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Social media developments have legal implications and require a new literacy

By MARK PEARSON

Every new development in Internet and social media communication renders countless new people ‘publishers’ –  exposed to risky media law situations they might never have anticipated. 


Advances in communication technology in this new millennium have redefined the ways in which most of us share news and information. Industry upheaval and technological disruption have prompted many journalists to retool as bloggers, public relations consultants, multimedia producers and social media editors.

These roles add exciting new dimensions to journalism and strategic communications—including conversations and engagement with audiences and instant global publishing at the press of a button. But they also present new legal risks that most professional communicators – and even ordinary citizens – did not envisage in the twentieth century.

The changes have been so profound that they have impacted the ways we live and organise our lives and work practices. It is only when we review some of the milestones of the internet and Web 2.0, together with the legal and regulatory changes they have prompted, that we start to appreciate the need for all professional communicators to be knowledgeable about media law.

While the worldwide connection of computers, giving rise to the phenomenon we know as the internet, dates back to the early 1980s, it did not start to impact the lives of ordinary citizens until the mid-1990s. Melbourne’s Age newspaper became one of the first in the world to offer an online edition in 1995 (van Niekerk, 2005). Over the ensuing years, entrepreneurs started to embrace the commercial potential of the World Wide Web, just as consumers began to use it to source products and services, and students began to engage with it as an educational tool—predominantly from their desktop computers.

By the end of 2016, there were approximately 13.5 million internet subscribers in Australia (ABS, 2017). It was not until August 2003 that the first major social networking platform, MySpace, was launched in California. It was the leading social networking site in the world from 2005 until 2008, when it was surpassed in popularity by Facebook, which by 2017 had almost two billion monthly users, including 15 million in Australia (Media Watch, 2017). In the six months to June 2016, 93 per cent of internet users aged 18 to 24 used social networking sites (ACMA, 2016:  58). Streaming of entertainment and news has also become part of daily life.

In June 2016, 39 per cent of Australian adults had watched Netflix in the previous seven days, while 27 per cent had watched professional content on YouTube and 16 per cent had viewed the pay television service Foxtel (ACMA, 2016: 82). In the United States by 2017, six out of ten young adults were primarily using online streaming to watch television (Rainie, 2017). Associated with this was the remarkable uptake of the mobile telephone and other devices. The iPhone was only launched in 2007, but by 2016 more than three-quarters of Australians owned a smartphone (ACMA, 2016: 18). The iPad was born in mid-2010 into a market segment that many experts thought did not exist, but by 2016 more than half of Australians used or owned a tablet device (ACMA, 2016: 55).

Even more technologies are unfolding rapidly, with implications for both the media and the law, with the increasing use of drone devices for news-gathering purposes and the awe-inspiring Internet of Things (IoT), where everyday devices are all interconnected, offering novel news-gathering and delivery systems for the media but also complex legal ramifications—particularly in the realm of privacy and security law.

Governments, courts and other regulators have been forced to decide on the various rights and interests affected by these new media forms, and some of their decisions have taken private enterprise by surprise. It is a far more difficult task, however, to educate the broader community about social media legal risks.

The core message is that we are all publishers in the eyes of the law when we publish a blog or post to a social media platform, and in that role all citizens are subject to the same laws that have affected journalists and publishers for centuries.

Further, the instantaneous and global nature of the media means that we may also be the subject of foreign laws of countries other than Australia—particularly if we work for a multinational corporation, or choose to travel to, or have had material we wrote downloaded in, a place where our posts might have broken the law or infringed upon someone’s rights. These laws include defamation, contempt of court, intellectual property, confidentiality, privacy, discrimination and national security.

All this makes a strong argument for greater social media literacy among professional communicators and the wider community.

[Excerpted from Pearson, M. and Polden, M. (2019, 6th edition, forthcoming). The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law. A Legal Handbook for Digital Communicators. (Allen & Unwin, Sydney).]

References

Australian Associated Press (AAP) 2017, ‘Changes to media ownership laws’, SBS, 14 September, <www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/09/14/changes-media-ownership-laws>.

