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July 28 2011

13:41

Memoir’s truthy obligations: a handy how-to guide

How true does a memoir have to be? That question has been the basis of an ongoing debate kicked off by the revelation, five years ago, that much of James Frey’s bestselling “A Million Little Pieces” was made up.

Unfortunately, it has never been adequately answered. Commentators have tended to gravitate to oversimplifications: one side asserting that every word in a book sold in the non-fiction section of the store must be fact-checked and airtight, the other that “memoir” implies memory, which implies a not-the-truth-but-my-truth subjectivity bordering on carte blanche.

A better, more nuanced answer would recognize the complexity of the issue. Here’s a try: Inaccuracy is a problem in a memoir based on the extent to which it gets details as well as larger truths demonstrably wrong, depicts identifiable people in a negative light, fails to recognize the limits of memory, is poorly written, is self-serving, or otherwise wears its agenda on its sleeve. The more of these things it does and the more egregiously it does them, the bigger the problem is.

A rating system for memoirs

We decided to devise a way to apply these standards to the truthy aspects of memoir. Here’s the (half-facetious, but also half-serious) scoring system we came up with:

The charts below, analyzing some recent and not-so-recent memoirs, attempt to quantify the process; selected annotations have been added. Obviously, the charts themselves have a strong element of subjectivity, both in some of their metrics (especially E) and in the interpretation of the final scores. For us, a memoir “passes” if it scores 65 or more (the “Yagoda Line”). For others the threshold may be 40, or 80. In fact, such a notion of personal judgment is part of the point.

Clear-cut cases exist only on the extremes, the completely discredited “Love and Consequences” (that’s the one in which an upper-middle-class white author fabricated a childhood in the L.A. ’hood) on one end, Rousseau’s “Confessions” on the other. In the large middle, an informed reader has to make the call.

Interested in making a pre-emptive strike for truthy writing? Memoirists can use our convenient printable one-page PDF worksheet to evaluate their own work alongside some of the most famous and infamous examples in history.

Ben Yagoda is an English professor at the University of Delaware and author of “Memoir: A History.” He blogs at britishisms.wordpress.com. Dan DeLorenzo is a journalist, cartographer, infographics artist, photographer, painter and ping-pong enthusiast living and working on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

May 26 2011

18:00

Sarah Palin’s 2009 “death panel” claims: How the media handled them, and why that matters

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the journalism-and-policy blog Lippmann Would Roll. Written by Matthew L. Schafer, the piece is a distillation of an academic study by Schafer and Dr. Regina G. Lawrence, the Kevin P. Reilly Sr. chair of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. They have kindly given us permission to republish the piece here.

It’s been almost two years now since Sarah Palin published to Facebook a post about “death panels.” In a study to be presented this week at the 61st Annual International Communications Association Conference, we analyzed over 700 stories placed in the top 50 newspapers around the country.

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide…whether they are worthy of health care,” Palin wrote at the time.

Only three days later, PolitiFact, an arm of the St. Petersburg Times, published its appraisal of Palin’s comment, stating, “We agree with Palin that such a system would be evil. But it’s definitely not what President Barack Obama or any other Democrat has proposed.”

FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenburg Public Policy Center, would also debunk the claim, and later PolitiFact users would later vote the death panel claim to the top spot of PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year ballot.

Despite this initial dismissal of the claim by non-partisan fact checkers, a cursory search of Google turns up 1,410,000 million results, showing just how powerful social media is in a fractured media climate.

Yet, the death panel claim — as we’re sure many will remember — lived not only online, but also in the newspapers, and on cable and network television. In the current study, which ran from August 8 (the day after Palin made the claim) to September 13 (the day of the last national poll about death panels) the top 50 newspapers in the country published over 700 articles about the claims, while the nightly network news ran about 20 stories on the topic.

At the time, many commentators both in and outside of the industry offered their views on the media’s performance in debunking the death panel claim. Some lauded the media for coming out and debunking the claim, while others questioned whether it was the media’s “job” to debunk the myth at all.

