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May 22 2013

15:00

Objectivity and the decades-long shift from “just the facts” to “what does it mean?”

1960S ART

If I had only one short sentence to describe it, I’d say that journalism is factual reports of current events. At least, that’s what I used to say, and I think it’s what most people imagine journalism is. But reports of events have been a shrinking part of American journalism for more than 100 years, as stories have shifted from facts to interpretation.

Interpretation: analysis, explanation, context, or “in-depth” reporting. Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.

New research shows this change very clearly. In 1955, stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. Now, about half of all stories are something else: a report that tries to explain why, not just what.

rise-of-context-over-events-chart

This chart is from a paper by Katharine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University, which calls these types of stories “contextual journalism.” (The paper includes an extensive and readable history of all sorts of changes in journalism in the 20th century; recommended for news nerds.) The authors sampled front-page articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in five different years from 1955 to 2003, and handcoded each of 1,891 stories into one of four categories:

  • conventional: a simple report of an event which happened in the last 24 hours
  • contextual: a story containing significant analysis, interpretation, or explanation
  • investigative: extensive accountability or “watchdog” reporting
  • social empathy: a story about the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader

Investigative journalism picks up after the 1960s but is still only a small percentage of all front-page stories. Meanwhile, contextual journalism increases from under 10 percent to nearly half of all articles. The loser is classic “straight” news: event-centered, inverted-pyramid, who-what-when-how-but-not-so-much-why stories, which have become steadily less popular. All this in the decades before the modern Internet. In fact, previous work showed that the transition away from events began at the dawn of the 20th century.

Investigative journalism may have pride of place within the mythology of American news, but that’s not really what journalists have been up to, by and large. Instead, newspaper journalists have been producing ever more of a kind a work that is so little discussed it doesn’t really have a name. Fink and Schudson write:

…there is no standard terminology for this kind of journalism. It has been called interpretative reporting, depth reporting, long-form journalism, explanatory reporting, and analytical reporting. In his extensive interviewing of Washington journalists in the late 1970s, Stephen Hess called it ‘social science journalism’, a mode of reporting with ‘the accent on greater interpretation’ and a clear intention of focusing on causes, not on events as such. Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.

From this historical look, fast forward to the web era. The last several years have seen a broad conversation about “context” in news. From Matt Thompson’s key observation that a series of chronological updates don’t really inform, to Studio 20′s Explainer project, to a whole series of experiments and speculations around story form, context has been a hot topic for those trying to rethink Internet-era journalism.

I believe this type of contextual journalism is important, and I hope we will get better at understanding and teaching it. The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means. In other words, journalism must move up the information food chain — as, in fact, it has steadily been doing for five decades!

Why does this type of journalism not even have a name?

I have a suspicion. I think part of the problem is the professional code of “objectivity.” This a value system for journalism that has many parts: truth seeking, neutrality, ethics, credibility. But all of these things are different when the journalist’s job moves from describing events to creating interpretations.

There are usually multiple plausible ways to interpret any event, so what are our standards for saying which interpretations are right? Journalism has a long, sorry history of professional pundits whose analyses of politics and economics turn out to be no better than guessing. In concrete fields such as election forecasting, it may later be obvious who was right. In other cases, there may not be a “right” answer in the traditional, positivist sense of science. These are the classic problems of framing: Is a 0.3 percent drop in unemployment “small” or is it “better than expected”? True neutrality becomes impossible in such cases, because if something has been politicized, you’re going to piss someone off no matter how you interpret it. (See also: hostile media effect.) There may not be an objectively correct or currently knowable meaning for any particular set of factual events, but that won’t stop the fighting over the narrative.

This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground. Nonetheless, we all crave interpretation along with our facts. Explanation and analysis and storytelling have become prevalent in practice. We as audiences continue to demand certain types of experts, even when we can’t tell if what they’re saying is any good. We demand reasons why, even if there can be no singular truth. We demand narrative.

What this latest research says to me is that journalism has added interpretation to its core practice, but we’re not really talking about it. The profession still operates with a “just the facts, ma’am” disclaimer that no longer describes what it actually does. Perhaps this is part of why media credibility has been falling for decades.

Photo of Sol LeWitt’s “Objectivity” (1962) via AP/National Gallery of Art.

