With rioting in Ferguson, Mo., U.S. troops going to the Middle East to fight the Islamic State group and nuclear negotiations in Iran not going as well as he hoped for, how did the president justify taking time to “pardon” a turkey Wednesday?
With rioting in Ferguson, Mo., U.S. troops going to the Middle East to fight the Islamic State group and nuclear negotiations in Iran not going as well as he hoped for, how did the president justify taking time to “pardon” a turkey Wednesday?
Thousands of people joined a second night of protests Tuesday in response to the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the August shooting death of Mike Brown.
Angry about the decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, college students and activists stormed District streets and converged in front of the White House on Monday night to protest.
 
 
 

Semester in Washington Intern Blog

Nov 24, 2014

By Sean McMinn

That was fast.

Just a few weeks after dominating news cycles and inspiring more than a few questionably appropriate Halloween costumes, Ebola appears to be plummeting on the American public’s list of concerns.

Based on an analysis of Google searches for “Ebola,” “Ebola symptoms” and “Ebola virus,” Americans’ interest in the disease is almost back to pre-October levels.

The beginning of October is when Ebola-related searches really started to spike in the U.S. But it wasn’t the first time Ebola had crossed into the country – that was back in August when Dr. Kent Brantly was flown from Liberia to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

What set off the mass interest in Ebola was a series of incidents in late September and early October. Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man, was admitted to a Dallas hospital with Ebola and died there. He was the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Two days later, An American freelance journalist working in Liberia for NBC was diagnosed with the disease. And about a week after that, two nurses at the hospital that treated Duncan were confirmed to have caught Ebola.

Per the Google data, Americans started going online for answers en masse in mid-October, right around the time we learned the two nurses had Ebola. Searches for “Ebola symptoms” spiked, reaching their peak Oct. 16.

To determine the trends, Google uses a formula that compares the number of searches done for a specific term to the total number of searches done in that same time period. Within a given period, it compares each day's searches to the day with the highest proportion of searches. The highest day receives a score of 100/100, and each other day is given a score compared to it.

Until Sept. 30, searches for three Ebola-related terms were averaging about 3.5/100 on Google’s index. After spiking near 100 in October, they’ve fallen back down to about 4/100 during the last three days of data available.

One possible explanation is the lack of new patients being diagnosed in the U.S. Though Dr. Martin Salia died of Ebola Nov. 17 at Nebraska Medical Center, he was infected in Sierra Leone and was already extremely ill when he arrived in the U.S.

The most recent person to be diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. was a doctor in New York. Officials declared him Ebola-free in mid-November.

Meanwhile, infections in West Africa are still increasing, USA Today reported over the weekend. In the two-and-a-half weeks leading up to Nov. 21, the number of cases has jumped by 30 percent in Sierra Leone, 18 percent in Guinea and 8.5 percent in Liberia.

 

Nov 12, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or download: Jennifer Hudson and Jamie Foxx got the Concert for Valor off to a rousing start Tuesday after Hudson performed a solemn version of the National Anthem before a crowd of thousands on the National Mall. SHFWire wire photo by Wesley JuhlClick on photo to enlarge or download: Jennifer Hudson and Jamie Foxx got the Concert for Valor off to a rousing start Tuesday after Hudson performed a solemn version of the National Anthem before a crowd of thousands on the National Mall. SHFWire wire photo by Wesley JuhlBy Wesley Juhl

I’ve never covered a concert before, so covering the Concert for Valor, an HBO Veterans Day special show Tuesday on the National Mall was an amazing experience.

Hundreds of thousands of people from the District and surrounding areas came to the free show. I was standing guard over my VIP seat in the bleachers, about a football field’s length from the stage.

For one, the weather was more beautiful than it’s been in weeks. Second, the show had an amazing lineup: the Black Keys, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Rihanna, Eminem and more.

I chose a seat toward the top of the bleachers where I had a good bead on the stage to shoot pictures of the show. I claimed the seat directly in front of me as well to preserve some legroom and have space to work. I quickly found the other people around me were also journalists who were turned down for backstage press passes. The college-radio journalists and freelancers quickly did the same thing, but no extra space would be given to any of us.

