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September 05 2012

13:43

Why Fact-Checking Has Taken Root in This Year's Election

We are all fact-checkers now.

For years, Americans' political press has been stuck in a fact-free model of neutrality, often covering even the most obvious lies as "one side" of a dispute. From Swift Boats and global warming to Iraq's nonexistent WMDs, this coverage shrouds even rudimentary empirical claims in a fog of truthiness. But that may be changing.

As this year's presidential campaign enters the homestretch after Labor Day, a new, aggressive model of fact-checking appears to be taking root. It is fast, aggressive and sometimes even outraged about falsehoods on the campaign trail.

Take Paul Ryan's convention address last week. Ryan offered several misleading statements and a few obvious lies -- falsehoods that he had to know were false -- although there's nothing new about politicians lying. Just look at Ryan's fellow running mates: Sarah Palin lied about the Bridge to Nowhere in her convention address, for example, while during a nationally televised debate, Dick Cheney falsely said he had never met John Edwards, and Edwards falsely charged that the Bush administration lobbied to cut combat pay. They faced mild corrections and very little collateral damage for those high-profile statements.

This time, however, reporters did not let Ryan off the hook by noncommittally airing criticism ("opponents disagreed with his claims"), or reducing corrections to one of those stand-alone sidebars evaluating distortions ("three Pinocchios for the deficit commission history"). Instead, several authoritative accounts of Ryan's address decided that his falsehoods were a key part of the news Ryan made, as these headlines show:

washpostryanspeech.png

Mr. Ryan's Misleading Speech (Washington Post)
Deficit Vow Lacks Specifics (A.P.)

Paul Ryan Address: Convention Speech Built On Demonstrably Misleading Assertions (Huffington Post)

Opinionated commenters were even harsher, focusing more on factual failure than ideological differences. Taken together, the overwhelming verdict on Ryan's speech was that he should not be believed. (By one online measurement, on the day after the speech, the most widely cited convention articles led with the falsehoods.)

The Ryan-Romney campaign's misleading welfare ads have drawn similar media condemnation. Ditto for the false claims that Obama raised taxes on middle-class Americans and, more darkly, the recurring, false suggestion that he was born abroad.

This newfound vigor for reporting facts over false equivalency -- the very "truth vigilantism" that a New York Times public editor once presented as an optional challenge for today's press -- looks like a mainstay on the campaign trail.

Yet after years of complaints from media critics and ridicule from the media's unofficial ombudsmen on Comedy Central, why is this happening now? A few interlocking trends suggest the reasons are both structural -- campaigning in a digital era -- and parochial, given the strengths of the two nominees.

Fact-Checking Has Gone Viral

This is the first national race in which Twitter is fundamentally altering campaign coverage. The message-sharing platform has upended how most political reporters watch the campaign.

Newt Gingrich used to deride Washington conventional wisdom as the product of what 500 people said to each other over lunch -- nowadays, it's more like what those people retweet. The pack mentality remains, but the backchannel is more visible and more subject to pushback. For reporters, that means fact-checking is not only faster, but it draws from a wider array of sources.

Returning to Ryan's speech, for example, many of the most retweeted items from that night were not jokes or partisan attacks. They were simple messages about fact-checking. "Factory mentioned by Paul Ryan actually announced it's closing before Obama took office," declared a typical example from the Washington Post.

When that kind of information goes viral, it instantly stokes press and public attention on the politician's fibs, and crowdsources part of a reporter's homework. Separating exaggeration from dissembling takes time, but reporters can draw on credible Twitter sources for a head start. That makes it easier to instantly report the "news" of the candidate's statements and a factual counternarrative.

The Press Oligopoly is Ending

While bloggers have been nipping at reporters for several campaign cycles, they have now fully arrived as credentialed colleagues. Some of today's most successful campaign "bloggers," like Nate Silver, promoted to the New York Times from the open-source user diaries of Daily Kos, or Ezra Klein, who joined the Washington Post after an impressive stint blogging for the American Prospect, specialize in providing quantifiable facts at breakneck speed. The interpretative emphasis is on evidence over opinion: Charts rule and canards are usually debunked _ before_ the regurgitation that politicians take for granted. It's a different orientation than conventional campaign coverage, which often celebrates the horse race and prizes direct access to the principals, no matter what they are saying. And as empiricist blogging is integrated into the elite press, it provides credentialed competition that can both impact and supplant the conventional model.

