Category: News

(In) Credible

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the way that the essential journalistic concept of “credibility” is evolving in the new media world, mainly about two tangentially related topics.

1. I think people my age and younger care less about credibility as a marker of legitimacy. If your main source of news is Twitter, Facebook, or another online, social-based app, then the credibility you are seeking is from your social contact, not their sources. If I post a story on my Facebook timeline, I am saying that the story is credible, regardless of where the link leads. Journalists need to be wary of this development, because real journalism, and real credibility is hard-won and expensive, but is now being placed on an even plane with any kid who’s got an iPhone and is in the right place at the right time (and is possibly participating in the “news,” raising important ethical questions).

2. In a world of 24 hour, I needed it 5 minutes ago deadlines, the competition to be first, a relic from older styles of news consumption, can cause news organizations to jump the gun on reporting events. Case-in-point, CNN and Fox News raced to be the first on the air with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Obamacare case, and, as everyone knows by now, both reported the ruling incorrectly. They were jumping to be first and ended up being wrong. The obvious cost here is that CNN and Fox News lost a some credibility in future breaking news situation. We can’t know what would have happened had they waited to read the decision fully and come in 2nd or 3rd, but I know that, even as someone who works in this business and knows exactly what happened, I looked skeptically at any news story that contained the words “according to CNN” for the next few weeks.

It’s a bit of a double edged sword for traditional media. They’ve built up reputations based on journalistic integrity and credibility, but they compete against, seemingly, every internet connected person in the world. But the costs of a mistake for the traditional media are much steeper than the costs for that kid with an iPhone reporting for himself and his friends.

The Fallacy of False Equivalency

Gather ’round children, and I’ll tell you a tale.

Once upon a time, journalists got it into their heads that every story had (at least) two sides. And that was good. A reporter would interview one person, he would say something about someone else, and then the reporter would go ask that person or someone who knew them about it. For really complicated stories, this often involved asking many, many people about their perspective and their grasp of the facts at hand. Barring video evidence, this was the best way to get an idea of the scene, event, story, or whatever.

This took time, lots of time. Reporters, especially good investigative reporters, would work a story for days, weeks, even months. The same story. Just one.

For many years this went on, until a series (or confluence, really) of events took place that changed the paradigm for reporters everywhere.

1. Newsrooms got smaller

2. Right wing activists got organized

3. The Internet got invented (you know, by Al Gore, or Rush Limbaugh, or some government and defense scientists)

When these three things happened, Journalists found themselves with a lot less time, a lot more competition and a lot more vocal partisan chatter.

And thus was born the fallacy of false equivalency.

Reporters, struggling against deadlines and decimated newsroom staffs, still strove to tell both sides of a story. But instead of a well-researched, well-reporting accounting of the facts, journalists were forced to get action-reaction stories and crank them out at high volume. An industry developed around providing those reactions and suddenly a “consultant” or “analyst” was just a phone call or email away.

When reporters tried to analyze information and provide an account of the facts instead of this action-reaction (he said-she said) story, the organized right wing (and to a much, much lesser extent a few on the left) charged the media with “bias,” it being well-known at this point that all journalists are commie pinkos who seek socialized everything (or something), and the reporters were forced back into the “Republicans say this and Democrats say that” format.

It became common practice to treat each side like their position and information was equally valid. And not just in politics, but in science, medicine, education, and other seemingly fact-based disciplines.

Jay Rosen of NYU has taken an active role pointing out these false equivalencies, as has the Atlantic.

Treating Republicans and Democrats as equal players in the “truth” game may not seem like a big deal. In fact it may seem like the right thing to do. So what’s the big problem.

The big problem is this: Journalists treating climate change deniers like they are equal in number and quality of proof to the hundreds of thousands of scientists in the mainstream makes news viewing and reading citizens think there is actually a debate going on. Treating everything a politician says as fact, even when it’s fiction, does a disservice to democracy and the intelligence of the public. And it’s not really journalism at all.