It seemed more VIP tickets had been given out than there were actually seats for. My island of misfit journalists stood elbow to elbow and sat cheek to cheek as we learned that there was no cellphone service. Those of us hoping to tweet or send out live updates or photos were out of luck.

As the other reporters settled in to wait to watch the show, I jealously guarded my spot. And as the other reporters sat and watched the show, I shot thousands and thousands of pictures of the show.

Most of them came out blurry. I wasn’t quite close enough, the performers wouldn’t stand still and the lighting was chaotic.

But I got some good ones.

Jessie J, performing her hit “Bang” and a cover of “Titanium,” sang wonderfully and was easily the easiest to photograph of the night. She harmonized with Jennifer Hudson like it was child’s play and knew how to cheat out toward the crowd and find her light.

Metallica, who performed some the band’s most iconic tracks, was hard to shoot, just because I thought my face was going to melt from all of their epic guitar licks.

But the hardest to shoot was Eminem, who did that fun song from his movie “8 Mile” and never once stood still. He wore a baseball cap and a hood, which made getting any good shots of him near impossible from where I stood.

HBO put on a great show, and the ocean of Washingtonians in attendance made it an incredible night.

I’ve never aspired to be an arts-and-entertainment reporter, but I had a blast and it was a wonderful celebration of an important U.S. holiday. And shooting the event was like a photography gauntlet, and I definitely learned from the mistakes that I made.

Covering the Concert for Valor made me think that perhaps entertainment reporters have it the worst, because they always have to work while everyone else is having fun.

 

Nov 7, 2014

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, D, motions to a supporter from the dais during her election night party. Bowser will be the second female mayor of D.C. SHFWire photo by Rocky AsutsaClick on photo to enlarge or download: Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, D, motions to a supporter from the dais during her election night party. Bowser will be the second female mayor of D.C. SHFWire photo by Rocky AsutsaBy Rocky Asutsa

WASHINGTON - This week Americans voted in the midterm elections. As a Kenyan away from home, I sought to draw parallels between how this important exercise of the democratic process is carried out here and in Kenya.

To get the feel of elections in the U.S, I went to observe actual voting and did an election night  crawl that took me to three parties.

At 11 a.m. the Oyster-Adams School voting center, or polling station as we call them back home, was my point of observation. A hundred yards from the station, I couldn’t see the long queues that characterize most Kenyan stations on polling day. 

Robert Black, precinct captain at Precinct 26 Oyster station polling place, explained that people came in early before going to work, hence the slow stream of voters.

Just like in Kenya, the law prohibits campaigning inside voting halls or going in with campaign material.

The biggest difference is that the U.S. conducts midterm elections, then presidential elections two years later, while Kenya conducts a general election that encompasses both local and presidential elections.

By selecting their preferred candidates on a two page ballot, D.C. voters elected both federal and local leaders. But the congressional delegate  D.C. choose cannot vote in Congress because it is a  federal district - the country's capital, not a state. D.C. also elected an attorney general, mayor,  members of state board of education in each ward, at-large members of the D.C. Council, a council chairman, four ward members and ballot Initiative #71.

The 2012 general election in Kenya was a whole new ball game, the first following the passing of the new constitution in 2010. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission conducted civic education on the four new slots on the ballot paper marked in different colors and with a fruit representing each of the political parties. The new offices were senators, governors, county woman representatives – reserved for women – and county assembly ward representatives for each of the 47 counties.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Chair Issack Hassan responds to questions from Kenyans living in D.C. about the 2017 election at the Kenyan Embassy. SHFWire photo by Rocky AsutsaClick on photo to enlarge or download: Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Chair Issack Hassan responds to questions from Kenyans living in D.C. about the 2017 election at the Kenyan Embassy. SHFWire photo by Rocky AsutsaThe U.S. system uses home addresses to register voters and is the basis for ensuring people don’t vote more than once. In Kenya, indelible ink on the little finger ensures no one votes twice.