"The fact-checking franchise has grown from a handful of specialists," Jay Rosen, an NYU journalism professor, told MediaShift via email, "to something that every full-service news operation should do." The contribution from sites and bloggers devoted to fact-checking, he said, "probably accounts for some of the intensity" of online fact-checking this cycle.

But still, you can't fact-check much unless the facts are routinely in danger.

Romney, Obama and the Truth War

Finally, beyond any structural shifts, this year's campaign also features two nominees with message strategies that have now been specifically honed to address today's fact-checkers.

Romney is icing them out while Obama is cultivating them.

Faced with nearly unanimous rebukes for its welfare attack, the Romney campaign doubled down, making several more ads with the same claim. Then, its pollster flatly told the press that the campaign would not have its strategy "dictated by fact checkers." That gambit -- call it honesty about dishonesty or "cynical postmodernism" -- may have taunted some reporters into even more assertive truth-squading. According to one source familiar with the White House's thinking, Team Romney's strategic mistake was not the lying, but offending the press.

For its part, the Obama campaign is now invested in veracity as a core attack. The president has plenty of impact over what issues are newsworthy, and his campaign is arguing that spin, lies and exaggerations show that the Romney-Ryan ticket can't be trusted. As Buzzfeed's Ben Smith recently argued, this "pants on fire politics" aims to bend the premium on accuracy into a political advantage. Smith said reporters should be wary of attempts to referee larger policy disagreements as if they were mere factual disputes. That's not going to be easy.

Ari Melber is an attorney, correspondent for The Nation magazine, and contributing columnist to Politico. During the 2008 presidential election, Melber traveled with the Obama Campaign on special assignment for The Washington Independent. In 2010, he authored a 74-page special report for techPresident analyzing the first year of Organizing for America, the 13-million person network that grew out of the 2008 presidential campaign, which Northwestern political scientist Daniel Galvin called "the most comprehensive and insightful account of Obama's 'Organizing for America' to date." Melber has contributed chapters to the books "America Now," (St. Martins, 2009) and "At Issue: Affirmative Action," (Cengage, 2009), and has been a featured speaker at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Columbia and NYU, among other institutions. Melber has also served as a Legislative Aide in the U.S. Senate and as a national staff member of the 2004 John Kerry Presidential Campaign. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a J.D. from Cornell Law School, where he was an editor of the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. (Contact via www.arimelber.com).

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September 04 2012

13:13

4 Tech, Social Innovations at the RNC -- And One Clever Tweet

convention digital small.jpg

TAMPA, Fla. -- For those who haven't experienced it, a national political convention in America is something like a post-apocalyptic police state crossed with the Super Bowl and an Academy Awards red carpet.

Here at the site of this year's Republican National Convention, bomb-sniffing dogs, Secret Service agents, and a tropical storm all made it hard for people to connect with each other. But social media probably made people feel more connected than ever. Twitter confirmed that more than 4 million tweets were sent during the GOP event -- a one-day record for political conventions.

But we're somewhat past the era during which merely using a social media platform is considered interesting. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare or any number of other platforms or apps, people are using them. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can agree that they like social media.

Guests in Tampa were immediately greeted by a gigantic sign that boldly stated the official hashtag: #GOP2012. Times have changed since the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign of 2008.

The convention officials themselves were using social media: conducting interviews with media via Skype, monitoring the hashtag. But this is what we have come to expect. It's not particularly interesting.

(Note: Skype is now owned by Microsoft, my employer.)

Innovation in the shadows

Here's what I did notice was standing out a bit at the GOP's big event: collaborations between some unlikely bedfellows, overtly or presumably serving to show both partners in different lights. This took place in what one might call the "shadow convention," the space outside the official proceedings with delegates and votes and state delegation breakfast meetings, where a melange of media and tech companies hold policy briefings, interact with convention VIPs, and underwrite after-hours parties. The shadow convention with its corporate stalwarts got fairly innovative in comparison to the convention proper.

WP_000179.jpg

Here's a rundown of some innovations I saw:

1. CNN had a "CNN Grill" at the convention, as they typically do at large events like the conventions or SXSW. It serves as a combination working space for staff and full-service restaurant. Because you need a special pass to even get into the CNN Grill for one day, it's a popular place to hang out. But CNN was also using social technology in the midst of all the hamburgers and beer. Deploying Skype, they created what they call Delegate Cam, and enabled people following from home to be able to talk to their delegate representative casting their vote inside the security perimeter.