Australian Bureau of Statistics] 2017, Internet Activity, Australia, December 2016, cat. no. 8153, ABS, Canberra, <www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8153.0>.

Australian Communications and Media Authority] 2016, Communications Report 2015–2016. ACMA, Sydney, <www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/Library/researchacma/Research-reports/communications-report-2015-16>.

van Niekerk, M. 2005, ‘Online to the future’, The Age, 28 January, <www.theage.com.au/news/National/Online-to-the-future/2005/01/27/1106415726255.html>.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Filed under blogging, defamation, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

Our surveillance chapter in the new book ‘In The Name of Security’

By MARK PEARSON

Friend and colleague Joseph Fernandez (Curtin University) and I teamed up to write a chapter on surveillance and the media for a new book published by Anthem Press.

Ours is one of eleven chapters in the book In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism (Anthem, 2018), edited by our journalism education colleagues Johan Lidberg (Monash University) and Denis Muller (University of Melbourne).

For full details and ordering information, please go to the Anthem Press site here.

The book description and our chapter abstract are as follows:

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 saw the start of the so-called war on terror. The aim of ‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’is to assess the impact of surveillance and other security measures on in-depth public interest journalism. How has the global fear-driven security paradigm sparked by 11 September affected journalism? Moves by governments to expand the powers of intelligence and security organizations and legislate for the retention of personal data for several years have the potential to stall investigative journalism. Such journalism, with its focus on accountability and scrutiny of powerful interests in society, is a pillar of democracy.

Investigative journalism informs society by providing information that enables citizens to have input into democratic processes. But will whistleblowers acting in public interest in future contact reporters if they risk being exposed by state and corporate surveillance? Will journalists provide fearless coverage of security issues when they risk jail for reporting them?

At the core of ‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’ sits what the authors have labeled the ‘trust us dilemma’. Governments justify passing, at times, oppressive and far-reaching anti-terror laws to keep citizens safe from terror. By doing so governments are asking the public to trust their good intentions and the integrity of the security agencies. But how can the public decide to trust the government and its agencies if it does not have access to information on which to base its decision?

‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’ takes an internationally comparative approach using case studies from the powerful intelligence-sharing group known as the Five Eyes consisting of the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Chapters assessing a selection of EU countries and some of the BRICS countries provide additional and important points of comparison to the English-speaking countries that make up the Five Eyes.

The core questions in the book are investigated and assessed in the disciplines of journalism studies, law and international relations. The topics covered include an overview and assessment of the latest technological developments allowing the mass surveillance of large populations including the use of drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Chapter 3. Surveillance and National Security ‘Hyper-Legislation’ – Calibrating Restraints on Rights with a Freedom of Expression Threshold, Mark Pearson and Joseph M Fernandez:

The post-11 September 2001, era has unleashed a plethora of laws invoking national security and antiterrorism justifications that have severely compromised a range of human rights and civil liberties, including freedoms associated with expression and information access. Roach has described such laws as ‘hyper-legislation’ (2011, 310). Such legislation has inflicted often-unjustified constraints upon journalists and journalism. The overly broad antiterrorism laws potentially ensnare reporters covering security matters and have inflicted repeated blows on investigative journalism in recent times (Weisbrot 2016). Insufficient attention, however, is paid to the potential for these constraints to be informed and moderated by the constitutional and human rights frameworks in which such laws are enacted. There has been inadequate resolve to protect the public interest by ensuring that journalists and journalism are able to properly perform their professional duties and obligations. This chapter uses archival research, analysis of statutes and case law to examine how freedom of expression constitutional and human rights provisions in the Five Eyes democracies have, in reality, offered minimal protection to journalists and their sources – particularly in Australia, where a constitutional protection for freedom of expression is lacking. The absence of strong protections or the rampant undermining of existing protections, in the face of what Agamben (2005, 1) describes as an ongoing ‘state of exception’ in the post–9/11 war on terror, presents the need for new mechanisms to provide journalists and their confidential sources adequate protection to enable them to fulfil their professional obligations.