“The crackling, often angry debate over health-care reform has severely tested the media’s ability to untangle a story of immense complexity,” Howard Kurtz, who as then at the Washington Post, said. “In many ways, news organizations have risen to the occasion….”

Yet, Media Matters was less impressed, at times pointing out, for example, that “the New York Times portrayed the [death panel] issue as a he said/she said debate, noting that health care reform supporters ‘deny’ this charge and call the claim ‘a myth.’ But the Times did not note, as its own reporters and columnists have previously, that such claims are indeed a myth…”

So, who was right? Did the media debunk the claim? And, if so, did they sway public opinion in the process?

Strong debunking, but confused readers

Our data indicate that the mainstream news, particularly newspapers, debunked death panels early, fairly often, and in a variety of ways, though some were more direct than others. Nevertheless, a significant portion of the public accepted the claim as true or, perhaps, as “true enough.”

Initially, we viewed the data from 30,000 feet, and found that about 40 percent of the time journalists would call the death panel claim false in their own voice, which was especially surprising considering many journalists’ own conceptions that they act as neutral arbiters.

For example, on August 9, 2009, Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post said, “There are no such ‘death panels’ mentioned in any of the House bills.”

“[The death panel] charge, which has been widely disseminated, has no basis in any of the provisions of the legislative proposals under consideration,” The New York Times’ Helene Cooper wrote a few days after Connolly.

“The White House is letting Congress come up with the bill and that vacuum of information is getting filled by misinformation, such as those death panels,” Anne Thompson of NBC News said on August 11.

Nonetheless, in more than 60 percent of the cases it’s obvious that newspapers abstained from calling the death panels claim false. (We also looked at hundreds of editorials and letters to the editor, and it’s worth noting that almost 60 percent of those debunked the claim, while the rest abstained from debunking and just about 2 percent supported the claim.)

Additionally, of journalists who did debunk the claim, almost 75 percent of those articles contained no clarification as to why they were labeling the claim as false. Indeed, it was very much a “You either believe me, or you don’t” situation without contextual support.

As shown below, whether or not journalists debunked the claim, they often times approached the controversy by also quoting one side of the debate, quoting the other, and then letting the reader dissect the validity of each side’s stance. Thus, in 30 percent of cases where journalists reported in their own words that the claim was false, they nonetheless included either side’s arguments as to why their side was right. This often just confuses the reader.

This chart shows that whether journalists abstained from debunking the death panels claim or not, they still proceeded to give equal time to each side’s supporters.

Most important is the light that this study sheds on the age-old debate over the practical limitations surrounding objectivity. Indeed, questions are continually raised about whether journalists can be objective. Most recently, this led to a controversy at TechCrunch where founder Michael Arrington was left defending his disclosure policy.

“But the really important thing to remember, as a reader, is that there is no objectivity in journalism,” Arrington wrote to critics. “The guys that say they’re objective are just pretending.”

This view, however, is not entirely true. Indeed, in the study of death panels, we found two trends that could each fit under the broad banner of objectivity.

Objectivity: procedural and substantive

First, there is procedural objectivity — mentioned above — where journalists do their due diligence and quote competitors. Second, there is substantive objectivity where journalists actually go beyond reflexively reporting what key political actors say to engage in verifying the accuracy of those claims for their readers or viewers.

Of course, every journalist is — to some extent — influenced by their experiences, predilections, and political preferences, but these traits do not necessarily interfere with objectively reporting verifiable fact. Indeed, it seems that journalists could practice either form of objectivity without being biased. Nonetheless, questions and worries still abound.

“The fear seems to be that going deeper—checking out the facts behind the posturing and trying to sort out who’s right and who’s wrong—is somehow not ‘objective,’ not ‘straight down the middle,” Rem Reider of the American Journalism Review wrote in 2007.

Perhaps because of this, journalists in our sample attempted to practice at the same time both types of objectivity: one which, arguably, serves the public interest by presenting the facts of the matter, and one which allows the journalist a sliver of plausible deniability, because he follows the insular journalistic norm of both presenting both sides of the debate.

