Solar Eclipse 15 Jan 2010: New media slowly eclipsing MSM in Sri Lanka?



The Annular Solar Eclipse, best seen from northern Sri Lanka and southern India on 15 January 2010, was not only a rare celestial event; it also marked a turning point in how the mainstream media (MSM) and new media cover a wide-spread news event (albeit a highly predictable one).

Where the island of Sri Lanka was concerned, it was the first solar eclipse of the broadband internet era — and that showed.

The last solar eclipse seen in Sri Lanka was two generations ago, on 20 June 1955. That was almost pre-historic in mass media terms. The newly independent Ceylon had a single, state-owned radio station and a handful of newspapers. There was no television, and the internet was not even conceived.

Yet, paradoxically, the media’s influence over the 8 million people then living on the island seem to have been greater at the time. As astronomer Dr Kavan Ratnatunga recalled: “A quack physician cum astrologer, recommended that women wanting to become fair and lovely should drink a decoction of which the main ingredient was “Vada Kaha” (Sweet Flag or Acorus Calamus) at the time of the total eclipse, preferably unseen by others. Many who took his advice ended up in hospital.”

Solar eclipse on 15 Jan 2010 seen in Anuradhapura, north-central Sri Lanka - photos by Reuters

In contrast, in 21st Century Sri Lanka, the January 15 eclipse was not much of a news story. I don’t claim to have done a systematic analysis, but my impressions are drawn from scanning the major newspaper websites in English and Sinhala, and surfing the dozen or more terrestrial (free-to-air, not cable) TV channels that were on the air during the three hours or so of the eclipse. (Sorry: I missed out radio, and I’m not proficient in Tamil.)

Broadcast television was my biggest disappointment. Solar eclipses are a visual spectacular, and literally heaven-sent for live television. Yet, not a single Lankan TV channel carried a live broadcast of the event, either from northern Sri Lanka where it was best seen (in its annular form, with ‘ring of fire’ effect), or from elsewhere on the island as a partial eclipse.

It seemed as if the Colombo-based media were completely preoccupied with the intense build-up to the presidential election scheduled for 26 January 2010 — a case of politics eclipsing the solar eclipse?

Jaffna school children view the solar eclipse - Photo courtesy Virakesari


But there were a couple of honourable exceptions – and thank heavens for that! One was the leading Tamil daily Virakesari, which sponsored an expedition to Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, by a group of professional and amateur astronomers from SkyLk.com. According to one member of this expedition, Thilina Heenatigala, this newspaper provided the widest and most uptodate coverage of the annular eclipse from Jaffna.

SkyLk.com collaborated with the Hindu College in Jaffna, whose playground was converted into an open air observation camp. Thilina says over 2,000 people – including school children and adults – had converged to witness the event. A large screen was set up on to which the live image from a telescope was projected.

Not far from there, a group of engineering students and teachers from the University of Moratuwa was doing a more scientific observation. Later that day, team leader Dr Rohan Munasinghe reported in an email: “We have recorded the solar eclipse from Kayts (lat 9d,37m N, Long 79d,58 E), the biggest island off Jaffna Sri Lanka. We have timestamped the video with GPS (Garmin 18) accuracy.”

University of Moratuwa team observing the clipse - photo courtesy Dr Rohan Munasinghe

The Sinhala Sunday newspaper Rivira was part of this university expedition. Its science editor Tharaka Gamage, himself an astronomy enthusiast, reported from the eclipse’s ground zero for his readers.

Elsewhere across the island of Sri Lanka, there was plenty of interest among the people from all walks of life — as seen from the thousands who stepped out during mid-day to take a peek at the celestial phenomenon. Not all of them followed the safety precautions to prevent eye damage, disseminating which the media had done a good job in the preceding days.

