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April 02 2013


Dan Gillmor says journalists are uninformed about who controls the platforms they publish on

Dan Gillmor is writing a book (maybe), and he has a lot of questions. The project, which will probably be self published, will probably be called Permission Taken. Gillmor already owns that domain, so why not, he said in a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society last week. (Also, his agent likes the title.)

Gillmor says he’s been thinking about the project for about a year, and he’s come up with a list of questions that he wants academics and practitioners around the country to help him answer. When Gillmor looks at the technologies, services, and platforms most of us use everyday and take for granted, he asks, in slide lingo,


The answers are not always clear.

Gillmor’s goal with the new book is a pedagogical one — he said he considers his students (at Arizona State University) to be his primary audience. He intends for the first few chapters to be a primer for the digitally barely literate on how to protect privacy and shore up digital security in day-to-day life. Some of the later chapters, however, will delve deeper into the nitty gritty.

Some of the ideas that will become a part of the new book Gillmor shared back in October at a symposium on digital ethics hosted by Poynter. Gillmor and other presenters also contributed essays to a book, The New Ethics of Journalism: A Guide for the 21st Century, to be published in July.

Generally, Gillmor doesn’t think anyone is fully aware of how vulnerable they are, technologically speaking. Build a back door into every new technology so the FBI can keep an eye on things, he says, “and I promise you it’s going to be used by criminals. The more you unharden the fences, the more room there is for really bad actors.”

Gillmor is especially concerned about how little he says journalists know about security and the extent to which they retain control over their content once it’s published online. “I ask, why are you pouring your journalism into Facebook where you don’t control it anymore? Why are you putting it on other people’s platforms?” In his slide deck, Gillmor gives the example of a New Yorker cartoon that caused Facebook to temporarily ban the magazine from their site — thereby claiming an unprecedented level of control over what is and isn’t acceptable in publishing.

Facebook is a particular concern of Gillmor’s, and he points to a tweet in his slideshow in which Loic le Meur quotes a friend employed by Facebook as saying “we’re like electricity.” “Is Facebook a utility?” asks Gillmor. “What do we do with utilities? We regulate them. Monopolies need regulation. I’m not a fan of regulation, but we have to think about that.”

Gillmor expressed similar concerns in his October talk about the level of control held by payment processors. Whether because of pressure from the government or an internal decision, Gillmor says, if the processor deems your content unacceptable, “then you won’t get paid.” But what journalists really don’t like, Gillmor told me, is when he asks them why they insist on building iOS apps that cede control of what is and isn’t journalism to Apple. In terms of distribution, they say they have no other option — and even journalists who have considered other options say the risk is worth it.

But some risks are never worth it. “Journalists need to learn more about security right away,” says Gillmor. “They are threatening the lives of their sources if they don’t.” In a recent column about the Harvard cheating scandal, in which the university admitted to scanning portions of employee emails, Gillmor showed exactly what can happen when a news outlet doesn’t know enough about how to protect their sources.

It’s not just employees and others who want to blow whistles who need to be more careful — such as using external accounts, encryption and a lot of other tools to be safer. (Note: I didn’t say “safe”, because absolute safety is exceedingly hard to achieve, if it’s even possible.)

Journalists, too, need better tradecraft when it comes to their dealings with sources. My impression of the typical newsroom’s precautions is that there aren’t many.

For six years as a columnist, Gillmor used a PGP at the bottom of each page — a safe, encrypted method by which sources could contact him. He said in six years, it was used twice — once by someone just checking to see if it worked.

For journalists, Gillmor recommends Tor, “a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” (Committee to Protect Journalists when it comes to educating journalists about the dangers of using certain technologies.

But ultimately, Gillmor says, “It’s a crucial issue — and one that has not gotten enough attention inside the craft.” These issues fall very low on the priority list for an industry that Gillmor described as being in a constant state of desperation. But the dangers are real, Gillmor says, and with his new project, he hopes to find ways of bringing the convenience of private platforms to services that are both free and secure.

For now, though, “increasingly, journalists who really are appropriately paranoid in the right situations are learning not to use technology,” says Gillmor.

If you have a better idea, Gillmor is taking questions — and hopefully, answers.

Photo by f1uffster (Jeanie) used under a Creative Commons license.

