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August 19 2010

15:00

The kids are alright, part 2: What news organizations can do to attract, and keep, young consumers

[Christopher Sopher is a senior at the University of North Carolina, where he is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and a Truman Scholar. He has been a multimedia editor of the Daily Tar Heel and has worked for the Knight Foundation. His studies have focused on young people's consumption of news and participation in civic lifewhich have resulted in both a formal report and an ongoing blog, Younger Thinking.

We asked Chris to adapt some of his most relevant findings for the Lab, which he kindly agreed to do. We posted Part 1 yesterday; below is Part 2. Ed.]

Now that I have exhorted all of you to care about young people and their relationship with the news media, it’s worth examining a few of the most pertinent ideas about getting more of my peers engaged: the gap between young people’s reported interested in issues and their interest in news, the need for tools to help organize the information flow, and the crucial role of news in schools and news literacy.

A gap between interest and news consumption

The data seem to suggest that young people are simultaneously interested and uninterested in the world around them. For example, a 2007 Pew survey [pdf] found that 85 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds reported being interested in “keeping up with national affairs” — a significant increase from 1999. Yet in a 2008 study [pdf], just 33 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds (and 47 percent of people aged 25 to 34) said they enjoyed keeping up with news “a lot.” Young people also tend to score lower on surveys of political knowledge — all of which suggests that their information habits are not matching their reported interests.

There are a few compelling explanations for this apparent contradiction (beyond people’s general desire to provide socially agreeable responses). The first is that many young people may not see a consistent connection between regularly “getting the news” and staying informed about the issues that interest them. If we accept that most young people get their news at random intervals (and the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that this is the case), it’s easy to see how reading a particular day’s New York Times story about health care reform, for example, might be rather confusing if you haven’t been following the coverage regularly.

Many young people also report feelings of monotony with day-to-day issue coverage and a distaste for the process focus of most politics coverage. Some share the sentiments (about which Gina Chen has written here at the Lab) of the now-famous, if anonymous, college student who said, “If the news is that important, it will find me.” The cumulative effect of these trends is that young people go elsewhere to “keep up”: to Wikipedia articles, to friends and family, to individual pieces of particularly helpful content shared through social networks.

The “too much information” problem

Several studies have highlighted the fact that many young people feel overwhelmed by the deluge of information presented on news sites. (My two favorite pieces on this are both from the Media Management Center, found here and here here [pdf].)

This sentiment is understandable: On one day I counted, the New York Times’ homepage offered 28 stories across four columns above the scroll cutoff and another 95 below it — for a total of 123 stories, along with 66 navigation links on the lefthand bar. CNN.com also had 28 stories on top and 127 total, along with 15 navigation links. Imagine a newspaper with that many choices.

The point is that news sites need to be designed to help users manage and restrict the wealth of information, rather than presenting them with all of it at once. People can and are doing the work of “curation” on their own, of course, through iGoogle, Twitter, RSS, and social networks both online and off — but those efforts leave behind the vast majority of news outlets. Better design allows news organizations to include the kind of context and background and explanation — not to mention personalization features — that younger audiences find helpful. That idea isn’t new, but its importance for young people cannot be overstated.

Schools, news, and news literacy

News organizations need to learn from soda and snack producers and systematically infiltrate schools across the country with their products. There’s strong evidence that news-based, experiential, and interactive course design [pdf] — as well as the use of news in classrooms and the presence of strong student-produced publications — can both increase the likelihood that students will continue to seek news regularly in the future.

Many teachers are already using news [pdf] in their classrooms, but face the pressures of standardization and an apparent lack of support from administrations. A 2007 Carnegie-Knight Task Force study [pdf] also found that most teachers who do use news content in their curricula direct their students to online national outlets (such as CNN or NYTimes.com) rather than local sites, which suggests that local news organizations need to focus on building a web-based presence in schools. The Times Learning Network is an excellent model.