The authors argue that the long-held importance of freedom of expression in democracies moots for workable and explicit public interest defences to allow for the reporting of national security matters without endangering journalists or the sanctity of their obligations to confidential sources. The chapter undertakes a case study of Australia which, unlike the other Five Eyes intelligence alliance members – New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States – has no explicit constitutional or human rights framework to compel the courts or the Parliament to recognize the adverse implications of legislation upon free expression or a free media. The Australian courts and the Parliament have, however, acknowledged free expression rights, drawing upon free expression jurisprudence through the common law; an implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government; and the protocols for a non-binding review of the implications of proposed legislation upon human rights under the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 (Cth). This chapter considers these processes against the backdrop of the First Amendment obligations in the US Constitution, the UK’s free expression protection under Article 10 of its Human Rights Act 1998, guarantees on free expression, free media and free expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the free expression protection in New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act 1990. The authors argue that, while each of these jurisdictions has national security laws that impact upon the media, each enshrines stringent checks upon the impacts of proposed legislation on free expression. The ongoing onslaught against freedom of expression under the banner of the continued state of exception, however, shows that the free expression protections offered by such rights instruments provide minimal protection to journalists and their confidential sources.

The chapter also reviews the use of specific devices to deny journalists and their work appropriate protections in fulfilling their professional duties and responsibilities, and weighs their efficacy in a national security and counterterrorism context. It identifies relevant terminology from case law and legislative instruments including defamation law, consumer law and privacy and shield laws, and assesses their potential value as exemptions or devices to better protect journalists in a national security context. In doing so, it draws upon some examples and cases from those jurisdictions.

Finally, the chapter reviews the extent of journalist and source protections in recent Australian national security laws and draws upon survey research to indicate their impact upon journalists. It recommends a key aspirational threshold that should underpin an objective public interest test to apply to journalism in a counterterrorism legislative context so as to better safeguard free expression, transparency in governance and protection for journalists’ confidential sources.

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Why the public isn’t allowed to know specifics about the George Pell case #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

File 20180320 31614 7icnee.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
George Pell emerges from court during his committal hearing on historical sexual offences.
AAP/Stefan Postles

Mark Pearson, Griffith University

Many Australians are left perplexed when media coverage of high-profile criminal cases is suddenly suspended or abbreviated “for legal reasons”. The current committal hearing of Catholic Cardinal George Pell on historical sexual offences engages the principle of “open justice” and some of its most important exceptions.

Coverage of such matters is restricted at various stages of criminal trials. This is because of the relative priority the courts and lawmakers have assigned to the principles of open justice and the administration of justice, and the competing rights of free expression, privacy and a fair trial.

What is ‘open justice’?

The principle of open justice dates back to at least the 12th century; it involves people’s access to observe the goings-on in a courtroom. It was later extended to the media as “the eyes and ears of the public” in court.

Australia’s High Court has ruled that open justice is of constitutional significance, and nothing should be done to discourage the media from publishing fair and accurate reports of what occurs in the courtroom. But, it added, the principle is not absolute.

An open court involving fair and accurate media coverage is thus the default position for Australian courts. The common law recognises only a limited number of well-defined exceptions. Lawmakers have developed hundreds more.

One important common law limitation is in the area of sub judice contempt. This puts a halt to prejudicial coverage of a criminal matter from the moment an accused is arrested or charged right through until the appeal period has expired.

Important restrictions here are upon any suggestion an accused might be guilty (or innocent), coverage of contested evidence that may or may not be put to a jury, coverage of earlier proceedings (such as preliminary hearings and royal commissions), interviews with key witnesses, details of any confessions, the criminal history or character evidence about the accused, and visual identification of the accused if that might be at issue in a trial.

Specific restrictions on court cases

Legislation in all Australian jurisdictions has placed a litany of further restrictions on attendance at – and reporting on – a host of situations. These include family law cases, juvenile cases, mental health proceedings and – most relevant here – sexual matters.

The statutory gags forcing closure of courts, banning of coverage, and de-identifying of parties vary in important ways. This is because lawmakers have placed a differing emphasis on the competing rights and interests.

For example, if Pell was facing his committal hearing in South Australia or Queensland, he could not even be identified until after he is committed to trial – if that eventuates.

