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February 08 2012

21:30

Video Volunteers Looks to Mainstream Media for Growth

This is Part 3 in a 4-part series in which Video Volunteers is sharing what we've done over the last year, our experiences, and what we've learned. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In August, the Video Volunteers staff attended an amazing program called the Global Social Business Incubator at Santa Clara University, where we developed a new business plan focused on income from the mainstream media. Our idea is to have one rural reporter in each of India's 645 districts, set up like a rural stringers network, to deliver a pipeline of high-quality, low-cost human interest content to television stations. The maintenance costs of such a network, once it's set up, would be relatively low -- about $300,000 a year for 645 rural correspondents, or about the cost of 20-30 television producers in Delhi. 

Ultimately, we feel that the recruitment, training and generation of impact will need to be supported by philanthropy, but that production and distribution should be taken care of by the market.

We made significant progress in 2011. In May, NewsX, the Indian network, broadcast our 13-part series called "Speak Out India." We sold them eight stories a week, and they produced a show around it. It was the first time we know of where a mainstream news company has paid for content produced by people living at the so-called base of the pyramid, and the successful run of that show has given us a successful track record with the media. The problem was, they only paid us the stringer rate for the stories, so about 1,500 rupees ($30) when our costs of production are more like 8,000 rupees ($160).

Our next goal was to see if an Indian TV channel would sign a contract with us for a similar amount of content each week (about 30 minutes) at our fully loaded cost of production for a 3-minute story. Hence, Video Volunteers' earned income goal for the end of this year was $100,000, or about 40% of our total budget. This would still be significantly lower than the costs of a TV station doing these stories themselves.

In the last three months, we've made two trips to Delhi and Mumbai to meet the TV channels, and the response has been very enlightening. So far, we've met about half of the top 20 English or Hindi news channels. They all like the content. They find our community correspondents full of energy, and feel that our flip cams are generating adequate quality.

The fact that India is in the throes of an anti-corruption movement is a really good thing for us, because we have lots of great corruption stories that they want. So far so good, in that they clearly are saying, "We'll run this content." This is a big step from a few years ago, where everyone we spoke to said we were crazy to think TV stations would run stuff produced by poor villagers. 

all CVU Photos - 3853.jpg

The Rural Newswire

As for the idea of a "rural newswire," they also get the concept. One senior person at CNN IBN said, "It's a well-known secret in Indian media that abysmal stringers are a huge problem." The chief executive of CNN IBN has talked in media interviews (including when he's been interviewed about Video Volunteers) about the "tyranny of distance," and how the remote areas of the country are often prohibitively expensive to cover. Someone at a government channel even told us that our idea couldn't work with the government channel "because all our stringers are political appointees!"

But despite all this, we're not sure they're ready to pay for quality. One producer at a news channel here who was really championing us internally said, "I'm pitching this as a high-quality stringers network. Everyone knows our stringers are awful, but the problem is they are OK with bad quality."

Bottom line at the end of our first 10 TV station meetings: Stations will take our stuff for free. They would probably also pay us the stringer rate -- but not necessarily the fully loaded cost. So now we're working with one station that's going to try to find a corporate sponsor, and will probably be the first mainstream media contract to materialize for us next year.

Online Distribution Helps

Thankfully, the Internet is a space where we can produce and publicize our content without depending on a broadcaster. We are currently publishing one video a day on our site, which is searchable by issue, region and community correspondent. The good news is that we've doubled our viewers over the last six months. The less good news is that the numbers are still low. We're going to start tweaking our format to show the back story and the trials and tribulations of the community producers more.

We've set aside one day a week, Wednesday, to publish impact videos -- this will have an impact on us in terms of fundraising! And we hope to start producing our own podcasts where we club together videos on a particular theme and have someone in our office as an anchor. We now have more than 450 edited 3-minute videos on every conceivable issue of human rights, poverty alleviation, and local culture. We're sitting on a gold mine of content, and now the fun starts of repackaging it and seeing what themes emerge and getting others to comment on the content.

We're confident this will work, because when our content is on other platforms that get traffic, it does very well. We're now partnered with several online companies, namely MSN, Rediff, Viewspaper and ViewChange.org. The partnership with Rediff is particularly promising; our first video with it got 100,000 views and loads of comments.

We also reach greater numbers of people through commissioned film projects. We've been hired this year by several organizations to gather stories or footage, such as: the one day on Earth project; YouTube's Day in a Life project; and the Red Cross, for whom we produced 12 videos on hunger in rural India that they're using in campaign events around the world. We've also gathered stories of climate change for our partner organization Laya; stories of development-induced displacement for Witness; stories on domestic violence for Breakthrough; and on local farming for the Gene Campaign.

Our correspondents gathered "recce" footage on caste for one of India's major production companies, and got answers from dozens of people to the question, "Are You Happy?" for a film project replicating Jean Rouch's seminal 1961 movie "Chronicle of Summer."

