants who adapted foods of their home to fit local tastes, and who now insist on a badly punctuated form of American English.

Hospitality is about who you let in and keep out, but it’s also about how you include them. Lokman suggests that we analyze spaces in terms of access, recognition and appropriate response. We want to build spaces that are accessible to a wide range of people, we want to realize that they’re coming from different cultures and interpretive frameworks, and we respond appropriately to these contributions. Global citizens, Lokan believes, understand these rules of hospitality better than most.

How could the idea of hospitality change journalism? Most likely through approaches that complement existing, information-focused approaches. Lokman examines a movie critics site, Rotten Tomatoes. It’s got an objective component – the synopsis of the movie – and a deeply subjective component – the reviews. We don’t ask reviewers to be objective – instead, we realize the value of aggregating and curating these perspectives and bringing them together. Global Voices does something very similar – many stories include a couple of paragraphs, often derived from other news reports, explaining the current political situation in Madagascar, then followed with excerpts from blogs offering different opinions on the situation. The value is in aggregating these different perspectives around a base of objective reporting and providing a hospitable space for these other opinions, including the opinions of commenters and linkers.

Lokman acknowledges that a version of journalism based around hospitality can seem hokey or “new agey”. It’s an aspiration, not a reality, and he recognizes that the world is far from hospitable. It’s easier to be hospitable to friends than to strangers, harder with enemies than with friends. But hospitality recognizes that we “need to subvert power relationships to have conversations.” In turn, this means that hospitality is a duty and an obligation, but that we shouldn’t pretend that we can prevent exclusion from some spaces.

David Weinberger wonders why hospitality used to be such a critical part of our collective culture – the Old Testament is full of stories about hospitality. Why has hospitality slipped away? Is it because we’re experiencing the false intimacy of a globalized world? Lokman suggests that we’re seeing a paradox of choice emerging online – as we’ve got more choices, we often make decisions that isolate and cucoon ourselves. Part of this may come from the biggest way in which we isolate ourselves – we restrict the flow of people across national borders to a much greater extent than we restrict financial or cultural flows. Perhaps we’ve become better at accomodating a person’s CDs or movies, but less good at accomodating the person herself.

Jason Kaufman offers the argument that journalism is best understood in terms of professionalism – in the last century, journalism became a profession, and has reinforced the idea that not anyone can write the news. Lokman argues that we’d do better to see journalism as craft, a practice that can be engaged in by professionals or amateurs.

Dorothy Zinberg worries that Lokman is overfocusing on theory and failing to see the reality of journalism – it’s the practice of hard-drinking guys looking for stories that will sell newspapers. She suggests he look closely at Erik Erikson’s work on childnood and society – what is it in human experience that allows us to identify ourselves by difference? These ideas may be increasingly important in a connected world.

I took advantage of my moderator’s role to offer a closing critique – I think Lokman is vastly too kind to Global Voices and that his analysis needs to look at the ways in which we’ve failed as well as those that have succeeded. We may have created a new way of doing something like journalism, and it may be a particularly hospitable space, but it hasn’t had the influence we’d hoped to have. We’re not making measurable progress in changing the news agenda of large media outlets – we may be introducing a new paradigm, but a framework that evaluates our work needs to be critical rather than just celebratory. All that said, I think it’s incredibly helpful to examine the world of journalism and new media with new tools that recognize that global conversations may follow very different rules than those we’ve seen in the past, and I think Lokman’s analytic frame adds a great deal to these discussions.


See as well.

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