Saturday, April 07, 2007

Leveraging Citizen Journalism in the Air Force

In a recent letter from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mosley said, "every Airman is an ambassador...we need them to tell their story." I'd argue a good few already are! I've spent the better part of the past two weeks researching citizen journalism. I've talked to and emailed some real heavy hitters in this area. I've spent hours in debate with my peers. I even wrote a story about how I really don't support it. HERE! Turns out I do! The question can something so raw and real happen in the Air Force? I thought I was a trail blazer in this area, but it turns out the trail has already been blazed by Steve Field...kind of. I pitched this idea to some senior officials at the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Public Affairs. It may not be perfect, but I think it is both a good start and good enough to start.

Every Marine a Rifleman, Every Soldier a Shooter…Every Airman a Journalist? Part 1
Bluetube the Air Force Story
By: Chris Eder


During an intelligence brief, an uncertain technical sergeant on his way out the door for his first deployment asked this question, “Are we winning?” The briefer paused, squinted his war-hardened eyebrows and replied, “Winning what?” There was silence for nearly a minute, when from the back row, a senior airman whose job in the Air Force is to sing for the Air Force Reserve Band, stood up and said, “If you question if we’re winning, you’ve already lost!”

WOW! What an eye-opening comment from such a junior member of the Air Force. I believe she’s right.

If you ask your neighbor about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re most likely to mention the dangers Soldiers face during convoy operations, Improvised Explosive Devices; or how the Marines are getting spread too thin. What they don’t know is Airmen from every career field face the same dangers. What they don’t know is that Air Mobility Command has flown more than 328,000 sorties and moved more than 5-million troops. What they don’t know is on an average 1,000 wounded troops are evacuated on Air Force planes each month. What they don’t know is approximately 23,000 Airmen are deployed across the Untied States Central Command’s Area of Responsibility at 23 operating locations.


According to Colonel Thomas Diehl, Director of United States Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs at the Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia, “If you don’t take the picture, don’t tell it, it didn’t happen!” It’s kind of like the tree that falls in the woods. Does it make a noise when it crashes to the earth if no one is there to hear it?

Today’s civilian news media is all about generating revenue. Unfortunately, scandalous pictures from Abu Ghraib, IED attacks, and possible misconduct on the battlefield take center stage in the quest for the almighty greenback. To make matters worse, when we public affairs professionals or expert journalists write, we do so in a manner only we and a select few understand. Washington Post staff writer Howard Kurtz recently wrote of this “buzz-word” writing style, “Newspaper stories often seem like straight jackets, incremental, dulled-down, written in a sort of insider’s code.” It’s no wonder no one knows what the Air Force is doing. We’re unable to tell them in words they understand.

Two essential rules for telling a compelling news story are: write about people and write in plain English. In the Air Force we write about platforms and capabilities using jargon-riddled key themes and messages. “Straight jacketed” by our own devices, we’re spinning our wheels and speaking in circles, and compelling no one to tell our story.

The most essential aspect of telling a story is timeliness. If a story is a day old, it isn’t news. Much like our writing style, our current editorial review ensures 100-percent accuracy…sometimes at the expense of timeliness. However, our enemy has a different approach. According to the Al Qaeda Manual, operatives within their military organization are bound to spread rumors and write statements that instigate people against the enemy…us! So how can we win an information war against an unscrupulous enemy?


Right or wrong I learned of the death of a security forces Airman in Iraq long before it appeared on Air Force Link. The story, told in the first person and full of emotion, appeared on several social networks. It was compelling, it pulled at my heart strings, it moved me. I couldn’t help thinking what I would do if I was in the same shoes as the writer. How was it possible for the writer to continue the mission? I could mentally smell the heat of battle. I’ve also read several stories about provisional reconstruction teams and what really happens everyday in a combat zone. All thanks to the Internet and some web-savvy Airmen. The stories are already being told.

The March 28th Roll Call (a tool supervisors at all levels use to keep Airmen informed on current issues) titled “Air Force Priorities, Knowing What Is Important,” outlined the Air Force’s priorities in the global war on terror. It stressed the importance of developing our Airmen by training them for the 21st century, providing the best equipment possible, and ‘resetting’ for the future and beyond. I’d suggest that our Airmen telling their Air Force story are the best possible equipment we have.

Today’s fight is an information fight that we’re not winning. We struggle daily to get the story out to the public in a timely and accurate manner. The Air Force is in this war, but few know it. After reading part two of this story and applying what you’ve learned American citizens will not only know the Air Force is in this war, but that we’re winning the war.