Lawmakers in those states have decided the reputational damage attached to an allegation of a serious sexual offence is so damaging that an accused person should not be identifiable until it is proven there is at least a prima facie case to answer at trial.

In Victoria, where Pell’s committal hearing is taking place, the accused can usually be identified. However, other restrictions apply either under legislation or in suppression orders issued by a presiding judge or magistrate.

In no Australian jurisdiction can the victim (known as the “complainant”) be identified – directly or indirectly – in sexual matters. But the laws vary on whether they might be identified after proceedings with their permission or the court’s permission.

This means complainants who might have been identified in earlier coverage or proceedings are suddenly rendered anonymous from the moment the matter is “pending” – after the arrest or charging of a suspect.

Special protections apply to complainants during committal hearings involving sexual offences. This includes closing the court while victims give evidence.

A complex array of policy issues inform these kinds of restrictions. These include the perceived vulnerability of victims, their privacy, and the important likelihood that victims might not come forward to bring charges of this nature if they sense they might be in the media spotlight.

Do we need a rethink in the digital age?

Victoria has had more than its share of journalists and others falling foul of court restrictions through defiance or ignorance of the law.

Former journalist and blogger (now senator) Derryn Hinch has twice been jailed as a result of contemptuous coverage – once in 1987 for broadcasting prejudicial talkback radio programs about a former priest facing child molestation charges, and again in 2013 after refusing to pay a A$100,000 fine for blogging the prior convictions of Jill Meagher’s accused killer in breach of a suppression order.


Read more:
You wouldn’t read about it: Adrian Bayley rape trials expose flaw in suppression orders


Two ABC journalists were convicted of identifying a rape victim in radio broadcasts in 2007. They and their employer were later ordered to pay her $234,190 in damages in a civil suit for the invasion of her privacy among other injuries.

In 2017, Yahoo!7 was fined $300,000 for contempt after it published social media material about a victim and the accused. The publication forced the jury in a murder trial to be discharged.

Many of the restrictions on coverage are problematic in the digital era. Mainstream media are more likely to be charged with sub judice contempt than social media users because the large audiences of mainstream media mean their prejudicial coverage is more likely to reach potential jurors.

The cross-jurisdictional nature of digital publishing also renders journalists and social media users subject to the tangled web of restrictions on criminal justice reporting when covering a criminal matter from another state.

Court orders to take down earlier reportage on websites are typically futile, because online dissemination is so widespread. So, the bizarre situation exists where the prior character evidence and coverage of earlier proceedings still sits online for anyone to access with a simple search of an accused’s name.

This is problematic if a rogue juror decides to become a cyber Sherlock Holmes. It means we require better training of jurors.


Read more:
Trial by social media: why we need to properly educate juries


Suppression orders are also a problem because these are typically circulated only to mainstream media in the trial’s immediate vicinity. This leaves others blissfully unaware of the orders. Some orders – known as “super injunctions” – are so secret that even publication of the fact they have been issued is prohibited.

Victoria’s Open Courts Act was meant to reduce the number of suppression orders and inject an element of consistency to the issuing of these. However, it has been problematic.

The ConversationAt least the media are better assisted in the modern era. Court information officers help explain the various restrictions and keep the media well briefed in high-profile trials – as they have done in Victoria during Pell’s committal hearing.

Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media, Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Griffith University

© Mark Pearson 2018

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Contempt in the face of the court is no laughing matter – usually #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

The ancient charge of ‘contempt in the face of the court’ is alive and well, as I have found in the research for the next edition of our text The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (with Mark Polden).

Almost any behaviour that disrupts the courtroom can be considered a ‘contempt in the face of the court’ – a charge directed at behaviour in the actual courtroom that interferes with the administration of justice. The Australian Law Reform Commission (1987: 3) defined ‘contempt in the face of the court’ as:

Improper behaviour in court. Anything done to interrupt significantly the smooth and appropriately dignified hearing of a case in a courtroom risks being treated as contempt and punished accordingly.

Examples have included outright physical assaults in the courtroom, verbal abuse, inappropriate dress, sleeping and even attempting to release laughing gas into the court building.

