Digital Defenders: How 24/7 media can help fight swine flu worldwide

So this is how it REALLY started...
So this is how it REALLY started...
The World Health Organization (WHO) said this week that the global spread of swine flu was highly likely, and raised its alert level to Phase 5 — the next-to-highest level in the worldwide warning system. It also offered advice on prevention, caring for persons with the flu and how to seek medical help.

A pandemic is not something to be taken lightly. The New Media President Barack Obama has termed the outbreak “cause for deep concern but not panic”. On 29 April 2009, he took the unusual step of using a prime-time televised news conference, convened to mark his 100th day in office, to deliver a public health message to the American people.

“Wash your hands when you shake hands, cover your mouth when you cough,” he said. “It sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference. If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, take them out of school. If you are feeling certain flu symptoms, don’t get on an airplane.”

That’s the basic preventive message that needs amplification and repetition all over the world. While medical doctors and researchers spearhead the public health response, we need the mass media and all communications professionals to support the public awareness response. Flu shots and hospitals alone cannot win this battle.

For the first time in history, we have the means of rapid access to most of humanity. What we now need is clarity of message, credible messengers and sustained delivery.

I see this as an interesting – even if very risky – social experiment on the preventive powers of our 24/7 media and information devices. More than four billion mobile phones are in use, most of them in the developing world. Over one billion people connect to the web. We also have hundreds of radio and TV channels saturating the airwaves. Can these media peddle the right kind of awareness and inspire preventive action faster than the flu virus propagates itself? This is the classic race between education and catastrophe that H G Wells wrote about many decades ago!

We in Asia have some useful experiences from 2003 when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) affected much of the region. On that occasion, the media led a parallel front against the pandemic, delivering both preventive messages and helping care for those already infected.

TV playing nanny: How Asian broadcasters helped fight SARS

Precisely because rapid response is vital in a situation like SARS and swine flu, it’s the broadcast and online media that can provide timely and up-to-date coverage. It’s too early and too soon to compare media’s role in this crisis with SARS and other rapid-spread public health crisis of the past. Print media can also play a part in spreading general awareness, but they don’t have the speed and 24/7 outreach that we need for covering a crisis like this. Besides, in many parts of the world, newspapers and magazines are struggling to stay in business, coping with a terminal malady affecting their industry.

WHO's phases of a pandemic alert
WHO's phases of a pandemic alert

Mosquito SPLAT: New Facebook game to support malaria research

I just killed a few dozen ‘girls’ before breakfast. It wasn’t always easy or pleasant, and after a while there was blood all over the place. But I feel good about getting them – and I saved an innocent baby in the process, and even helped a researcher doing good work!

The ‘girls’ are malaria carrying mosquitoes, and I was playing a new Facebook game called Mosquito SPLAT that was released this week to mark World Malaria Day 2009.

Now online: a game we have played over millennia against 'em blood suckers...
Now online: a game we have played over millennia against 'em blood suckers...

The aim of the game is to use the fly squatter to SPLAT mosquitoes before the baby gets malaria. For each mosquito you SPLAT, you score 10 points. For every 100 points scored, advertisers will make a donation to support malaria research projects at the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania. We also score 10 points for everyone we invite to play the game – plus there’s a link taking us to an online donation page in case we want to support the research directly.

“It’s quick, easy and fun, and a great way to do your part for one of the most serious global health problems in the developing world,” say the game’s promoters.

Indeed. Nearly 500 million cases of malaria occur each year, resulting in over one to three million deaths (figures online vary enormously on this). Malaria is particularly devastating in Africa where it is a leading killer of children. Every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies from malaria.

The fact is, malaria deaths are entirely preventable with modest investment and spread of knowledge that mosquitoes spread malaria (not everyone knows this, and as I wrote in another blog post, that’s a challenge that educators and broadcasters are now working on).

McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health: Taking anti-malaria campaign online
McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health: Taking anti-malaria campaign online
But more needs to be done to engage the Digital Natives in this global public health challenge. It’s not just the exposed people in malaria-prevalent parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America who are at risk. As development economist Jeffrey Sachs has been reminding us eloquently, malaria reduces productivity, increases poverty, weakens people’s bodies and makes them vulnerable to other diseases. In a globalised world, such massive suffering in some parts of the world would quickly manifest in different ways all over the planet.