May 17 2013

18:28

How is algorithmic objectivity related to journalistic objectivity?

Today at New York University, a bunch of smart people are gathered at the Governing Algorithms conference.

Algorithms are increasingly invoked as powerful entities that control, govern, sort, regulate, and shape everything from financial trades to news media. Nevertheless, the nature and implications of such orderings are far from clear. What exactly is it that algorithms “do”? What is the role attributed to “algorithms” in these arguments? How can we turn the “problem of algorithms” into an object of productive inquiry? This conference sets out to explore the recent rise of algorithms as an object of interest in scholarship, policy, and practice.

If this interests you, I’d suggest following #govalgo on Twitter, checking out the proposed pre-conference reading list, and looking at the discussion papers submitted. One that stood out to me was Tarleton Gillespie’s “The Relevance of Algorithms,” which connects the idea that algorithms are “objective” to journalists’ conception of the same idea (emphasis all mine):

This assertion of algorithmic objectivity plays in many ways an equivalent role to the norm of objectivity in Western journalism. Like search engines, journalists have developed tactics for determining what is most relevant, how to report it, and how to assure its relevance — a set of practices that are relatively invisible to their audience, a goal that they admit is messier to pursue than they might appear, and a principle that helps set aside but does not eradicate value judgments and personal politics. These institutionalized practices are animated by a conceptual promise that, in the discourse of journalism, is regularly articulated (or overstated) as a kind of totem. Journalists use the norm of objectivity as a “strategic ritual” (Tuchman 1972), to lend public legitimacy to knowledge production tactics that are inherently precarious. “Establishing jurisdiction over the ability to objectively parse reality is a claim to a special kind of authority” (Schudson and Anderson 2009, 96).

Journalist and algorithmic objectivities are by no means the same. Journalistic objectivity depends on an institutional promise of due diligence, built into and conveyed via a set of norms journalists learned in training and on the job; their choices represent a careful expertise backed by a deeply infused, philosophical and professional commitment to set aside their own biases and political beliefs. The promise of the algorithm leans much less on institutional norms and trained expertise, and more on a technologically inflected promise of mechanical neutrality. Whatever choices are made are presented both as distant from the intervention of human hands, and as submerged inside of the cold workings of the machine.

But in both, legitimacy depends on accumulated guidelines for the proceduralization of information selection. The discourses and practices of objectivity have come to serve as a constitutive rule of journalism (Ryfe 2006). Objectivity is part of how journalists understand themselves and what it means to be a journalist. It is part of how their work is evaluated, by editors, colleagues, and their readers. It is a defining signal by which journalists even recognize what counts as journalism. The promise of algorithmic objectivity, too, has been palpably incorporated into the working practices of algorithm providers, constitutively defining the function and purpose of the information service. When Google includes in its “Ten Things We Know to Be True” manifesto that “Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust,” this is neither spin nor corporate Kool-Aid. It is a deeply ingrained understanding of the public character of Google’s information service, one that both influences and legitimizes many of its technical and commercial undertakings, and helps obscure the messier reality of the service it provides.

The Tuchman reference is to Gaye Tuchman’s 1972 landmark piece “Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity.” The Michael Schudson/C.W. Anderson piece is “Objectivity, Professionalism, and Truth Seeking in Journalism” (2009). The Ryfe is David Ryfe’s “The Nature of News Rules.”

December 17 2010

16:00

DDoS attacks on the U.S. media, Twitter history searching, and a big blog deal: More predictions for 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Michael Schudson, Alexis Madrigal, Markos Moulitsas, Joy Mayer, Nicco Mele, Nikki Usher, Steve Buttry, Paddy Hirsch, John Davidow, Ethan Zuckerman, Richard Lee Colvin, and Kevin Kelly.

We also want to hear your predictions: Today’s the last day we’ll be accepting entries in our Lab reader poll, where you tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results in a couple days.

Michael Schudson, historian and sociologist, Columbia Journalism School

Prognosticating about the news media in these times is a risky business, but I’ll try one nonetheless: In 2011, none of the 250 largest U.S. cities will stop publishing (on paper) its last remaining daily newspaper. Cities with more than one daily newspaper may be reduced to one survivor.

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and co-founder, Longshot Magazine

One of the truly important big city papers will go digital-only.