Two recent examples have included:

  • The Indigenous laughing case (2017). An Aboriginal land rights activist was jailed for two hours after defying a Gympie magistrate by laughing at him in the courtroom. Gary Tomlinson (also known as “Wit-boooka”) had challenged the authority of the court to hear public nuisance and trespass offences related to a protest at Gympie Regional Council.
  • NT homeless ‘genius’ case (2017). A homeless man, self-described genius and would-be mayoral candidate who continuously insulted court officers interrupted the judge, and disrobed in court was twice jailed for contempt in the face of the court in 2016 and 2017. His appeals failed against his total of five months’ contempt sentence and alleged bias by the judge.

Given that both cases involved citizens who appeared outside of the mainstream of society, it is worth monitoring future cases to assess whether the charge is being disproportionately used against vulnerable, alienated, outspoken or disenfranchised individuals.

Journalists and bloggers are warned to show respect in the courtroom. This extends beyond paying attention to the proceedings, remaining clothed and avoiding throwing projectiles at the magistrate.

Indigenous laughing case, 2017. Gorrie, A. (18 December 2017). UPDATE: Gympie activist serves two hours for contempt. Gympie Times <https://www.gympietimes.com.au/news/update-gympie-activist-serves-two-hours-for-contem/3293365/>

NT homeless ‘genius’ case (2017). Jenkins v Whittington [2017] NTSC 65. < https://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/nt/NTSC/2017/65.html>

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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INFORRM a highly recommended resource for journalists and media law students #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Congratulations to UK-based media law blog INFORRM (INternational Forum for Responsible Media) on reaching an impressive 4 million hits since it started seven years ago.

The site – international but with an understandable UK orientation – boasts more than 5,500 followers including  3,500 on Twitter @inforrm.

INFORRM has just listed its Top Twenty Posts of all time (in descending order of popularity):

From time to time over recent years they have been kind enough to repost my blogs or commentary pieces, including these:

Australia: Whither media reform under Abbott? – Mark Pearson

25 11 2013

Where will the new Liberal-National Coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott head with the reform of media regulation? Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis were vocal opponents of the former Gillard Government’s proposals to merge press self-regulation with broadcast co-regulation into a new framework.

Read the rest of this entry »

Privacy in Australia – a timeline from colonial capers to racecourse snooping, possum perving and delving drones – Mark Pearson

13 10 2013

Australia MapThe interplay between the Australian media and privacy laws has always been a struggle between free expression and the ordinary citizen’s desire for privacy. I have developed this timeline to illustrate that tension. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Privacy On Parade – Mark Pearson

12 05 2012

The right to privacy is a relatively modern international legal concept. Until the late 19th century gentlemen used the strictly codified practice of the duel to settle their disputes over embarrassing exposés of their private lives.

The first celebrity to convert his personal affront into a legal suit was the author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas père, who in 1867 sued a photographer who had attempted to register copyright in some steamy images of Dumas with the ‘Paris Hilton’ of the day – 32-year-old actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Australia: News Media Council proposal: be careful what you wish for – Mark Pearson

10 03 2012

The Finkelstein (and Ricketson) Independent Media Inquiry report released on 28 February 2012 is a substantial and well researched document with a dangerously flawed core recommendation.

An impressive distillation of legal, philosophical and media scholarship (compulsory reading for journalism students) and worthy recommendations for simpler codes and more sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable are overshadowed by the proposal that an ‘independent’ News Media Council be established, bankrolled by at least Aus$2 million of government funding annually. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Consumer law holds solution to grossly irresponsible journalism – Mark Pearson

9 11 2011

This post originally appeared on the Australian Journlaw blog.  It suggests an interesting new approach to media regulation which, as far as we know, has not been suggested in debates in this country.  We are reproducing it with permission and thanks to provide a further perspective on those debates.