As such, we question New York University educator and critic Jay Rosen, who has argued that “neutrality and objectivity carry no instructions for how to react” to the rise of false but popular claims. We contend that the story is more complicated: Mainstream journalists’ figurative instruction manual contains contradictory “rules” for arbitrating the legitimacy of claims.

These contradictory rules are no doubt supported by public opinion polls taken during the August and September healthcare debates. Indeed, one poll released August 20 reported that 30 percent believed that proposed health care legislation would “create death panels.” Belief in this extreme type of government rationing of health care remained impressively high (41 percent) into mid-September.

More troubling, one survey found that the percentage calling the claim true (39 percent) among those who said they were paying very close attention to the health care debate was significantly higher than among those reporting they were following the debate fairly closely (23 percent) or not too closely (18 percent).

Yet, of course, our data does not allow us to say that these numbers are a direct result of the mainstream media’s death panel coverage. Nonetheless, because mainstream media content still powers so many websites’ and news organizations’ content, perhaps this coverage did have an impact on public opinions to some indeterminable degree.

Conclusion

One way of looking at the resilience of the death panels claim is as evidence that the mainstream media’s role in contemporary political discourse has been attenuated. But another way of looking at the controversy is to demonstrate that the mainstream media themselves bore some responsibility for the claim’s persistence.

Palin’s Facebook post, which popularized the death panel, catchphrase said nothing about any specific legislative provision. News outlets and fact-checkers could examine the language of currently debated bills to debunk the claim — and many did, as our data demonstrate. Nevertheless, it appears the nebulous “death panel bomb” reached its target in part because the mainstream media so often repeated it.

Thus, the dilemma for reporters playing by the rules of procedural objectivity is that repeating a claim reinforces a sense of its validity — or at least, enshrines its place as an important topic of public debate. Moreover, there is no clear evidence that journalism can correct misinformation once it has been widely publicized. Indeed, it didn’t seem to correct the death panels misinformation in our study.

Yet, there is promise in substantive objectivity. Indeed, today more than ever journalists are having to act as curators. The only way that they can effectively do so is by critically examining the surplusage of social media messages, and debunking or refusing to reinforce those messages that are verifiable. Indeed, as more politicians use the Internet to circumvent traditional media, this type of critical curation will become increasingly important.

This is — or should be journalists’ new focus. Journalists should verify information. Moreover, they should do so without including quotations from those taking a stance that is demonstrably false. This creates a factual jigsaw puzzle that the reader must untangle. Indeed, on the one hand, the journalist is calling the claim false, and on the other, he is giving inches quoting someone who believes it’s true.

Putting aside the raucous debates about objectivity for a moment, it is clear that journalists in many circumstances can research and relay to their readers information about verifiable fact. If we don’t see a greater degree of this substantive objectivity, the public is left largely at the mercy of the savviest online communicator. Indeed, if journalists refuse to critically curate new media, they are leaving both the public and themselves in a worse off position.

Image of Sarah Palin by Tom Prete used under a Creative Commons license.

January 12 2011

19:00

“Blood libel”: How language evolves and spreads within online worlds

When Sarah Palin used the term “blood libel” to describe purported attacks on her and the Tea Party movement in the wake of Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson, some were left wondering why the former governor would use a phrase historically associated with anti-Semitism.

But, whatever the merits or demerits of Palin’s usage, it didn’t come out of nowhere. And that alone is a useful reminder that the Internet’s a big, diverse place, stocked with ecosystems, subcultures, and communities that each bring their own assumptions about language. For journalists (or anyone), it can be easy to think that your little corner of the Internet is representative of the big picture. It’s probably not.

The use of “blood libel” may seem inexplicable — that is, until you go back and look at how the word was used in particular digital media circles during the days since the Tucson shooting. The Lab has written previously about Internet memes, how ideas tend to move more like heartbeats than viruses through the web’s extremities. And the path “blood libel” took — while, on the one hand, it suggests the social divisions that can live online — also offers some insight into the trip memes take as they bubble up into the consciousness of the mass media.

