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January 20 2012


This Week in Review: The SOPA standoff, and Apple takes on textbooks with ebooks

The web flexes its political muscle: After a couple of months of growing concern, the online backlash against the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA reached a rather impressive peak this week. There’s a lot of moving parts to this, so I’ll break it down into three parts: the arguments for and against the bill, the status of the bill, and this week’s protests.

The bills’ opponents have covered a wide variety of arguments over the past few months, but there were still a few more new angles this week in the arguments against SOPA. NYU prof Clay Shirky put the bill in historical context in a 14-minute TED talk, and social-media researcher danah boyd parsed out both the competitive and cultural facets of piracy. At the Harvard Business Review, James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel framed the issue as a struggle between big content companies and smaller innovators. The New York Times asked six contributors for their ideas about viable SOPA alternatives in fighting piracy, and at Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that piracy actually has some real benefits for society and the entertainment industry.

The most prominent SOPA supporter on the web this week was News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who went on a Twitter rant against SOPA opponents and Google in particular, reportedly after seeing a Google TV presentation in which the company said it wouldn’t remove links in search to illegal movie streams. Both j-prof Jeff Jarvis and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram responded that Murdoch doesn’t understand how the Internet works, with Jarvis arguing that Murdoch isn’t opposed so much to piracy as the entire architecture of the web. At the Guardian, however, Dan Gillmor disagreed with the idea that Murdoch doesn’t get the web, saying that he and other big-media execs know exactly the threat it represents to their longstanding control of media content.

Now for the status of the bill itself: Late last week, SOPA was temporarily weakened and delayed, as its sponsor, Lamar Smith, said he would remove domain-name blocking until the issue has been “studied,” and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor until some real consensus about the bill can be found.

That consensus became a bit less likely this week, after the White House came out forcefully against SOPA and PIPA, calling for, as Techdirt described it, a “hard reset” on the bills. The real blow to the bills came after Wednesday’s protests, when dozens of members of Congress announced their opposition. The fight is far from over, though — as Mathew Ingram noted, PIPA still has plenty of steam, and the House Judiciary Committee will resume its work on SOPA next month.

But easily the biggest news surrounding SOPA and PIPA this week was the massive protests of it around the web. Hundreds of sites, including such heavyweights as Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, BoingBoing, and WordPress, blacked out on Wednesday, and other sites such as Google and Wired joined with “censored” versions of their home pages. As I noted above, the protest was extremely successful politically, as some key members of Congress backed off their support of the bill, leading The New York Times to call it a “political coming of age” for the tech industry.

The most prominent of those protesting sites was Wikipedia, which redirected site users to an anti-SOPA action page on Wednesday. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ announcement of the protest was met with derision in some corners, with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and PandoDaily’s Paul Carr chastising the global site for doing something so drastic in response to a single national issue. Wales defended the decision by saying that the law will affect web users around the world, and he also got support from writers like Mathew Ingram and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who argued that Wikipedia and Google’s protests could help take the issue out of the tech community and into the mainstream.

The New York Times’ David Pogue was put off by some aspects of the SOPA outrage and argued that some of the bill’s opposition grew out of a philosophy that was little more than, “Don’t take my free stuff!” And ReadWriteWeb’s Joe Brockmeier was concerned about what happens after the protest is over, when Congress goes back to business as usual and the public remains largely in the dark about what they’re doing. “Even if SOPA goes down in flames, it’s not over. It’s never over,” he wrote.

Apple’s bid to reinvent the textbook: Apple announced yesterday its plans to add educational publishing to the many industries it’s radically disrupted, through its new iBooks and iBooks Author systems. Wired’s Tim Carmody, who’s been consistently producing the sharpest stuff on this subject, has the best summary of what Apple’s rolling out: A better iBooks platform, a program (iBooks Author) allowing authors to design their own iBooks, textbooks in the iBookstore, and a classroom management app called iTunes U.

After news of the announcement was broken earlier this week by Ars Technica, the Lab’s Joshua Benton explained some of the reasons the textbook industry is ripe for disruption and wondered about the new tool’s usability. (Afterward, he listed some of the change’s implications, including for the news industry.) Tim Carmody, meanwhile, gave some historical perspective on Steve Jobs’ approach to education reform.

As Carmody detailed after the announcement, education publishing is a big business for Apple to come crashing into. But The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained that that isn’t exactly what Apple’s doing here; instead, it’s simply “identifying transformative currents and building the right tools to navigate them.” Still, Reuters’ Jack Shafer asserted that what’s bad for these companies is good for readers like him.

