Tag: 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.

#oneman’spound #isanotherman’shashtag

Twitter has released a handbook for journalists.  It’s goal?  To make using Twitter easier for reporters, producers, and other journalists who use the micro-blogging site to inform their work.

Twitter for Newsrooms features sections like “report” and “engage.” When I first saw the site, I was excited to learn that Twitter has finally realized that a large portion of their content is tweeted, or retweeted, by journalists, and that they were seeking to make things easier for those of us who are starting to use the social network for source-building and storytelling.

It seems that the guide has very little to offer the journalist who is already twitter-literate, however. Which is not to say that it can’t be a valuable resource for new journalists, or for journalists who are nostalgic for the days when they used typewriters and, using a land line phone, called their editors and read their copy to a typist back at the bureau.

The thing I like most about the guide is how simple it is, and how easy I think it might be for someone like those grizzled old scribblers to understand. It’s value lies in teaching both the new to Twitter and the new to journalism how best to use the site in an ethical and straightforward way.

How do you use Twitter?

Coming next week: A bit of shameless self-promotion and a rant about the need for self-promotion.

The most important news of the century, brought to you by Twitter

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

When news started to slip out around 9pm ET on Sunday night that the President was making a big announcement regarding National Security, speculation was the game of the hour.  At first, people were assuming the big speech was to be on Libya, given that, about 24 hours earlier, the U.S. had announced that they killed Ghaddafi’s son in a mortar attack on the compound.

As the minutes wore on, key White House staff began to leak small details.  “Not on Libya” was the first word from journalists inside the press room.  Speculation then turned towards the “other war,” a war we used to call “the forgotten war” at internal meetings at my old job.  Could it be Afghanistan?

And then, like so many key aides before him, the leak came.  Donald Rumsfeld’s current chief of staff, Keith Urbahn, confirmed that he had heard “from a reputable source” that Osama Bin Laden was dead.

Nothing about this story, from the earliest speculation to the final, crucial leak, is unusual in Washington circles, except that all of this unfolded primarily on Twitter.

As the television networks scrambled to get a signal from the White House, reporters and producers tweeted out details they were hearing.  The TV networks, with the anchors in newsrooms in New York or Washington, then repeated the tweets, fueling the cycle.  The frenzy was aided by the fact that the Presidential announcement, originally intended for 10:30pm ET, actually took place closer to midnight on the East Coast, and so, network anchors had some time to fill.

On Monday, a Mashable.com poll asked readers “Where did you find out?” The response was clear.  Over 53 percent of the 19,900 responses were social media sources Facebook, Twitter, and Instant Messaging.

Mashable.com created a nifty interactive timeline of the some significant tweets last night, showing how the information spread from one key source through major news and opinion sites.  Twitter today reported that Sunday night’s announcement was the highest sustained activity ever seen on the micro-blogging site.

I was one of the people who found out on Twitter.  Because I used to work in Washington, I follow many of the DC Journalists that were at the White House last night when things began to stir.  In the coming days and weeks, I expect to hear many stories about where people were and what they were doing when they found out.  I expect many of those stories to include the social media that we all increasingly rely on for up-to-the minute developing stories.

I, for one, did my part, retweeting and posting to facebook as much information from as many reputable sources as I could gather.   The real news here is how one man, Keith Urbahn, who has less than 7,000 followers can become a celebrity overnight through reblogging and retweeting from his followers to their much larger networks.

Canadians’ tweets could violate 1930s law

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

Elections Canada, the non-partisan agency that conducts Canadian elections, has announced that it plans to enforce a ban on tweets about election results based on a provision in a 1930s election law designed to prevent news agencies from announcing results before all polls are closed.

The penalty for the 140-character offense? Up to $25,000 or 5 years in prison, according to Mashable.com. The original intent of the law was to prevent radio stations on the east coast from influencing voter turnout on the west coast, where polls close up to 4 and a half hours later.

Ottawa Citizen’s political commentator Kathryn Marshall questions the necessity of characterizing tweets and Facebook statuses as broadcasts. Does it matter, she asks, if the Facebook poster in question has 10 friends or 1,000? She notes that the “twitterverse” is planning a “tweet-in” of election results in protest.

Of course, in the U.S., with our First Amendment protections, no such law could hold water. And, yet, major broadcasters have long had a gentlemen’s agreement not to “call” a race until after all of the polls are closed. In presidential races, this has the effect of there being no clear winner until sometime after 9 p.m. Eastern Time. The idea is that if a news network in New York starts telling people in California that one candidate has won quite a few eastern states, those voters in California may be less interested in voting.

I’m not sure that me tweeting out 140-characters about voter turnout in Chillicothe, Ohio, has the same effect.

Besides the obvious free speech argument, Elections Canada has admitted that it is impossible to uniformly enforce this law with the resources that they have. Not being particularly familiar with the Canadian election system, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone would have any reliable information about winners and losers that doesn’t have access to a massive polling organization, like the Associated Press does here in the United States during our elections. Assuming that Canadian journalists work within the same ethical framework as American journalists, what exactly are they afraid people will announce?

Unfortunately, I can imagine that there are political strategists out there trying to figure out how and what to tweet on May 2nd to either encourage or discourage western province voters from going to the polls.

The issue of Twitter and the Canadian election may seem like a parody of the web age, but it does bring important questions to mind. Who is controlling the news now, and to what end?

In an age before twitter and Facebook, mainstream news organizations could collude together to keep a story out of the press. This was sometimes used for political reasons, but more often was used for valid reasons, such as the safety of journalists in war zones. Now that the mainstream media has lost this option, there are conceivably things that will get out that maybe shouldn’t have. Is this a necessary evil of a democratic World Wide Web? What are the alternatives?