Mosquito SPLAT is a partnership between the McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health at the University Health Network and the University of Toronto and the UN Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign. The Mosquito SPLAT game is part of Malaria Engage, an initiative to enlist people directly in the anti-malaria battle by supporting malaria research projects in the developing world.

Click here to engage your Facebook friends to support malaria research.

Little biology lesson: Usually, people get malaria by being bitten by an infective female Anopheles mosquito. Only Anopheles mosquitoes can transmit malaria, and they must have been infected through a previous blood meal taken on an infected person. When a mosquito bites an infected person, a small amount of blood is taken, which contains microscopic malaria parasites. About one week later, when the mosquito takes its next blood meal, these parasites mix with the mosquito’s saliva and are injected into the person being bitten.

Buzz and Bite: PSA campaign against relentless malaria

We tried DDT for half a century. Now try PSA...
We tried DDT for half a century. Now try PSA...

Today is World Malaria Day. It’s a day to reflect on an ancient disease that continues to kill and sicken so many people in the majority (developing) world.

Malaria accounts for one death every 30 seconds. Malaria kills more than 1 million people every year. Each year, between 350 million and 500 million people are infected with malaria.

Malaria plagued Europe and North America as recently as 60 years ago. Simple public health measures were crucial to eliminating the disease and helping those regions achieve growth, prosperity and stability. Many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have yet to achieve this level of control.

Public health officials have been trying to contain and control malaria for decades, most measures targeting the malaria vector mosquitoes. In recent years, educators have joined hands — for stopping malaria begins with awareness on how it spreads and what simple measures can be taken to prevent it.

The Buzz and Bite Campaign is one such awareness tool launched a year ago on World Malaria Day 2008. It consists of a series of 30 animated shorts and 5 audio shorts called Public Service Announcements (PSAs).

The Buzz and Bite Campaign is the creation of Canadian animation producer and director Firdaus Kharas, working with a team of skilled professionals. Firdaus earlier took on another public health challenge, HIV/AIDS, through his highly popular animation series The Three Amigos.

Watch a sample Buzz and Bite Spot (in English, British Accent)

According to the Buzz and Bite website, PSAs have so far been produced in 22 languages, and are being adapted into more. “The goal is to enable a potential reach of 80% of the world’s malaria at-risk population or over 5 billion people in their own language.”

See all language versions on Buzz and Bite channel on YouTube

The PSAs are available to any television broadcaster, radio station, NGO, hospital, doctor, community group, university, school, educator or other user, free of charge, anywhere in the world.

The campaign is strongly supported by Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu.

Malaria has been eradicated in many parts of the world but continues to thrive and even grow in other parts, especially in tropical areas. “This anti-malaria campaign focuses on sub-Saharan Africa (where up to 90 per cent of all malaria fatalities occur), on South America, and on South and South-East Asia, where the rates of malaria are alarmingly high,” says the website, adding: “Malaria is preventable. The easiest and cheapest way to prevent malaria infection is through the use of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed-nets (LLINs) which can last up to 5 years. This campaign promotes the use of nets.”

You heard the buzz...Now get ready for bite!
You heard the buzz...Now get ready for bite!

Images and video courtesy Buzz and Bite campaign

Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Keeping a sharp eye when ships come to die…

Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Goldman Prize winner 2009
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Goldman Prize winner 2009
In Greek legend, Helen of Troy was the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’. Now meet Syeda Rizwana Hasan, a determined environmental activist who keeps dozens of ships from coming to die on the beaches of her native Bangladesh.

Rizwina is an environmental lawyer who is working hard to reduce the impact of Bangladesh’s exploitative and environmentally-devastating ship breaking industry. She has spearheaded a legal battle resulting in increased government regulation and heightened public awareness about the dangers of ship breaking. For this, she has just been honoured as the Asia winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize 2009.

Ship breaking is a lucrative yet highly hazardous business. Decommissioned ships from around the world are sent to Bangladesh, where they are dismantled by hand on the beaches by unskilled workers who are often paid less than one dollar per day. Lacking in sufficient mineral deposits for metal mining, Bangladesh relies on the iron and other materials from the ships for some of its metal. The scrap metal, along with other parts of the ships — including sinks, toilets, beds, appliances, and light bulbs — are resold in huge open markets lining the roads of Chittagong, the main ship breaking region.