Australia does not need a media tribunal with regulatory powers to punish ethical transgressions.  It already has one – in the form of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (“ACCC”). Read the rest of this entry »


… as well as occasional snippets in their useful Law and Media Roundup section and this review of my book Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued by media lawyer Leanne O’Donnell:

Book Review: Mark Pearson “Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued” – Leanne O’Donnell

11 04 2012

Professor Mark Pearson’s Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued will be welcomed by anyone writing online … Melbourne media lawyer Leanne O’Donnell reviews this timely legal guide to a rapidly evolving media landscape

Mark Pearson’s new book Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued: A global guide to the law for anyone writing online – is very accessible guide to laws relevant to the all those writing online. Read the rest of this entry »


I find the INFORRM “Blogroll” is a particularly useful resource – regularly updated and featuring these media law blogs from throughout the world. Together they provide a wonderful resource for media law students, journalists and researchers. (Thanks for including journlaw.com,  INFORRM!)

Surely sufficient bedtime reading for even the most avid media law geek!

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Filed under blogging, citizen journalism, contempt of court, courts, defamation, free expression, Freedom of Information, intellectual property, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, Media freedom, media law, Media regulation, Press freedom, Privacy, social media, sub judice, suppression, terrorism

Helping identify a risky media law situation

By MARK PEARSON

There is no easy solution to helping journalists and other professional communicators identify a risky media law situation.

The first challenge is to be able to sound the alarm bells in the midst of researching or writing. Given a journalist or public relations consultant might be working on numerous stories, investigations, production or communication tasks in any day, what might prompt them to pause and assess the media law risks associated with a particular publication or action?

The answer has puzzled me for my 30 years of teaching media law, and it appears to lie in a combination of situational / emotional analysis and media law knowledge, supported by a routine system of mindful reflection.

I have recently revisited the issue with groups of working journalists, asking them to identify situations they believed prompted them to be on high alert for media law problems. I have combined their observations with my own into this table of situations and risks.

This table is a work in progress, so I would really appreciate your comments and suggestions for further categories as I work to fine-tune it for inclusion in our next edition of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law.

ML1

ML3 ML2

ML4

 

 


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

Leave a comment

Filed under blogging, defamation, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

Interview Part 4 – Strengths and pitfalls of online courses

By MARK PEARSON

This is the fourth and final edited transcript of my interview with Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin, who recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education.  Over the past three installments we have discussed my design of an online / on campus course in media law (Part 1), how principles of ‘mindful journalism’ have influenced the course design (Part 2) and some suggested strategies to embed online learning (Part 3). This week we explore the strengths and pitfalls of online courses.


Q (David Costin):        What are the gaps and barriers that you see that hinder you as being an effective online operator? You’ve mentioned one about rules, about the boundaries of …. of the uni itself, but what other gaps are you seeing, or barriers?

A (Mark Pearson):         Time is a barrier, the time element, because the ideal, the face-to-face environment commits you to so many hours in the classroom, the students know you will be there, certain consultation hours, they know they can come to see you. The online environment is meant to be amenable to the learner, but it doesn’t necessarily sit with the teachers’ availability. So you know, whatever the learning problem, whether it’s just a technical thing with the quiz not working or whatever, the online student might encounter that at 3:00 a.m. because it suits their schedule, but to maintain one’s own sanity and life balance, one can’t be available 24/7 to online students. And sometimes they’ll get frustrated that they’ve had to wait to get a response. That doesn’t happen very often, but nevertheless, the ideal would be for them to get immediate responses to such problems, but that’s – until we get teaching bots – that’s some way away.

Q:        Yeah, yeah.

A:         So that springs to mind as one constraint. Another is, I mean I talked about institutional barriers to the design, but there’s also the industrial labour issue of teaching online. And (my School) … has been very good with this and I have online tutors that are compensated comparably with the on-campus versions. For academic staff, there is the workload issue and that’s looking reasonable at the moment for online development, but it’s, you know, the risk is trying to force fit online to traditional models and to under-allow for all of this development and nurturing and engagement that has to happen for online to work, to undervalue that in workload and in rewards within the system.

Q:        Okay, so you’re saying so therefore part of that is I suppose a lot of your work is developing that relationship with students, but that’s not really fixed into any particular workload or that you could put a monetary value on it or anything else like that.

A:         Well it is, it’s so many hours of workload per week that you would devote to that and the jury is out as to whether that’s enough to cater to that many online students, isn’t it? I mean teaching is somewhat of a calling and you suffer angst if you think your students are being underserviced, but the more hours you put into it, the lower your hourly rate becomes, you know, for whether you’re a casual worker on so much per hour, you’ve done your hours that were allocated, but there’s some student crying for help. You know, what do you do? Your calling tells you, you offer the help.