October 14 2010


Eric von Hippel on users driving innovation ahead of producers

Every week, our friends at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society invite academics and other thinkers to discuss their work over lunch. Thankfully for us, they record the sessions. Last month, the Center hosted renowned MIT professor Eric von Hippel to discuss the broad — and, for us, compelling — topic of “how innovation works.” He argues that open collaboration, and end-user innovation, are competing with producer innovation in many economic sectors — and may, in fact, displace it. And the implications of that shift are as profound for the news media as they are for other institutions.

In the video above, the professor discusses the transition we’re in and its far-reaching implications. Ethan Zuckerman did his usual fine job of blogging the talk, for those who prefer to read their innovation theory rather than hear it. Ethan:

To explain his body of work, von Hippel explains that he’s tried to bring thinking about the communications space into the world of physical things, examining how processes we think of as affecting digital media can also apply to other forms of innovation.

July 15 2010


Ushahidi in 3G: How media outlets could extend the mapping platform beyond crisis communications

Since its launch in early 2008, the crowdsourced mapping platform Ushahidi has been used to monitor elections in Burundi, to track violence in Pakistan, to coordinate aid in Haiti. Its platform has been downloaded nearly 4,000 times; its mobile platform, more than 3,700.

It’s now been six months since Haiti’s earthquake; and Patrick Meier, Ushahidi’s director of crisis mapping and strategic partnerships, was on hand to discuss his work at Harvard’s Berkman Center earlier this week as part of the center’s regular luncheon series. (Archived here, by the way, are some of our favorite videos from past luncheons.) A point Meier stressed during his talk — and a point also stressed by Ory Okolloh, Ushahidi’s co-founder and the site’s executive director, when she and I had a conversation recently — is that, despite its most common framing, Ushahidi is not actually a crisis-mapping platform. That’s one way it can be used, certainly — and the way it’s thus far been used to greatest, and most publicized, effect — but the core logic of crowdsourced mapping can be scaled in ways that extend far beyond the urgency of tragedy.

So, after his talk, I asked Meier about the ways media outlets, in particular, can use the Ushahidi platform for newsgathering purposes; his response is in the video above and the transcript below. (The video’s background noise, if you’re curious, is a group of Berkman smarties chatting in a conference room.)

Absolutely. Sure. I mean, one example of a deployment that’s already taken place with Al Jazeera in Gaza. What I really liked about that is, first of all, the context was that they were the only media organization that were allowed to go into Gaza and report information on what was happening. And their journalists were basically texting and tweeting live to the Ushahidi map, and providing that kind of information. So it was really interesting how Al Jazeera as a media group was directing its audience to a map as the first stop to consume media information, and then from there going to other sources.

What was also really interesting is that they did both bounded and unbounded crowdsourcing — which is sort of my own terms, so maybe I should explain. “Unbounded crowdsourcing” is what we are familiar with: the idea of opening up a platform to the world, and letting the world contribute. “Bounded crowdsourcing” is when you have a specific network of individuals who are doing the reporting. So it’s a known, trusted network of individuals.

So what they did is they had their own journalists on the ground, who were texting and tweeting live to the map, but they also opened it up to other residents — people in Gaza — to also submit information. And that combination, I thought, was really, really interesting. Because what you can then start doing is, even though you don’t necessarily know whether the crowd is trustworthy, or individuals in the crowd are trustworthy — if some of these individuals start also reporting the same event that the journalists are reporting, then you know they might actually be more trustworthy. And so it creates this kind of digital trace, or like a shadow of history, if you want, that allows you to start identifying which individuals in the crowd may actually be trustworthy. And you can sort of assign them a higher credibility score. So I’d love to see that happen again.

And I think another way to do this — I’ve got another couple quick ideas — one is with smartphone apps. What would be really neat is if a company like CNN would use a Ushahidi smartphone app, like maybe the “Ushahidi citizen journalist smartphone app.” And what you do — let’s say you have it on your iPhone — when you download and open your smartphone app, you basically get prompted a question — “Do you allow CNN to know where you are at any given time?” — and you go, “Yes.” And that allows basically CNN to have access to maybe 10,000 people in New York City, and know their location. So that when something like the water landing on the Hudson River happens, you’ll know that maybe, “Oh, you have seven volunteer citizen journalists who are just around the corner.” And you can send them, automatically, a note on their smartphone saying, “If you don’t mind peeping around the corner and taking a quick picture, we’d love for you to do that.”

