An ENPI training session on digital skills for journalists in Amman, Jordan on December 9, 2012.
AFP / Prashant Rao

By Prashant Rao

As part of a European Union project, run by, among others, the AFP Foundation, I spent a week in Amman training Jordanian and Palestinian journalists on a variety of digital skills -- the basics of running a blog, how to leverage all the crazy things you can do on the Internet to make stories more engaging and informative, how to verify information, and how to protect oneself in a digital world. The AFP Foundation is part of a consortium, headed by BBC Media Action, which won a contract from the EU to train journalists in 17 countries in Eastern Europe and the Southern Mediterranean over three years. I am one of a dozen AFP journalist trainers for the project.

It was quite a bit to cover in just five days, but our trainees were enthusiastic, and while shy at first, really began to engage, to challenge our assertions, and to ask really difficult questions (side note: like most journalists, I prefer to be the one to ask the annoying follow-up question, rather than being the one answering it).

And while I hope it was helpful to them -- they seemed to enjoy it, but I would say that -- it was incredibly useful to me, to remind myself of why we force ourselves to do things that are time-consuming and not terribly fun, for often no immediate payoff.

Why do I check the EXIF data of every photograph we get sent? Because it contains an enormous amount of information. The fugitive founder of anti-virus firm McAfee was located partly because journalists at Vice magazine were with him, took a photograph alongside him and posted it on the web. Their mistake? They took the photo on an iPhone which recorded their precise location, showing he had escaped Belize and was in fact in Guatemala. Like we would in an offline world, we need to be aware of the information we have, to see if we should be doing anything more to protect our sources.

This handout picture released by the Guatemalan police shows US Internet security pioneer John McAfee being interrogated by Interpol at police headquarters December 5, 2012 after he was arrested in the Guatemalan capital for illegal entry, police said.
AFP PHOTO / Policia Nacional Civil

Why do I spend time learning how to use Google Analytics and understanding how to deal with Search Engine Optimisation, even though it has nothing to do with my job? Because there is a massive trove of data that is freely available to us, and that helps us produce content, or share it, in more appropriate and targeted ways. I know, for example, that the biggest contingent of my blog's readers come via links posted on social networks like Facebook and Twitter; that the majority come from computers located in the United States, United Kingdom and France; and that about 10 percent of them view my blog on a mobile browser. How does that help me? On a personal level, it makes me think about how I run my blog -- for example, I share links at particular times when readers are most likely to be awake (so later in the day in Baghdad, to catch 'the West'). But it also helps me professionally, giving me a tiny glimpse at the kind of data available to my bosses (and AFP clients), and how much information is available. It means I'm more informed about the challenges facing journalism, and (some of) the tools at our disposal.

Google Analytics data for Prashant Rao's blog from March 1, 2011 to January 20, 2013.
Screenshot: Google Analytics

Why do I create excessively-long alpha-numeric passwords and back up all my data like a maniac to multiple different online and offline locations? Remember that scene from the 1998 movie, 'Enemy of the State', where the main character says, "It's not paranoia if they're really after you"? I woke up one morning in Amman to find an email from my blog's web host service saying an unidentified and suspicious IP address had attempted to log into my account from an unverified location. Shortly thereafter, I got an email from Facebook about a password change request I had never submitted. I immediately realised what was happening and changed all of my passwords on all of my services, and revoked all permissions to all applications on all my social networks. Wired journalist Mat Honan described in brutal detail how hackers essentially wiped out his digital life in about 24 hours -- I do not want that happening to me. If my job is to provide information, then information security has to be my top priority. As Honan aptly put it in his piece describing his ordeal for Wired, "Previously, when I had the option for ease-of-use versus security, I always went the easy route." I don't anymore.

Our trainees' response to these, and other ideas, was heartening -- they were keen to embed Google Analytics tracking code in their blogs; they showed a willingness to experiment with image verification techniques; and they all seemed suitably scared straight by my personal (and time-sensitive) experience of an apparent hack attempt.

It's cliché now to say that journalism is changing at an incredibly fast pace, but the training sessions served as a reminder for me: there are reporters learning new techniques all over the world, at all times of day and night. If we don't invest the time to figure out why, for example, it may be worthwhile to take photographs in RAW, or the difference between Wordpress and Tumblr, then someone else will, and we'll be the ones left behind.

A screenshot of Prashant Rao's blog on 28 January 2013.