Ship-breaking is done by around 20,000 workers – mostly young men, some as young as 14, who come from the northern parts of Bangladesh. They are paid very little, housed in the most basic of shelters, and provided with little or no medical care. It is estimated that, on average, one ship breaking worker dies at the yards in Bangladesh every week and every day one worker is injured.

Read the full profile on Rizwana Hasan on the Goldman Prize website

Watch short video film on Rizwana Hasan:

Rizwana Hasan, 40, is a lawyer and Executive Director of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), a public interest law firm. Growing up in a politically-engaged family, Hasan committed herself to public service and, after receiving her master’s degree in law at age 24, joined BELA. She soon became one of the country’s leading voices for the environment. Today, she manages six offices with nearly 60 staff and is one of the leading young lawyers enrolled with the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.

The Goldman Environmental Prize, now in its 20th year, is awarded annually to grassroots environmental heroes from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions and is the largest award of its kind with an individual cash prize of $150,000. This year’s prizes were awarded in San Francisco on 20 April 2009.

The 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients are a group of fearless grassroots leaders taking on government and corporate interests and working to improve the environment for people in their communities. Other winners this year came from Gabon, Indonesia, Russia, Suriname and USA.

Watch all prize winners profiled on video

Photo and video courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Somali pirates: Part of the story mainstream media hasn’t told us!

Do they have a story to tell? Who is listening?
Do they have a story to tell? Who is listening?
Piracy has a chequered history, and even the Wikipedia offers a carefully qualified definition. One person’s pirate can be another person’s defender. There’s an argument that the European colonial powers rode on the backs of their pirates or buccaneers. And I’m writing this in English language possibly because the English were more successful in their overseas piracy than other nations!

Piracy is all over the news again, due to increased activity off Somalia. But in the past few weeks, we’ve started hearing another side of the Somali piracy story — one that the mainstream media didn’t tell us.

Johann Hari, a columnist for the London Independent, posted an op ed in Huffington Post on 13 April 2009 that took a different look at Somali pirates. His main argument: “In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.”

In recent days, two interesting short videos have been posted by two activist groups to support the same point of view. I haven’t investigated this story myself, but am intrigued by their take on a widely reported topic…especially because it’s an angle that we don’t read or see in the mainstream media!

The Media Is Lying to You About Pirates

The IFC Media Project’s “News Junkie” deconstructs the mainstream media’s half-baked coverage of Somali Pirates.

Are They Really “Pirates”?

This film from Awareness Unfolds highlights the fact that the media is lying about the so called “pirates” of Somolia. According to the blurb: “They (media) choose not to tell you about the toxic waste dumping going on by American, European, and Asian countries that have lead to the death of many Somolian citizens.”

As Johann Hari says at the end of his article: “The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know “what he meant by keeping possession of the sea.” The pirate smiled, and responded: “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor.” Once again, our great imperial fleets sail in today – but who is the robber?”

Johann Hari has reported from Iraq, Israel/Palestine, the Congo, the Central African Republic, Venezuela, Peru and the US, and his journalism has appeared in publications all over the world. In 2007 Amnesty International named him Newspaper Journalist of the Year. In 2008 he became the youngest person ever to win Britain’s leading award for political writing, the Orwell Prize.

‘Chief Seattle speech’: Global environmental legend, or pervasive myth?

Our thought for Earth Day 2009
Our thought for Earth Day 2009
“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.”

These words resonate very well in the environmental community, and are in fact considered to be something like a gospel of the greens. They are part of a moving speech that native American Chief Seattle is said to have given in January 1854. Read the full text here.

So these would be just the right sentiments to invoke on another Earth Day, right? Yes — except that Chief Seattle never uttered those words. They were, in fact, written by a screen writer in 1971 for a film about pollution and the plight of the Earth, called Home.

Tell that to thousands of die-hard greens who swear by Chief Seattle. By now, a couple of generations of people have been moved by the “speech.” Chief Seattle societies have formed in Europe. The supposed remarks have been reprinted widely and authoritatively cited in serious books on environmental issues, and quoted in high level speeches. Hundreds of teachers use extracts in environmental courses.