Although there were many differences between elections in the U.S. and in Kenya, on account of Kenya being a young democracy with technological and logistical hurdles yet to be surmounted, there were similarities.

For instance, campaign ads in Kenya feature politicians trying to gain votes by casting their opponents as less desirable for the job, something common in the U.S. as well. A sad trait is that a majority forgets promises the candidates made once they are elected, leading to a general mistrust of politicians.

IEBC commissioners were in Washington this week on invitation from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to observe the midterm elections.

The team signed a memorandum of understanding with IFES, agreeing that the two bodies will cooperate in tackling voter apathy and conducting civic education for Kenya’s 2017 elections. 

They met diaspora Kenyans in Washington on Thursday to discuss possibilities of a diaspora vote. The commissioners explained that it would require legislative action and policy change to enable the diaspora vote. They advised Kenyans who turned up to lobby their leaders back home.

My experience was pleasantly refreshing, especially when I found out about Initiative #71, which is effectively an opportunity for the people to vote on an issue, in this case legalization of marijuana. The party for supporters of the initiative took place at Meridian Pint, a pub, where patrons shouted, “Yes we cannabis!  Yes we cannabis!!” when they realized the initiative had been approved by voters, although it is  subject to congressional approval. State referendums don’t face congressional approval.

It doesn’t happen this way in Kenya. Referendums are usually proposed by politicians.

David Catania, I, vied for the D.C. mayoral seat and lost. His election party, at Longview Gallery, was laid back compared to that of his challenger.  Entry was straightforward, I didn’t need to produce an ID and everyone mingled over free meatballs and chicken kebobs. A side-eye was glued to the big screen adjacent to the media section as conversation flowed and results trickled in. Catania conceded gracefully, something I need to see more of in Kenyan politics, since accusations of fraud followed by protracted court cases characterize post-election reporting.

The election party of Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, D, at Howard Theatre was like a convention. The theater was packed, and there was a charge for drinks and food. The revolving concert-like multicolored lights did not help the photography, but the mood was jubilant.

Demont Pinder, 35, intrigued the few who could keep their eyes off the big screen spewing results, with his on-the-spot painting of Bowser. “I’ll give it to her as a gift,” Pinder said as he painted from Bowser’s picture on his phone.  

Bowser hit the podium and started by thanking her parents – who were in the audience – and family for their support.

“You told me to conduct myself with integrity … I don’t have the words enough to express my appreciation,” Bowser said. “I will make you proud.”

She appeared different from when I saw her a week earlier during campaign when she was posing for pictures with admirers. In some way she was less accessible to the ordinary guy, almost regal. Or maybe it was just the new security detail effect.

 

Nov 7, 2014

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Students wait to hear Bob Woodward deliver the keynote address Thursday night at the National High School Journalism Convention in Washington. SHFWire photo by Ayana StewartClick on photo to enlarge or download: Students wait to hear Bob Woodward deliver the keynote address Thursday night at the National High School Journalism Convention in Washington. SHFWire photo by Ayana StewartBy Ayana Stewart

Thousands of high school students poured into a giant ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel Thursday night to hear a journalism legend.

Bob Woodward was about to give the keynote address at the National High School Journalism Convention, a conference sponsored by the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association.

His speech didn't disappoint. He asked students how they report for their school publications and related it to his assignments as a reporter at The Washington Post.

I was fascinated as he discussed breaking the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein, co-writing the bestselling book "All the President's Men" and sitting down with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

As I walked into the hotel's bathroom at the end of the event, a girl about 15 or 16 years old turned to me and said, "I felt like he would never stop talking."

I was bewildered. How is it possible to be a young person interested in journalism and not care about what Bob Woodward – a journalism hero if there ever was one – had to say about investigative reporting?

Still, this wasn't indicative of the response of the crowd. Most of the students around me listened raptly and asked insightful questions during the Q&A that followed his 35-minute talk. He answered questions about social media, telling students that he thinks reporting Watergate would be more or less the same today.

He warned against getting too comfortable using technology for interviews, telling students that too much reporting today is done via email.

