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January 11 2012

15:20

3 Laws for Journalists in a Data-Saturated World

At the Cyberspace Conference in London in November, Igor Shchegolev, the Russian minister of communications and mass media, referred to sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics:

robot_byra1000_flickrcc.jpg

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Earlier in 2011, after the phone-hacking scandal erupted in the U.K. and the level of criticism of the journalism profession soared, I started thinking about these three laws. Meanwhile, there is a daily deluge of excitement about data journalism - from Owni.eu to the Guardian, Telegraph and New York Times - and about hacking (enthusiasm for the white hat variety and frequent warnings about the black hat flavor).

Some sections of the media want, at least it may seem to some of us, a witch hunt against the rest for practices that have been long present in journalism, and British journalism in particular. Just this week, former editor of the Sun newspaper in Britain Kelvin McKenzie was giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry about events 20 years ago. Others want to drive so far toward data and ceaseless online information that some of us wonder what happened to the people we used to interview. And if you question either of those, you will be denounced as being part of the problem.

Obsess too much about the technology and you risk forgetting the human beings we report on, and the fact they can easily be trampled under the feet of hoards of reporters surging in their lust for immediate "information" without pause for second thought.

In an age in which "hacks and hackers" are merged into a confused space focused more on data than the people behind it, I want to see Asimov's laws rewritten.

Let me propose Three Laws for Journalists in the Digital World:

1. Digital systems must be designed to protect and ensure, to the fullest extent possible, personal data and its exchange and communication.

2. Journalists must pursue all stories deemed to be in the public interest, even where that may require challenging the security of digital systems.

3. Journalists must protect their sources as well as the innocent public to the same extent as the digital systems of the First Law, where it would otherwise render the impossibility of the Second Law.

The First Law

So-called "black hat" hackers, such as criminal gangs who attack companies for data on customers, obviously fall afoul of the First Law above. But the First Law also accommodates those hackers who deliberately challenge a system to ultimately make it safer.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario published in 2009 "The 7 Foundational Principles" of Privacy by Design, which included as No. 2: "Privacy as the Default Setting ... by ensuring that personal data are automatically protected in any given IT system or business practice. If an individual does nothing, their privacy still remains intact."

While it might be relatively straightforward for companies to protect private information, it is less so for society at large.

Michelle Govan, a lecturer in ethical hacking at Glasgow Caledonian University, teaches a course focusing on attacking systems to find the holes and then patching them. She explained that the key element of legal hacking is having the permission of the system owner or operator. For the rest of us, any information online is not private.

"Everybody has a responsibility for their own privacy," she said. "Where does privacy start? You create your own digital footprint online -- anything you put online is open to people using it maliciously.

"I always provide students with the understanding and experience of the application of legal aspects so they know they have to use these skills for good. It's all about the permission and knowledge of what limits the law sets," she added. "We have legal laws [and some] ethical laws -- it's down to a person's own values. You have to make people respect what they're doing."

There have been plenty of examples of going further with once private information as companies battle for control of as much data as possible.

Such was the recent case of Klout, which was accused of automatically creating profiles and assigning scores to minors. Klout argued that much of a user's information, such as name, sex and profile photo, is already public.

Newspaper or other media companies and their systems would also be governed by this First Law, either in protecting their own systems from criminal hacking, or their users who might be exposed to viruses or other online threats via news stories, etc.

The First Law does not exclude examples such as hackers diverting Internet connections when states crack down on civil liberties, such as in Syria. Because those hackers are ultimately aiming to protect individuals and not expose them to harm as they fight for greater democratic freedoms, they meet the requirements of the First Law.

The Second Law

One of the many flaws in the hacking of telephone voice-mail in the U.K. was that the actions were not in the public interest. There are legal precedents in the U.K. for how public interest is defined, but the behavior of celebrities would rarely fall within those categories, and certainly not when the press goes on a "fishing expedition" for scandal on any high-profile figure imaginable.