Kevin Kelly, author and founder, Wired Magazine

Twitter will go down for 36 hours. The ensuing media attention will prompt a 10 percent increase in signups in the months following.

I’ll offer a slightly technical prediction. Denial of service attacks — DDoS — have already become a serious concern for independent media sites in countries like Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And DDoS has been a massive problem for WikiLeaks. I expect to see at least one major U.S. media site affected by DDoS and taken offline for a day or more in 2011. I also expect we’ll see one or more publications move from their own infrastructure to host with someone like Amazon, despite the concerns that the company hosting content might prevent its distribution.

I predict that next year’s most exciting media experiments will involve collaboration between journalists and audiences. The divide will grow between journalists who do and do not fundamentally understand and respect the value of conversation and contribution with users.

I also predict that we will we see the death of at least one traditional newspaper in a town with a vibrant community news startup.

WhiteHouse.gov will get more unique daily visitors than WashingtonPost.com by the end of 2011. WhiteHouse.gov is already competitive with MSNBC.com — and the WhiteHouse.gov operation continues to become more sophisticated and wide-reaching, covering the White House on a daily basis with photos, videos, podcasts, and blog posts.

Mobile devices — especially in the form of tablets like the iPad and Blackberry’s forthcoming Playbook — will become the dominant news delivery device in 2011.

Sarah Palin will run for president in the Republican Party’s presidential primary communicating with the public exclusively through Twitter, Facebook, email, personal appearances, and Fox News. She will eschew all other major media and be a viable candidate for president of the United States.

Social news will continue to become more and more important — and traditional news organizations will turn to trying to understand how news spreads socially.

More downsizing in the news biz, with potentially another major metropolitan newspaper or two to close or to severely reduce print publication.

CNN will solidify its campaign for the “middle,” MSNBC the left, and Fox the right, with all three becoming more blatant about their intended audience.

Steve Buttry, director of community engagement, TBD

Twitter will make some notable upgrades, including targeting and editing of tweets, historical searching, and some innovative commercial uses.

A leader will emerge in location-based news, social media, and commerce.

We will see some major realignment of journalism and news-industry organizations. Most likely: the merger of ASNE and APME, mergers of some state press associations, mergers of at least two national press organizations, mergers of some reporter-beat associations. One or more journalism organizations will close.

At least one high-profile news organization will drop its paywall.

My prediction for 2011 is a raft of data analysis and visualisation tools, as various parties try to solve the problems raised by large datasets from governments. In the longer term, I think real-time information, contextual information, and intelligent devices will play an increasingly important role.

I said that things would get ugly in 2010 and have been sadly proved right. I think they’ll get even uglier in 2011 as the reaction against the shift in power grows and the fallout from WikiLeaks continues. Expect a lot of rushed-through legislation against the invisible threats of the web, which has implications for journalists and publishers.

Paddy Hirsch, senior editor, public radio’s Marketplace

I think WikiLeaks will be stamped out by one or more governments, and we’ll see a slew of copycats pop up in its place, hosted by outraged freedom-of-speechers, on secure servers, in out of the way places. Think The Pirate Bay but with government material instead of movies.

John Davidow, executive editor, WBUR Boston

Our revenue models continue to weaken. Radio and television face extreme technological changes. IP radio is coming to our morning commute, threatening commercial and public radio alike. Television programming will continue to atomize and migrate seamlessly from screen to screen in our daily lives. Newspapers large and small face continued pressure on their bottoms lines. Despite all the major disruptions ahead, I believe the spirit of innovation and collaboration in our industry is up to the challenges ahead.

Heading into 2011, examples of innovation and new strategies are everywhere. On the public media front, NPR, CPB, and the Knight Foundation head into 2011 with Project Argo getting up to speed. This deep vertical strategy that will hit its stride in the coming year has the potential to add more depth and user engagement while at the same time helping local station bottom lines.

Major newspapers are taking dramatic steps to find sustainability models from their online products. In the coming year The New York Times will test the metered waters and The Boston Globe will be splitting its juggernaut website Boston.com into two sites, one free and one behind a paywall. Maybe a year from now we’ll have a better sense of what direction the newspaper industry should be going. I’m also encouraged by the emergence of increased local coverage and not just by Patch, but on citizen media sites like Placeblogger.com. Initiatives like these mean more jobs and more opportunity for our younger journalists. And it is those young journalists just starting out who, not just next year but in the years ahead, will provide the ideas and energy that will regenerate and redefine our industry.

Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher, Daily Kos

One of the newsweeklies will fold operations, or at least become web-only. Same thing will happen to at least one top-20 circulation metropolitan newspaper. At least one independent blog network will be acquired in a nine-digit deal.

The sports leagues will work to bring more games onto their cable networks, like the NFL Network’s Thursday night games.

Consumer dissatisfaction with the media will continue to rise. In politics, conservatives will be even more convinced the media is out to get them, and will retreat deeper into their Fox News/Rush Limbaugh media cocoon. Progressives will realize that the media is basing their political stories on RNC press releases — just watch them treat every Sarah Palin tweet as “news,” while pretending the GOP actually cares about the deficit during the battle to raise the debt ceiling, despite their desperate fight for budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy this lame-duck session.

More and more news content will be gathered and distributed through collaborations between for-profits and nonprofit print, online, and broadcast news outlets. This will be especially true for coverage of specialized areas such as education, science, medicine, the environment, and health.

March 24 2010

14:00

Len Downie: For-profit news orgs won’t create enough journalism

By any measure, former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie epitomized success in the traditional, subscription-and-advertising model of newspaper journalism: With a staff that once topped 900 and an annual budget of $100 million, his newsroom hauled in 25 Pulitzer Prizes over 17 years and wielded influence from Congress to the darkest recesses of the nation’s capital.

Since stepping down from the Post’s top newsroom job at age 66, Downie has taken on a professorship at Arizona State University. But behind the scenes, he also is lending his experience to help shape the practices and prospects for the burgeoning nonprofit sector in journalism.

Why? Simple: Downie says the for-profit model alone no longer can support the kinds of investigative, explanatory, and accountability journalism that society needs. As the for-profit sector shrinks, journalists and interested readers must explore new ways to underwrite their work.

“There are going to have to be many different kinds of economic models,” Downie said in an interview at the Post’s offices. “The future is a much more diverse ecosystem.”

Downie has made himself an expert on the nonprofit model, and wrote about its possibilities in his recent report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” with Michael Schudson.

Less known, perhaps, is that Downie casts a wide net as within the nonprofit sector of journalism. He’s a board member at the Center for Investigative Reporting, which recently launched California Watch to cover money and politics at the state level. He also chairs the journalism advisory committee at Kaiser Health News, which has provided niche explanatory reporting to leading newspapers, including the Post. And he’s also on the board of Investigative Reporters and Editors, which has incorporated panels on the nonprofit model into its conferences. (I should note that I am a part-time editor for the Washington Post News Service.)

Looking across the sector, Downie sees great potential — and some big, unanswered questions.

On the upside, nonprofits are helping journalism move toward a more collaborative model, Downie said. In the old days, newspapers resisted ideas and assistance from outside. But in the new news ecosystem, collaboration is a way of life. “All of our ideas have been changed about that,” he said.

Also a plus: Big foundations and the public at large are warming to the idea that news organizations are deserving of their support, just like the symphony or any other nonprofit that contributes to society’s cultural assets. “There’s a question of whether there’s enough public realization,” Downie said. “I think we’re heading to that direction. Awareness is growing steadily.”

But a lot of questions still must be sorted out, Downie said.

High on the list, he said, is the most basic of all: Where will the money come from? Like other nonprofits, nonprofit news organizations will have to find the right mix of foundation money, grassroots support, advertising, and perhaps additional government support, he said.

That leads to the other big question of sustainability: It’s not clear that all the nonprofits that have launched in recent years will survive. “How many will succeed and for how long?” Downie wondered. A related question: How will the collaborative model will settle out, and where nonprofits will find productive niches?

Downie said he also has been watching nonprofits wrestle with the issue of credibility — how to achieve it and how to keep it.

The answer begins with editorial independence and transparency about financial supporters, Downie said. But when it comes to painting a bright line between journalism and ideology, advocacy or spin, there are no magic formulas to assure readers — just the experience of trial and error.

“It’s one of these things that’s proven by its exceptions,” Downie said. “When there’s an exception, it’s a scandal.”

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

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