But while Apple talked about reinventing the textbook, several observers didn’t see revolutionary changes around the corner. ReadWriteWeb’s John Paul Titlow noted that Apple is teaming up with big publishers, not killing them, and Paul Carr of PandoDaily argued that iBook Author’s self-made ebooks won’t challenge the professionally produced and marketed ones. All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka did the math to show the publishers should still get plenty of the new revenue streams.

The news still brought plenty of concerns: At CNET, Lindsey Turrentine wondered how many schools will have the funds to afford the hardware for iBooks, and David Carnoy and Scott Stein questioned how open Apple’s new platforms would be. That theme was echoed elsewhere, especially by developer Dan Wineman, who found that through its user agreement, Apple will essentially assert rights to anything produced with its iBooks file format. That level of control gave some, like GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, pause, but Paul Carr said we shouldn’t be surprised: This is what Apple does, he said, and we all buy its products anyway.

Making ‘truth vigilantes’ mainstream: The outrage late last week over New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s column asking whether the paper’s reporters should challenge misleading claims by officials continued to yield thoughtful responses this week. After his column last week voicing his support for journalism’s “truth vigilantes,” j-prof Robert Niles created a site to honor them, pointing out instances in which reporters call out their sources for lying. Salon’s Gene Lyons, meanwhile, said that attitudes like Brisbane’s are a big part of what’s led to the erosion of trust in the Times and the mainstream press.

The two sharpest takes on the issue this week came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and from Columbia Ph.D. student Lucas Graves here at the Lab. Friedersdorf took on journalists’ argument that people should read the news section for unvarnished facts and the opinion section for analysis: That argument doesn’t work, he said, because readers don’t consume a publication as a bundle anymore.

Graves analyzed the issue in light of both the audience’s expectations for news and the growth of the fact-checking movement. He argued for fact-checking to be incorporated into journalists’ everyday work, rather than remaining a specialized form of journalism. Reuters’ Felix Salmon agreed, asserting that “the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.” At the Lab, Craig Newmark of Craigslist also chimed in, prescribing more rigorous fact-checking efforts as a way for journalists to regain the public’s trust.

Reading roundup: Not a ton of other news developments per se this week, but plenty of good reads nonetheless. Here’s a sample:

— There was one major development on the ongoing News Corp. phone hacking case: The company settled 36 lawsuits by victims, admitting a cover-up of the hacking. Here’s the basic story from Reuters and more in-depth live coverage from the Guardian.

— Rolling Stone published a long, wide-ranging interview with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as he awaits his final extradition hearing. Reuters’ Jack Shafer also wrote a thoughtful piece on the long-term journalistic implications of WikiLeaks, focusing particularly on the continued importance of institutions.

— Two interesting pieces of journalism-related research: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo described a Facebook-based study that throws some cold water on the idea of the web as a haven for like-minded echo chambers, and the Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote about a study that describes and categorizes the significant group people who stumble across news online.

— In a thorough feature, Nick Summers of Newsweek/The Daily Beast laid out the concerns over how big ESPN is getting, and whether that’s good for ESPN itself and sports media in general.

— Finally, for those thinking about how to develop the programmer-journalists of the future, j-prof Matt Waite has a set of thoughts on the topic that functions as a great jumping-off point for more ideas and discussion.

January 18 2012


Digging deeper into The New York Times’ fact-checking faux pas

Once in a while the cultural fault lines in American journalism come into unexpectedly sharp relief. Jon Stewart’s now-legendary star turn on “Crossfire” was one of those moments; the uproar over NPR’s refusal (along with most major news outlets) to call waterboarding torture was another. The New York Times may have added another clash to this canon with public editor Arthur Brisbane’s blog post on fact-checking last week.

For anyone who missed it (or the ensuing analysis, rounded up here) the exchange can be summed up in two lines of dialogue:

Times to Internet: Should we fact-check the things politicians say?

Internet to Times: Are you freakin’ kidding?

That was an actual response, and a popular refrain: More than a dozen comments included some variant of, “This is a joke, right?” Several readers compared the column to an Onion piece. By far the most common reaction, which shows up in scores of comments, was to express dismay at the question or to say it captures the abysmal state of journalism today. A typical example, from “Fed Up” in Brooklyn: “The fact that this is even a question shows us how far mainstream journalism has fallen.”

