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April 20 2012

12:19
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December 07 2010

08:47

One ambassador’s embarrassment is a tragedy, 15,000 civilian deaths is a statistic

Few things illustrate the challenges facing journalism in the age of ‘Big Data’ better than Cable Gate – and specifically, how you engage people with stories that involve large sets of data.

The Cable Gate leaks have been of a different order to the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. Not in number (there were 90,000 documents in the Afghanistan war logs and over 390,000 in the Iraq logs; the Cable Gate documents number around 250,000) – but in subject matter.

Why is it that the 15,000 extra civilian deaths estimated to have been revealed by the Iraq war logs did not move the US authorities to shut down Wikileaks’ hosting and PayPal accounts? Why did it not dominate the news agenda in quite the same way?

Tragedy or statistic?

Generally misattributed to Stalin, the quote “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” illustrates the problem particularly well: when you move beyond scales we can deal with on a human level, you struggle to engage people in the issue you are covering.

Research suggests this is a problem that not only affects journalism, but justice as well. In October Ben Goldacre wrote about a study that suggested “People who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm a smaller number. Courts punish people less harshly when they harm more people.”

“Out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who read the three-victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30-victim readers. Another study, in which a food processing company knowingly poisoned customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results.”

Salience

This is where journalists play a particularly important role. Kevin Marsh, writing about Wikileaks on Sunday, argues that

“Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the pubic interest – if we mean capturing the public’s attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material. “

He is right. But Charlie Beckett, in the comments to that post, points out that Wikileaks is not operating in isolation:

“Wikileaks is now part of a networked journalism where they are in effect, a kind of news-wire for traditional newsrooms like the New York Times, Guardian and El Pais. I think that delivers a high degree of what you call salience.”

This is because last year Wikileaks realised that they would have much more impact working in partnership with news organisations than releasing leaked documents to the world en masse. It was a massive move for Wikileaks, because it meant re-assessing a core principle of openness to all, and taking on a more editorial role. But it was an intelligent move – and undoubtedly effective. The Guardian, Der Spiegel, New York Times and now El Pais and Le Monde have all added salience to the leaks. But could they have done more?

Visualisation through personalisation and humanisation

In my series of posts on data journalism I identified visualisation as one of four interrelated stages in its production. I think that this concept needs to be broadened to include visualisation through case studies: or humanisation, to put it more succinctly.

There are dangers here, of course. Firstly, that humanising a story makes it appear to be an exception (one person’s tragedy) rather than the rule (thousands suffering) – or simply emotive rather than also informative; and secondly, that your selection of case studies does not reflect the more complex reality.

Ben Goldacre – again – explores this issue particularly well:

“Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months, which is about 6 weeks. Some people might benefit more, some less. For some, Avastin might even shorten their life, and they would have been better off without it (and without its additional side effects, on top of their other chemotherapy). But overall, on average, when added to all the other treatments, Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months.

“The Daily Mail, the ExpressSky News, the Press Association and the Guardian all described these figures, and then illustrated their stories about Avastin with an anecdote: the case of Barbara Moss. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006, had all the normal treatment, but also paid out of her own pocket to have Avastin on top of that. She is alive today, four years later.

“Barbara Moss is very lucky indeed, but her anecdote is in no sense whatsoever representative of what happens when you take Avastin, nor is it informative. She is useful journalistically, in the sense that people help to tell stories, but her anecdotal experience is actively misleading, because it doesn’t tell the story of what happens to people on Avastin: instead, it tells a completely different story, and arguably a more memorable one – now embedded in the minds of millions of people – that Roche’s £21,000 product Avastin makes you survive for half a decade.”

Broadcast journalism – with its regulatory requirement for impartiality, often interpreted in practical terms as ‘balance’ – is particularly vulnerable to this. Here’s one example of how the homeopathy debate is given over to one person’s experience for the sake of balance:

Journalism on an industrial scale

The Wikileaks stories are journalism on an industrial scale. The closest equivalent I can think of was the MPs’ expenses story which dominated the news agenda for 6 weeks. Cable Gate is already on Day 9 and the wealth of stories has even justified a live blog.

With this scale comes a further problem: cynicism and passivity; Cable Gate fatigue. In this context online journalism has a unique role to play which was barely possible previously: empowerment.

3 years ago I wrote about 5 Ws and a H that should come after every news story. The ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of that are possibilities that many news organisations have still barely explored. ‘Why should I care?’ is about a further dimension of visualisation: personalisation – relating information directly to me. The Guardian moves closer to this with its searchable database, but I wonder at what point processing power, tools, and user data will allow us to do this sort of thing more effectively.

‘How can I make a difference?’ is about pointing users to tools – or creating them ourselves – where they can move the story on by communicating with others, campaigning, voting, and so on. This is a role many journalists may be uncomfortable with because it raises advocacy issues, but then choosing to report on these stories, and how to report them, raises the same issues; linking to a range of online tools need not be any different. These are issues we should be exploring, ethically.

