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June 13 2011

15:00

Eli Pariser: How do we recreate a front-page ethos for a digital world?

At the top of my summer reading list is The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser’s new book that argues that the filters we rely on to make sense of the online world can do us as much harm as good.

While the book relies on familiar notions about the perils of the echo chamber, it uses those ideas as a starting point, rather than an ending, focusing on the algorithmic implications of all the echoing. One of the most intriguing aspects of Pariser’s argument is his exploration of the automation of preference — through the increasing influence of the Like button, through Google’s desire to make its results “relevant,” through various news orgs’ recommendation engines, and, ultimately, through media companies’ economic mandate to please, rather than provoke, their audiences.

That last one isn’t new, of course; news organizations have always navigated a tension between the need to know and the want to know when it comes to the information they serve to their readers. What is new, though, is the fact that audiences’ wants now have data to back them up; they can be analyzed and tailored and otherwise manipulated with a precision that is only increasing. Audiences’ needs, on the other hand, are generally as nebulous as they’ve ever been. But they are, of course, no less urgent.

So if we’re to truly gain from what the web offers us, Pariser argues, what we need is something like the kind of thinking that guided journalism through most of the 20th century: a notion that media companies serve more than, in every sense, pure interest. A conviction that news editors (and, more broadly, the fabled gatekeepers who exert power, even on the “democratized” web, over people’s access to information) have a responsibility to give people as full and nuanced a picture of the world as they can.

As much as we need filters, Pariser says, a web experience that is based on filters alone won’t give us that wide-angle view. And now, he argues, while online media remains in its infancy, is the time to do something to change that.

To learn more about Pariser’s thinking — and especially about how that thinking applies to news producers — I spoke with him when he came to Cambridge for a recent reading at the Harvard Book Store. Below is a transcript of our talk. (And apologies for the shaky camera work in the video above, which was shot in a bookstore office; apparently, I had a case of the Austeros that day.)

To begin with, I asked Pariser about a key aspect of this argument: the notion that the filter bubble phenomenon affects not only what the information we consume, but also our ability to put that information to use within a functional democracy. Here’s what we told me:

EP: What people care about politically, and what they’re motivated to do something about, is a function of what they know about and what they see in their media. We’ve known this for a while — that, for example, if you chop up television broadcast news, and show different sets of news to different groups of people, and then you poll them about what their preferences are, you get very different results. People see something about the deficit on the news, and they say, ‘Oh, the deficit is the big problem.’ If they see something about the environment, they say the environment is a big problem.

This creates this kind of a feedback loop in which your media influences your preferences and your choices; your choices influence your media; and you really can go down a long and narrow path, rather than actually seeing the whole set of issues in front of us.

MG: Interesting. So what should news organizations be doing, and how should they be thinking about this problem when they’re thinking about how they build their websites, and build their news experience?

EP: Well, I think, right now, it’s a little polarized. You actually have the old-school editors who say, ‘Only humans can do this.’ The New York Times, at least until recently, didn’t let even blog authors see how people were using or sharing their links; you had no sense of how you were doing online. That’s sort of one extreme. On the other extreme is this ‘if people click it, then it must be good’ mentality. And I think we need people who are smart about journalism to be thinking about how we import a lot of the implicit things that a front page does, or that a well-edited newspaper does — how do we import that into these algorithms that are going to affect how a lot of people experience the world? Whether — we might prefer that they not, but that’s sort of the way that this is going. So how do we do that? That seems like the big, exciting project right now.

December 20 2010

18:00

In an age of free-flowing information, there’s still a role for journalists to provide context

The Washington Post’s venerable national security reporter Walter Pincus wants to make one thing clear: He isn’t just hopping on the WikiLeaks bandwagon.

“I used WikiLeaks before [it] became famous,” he said at last week’s secrecy in journalism conference at the Nieman Foundation. “[They] used to release one document at a time, which is the way I can handle it; I can’t handle 250,000 cables dumped in one day.” The massive amount of data now available, and the dearth of reporters tasked with examining it, was a recurring theme during the conference’s panel on gatekeepers and secrecy.

Pincus’ views on WikiLeaks largely echoed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s approach, which was to treat WikiLeaks and Julian Assange as any other source. But Pincus and other panelists went further, saying WikiLeaks was the effect and not the cause of a more distributed age, where information comes in many forms and the challenge for journalists is sorting through potential stories to find out what is meaningful, and then placing that meaning in context.