"There's always a scene to go to," he said.

But it was interesting to see how a select number of students reacted to his presentation. The students behind me whispered throughout the end of the presentation, comparing the Watergate scandal to “Scandal,” the hit ABC TV show. Some teenagers kept their cellphones out throughout the talk.

My kneejerk reaction was to blame this response on teenagers being shallow and uninterested – when I was 16 years old, I probably wouldn't have cared much for Bob Woodward, either. I don't think it's that simple, though.

Based on the sheer number of tweets related to the convention, a good number of students were using social media to interact in their own way during Woodward's speech. And the line of students waiting to meet Woodward and get his autograph was quite impressive.

 

Nov 5, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or download: Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser thanks supporters Tuesday night during a victory speech. She will replace Mayor Vincent Gray in January. SHFWire photo by Ayana StewartClick on photo to enlarge or download: Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser thanks supporters Tuesday night during a victory speech. She will replace Mayor Vincent Gray in January. SHFWire photo by Ayana StewartBy Ayana Stewart

Even before David Catania conceded D.C.’s mayoral race to Muriel Bowser Tuesday night, Bowser’s watch party was a celebration.

The Howard Theatre – illuminated with green lights, green signs and green shirts – was filled with Bowser supporters ordering drinks from a well-stocked bar, munching on finger foods from a buffet and dancing to loud pop music blaring through the speakers.

Once the D.C. Board of Elections started to release early vote results showing Bowser in the lead, friends, volunteers and supporters of the mayor-to-be whooped and cheered. “Muriel for Mayor” signs were passed around and subsequently waved in the air.

When Bowser took the stage to give her victory speech, the room became complete pandemonium. People pushed forward, hoping to get closer to Bowser, who wore cobalt blue, despite adopting green as her campaign color.

As she walked on stage, Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” played. Chants of “All eight wards,” one of Bowser’s campaign slogans, filled the room.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Supporters of D.C. Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser cheer Tuesday night upon finding out she was ahead of opponent Councilman David Catania. Bowser beat Catania by almost 19 points. SHFWire photo by Ayana StewartClick on photo to enlarge or download: Supporters of D.C. Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser cheer Tuesday night upon finding out she was ahead of opponent Councilman David Catania. Bowser beat Catania by almost 19 points. SHFWire photo by Ayana StewartAlthough Bowser won a decisive victory, with 54 percent of the vote citywide, Catania beat her in three of the city’s eight wards.

After the hubbub of Election Day, I was more than exhausted as I filed my story. Still, people were dancing, cheering and singing when I left the theater after midnight.

People hugged, snapped photos and showed no signs of fatigue. I zigzagged my way through a large group of partyers doing the “Cha-Cha Slide” as I left the auditorium. 

After a 19-month campaign, this was the night many had likely dreamed of: Bowser claiming the mayoral seat by a healthy margin, continuing the District’s trend of electing African American Democrats.  

It was quite the party. As a journalist who didn’t follow District politics closely until I moved to Washington in September, it showed me both the importance of the mayoral seat to District residents and the sheer joy that comes with a political victory.

 

Oct 31, 2014

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Professor Karina Korostelina, director of the Program on History Memory and Conflict at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University presented her findings from “Political Insults” on Thursday. SHFWire photo by Wesley JuhlClick on photo to enlarge or download: Professor Karina Korostelina, director of the Program on History Memory and Conflict at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University presented her findings from “Political Insults” on Thursday. SHFWire photo by Wesley JuhlBy Wesley Juhl

Political insults may mean as much about the group issuing them as the insult itself.<--break->

Professor Karina Korostelina trained in social psychology in Ukraine and is the director of the Program on History Memory and Conflict at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

Korostelina, an expert in social identity and identity-based conflicts, presented the findings from her new book to students and academic colleagues Thursday. “Political Insults” is the first study to focus on insults among nations and studies international events, including North Korea's declaration of war against the U.S., territorial disputes about uninhabited islands near Japan and Russia’s Pussy Riot case.

Politically motivated insults are often symbolic and can escalate into significant, often violent clashes, Korostelina said.