2. Time partnered up with social location service and fellow New York-based company Foursquare on an interactive map that helped conventioneers find each other. I asked Time about why they thought this was an interesting experiment to deploy in Tampa. Time.com managing editor Catherine Sharick told me, "Time partnered with FourSquare for the political conventions in order to help solve a common problem: Where are people and what is happening?" Writing elsewhere, I gave it a "B" for usefulness (if I know where Time writer Mark Halpirin is, what exactly should I do with that information?), but an "A" for creativity.

Time Foursquare map.png

3. Mobile short video service Tout collaborated with the Wall Street Journal to launch WSJ Worldstream, an effort by more than 2,000 global reporters who post vetted real-time videos from a special Tout iPhone app. The new video channel was launched in conjunction with the RNC. Reporters posted video interviews with delegates, protesters, and so on. Some of the videos will also be incorporated within longer online written pieces.

4. Microsoft (my employer), for its part, allowed me to use Pinterest to post real-time photos of the behind-the-scenes efforts of my colleagues. That included powering the IT infrastructure of the convention, conducting cyber-security monitoring, running Skype Studios for media and VIPs to conduct HD video interviews, and live-streaming the event on Xbox Live. Interestingly, Pinterest as far as I can tell, was not a popular medium during the GOP convention. I'm not sure if that's significant, but I couldn't easily find many pins from the convention.

Toward the end of the convention, social media watchers knew that the Republicans had a success by the numbers -- millions of tweets and countless uses of the hashtags, photos uploaded, YouTube views of individual speeches, etc. But that's expected now. One thing that was missing? A truly creative use of social media that involved more wittiness than brute force.

One Clever Tweet

There were a couple of clever uses of social media by a prominent politician during the Republican convention. That politician just happens to be a Democrat by the name of Barack Obama.

The most popular tweet during the Republican National Convention wasn't tweeted by a Republican. In a reference to the now-infamous Clint Eastwood "talking to an empty chair" speech, Obama's account tweeted three simple words: "This chair's taken." It was retweeted more than 50,000 times and favorited more than 20,000 times. More importantly, it's smart, it's art, and it's memorable.

This seat's taken. OFA.BO/c2gbfi, twitter.com/BarackObama/st...

— Barack Obama (@barackobama) August 31, 2012

Obama also hopped on the somewhat-edgy, somewhat-underground "front page of the Internet" Reddit to do something Redditors (as they're dubbed) call "Ask Me Anything." In a half-hour chat, the president took on all comers in a broad Q&A.

Heading into the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., I'm curious to see how it compares. I'll be Pinteresting, CNN will be Skyping while they're grilling, and the WSJ will be posting short videos. What'll be the surprise there, if anything?

Mark Drapeau is the the director of innovative engagement for Microsoft's public and civic sector business headquartered in D.C. He tweets @cheeky_geeky.

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August 25 2012

23:49

Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?

I challenge every journalist in Tampa for the Republican convention — every one of the 15-16,000 of you — to answer this:
* Why are you there?
* What will we learn from you?
* What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial — light on the info, heavy on the ‘mercial — that the conventions have become?
* Would you be better off back at home covering voters and their issues?
* Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?

Figure that those 15k journos spend $300 a night each on a hotel room times five nights, plus $500 for transportion. That’s $2,000. And I’m figuring they’ll be slurping up free meals and drinks. So $2,000 is probably (pardon me) conservative. That’s $30,000,000. Now multiply that times two conventions. That’s $60,000,000.

Why? For what?

Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004.

Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you.

It’s a waste.

Take that $60,000,000 and divide it by a fully loaded labor cost of, say, $100,000 per head and it would pay for 600 reporters for a year. At $50,000 for a hyperlocal reporter, we’d get 1,200 towns covered — more than Patch! What could they do versus what you will do in Tampa and Charlotte transcribing marketing messages and horrid memes?

Or we could pay for Homicide Watch 1,500 times over, instead of just paying attention to a shooting that happens where tourists wander.

Those 15,000 journos will — three-to-one — cover 2,286 delegates (6,000 for those spendthrift Democrats) wearing funny hats, saying nothing new.

At least 3,775 newspaper jobs were lost last year; 39,806 since mid-2007; one in three newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 1989. How’s that make you feel, convention press corps?

We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN (and I don’t begrudge the networks for giving us America’s Got Talent instead of the conventions since at least AGT has surprises; the conventions are scripted).

Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year.

So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?

Please prove me wrong. In a week, show me the amazing reporting we couldn’t have gotten if you weren’t there.

August 23 2012

16:03

August 20 2012

15:57
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