And when news media finally fill school halls like so much Pepsi (or, now, fruit juice), young people themselves will also need help to navigate content and become savvy consumers, which is where news literacy programs become important. The Lab’s own Megan Garber has explained their value eloquently in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review: “The bottom line: news organizations need to make a point of seeking out young people — and of explaining to them what they do and, perhaps even more importantly, why they do it. News literacy offers news organizations the opportunity to essentially re-brand themselves.” The News Literacy Project, started by a Pulitzer-winning former Los Angeles Times reporter, is a leading example.

The point of these ideas is that there are significant but entirely surmountable obstacles to getting more young people engaged with news media — a goal with nearly universal benefits that has received far too little attention from news organizations.

I’ll conclude with a quote from NYU professor Jay Rosen, buried inside the 2005 book Tuned Out: “Student’s don’t grow up with the religion of journalism, they don’t imbibe it in the same way that students used to. Some do, but a lot don’t.” Changing that is the difficult but urgent challenge. I don’t want to be that guy who says “_____ will save journalism,” so I’ll just say this: It’s really, really, really important.

And I should probably mention that there are hundreds of recent journalism school graduates who would be more than willing to help.

Image by Paul Mayne, used under a Creative Commons license.

August 18 2010

19:00

The kids are alright: How news organizations can tap the vast potential of younger consumers

[Christopher Sopher is a senior at the University of North Carolina, where he is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and a Truman Scholar. He has been a multimedia editor of the Daily Tar Heel and has worked for the Knight Foundation. His studies have focused on young people's consumption of news and participation in civic lifewhich have resulted in both a formal report and an ongoing blog, Younger Thinking.

We asked Chris to adapt some of his most relevant findings for the Lab, which he kindly agreed to do. Below is Part 1; we'll post Part 2 tomorrow. Ed.]

There are three “truths” the journalism world seems to acknowledge about the current generation of young people: They like cell phones, they use Facebook, and they never read newspapers. This is frequently interpreted to mean the end of the storied twentieth century tradition of reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, and, therefore, the end of democracy.

Perhaps it’s youthful naivete, but I’m fairly certain there are a few steps between reading the news on a mobile phone and the inability of a people to govern themselves. And this isn’t the first time a generation of young people has been accused of marching the world toward languid doom. The question that matters is this: What will replace the morning newspaper as the news habit of the first generation of Americans to grow up immersed in a digital culture? I recently finished a year of research and review in an attempt to find some answers to this question.

What I found was this:

With a few exceptions, the journalism world hasn’t been particularly effective at connecting its concern about young audiences to better understanding or better action. Which is an unfortunate failure, because young people have a lot to teach — both about themselves as current and future news consumers, and about the social and technological trends that shape the news ecosystem.

The broad summary is that most of today’s young people (the “millennials”) are interested in local, national, and international issues — and a strong majority are at least somewhat engaged with news media, predominantly online, through social networks and on television. Yet there is also great untapped potential resulting from the troublesome fact that most news outlets simply aren’t very good at reaching or serving young audiences.

Without significant changes and experimentation, news organizations are likely to miss the democratic, journalistic, and financial opportunities that are latent in the largest generation since the Baby Boomers. It is a common-sense but regrettably neglected point: If you care about the future of news, you need to care about (and understand) young people.

At the conclusion of my research, I compiled a list of the ten ideas I believe hold the most promise for getting more young people engaged with the news media. The general theme is that news organizations need to create a more usable, relevant, and explanatory experience and combine it with serious support for news literacy and news-in-schools programs that communicate to young people why they ought to use and support journalism. These aren’t complex or novel ideas individually, but if they’re to be effective, they’ll need collective attention.

I’ll explore a few of the most pertinent ideas in more detail in the next post, but I’ll conclude here with three points I think are vital to understanding young people’s relationship with the news.

1. The cliche that becomes the assumption. Too many stereotypes about young people get worked into news experiments aimed at them. One example: while it’s true that most young people feel more comfortable with technology and the Internet than their elders do, we don’t possess some sherpa-like, innate ability to navigate poorly designed, poorly organized information (as the Media Management Center’s excellent research demonstrates). Recreating an old experience in a new format is an ineffective way to reach young audiences.