When young Ukrainians fried eggs on the eternal flame near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ukraine, it was perceived as an insult by many and deepened divisions within the country, which has faced multiple violent conflicts recently.

Through examples like this, Korostelina identified and analyzed different types of insults, adding that the type of insult is indicative of the offenders’ motivation. She identified six types of insults:

  • Identity insults assign negative qualities to the group being insulted.
  • Projection insults justify a group’s actions by projecting negative characteristics onto the group being insulted.
  • Divergence insults enhance the differences between groups and seek to alienate the group being insulted.
  • Relative insults deny the group being insulted a right or privilege.
  • Power insults display of power meant to decrease the power of the group being insulted.
  • Legitimacy insults seek to categorize the group being insulted as illegitimate.

While this kind of research is in its infancy, Korostelina’s social theories provide a fascinating framework for interpreting current events, especially political news.

Let me try to apply this model to some U.S. politics.

When Sen. Ted Cruz, D-Texas, filibustered attempts to fund President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act last year – famously reading Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” – it had elements of multiple types of insults.

It could be perceived as a divergence insult, because it decisively distanced Republican senators from the Democrats, strengthening us-and-them messages. It’s a power insult, because Cruz reminded Democrats they didn’t have the power to stop the hours-long rant. It was a relative insult to anyone who actually wanted that time used to make legislation.

Similar interpretations could be done with many of the White House’s actions, often perceived as insults by congressional Republicans.

When viewed through such a framework, the content of the insult may have less meaning than the social motivations of the insult. Or do the offender’s political intentions enhance the content of the insult?

Either way, studies in social dynamics, such as Korostelina’s, may help to illuminate the political theaters of the world in fresh ways.

 

Oct 30, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or download: Michelle Obama held an event at the White House about fashion, and I was there to cover it. SHFWire photo by Ayana StewartClick on photo to enlarge or download: Michelle Obama held an event at the White House about fashion, and I was there to cover it. SHFWire photo by Ayana StewartBy Ayana Stewart

A man yelled at me on the train this morning.

We’d arrived at Farragut North, one stop before mine. I didn’t realize I was blocking the doors for people to get off and on. Rookie mistake.

“You know, you could try getting off and getting back on again,” he barked from across the car. Some people around him nodded. I bit my cheek and put in my headphones, but I could already feel my eyes watering.

When I was 5 years old, my family moved to Wesley Chapel, Fla., a small suburb adjacent to Tampa. Many of the students in my high-school graduating class were people I met in elementary school. My fiancé jokes that it’s impossible to go anywhere in the area without me running into at least one person I know.

I wave at neighbors as I drive through my family’s subdivision. The only hangout spots that stay open late are Applebee’s and Starbucks, so that’s where my friends and I spend most of our time.

When I got my acceptance note about the Scripps Howard Foundation internship, I was jumping up and down. This was going to be my chance to get out of Florida and make a name for myself. I’d had internships around my state – Gainesville, Tampa, Naples, Miami – but nothing would compare to the nation’s capital.

This is my eighth week in Washington, and it’s been exhilarating and overwhelming all at the same time. I’ve taken pictures of Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, created a video piece for our wire website and conquered my first data project.

In the midst of all the excitement, I’ve had waves of fierce homesickness. It’s embarrassing to admit – how can I be living in one of the greatest cities in the country, reporting from one of the most media-rich places in the world, and miss my boring hometown that I couldn’t wait to escape? How ungrateful is that?

One of my favorite quotes is this from musician Steffany Gretzinger: “Success doesn't have anything to do with the outcome. It's all in the process.”

Sometimes, the process is reporting from glamorous places and taking Instagram selfies at the White House. Other days, the process involves getting yelled at by a stranger for breaking an unspoken rule of public transportation.

If you spend your semester in Washington, you’ll likely experience the same tensions – elation at new opportunities and places, but a longing for familiarity. The important thing is finding a balance and learning to love your new home while gaining new appreciation for your roots.