Q:        That’s right.

A:         You then become a volunteer and that’s nice for you and me at this stage of our careers, maybe we can afford to be volunteers a little bit, but the struggling young mum or dad that’s trying to feed the family on sessional …

Q:        Yeah, wages.

A:         … rates or whatever, it becomes a – I believe if it’s managed poorly and it’s undercompensated, it’s an exploitation of people in those situations.

Q:        Well it becomes an ethical type of practice I suppose.

A:         Mm.

Q:        You mentioned before, you’ve done a couple of courses within . about supporting – about the development of online. What are the support structures that you’ve found have really helped you in the development of your online course?

A:         Workload allowance for the development. So I mean academic workload is done on a formula that changes regularly within institutions. It’s a points-based formula at the moment, but it’s meant that I haven’t had to teach a full load of classroom teaching in the semesters that I’ve been developing or … revising the (online) courses. So the institution’s been willing to take a full professor out of the classroom to invest in the design and then the offering of such courses.

Q:        Okay.

A:         The other – not so much constraint but important impediment – in this area is the fact that a lot of work is done in the establishment of online courses, but there has to be, just as in vehicle maintenance, there has to be a schedule of service maintenance updating, freshening. And unless that is allowed for in the budgetary and workload approaches of the institution, what you get is what sadly has become the fate of online distance correspondence courses through the ages, is that you just get people who may or may not care about it anymore and the course is just getting rustier and rustier, the readings getting older and older, the technology is being further and further behind the state-of-the-art at the moment and this obviously is going to impact both enrolments but more important on the learning that’s happening in the course – rusty courses.

Q:        It’s a good term, I like that term, ‘rusty courses’. And I’ll go back to – and this is, of course, I suppose one other question I was going to ask, you mentioned at the start you believe there was more courses adapted to the online environment. In your opinion, what do you think, is it more, like this particular course is more gravity, more orientated towards online? Are there other courses you think are more orientated towards the online than others, in what you’ve experienced so far?

A:         The term ‘hybrid courses’ or ‘hybrid learning’ is bandied around.

Q:        Yeah.

A:         I haven’t seen a very strict definition of it. For some people it seems to mean some online components to a standard course. To others, it means a course that can be undertaken fully online or on campus. With this one, it is the latter and I’ve tried to make it so that it is as valuable a learning experience to the online student and also that opportunity is fully available to the on-campus students.

Q:        Flexibility, yeah, comes through all the time. And I suppose, you know, this kind of comes on to the last question in that in the course that you’re developing for the online, but you’ve taken your own thinking processes and you’ve I suppose looked at where you want the kids to be, the students to be, but what other things do you do that strengthens your own skills in that teaching and learning environment, the students’ environment?

A:         What do I do that strengthens my own skills?

Q:        Mm, what do you do? Obviously you reflect upon your teaching.

A:         Yes.

Q:        Which is one of those – knowing things that work.

A:         Yeah.

Q:        But do you depend on – do you go and talk to your other colleagues about other strategies you can utilise or do you go and experiment on a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and come back and incorporate those things?

A:         Well I’ve done both of those things. I write about some of these experiences and practises in the academic literature. I maintain a blog, which I’ve been doing for about five or six years now, with – it varies, but with like a monthly contribution, but there’s been two in the last two weeks, you know, it’s just according to time and what happens, called Journlaw, which has a mixture of things to do with commentary or snippets about media law, abstracts and excerpts from my writings or articles, just referring people to those things. And when I do those guest interviews, I’ll throw them on there, so there’s sort of a central place where students and others can go there. And I’ll do mini reports or live blogs of conferences with relevance to that area, so instead of just going to sleep as a delegate at a conference, I’ll keep myself awake by taking a couple of photos and writing a news story about the presentation and whacking it onto the blog, those sorts of things. So there’s that, there’s the academic output. I have done a few of the MOOCs as you mention. What else do I do? The academic’s life, I’ve noticed, the pressures and demands over many years has become more intense in recent years than it was in the earlier stages of my career. So I don’t do as many sort of learning and teaching grant applications, writing about learning and teaching in learning and teaching sorts of journals or got to many of the seminars for staff and that sort of thing, just because there’s only so many hours in the day and certain priorities, KPIs you’re rewarded for.