The man was real; the speech wasn't his
The man was real; the speech wasn't his
There’s absolutely no doubt that the words pack a great deal of traditional wisdom, poetic expression and what researchers like to call ‘indigenous knowledge’. This is how it ends: “Continue to contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste. When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is to say good-bye to the swift and the hunt; the end of living and the beginning of survival.

The value, modern-day relevance and power of the speech are not in doubt. But the problem is in its attribution: the wrong man is being credited worldwide for coming up with these oh-so-quotable words. And the misconception originated with a film script, where creative liberties are allowed and often exercised!

Conservationist, writer and analyst Andy Carr has traced the evolution of a modern myth in his column:

“Yes, Chief Seattle (more correctly Seathl) did give a speech in 1854 to Isaac Stevens, Pacific Northwest Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Dr. Henry Smith translated the speech from the original Lushotseed. Smith knew it to be special and that much was lost in his first oral translation. He supposedly visited the Chief many times in the following decades to get the words right in English. He published his translation in 1887 in the Seattle Sunday Star. According to Smith, the Chief spoke of his sadness about the grave injustice being visited upon the Indians by the European invaders and the absurdity, in the Chief’s view, of claiming land as one’s own and of not respecting ancestral ground.

“It was in the Victorian oratorical style of the time, and was soon forgotten. Professor William Arrowsmith, who taught classic literature at the University of Texas, came across the Smith version and modernized it in Arion in 1969. He changed it to reflect the protest-style of the 1960s. On the first Earth Day in 1970, Arrowsmith read his modified text before a large crowd.

Chief Seattle (left) and actual speech writer Ted Perry
Chief Seattle (left) and actual speech writer Ted Perry
“In that crowd was Ted Perry, a professor of film, who had been retained by the Southern Baptist Television Commission to draft a script for a film about pollution and the plight of the Earth, called Home. In a third execution of literary license, Smith turned it into a speech about poisoning the planet and human indifference to it. Perry’s concept was to transport Chief Seattle into the modern world and imagine what he would say.”

The documentary film on ecology, scripted by Ted Perry, was produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission, and later ran on network television. But not before the original script was edited for being more Christian, and some references to God were added.

John Scull, specialising in eco-psychology, has traced the evolution of the Seattle myth in an interesting essay. He notes: “The Perry speech, in spite of its Christian editing and its many historical inaccuracies, anachronisms and inconsistencies, was widely distributed and was seen as authentic by many…The text’s lack of authenticity was finally described in 1987, and documented in articles in both Omni and Newsweek in 1992.”

In April 1991, the New York Times ran a front-page expose of the Chief Seattle myth, saying: “A number of historians say Chief Seattle never said most of what he is supposed to have said.”

NYT quoted historian David Buerge as saying: “Chief Seattle is probably our greatest manufactured prophet,” and described him as ‘one of the scholars frustrated that their work has failed to stop the myth from spreading around the world.’

In his analysis, John Scull poses the query: Why are environmentalists so eager to continue to attribute these words to Chief Seattle instead of to their author, Ted Perry?

Perry, now a professor of film studies at Middlebury University, has tried repeatedly to set the record straight. Moreover, he thinks that the myth is pernicious. “Why are we so willing to accept a text like this if it’s attributed to a Native American?” he asks. “It’s another case of placing Native Americans up on a pedestal and not taking responsibility for our own actions.”

This 1991 book built on the Chief Seattle fable
This 1991 book built on the Chief Seattle fable
The myth of Seattle’s speech has been so pervasive that the Washington State Library issued a pamphlet in 1993 stating the facts. “The most important fact to note is that there is NO VERBATIM TRANSCRIPT IN EXISTENCE. All known texts are second-hand,” Nancy Zussy, State Librarian, said in that note.

That note listed four different versions of the speech. The most widely known of all, it said, was written by Texas professor Ted Perry as part of a film script. “The makers of the film took a little literary license, further changing the speech and making it into a letter to President Franklin Pierce, which has been frequently reprinted. No such letter was ever written by or for Chief Seattle.”