Clearly, this high level of public interest was not reflected in how the rest of Lankan mainstream media covered the eclipse. But if the mainstream media’s gaze was firmly fixed on the gathering election storm on the ground, the new media created opportunities for others to step into that void. Citizen scientists joined hands with citizen journalists to capture and share the eclipse with each other — and the world. These unpaid enthusiasts used commonly available digital tools and online platforms for this purpose.

Some of them uploaded dozens of photos for public viewing on image sharing sites like Flickr. A good example is what Shehal Joseph and Romayne Anthony did. There were many others.

SkyLk.com group was more ambitious: they actually webcast the eclipse live online from their public observation camp at Hindu College grounds. Stuck in Colombo with its sub-optimal viewing conditions for this eclipse, this was the best chance for people like myself to catch the annular part of the phenomenon.

“We were struggling with bandwidth limitations most of the time,” Thilina Heenatigala says. “We used a Dialog HSPA modem to connect to the web, and line speeds kept fluctuating. We were not the only ones uploading still photos or video to the web from different locations in northern Sri Lanka — and apparently all of us were slowing down each other.”

Being the tech-savvy planner he is, Thilina had alerted Dialog telecom company about the likely peaking of bandwidth demand. But he is not sure if any temporary enhancing was done, even though Dialog currently claims to be the ‘first and best’ to offer telecom coverage in the north. Certainly, the live eclipse webcast was not of uniform quality — it’s a small miracle it happened at all: until a few months ago, this was part of the theatre of war in northern Sri Lanka.

In fact, SkyLk.com had used the web to build up public awareness and interest using video trailers on YouTube. Here is one of several simulations they had up from December, thus one for Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (simulation):



In the end, however, SkyLk.com became a victim of its own success. The live webcast was followed by hundreds, and then thousands of online visitors from different parts of the world. This apparently overshot the usual allocations provided by the offshore hosting company (in the US), which suspended the account. Right now SkyLk.com website is not accessible (as at 16 January 2010, 15:00 UTC/GMT).

Within hours of the eclipse, several individuals and groups also uploaded highlights of their eclipse videos on to the YouTube. Here are the most striking ones I came across in a quick search:

Solar Eclipse 2010 Sri Lanka Scientific Record – by University of Moratuwa
Scientific recording of the annular solar eclipse on 15 January 2010 was carried out from the Island Kayts (Lat +09d 37m North and Long +79d 58m East) of Sri Lanka.

Orion Video’s coverage from Nallur, Jaffna:

Not in the same league as the above two videos, this was Nishan Perera’s personal observations from Ratnapura, south-western Sri Lanka:

It’s too early to draw firm conclusions from this random evidence, but in all likelihood, we passed thresholds in both citizen journalism and citizen science with this eclipse. Clearly, the mainstream media’s monopoly/domination over reporting of such an event has been shattered: their indifference will no longer stand in the way of information and images being disseminated.

Perhaps just as important, it is no longer possible for a couple of self-appointed ‘public astronomers’ to dominate the public information channels on an occasion like this, mostly for shameless self-promotion. As Dr Kavan Ratnatunga, President of the Sri Lanka Astronomical Association, noted in an article: “I am amazed as to how many who have never even seen a Solar Eclipse, will gladly talk about it to an equally ignorant journalist, resulting in some totally misleading and sometimes hilarious information being published in both the English and Sinhala media. In a nation which believes in pseudo astrology, I am sure it is just a matter of time before quacks start using it to predict influence on local events and politics. However, there is absolutely no influence on any person by any of these celestial events.”

At the end of the day, however, astronomy aficionados are emphatic that no amount of media coverage can really substitute the experience of being there and experiencing it ourselves. As Kavan says: “A solar Eclipse is event which must be experience and observed. No video can do justice to that experience. It can also become addictive. In the modern age when the Internet and TV can bring events to your home, one may wonder why some Eclipse chasers travel round the world to see an Eclipse of the Sun.”

The next solar eclipse visible from Sri Lanka will be on 26 December 2019. I wonder what kind of media and ICT landscape would cover that event…

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Saving MSM Titanic – or is it lifeboat time for its passengers?