 

Oct 24, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or download: Navy veteran Paula Neira, left, retired U.S. Navy SEAL Kristen Beck and Army Capt. Sage Fox answer questions Monday from Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center at a transgender military conference. Fox was the only speaker from the U.S. to wear her military uniform. SHFWire photo by Wesley JuhlClick on photo to enlarge or download: Navy veteran Paula Neira, left, retired U.S. Navy SEAL Kristen Beck and Army Capt. Sage Fox answer questions Monday from Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center at a transgender military conference. Fox was the only speaker from the U.S. to wear her military uniform. SHFWire photo by Wesley JuhlBy Wesley Juhl

I think a lot of people assumed the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law paved the way for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to serve openly in the U.S. military. I certainly did.

But I was wrong.

People who are transgender are still banned from the U.S. armed forces.

Perspectives on Transgender Military Service from Around the Globe,” put on Monday in conjunction with the San Francisco-based Palm Center at the ACLU’s Washington headquarters, was an eye-opening experience.

Soldiers from the U.S. shared stories about facing discrimination in the armed forces. Their experiences were a sharp contrast to those of troops from other countries.

Capt. Sage Fox, enlisted in the Army in 1993 as a man. She served with the Special Forces and worked at the Pentagon.

While she was deployed in Kuwait in 2012, she realized she needed to transition into a woman. She took time off to change genders, and when the Army called on her to come back, she laid everything out for them.

Her case went up the chain of command, and it fell on her immediate superiors to decide what to do. Fox said she was told they needed her skills, and she was invited to come back as a woman.

“The very next day I went back as a female officer,” she said.

But two weeks later they transferred her to inactive reserve. Her phone calls and emails asking for an explanation went unanswered.

“It was devastating for me to get pushed out like that,” she said.

Squadron Leader Catherine Humphries, of the Royal Australian Air Force, is on the other side of the spectrum.

She joined the RAAF in 1997 as a man and worked as a ground defense officer and instructor.

The Australian armed forces were OK with her transition, but for a while she could not work in her old job.

It wasn’t because she is transgender. It was because Australia did not allow women to serve in combat roles. That ban was lifted shortly afterward, and Humphries went right back to work.

When she was deployed in Afghanistan, she said she received mixed reactions. She said, however, that the Australian military has robust diversity policies for addressing harassment and giving peer support.

In all of the countries that allow transgender people to serve openly, leadership was named as the most crucial component of diversity.

I think it’s time that the media also stepped up to be a leader.

Earlier this fall, I heard a lawyer who is a Supreme Court expert say same-sex marriage is the biggest civil rights issue of our time.

Hearing the stories of men and women – devoted to their country and barred from serving it – makes me think it’s not even the biggest LGBT issue of our time.

Many trans people face more violence than gays and lesbians.

The Transgender Violence Tracker project aggregates data about anti-transgender violence. The group says people who are transgender are about 1.5 percent of the world’s population, yet they are about 400 times more likely to be assaulted or murdered than any other group.

In the first four months of 2014, 102 trans people were murdered around the world, according to TVT.

Nearly 10 percent of all reported violence was suffered by young people who defy gender norms – including a 3-year-old Oregon boy beaten to death by his mother for being too effeminate.

Trans people also face more economic obstacles.

Though President Barack Obama signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination against federal employees based on gender identity, it is often hard for trans people to find jobs and it is OK to fire an employee for being transgender in most states.

Trans people also face restrictions on their right to vote because of ID laws.

The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates 25,000 people could encounter difficulties when they head to the polls this year because many transgender people have government-issued IDs with different names, pictures or gender markers. Many states have strict ID requirements to vote, and many people have a difficult time updating their identification.

I’m not saying it’s the media’s job to advocate causes. But I do believe it’s the media’s job to tell stories and stimulate conversations.

I firmly believe the press has an ethical obligation to provide inclusive and accurate coverage of under-represented communities.

And it may be a good idea for the press to get a jump on these and other transgender issues, because they will make headlines in the future.