When is a protest not a protest

About a week ago, I found myself heading down to the Occupy Chicago protest to complete an Oral History assignment for my Audio reporting class.  I had been through the protest a couple of days earlier, but due to unsuitable audio conditions (i.e. massive road construction 10 feet away), had decided to return at a later time.

When I walked up Jackson Place towards the Fed and the Chicago Board of Trade, I had a flash of panic.  Where were all the unwashed protestors?  I expected to find people sleeping on the sidewalk and some volunteers serving up hot coffee to the early risers, but what I found instead was a giant pile of signs and one guy with a donations box.

I later discovered that this was normal.  The protestors didn’t usually show up until 1pm or so and didn’t march until 5pm, when they would have the largest audience of commuters and pedestrians.  Furthermore, I learned, all of these details were carefully laid out, along with the structure of the organization and its various committees, in a Google Calendar.  Had I bothered to Google ‘Occupy Chicago Schedule’ I could have saved myself a lot of time.

At the time, however, I felt totally disillusioned.  Where were the masses of people who had left their previous lives to join the movement?  Where were the young people braving the cold nights to make their point to the establishment?  Where were the sign holders and petition carriers and drum circlers?

As it turns out, they’re in New York (and Oakland, Calif. and a few other major demonstration locations).  The reason I was expecting to come across a mass of protestors at 9:30 in the morning is that most of the coverage I have seen of the movement comes out of the national news bureaus located, conveniently, just a few short miles from the original and largest Occupy protest, Occupy Wall Street.

This is partly my fault.  Having come from a national politics job, I tend to still read the national papers and watch the national news before turning to NBC5 or the Chicago Tribune.  But partly, this expectation and subsequent disappointment was a result of a (very) successful message campaign by the protestors themselves that stated that they were not getting fair coverage in the media.  Here they were, they said, day after day, protesting the 1 percent and no one came to amplify their message in the mass media.

Admittedly, I still managed to complete my assignment and did not return later when the bulk of the scheduled activities commenced, but I left with a renewed sense that what you see on the news, even without an intentional bias, can greatly affect what is known in the general public.  And journalists can lose sight of this.  They’re entrenched in the story and forget that the public only sees the minute-twenty package on the evening news.  Coming to this story as someone who only glanced at it before Monday, I was reminded how what we leave out of the story can affect it more than what we put in and that editing can distort both the scope and importance of a story.

Newsstand: What I wish it did

I’ve had a little over a week to look over the new iOS on my iPad.  Not surprisingly, I am using the Newsstand app more than any of the other new features (although we had a really fun time on Friday locating a colleague’s iPhone on the new iCloud – turns out, it was in her bag the whole time).  Newsstand is a feature that has been a long time coming, and as such, it was probably at least slightly over-hyped.

Since we’re working on a magazine project this quarter, I am a big fan of the background downloading.  Prior to the new OS, it would often take me 10 minutes or more to download each new issue of each magazine.  Now, they download as they become available, without needing to have the app open.  For anyone who was using magazine apps before the change, this feature seems intuitive and easy to use.  I do wish, however, that the Newsstand app had it’s own settings that over-rode the individual app settings.  That way, I wouldn’t have to opt-in to every app’s background download.

CNET’s Scott Stein agrees.  “Newsstand was one of the iOS 5 features that I’d been long awaiting, because I dreamed it would be a way of integrating books, periodicals, and all reading material into one destination. Alas, that’s not the case here.”

He argues that the ideal location for his Newsstand apps would be inside of the iBooks app, so that he could keep all of his reading together.

I was also hoping that Newsstand would make it easy to manage my subscriptions.  I have subscribed to a number of magazines on the iPad for which I do not have print subscriptions.  For some of these subscriptions, I chose a monthly fee, because I needed the magazine only for this quarter while I worked on the project, or because I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the magazine.  For some subscriptions, I chose the yearly subscription, knowing I would want to read the magazine long after the project.  Still other magazines are single issue downloads.  I was really hoping that the Newsstand would allow me to easily see this information, but I still have to log in to my iTunes account to figure this out.