So is there anything authentic left of poor Chief Seattle? There’s no doubt the man cared deeply for his people and the environment, even if he was nowhere near as eloquent as modern-day environmentalists want us to believe. Sadly, we don’t even know what the old boy really looked like.

According to a story by Malcolm Jones Jr. and Ray Sawhill, appearing in Newsweek of 4 May 1992: “Even the one known photograph of him has been doctored repeatedly. In the original, his eyes were closed. Subsequent version were retouched so that his eyes looked open. In some versions, he carries a cane, but not always. And in the most revisionist makeover, his head has been grafted onto the body of another man.”

So is it just historical accuracy at stake here, in our setting the record straight about Seattle as scripted by Perry? Does it really matter whether or not the Indian chief actually said it as long as his alleged words continue to inspire environmental commitment?

I share Dr John Scull’s views when he says: “The world is in an environmental crisis and needs help, but a mythical Indian chief from the last century is not going to ride over the hill and save it from the industrial cavalry in some reversal of the Hollywood western — all of us are going to have to work together to save it ourselves. Recognizing that at least some of the answers lie within mainstream contemporary culture might be a good place to start.”

Read The Little Green Lie, by Mary Murray, Reader’s Digest, May 1994

Pay it forward: A charming idea for our hard times?

The power of do good!
The power of do good!
Just imagine…
You do a favour that really helps someone, and tell him/her not to pay it back…
Instead, you ask that it be paid FORWARD to three other people who, in turn, must each pay it forward to three more…and so on.

Impossible? Well, not quite – if you believe (as I do) in the essential goodness of human beings, no matter what their class, race and other divisive factors are.

This idea is known as ‘Pay it forward’. It is really simple: it asks that a good turn be ‘repaid’ by having it done to others instead. Paying it forward has been around as a concept for more than two millennia, from the time of ancient Greece. It was rediscovered in modern times by Benjamin Franklin and later, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my favourite essayists.

In his 1841 essay titled ‘Compensation’, Emerson wrote: “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”

During the Twentieth Century, science fiction author Robert A Heinlein popularised the concept in his book Between Planets (1951). It formed the central theme of Pay It Forward (2000), a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, which was soon turned into a movie by the same name.

In that story, a thoughtful teacher challenges his seventh grade students with ‘an assignment to save the world’. One perceptive student devices a scheme where one has to carry out three good deeds for others as repayment of a good deed received. Such good deeds should be things that the beneficiaries cannot accomplish on their own.

It was through Pay It Forward the movie, made in 2000 and directed by Mimi Leder, that I first came cross the idea. It’s one of those simple and elegant ideas that packs so much power to change people and the world. Its implementation requires trust, honour and imagination, which most human beings can muster in sufficient quantity when challenged.

Then I realised that, without a conscious plan and not labelling it as such, I was already ‘paying it forward’ myself — and not just to three new people, but many. That was the least I could do for the many breaks, blessings and opportunities I had received in my professional life.

More about that in a minute. First, take a look at the official trailer for Pay it Forward:

And this is how it all started in the movie, with one thoughtful class teacher challenging his seventh grade pupils with ‘an assignment to save the world’:

Here’s an extended, unofficial trailer remixed by a fan using the official trailer, some scenes from the movie and a few interviews with the key stars:

Journalism – especially the industrialised, mainstream version of it – is by definition a highly collaborative business: newspapers, magazines, as well as TV/radio broadcasts are produced by several or many people working together, each playing a specified part.

And because the media are a mirror on our society and our times, the stories we journalists produce just won’t be possible unless our sources share their information, experiences and insights. This is why Bill Moyers, one of the most respected and credible voices in American broadcasting (a land where such professionals are endangered), says: “We journalists are simply beachcombers on the shores of other people’s knowledge, other people’s experience, and other people’s wisdom. We tell their stories.”

During the early years of my career as a science writer and journalist, I was enormously lucky in both respects. I had kind, indulgent, nurturing senior colleagues who showed me the ropes, expecting nothing in return except good stories. And I benefited much from the kindness and thoughtfulness of many accomplished men and women – mostly in the worlds of science, environment and development – who took the time and trouble to talk to me, clarify even basics to a rookie like myself, and allow me to attribute information or quotes them. I was a complete stranger to many of them, yet they cared enough in spite of busy schedules (there were also a few didn’t, but that’s only to be expected).