Are you happy? - from Jharkhand from Video Volunteers on Vimeo.

Stay tuned for our fourth and last post of the blog series, in which we'll discuss our other activities and programs and our vision for the future.

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.

May 25 2010

14:00

Jure Leskovec: How memes move, heartbeat-like, through the news

Every week, our friends at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society invite academics and other thinkers to discuss their work over lunch. Thankfully for us, they record the sessions. This week, we’re passing along some of the talks over the past few months that are most relevant to the future of news.

Today’s video: Stanford computer scientist Jure Leskovec. Leskovec, a founder of MemeTracker, studies ideas and information as they move through the news cycle on the web — and, in particular, “the set of temporal patterns by which news grows and fades over time.” Here, he discusses the findings that resulted from a three-month analysis of 1.6 million mainstream media sites and blogs — and the distinct “heartbeat”-like pattern that emerged to define the current MSM/blog relationship.

We wrote about MemeTracker’s findings back in July and interviewed one of Leskovec’s coauthors. Ethan Zuckerman liveblogged the talk; Leskovec posted his slides from it.

December 10 2009

21:08

Reviewing "The Big Thaw" - Where is Media Going?

In July 2009, The Media Consortium published Tony Deifell's ""The Big Thaw: Charting a New Future for Journalism":http://mobileactive.org/research/big-thaw-charting-new-future-journalism." The comprehensive review not only examines the current state of journalism, but also maps out potential ways the media can adapt for the future.

Written in three volumes ("Dissonance and Opportunity," "New and Emerging Realities" and "The Future"), the report dissects the problems of current media organizations and explores solutions. Through interviews with dozens of media and technology experts, Deifell attempts to explain not only where the media industry is today, but how it got there and where it might be going in the future.

Volume 1 works as an introduction to the piece, examining the old structures of mainstream media, their collapse, and opportunities for change that are emerging as the old ways of producing and disseminating news become increasingly less viable. The theme of media of the edge of great change is the driving force behind the report; Deifell writes:

Although many see this moment as a meltdown, it is an opportunity. Much like the annual flooding of the Nile, media's big thaw has the potential to revitalize the landscape. Our means of using information are changing, and great opportunities lie ahead.

Volume 2 is divided into four parts: "New Competitive Landscape," "New Competencies," "New Sources of Value" and "New Business Models." It details the changing relationship between consumers and the media industry, now that everyone can participate in reporting and producing the news thanks to portable technology. Examples include how citizen reporting brought back the first images of the Hudson plane crash, and how Twitter allowed users to document the Iranian elections outside of government control. The role of technology is brought up throughout the piece - as consumers have access to more information more quickly, media organizations must adapt to the changing needs of their customers. This need is explored here:

The big game changer over the next short term is mobility," says Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics. "Media is coming into our pocket and is with us at all times on a device that knows where we are." The mobile revolution will likely have the greatest impact on media convergence, as laptops become more mobile (e.g. netbooks & cloud computing) and mobile phones become more powerful computing devices. In the United States, 15% of the population has smart phones (e.g. iPhone or Blackberry), according to a Pew Research Center study, and 37% of those who own these devices say they get news on them. Already, three quarters of the world's messages are sent via mobile and nine out of 10 in developing countries where mobile phones have "leapfrogged" other technologies. Mobile phones had an estimated 50% penetration rate in developing areas by the end of 2008--up from nearly zero ten years earlier. Worldwide, the number of mobile phone subscriptions are triple the number fixed telephone. In fact, Jeffery Sachs, a renowned economist who has focused on the developing world, said mobile devices are part of the reason we might be turning the corner on the digital divide. [...]We are heading into a post- platform economy, where media organizations that can think beyond platforms in overall technology strategy may win.

In Volume 3, Deifell investigates the uncertainties of change and the possibilities of the future. This is where the report asks the serious questions that many mainstream media organizations are currently facing as they attempt to adapt to the changing appetites of readers and viewers: How will consumers act? What will happen to serious news? Will online media create narrower perspectives as users pick and choose their news? What will happen to print media? What role will the government play in these changes?

These are all serious matters - by asking these questions and looking at trends and talking with experts, Deifell concludes that though there are many challenges ahead, it is possible to chart a new course for media - one with the values of old media and the opportunities of access inherent in new media technologies. The report concludes:

In order to succeed, The Media Consortium must speak with assurance about its strategic vision, work with those who are advocates for a new paradigm and not waste time with reactionaries who want to save media's old paradigm. Journalism is evolving despite journalists and often without their years of experience. If journalists do not find new ground--even if it means dramatically changing their professional roles--they may drown. By bringing together technologists, entrepreneurs and media-makers to increase experimentation, leverage their collective power and build audiences as communities, independent media can not only rise with technological tide, but also achieve the goals of inclusivity and fairness they espouse.

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