All the above in one sentence

Somehow I’ve ended up writing over a thousand words on this issue, so it’s worth summing it all up in a sentence.

Industrial scale journalism using ‘big data’ in a networked age raises new problems and new opportunities: we need to humanise and personalise big datasets in a way that does not detract from the complexity or scale of the issues being addressed; and we need to think about what happens after someone reads a story online and whether online publishers have a role in that.

November 26 2010

11:00

The News Diamond reinterpreted: “Let the crowd have the middle”

News Diamond showing area where journalists should focus - the edges

Jonathon Shuler has published a post exploring the News Diamond from my Model for a 21st Century Newsroom. As part of that he’s added an extra layer to the diamond showing which areas professional journalists should focus on, and which ones they should let go:

“Let the crowd have the middle of the diamond. Just let it go, our time there is ending. There’s too many of them, they are too fast, they will out man and out maneuver you every time that it matters to them–and if it doesn’t matter to them, I bet there’s not much of a market for it. Just walk away… and watch.”

He finishes by arguing that commercial journalism needs to raise the bar:

“The future of Journalism is not to become public service with the hopes of gratuity, but a professional service with professional expectations and results. If people are going to blogs and the crowd instead of your publications, it’s because your publication is not meeting the expectations of your audience. As a publication you have the choice to evolve to meet those expectations, find a new audience, or leave.”

Read his post in full here.

June 02 2010

20:06

The News Diamond reimagined as ‘The Digital News Lifecycle’

Digital news lifecycle Here's a wonderful reimagining of the News Diamond from the first part of my Model for a 21st Century Newsroom. Gaurav Mishra's diagram (shown above) takes my rhombus (shown below) and plots it against two axes. It's rather lovely. Helpfully, however, Mishra takes the concept forward a little. As he explains:
"my “news lifecycle” is different from Paul Bradshaw’s “news diamond” in two ways �" "1. Paul’s "news diamond" looks at news from a news organization’s perspective, whereas my "news lifecycle" acknowledges that the boundaries between news creators, news curators and news consumers have blurred beyond recognition. "2. Paul does not make the distinction between unplanned breaking news events (like accidents and terrorist attacks) and planned live coverage of events (like the Super Bowl or the US presidential inauguration). Paul’s "news diamond" and my "news lifecycle" models are much more valid for unplanned breaking news events."
It's fair to say that my diamond does take the perspective of a news organisation - that's who it was aimed at. But I'm not sure that that means it doesn't acknowledge the blurring of boundaries. Anyway, Mishra poses some questions:
  1. How do we increase the number and variety of sources in the process of creating, curating and consuming news?
  2. How do we separate signal from noise during each stage of the news lifecycle?
  3. How do we contract the “alert” to “analysis” stages of the news lifecycle, in order to get better signal to noise ratio sooner in the cycle?
  4. How to we expand the “conversation” to “customization” stages of the news lifecycle, in order to maximize the returns from the content we have created?
  5. How do we expand the requisite participatory media ecosystem so that exceptions to this news lifecycle (like the information void in the Israel-Hamas Gaza conflict or the Russia-Georgia Otessia conflict) become increasingly rare?
I'd be very interested in any responses. In the meantime, here's those original diagrams for your conceptual enjoyment... news diamond As it happens, the diamond was just another way of showing the following flow diagram from the same post, so now I have 3 diagrams to refer to... model for a 21st century newsroom

January 06 2010

11:45

What I expect at news:rewired — and what I hope will happen

Screen shot 2010-01-06 at 11.23.20Next Thursday is the news:rewired event at City University London, which is being put on by the good people at journalism.co.uk. I’ll be on hand as a delegate.

All of the bases will be covered, it seems: Multimedia, social media, hyperlocal, crowdsourcing, datamashups, and news business models.

What I’m expecting

It’s always good to chat about different business models. However I don’t expect to come out of that with any greater insight into the silver bullet to fund journalism. Often people approach this topic like there even is one single revenue stream that hasn’t been discovered. The days of the two-channel revenue stream (ads and subs) are over.

Multimedia chat should be interesting. Personally I’m conflicted about the overall importance of multimedia. It’s an additional storytelling tool, however I’m of the opinion that multimedia isn’t the go-to tool that many like to make it out to be. If your readers won’t watch a 3 minute video, then you might want to be more selective in how you allocate those resources.

The topic of the social media session is “How to efficiently use Twitter, Facebook and other social networking tools for productive journalism”. We know it’s not very successful as a one-way communication tool. However many publications are nervous about the idea of engaging so directly with readers. Since journalists are major users of social media, news organisations are needing to determine how to police the way their journalists interact with readers off the clock. It’s a tough question, so I look forward to that debate.