Every Marine a Rifleman, Every Soldier a Shooter…Every Airman a Journalist? Part 2
Bluetube the Air Force Story
By: TSgt Chris Eder


If you don’t have a blog, or if you haven’t read a blog, either you’re living somewhere in Montana where there isn’t electricity, or you’re living in the proverbial dark ages. Blogs are changing the way people receive news and they come in many forms. Most of them are text-only, but some specialize in video (vlogs), photographs (photoblogs), or audio (podcasts). These quick, cheap and timely communications tools have morphed from a daily diary to a personal pulpit and now into journalism. News written by the people, for the people…properly named citizen journalism. It’s very transparent. Chances are you already receive your news this way, but don’t even know it. Do you remember the first pictures from the December 24, 2004 tsunami that killed more than 300,000 people throughout the Indian Ocean? Those images were not taken by a professional. That is citizen journalism at its best.

Citizen Journalism is not new! According to Dan Gillmor's We the Media,
“The roots of citizen journalism can be traced to the founding of the United States in the 18th century, when pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine and the anonymous authors of the Federalist Papers gained prominence by printing their own publications. Further advances such as the postal system — and its discount rates for newspapers — along with the telegraph and telephone helped people distribute news more widely.” Public Affairs offices across the globe have unknowingly embraced this concept for years with their Unit Public Affairs Representative (UPAR) program.

“The idea behind citizen journalism is that people without professional journalism training can use the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet to create or augment media on their own or in collaboration with others, writes Mark Glaser, host of MediaShift, an online guide to the digital media revolution. In an article titled, “Digging Deeper, Your Guide to Citizen Journalism,” Glaser writes, ”Because of the wide dispersion of so many excellent tools for capturing live events — from tiny digital cameras to videophones — the average citizen can now make news and distribute it globally, an act that was once the province of established journalists and media companies.”

That’s power! That’s how we could win the information war. The pen is mightier than the sword. Beat the bad guys at their own game. Equip every Airman with a digital camera, a laptop and wireless Internet…let them tell their story. Not so fast!


As a young pilot, Lt. Brett Williams ran toward the nearest exit whenever a Public Affairs Officer was in the area. It wasn’t until he was a squadron commander that he realized the importance of public affairs. During a recent promotion ceremony, the now Col. Brett Williams said of public affairs, “They have the ability to tell the right story at the right time.” The quote is very appropriate for current public affairs doctrine, but counter-productive for the business model of citizen journalism.

The truth is, as members of the Armed Forces, we can’t be true citizen journalists. We have to be edited. We’re accountable at every level…the supervisor, the wing commander, the secretary of the Air Force, even the president…all accountable to the taxpayer. We can’t simply give everyone carte-blanch. Some stories don’t need to be told. Stories about horrible supervisors while unfortunate aren’t news. Stories about rape and murder should be left to experts.

This is where Networked Journalism comes in. It’s a hybrid of professional journalism…us…and citizen journalism…you! It’s ‘telling the right story at the right time.’ Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine writes, “ Networked journalism takes into account the collaborative nature journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across bands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, and perspectives.”


Grammy award winning artist John Mayer sings in his latest smash hit Waiting For The World to Change, “When you trust the television, what you get is what you got ‘cause when they own the information, they can bend it all they want.” To me, this is a call to action to tell the Air Force story correctly, timely and in a manner everyone will want to hear. You may not have the same convictions as me, but I bet you have a story to tell. Your story is just as powerful as the A-10’s Gatling gun. Your story is just as lethal as the F-22. Your story is a non-kinetic weapon. A weapon that when used correctly will win hearts and minds. A weapon that there are no defenses for. A weapon that will with out a doubt win the information war. Are we winning? You better believe it! The Air Force is in this war and we have the ultimate weapon…YOU.

You can do it; we can help! Follow these 9 Networked Journalism tips.


1. Identify A Story

What makes a story ‘newsworthy?’ Well, the name would imply it has to be new, and that is a real good start. Proximity, prominence, timeliness, impact, conflict, controversy, uniqueness, human interest, suspense, the need to follow-up a story and available audio and video are the primary characteristic journalists use to determine newsworthiness. However, for the purpose of ‘networked journalism’ in the Air Force, the important characteristics are: timeliness, uniqueness, human interest and available audio and video. They all kind of go together and truly define what citizen journalism is and why it has been so successful. A story doesn’t have to have all of these, but great stories will!