With a bit of Google News sleuthing, supplemented by a trip to the Lexis-Nexis archive, it appears that the term “blood libel,” pre-Palin, was adopted by some conservative commentators in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson assassination attempt.

The first use of the phrase I uncovered came on January 9, one day after the shooting, on the website Renew America. As conservative activist Adam Graham put it: “When someone on the left says that the Tea Party movement is responsible for the shooting in Tucson, they are leveling the political equivalent of a blood libel that blames an entire political movement for the actions of a person who in all likelihood had no connection to the movement.” Note that Graham links to the Wikipedia page on “blood libel,” demonstrating knowledge of the traditional meaning of the term.

The term really sprang into use, however, when conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) used it in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 10. Headlined online as “The Arizona Tragedy and the Politics of Blood Libel,” the piece asked: “So as the usual talking heads begin their ‘have you no decency?’ routine aimed at talk radio and Republican politicians, perhaps we should turn the question around. Where is the decency in blood libel?”

In the days after that piece appeared, more conservative bloggers picked up “blood libel” — and it was further amplified when commentators of a variety of political stripes used the phrase in their discussion of the Reynolds op-ed. Both Reason Online and Associated Content quoted Reynolds’ use of  the term “blood libel” in their broader discussion of political rhetoric and violence. I also found “blood libel” used, without reference to Reynolds, in Human Events, The Washington Examiner, and Big Journalism (in the comment section).

The surest sign that the “blood libel” meme had caught on, though, came when it started to be used in major media comment sections like those of the Washington Post. Ordinary website readers were now referencing the term.

And then came Palin. And here we are.

None of that is a scientific analysis, of course. And as helpful as digital tracking tools like Google and Nexis can be, the fact that “blood libel” was lurking in the web’s shadows in the first place, ready to emerge almost fully formed, suggests the unknowability of the web — its anonymity, its opacity — as much as its readability.

Still, the general path “blood libel” took over the past few days shines some light on how particular terms move within the digital media ecosystem, and how the use of language that seems strange to many — as it did to many commentators, judging on their reactions to it — can appear “normal” to others who are operating within a different discursive community. That’s not to make another lamentation of “cyber-balkanization” or another call for the return of the “mass public sphere” where everyone read and thought the same thing. It is just a reminder, though, that our digital house has many rooms. Sometimes, when you feel like politicians aren’t speaking to you, you’re right. They’re not.

January 10 2011

08:40

‘UGC’ and journalism: the Giffords shooting and Facebook page moderation

Sarah Palin's Facebook page - comment condoning killing of 9 year old

The Obama London blog has a post looking at the moderation of comments on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page (following the Giffords shooting) which raises a couple of key points for journalists dealing with user generated content.

Editorially selected, not UGC

The first point is that it can be easy to assume user generated content is an unadulterated reflection of one community’s point of view, but in many cases it is not. A political page like Palin’s is, in many ways, no different to any piece of campaigning literature, with quotes carefully selected to reflect well on the candidate.

Political blogs – where critical comments can also be removed, should be subject to the same scepticism (Nadine Dorries’ claim that 70% of her blog was fiction is a good example of this).

Taking a virtual trip to a Facebook page, then, is not comparable to treading the streets – or even a particular politician’s campaign team – in search of ‘the feeling on the ground’.

Inaction can be newsworthy

The second point, however, is that this very moderation can generate stories itself.

The Obama London post notes that while even constructively critical comments were removed almost instantly, one comment was left to stand (shown in the image above). And it appeared to condone the killing of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green:

“It’s ok. Christina Taylor Green was probably going to end up a left wing bleeding heart liberal anyway. Hey, as ‘they’ say, what would you do if you had the chance to kill Hitler as a kid? Exactly.”

Drawing on the campaign literature analogy again, you can see the newsworthiness of Palin staffers leaving this comment to stand (even when other commenters highlight its offensiveness).