Q:        Yeah, so what you’re saying is you’re prioritising what you believe as part of the important strategies that will help you through the parts of your course.

A:         Yeah and I do some leisure reading about it. In other words, if I’m an airport bookshop and there’s a – I mean that thing with the formative quizzes and repeating the question just came from some random popular book on embedding learning that I found in an airport bookshop and I was interested in reading about, but it’s not something – I mean the thing I do read a lot about at the moment is Buddhist ethical principles and mindfulness and that kind of thing, so that is influencing me a lot at the moment.

Q:        But you’re adapting too.

A:         Yeah, whenever I do those things, I think is there a way that that has relevance to either my research or my writing. And I build some of the principles into the research. So we did a big ‘Reporting Islam’ project which is just finishing up now. I finished in December, but it’s about a $900,000 over three years that we’ve just done. It had many dimensions to it, but part of it was developing this app …. And so my colleague has continued with the project, is negotiating with future hosts for it and everything. But associated with this were a lot of training courses we developed for journalists, a handbook on Reporting Islam, a newsroom handbook that is there in PDF version as well as we printed a few copies for our expert panellists and so on. But I guess my point is, this thinking around the online stuff has also led to a very practical research project which has academic outputs but also newsroom and social application. [Calls up www.reportingislam.org ]. So you start to get, like I recorded this interview with (journalist Peter Greste) – I didn’t record it, I took a cameraman to report it and it talks about the importance of reporting upon Islam accurately, basic information about the religion and things that get commonly confused, some basic myths about some of the common things like the different types of headdress or whatever. And then so going from that, basic terminology and then putting it into practice with a checklist for journalists to identify, like a little quiz on how inclusive their newsroom is, basic reporting tips, protocols they should follow when reporting Islam and the voices of journalists who are respected from a range of media about pitfalls in misreporting of Islam. Then very importantly, driving home with students the effects of misreporting …

(Audio visual playing)

A:         … the impact on people in the community and what bad reporting or negative reporting, associating them all as terrorists and whatever can have. And so this is taken from another body of literature with permission with our actors’ voices talking about their focus group.

(Audio visual playing)

Q:        Okay.

A:         But we had actors and photo stock images to capture the person that’s said those things in those research projects. And I have recorded these interviews with different experts about the research.

(Audio visual playing)

Q:        Mm.

A:         So journalists and students can get that actual research base to the effects and then similar to what I’ve done in the media law thing, we’ve developed scenarios that actually have all of the components here for practice reporting on a Muslim issue. So the scenario is explained, there are tasks that they have to do within a two-hour class, you know, council papers about a proposed mosque, tips that they would follow in reporting some images that we’ve had taken that they choose from for it and a selection of quotes, including some of which are actually live acted.

(Audio visual playing)

A:         That kind of stuff and a similar one on a terror arrest, because that’s a commonly misreported scenario with an actual court case following it and so on. And then a list of resources and people, journalists can go to. So that was quite an achievement, but the reason I mention it is a lot of these same principles have gone into there. So there are the mindfulness principles, – what’s my intent with this story?, why am I going to cover in this?, what’s the language I’m going to be using?. All of that’s built in to some of the resources.

Q:        It’s also that lived experience, isn’t it?

A:         Mm.

Q:        You’re there, so from where I sit, you’ve got that lived experience of what you’re seeing. You’ve got your background as to that journalism component, plus the ethics coming in on top of that, plus the mindfulness.

A:         Mm.

Q:        So it comes together in a product, one way, that can be practically and which people can then access and I suppose that end point for where they want to be.

A:         That’s the idea of it. We won the Queensland Multicultural Award last year for media, communication.

Q:        Wow, well done indeed. Well thank you very much for your time.

A:         Alright, okay, absolute pleasure.

Q:        I’ve enjoyed it.

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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