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December 14 2010

16:47

WikiLeaks and the Power of Patriotism

A narrow patriotism -- the psychological equivalent of a knee jerk -- is an under-recognized force in modern journalism ethics.

It distorts our thinking about the role of journalism as soon as journalists offend national pride and whistleblowers dare to reveal secrets. Narrow patriotism turns practitioners of a free press into scolding censors. Suddenly, independent journalists become dastardly law breakers.

Narrow patriotism is the view that "love of country" means not embarrassing one's government, hiding all secrets and muting one's criticism of foreign and military policy in times of tension. Narrow patriotism is an absolute value, trumping the freedom of the press.

The WikiLeaks saga proves, once again, that this form of patriotism is a powerful commitment of many journalists; often, more powerful than objectivity or independence.

For instance, as WikiLeaks rolled out the American diplomatic cables, Jeffrey T. Kuhner of the conservative Washington Times called for the assassination of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a December 2 opinion piece. "We should treat Mr. Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him"

One day later, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said the WikiLeaks document dump was "sabotage" during a time of war. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder should "Throw the WikiBook" at the website, using every legal tool at his disposal.

These vociferous comments are not nasty comments made by anonymous online "patriots." They come from practitioners of a free press in the land of the free.

Critical Journalism as Patriotism

5238068866_3bb1aef717.jpgThe WikiLeaks controversy reveals tensions in our view of the role of journalism in democracy.

We believe in the idea of a free press; but we oppose it in practice when the press offends our patriotism, or works against some vaguely defined "national interest."

The same narrow patriotism was at work among major American media when President Bush decided to go to war with Iraq on flimsy claims. TV anchors put flags on their lapels and reporters accepted too easily the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

In times of conflict, the strong emotions of patriotism override journalists' in-principle commitment to critical informing the public and to impartiality. The word "patriotism" rarely occurs in journalism codes of ethics but its influence on practice is substantial.

So what's the right view of the role of journalism?

The role of a free press is not to serve the government or its diplomats. It is to serve the public who hold government accountable through information provided by the media.

Throughout history, journalists have caused their governments trouble and embarrassment. Journalists are properly patriotic when they write critically of government, when they reveal their hidden strategies, when they embarrass their government in front of the world.

Criticism and the publishing of important confidential data is the way journalists often serve the public, despite howls of outrage from some citizens.

Of course, Kuhner and Krauthammer don't represent all American journalists. Many journalists support WikiLeaks. For example, Anthony Shadid, foreign reporter for the New York Times in Bagdad, expressed enthusiastic support during a recent lecture at my university's Center for Journalism Ethics.

"I should probably be a little more ambiguous and grey about this, but I think it's wonderful," said the two-time Pulitzer Prize. "It's a wonderful disclosure, this transparency and this openness of public office. I find it incredibly refreshing and incredibly insightful, as well."

Two Things at Once

Shadid3.jpgLike Shadid, I think the importance of the cables justifies their publication. But I am more concerned than Shadid about the new power of "stateless" websites like WikiLeaks.

In my view, if we care about the freedom to publish we need to do two things at the same time: First, protest attempts to shut down WikiLeaks, which include denying it access to the internet and calls to arrest Assange.

Second, we need to urge Assange to explain the principles that guide his decision to publish. Is he committed to simply publishing any and all secrets regardless of the consequences? Or is he willing to adopt the responsible approach of the New York Times and the Guardian which seeks to minimize the harm of their stories by carefully vetting the data. Is Assange willing to balance the freedom to publish with the principle of minimizing harm?

Minimizing harm does not mean not damaging the public profile of government. It means not naming informants, human activists, or innocent third parties if that would prompt reprisals. It means not providing detailed information that would help terrorists attack a public institution.

Organizations like the New York Times are serious about vetting their stories. I am not so sure Assange or WikiLeaks has the same concern.

Public support for this form of whistleblower journalism will turn swiftly against it should future releases lead to the death of a third party, or lead to a terrorist attack. The best way to retain support for a free press is to act responsibly, and to be seen to be acting so.

Is 'Responsibility' a Declining Idea?

From an ethical perspective, what is significant about the emergence of WikiLeaks is not only that new technology allows citizens to gather and publish secret material globally, and these online publishers are difficult to control.

What is significant is that enthusiasm for revealing secrets undermines the idea of responsibility -- the responsible use of the freedom to publish.

In a WikiLeaks world, the principle of minimizing harm, first articulated by professional journalism in the previous century for another media era, may be dwindling in importance.

Up to this point, the release of WikiLeaks documents has followed a pattern: WikiLeaks supplies the secret data to major papers and professional journalists vet and write the stories. In the future, however, the role of responsible news outlets may decline.

As new websites spring up, each pursuing their ends with the passion of activists, the idea of a free and responsible press may come to seem irrelevant. The idea of ethically restraining the freedom to publish may recede into the rear view mirror of history.

I hope not.

(For more on WikiLeaks, check out the recent 4MR podcast with guest Jay Rosen.)

WikiLeaks poster by R_SH via Flickr

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.