Hacking into the voice-mail of a murdered schoolgirl was not legal or ethical. But you could imagine a hypothetical case where if the police were not making adequate efforts to find the killer, or where Milly Dowler had been alive and police were not acting to help trace her; AND at the invitation of her parents, the press got involved and accessed her phone. But that is highly theoretical and was not the case.

If journalists must do investigations -- and there's a recognition we must, even if nobody knows how to pay for it -- then there will be instances where they do breach the security of digital systems.

They might need to prove, as an ethical hacker might, that a government or corporate system did not have sufficient protections of citizens' data.

The Second Law is relatively straightforward if you need to meet the standard of public interest first. There might still be legal challenges after publication, broadcast or posting online, but if you have to justify it internally first, that's a good start. Most reporters know and follow the Second Law intuitively.

The Third Law

The point of merger for these laws, and for the worlds of "hacks and hackers" is the Third Law.

Even if the hacking of telephone voice-mail wasn't illegal already in the U.K., a handful of reporters at the News of the World and potentially elsewhere were clearly not ethically protecting their sources. In that world, everyone is potentially fair game for worldwide exposure, on anything, however trivial.

Clare Harris, former editor of the Big Issue in Scotland magazine and now media and communications officer with the Scottish Refugee Council, said journalists and editors don't always think about the potential consequences to interviewees of their stories going online. While a refugee might be safe in the U.K., their family could still be at risk in the country of origin, where stories about human rights abuses could be easily accessed by government forces.

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"We have to be really clear if we are putting someone forward for interview that it is likely to go on the web and go worldwide, because we are dealing with people who are very vulnerable," she explained.

"In some cases, people would be more happy to speak to newspapers about their situation if they knew their stories won't be online. No journalist has ever asked us if it is safe to put the story online," she said.

But for Harris, bigger questions still have to be asked: about the nature of sources and the boundaries for "private" and "public."

"What is a source now? Is it someone who has tweeted something? Is everything online fair game?" she asked.

Harris' comments are echoed in the Wall Street Journal coverage last year of a Supreme Court case involving questions of how GPS technology is used by police.

During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito said: "Maybe 10 years from now, 90% of the population will be using social networking sites, and they will have on average 500 friends, and they will have allowed their friends to monitor their location 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through the use of their cell phones. What would the expectation of privacy be then?"

How technically difficult is it to protect sources in the digital age? Very.

Govan in Glasgow said information is so easy to extract now, that it can be eyebrow-raising for her students initially.

"If a reporter is trying to protect their sources online, it's limited when you can get Google to locate information for you," she said. "Google caches anything online so once online, it's essentially public. It becomes public data."

The need to look beyond data

Stephen Janis is an investigative reporter for Fox 45 in Baltimore and co-author of the book, "Why Do We Kill?" While data has become more important in journalism, Janis said he always tries to find the people at the heart of stories.

But the people you find also sometimes need protection. He said it is relatively easy to find people on Facebook, and the connections they have, which can expose who you're speaking to as a reporter.

"I've dealt with a lot of sources inside agencies who could get fired for speaking to me. We are all secretive about who our sources are. But my online social relationships could be used to ferret out some sources," he said.

So if it is so easy to get information about sources, what should reporters do?

Was WikiLeaks better at protecting its sources through military grade encryption on its "drop box"? Did they fail in protecting information of individuals contained within released documents when they published everything sans redaction?

Attempts by the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera to entice whistleblowers to traditional media instead of WikiLeaks have been criticized for failing to ensure anonymity or guarantee information would not be handed to law enforcement agencies.

If Twitter has been compelled to release information by the courts on its accounts, how should media organizations encourage the flow of information via social media? Does it require, at the very least, warnings in advance so individuals make an informed choice to contact media companies that can't protect them?

Or would the media be better to advise their readers and users to apply Tor software to protect their systems from tracking before sending information?