Gizmodo, on the other hand, finds Newsstand “more awesome than it seems.”  The tech news site loved how the app allows them to see the covers of the issues instead of a generic app icon.  It is easier to know if new issues are available.

I wish that all of my magazine apps were supported in the Newsstand.  Currently, I have several other magazines in various groupings on multiple pages.  Before the new OS update, all of my magazines were grouped together, which I found exceedingly convenient, and I’ll have to wait until that can happen again before I can truly evaluate the system.

…And it’s shiny

As some of you may know, this quarter I’m working on developing an iPad-native magazine.  Because the iPad is so new, it presents a unique challenge.  Basically, the only thing we know about iPad users are their basic demographics and that, for the most part, they don’t really know how they’re using the tablet.  What I mean is, iPad users don’t know if they want interactivity or static pages, they don’t know if they want videos to autoplay or to wait for their cue, and they certainly don’t know what an iPad magazine should look like.

Which should make our job really easy, right?

Just take the best of what is out there, and combine it into something shiny and new, and there you go: an iPad magazine.

Except that it’s hard to start without a starting point.

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs has a philosophy regarding user testing.  To paraphrase: people don’t have any idea what they want until we tell them that they want it.  I like this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it would mean I don’t have to stalk iPad users in coffee shops to ask them to do a “card-sorting” activity, whatever that is.  What I really like though is the idea that, while subject and tone can be determined by audience interviews and market research, the way it is all packaged and presented may not even exist yet.  And instead of asking people what they like, which, inevitably, will be limited to what they’ve already experienced, we can tell people what they’re going to like a year from now by dreaming up something people didn’t even know they wanted (ahem, iPod).

There is also this intangible quality that the iPad has by virtue of its newness.  Everything that is created for it right now is cool and innovative.  We’re just on the cusp of that no longer being the case, the point at which people have enough experience with this shiny new toy to know what they like, and more importantly, what they don’t.

But right now, in this moment (or at least the moment that lasts between now and Christmas), why not tell people what they like and need in an iPad magazine and shift the conversation that is happening around this new device?

When reporters became brands (and other signs of the impending armageddon)

It may seem strange that I am writing a post about the shameless self-promotion that many journalists (especially those of my generation) engage in on a regular basis on the very day that I published my own resume website, but this is a topic where I seem to have a particularly crotchety point of view.

From your “social media presence” to “building your brand,” the buzz words of marketing run rampant through journalism schools and the trade press.  There was a day when this sort of self-interested promotion was exercised by only the most vain of television news personalities, but now, it is seen as the only way to make oneself relevant in the changing journalism world.

I have always been a “let my work speak for itself” kind of person and am generally uncomfortable with the level of marketing that journalists are expected to do in the name of becoming a valuable asset to a news organization.  I thought, for a time, that this kind of personal branding was a reaction to the steep decline in journalism jobs, but now I see it more as a result of the “cult of celebrity” that has taken over popular culture.

In a world where you can be famous for being famous (or rather for doing very little of any value), it is not surprising that journalism schools are focused on creating their own little celebrities whose personalities, rather than talent, will earn them a job.

I still have hope that there is a market for journalists who are doing good work without seeking to create their own 140 character caricature that can be easily marketed by the ad department.  At many of the nations highest pinnacles of journalism – the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC Nightly News – there are old-school news hounds looking to ply their craft in relative anonymity.

A colleague of mine at school had a class assignment for a course called “21st Century Media.”  She was to choose a journalist and ask them about their “brand.”  She chose a favorite of mine, Gene Weingarten, a curmudgeonly columnist (and Pulitzer Prize winner) for the Washington Post Magazine.  His response, and the column that resulted, pretty well sums up how I feel about the movement.