 

Oct 16, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or download: During Ramadan last year, Syria Relief and Development staff members distribute Ramadan care packages to families inside Syria and refugee families in Amman, Jordan. Photo courtesy of Syria Relief and DevelopmentClick on photo to enlarge or download: During Ramadan last year, Syria Relief and Development staff members distribute Ramadan care packages to families inside Syria and refugee families in Amman, Jordan. Photo courtesy of Syria Relief and DevelopmentBy Kara Mason

Getting humanitarian aid to Syrians is difficult. There are roadblocks, multiple opposition forces, ever-changing opposition borders, steady fighting and now the Islamic State group.

It’s always been a dangerous job, said Dena Elian, grants and programs associate for medical aid group Syria Relief and Development, but the presence of the Islamic State group has heightened the sense of uncertainty in the country for citizens and aid workers.

Elian has been doing relief work since she was in high school and ended up in Washington after graduating from Michigan State University. She became interested in Syria while she was in college and said aid work is her calling.

The Islamic State group controls major highways throughout the country. Usually, the group charges a fee to drive on the roads, Elian said. Prices for diesel have increased due to the group’s control of major oil refineries. Delivering medical supplies and other forms of aid to certain areas in Syria has become more expensive.

For now, the cost fluctuations have been negligible, she said. The biggest concern is still security.

The Kansas-based nonprofit’s hospital in rebel-controlled Aleppo was destroyed earlier this year from a barrel bomb attack. It wasn’t caused by the Islamic State group, but fighting between the group and opposition forces 15 miles to the north is pretty constant.

If the Islamic State group gains control of the city, it would most likely be a game-changer. It would be nearly impossible to get aid there.  The United Nations and the Assessment Capacities Project have reported that in Islamic State group controlled areas, such as the northeastern portion of the country, humanitarian access is “extremely limited.”

Since the conflict began in 2011, 10.8 million Syrians have needed humanitarian assistance, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. To help alleviate the crisis, the U.S. has spent just over $2.9 billion in aid since 2012, but the conflict has worsened. July was the deadliest month with 1,500 civilian deaths, Elian said.

“There’s always a fear of traveling,” Elian said, especially since it’s hard to keep track of shifting borders and danger zones.

But travel has become a necessity for millions of Syrians.

“We often see patient numbers fluctuate from week to week and month to month, but it's difficult to pinpoint what the explanation is for it,” Elian said. “Migration trends, as well as patient trends, tend to correlate with increased violence and other harsh conditions. At our facilities, we tend to see more of a trend surrounding our caseload distribution. Since June, we've definitely seen a spike in conflict related injuries at our facilities.”

Some of the moving is due to the Islamic State group, she said. But it’s difficult to say how many of the cases they see are related to the group. 

Syria Relief and Development has four field hospitals, a wing in Jordan and several small clinics throughout the country that employ 250 Syrians. So far, none of the hospitals is in Islamic State group controlled territory.

“We’ve been really lucky because our hospitals work in opposition-controlled areas,” Elian said.

But that could change quickly.

“It’s something you have to prepare for, because no matter where you are it could happen,” she said.

The Islamic State group and a confusing array of opposition groups has caused a decline in donations to the nonprofit.

“There was a huge humanitarian crisis before, but now people think Syria and they think terrorism,” Elian said.

People have become exhausted with Syria, and attention has been redistributed to other issues, such as the Ebola breakout, she said. It’s tough to get people on board because they know it’s not going to end any time soon.

 

Oct 10, 2014

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Social media expert Allison Fine laughs as Andrew Rasiej whispers a joke. Robert Atkinson is to the left and Alec Ross is on the right. They spoke Thursday at a Politico event about how social media and the Internet are affecting politics and government. SHFWire photo by Wesley JuhlClick on photo to enlarge or download: Social media expert Allison Fine laughs as Andrew Rasiej whispers a joke. Robert Atkinson is to the left and Alec Ross is on the right. They spoke Thursday at a Politico event about how social media and the Internet are affecting politics and government. SHFWire photo by Wesley JuhlBy Wesley Juhl

Technology is changing the world.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. And it’s changing journalism too.<--break->

Growing up, I watched my grandfather read the papers every day. Now those newspapers’ print operations are clinging to precarious positions. In the next decade, many will move to online-only models, if they survive at all.