Then there were opportunities, some competitively earned, others bestowed on me. In those formative years, the opportunities for training, mentoring and other influences sharpened my skills and shaped my worldview. It was easy to grow up angry with the world and seeing conspiracies everywhere; it was much harder to acquire a balanced view of the world and to become a skeptical enquirer without turning into an incurable cynic.

Among those early influences were:
• Working with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India, under the late Anil Agarwal and his worthy successor Sunita Narain
• Regional and international training programmes, organised by various UN agencies and other entities such as the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy
• Invaluable support from the International Science Writing Association (ISWA), which leverages far more benefits than its modest resources would indicate at first glance (again, the power of networking!)
• Editorial training and global syndication from Panos, which provided my first outlet to publish internationally through Panos Features (sadly, no more).

Then there was my mentor Sir Arthur C Clarke, who gave me the rare privilege of spending 21 years as his research assistant — a long and unique apprenticeship that enriched me so much.

These and others helped fill gaps in my formal training in science journalism. And such exposure was worth so much more in the days before commercial internet connectivity. There was no Google or YouTube, and early versions of email were just beginning to roll out.

Just do it, and hope others will keep doing it too...
Just do it, and hope others will keep doing it too...
And now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. It’s plain and simple; there’s no grand pledge or plan. No one asked me to sign up to any binding agreement. There is no spiritual or intellectual compulsion. I just do it, because that’s a good thing to do.

This is why, despite pressure of work, I work with young journalists and producers, organising training workshops through TVE Asia Pacific, or readily agreeing to be a resource person for good programmes organised by others. This is also why I mentor a few eager, committed young professionals in my native Sri Lanka and elsewhere in developing Asia. Read here my tribute to one of them, whose death four years ago was hard to bear. And this is why every year I donate a couple of weeks of my time serving on boards of management of two media/development related charities whose vision and mission I share.

This is also why I spent a good part of my recent Easter/New Year holidays putting together a detailed response to a young script writer who is passionately promoting a film project related to climate change. I have never met him in person, and until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of him. A cynical British colleague used to caution me that any crazy nut sitting under a banyan tree can write a letter (or more likely an email these days) claiming to be anything he wasn’t. There’s always that risk. But I’m taking my chances.

Years ago I stopped counting the favours I paid forward, and I no longer even keep track of the people that I give little nudges along the way. Being a secular rationalist with no absolutely religious belief of any kind, I don’t collect brownie points for any ‘next world account’. I just do these little good deeds to make this world a little better place.

If further justification were needed, I cannot say it better than Steven Grellet, a prominent French Quaker missionary who once said (and I quote him for its secular essence): “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Untold story behind the story: “Barack Obama: People’s President”

A film to reveal what the old media didn't show...
A film to reveal what the old media didn't show...
When Barack Obama and his running made Joe Biden won the US Presidential Election held on 4 November 2008, they not only beat the Republican duo McCain-Palin but also a host of other also-rans. It’s too soon to tell, but that date might also mark the beginning of the end for the old media, also called the mediasaurus, who have been dominating the public’s access to news, information and commentary for over a century.

But how did it all happen? Who can tell us the real story as it happened, and why, without filters and biases so rampant among the mediasaurus?

On this blog, we have watched with deep interest and some fascination the rise of Barack Obama from relative obscurity to become the President of the United States. On 6 November 2008, soon after the election results were confirmed, we noted how Obama had just been elected ‘President of the New Media world’. I explained: “Obama’s rise has epitomised change in many ways. Among other things, he is the first elected leader of a major democracy who shows understanding and mastery over the New Media World, which is radically different from the old media order.”

On 20 January 2009, when he was inaugurated, we wrote: “For four or eight years, Obama’s every move, word and gesture will be captured, dissected and debated to exhaustion by admirers and detractors alike. And his administration will be under scrutiny by thousands of citizen journalists who don’t share much except the digital platforms and social networks on which they post their impressions. Welcome to the New Media Presidency. The hard work – and real fun – begin now!”

And now, one of the world’s leading new media activists, Danny Schechter, is about to release a new documentary on how the Obama campaign rode the new media wave to the White House — and more importantly, how the same new media can help the American public to keep Obama Administration accountable.