Had Obama London been so inclined they could have led more strongly on something like: ‘Palin Facebook staff refuse to condemn comments condoning killing of 9-year-old’, or chased up a response from the team on why the comment was not removed.

But regardless of the nature of this individual example, you can see the broader point about comments on heavily moderated Facebook pages and blogs: they represent views that the politician’s camp is prepared to condemn or condone.

Comments

By the way, the extensive comment thread on that post is well worth exploring – it details how users can flag comments for moderation, removing them from their own view of the page but not that of others, as well as users’ experiences of being barred from Facebook groups for posting mildly critical comments.

Dylan Reeve in particular expresses my point more succinctly for moderators:

“The problem with the type of moderation policy that Sarah Palin (and others) utilise in places with user-contributed content is that they effectively appear to endorse any comments that do remain published.”

Oh, and on the more general thread of ‘analysis’ in the wake of the Giffords shooting, this post is well worth reading.

UPDATE: More discussion of the satirical nature of the comment on Reddit (thanks Mary Hamilton)

h/t Umair Haque

July 08 2010

14:00

The newsonomics of replacing Larry King

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

I know. You say, who could ever replace Larry King? But I remind you that Larry’s six ex-wives have already confronted that question.

Most of the speculation about a replacement has focused on a range of usual suspects, personalities from Katie Couric to Ryan Seacrest to Joy Behar to Piers Morgan — all around the question of who will be able to command a better audience than King, whose ratings have seen a steady decline. Indeed, his successor, who will take over the show in November, will probably come from that list, a month after the network plucked Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker to fill Campbell Brown’s spot.

Yet the changing economics of CNN’s basic business model prompt lots of questions about ways CNN could go — as well as offering print- and broadcast-based news companies some pointers on their own business model development.

Let’s recall that CNN is a tale of two modern stories. Its flagship cable news station has been flagging badly, having fallen to a #4 position in cable news behind Fox, MSNBC, and its own Headline News Network (HLN), tabloid TV without tabloid wit. CNN is cool and confused in an age of hot and pointed.

Online, though, CNN has built a formidable business. It ranks at or near the top of the top news sites, excels at user-gen news content and offers one of the few paid news apps.

It’s a tale of two business units going opposite directions.

Look at the revenue pie for CNN, and you discover more nuance. One-half of CNN’s roughly $500 million in revenue comes from what it calls business subscription fees — what cable companies pay it for carriage. Ten percent of its revenue is now coming from prime-time advertising; the same percentage from its digital businesses. Advertising outside prime time, international, and some syndication round out the revenue picture.

We can certainly see that CNN’s revenue model is much more diverse than newspaper or broadcast companies. That payment from cable systems for carriage — averaging about 50 cents per subscriber per month, according to recent accounts — makes a huge difference in a time of great advertising change.

We can also see that CNN is becoming more and more of a content company. It gets paid that half dollar a month from cable companies because its inclusion helps drive subscribers. Recently dropping the Associated Press, it’s moving increasingly into syndication, both video and text, and there the quality and breadth of content counts. As one of the first news companies to embrace multi-platform publishing (cable + desktop + mobile, long before others got that notion), it moved quickly to price its product for the iPhone, charging $1.99 and now ranking as the #2 news app in the iTunes store.

So content creation — and content creation that rebounds in digital waves, even if it starts from a cablecast — is more important to CNN every day. If it could come up with more programming that provided digital multipliers — smartphone and tablet users willing to pay for access, and advertisers joining them — then the Larry King replacement might be not just good TV, but good strategy.

What might that mean?

For instance, how could could CNN better leverage its substantial iReport operation, a user-generated innovation that is the gold standard for TV news. Viral user-gen video is a mainstay of the digital world. Or maybe it could create an America’s Best News Videos (is Bob Saget available?), riffing on the montages that Jon Stewart has made almost mainstream. Maybe it could go The View-like, aggregating characters whose comments and rants might generate great two-three minute digital products. Or, most likely, it could find a bolt-out-of-the-blue digital age personality, like Rachel Maddow, who may well front MSNBC’s first iPad app. As MSNBC’s Mark Marvel told AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka about its coming app, it will allow users to “engage with the host of that show.” Engagement with Rachel, yes; with Larry, no. With Katie, maybe.