The stunning unanimity of reader responses was undoubtedly the big story, as the news intelligentsia pointed out right away. It underscores the yawning gulf that separates professional reporters’ and everyday readers’ basic understandings of what journalism is supposed to do. Of the 265 comments logged in the three hours before the Times turned off commenting, exactly two (discounting obvious sarcasm) disagreed with the proposition that reporters should challenge suspect claims made by politicians. (More on the dissenters, below.) Brisbane’s follow-up, suggesting many readers had missed the nuance by assuming the question was just whether the paper should “check facts and print the truth,” seems off base. A few may have made that mistake, but most clearly have in mind what is sometimes called “political fact-checking” — calling out distortions in political speech.

If anything, reading through the comments what’s striking is the robust and stable critical vocabulary readers share for talking about the failings of conventional journalism. More than a dozen take issue with the definition of journalistic objectivity implied by Brisbane’s wondering whether reporting that calls out untruths can also be “objective and fair.” As a reader from Chicago wrote,

I see this formulation as a problem. Objective sometimes isn’t fair. Some of the people reported on are objectively less truthful, less forthcoming, and less believable than others.

False “balance” in the news is a common trope in the comments, which readers refer to both directly (at least eight times) and via now-standard illustrations of “he said/she said” reporting, like the climate-change debate (brought up by five readers) or the parodic headline “Shape of the Earth? Views differ” (mentioned by another nine). Journalism-as-stenography also comes up frequently — at least 20 of the responses make the comparison specifically, while 16 declare that the Times may as well run press releases if it isn’t going to challenge political claims.

The disconnect between reporters and readers, and the paradox at the center of “objective” journalism, comes through most clearly in Brisbane’s rendering of the division of labor between the news and opinion pages. Pointing to a column in which Paul Krugman debunked Mitt Romney’s claim that the President travels the globe “apologizing for America,” Brisbane explains that,

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

To anyone not steeped in the codes and practices of professional journalism, this sounds pretty odd: Testing facts is the province of opinion writers? What happens in the rest of the paper? As JohnInArizona commented,

Mr. Brisbane’s view of the job of op-ed columnist vs that of reporters seems skewed.

It is the job of columnist to present opinion and viewpoint, and to persuade. It is the job of reporters to present facts, as best as they can determine them.

As others have pointed out, uncritically reprinting politicians’ statements is not what a good reporter, or a good newspaper, should be doing. There is no choosing between competing facts — a statement is factual, or is not…

Journalism has a ready response for this line of critique: The truth is not always black and white, and reporters run the risk of “imposing their judgement on what is false and what is true” (Brisbane’s phrase) by weighing in on factual questions more complicated than the shape of the earth. Politicians are expert in misleading without lying, and people may genuinely disagree about what the facts are — based on different notions of what constitutes a presidential apology, for instance.

Even in these cases though, a reporter can add context to help readers assess a claim. Brisbane himself suggests that,

Perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the President has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less: “The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

A few readers responded that the second sentence is superfluous. Several others suggested doing additional reporting around the question, along these lines: “A real reporter might try to find those speeches. A real reporter might request that the Romney campaign provide examples of times where Obama has apologized for America…”

That sort of reporting is exactly what fact-checkers at PolitiFact and the Washington Post did to refute the claim, reconstructing the “apology tour” meme as developed in various Republican documents (Romney’s 2010 book “No Apology,” a Karl Rove op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, a Heritage Foundation report, etc.) and digging into the actual text of Obama’s speeches as well as comparable ones by previous presidents. PolitiFact went so far as to interview several experts on diplomacy and political apologies. Reading the public editor’s letter, though, you’d have no idea that the key example he uses to illustrate his column already has been checked and found wanting.

More to the point, you’d have no clue about what AJR has called the “fact-checking explosion” in American journalism — a movement that is at least a decade old (the short-lived Spinsanity launched in 2001, followed by FactCheck.org in 2003) and now spans dedicated fact-checking groups as well as newspapers, TV networks, radio outlets, and even journalism schools. (Full disclosure: I’m writing a dissertation, and eventually a book, about this movement.) Fact-checking has been very much in the ether lately, with news gurus weighing in on the limits of this kind of journalism, especially during the controversy over PolitiFact’s latest “Lie of the Year” selection.

The fact-checking movement is part of a larger ongoing conversation about journalistic objectivity that began with the news media’s failures in the lead-up to the Iraq war. (See Brent Cunningham’s “Rethinking Objectivity,” Jay Rosen’s “The View from Nowhere,” Michael Massing’s “Now they Tell Us.”) Most fact-checking groups don’t spend a lot of time tweaking their peers in the press, even though the claims they check usually go unchallenged in news accounts. But they don’t have to — their entire project is a critique of mainstream journalism, a self-conscious experiment in “rethinking objectivity.”