The film “Barack Obama, People’s President”, (slated for DVD release later this month by, documents the online and on the ground techniques that were used to win the highest office in the land.

As the film’s advance promo blurb says: The one story that most TV outlets didn’t tell in the 2008 election was the most important one -how did a young and relatively unknown candidate become President? If you voted for Barack Obama or not, this is a story you will want to know because it shows how the face of presidential politics changed forever. Barack Obama used techniques never seen before in a nationwide election — his grassroots mobilization and use of the internet was unprecedented, inspiring and effective. You have seen the rest of the coverage — now see the real story.

The film goes inside the official and unofficial campaign to show how Barack Obama was turned into a political brand to appeal to young first time voters. It shows how social networking on the internet — blogs, Facebook, texting and other techniques — were used carry the message to the masses and to raise tens of millions of dollars for the campaign. Popular online videos such as “Obama Girl”, along with those created by regular yet passionate supporters to engage their own communities, became one of the most important tools in the campaign’s success.

Watch the trailer of “Barack Obama, People’s President” directed by Danny Schechter:

Emmy award winning film-maker Danny Schechter, who is also blogger-in-chief at that keeps a critical eye on the media, just wrote this explaining why he made this film:

“It is hard to remember that two years earlier Obama was barely known, registering on the radar screen for just 10% of voters. He was also hardly a brand name as a first term Senator who spent more time in state politics in Illinois than on the national stage. Moreover, he was young and a man of color — not qualities that usually prevail in a presidential arena which tends to draw far older, far whiter, and far more centrist candidates. The thought that he would beat frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the primaries was, quite frankly, unthinkable to most of the elite.

“And yet he prevailed, as he used a phrase appropriated from labor organizer and Latino legend Caesar Chavez. Obama turned the farm workers Spanish language slogan “Si Se Puede” into “Yes We Can.” Rather than focus on specific political issues, he built a campaign on the promise of “Hope.” Rather than just rely on traditional fundraising — although by the end, he was plush with it — he reached out over the internet for smaller donations from millions of donors.

Perils of the New Media Generation...
Perils of the New Media Generation...
“Few in the major media gave him a chance, but he was not discouraged because he had created his own grassroots media operation using sophisticated organizing and social networking techniques to build a bottom-up movement, not the usual top-down apparatus. While his campaign ran the show, he encouraged independent initiatives including citizen-generated media, music videos, personalized websites, twittering and texting, etc..

“This is the new direction our politics has taken. It is a story that may be somewhat threatening to old media – and older activists – who prefer a one to many approach to communication, as opposed to forging a more interactive empowering platform. There is no question that young people — especially those mobilized by Obama — prefer online media and that choice is making it harder and harder for traditional outlets to sustain their influence and, in some cases, even their organizations. Old media may be on the way out.

“This is why our film is, in my mind, so important, not just as a record of how Obama won and what happened in 2008, but in what will happen, can happen, and is happening in the future. This is why I believe its critical for Americans to see it — and others in the world as well — to recognize how Obama represents more than just another politician, but a whole new approach to politics. That old adage is worth remembering: “It’s not the ship that makes the wave, it’s the motion of the ocean.”

“Obama, for all his shortcomings, which are becoming more obvious by the day, has pioneered the way change must be won — not by people on the top, but by all of us. It remains for “us” to hold him accountable. We live in a culture of amnesia – it is important to learn the lessons of the recent past.”

Read the full comment: New Film Tells Unreported Story of Obama’s Election on

Message placement: Gates Foundation discovers TV soaps are good for health!

There's still time for TV to redeem itself...
There's still time for TV to redeem itself...
In the developing (or majority) world, we have been doing it for years: embedding subtle messages on health, environment, family planning or civic behaviour in popular, highly-rated entertainment shows on television.

In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, there is a long history of collaboration among non-formal educators, advocacy groups and broadcast companies to mix entertainment with public education — a difficult balance to achieve without putting off viewers who tune in for entertainment. See, for example, my coverage of the BBC World Service Trust’s work in India.

Now, it seems, this ‘edu-tainment‘ approach is also being tried out seriously in the home of ‘soap operas’ or television drama: the United States.