I always wanted to be a newspaper man. I always saw myself blazing through the world with a notepad and a pen, but in my time reporting in Washington, I’ve learned that will not be the case.

To survive in today’s journalism climate, I’ll need to be equipped for battle with a camera, recording devices, tripods, web skills and who-knows-what-else.

In the last month, I’ve taken pictures, shot video, made slideshows, edited audio and made interactive web graphics. It’s been a shock to my system, but I’ve enjoyed it.

At a Politico event Thursday, I realized it isn’t just journalism that has to cope with emerging and disruptive technologies. 

The experts at the event said governments around the world are adjusting to social media and online technology, too. Examples included U.S. government and politicians’ use of social media in campaigns and the use of emerging technology in other countries.

Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, said people increasingly think of the Internet as central to their lives. His organization believes the Internet is changing democracy as we know it, and Rasiej said it’s shameful that 30 percent of the U.S. population can’t afford to go online.

“Even though we have that technology, we’re still paying the highest rates of any industrialized country,” he said.

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think-tank, said the real reason a third of the population is not online is that they don’t own a computer.

“The single-biggest factor is not cost. The single-biggest factor is interest and digital literacy,” Atkinson said. “You’re not going to get broadband if you don’t own a computer.”

This is a statistic that should alarm journalists working in new media. Atkinson said 95 percent of Finland’s population owns a computer, but only 67 percent of the U.S. population does.

The most important policy changes would be to increase digital literacy, he said.

And without Internet access, people cannot engage their government online as residents do in many other countries.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: In the last month, I’ve taken pictures, shot video, made slideshows, edited audio and made interactive web graphics, but not at the Supreme Court, where pen and paper rule. I covered an argument in a First Amendment case. SHFWire photo by Wesley JuhlClick on photo to enlarge or download: In the last month, I’ve taken pictures, shot video, made slideshows, edited audio and made interactive web graphics, but not at the Supreme Court, where pen and paper rule. I covered an argument in a First Amendment case. SHFWire photo by Wesley JuhlColumbia University fellow and former State Department employee Alec Ross said small countries can benefit from having a large online presence.

Facebook’s recognition of Kosovo helped legitimize the country’s efforts to join the United Nations, he said.

Ross pointed to Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, who has a “powerful global presence” that transcends Sweden and made him one of the most powerful statesmen in recent years, thanks to his more than 300,000 followers on Twitter.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves used Twitter to become one of the most vocal detractors of Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. It was probably his social media presence that earned him a visit from President Barack Obama, Ross said.

Without that presence, Obama might have skipped the trip.

Estonian citizens can even vote online.

Digital politics matters more and more in the U.S., too. Soon, politicians will use the same technology that many newsrooms use to track a story’s online performance. They’ll be counting clicks and retweets just like online producers do.

In the last presidential election, Obama revolutionized social media campaigns by using analytic tools to tailor messages.

“They could tweak the messages and actually make sure they got their messages to the right people at the right time and turn that around at the polls,” Rasiej said. “Since that loss, the Republican National Committee has invested massive amounts of money in infrastructure.”

The experts agreed, however, that the government has a lot to learn about using technology to communicate.

“We’re really not talking about social,” social media expert Allison Fine said. “What we’re talking about is technology used to identify, target, get out the vote.”

Fine writes about online media’s influence on activism and social change and said she hasn’t seen a candidate who understands what the social media revolution is about – the transfer of power from institutions to individuals.

I think it’s likely that journalists will have a lot to learn, too. Not just now, but in perpetuity, as technology won’t stop evolving.

News organizations will probably have to realize that, in the Internet age, many people and so-called citizen journalists can break news as effectively as many large newspapers.

When candidates put out their own news on their websites and people can aggregate stories on social media and WordPress sites and amass a huge following, it will take a strong voice and a sharp set of skills to cut through the online jungle.

But journalists committed to the public good and the truth will also be more important than ever, so I’m getting ready.

 

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