In the pursuit of faster information and more readers/consumers, we may have forgotten the need to protect our sources, and how easily we leave trails exposing them to risk.

Does retweeting a comment from the "Arab Spring" expose the originator, however anonymous, to risk? Do the images we take from Twitter accounts include GPS tags?

Quite apart from the immorality and illegality of hacking the voice-mail of a murdered schoolgirl in the U.K., how are we using technology as reporters?

If we can't protect our sources, how can our work possibly be in the public interest? If you fail to do the Third Law, you make the Second Law impossible.

Why Three Laws and Why Now?

These questions matter. In obsessing about all the journalism practices used in the U.K. for the past 20 or 30 years, and in the rush for immediacy and intimacy with the digital world, there needs to be an underpinning of something for journalism. Every reporter knows they must protect their sources, even if we have not articulated that well to our citizen counterparts.

T. S. Eliot wrote in "The Rock," Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Data is fine. It can be beautiful and elegant and informative. But some data must be protected, and other data must be investigated. The drive to inform must have an ethical underpinning of some kind.

These three laws could be part of better guiding the professionals and those sources -- human or numeric -- with whom we interact.

Robot photo by Flickr user ra1000 and used here with Creative Commons license.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

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January 21 2011

05:54

“There’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term”: The Bay Citizen’s editor on its $15 million future


Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen has hired a staff of 26, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. Yesterday, the San Francisco-based nonprofit announced that it’s so far raised a total of $15 million in philanthropic gifts.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the second post in a two-part series.

The double-edged sword of a New York Times partnership

One question I brought to the interview was why, given a blank slate, generous funding, and the resources of a tech capital, The Bay Citizen had created a largely conventional news website. The Bay Citizen produces two pages of content twice a week for the local edition of The New York Times — and it turns out that partnering with a leading print paper can be a double-edged sword for an online news startup.

“The partnership, I think, has tended to push us in a little bit more traditional direction than we might have gone otherwise,” Weber told me. “There’s definitely an issue of orientation. If you’re thinking about something as a New York Times story, you think about it differently than if it’s just going to run on baycitizen.org. I think it’s made the coverage feel a little bit more traditional in its approach.” Were it not for the partnership, quite possibly, “we would be further along in developing the kind of voice and style of our own kind of journalism.”

The pull of producing New York Times journalism has also meant, to an extent, less focus on innovation. While the site has a great tech team, Weber noted, they have yet to take advantage of potential tech and design collaborations in the Bay Area — including nearby companies like Twitter, Fwix, and Stamen Design, which won a Knight News Challenge grant to create an open-source data visualization tool.

Not that Weber’s complaining. “The flip side of it: The Times relationship has given us tremendous credibility and clout out of the gate, which we never would have had otherwise, and it also gives us a lot of distribution: 65,000 papers twice as week, plus the traffic from www.nytimes.com. That’s a non-trivial thing, and it’s very clearly a worthwhile trade-off for us, even though it does make life more complicated.”

That NYT credibility was also, Weber noted, a factor in The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise money — again, that extra $10 million — in philanthropic gifts. (The business experience of CEO Lisa Frazier, a former management consultant at McKinsey, clearly didn’t hurt, either.)

Doubling down on data journalism

The Bay Citizen has a 26-person-staff, 18 of them (including Weber) editorial employees. It also has a four-person tech team, including CTO Brian Kelly. One of his major areas of focus moving forward, Weber said, is data journalism, with data apps both large and small — including those that build off San Francisco’s DataSF.org. The Bay Citizen currently has two job postings related to data journalism: Software Engineer for News Applications and Data Researcher for Interactive News. The outlet has an iPhone app in the works and an iPad app on the way later this year.

Another big push will be to build community on multiple fronts, Weber noted. Right now, when readers send a tip/suggest a story, they get a generic message notifying them that their tip has been passed on. Ideally, he said, these tips will be the start of a back-and-forth conversation.