Can CNN find a digital upgrade to the analog King?

The goals here would be to produce great digital content, not just ratings. Sure, TV has seen some pick-up of memorable interviews — think CBS’ Katie Couric and Sarah Palin, or more recently the half-million pageviews after-market that Maddow generated with her Rand Paul interview. That aftermarket, though, has been more of an afterthought. If revenue growth is in the digital content business, CNN, broadcasters, and all news producers must increasingly think at least digital rebound, if not digital first. As Stephen Covey legendarily said, “Begin with the end in mind.” A good habit for highly effective media companies to adopt.

What else might print news companies learn from the CNN model?

First, syndication. While the Chicago News Cooperative and Bay Citizen pioneer innovative content syndication models, both with the New York Times, and Financial Times’ direct licensing model breaks new ground, most newspaper companies have failed to find other new, lucrative markets for their content. Yes, they’ve made some money from enterprise and education licensing, but if their content is really that valuable, they should be able to find other companies (Comcast, NYT, regional businesses, and more) to pay them for it.

Second, the pay-per-subscriber model that has insulated CNN from the ravages of ad change is one news companies should ponder. CNN made itself an indispensable part of the cable mix. Is local/regional news content indispensable to any aggregators — AT&T, Verizon, Apple, Nokia, for instance — as they bundle technology and content? What would it take — in the kind and breadth of content (video?) produced — to get a monthly payment, especially in the mobile digital world to come?

April 20 2010

15:55

Helium Baloons with Digital Cameras Create Grassroots Maps

boston.jpg

I'm getting ready for day five of a two-week workshop for high schoolers at Beaver Country Day School in a suburb of Boston. The subject is my project, Grassroots Mapping, which helps teach people -- often young people -- around the world how to be activist cartographers and how to make their own maps. There's a twist, however: Instead of just marking a Google Map, or walking around with a GPS tracker, we construct simple capsules to hold a cheap digital camera, and send the whole package up on a helium balloon or a kite. The images are then stitched, geo-referenced, and published, as in the following picture:

interface.png

This isn't exactly your typical high school activity. My workshop at Beaver Country Day School is part of a series of studio design-style courses that make up the NuVu Studio -- an experimental education project where the students get hands-on exposure to topics like alternative energy and "the future of labor."

It differs quite a bit from other workshops I've taught in places like Amman, Jordan and Lima, Peru, in that the idea of "subjective geography" seems somewhat less immediate. I didn't have to explain to anyone in the West Bank, for example, that mapping is not a neutral act, or that it's a social construction with a profound political meaning and agenda. But here in Walnut Hill that seems a bit distant...

cantagallo.jpg

Mapping a Tea Party

I did show the students maps I'd made in urban slums in Lima, Peru, and it's not that they were uninterested in the iniquities of urban slums. I'm really facing the same issue as I did in Peru: Before this kind of work (or play) seems exciting and relevant, it has to come with a sense of ownership. Unless we can find a way to situate do-it-yourself mapping, it's not going to resonate.

In Peru, the need for maps to establish land claims was obvious. Unlike here in Boston, my collaborators there had built their homes and community brick by brick with their own hands. They'd made their own geography, so mapping it was just another step.

I suggested to students that we go to a Tea Party rally where a protest against Sarah Palin's keynote speech was occurring. There would be plenty of political context there, I thought. The students were excited (even at the -- distant -- prospect of getting arrested). But our satellite building session overflowed into the afternoon, and when the rally ended we were still in the same room, covered in styrofoam bits and duct tape. Some violent "flight tests" assured that our new camera enclosures were ready for takeoff:

In any case, it's still just plain fun to fly balloons, and this week the students will choose a site to map and explain their reasoning. The hope is that this two-week course will form the basis for an international map-making competition -- a kind of student X Prize, which we're beginning to call the One Satellite Per Child project. Participants will prototype a mapping rig just like we're doing here at Beaver Country Day, collaborate with other students from around the world through a website, and win awards for lowest weight, best documentation, best application of mapping, and other goals.

hydrogen.jpg

Why Grassroots Maps?