A recent report in the New York Times describes how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working with video production companies and broadcast networks to shape story lines and insert health-related messages into popular entertainment like the television shows “ER,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Private Practice.”

Already, the foundation’s messages on HIV prevention, surgical safety and the spread of infectious diseases have found their way into these shows.

The report, written by Tim Arango and Brian Stelter, said: “Now the Gates Foundation is set to expand its involvement and spend more money on influencing popular culture through a deal with Viacom, the parent company of MTV and its sister networks VH1, Nickelodeon and BET.”

They called it “message placement”: the social or philanthropic corollary to product placement deals in which marketers pay to feature products in shows and movies. Instead of selling Coca-Cola or G.M. cars, they promote education and healthy living.

Some viewers in television-saturated US might say: it’s about time! In the past, many American companies producing entertainment content have resisted approaches from social activists to use the mass medium for public good.

In the late 1980s, when I shared some Asian experiences of mixing television drama and public education at an international science communication conference in Spain, American academics and journalists in the audience were intrigued. “But this can never happen in the United States…we keep our education and entertainment separate, and with good reason!” one of them said during question time.

Clearly, those hard attitudes have been changing slowly. As the NYT article says: “The efforts of philanthropies to influence entertainment programming is not new…. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health issues, has been doing such work for a dozen years. It has worked story lines about H.I.V. and AIDS into programs on CBS and UPN (now known as the CWnetwork), including the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”

Left, ABC’s “Private Practice,” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The story lines of both shows have spread the health-related messages of the Gates Foundation. Images courtesy ABC & NBC
Left, ABC’s “Private Practice,” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The story lines of both shows have spread the health-related messages of the Gates Foundation. Images courtesy ABC & NBC

The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication is at the forefront of blending entertainment with public education. “There’s a lot of research that shows that when a character in a series says, ‘I’m going to be an organ donor,’ it’s effective, more effective than giving out a pamphlet,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Centre.

The Centre has a Hollywood, Health & Society programme that provides entertainment industry professionals with accurate and timely information for health storylines. It organises meetings between health specialists and script writers for entertainment shows – not just drama, but also reality and variety shows.

“Our view is you don’t have to sacrifice entertainment value to be accurate,” Kaplan is quoted as saying in the NYT article.

That’s a view – and experience – shared by TV writers, producers and programme managers from Mexico to South Africa, and from India to the Philippines. In fact, this is an approach the Gates Foundation should consider rolling out in the majority world countries where they are already a key player in selected areas of health and development. Despite the recent spread of broadband internet, broadcast television is still the dominant mass medium – and primary source of news and entertainment – for most people in much of the developing world. That’s billions of eyeballs we’re talking about – and the cost of producing quality entertainment (even with education subtly embedded in some places) is significantly less than in the west.

In short, Gates can get a bigger bang for its bucks on the airwaves in the global South. And there’s really no need to convince TV industry gate-keepers and producers on how edu-tainment works: they’ve been at it for years, using whatever resources they can find.

Read full article: Messages With a Mission, Embedded in TV Shows, NYT 2 April 2009

When traffic moves: Which is the biggest carbon emitter of all?

In January 2008, I wrote about two short videos made by Pradip Saha and colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India on the auto industry’s contribution to worsening traffic congestion, air pollution and public health in metropolitan India.

Now Pradip & Co have come out with another revealing short video. It answers a simple question: of the various types of motorised transport on our roads, which one emits the most carbon dioxide per person that slowly but surely bakes our planet?

Their blurb says:
Watch video to find out who wins in this race to emit more. A blue graph will appear shortly on your screen. Do not be alarmed. It is an attempt to illustrate the Carbon each of us emits while traveling to work everyday.

This short video reminds of what we can do with broadband-enabled online video to raise awareness and catalyse discussion on matters of public interest. I haven’t specifically asked Pradip about this, but it seems like a low-cost, quick-turnaround effort. It’s certainly effective in making a single, important point that has far-reaching policy and practical implications.

What a difference half a century makes: cartoon courtesy CSE India
What a difference half a century makes: cartoon courtesy CSE India
The big question is: who is listening in modern India that has turned itself into a car-worshipping nation?

Visit CSE’s Climate Equity Watch

Watch more CSE videos on Down to Earth channel on YouTube