2. Boring or fluffy. Most sectors of journalism thought have rejected the bimodal theory of news: either it’s inherently boring but deeply important (town council minutes) or entertaining but inane (Lindsey Lohan updates). Yet for some reason the assumption of bifurcation continues to pervade news outlets’ discussion of young people: Journalist types implore young people to eat more broccoli, while most news organizations’ efforts to reach young people assume they’re only interested in candy. (See Chicago’s RedEye or Denver’s failed 2005 experiment, Bias Magazine.) The potential is in the elusive middle ground — which I suppose, to follow my own analogy, would be “tasty vegetables.”

3. Why young people get the news. It’s an obvious, but often overlooked, point that the news needs to be designed with an awareness of how and why the audience experiences it. As for the latter, there are many theories about why young people read the news (and some excellent research, such as this ethnographic study [pdf] by the AP): the social capital theory (also known as “I want to seem smart by being able to talk about the oil spill’s effects on the brown pelican”); the democracy theory; the habit theory. The truth is probably a combination of these three, but they all point to the idea that news is both social and functional. Most news organizations do a poor job of providing an experience that, for young audiences who have a different level of knowledge and experience than older consumers is either of those things.

The point: Journalism needs to focus on young audiences and experiment with new approaches to engaging them. The results of that would be beneficial for everyone involved. Here, again, is my list of ten ideas for making it happen. What would you add?

Image of a paper-reader by foreverphoto, used under a Creative Commons license.

March 23 2010

16:00

Poynter’s hiring. What will their writer/curator be up to?

For the past few days, a job posting has been making its way around the web: the Poynter Institute, it announces, is looking to hire a writer/curator for its Sense-Making Project. Which is a job title that — out of context, anyway — doesn’t itself seem to make much sense (A what for the what?). But it’s also one that’s intriguing. Writing? Curating? Sense-making? Can’t argue with that.

I asked Kelly McBride, Poynter’s Ethics Group Leader and lead faculty for the program, about the project and its new position. The Sense-Making Project itself, she told me, is a pilot effort funded by Ford and focused on the intersection between journalism and citizen engagement — and closely related to news literacy, the movement that aims to educate citizens to be savvy consumers of news. “We started with the central question of how citizens will make sense of the universe,” McBride says. And the curator position is in part predicated on one clear answer to that question: “They’re going to need some help.”

One of the project’s aims, McBride says, is to cater to the expanding group Poynter refers to as “the fifth estate”: the broad network of people, journalists both professional and non-, who are now participating in the newsgathering process. The project wants to “create a place where people who are motivated to develop new skills about consuming information can go to do that, to be in conversation and to share their ideas,” she says. And the person who takes on the writer/curator job will guide and, yes, curate that conversation.

In some ways, the position is one that requires the skills of (pardon a slight oxymoron) the classic blogger: “gathering and writing and reassembling and helping us look through all of this information that’s out there, putting a magnifying glass on certain parts of the virtual world and saying, ‘Here’s something to look at.’” But the new role will combine curation with a slightly more academic approach: one that considers the contextual aspects of information. The writer/curator will be taking, if all goes according to plan, an archaeological — and in some senses anthropological — approach to news and the social capital it engenders: a kind of Putnam-meets-Wasik-meets-Foucault-style sensibility toward social knowledge. “The whole idea of the project is, ‘What if you had someone whose only job it was, every day, to be looking at information?” McBride says. “And this person gets the new world and the old world, and isn’t writing to an audience of professional journalists, and is writing to Joe Citizen, saying, ‘Hey, this is kind of interesting.’”

It’s meme-tracking, essentially — tracing the movement of ideas though our social spaces — except with information, rather than notions, as the core proposition. “If you think about what PolitiFact does for political facts,” McBride says, “we’re thinking similar to that, only for the rest of the universe.”

It’s an intriguing idea — and one that suggests a subtle shift in the atomic structure of journalism itself: from the article as the core unit of news, and even from the blog post as that unit, to something more discrete and, yet, tantalizingly ephemeral: the fact itself, the assertion itself, the piece of information itself. Propositions that are solid and fluid at the same time. “What we’ve found,” McBride says, “is that when you start taking a single piece of information, you can actually look at the history — where it came from, who linked to what, who transformed it, and how it got to you. And then you can look at how it went out from there.” The analysis might require “diagnosing language,” she says, or “asking about the motivation of the person who delivered the information.” It also might require “asking about the setting in which the information was delivered, because things on Facebook are different from things on Twitter.”

Either way, the analysis will focus on a goal that’s quickly gaining traction in journalism: the provision of context as a means of adding value to information. With the project and its expansion, “I hope to create a body of work that reveals trends and pressure points that have yet to be revealed,” McBride says. Because “it’s in those trends that you start to say: ‘Oh, okay, here’s a tool people need.’”

January 19 2010

19:15

Ethan Zuckerman: Advocacy, agenda and attention: Unpacking unstated motives in NGO journalism

[If more of our news is going to produced by non-traditional sources — like NGOs who have an interest in promoting their own agenda — how can news consumers sort through their sources and figure out who to believe? Our friend Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center asks those questions in this essay, which examines a case where a news provider with an agenda reported on an event that may not have happened. This is the seventh part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

Robbie Honerkamp is one of a few dozen Wikipedians dedicated to improving the vast online encyclopedia’s articles on African topics. He’s well qualified to carry out this work — Honerkamp stepped away from a successful career as a system administrator for Mindspring and Earthlink to help internet service providers (ISPs) in Nigeria grow and expand. His time living in Nigeria gives him an understanding of local politics and culture that gives him an advantage in writing and editing articles focused on West Africa.

When reviewing a list of recently posted articles that focused on Nigeria, Honerkamp was struck by an article titled 2005 killings of Christians in Nigeria. Honerkamp was familiar with conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities in northern Nigeria, but the article appeared to violate Wikipedia’s central principle of NPOV — neutral point of view — by focusing primarily on the killing of Christians. So he began researching the events in Demsa Village, Adamawa State, Nigeria, looking for a fuller account of events. (This author became aware of Honerkamp’s research when he contacted me for any information I might have on these incidents.)

His research quickly hit a wall. The Wikipedia article offered two sources, and the second source cited the first, a report from Compass Direct, an online newsletter associated with the “Christian Persecution” movement. Honerkamp wasn’t able to find confirmation of Compass Direct’s report in the international press, in reputable Nigerian newspapers, or in several news databases he consulted.

It’s not uncommon for news that occurs in rural African communities to go unreported. But Honerkamp was able to find reports of Christian-on-Muslim violence in a similarly rural Nigerian state a year earlier than the reported events in Demsa Village, as well as violence between ethnic groups in Adamawa State, both covered by BBC’s correspondent in Lagos. Why would these stories attract coverage, and an attack of Christians by Muslims go unreported?

An attack without an evidence trail

It took Honerkamp several months of research to find the answer: the incident simply didn’t happen, or didn’t happen the way Compass Direct reported it. The U.S. State Department’s 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices reported that “at least ten people were killed in clashes between farmers and herdsmen in Demsa, Adamawa State.” A paper by Emeka Okafor, an academic at the University of Ibadan, referenced “the yearly hostility between cattle rearers and local farmers in Adamawa State,” and reported that the 2005 hostilities were responsible for 28 deaths and the displacement of 2,500 people from Demsa.

In other words, the deaths in Demsa were likely the result of an ongoing conflict between Fulani herders (many of whom are Animists, not Muslims) and farmers in Demsa (whose religious affiliation is unknown, though they may well have been Muslims, as the state was an Emirate within the Sultanate of Sokoto before the borders of contemporary Nigeria were established). Honerkamp’s research uncovered that these subtleties weren’t reported in any of the outlets that picked up the story, yet Christian Persecution Information declared the story one of the Top 10 Christian Persecution News Stories of 2005.

Based on his research, Honerkamp deleted the article in question from Wikipedia. His careful research of the story may not be the norm for Wikipedia, but it points to the value of Wikipedia’s policy prohibiting original research, which requires articles to source their claims or face speedy deletion. It also serves an example of one of Wikipedia’s subtler features — its ability to improve over time. Honerkamp was searching Wikipedia for weak articles which he could improve, and researched the Demsa story in the hopes of strengthening the encyclopedia.

The story reported by Compass Direct, if incorrect, was certainly consistent with its stated mission: “Compass Direct is a Christian news service dedicated to providing exclusive news, penetrating reports, moving interviews and insightful analyses of situations and events facing Christians persecuted for their faith.” [Note: Since Ethan wrote this paragraph, Compass Direct has revised their "about" page (formerly here) to remove the first "Christian" in that quote, keeping the second. —Josh] While their website includes little information about the organization beyond their location in Santa Ana, California, they share a webserver with Open Doors International, a Christian missionary organization dedicated to outreach to “the persecuted church.”

When agendas and reporting mix

While Compass Direct makes no claims to provide unbiased, balanced news, the role of organizations such as Compass Direct in serving as news producers and distributors is becoming increasingly important, and the implications of this need to be explored. In many parts of the developing world, aid agencies and religious missions are the only organizations with international reach that report breaking news. As the world of print journalism struggles to find a new economic model, we’re likely to see more cuts in news that’s expensive to produce. This likely means fewer foreign correspondents, more reliance on newswires, and more parts of the world where no international news organizations have a presence. In other words, while we tend to think of our digital age as one of information abundance, international news, especially news from outside capital cities, increasingly face a situation of scarcity.

In the near future, international news reporting will involve fewer reports from newswires and foreign correspondents, and include more content from citizen media (reports from ordinary citizens via blogs, Twitter, photo and video-sharing services), from local media reaching international audiences through websites, and from NGOs, including religious organizations, reporting news either as their primary focus, or to support their primary activities. Such a broad set of citizen and professional reporters may help alleviate scarcity, but it also opens a set of questions about reliability, accuracy, and the challenge of triangulating between media sources. While there’s a longstanding debate about the reliability of citizen media in news reporting,1 there has been less discussion about the role that NGOs play and the reliability of the reporting they produce.

In parts of the world that are dangerous and difficult for journalists to reach, aid workers are often the only eyewitnesses to events whom journalists know how to contact. In 2008, Reuters reported a recent clash between government and rebel forces in N’Djamena with reference to only a single source, the local head of Médecins Sans Frontières, who was able to offer a total of dead and wounded, coordinating counting efforts with the Red Cross. These stories are especially common in rural areas; a 2007 Reuters story on refugee movements in northwest Central African Republic is reported with a Geneva dateline, with all details and quotes provided by a Red Cross spokeswoman who’d recently returned from the area.

These examples are not intended to suggest that either Reuters or the NGOs they rely on to report events are taking journalistic shortcuts, or that we should be suspicious of the factual content of these reports. But they do suggest that certain types of news reporting require the cooperation of NGOs who have access to first-hand information that is difficult or impossible for journalists to access. Readers, in turn, need to be aware of the needs and motivations of these organizations.

The needs of fundraising

Most relief organizations are constantly engaged in the process of fundraising. Fundraising is easiest to accomplish when disasters — natural or man-made — are widely reported on. In the wake of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the American Red Cross (ARC) saw an almost unprecedented opportunity to raise money and replenish blood banks as national media attention focused exclusively on the attacks and their aftermath.

The ARC found itself embroiled in controversy almost immediately. There were relatively few wounded in the 9/11 attacks, so the donated blood wasn’t helping 9/11 victims, but helping replenish Red Cross stocks. As early as September 12, the executive director of America’s Blood Centers contacted the ARC and asked them to stop collecting blood as the centers were over supply and in danger of having to throw out donated blood. A similar controversy opened over fiscal donations. The ARC deposited funds collected in the wake of 9/11 into a dedicated “Liberty Fund,” which quickly accumulated $543 million. Less than one third of the funds raised were spent on September 11 relief efforts. ARC President Bernadine Healy declared the organization’s intentions to spend the remaining money on preparing the organization to respond to future terrorist attacks. New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer responded by threatening legal action, and Healy resigned her post shortly afterwards.