Operational Security should always be on your mind. NO STORY is worth telling if it puts Airmen’s lives at risk. Stories that contain: classified information, tactics, techniques, and procedures, troop movement, exact numbers of troops or equipment, casualty information, privacy act information, or information about an ongoing investigation are explicitly prohibited topics. If it is about information a reporter could get through the Freedom of Information Act, then you’re good to go.

3. Contact PA
We’re in the business of telling the ‘right story at the right time.’ You’re in the business of telling ‘your story…right now.’ It’s possible your story fits right into one of our current themes or messages. Notifying PA up front will keep them in the loop and possibly elevate your story. In a perfect world, all stories would be published on the base’s public site, but in reality some of them won’t. Maybe there could be a page of approved ‘networked’ stories!

4. Go Back To School
Writing isn’t easy. Don’t fool yourself by thinking you’re a good or clever writer. Chances are…you’re not! Go to the library and check out a book on grammar and news writing. If you think you’d get bored reading a book about grammar, you should read Lynne Truss’ book, Eat, Shoots, and Leaves. It’s a humorous take on grammar. Barron’s Pocket Guide To Correct Grammar, is a quick down and dirty look at the essentials. Merv Block is an industry leader in news writing. Check out his book, Writing Broadcast News…Shorter, Sharper, Stronger. This by no means is an all-inclusive list, just a few of my favorites.

5. Find The Heat…People Centric
Dennis Mahoney of A List Apart writes, “Anything makes a good subject, as long as you take your time and crystallize the details, tying them together and actually telling a story, rather than offering a simple list of facts.” People however make great subjects. Spencer Critchley of ourmedia says writing about people engages the imagination and emotions. Find a central character; maybe its you! Tell the story through the central character.

6. Opinions Are Not Facts…Know The Difference
According to Spencer Critchley of ourmedia, “Opinions make personal journalism lively. But be sure you know the difference between opinion and fact, and make it clear to your readers as well. It's all too easy to jump to conclusions when you're predisposed to believe something. This is the source of deluges of unreliable information on the Web.” Critchley adds, “Reputable pro media outlets use professional fact checkers, and they still manage to make mistakes frequently. People may be citing you as a source, so try to get the details right.”

7. Focus…6C’s
Keep your stories to one idea. It’s really easy to jump from one idea to another, but its hard to understand. A good focus is simple and easily identified. Staying focused will also increase how well you communicate. The Defense Information School at Fort Meade lists in their style guide the need to apply the six “Cs:” clear, concise, conversational, complete, current, and correct.

You must ensure your audience understands your copy the first time they hear it. Your listener cannot go back and read it. Work at writing in a simple, understandable style; write to express an idea, not to impress your audience. Basically limit sentences to one main thought. Don’t make your listener work to understand your copy. Most won’t bother.

Broadcast copy is short. You must learn to express many thoughts in few words. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The most valuable of all talent is that of never using two words when one will do.” Get to the main point. Use only essential words. Eliminate wordiness. Make your point and move on. It’s kind of frustrating to read wordy, redundant copy, isn’t it?

We basically “converse” using simple, common language. Why not write “for the ear” in the same style? Write a story much the same way you’d tell it to a friend.

Your copy must answer the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why), except, perhaps, “why.” That may be unknown at airtime. But don’t raise new questions or leave old questions unanswered.

Current copy is timely copy – both in content and the way it sounds. Last week’s events, accidents, and incidents are not today’s news. One way you can make your copy sound much more timely is by using (but not forcing) one of the present verb tenses whenever it’s possible (and correct).

You must ensure your copy is correct. One mistake could potentially ruin a career. That’s one reason why this is the most important “C.” Simply stated, your copy must be free of factual errors. Double check for correct names, dates, times, etc. And don’t forget that correct copy also means correct use of spelling and grammar. Learn the basic grammar rules, and use a dictionary.

8. Plain English
According to Critchley, “Too many people have been trained to use big words and complicated sentences to build an edifice to hide behind. If a simpler word can be used with no loss of meaning, use it. Same goes for fewer words vs. more. If you can't say it plainly, that may mean you don't understand it well enough yet.” Leave the buzzword talk to us. Stick to words you know.

9. Contact PA
Bottom line, unlike citizen journalism, we’re held accountable. A Public Affairs Officer must review your story for policy and security before it can be posted on your wing’s public website.


Anonymous said...

Good article. I work for AF CM in the Pentagon and it is nice to get your views on this issue. Keep up the good work.

AFN Broadcaster said...

Dear Anonymous-

Please e-mail me at: