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August 21 2012

14:30

Inside the Star Chamber: How PolitiFact tries to find truth in a world of make-believe

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair in the Star Chamber

WASHINGTON — PolitiFact’s “Star Chamber” is like Air Force One: It’s not an actual room, just the name of wherever Bill Adair happens to be sitting when it’s time to break out the Truth-O-Meter and pass judgment on the words of politicians. Today it’s his office.

Three judges preside, usually the same three: Adair, Washington bureau chief of the Tampa Bay (née St. Petersburg) Times; Angie Drobnic Holan, his deputy; and Amy Hollyfield, his boss.

For this ruling — one of four I sat in on over two days last month — Holan and Hollyfield are on the phone. Staff writer Louis Jacobson is sitting in. He is recommending a rating of False for this claim, from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), but Hollyfield wants to at least consider something stronger:

83% of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of #Obamacare #repealandreplace

— Jeff Duncan (@Duncan4Congress) July 10, 2012

Hollyfield: Is there any movement for a Pants on Fire?

Adair: I thought about it, but I didn’t feel like it was far enough off to be a Pants on Fire. What did you think, Lou?

Jacobson: I would agree. Basically it was a case I think of his staff blindly taking basically what was in Drudge and Daily Caller. Should they have been more diligent about checking the fine print of the poll? Yes, they should have. Were they being really reckless in what they did? No. It was pretty garden-variety sloppiness, I would say. I don’t think it rises to the level of flagrancy that I would think of a Pants on Fire.

Adair: It’s just not quite ridiculous. It’s definitely false, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous.

This scene has played out 6,000 times before, but not in public view. Like the original Court of Star Chamber, PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter rulings have always been secret. The Star Chamber was a symbol of Tudor power, a 15th-century invention of Henry VII to try people he didn’t much care for. While the history is fuzzy, Wikipedia’s synopsis fits the chamber’s present-day reputation: “Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses.”

PolitiFact turns five on Wednesday. Adair founded the site to cover the 2008 election, but the inspiration came one cycle earlier, when a turncoat Democrat named Zell Miller told tens of thousands of Republicans that Sen. John Kerry had voted to weaken the U.S. military. “Miller was really distorting his record,” Adair says, “and yet I didn’t do anything about it.”

The team won a Pulitzer Prize for the election coverage. The site’s basic idea — rate the veracity of political statements on a six-point scale — has modernized and mainstreamed the old art of fact-checking. The PolitiFact national team just hired its fourth full-time fact checker, and 36 journalists work for PolitiFact’s 11 licensed state sites. This week PolitiFact launches its second, free mobile app for iPhone and Android, “Settle It!,” which provides a clever keyword-based interface to help resolve arguments at the dinner table. (PolitiFact’s original mobile app, at $1.99, has sold more than 24,000 copies.) The site attracts about 100,000 pageviews per day, Adair told me, and that number will certainly rise as the election draws closer and politicians get weirder.

PolitiFact's "I Brake for Pants on Fire" bumper sticker

If your job is to call people liars, and you’re on a roll doing it, you can expect a steady barrage of criticism. PolitiFact has been under fire practically as long as it has existed, but things intensified earlier this year, when Rachel Maddow criticized PolitiFact for, in her view, botching a series of rulings.

In public, Adair responded cooly: “We don’t expect our readers to agree with every ruling we make,” is his refrain. In private, it struck a nerve.

“I think the criticism in January and February, added to some of the criticism we’ve gotten from conservatives over the months, persuaded us that we needed to make some improvements in our process,” Adair told me. “We directed our reporters to slow down and not try to rush fact-checks. We directed all of our reporters and editors to make sure that [they're] clear in the ruling statement.”

Adair made a series of small changes to tighten up the journalism. And for the first time he invited a reporter — me — to watch the truth sausage get made.

The paradox of fact-checking

To understand fact-checking is to accept a paradox: “Words matter,” as PolitiFact’s core principles go, and “context matters.”

Consider this incident recently all over the news: Harry Reid says some guy told him Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. It’s probably true. Some guy probably did say that to Harry Reid. But we can’t know for sure. To evaluate that statement is almost impossible without cooperative witnesses to the conversation.

Now, is Reid’s implication true? We can’t know that, either, not until someone produces evidence. So how does a fact checker handle this claim?

The Truth-O-Meter gave Reid its harshest ruling, “Pants on Fire,” a PolitiFact trademark reserved for claims it considers not only false but absurd. In the Star Chamber, judges ruled that Reid had no evidence to back up his claim.

“It is now possible to get called a liar by PolitiFact for saying something true,” complained James Poniewozik and others. But True certainly would not have sufficed, here not even Half True.

Maybe the Truth-O-Meter needs an “Unsubstantiated” rating. They considered it, but decided against it, Adair told me, “because of fears that we’d end up rating many, many things ‘unsubstantiated.’”

Whereas truth is complicated, elastic, subjective… the Truth-O-Meter is simple, fixed, unambiguous. In a way, this overly simplistic device embodies the problem PolitiFact is trying to solve.

“The fundamental irony is that the same technological changes and changes in the media system that make organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org possible also make their work less effective, in that we do have this highly fragmented media environment,” said Lucas Graves, who recently defended his dissertation on fact-checking at Columbia University.

So the Truth-O-Meter is the ultimate webby invention: bite-sized, viral-ready. Whether that Pants on Fire for Reid was warranted or not, 4,300 shares on Facebook is pretty good. PolitiFact is not the only fact checker in town, but the Truth-O-Meter is everywhere; the same simplicity in its rating system that opens it to so much criticism also helps it spread, tweet by tweet.

“PolitiFact exists to be cited. It exists to be quoted,” Graves said. “Every Truth-O-Meter piece packages really easily and neatly into a five-minute broadcast segment for CNN or for MSNBC.” (In fact, Adair told me, he has appeared on CNN alone at least 300 times.)

PolitiFact political cartoon

Stories get “chambered,” in PolitiFact parlance, 10-15 times a week. Adair begins by reading the ruling statement — that is, the precise phrase or claim being evaluated — aloud. Then — and this is new, post-criticism — Adair asks four questions, highlighted in bold. (“Sounds like something from Passover, but the four questions really helps get us focused,” he says.)

Adair: We are ready to rule on the Jeff Duncan item. So the ruling statement is: “83 percent of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of ObamaCare.” Lou is recommending a False. Let’s go through the questions.

Is the claim literally true?

Adair: No.

Jacobson: No, using Obamacare.

Is the claim open to interpretation? Is there another way to read the claim?

Jacobson: I don’t think so.

Adair: I don’t think so.

Does the speaker prove the claim to be true?

Adair: No. Did you get in touch with Duncan?

Jacobson: Yes, and his office declined to speak. Politely declined.

Did we check to see how we handled similar claims in the past?

Adair: Yes, we looked at the — and this didn’t actually get included in the item…

Jacobson:The Glenn Beck item.

Adair: Was it Glenn Beck?

Jacobson: Two years ago.

Adair: I thought it was the editorial in the Financial Times or whatever. What was that?

Jacobson: Well, Beck was quoted citing a poll by Investors Business Daily.

Adair: Investors Business Daily, right.

Jacobson: We gave that a False too, I think. But similar issues, basically.

Adair: Okay. So we have checked how we handled similar things in the past. Lou is recommending a false. How do we feel about false?

Angie: I feel good.

Hollyfield: Yup.

Adair: Good. All right, not a lot of discussion on this one!

After briefly considering Pants on Fire, they agree on False.

Question No. 3 — Does the speaker prove the claim to be true? — ensures the reporter always talks to the person who made the statement. Among Maddow’s complaints was that she was never contacted for a False ruling on one of her claims.

Another change in the last year has created a lot of grief for PoitiFact: Fact checkers now lean more heavily on context when politicians appear to take credit or give blame. Which brings us to Rachel Maddow’s complaint. In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said:

In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.

PolitiFact rated that Half True, saying an executive can only take so much credit for job creation. But did he take credit? Would the claim have been 100 percent true if not for the speaker? Under criticism, PolitiFact revised the ruling up to Mostly True. Maddow was not satisfied:

You are a mess! You are fired! You are undermining the definition of the word “fact” in the English language by pretending to it in your name. The English language wants its word back. You are an embarrassment. You sully the reputation of anyone who cites you as an authority on “factishness,” let alone fact. You are fired.

Maddow (in addition to many, many liberals) was already mad about PolitiFact’s pick for 2011 Lie of the Year, that Republicans had voted, through the Ryan budget, to end Medicare. Of course, her criticism then was that PolitiFact was too literal.

“Forget about right or wrong,” Graves said. “There’s no right answer if you define ‘right’ as coming up with a ruling that everybody will agree with, especially when it comes to the question of interpreting things literally or taking an account out of context.” Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Graves, who identifies himself as falling “pretty left” on the spectrum, has observed PolitiFact twice: for a week last year and again for a three-day training session with one of PolitiFact’s state sites.

“One of the things that comes through clearest when you spend time with fact checkers…is that they have a very healthy sense that these are imperfect judgments that they’re making, but at the same time they’re going to strive to do them as fairly as possible. It’s a human endeavor. And like all human endeavors, it’s not infallible.”

A real live Truth-O-Meter

The truth is that fact-checking, and fact checkers, are kinda boring. What I witnessed was fair and fastidious; methodical, not mercurial. (That includes the other three (uneventful) rulings I watched.) I could uncover no evidence of PolitiFact’s evil scheme to slander either Republicans or Democrats. Adair says he’s a registered independent. He won’t tell me which candidate he voted for last election, and he protects his staff members’ privacy in the voting booth. In Virginia, where he lives, Adair abstains from open primary elections. Revealing his own politics would “suggest a bias that I don’t think is there,” Adair says.

“In a hyper-partisan world, that information would get distorted, and it would obscure the reality, which is that I think political journalists do a good job of leaving their personal beliefs at home and doing impartial journalism,” he says.

Does all of this effort make a dent in the net truth of the universe? Is moving from he-said-she-said to some form of judgment, simplified as it may be, “working?” Last month, David Brooks wrote:

A few years ago, newspapers and nonprofits set up fact-checking squads, rating campaign statements with Pinocchios and such. The hope was that if nonpartisan outfits exposed campaign deception, the campaigns would be too ashamed to lie so much.

This hope was naive. As John Dickerson of Slate has said, the campaigns want the Pinocchios. They want to show how tough they are.

“I don’t think we were naive. I’ve always said anyone who imagines we can change the behavior of candidates is bound to be disappointed,” said Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org. He was a pioneer of modern political fact-checking for CNN in the 1990s. “I suspect it is a fact that the junior woodchucks on the campaign staffs have now perversely come to value our criticism as some sort of merit badge, as though lying is a virtue, and a recognized lie is a bigger virtue.”

Rarely is there is a high political cost to lying. All the explainers in the world couldn’t completely blunt the impact of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s campaign to denigrate John Kerry’s military service. More recently, in July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claimed Chinese prostitution money helped finance the campaign of a Republican Congressman in Ohio. PolitiFact rated it Pants on Fire.

That didn’t stop the DCCC from rolling out identical claims in Wisconsin and Tennessee. The DCCC eventually apologized. But which made more of an impression on voters, the original lie or the eventual apology from an amorphous nationwide organization?

Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College, has done a lot of research on the effects of fact-checking on the public. As he wrote for CJR:

It is true that corrective information may not change readers’ minds. My research with Georgia State’s Jason Reifler finds that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the most vulnerable ideological group and can even make them worse (PDF). Other research has reached similarly discouraging conclusions — at this point, we know much more about what journalists should not do than how they can respond effectively to false statements (PDF).

If the objective of fact-checking is to get politicians to stop lying, then no, fact-checking is not working. “My goal is not to get politicians to stop lying,” is another of Adair’s refrains. “Our goal is…to give people the information they need to make decisions.”

Unlike The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who awards Pinocchios for lies, or PolitiFact, which rates claims on a Truth-O-Meter, Jackson’s FactCheck.org doesn’t reduce its findings to a simple measurement. “I think you are telling people we can tell the difference between something that is 45 percent true and 57 percent true — and some negative number,” he said, referring to Pants on Fire. “There isn’t any scientific objective way to measure the degree of mendacity to any particular statement.”

“I think it’s fascinating that they chose to call it a Truth-O-Meter instead of a Truth Meter,” Graves said. Truth-O-Meter sounds like a kitchen gadget, or a toy. “That ‘O’ is sort of acknowledging that this is a human endeavor. There’s no such thing as a machine for perfectly and accurately making judgments of truth.”

Political cartoon by Chip Bok used with permission.

April 21 2011

18:02

5 Great Media Literacy Programs and How to Assess Their Impact

Increasingly, Public Media 2.0 projects are moving not only beyond broadcast to social and mobile platforms, but into the realms of digital and media literacy training. Producers of such projects recognize that in order to participate fully in the new media world, children and adults need to be able to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a wide variety of forms.

Over the past two months, on the Center for Social Media's Public Media 2.0 Showcase, we profiled a series of such initiatives, examining in particular how project leaders evaluate their impact.

While there has been some controversy over semantics, for the purposes of this series, we used the term "digital and media literacy," which encompasses the foundations of traditional media literacy while emphasizing the importance of access to and informed use of digital tools. These types of programs help people to create their own media messages, participate in cross-platform civic dialogue, recognize and evaluate the messages implicit in media, assess the credibility of news and information sources, and understand the risks and responsibilities associated with social media and media production.

Strong, national support for digital and media literacy initiatives is currently lacking -- both in the public broadcasting and educational sectors. However, innovative programs are popping up across the country, sometimes in unexpected locations.

Snapshots from the Field

Our series examined initiatives from diverse sources, including public broadcasting stations, non-profit organizations, museums, schools and federal agencies, all designed to help users become fully engaged media consumers and producers. Each of the initiatives had a different focus (building students' journalism skills, recognizing hidden advertisements, bringing public media to underserved communities, etc.) They took place in person and online, in school and community-based settings, and in both kid- and adult-focused arenas. Five of the most interesting projects included:

  • The PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs: This program, which recently completed a successful pilot year, pairs high schools with public media professionals in order to create investigative video reports. The program combines digital and media literacy, media production, news and current events and journalism education and includes a flexible curriculum developed by Temple University's Media Education Lab.
  • Admongo: Last year, the Federal Trade Commission launched Admongo, an online gaming initiative aimed at helping 8- to 12-year-olds "become more discerning consumers of information." The centerpiece of the Admongo campaign is a single-player online game in which users navigate everyday settings, searching for hidden advertisements. The project includes an accompanying curriculum, developed by Scholastic. While Admongo provides a fun new way to look at advertising in the classroom, it is lacking in meaningful engagement, as it doesn't encourage students to critique or analyze advertisements so much as recognize them.
  • Common Sense Media: Common Sense Media recently released a new K-12 curriculum focused on digital citizenship. According to the Common Sense Media website, this curriculum aims to "teach students to be responsible, respectful, and safe digital citizens." The curriculum focuses primarily on digital ethics and responsibilities, using engaging classroom activities to tackle issues like privacy, cyber-bullying, online identities, and copyright/fair use.
  • City Voices, City Visions: City Voices, City Visions, a program from the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo, provides summer professional development institutes for middle and high school teachers. These sessions educate teachers on how to incorporate digital video into their classrooms in both interdisciplinary and subject-specific settings. Teachers use handheld digital videocameras and basic editing software to turn academic concepts into familiar video formats and work with the City Voices, City Visions team to create appropriate classroom assignments, evaluation rubrics, and sample videos.

At the Center for Social Media, we are using our examinations of how these projects are assessing themselves to inform the evaluation of a project the Center has been incubating: the Public Media Corps (PMC), a public media and community engagement initiative from the National Black Programming Consortium. A service corps model, the PMC aims to increase both broadband adoption and public media creation/use in underserved communities. Last year, 15 fellows worked with Washington, DC, community organizations and public media stations to create a series of engagement models, which combined media production, media access and civic engagement. CSM will be releasing a report on the results in May.

Evaluating Media Literacy Projects

DigitalandMediaLit2.jpgAs with public media engagement projects, digital and media literacy initiatives face a challenge when it comes to evaluating success. There are currently no standard tools for assessing baseline digital and media literacy skills -- although in her white paper, Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, Dr. Renee Hobbs strongly advocates for their development. She notes that "there are so many dimensions of media and digital literacy that it will take many years to develop truly comprehensive measures that support the needs of students, educators, policymakers and other stakeholders."

Because the initiatives we looked at varied so much in scope and size, each took a slightly different approach toward evaluating programmatic success. Not every organization we profiled implemented a comprehensive evaluation plan. However, many of them did, and some key themes emerged:

1. Set clear and ambitious goals, and assess against them: It is important that digital and media literacy initiatives move beyond "raising awareness" and move instead toward
empowering users to make their own meaningful choices, critiques and content. For example, Admongo does not go far enough in allowing users to evaluate and analyze the game's advertisements, nor does it offer users much in the way of content creation. Successful digital and media literacy initiatives must set goals beyond awareness-raising, and evaluate their success based upon clearly-defined criteria.

2. Evaluate both media literacy and media production quality: One of the major tensions in evaluating youth and community media production initiatives is the extent to which media production values should be considered. Leah Clapman, director of the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, noted that, as the program progressed, program leaders moved away from evaluating the production values of student projects and towards measuring what students have learned in the process. City Voices, City Visions is able to negotiate this tension with a multi-pronged evaluation strategy. Students are judged in class primarily by how well they convey academic concepts through video, but an annual film festival showcases high quality student productions, as determined by external judges.

3. Evaluate both teachers and students: Staffers from almost every initiative we talked to expressed that feedback from both teachers and students is necessary in order to obtain a comprehensive understanding of how well a given project worked. Both Common Sense Media and City Visions, City Voices, for example, combined student assessments, teacher interviews and case studies. Dr. Suzanne Miller, director of City Voices, City Visions, stressed that evaluating teachers beyond the confines of teacher training institutes is key, as "not enough research follows teachers out of professional development institutes and into the classroom."

4. Examine a variety of data: While most of the data collected in these projects was qualitative (a potential problem for some funders), it took many forms, including case studies, teacher and student interviews, and student pre- and post-assessments. Some of the data was collected through less traditional methods: the teachers involved in the PBS Student Reporting Labs spent a day in Washington, DC to discuss and debate the program and analyze strengths and weaknesses with external evaluators. Most of the programs hired external evaluators at least for part of the analysis, which helped to ensure depth of analysis as well as objectivity.

PMCToolkit.jpg5. Share evaluation data with the field: Many of the programs are planning on publishing evaluation data in order to inform best practices. Common Sense Media plans on sharing video case studies on its blog. The Public Media Corps published a toolkit outlining the lessons learned from the program's pilot year. This toolkit is designed for use by public media stations looking to implement similar programs but can also be employed as a general guide for community-based media programs. The Center for Social Media will also be working with PMC leaders to release a more comprehensive evaluation next month.

It is this last point -- sharing information -- that may be the most crucial for measuring the success of digital and media literacy initiatives. Developing shared best (and worst!) practices and lessons learned through smaller-scale media literacy programs will help to ensure the development of the field and the success of future programs.

Katie Donnelly is Associate Research Director at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media.

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February 09 2011

15:00

NewsTrust Baltimore takes a local approach to media literacy and showcasing new journalism

NewsTrust sees its mission as helping readers find “good journalism” by giving people the tools to separate good from bad. But when it comes to journalism, good and bad aren’t exactly universal truths anymore. Is a story good if it adheres to facts but lacks strong writing? Is a story bad if it’s on a blog, regardless of how it’s reported? And what if its told through an ideological or political lens different from your own?

While NewsTrust has previously employed its tools for vetting journalism on a national level, their newest test, NewsTrust Baltimore, takes things to a smaller scale — namely one where readers’ connection to news is based on geography (will a new school be built? is the police department cutting staff? did the legislature cut taxes?) and necessity.

That familiarity, with both the news and outlets reporting it, could make for a better experiment in media criticism as well as media literacy. Who better to judge the Baltimore Sun or WYPR than the people who live in the area?

When I spoke to Fabrice Florin, executive director of NewsTrust, he said their two-month Baltimore project makes sense because of the upheaval in local journalism, as staffs and resources have shrunk at traditional media outlets in the region. At the same time new blogs and alternative media, some created by former journalists, are cropping up.

“The news ecosystem in Baltimore is fascinating. It’s extremely diverse right now,” he told me.

That’s reflected in NewsTrust Baltimore’s partners, ranging from The Sun and WYPR to Baltimore Brew, Urbanite Magazine and local Patch sites. Stories from these sites are aggregated on NewsTrust Baltimore where local reviewers can rate them. (NewsTrust also has a widget that a number of partners are using that allow readers to review stories without having to leave their site.) The rating tools let reviews decide whether stories are factual, fair, well-sourced, well written, and provide context. Beyond that, it also asks whether reviewers trust the publication and would recommend the story. A glance at a recent review shows promising signs:

This would seem to be an in-depth investigative piece, presenting multiple points of view. I can cite no part of it that I know for certain is erroneous or slanted. Therefore I must cautiously assume it to be an informative article. However, I have past experiences with this publication that cause me to bring a skeptical eye to it.

Florin said the value to news organizations is a balanced, structured system to offer feedback. (Contrast that review with what you might see in the comment section at the end of stories.) “Going through the review process the participant is forced to explicitly give criticism,” he said. “The rating system is based on journalist qualities, and when they click on rating buttons they’re giving actionable feedback to the journalist.”

Of course, a smart series of buttons does not automatically make one a media critic. Florin said they offer helpful explainers to what “fair” or “factual” mean to a story. Additionally they’re putting together a library of guides on media literacy and the basics of thinking like a journalist — although that too can be contentious turf.

The goal isn’t to a better informed citizenry, not to make readers think like journalists. That also means trying to foster a broader news appetite among readers. That means exposing readers to the wider variety of media outside of traditional news sources. “There are people who are doing good journalism on the fringes and not necessarily getting the recognition they deserve,” Florin said. “This is where NewsTrust shines.”

They’ve created a formidable regional news aggregator, one that is headed up by editors and a community manager, which makes NewsTrust Baltimore something of a news hub for the region. “In a different world, if we were a for-profit, we could offer a very credible news consumer destination,” Florin said. “We’re really proud of our feed. We really do aggregate the best journalism in Baltimore.” In that sense, NewsTrust Baltimore is more than just an experiment in media literacy or a response to shrinking news sources. By presenting a menu of local news sources, NewsTrust Baltimore is encouraging people to sample broadly and rate their server.

Food analogies aside, NewsTrust could potentially set up franchises (sorry) around the country, with NewsTrust sites for communities with an abundance of new and traditional news sources. Though the Baltimore project is expected to run two months, the NewsTrust team did apply for a Knight News Challenge grant to continue their work and develop funding models to make the project sustainable.

“We’re careful, we don’t want to disrupt the ecosystem. We want to add value to it,” Florin said. “We don’t want to replace the people who are there.”

February 01 2011

15:30

Could BiblioBouts, an online sourcing game for academia, offer lessons for media literacy?

Karen Markey had a fairly straightforward idea: Teach students to steer clear of unreliable sources of information through the use of a game.

What the University of Michigan professor wants her students to focus on navigating is academic research. But instead of citing credible references on the rise of the Medici family, what if we could apply a similar game to distinguishing the credibility of news sources?

“The problem is today’s students still don’t know where to go for authoritative, good information that is trustworthy,” said Markey. “But they sure do know how to go to the web.”

If we swapped out “students” for “readers,” you’d have the basis of an argument for media literacy and the importance of finding a way for readers (and journalists themselves) to find good information.

The game Markey created, BiblioBouts, could potentially be an example to educators, j-schools or nonprofits on how to teach media literacy. It’s an idea that’s getting investment, like the Knight Foundation’s funding of the expansion of a civics and news literacy program in West Virginia called Globaloria.

In BiblioBouts, students gather citations from library databases or online sources and rank them against each other based on credibility, content, and relevance to assigned topics. The game is built off Zotero, an open-source online citation tool that lets users organize and share research. In a way, the game is a little like the academic equivalent of Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft: You assemble the best team possible and hope to come out on top. Though maybe it’s a little like the Legend of Zelda in a “gather the tools you’ll need for the journey” way. (Then again, I may just be a big nerd.)

Through rating and tagging each other’s citations, students evaluate what makes a good source, with (hopefully) the more thorough and useful sources rising to the top. If competitiveness is any kind of factor students will look at the winning sources and want to emulate that process, Markey said. “It puts people in situations where the game-like features encourage them to continue playing,” she said. “And if they continue playing, hopefully they’ll learn more.”

It’s arguable that doing research has never been easier, thanks to the likes of Google and Wikipedia. Markey said professors aren’t surprised by studies saying students lend too much credence to search rankings in Google rather than relevance or authority. But Markey is clear that she’s not entrenched in an anti-Internet camp when it comes to research. She said there are plenty of good tools (Google Scholar, for instance), as well as sources for surfacing information — but students need to learn to be more discerning and know when to look deeper.

BiblioBouts may seem like a technology solution to a technology problem, in that you’re using one system to try and bring order to another (solving the “there’s too much information” problem, or perhaps the filter failure problem). But Markey thinks making more critical readers is the answer, and in that way BiblioBouts is just a tool.

“I think we need to teach people methodologies,” she said. “When you retrieve something on the web, you need to ask questions about what I am looking at and whether the information can be trusted.”

Markey can see a ready analog in journalism and the idea of media literacy. A similar game, call it truth-squading or BS-detecting, could be used either in training would-be journalists how to ferret out information, or creating more shrewd news consumers. “We need to be critical consumers of information to make decisions that impact our lives,” she said.

Image by Kimli used under a Creative Commons license.

January 21 2011

15:30

This Week in Review: The Comcast-NBC marriage, j-school 2.0, and questions about paywall data

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Huge merger, big reservations: One of the biggest media deals of the past decade got its official go-ahead when the Federal Communications Commission approved the proposed merger between Comcast and NBC Universal. As Ars Technica noted, the deal’s scope is massive: In addition to being the nation’s largest cable provider, the new company will control numerous cable channels, plus the NBC television network, Universal Studios, Universal theme parks, and two professional sports teams.

The new company will also retain a stake in the online TV site Hulu (which NBC co-founded with News Corp.), though it agreed to give up its management role as one of the conditions the FCC placed on its approval. Lost Remote’s Steve Safran called the requirement a forward-thinking move by the FCC, given how far Comcast’s content outpaces Hulu’s right now. Another of the conditions also protects Bloomberg TV from being disadvantaged by Comcast in favor of its new property, CNBC.

The decision had plenty of detractors, starting with the FCC’s own Michael Copps, who wrote in his dissenting statement that the deal could lead to the “cable-ization of the Internet.” “The potential for walled gardens, toll booths, content prioritization, access fees to reach end users, and a stake in the heart of independent content production is now very real,” he said. In the current issue of The Columbia Journalism Review, John Dunbar wrote a more thorough critique of the deal, arguing that it’s old media’s last-gasp attempt to stave off the web’s disruption of television. Josh Silver and Josh Stearns of the media reform group both penned protests, too.

A few other angles: GigaOM’s Liz Shannon Miller looked at the FCC’s emphasis on online video, and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka explained why the deal might make it more difficult to give up cable. Finally, Steve Myers of Poynter examined NBC’s agreement as part of the merger to create new partnerships between some of its local stations and nonprofit news organizations.

Rethinking j-school: The Carnival of Journalism, an old collaborative blogging project, was revived this month by Spot.Us founder (and fellow at Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute) David Cohn, who directed participants to blog about the Knight Foundation’s call for j-schools to increase their role as “hubs of journalistic activity” and integrate further integrate media literacy into all levels of education.

The posts came rolling in this week, and they contained a variety of ideas about both the journalistic hubs component and the media literacy component. The latter point was expounded on most emphatically by Craig Silverman, who laid out a vision for the required course “Bullshit Detection 101,” teaching students how to consume media (especially online) with a keen, skeptical eye. “The Internet is the single greatest disseminator of bullshit ever created. The Internet is also the single greatest destroyer of bullshit,” he wrote.

CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson pointed to a 2009 lecture in which he argued for education about the production of media (especially new media) to be spread beyond the j-school throughout universities, and Memphis j-prof Carrie Brown-Smith noted that for students to learn new media literacy, the professors have to be willing to learn it, too. Politico reporter Juana Summers made the case for K-12 media literacy education, and POLIS director Charlie Beckett talked about going beyond simplistic concepts of media literacy.

There were plenty of proposals about j-schools as journalistic hubs, as well. City University, London j-prof Paul Bradshaw wrote about the need for j-students to learn not just how to produce journalism, but how to facilitate its production by the community. Megan Taylor tossed out a few ideas, too, including opening student newspapers up to the community, and J-Lab editorial director Andrew Pergam and CUNY’s Daniel Bachhuber looked at the newsroom cafe concept and NYU’s The Local: East Village, respectively, as examples for j-schools. Cohn chimed in with suggestions on how to expand the work of journalism beyond the j-school and beyond the university, and Central Lancashire j-prof Andy Dickinson argued that j-schools should serve to fill the gaps left by traditional media.

A few more odds and ends from the Carnival of Journalism: Minnesota j-prof Seth Lewis urged j-schools to create more opportunities for students to fail, Cornell grad student Josh Braun pondered how the rise of online education might play into all this, and Rowan j-prof Mark Berkey-Gerard listed some of the challenges of student-run journalism.

A pro-paywall data point: One of the biggest proponents of paid news online lately has been Steven Brill, whose Journalism Online works with news organizations to charge for content online. This week, Brill publicized findings from his first few dozen efforts that found that with a metered model (one that allows a certain number of articles for free, then charges for access beyond that), traffic didn’t decline dramatically, as they were expected to. The New York Times — a paper that’s planning a metered paid-content modelwrote about the results, and a few folks found it encouraging.

Others were skeptical — like The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum, who wondered why the story didn’t include information about how many people paid up online and how much revenue the paywalls generated. Rick Edmonds of Poynter pointed out the same thing, and tied the story to a recently announced paywall at The Dallas Morning News and tweaks at Honolulu Civil Beat’s paywall.

Elsewhere in the world of paid news content, Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center talked to the editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald about his newspaper’s paywall experiment, who had a warning about technical challenges but encouraging news about public feedback.

Cracking the iPad’s subscription code: Publishers’ initial crush on the iPad seems to be fading into ambivalence: The New York Times reported this week that magazines publishers are frustrated with Apple’s harsh terms in allowing them to offer iPad subscriptions and are beginning to look to other forthcoming tablets instead. Apple is cracking down overseas, too, reportedly telling European newspapers that they can’t offer a free iPad edition to print subscribers.

One publication is about to become one of the first to seriously test Apple’s subscription model — Rupert Murdoch’s much-anticipated The Daily. Advertising Age reported on the expectations and implications surrounding The Daily, and the Lab’s Ken Doctor took a look at The Daily’s possible financial figures. Mashable’s Lauren Indvik, meanwhile, wondered how The Daily will handle the social media portion of the operation.

In other iPad news, a survey reported on by Advertising Age found that while iPad users don’t like ads there, they might welcome them as an alternative to paid apps. The survey also suggested, interestingly enough, that the device is being used a lot like home computers, with search and email dominating the uses and usage of media apps like books and TV lagging well behind that. Business Insider also reported that AOL is working on a Flipboard-esque iPad app that tailors news around users’ preferences.

Reading roundup: Tons of other stuff going on this week. Here’s a sampling:

— Two titans of the tech industry, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt — announced this week they would be stepping down (Jobs is taking a temporary medical leave; Schmidt stepping down as CEO but staying on as executive chairman). Both were massive tech stories, and Techmeme has more links for you on both than I could ever intelligently direct you to.

— Another huge shakeup, this in the media world: Dean Singleton, co-founder of the bankrupt newspaper chain MediaNews, will step down as its CEO. Both Ken Doctor and the Lab’s Martin Langeveld saw Alden Global Capital’s fingerprints all over this and other newspaper bankruptcy shakeups, with Langeveld speculating about a possible massive consolidation in the works.

— As I noted last week, Wikipedia celebrated its 10th anniversary last Saturday, prompting several reflections late last week. A few I that missed last week’s review: Clay Shirky on Wikipedia’s “ordinary miracle,” The New York Times on Wikipedia’s history, and Jay Rosen’s comparison of Wikipedia and The Times.

— Pew published a survey on the social web, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and The Atlantic’s Jared Keller both offered smart summaries of the Internet’s remarkable social capacity, with Keller tying it to Robert Putnam’s well-known thoughts on social capital.

— A few addenda to last week’s commentary about the Tucson shooting: How NPR’s errant reporting hurt the families involved, j-prof Jeremy Littau on deleting incorrect tweets, Mathew Ingram on Twitter’s accuracy in breaking news, and the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s study of the shooting’s coverage.

— Finally, a wonderful manifesto for journalists by former Guardian editor Tim Radford. This is one you’ll want to read, re-read, and then probably re-read again down the road.

November 06 2010

18:35

Promuovere l’accesso alla Rete: Internet come strumento abilitante alla partecipazione

Non servono lunghi discorsi o complessi approfondimenti per illustrare l’ottavo articolo del Manifesto per l’Open Government: Promuovere l’accesso alla Rete.

La tecnologia, ed in particolare internet e gli strumenti di accesso alla Rete, sono elementi abilitanti ai processi di partecipazione. Per questo motivo è dovere dello Stato consentire a tutti i cittadini di accedervi e promuoverne la cultura d’uso.

Si potrebbero citare i numerosi studi che dimostrano come la diffusione della banda larga porti benefici economici e sociali sul territorio. Si potrebbe evidenziare come quattro cittadini su cinque, secondo un recente studio della BBC World Service, hanno dichiarato di ritenere l’accesso ad Internet un “diritto fondamentale”. Si potrebbe ricordare come l’Unione Europea si stia muovendo perché lo diventi davvero e – finalmente – per tutelarne lo spazio. Si potrebbe far notare che Paesi come la Finlandia (diffusione della banda larga: 96% della popolazione) lo hanno già fatto, dichiarandolo servizio universale ed operando affinché entro il 2012 tutti i cittadini abbiano un accesso a 2Mbps, per arrivare ai 100Mbps entro il 2015. Si potrebbe guardare a tutto quello che succede oltre l’orto di casa nostra insomma, per rendersi conto di come in tutto il mondo il tema dell’accesso sia considerato una priorità.

Eppure non è necessario. Per comprendere perché sia importante l’accesso alla Rete basta un semplice, semplicissimo ragionamento: Internet è uno strumento fondamentale di conoscenza. La conoscenza (dei fatti, dei diritti, dei doveri, delle informazioni) è un principio fondamentale di libertà. Internet, quindi, è uno strumento di libertà. E non serve Aristotele per definire tanto vero quanto valido questo sillogismo.