In the wake of the 9/11 controversy, it’s easy to understand the decision of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to stop fundraising within a week of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Red Cross-affiliated organizations raised $1.2 billion in thirty days, aided in part by non-stop media coverage of the crisis. A study conducted by Reuters AlertNet, a newswire dedicated to humanitarian issues, concluded that the tsunami received more media attention within six weeks than ten critical international emergencies had received in the previous year. Had ARC not faced such harsh criticism for reallocating funds years earlier, it’s possible that the Red Cross would have continued raising funds and allocated them to other underfunded humanitarian crises.

Instead, aid organizations have figured out that they need to redirect media attention to redirect relief funds. AlertNet, in conjunction with aid agencies, academics and activists, compiles a list of “forgotten emergencies” that is designed to direct media attention to these situations in hopes of opening the pockets of individual and government donors. Some aid organizations produce similar lists. Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) called their list the “top ten underreported humanitarian stories” through 2007, explicitly linking the importance of media attention to addressing these crises.

The risks of reporters trusting NGOs

While it is vitally important to draw attention to the desperate situations faced by individuals around the world, such as the ethnic Somali people in eastern Ethiopia, reporters — faced with an increasing need to rely on humanitarian NGOs for information or access — are at risk of being manipulated by humanitarian organizations to direct attention to crises.

In November 2007, UNAIDS — an intergovernmental organization that supports itself in part through direct donations, competing for resources with AIDS prevention NGOs — acknowledged that their organization had systematically overestimated the spread of AIDS, and subsequently cut their estimate of new HIV infections by 40 percent. Critics complained that UNAIDS founder, Dr. Peter Piot, had allowed numbers to remain inflated to create a sense of urgency and raise money to support HIV/AIDS research. Public health specialist and author Ellen Epstein reacted to the UNAIDS revisions by saying, “There was a tendency toward alarmism, and that fit perhaps a certain fundraising agenda. I hope these new numbers will help refocus the response in a more pragmatic way.” The alarmism the original numbers generated had real fiscal implications: millions of dollars were spent addressing HIV/AIDS in countries that turned out to have very low incidences of the disease, like Ghana. Had UNAIDS revised their numbers earlier, it’s likely that health professionals would have refocused some funds on endemic diseases like malaria. Or those funds might never have been raised, as media attention to AIDS far outpaces attention to malaria, TB, and other diseases.

It’s a mistake to read the UNAIDS revisions as an isolated case of bad actors manipulating data to their benefit. Rather, it is better understood as a result of a system which encourages activists, researchers and relief workers to seek media attention for their causes, while asking them to serve as primary sources for reporting on the same issues. Despite strong institutional admonitions to remain neutral in the face of conflicts, the Red Cross has large, professional fundraising and communications departments, whose job it is to ensure that crises are well marketed and monetized.

A different model

Other relief organizations are more explicit about their role as advocates. MSF was founded by a group of French doctors who had worked for the Red Cross during the Biafran War. They became convinced that it was their duty not just to heal, but to speak out about Nigeria’s attack on health workers and hospitals. In 1970, they formed an organization centered on “victim’s rights,” which explicitly prioritized protecting victims over political neutrality. This responsibility to witness — termed témoignage within MSF circles — makes reporting and advocacy an explicit element of MSF’s organizational mission.2

MSF’s focus on victim advocacy sometimes leads the organization to public confrontations with UN peacekeeping missions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, MSF has recently criticized the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) for providing insufficient protection to civilians, sparking a small wave of press stories about the failures of the UN force. While MSF’s role as an advocacy organization gives the organization reason to point to the threat to civilians in the eastern DRC, there’s a sense in which MSF’s critique is self-serving. If MONUC can’t protect MSF in the eastern Congo, MSF has to invest its own funding to hire security personnel, or cut operations. While this doesn’t invalidate MSF’s critique, it requires readers of news stories citing the MSF critique to do some careful interpretation. MSF is outraged not just on behalf of victims, but because MONUC’s failures complicate MSF efforts.

Clearly there’s a vast difference between cases in which an NGO bends the truth to advance an ideological agenda, as Compass Direct seems to have done, and cases where MSF’s valid and appropriate criticism of MONUC efforts has the secondary purpose of advocating better protection for MSF workers (and, perhaps, supporting MSF fundraising efforts). Instances like the UNAIDS case illustrate how confusing this landscape can be: Was UNAIDS reporting on the urgency of AIDS statistics a case of bending the truth to advance their goals, or legitimate advocacy to draw attention to a serious global issue?