And I think there’s an interest in doing that. We already see this rise in citizen journalism — people being interested in contributing information, creating information, the whole user-generated revolution — so I think that could be a way for a media group to harness the crowd to be the reporters and to provide that kind of information in real time. So I’d love to see, you know, maybe something like that work.

And maybe with some of the more investigative journalist-type media groups to leverage, again, this crowdsourcing idea to get evidence on a particular case. Maybe it’s environmental pollution, it’s chemical issues. Instead of — or not instead of, but in addition to — having your reporters spend two, three months doing the interviews in whatever state, going from door to door and getting more and more evidence, maybe a media group like ProPublica could set up a platform and say, “This is a big issue in the state of California. If you’ve got any evidence about this particular material, creating health problems, take a picture, submit it on the Ushahidi platform.” And then you can start people saying, “Oh, I had that problem, too, I had that problem, too.” And you create a lobbying, a movement.

May 28 2010


Rey Junco: Can student engagement be increased through social media?

Every week, our friends at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society invite academics and other thinkers to discuss their work over lunch. Thankfully for us, they record the sessions. This week, we’ve been passing along some of the talks over the past few months that are most relevant to the future of news.

Today’s video: Rey Junco. He’s an associate professor at Lock Haven University, and he conducts research on how social media and other technologies — Facebook, IM, blogs, Twitter, mobile phones — affect the psychosocial development of college students. Here, he discusses the impact of Twitter usage on the engagement and success of first-year college students. Here are his slides.


Hal Roberts and Ethan Zuckerman: Media Cloud and quantitative tools and approaches to analyzing news

Every week, our friends at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society invite academics and other thinkers to discuss their work over lunch. Thankfully for us, they record the sessions. Throughout this week, we’ve been passing along some of the talks that are most relevant to the future of news.

Today’s video: Hal Roberts and Ethan Zuckerman. They lay out Berkman’s Media Cloud platform — and discuss how it can be used by researchers to analyze patterns of influence in the news media. We first wrote about Media Cloud last March and summed it up thusly:

Media Cloud is a massive data set of news — compiled from newspapers, other established news organizations, and blogs — and a set of tools for analyzing those data. Some of the kinds of questions Media Cloud could eventually help answer:

— How do specific stories evolve over time? What path do they take when they travel among blogs, newspapers, cable TV, or other sources?
— What specific story topics won’t you hear about in [News Source X], at least compared to its competitors?
— When [News Source Y] writes about Sarah Palin [or Pakistan, or school vouchers], what’s the context of their discussion? What are the words and phrases they surround that topic with?

May 25 2010


Jure Leskovec: How memes move, heartbeat-like, through the news

Every week, our friends at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society invite academics and other thinkers to discuss their work over lunch. Thankfully for us, they record the sessions. This week, we’re passing along some of the talks over the past few months that are most relevant to the future of news.

Today’s video: Stanford computer scientist Jure Leskovec. Leskovec, a founder of MemeTracker, studies ideas and information as they move through the news cycle on the web — and, in particular, “the set of temporal patterns by which news grows and fades over time.” Here, he discusses the findings that resulted from a three-month analysis of 1.6 million mainstream media sites and blogs — and the distinct “heartbeat”-like pattern that emerged to define the current MSM/blog relationship.

We wrote about MemeTracker’s findings back in July and interviewed one of Leskovec’s coauthors. Ethan Zuckerman liveblogged the talk; Leskovec posted his slides from it.

May 24 2010


David Weinberger: How information became the “dominant metaphor” of contemporary intellectual life

Every week, our friends at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society invite academics and other thinkers to discuss their work over lunch. Thankfully for us, they record the sessions. Over the next week or so, we’ll be passing along some of the talks over the past few months that are most relevant to the future of news.

First up: David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto author and Internet philosopher discusses information — as a paradigm, as an irony, as a way of comprehending ourselves and the world. Given the fact that we don’t understand, in any meaningful way, what information actually is, Weinberger says, it’s worth considering how it became the “dominant metaphor” of our intellectual life — and how the metaphor is changing as we enter the digital age.

If you don’t have time to watch, Ethan Zuckerman liveblogged the talk, and David posted an early draft outline of it.

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