“Just having access to the information doesn’t mean we can understand it,” said Clint Hendler, a staff writer with the Columbia Journalism Review. “One of the key functions of a journalist used to be breaking that barrier of entry [of access]. But as the data is available [more widely], the other aspects of being a traditional journalists remain.” This means verifying the data, determining whether it’s important and contextualizing it.

Hendler said that this last role, of helping readers understand the information they’re given, was a task WikiLeaks originally held off from, preferring to be a pure conduit of raw information. That changed this past spring, when the organization released its video “Collateral Murder,” a leaked video which showed two Reuters news staff killed by a U.S. helicopters. This release, in addition to the editorializing title, included explanations of the ongoing attack as well as copies of the U.S. Rules of Engagement.

“Contrast this to what they could have done, and what they had largely done until that point: Just upload the video file,” Hendler said. “This video got a lot of attention because it was so graphic…but it also planted the seeds of a strategy in that these raw documents have a much greater impact when they’re put in context and with reporting.”

The shift has largely been overlooked as pundits debate whether WikiLeaks is “journalism,” but even Keller admitted that the organization has evolved toward journalism. That actually might be good news for traditional journalists, as even advocates for radical transparency realize that simply dumping data is rarely enough to provoke a response, particularly when there is an extreme glut of data to absorb.

Pincus said that would be true even without organizations like WikiLeaks. “There are an enormous number of public sources of information: court documents, public records that when I was young, I hate to say, we all used to read,” he said. Now, the sheer volume of information coming out of the federal government is almost impossible to track: He said when he started, there were two public hearings a day in Washington; now there are 40. “There is more news in Washington that is fit to print. My problem is, and Wikileaks highlights it, how much of it has actually been read?”

Fit to print

But beyond the sheer volume of data is the question of what is worth publishing and investigating. The panelists agreed that whether a document is marked “Secret” or not is a poor standard.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, often helps whistleblowers work through official government channels to correct problems before taking leaks to the public. Even then, however, the legal contortions the government uses to classify documents can take bizarre turns. She recounted one instance where she was brought to a secure room, asked a few questions, and given “temporary security clearance” to discuss some documents, clearance that was immediately revoked aftewards. “It’s important not to take too seriously what the government says is and isn’t classified,” she said. “It’s a game.”

Pincus said he had a four-part standard he used when deciding to publish information: Is it true? Is it relevant? Is there a way to give it to people? Is it something that I think the public ought to know?

He said ultimately it’s the best interest of the readers that should guide journalists, rather than relying on political pleas. “Our responsibility is to serve our readers,” he said. “We’re essentially not a national paper, we’re a local paper whose realm is national news because we’re based in Washington.”

The local connection

The emphasis on the local was shared by Maggie Mulvihill, founder and senior investigative producer at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. She said worked like NECIR’s, which focuses on public service journalism in the New England area, is particularly important since papers like The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal are still keeping a spotlight on national institutions even as local watchdogs are disappearing.

“In Massachusetts, the last three Speakers of the House have been indicted,” she said. “When our leaders are up to no good, they need to know we are watching.”

June 15 2010

16:00

What does the shift from editor-as-gatekeeper to a collective pursuit mean for the news industry?

[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, and its focus is the new digital landscape of journalism. There are lots of interesting articles, and we'll be highlighting a few here over the next few days. Here, our friend Ken Doctor writes about how the gatekeeping function of editors changes in a digital world. —Josh]

In the early 1990’s, I became managing editor of Saint Paul, Minnesota’s Pioneer Press, a proud Knight Ridder newspaper locked in mortal daily combat with Minneapolis’s Star Tribune, just across the river. I recall well the day when I had to make my first tough calls — the news we were going to place prominently on Page One and the news we weren’t. I felt an odd mix of exhilaration and fear.

I was the final arbiter of what would greet several hundred thousand people who picked up the paper each morning. What if I chose wrong? So I focused on choosing right, and with that confidence grew the assumed power and nonchalant arrogance of the gatekeeper. That’s what top editors were, and still are, though their power is diminishing each day by weakening print circulation and an odd feeling of being on the losing side in history’s march into digital journalism.

In this hybrid era of straddling print and digital publishing, the role of the gatekeeper has markedly morphed. It’s shifted from “us” to “them,” but “them” includes a lowercase version of “us,” too. Gatekeeping is now a collective pursuit; we’ve become our own and each other’s editors. I picked this idea to be the lead trend in my book Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get, published earlier this year by St. Martin’s Press. I called the chapter “In the Age of Darwinian Content, You Are Your Own Editor,” and since I named it I’ve never regretted giving it top billing.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

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