And while I feel a little concerned that my professional philosophy tends to line up closer with the reporters of my father’s generation, I am comforted by the fact that, for now at least, those are the people who still hold the hiring power.

So, check out the website (still a work in progress, but maybe now that real people can look at it, it will light a fire under me to complete the features on my to-do list) and let me know what you think.  As for my “personal brand,” is “Female Gene Weingarten” taken?

Tweet your politician

Tweet your politician

On Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, scores of fresh-faced young people sit behind desks jammed into entryways and hallways in congressional offices answering phones.  These intrepid congressional aides answer calls about passports and capitol tours, jobs for the unemployed and affordable energy for the elderly.

The U.S. Constitution states that any citizen has the right to petition the government for “a redress of grievances,” and, largely, that is what these people are doing.

But there’s a new game in town when it comes to contacting your congressman, and, indeed, the President.

The White House announced last week a new Director of Progressive Media and Online Response, Jesse Lee.  Lee will, essentially, patrol Twitter to address problems and quash negative stories on a grassroots level.

Many businesses have already employed this approach, from airlines to packaged foods, with varying levels of success, but what this move suggests to me is that the Obama administration is moving towards more and more direct conversation with constituents, and they’re not the only one.

According to Tweet Congress, a site dedicated to aggregating Twitter feeds from members of congress and the media that cover them, 387 members of congress are using the micro-blogging platform, including the current and former Speakers of the House and 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee John McCain.

So in the future, instead of “call your congressman” will the grassroots organizer’s rallying cry be “tweet your senator?”  Maybe not, but, when done effectively, a twitter account can be an excellent way for government officials to have two-way communication with their constituents.

To be effective, the politicians (or, more likely, their aides), will have to use Twitter less as a medium to broadcast their policy positions and public events, and more as a two-way conversation about issues and a rapid-response mechanism for urgent constituent demands.

For example, a citizen might tweet at their congressman that they are having a problem with their social security benefits.  That congressman should immediately follow up, get more details, including contact information, and then work to solve the problem.  A happy constituent would be likely to tweet about their success with this process, creating goodwill for the congressman in return.  (This is very much like the way that airlines are dealing with disgruntled passengers who tweet their displeasure at delays and cancellations, or even just bad service).

But this level of accessibility and interactivity is a double-edged sword.  If the congressman is not able to solve the problem, or simple uses Twitter as a broadcast medium rather than a conversation, savvy followers will let him know that he’s not serving their needs.  Depending on the magnitude of his following, this could result in problems come election time.

So, are politicians on social media a good thing?  In general, I think so, especially if it means they are more accessible to the people they were elected to serve.  But they better have some smart, responsive people working the back end, or we may just hear about the politician that was fired by Twitter.

What people really want online

In one of the latest reports from the Project for Excellence in Journalismone of the most interesting things was tucked at the bottom of a page titled The Importance of the Home Page.

Another finding was that the data suggest that news online remains a heavily text-oriented environment. Online video did not rank high on any of the sites as a place that people clicked to– even on the sites whose legacy product is affiliated with television, except CBSNews.com

This is something that I’ve always suspected to be true based on my personal preference for web content. Don’t get me wrong, I love that I can watch dozens of movies a month streamed to my computer, and I’ve been known to watch a cute puppy video or two, but the vast majority of my online news viewing is text.

This is because I surf the internet at work (or class), where video would be obtrusive, and because when I’m looking for news, I’m mostly looking to skim an article to get the basic idea. Then, I can decide if it’s worth a closer read. No such option is available on video stories, so I have to already be pretty invested to make the initial decision to watch.

This is also because, the video content I’m looking for is much harder to find, based on Google’s text-based algorithm. Companies, including one I used to work for, are working on ways to make video content search-able, but the technology is not widely available or particularly accurate.