Unthinkable? Not any more...

Unthinkable? Not any more...

What is to be done? The innocuous question has probably been asked by so many individuals throughout history. Lenin famously asked it in 1901, and then spent the next few years cooking up a revolution that changed history (for better or worse, depends on where you come from).

What is to be done? I popped this same, unoriginal yet useful question during my recent presentation to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

The context was not sparking revolution, but coping with evolution: how to survive and adapt at a time when mainstream media (MSM) is under siege from technological change, loss of public confidence and economic recession.

Why do I care? Unlike my new media activist friends, who cannot wait to see the MSM ‘mediasaurus’ die, I see value and utility in this ‘species’ that has evolved for over 500 years. Yes, there is much that is not right with them – including greed, arrogance and narcissism. But MSM’s outreach still remains unmatched in many parts of developing Asia, where we simply cannot wait until the online/mobile media to evolve, scale up and establish themselves to completely serve the public interest. I will thus engage the dinosaurs as long as they remain useful…

Besides, not all members of the mediasaurus clan are ferocious and carnivorous; there are also many gentle, ‘vegetarian’ ones among them who have always been empathetic and caring. I see merit in the adaptation of these better MSM, if only so that we don’t have to put all our eggs in the online/mobile media basket…

So I spent part of my talk asking aloud how the MSM – under siege – can adapt fast and increase their survival chances. The overall suggestion was that they move out of denial or resistance, and instead try to ‘exploit the inevitable’ (a pragmatic policy if ever there was one!).

Here are some initial thoughts I offered:
• Prepare for coming calamity, by taking advantage of the likely delay in its arrival in our region and our island.
• Consider it a ‘cleansing’ process, a new beginning to do things better.
• Decide what’s really worth saving, and let go of everything else that is no longer useful or relevant.

Let’s remember, too, that the very term ‘media’ is a plural. That means:
• One size doesn’t fit all; one solution won’t help/save everyone.
• Different ‘lifeboats’ can be found for different media outlets.
• You will only find out what works by trying out a few alternatives.
• No solution is fail-proof or ‘unsinkable’.

In some ways, mainstream media has behaved with the same kind of arrogance of those who built and operated RMS Titanic, and in this instance, the iceberg has already been spotted. At this stage, should MSM be re-arranging furniture on the ship’s deck — or discussing rescue plans?

Big Ben at 150: Who'd build one like this today?

Big Ben at 150: Who'd build one like this today?

When the maritime tragedy happened nearly a century ago, on 14 April 1912, it dominated headlines around the world for many days. But MSM was in such nascent stages at the time, newspapers being the sole dominant mass medium. Radio communication had just been discovered, but radio broadcasting still lay a few years in the future.

To adapt and survive, MSM can also learn from how other industries faced vast challenges. For example, take the time-keeper industry:
• A century ago: people had to go to a post office, railway station or another public place to find the time. Clock Towers and public clocks announced time for all.
• Then came personal clocks (elaborate time pieces) that the wealthy people carried around in pockets or handbags.
• This was followed by wrist watches – personalised, affordable and portable.
• Now, mobile phones tell us the date, time and lot else!

Clock tower makers went out of business, and no one misses them now. Watch makers have adapted with the times, and are still competing with mobile makers. The parallels with the media industry are clear enough.

Back to the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, I find others have played on this metaphor. Michelle Tripp wrote a particularly insightful commentary in April 2009 – she has no patience for MSM and can’t wait for the troubled ship to sink.

Somebody writing as ‘Global1’ has commented about how the Titanic‘s Band played on to the very end (and went down playing). S/he asks: Could This Be Analogy To The Modern Day MSM? In this analogy, MSM is the band, and their ‘music’ is the news…

Incidentally, the centenary of the Titanic‘s sinking is coming up shortly, in 2012. It would be interesting to see how the MSM/Titanic analogy plays out in the next few years…

Can Citizen Kane and Citizen Journalist join hands in the public interest?