There’s a panel that I’m confused about. It’s called “Troubleshooting panel on online journalism”. Sounds like a Q&A session about problems faced by online journalists. However the panelists make me think it will be about a variety of things:

What happens when it all goes wrong? What tools are particularly troublesome? How to get yourself out of a digital ditch? With presentations, practical guidance and words of wisdom from a digitally seasoned panel: Robin Hamman, head of social media, Headshift; Jon Bernstein, deputy editor, New Statesman (former Channel 4 multimedia editor); Robin Goad, research director, Hitwise; and Malcolm Coles, internet consultant and media blogger.

It will be a valuable discussion, because of all the talent in the room. I just have no idea what they’ll be talking about.

The rest of the day is tied up in talks about hyperlocalism, datamashing and crowd-sourcing. Of those, the one I’m most interested in is the datamashing talk. Here’s an explanation:

How can data be used to tell a story and hold authorities accountable? What data should journalists be using? How can journalists learn new computer assisted reporting skills? What other sectors can journalists learn from? With presentations, examples and practical advice from Tony Hirst, data expert and lecturer, Open University. Francis Irving, senior developer, MySociety.org.

This is the stuff that drives innovation. Taking raw data and turning it into something that is easily understood, digested and redistributed. It takes a certain skill to be able to do it well. And when it is done well, the results are often exciting and explosive.

This will be an exciting and informative event. I do, however, have some concerns.

What I hope will happen

First, it’s somewhat disappointing that the role of community management in online journalism does not have a more prominent place in the discussions.

While it’s good to know how to use social media to further your journalistic endeavours, it’s equally important to know how to use it to engage with the community that you’re writing for. It’s a skill that many journalists simply don’t have. There’s still a mentality that once the content has been edited and posted, journalists don’t have any further responsibility towards it. Your article is your product. You’ve got to promote it.

I’d also like to see a discussion on how emerging technologies will impact journalism. Two emerging technologies in particular are eReaders/tablets and smart phones. They’re already changing the way people consume media, so it would make sense then that the way media is developed and presented would need to change, too. Yesterday Google announced the release of its new phone, Nexus One. Not to mention the newest arrival to the eReader game, called Skiff Reader. How will media need to change to fit that new technology?

I’m hoping that the topic of personal branding comes up. Journalists it seems have a love-hate for this term. Some journalists already have personal brands, while others shun the very idea of it. Regardless of your position, it’s something that needs to be talked about, especially in an open forum like this.

I’d also like to see a debate about journalism entrepreneurism. And some discussion about career paths that utilise journalism skills, but aren’t exactly journalism.

But since this is a *journalism* conference, I suspect that won’t happen.

I’ll write a post-event blog post to discuss all that did happen. I’m going to attempt to bring up some of the points I mentioned above, so I’ll also try to write about that. Throughout the day I’ll be tweeting about the from my personal account, @BenLaMothe, so feel free to follow along there, too.

November 11 2009

20:18

Model for a 21st Century Newsroom – in Spanish

In April Maxim Salomatin translated the Model for a 21st Century Newsroom series into Russian. Now Maura Accurso has translated it into Spanish. All 6 parts, which make up around 10,000 or so words. It’s an incredible feat, and I’m enormously grateful.

News Diamond in Spanish

So, here they are, part by part:

  1. Part 1: The News Diamond – http://tejiendo-redes.com/2009/09/02/el-diamante-de-noticias-modelo-para-la-redaccion-del-siglo-xx1-1ra-parte/
  2. Part 2: Distributed Journalism – http://tejiendo-redes.com/2009/09/07/periodismo-distribuido-modelo-para-la-redaccion-del-siglo-xxi-2da-parte/
  3. Part 3: 5 Ws and a H that should come after every story – http://tejiendo-redes.com/2009/09/21/6-preguntas-que-deberian-venir-despues-de-cada-noticia-modelo-para-la-redaccion-del-siglo-xxi-3ra-parte/
  4. Part 4: News distribution in a new media age – http://tejiendo-redes.com/2009/10/06/la-distribucion-de-las-noticias-en-un-mundo-de-nuevos-medios-modelo-para-la-redaccion-del-siglo-xxi-%e2%80%93-4ta-parte/
  5. Part 5: Making money from journalism online: new media business models – http://tejiendo-redes.com/2009/11/02/ganando-plata-con-el-periodismo-modelos-de-negocio-de-los-nuevos-medios-modelo-para-la-redaccion-del-siglo-xxi-5ta-parte/
  6. Part 6: New journalists for new information – http://tejiendo-redes.com/2009/11/11/nuevos-periodistas-para-un-nuevo-flujo-de-informacion-modelo-para-la-redaccion-del-siglo-xxi-%e2%80%93-6ta-parte/

(As an aside, The Spanish Press Association approached me last year for permission to translate it too but I’ve never seen it. Perhaps they got bored after part 1… or perhaps they’re just rude. Anyway, if you’ve seen it, let me know.)

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