I would guess that the reasons for the PEJ finding are similar to mine, with one addition: the amount of video content available, when compared to text, is still very tiny. It will be interesting to see if video can ever close the gap, or if new, animated, interactive graphics will largely take the place of both.

Privacy settings, the California Way

This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”

California law sets privacy bar high for social media

Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Twitter may seem like a strange alliance, but the internet companies have come together in California to fight a bill that proposes to control how social media applications can use their use data.

State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, a Democrat, proposed legislation this month that sets privacy requirements for all social media sites operating in the state.  It also requires that the social media company allow parents access to their children’s accounts.

As reported at SFGate.com, and picked up by Tech Crunch and several other web media blogs, the legislation requires social media companies to have users set up their privacy settings during the initial sign-up period, and requires those settings to default to private, meaning users would have to opt-in to having any of their information shared.

Currently, Facebook and other sites use default settings that make most user information public (or at least allow the company to share the information with its “partners”).

Facebook and other major social media companies, including Google and Yahoo, are fighting the legislation stating in a letter to Sen. Corbett that the legislation “gratuitously singles out social networking sites without demonstration of any harm.”  Analysts contend that the internet companies are probably more concerned with the slippery slope that any government-mandated privacy settings could signify.

It seems likely, in addition, that Facebook and other companies are concerned with the requirement that users opt-in to information sharing.  It could be a generational thing, but it seems unlikely to this reporter that anyone would willingly click a button to allow Facebook to share private information about themselves with third-party partners (re: advertisers).

Facebook now relies on the fact that their privacy settings are so complicated and confusing, that many people just allow the defaults to ride, allowing the company to share at least some of their personal information.  Not that information sharing is necessarily a bad thing, but it sure does get some negative press, due largely to the fact that Facebook has been less than forthcoming about just where that information is going and to what use.

More concerning is the fact that the California law, if passed, could set a precedent for other states to follow, creating a patchwork of 50 or more privacy laws across the country.  This patchwork could make it difficult for Facebook, Twitter, and other major companies to develop privacy settings that meet the requirements of all 50 states, not to mention those of the international community.  And it would make it nearly impossible for a start-up company to get out of the gate.

Some bloggers and columnists have suggested that a national privacy law will be the inevitable outgrowth of the discussion underway in California.  But it seems unlikely given the current political climate, and the ramifications of such a bill beyond social networks.  What the country will likely be left with is a range of requirements and a plethora of lawsuits in the coming years.

 

SEO: Changing the way we write?

Are the SEO experts of the world killing the witty headline?

The Poynter Institute certainly seems to think so. In a review of an article from The Atlantic, Jim Romanesko talks about how copy editors are fighting back.

You might file this one under “things only journalists (and newspaper junkies) care about,” but there is something to be said for a clever headline in some situations. Features and second-day stories might even benefit from interesting headlines.

But for routine news, SEO headlines may be not only good for the Google Bot, but also for readers. While it’s true that “(name) dead at (age)” is not the most attractive headline, it does give the user a good idea of what the article is going to tell them, something not all newspaper headlines can claim.

As a news consumer, there is nothing more frustrating than clicking on an interesting headline only to read a totally uninteresting story, or clicking on a headline that promises one thing only to get a story that delivers something entirely different.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten eulogized the end of the clever head, claiming that the Post’s SEO policy was taking away the only creativity that copy editors had left. (This might not be such a problem anymore, given that the Post and other papers have eliminated a lot of copy editing positions in the past few years).

Love it or hate it, SEO is here to stay. Outspoken Media would like journalists to just stop whining already and embrace the power of Google’s algorithm over our lives. And the Neiman Lab reported that journalists are increasingly being asked to include search engine optimized terms in their lede paragraph, so it’s not only the headline that’s suffering.

For print journalists, it may be hard to let go of the puns and innuendo that populated headlines past, but in a world where the most coveted position in the newsroom is at the top of the Google search results, it seems it’s a necessary sacrifice.

At least until the Google Bot gets a sense of humor.

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