A need for news literacy

As the world of journalism becomes more complicated and multifaceted, we’re (re)discovering the need for an important form of literacy. We need to know who we’re reading, and understand how the perspectives and agendas of those providing the information shape coverage. And we need to triangulate between sources of reporting, examining how the same events are covered — or not covered — through different eyes.

This suggested hermeneutic for newsreading isn’t actually new. Prior to the rise of citizen media, of wiki-based participatory journalism, and of NGOs acting as journalists, we would have been wise to carefully consider potential commercial and ideological biases in professional media. This moment of abrupt change in journalism brings these issues to the forefront, and opens the opportunity for us to ensure that critical reading includes an understanding of NGO motives in reporting the news, and the need to contextualize NGO reporting as we should contextualize citizen and professional reporting.

The need to contextualize and triangulate presents special challenges for reporting from disconnected parts of the developing world. If NGOs are the only accessible sources for reports from Central Africa, a precursor to triangulation may be identifying and cultivating local media in order to check NGO reports against reporting and opinion from the ground. AllAfrica.com has worked since 1997 to bring local papers in Africa online, republishing content digitally and sharing ad revenue with publishers. This sort of effort makes it more likely that researchers like Honerkamp can check reports against local reporting, though this is not always possible — Honerkamp checked AllAfrica and wasn’t able to find papers covering the Demsa incident.

The rise of strong local journalistic institutions also enables the active critique of NGO-led news coverage. Journalists like Andrew Mwenda, a passionate critic of international aid to Africa, are beginning to have a global platform for their views. Mwenda’s Kampala-based paper, The Independent, has established itself as a committed critic of local government, and is likely to be an effective critic of NGOs operating in the Great Lakes region. The paper has recently become available online, and presents careful readers with another news source for possible triangulation of NGO-sourced news.

As digital technology becomes more prevalent in the developing world, it’s possible that more individuals in undercovered parts of the globe will begin to engage with media as critics and fact-checkers. Bloggers in much of the world pride themselves on their abilities as fact-checkers, forcing mainstream media sources to be careful reporters and to retract or correct stories demonstrated to be incorrect. One approach to address the scarcity of media sources involves encouraging more citizen reporting, but also citizen critique of existing sources. When critiques are aggressive but fair, they help keep a news ecosystem healthy, preventing incorrect stories from spreading too far, and helping professional journalists discover a new set of sources and potential experts on future stories. Critically, a healthy ecosystem punishes news sources that consistently get stories wrong. The fact that Compass Direct has suffered no apparent ill effects from promoting and distributing the Demsa story suggests that its readers lack the ability, the information, or the motivation to check its stories.

Navigating the new landscape of news will require local media from developing nations available to the entire world. It will require strong local critics like The Independent. It will require us to approach reports from NGOs with a critical eye and an understanding of the financial, political and ideological dynamics that underly their reporting. It will benefit from a growing ecosystem of citizen media and from the ability of individuals to hold news providers accountable. Most critically, it requires us to hope that new types of attention amplifiers, like Wikipedia, are staffed by critical readers, like Honerkamp. Unfortunately, those informed readers are the exception, not the rule.

Ethan Zuckerman is a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. His work at Berkman focuses on the impact of technology on the developing world. With Rebecca MacKinnon, he launched Global Voices, an international citizen media community which reports on news and opinion from the developing world and works to protect free speech rights online. Prior to joining the Berkman Center, Ethan founded Geekcorps, a non-profit technology volunteer corps that pairs skilled volunteers from US and European high tech companies with businesses in emerging nations for one to four month volunteer tours. Before that, he helped found Tripod, an early pioneer in the web community space.

Photo of Ethan Zuckerman by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

Notes
  1. See Nicholas Lemann, Amateur Hour, and Dan Gillmor, We the Media.
  2. Peter Redfield discusses the role of témoignage and MSF’s mission in “A less modest witness,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 33 No. 1, pp.3-26.

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

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