Grassroots mapping provides an exciting context for situated learning, including subject material from history, geography, physics, politics, and even chemistry. As an example, when we were trying to lower the cost-per-flight, we used stoichiometry to find out how many aluminum soda cans we had to mix with lye to produce enough hydrogen to fill a 5-foot balloon. (Answers varied from 15 to 33.8 cans -- we'll have to try it to find out who was right.)

This is the dream-stuff of many educators, and indeed we often have more interest from Beaver Country Day's teachers than their play-it-cool high school seniors. I've been asked several times whether teachers can take the course, and perhaps that's more important anyways, given that it may represent an opportunity to influence how education works.

Soon we'll start to tackle some advanced projects, like a camera-carrying remote controlled airplane, and an inflatable kite filled with helium. Stay up to date on our progress at the Grassroots Mapping blog.

boston-aerial.jpg

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January 15 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Who’s responsible for local news, and Google plays hardball with China

[Our friend Mark Coddington has spent the past several months writing weekly summaries of what's happened in the the changing world of journalism — both the important stories and the debates that came up around them online. I've liked them so much that I've asked him to join us here at the Lab. So every Friday morning — especially if you've been too busy to stay glued to Twitter and your RSS reader — come here to recap the week and see what you've missed. —Josh]

Who reports local news?: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study Monday that aimed to find out “who really reports the news that most people get about their communities?” In studying the Baltimore news media ecosystem for a week, the study found that traditional media — especially newspapers — did most of the original reporting while new media sources functioned largely as a quick way to disseminate news from other places.

The study got pretty predictable reactions: Major mainstream sources (New York Times, AP, L.A. Times) repeated that finding in perfunctory write-ups. (Poynter did a bit more with it, though.) It inspired at least one “see how important newspapers are?” column. And several new media thinkers pooh-poohed it, led by CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis, who said it “sets up a strawman and then lights the match.” Steve Buttry (who notes he’s a newspaper/TV exec himself) offered the sharpest critique of the study, concluding that it’s too narrow, focuses on stories that are in the mainstream media’s wheelhouse, and has some damning statistics for traditional-media reporting, too. Former journalist John Zhu gave an impassioned rebuttal to Jarvis and Buttry that’s well worth a read, too.

(A couple of interesting tangential angles if you want to dig deeper: New York Times media critic David Carr explains why blogs aren’t geared toward original reporting, and new media giant Gawker offers a quick can’t-we-all-just-get-along post saying web journalism needs more reporting and newspapers need to get up to speed.)

My take: I’m with CUNY’s C.W. Anderson and USC’s David WestphalOf course traditional media organizations report most of our news; this finding is neither a threat to new-media folks nor ammunition for those in old media. (I share Zhu’s frustration here — let’s quit turning every new piece of information into a political/rhetorical weapon and start working together to fix our system of news.) Clay Shirky said it well last March: The new news systems won’t come into place until after the old ones break, not before. Why would we expect any different now? Let’s accept this study as rudimentary affirmation of what already makes sense and keep plugging away to make things better.

Google talks tough with China: Citing attacks from hackers and limits on free speech, Google made big news this week by announcing it won’t censor its Chinese results anymore and is considering pulling out of the country altogether. The New York Times has a lucid explanation of the situation, and this 2005 Wall Street Journal article is good background on Google/China relations. Looking for something more in-depth? Search engine maven Danny Sullivan is your guy.