Weber also wants to follow the lead of TBD in building a strong dialogue with readers over Twitter and crowdsourcing breaking news. The Bay Citizen’s community efforts will, true to its name, include recruiting more citizen bloggers — and providing better prompts to help them frame their contributions. The outlet also has plans for a dozen events in which community editor Queena Kim will bring volunteers together to do multimedia explorations of particular topics. (One of the first experiments in this collaborative citizen journalism was A Night at the Opera, in which Kim convened a group of volunteer reporters and a photographer to do minute-by-minute backstage coverage of a performance of Aida.)

What not to do: “engage” before you have a community

When I asked Weber to look back over the first months of The Bay Citizen’s operation and say what he would do differently, he had an immediate answer: It had been a waste, he said, to put too much initial energy into community engagement. “You have to build audience first before you can really understand how to engage that community,” he noted. The Bay Citizen’s staff, right out of the gate, offered a discussion forum — but “it wasn’t very robust.”

And that was largely because the site hadn’t yet convened a community of people to do the discussing. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about comments, and how to manage comments and encourage comments and whether to feed Facebook comments into the site,” he said. But “those are things that are really related to the scale and reach of the product, and you can’t really do much until you’ve really got that community.”

A new rhythm for news

Unlike most large online news sites, The Bay Citizen is only partially tethered to a print publication, which gives it more potential flexibility in how it approaches public-interest reporting. Had Weber considered ditching the daily news cycle and charting a different kind of journalistic course?

In a word: no. “You basically have to be daily,” he said. “Other rhythms just don’t really work very well online,” largely because “people are looking for news from a news site.” In terms of using The Bay Citizen’s site to provide backgrounders on certain topics — an idea that comes from the discussion about future-of-context journalism — Weber was skeptical about how much context users would want on a news site.

“We do have topic pages,” he said. “We haven’t done a very good job of highlighting and calling out those pages, and depending on the circumstances, we can put more or less effort into customizing those pages.”

Then again: “We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.”

Wide-angle thinking

“Our goal is not to replace the Chronicle,” Weber noted. “I think it’s healthy for communities of all sizes to have multiple, large-scale journalistic enterprises (which actually was the norm until fairly recently).” The CEO of REI once told him that their biggest competitor wasn’t another sporting goods company, but the video game companies, and Weber thinks about local journalism the same way. “The question is not whether we’re going to compete well or not well with the Chronicle, the challenge is: are we going to be able to engage people in news as opposed to all the other things — playing FarmVille or reading TMZ or making stupid videos for YouTube.”

“Despite what people might assume, a lot of people do not have an intrinsic interest in local news,” he said. “It takes time. Media is a very habit-driven thing. People do today what they did yesterday. People have been predicting the death of newspapers for 20 years — and while, certainly, newspapers have a lot of problems, they’re not dead yet, and they’re not going to be dead in the near future. And the reason for that is people have been reading newspapers every day for 20 years — and they like that, and they don’t want to read the news on the Internet just because it’s more efficient.”

As far as news outlets go, “there’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term,” Weber noted. Just as there’s a lot of pressure to experiment — which can be hugely beneficial, but detrimental if it’s done chaotically. “‘Let’s try it and see if it works’ — anything you try on the first day is not really going to work,” he said. You have to get to know your community just as they have to get to know you. And, most importantly, “you need to have a long-term view.”

September 17 2010

17:00

Yeah, but what does it mean for journalism? A visual rhetoric guide

It’s become something of a Twitter joke. A new gadget appears, or a dramatic development takes place on the world stage, and the cry goes up: But what does it mean for journalism? I’m guilty of it myself. And a lot of the time, it’s a meaningful question to ask; we are in the future-of-journalism business, after all. What would we spend our day doing if not inquiring about what it — all of it– means for journalism.

That said, I wanted to try a little experiment. And so using Wordle, some time-delimited Google searches, and quick-and-dirty cutting and pasting, I decided to take a look at how the conversation about “what it means for journalism” might have changed, or not changed, since 2008.