Can this common ground expand?

Can this common ground expand?


Is there common ground between the mainstream media (MSM) and citizen journalists (CJ) that can be tapped to better serve the public interest?

This is a central question that I explored in some depth during my recent presentation to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this week, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

MSM have gone from denial to dismissal to apprehension about this murky, distributed phenomenon called citizen journalists. But, as I asked, must MSM and CJ always compete? Must they consider each other mutually exclusive? I don’t think so.

Consider these facts: CJs are not an organised, unionised mass of people. They are a scattered, loosely connected group that is a community of practice across geographical borders and time zones. They rarely agree on anything among themselves. CJs are not out to topple MSM.

Once we get those points clarified, we can move beyond chest-thumping egotism. We can then address the fundamental values of why MSMs and CJs are both doing what they do: for the free flow of information, ideas and opinions.

Indeed, we should see how MSM and CJs can join hands more to serve the public interest. CJs today are not just frustrated poets and writers who never found a public outlet in the past. Today’s plethora of CJs include scientific experts, professionals, retirees with loads of experience and tech-savvy geeks among many others. This is a vast resource that MSM can tap into — especially in these days of leaner budgets and fewer staff.

Must everything be All-or-Nothing? No!

Must everything be All-or-Nothing? No!

And why not? Many issues these days are just too complex, technical or nuanced for even the most committed full-time, paid journalists to tackle all on their own. The information is often too vast to wade through in time for deadlines. And things are changing faster too. In such situations, can MSM work collaboratively with CJs, sharing the work load, risk and eventually, the credit?

In fact, MSM have historically relied on citizens to provide part of the content – whether they are letters to the editor, or funniest home videos, or news tips from the public that reporters then pursue. Today’s CJs can take this ‘crowd-sourcing’ to a new level.

I recently came across an interesting example of crowd-sourcing in investigative journalism – a component of journalism that is particularly demanding. Over several weeks in April – May 2009, The Telegraph in the UK disclosed the scandal over many exaggerated or false expense claims made by British Members of Parliament. This left the British public furious, and brought worldwide ridicule on the Mother of all Parliaments.

The story still unfolds. Now, The Guardian has involved readers to dig through the several truckloads of MPs’ expense documents to spot claims that merit further investigation because they seem…a tad suspicious. This is more than what a small team of paid journalists can do on their own: a total of 458,832 pages of documents need be manually checked. So far, 23,262 readers had signed up by 2 August 2009. Many hands make light work for The Guardian, whose editors will then decide which claims are to be further probed and queried.

Mobile: the most subversive ICT of all?

Mobile: the most subversive ICT of all?

Can we expect to see more of such collaborations in time to come? I certainly hope so. Under siege as they are, MSM should be the first one to make the move to search for this common ground – after all, they have everything to gain and little to lose. We can all think of tedious record-scanning, number-crunching tasks that are needed to unearth and/or understand complex stories of our times.

Of course, for such collaborations to work well, the rules of engagement between MSM and CJs need to be clear, transparent and based on mutual trust. That requires some work, but when it works well, everybody stands to gain.

In late 2005, I researched and worked with Sir Arthur C Clarke to write an essay on the rise of citizen journalists, which first appeared in the Indian news weekly Outlook on 17 October 2005. I’m quite proud of how we ended the essay: “There is more than just a generation gap that separates the mainstream media from the increasingly influential online media…Yet one thing is clear: the age of passive media consumption is fast drawing to an end. There will be no turning back on the road from Citizen Kane to citizen journalist.”

Emerging new models of collaboration in media and journalism indicate that this evolutionary road need not be a one-way street. So nearly four years on, I now raise the question that I first put to the media tycoons of Colombo the other day: Can Citizen Kane and Citizen Journalist join hands in the public interest?

I very much hope the answer is a resounding: Yes, We Can!