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November 08 2010

15:00

Center for Public Integrity changes up its audience strategy to build a new revenue stream from readers

Nonprofit news outlets reach an audience in different ways. To borrow an analogy, imagine that there are two camps: wholesalers and retailers. Under the wholesale umbrella, we find organizations like ProPublica that primarily reach their audience through partnerships with established news organizations. Retailers, meanwhile, reach an audience directly, like Voice of San Diego or MinnPost.

Both strategies can make sense. But as journalism fundraising becomes increasingly competitive, that audience distinction is blurring. ProPublica, for one, is investing more resources into its website. And the Center for Public Integrity, a longtime wholesaler known for projects that appear in newspapers like the Washington Post or The New York Times, is now rethinking its digital strategy and wading into retailing, too. “It’s not an either or proposition,” the Center’s new executive editor John Solomon told me recently. With a $1.5 million investment from the Knight Foundation, they’re working on revamping their digital strategy to reach readers directly, via the web and mobile products. The strategy isn’t just about distribution for distribution’s sake — it’s about the bottom line.

“The Center had a different challenge than the rest of the journalism industry,” Solomon told me, referring to the for-profit world. “When the Center started, it was the center of the nonprofit world. Today there are 70, 80, 90, 100 groups all competing for the same limited pool of nonprofit dollars — the Knights, the Fords, the Carnegies, all these gracious funders of nonprofit journalism. So the Center has decided to take the leap aggressively and listen to funders and try to create earned revenue that augments our donations, that creates a sustainable model.”

Solomon’s goal is to produce $2 worth of journalism for every $1 a foundation donates. To do that, he’s looking beyond foundations to readers. That’s akin to a model very familiar to the Center’s executive director, Bill Buzenberg, who spent almost 30 years in public radio (supported by listeners, like you!) at NPR and Minnesota Public Radio. The Center isn’t alone in trying to rethink its nonprofit model. Knight recently announced a $15 million grant project to help figure out longterm funding solutions for journalism.

The first step toward that new revenue stream is pulling in a new audience. Since Solomon started on new digital projects a few months ago, including making its website more SEO friendly, time on the Center’s site is up dramatically, to a remarkable 12 minutes per user. (He showed me the Google Analytics chart for proof.) Pageviews have skyrocketed too. The site is in the midst of a complete redesign, which will make it feel more like a news site and less like a think tank’s. We recently wrote about a new HTML5 product that makes reading long-form journalism pleasant on any device and without an app.

I asked Solomon how he plans to round up these new, engaged readers. He pointed to some of the successes he pulled off in widening the audience both online and in print at the Washington Times, where he had been executive editor for a little less than two years. “One of the little dirty secrets in my last eight months at the Washington Times before the Moon family erupted and the paper fell apart, web traffic was up 500 percent,” he told me. “Digital revenues were up 360 percent and our national print publication grew circulation by 25 percent. There is no other print publication, that I can think of, in the middle of a recession that had that kind of double-digit gains.” (Although, to be fair, many conservative outlets saw increases in audience pegged to the election and administration of Barack Obama.)

Washington journalism is in a time of significant revenue rethinking — from the paywall-only National Journal opening up a free version of its site, to free Politico launching paid products, the movement toward multiple revenue streams is afoot. General manager of the Allbritton-backed startup TBD, Jim Brady, recently said at a Online News Association panel that his business model is “shrapnel” — “there isn’t one stream that’s going to make us successful.”

If the Center can figure out a way to monetize a new audience, there will likely be an eager audience watching that success. “I really believe the nonprofit journalism world can be the innovation lab where the business models change,” Solomon said.

July 21 2010

11:26

Is Facebook falling out of favour?

Newspaper sites are more popular with internet users than social networks such as Facebook and Myspace, according to the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

The statistics, which were also quoted in a Washington Times post, show online news outlets topped the tables with satisfaction scores of 82 per cent (FoxNews.com), 77 per cent (USAToday.com) and 76 per cent (NYTimes.com).

By comparison, social networking site Facebook achieved just 64 per cent, while Myspace was even lower at 63 per cent.

According to the report, this puts Facebook in the bottom 5 per cent of all measured private sector companies.

Wikipedia claimed the highest social media rating with 77 per cent, while YouTube achieved 73 per cent. Search engines also outperformed social media, with Google receiving 80 per cent, closely followed by Bing at 77 per cent.

This was the first time social media websites have been measured by ACSI, which pulls data from interviews with around 70,000 customers.Similar Posts:



December 03 2009

18:43

Tom Brokaw on Comcast/NBC Deal: "Would be a good thing"

Tom Brokaw, in one of his first comments on the just announced Comcast/NBC merger, says the prospective merger would be "a good thing."

His comment comes in at 2 minutes into this interview with Liz Glover of washingtontimes.com.  She spoke with the NBC News special correspondent earlier today.

Andy Plesser, Senior Producer

Video Transcript [starting at 1:40 min into video]

Liz Glover: 
Last question sir. What do you think about the prospective merger of NBC with Comcast?

Tom Brokaw:
  Well I...you know, let's wait and see what happens before I comment on it. But I know the people at Comcast. I think they're really responsible and serious. They've got an enormous amount of integrity.

I think Brian Roberts, his father, and Steve Burke have built a really impressive company, so if we end up together, I wouldn't have any fears about that. In fact, it would be a good thing. I've loved being a part of GE, but GE is making a corporate decision and we'll see how it plays out.

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