The results are below. But first, a little bit about what I did. I plugged a few searches into Google, namely “what” AND “future of journalism.” I time-delimited the search, looking only for results from 2008, then only from 2009, then only 2010. I scraped the text from all my results, and dropped them into OpenOffice. I then deleted all mentions of “journalism,” “media,” and “news,” figuring they’d be the most common and least interesting answers, and wanting to weigh the words without them included in Wordle. And here’s what I got.

2008 [full-size version here]: Words that jump out: “public,” “interest,” “material,” “interactivity,” “information.” The combination of “public” and “interest” are the most interesting to me here. It was an election, after all, perhaps there was a bit more discussion of that amorphous body we call “the public,” and how it relates to changes in journalism. There’s a little about journalists, though not as much as we’ll see in 2009.

2009 [full size]: “Public” has disappeared, as has “information.” It’s been replaced by “people,” “journalist,” “online,” “world,” “web,” “paper,” and “think.” There’s some question about medium at play here; this was the year of “what comes after newspapers die,” after all. I have to admit I was a little surprised there weren’t more words having to do with “morbidity” here, stuff like “death,” “dying,” “disappearing, or “crisis.” But I think the focus on “journalist” here reflects the industry crisis in its own way — as in, what about all those people losing their jobs?

2010 [full size]: Now here’s the “what does it mean for journalism” conversation I remember — iPad and WikiLeaks. Will either of them save journalism? We’ll see what the rest of the year brings, but for now, it looks to me like a fairly abstract conversation about journalism and the public has been replaced by a debate over particular types of mediums (paper and web), which has itself been supplanted by a focus on particular organizations and devices.

Now, all of this is incredibly crude measurement, and there’s a ton wrong with it. (Let’s just say my methodology wouldn’t pass peer review.) Time-limited Google searching is imperfect, and of course I’ve totally left out stuff like Twitter and Facebook. But I think there’s a germ of potential here for mapping particular forms of dialog around particular key phrases. I’d love to work with any data-happy, data-mining Twitter scholars or smart Google engineers to pursue this line of work further. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

September 07 2010

16:17

#iq2privacy: Privacy, the press, and Max Mosley560/470

Journalism.co.uk will be at tonight’s ‘Sex, bugs and videotape’ debate organised by Intelligence Squared. Given this week’s renewed focus on phone hacking at the News of the World and debates on the privacy of footballers and public interest, tonight’s proceedings are pretty timely.

Proposing the motion that the private lives of public figures deserve more protection from the press will be Rachel Atkins, a partner at Schillings law firm; and Max Mosley, no stranger to the News of the World and secret videotaping himself.

Speaking against the motion are Tom Bower, journalist and author of books on Robert Maxwell and Richard Desmond; and Ken MacDonald QC, defence lawyer and former director of public prosecutions.

You can follow tweets from the event with the hashtag #iq2privacy or in the liveblog below:

Sex, bugs and videotape – privacy and the media debateSimilar Posts:



September 02 2010

11:57

Inforrm Blog: William Hague reports ‘postively damaging to public interest’

An interesting analysis from the International Forum for Responsible Media Blog (Inforrm) on the William Hague and Christopher Myers story and the media’s role in it:

The approach of some sections of the media to this story was not only irresponsible but is also, in seems to us, positively damaging to the public interest. If talented and accomplished politicians like Mr Hague are subject to rumour and innuendo of this kind they could be forgiven for thinking that a career in public life is not worth it. Of course the media should be scrutinising the decisions of elected politicians – including their decisions about the employment of advisers. What they should not be doing is sniping at their private lifes [sic] – forcing them to reveal matters which are deeply private and personal. The lack of public interest or benefit is plain.

Full post on Inforrm at this link…Similar Posts:



July 29 2010

12:23

April 03 2010

23:26

France ADOT: White pride

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