Ma internet non è solo strumento di libertà: nei processi democratici diventa anche e soprattutto strumento di partecipazione. Uno strumento come mai l’uomo ne ha avuti a disposizione. Uno strumento che consente ad ogni cittadino di partecipare davvero dei processi decisionali delle cose della cosa pubblica che lo vedono soggetto attivo e – con le reti – possono vederlo protagonista. Reale attore e non più mero delegante. Senza la Rete non può esserci quell’interazione attiva e positiva che rappresenta la base della partecipazione, connotante dei processi di Open Government.

Per questi motivi lo Stato deve farsi garante della possibilità – per tutti i cittadini – di accedere ad Internet. Per questo motivo è indispensabile promuovere lo sviluppo delle infrastrutture così che anche nelle zone più disagiate – che sono spesso proprio quelle nelle quali il ruolo di Internet potrebbe essere determinante – sia possibile accedervi con condizioni sufficientemente buone da sfruttarne i servizi.

In Italia sono oltre tredici milioni le persone che non possono avere accesso alla rete in banda larga. Una sacca di Digital Divide inaccettabile in un Paese come il nostro, che diviene tanto più allarmante quanto più ci si rende conto del fatto che le Istituzioni non solo non sono attive per risolvere il problema, ma spesso non ne comprendono nemmeno appieno le conseguenze e le ripercussioni sullo sviluppo e sul benessere dei cittadini.

E non basta. Il Digital Divide non è soltanto tecnologico, ma anche e soprattutto culturale. Ed è il Digital Divide culturale  a rappresentare il problema più grande per il futuro del nostro Paese. Per promuovere la cultura d’uso dei nuovi contesti mediali non basta insegnare ad usare il PC. È necessario insegnare i linguaggi della Rete, illustrarne le dinamiche, evidenziarne le specificità. Altrimenti si corre il rischio – tanto per fare un esempio – di confondere il fatto di essere su Facebook con il saper comprendere le logiche dei social network. È un tema, questo, di fondamentale importanza, in un contesto in cui i nostri governanti troppo spesso ritengono che il problema dell’alfabetizzazione alle tecnologie verrà risolto semplicemente con l’avvento dei nativi digitali. In realtà oggi è indispensabile acquisire le competenze ed i saperi necessari per leggere, interpretare, decifrare e codificare correttamente i messaggi nel nuovo contesto mediale. È necessaria una nuova alfabetizzazione ai media. Un’alfabetizzazione importante tanto quanto quella tradizionale. Indispensabile per non correre il rischio di ritrovarci con figli analfabeti in un mondo digitale.

March 22 2010

10:32

Charlie Beckett: Do we have an information overload?

Charlie Beckett, director of think tank Polis, reports on last week’s Media CSR Forum and Polis event, In Media We Trust?

The debate questioned information overload, and how to manage media literacy – raising issues on which audience and panellists were divided. Beckett concludes:

[I] am more concerned about whether we have the curators to help shape these information flows and whether those people or organisations that do the filtering and connecting are informed by some kind of ethical value system. Data is not neutral. Information is beautiful but it is also political. Networks are powerful and so they also need to be transparent and acountable. Step forward the networked journalist, your digital public sphere needs you.

Full post at this link…

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November 26 2009

18:20

UGC guidelines stress importance of media literacy


The set of guidelines about user-generated content produced by industry body, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA), aims to help broadcasters get the most out of working with the audience.

The guidelines, available as a PDF, cover familiar ground on concerns about quality of the content and potential legal issues. It acknowledges that:

The most apparent benefit for broadcasters of using UGC is that it provides free access to material which they might not otherwise obtain. The most obvious examples are footage of breaking news stories. Recent high profile examples include the post election riots in Iran and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

But the guidelines also seek to broaden the way journalists think about UGC, and suggests that it is a way of promoting greater media democracy:

While encouraging ‘better quality’ UGC (however that may be defined) might appear a worthwhile aim, pursuing this goal alone could serve only to further amplify the voices of the better resourced members of the audience and further marginalise the poor and disempowered. The aim of these guidelines, therefore, is to provide guidance on how to encourage a greater diversity of material from a wider range of voices: material that serves both the public and commercial needs of broadcasters and the viewing and democratic needs of the widest possible audience.

The advice focuses not just on how to handle UGC, but also on the issue of media and information literacy. It argues that news organisations would benefit from promoting greater media literacy, by strengthening relationships with audiences and countering claims that UGC is just a way of getting free content.

This is an important part of the equation that is often ignored in the discussion of UGC. The people formerly known as the audience have the tools to report on events around them, but the media can play a part in helping people understand how to “seek, use and create media content”.

UNESCO defines media literacy as the ability to “interpret and make informed judgments as users of information and media, as well as to become skilful creators and producers of information and media messages in their own right”.

Journalism is considered as vital to a functioning democracy, by providing citizens with the news and information they need to make informed decisions. In a participatory media ecosystem, part of this role is providing citizens with the skills and competences to evaluate and create media.

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