The Internet practically blew up with commentary on this move, so suffice it to say I’m only scratching the surface here. (GigaOm has a nice starter for opinions outside of the usual tech-blog suspects.) Many Google- and China-watchers praised the move as bold step forward for freedom, like Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?”; China/IT expert Rebecca MacKinnon (twice); New York Times human rights watchdog Nicholas Kristof; and tech guru Robert Scoble, to name a few.

TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy was more cynical, saying this was a business move for Google. (Sullivan and Scoble rebut the point in the links above.) Global blogging advocate Ethan Zuckerman laid out four possible explanations for the decision. The Wall Street Journal and Wired had some more details about Google’s internal arguments over this move, including their concerns about repercussions on the China employees. The China-watching blog Imagethief looked at the stakes for Google, and the Atlantic’s James Fallows, who got back from China not too long ago, has a quick take on the stakes from a foreign-relations standpoint.

Jarvis also took the opportunity to revisit a fascinating point from his book: Google has become an “interest-state,” an organization that collaborates and derives power outside of the traditional national borders. Google’s actions this week certainly seemed very nation-like, and the point is worth pondering.

Fox News ethics: Fox News was the subject of a couple of big stories this week: The biggest came Monday, when the network announced that it had signed Sarah Palin to a multiyear deal as a contributor. Most of the online commentary has focused on what this move means from Palin’s perspective (if that’s what you’re looking for, the BBC has a good roundup), but I haven’t found much of substance looking at this from the Fox/news media angle. I’m guessing this is for two reasons: Nobody in the world of media-thinkers is surprised that Fox has become a home for another out-of-office Republican, and none of them are taking Fox very seriously from an ethical standpoint in the first place.

Salon founder and blogging expert Scott Rosenberg found this out the frustrating way when he got an apathetic response to his question of how Fox will cover any stories that involve her. As I responded to Rosenberg on Twitter, I think the lack of interest in his question are a fascinating indication of media watchers’ cynicism about Fox’s ethics. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Fox News would be a shill for Palin regardless of whether she was an employee, simply by virtue of her conservatism. Regardless of whether you think that attitude is justified (I do), it’s sad that that’s the situation we’re in.

Fox News was also involved in a strange chain of events this week that started when The New York Times published a front-page profile of its chief, Roger Ailes. It included some stinging criticism from Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law, British PR bigwig Matthew Freud. That led to speculation by The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff that Ailes’ days were numbered at Fox, with Wolff actually asserting that Ailes had already been fired. Then the L.A. Times reported that Ailes was still around and had News Corp.’s full support. Um, OK.

Facebook says privacy’s passé: In a short interview last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a sort-of explanation for Facebook’s sweeping privacy changes last month, one that ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick recognized as a dramatic break from the privacy defenses Zuckerberg’s given in the past. Essentially, Kirkpatrick infers, Zuckerberg is saying he considers us to now be living in an age where privacy just doesn’t matter as much to people.

Kirkpatrick and The Huffington Post’s Craig Kanalley give two spirited rebuttals, and over at the social media hub Mashable, Vadim Lavrusik says journalists should be worried about Facebook’s changes, too. Meanwhile, Advertising Age media critic Simon Dumenco argues that we’re not getting enough out of all the information we’re feeding Facebook and Twitter.

Reading roundup: These last few items aren’t attached to any big media-related conversations from this week, but they’re all worth a close read. First, in the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles made the bold argument that there is no revenue model for journalism. Steve Buttry filed a point-by-point rebuttal, and the two traded counterpoints in the comments of each other’s posts. It’s a good debate to dive into.

Second, Alan Mutter, an expert on the business side of the news industry, has a sharp two-part post crunching the numbers to find out how long publishers can afford to keep their print products going. He considers a few scenarios and concludes that “some publishers may not be able to sustain print products for as long as demand holds out.”

And finally, Internet freedom writer and activist Cory Doctorow explains the principle “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll,” and how it needs to drive our new-media experimentation. It’s a smart, optimistic yet grounded look at the future of innovation, and I like its implications for the future of journalism.

Photo of Sarah Palin by The NewsHour used under a Creative Commons license.

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