That sense of mission — of fact-checking as a kind of reform movement — is unmistakable when fact-checkers get together, as at a New America Foundation conference on the subject last December, and one at CUNY the month before. (Here’s a write-up of the two conferences.) In a report written for the New America meeting, the Post’s original “Fact-Checker” columnist, Michael Dobbs, placed fact-checking in a long tradition of “truth-seeking” journalism that rejects the false balance practiced by political reporters today. (Three reports from that conference will be published over the next month.)

From the precincts of this emerging reformist consensus, Brisbane’s column seemed surprisingly out of touch. Still, the public editor raises questions that haven’t been answered very well in the conversation about fact-checking. It’s easy to declare, as Brook Gladstone did in a 2008 interview with Bill Moyers, that reporters should “Fact check incessantly. Whenever a false assertion is asserted, it has to be corrected in the same paragraph, not in a box of analysis on the side.” (I agree.) But why, exactly, don’t they do that today? Why has fact-checking evolved into a specialized form of journalism relegated to a sidebar or a separate site? Are there any good reasons for it to stay that way?

Answering those questions has to begin with a better understanding of why so many traditional “objective” journalists are wary of the fact-checking upstarts. Michael Schudson, a historian of journalism (and my graduate-school advisor), has written that the “objectivity norm guides journalists to separate facts from values, and report only the facts.” In practice, though, the aversion to values becomes an aversion to evaluation. Hence the traditional rule against “drawing conclusions” (discussed here) in news reports. Brisbane doesn’t flesh out this rationale, but one of his readers captured it perfectly, and is worth quoting at length:

I cannot claim to be a regular reader of the New York Times, and I cannot claim to have ever been to journalism school. Finally, I also cannot claim to know what “the truth” is. I do not understand why so many readers are presenting such unequivocal opinions as commentary here.

If a candidate for US president says something — anything — I would like to know what he or she said. That’s reporting, and that’s “the truth” in reporting: a presentation of the facts, as objectively as possible.

Whether a candidate was coy about something, exaggerating something else, using misleading language, leaving something out of his or her public statements… all of these things are analysis. …

Finally, it is the responsibility of the reader, of the informed citizen, to take all of this in and think for himself or herself, to decide where he or she stands on issues, on phenomena in society. Neither the New York Times nor any other newspaper ought to have the privilege of taking that final step for anyone.

This reads like a more thoughtful version of David Gregory’s infamous response when asked why he doesn’t fact-check his on-air guests: “People can fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms.” It rests on the concern — elaborated in this Politico post and in a Journal editorial — that fact-checking tends to shade into opinion, glossing over genuine differences in political ideology. The WSJ decried a “journalistic trend that seeks to recast all political debates as matters of lies, misinformation and ‘facts,’ rather than differences of world view or principles.”

The only problem with the “don’t draw conclusions” standard is that reporters draw conclusions all of the time, and now more than ever. The decades-long trend toward more analytical reporting, probably self-evident to any news junkie, has been thoroughly documented by communications scholars (who, following Kevin Barnhurst, sometimes call this “the new long journalism” or the “decline of event-centered reporting.”) Reporters are of course especially comfortable drawing conclusions about political strategy, liberally dispensing their analysis of what a candidate or officeholder hopes to gain from particular “messaging” and whether the strategy is like to work.

So objective journalism applies the ban on drawing conclusion very selectively. What seems to make reporters uncomfortable is not analysis per se but criticism, especially criticism that can be seen as taking sides on a controversial question — which they will avoid even at the risk of profound inconsistency. Here’s Bill Keller’s much-ridiculed rationale (quoted in a Media Decoder post) for refusing to describe waterboarding as torture in the pages of the Times, though the paper had often referred to it that way before the U.S. took up the practice:

When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves.

The result revealed the awkward gap between common sense and journalistic sense. Common sense says, if it was torture then, it’s torture now. Journalistic sense says, this is really controversial! It’s not our job to accuse a sitting president of authorizing an illegal global regime of torture! (Conversely, it was profoundly uncontroversial to apply the label to waterboarding in a country such as China. Journalists could do so unthinkingly.)

This political risk aversion is nothing new. One of the most cited pieces of research on journalism is Gaye Tuchman’s ethnographic look at the “strategic ritual” of objectivity as practiced in a newspaper newsroom in the 1960s. Tuchman stressed the essentially defensive nature of the claim to be objective, and of the reporting routines it produced. Her “newsmen” shied away from criticism of public figures or public policies — or found someone else to voice them — because they were deeply, institutionally afraid of drawing attacks or even lawsuits from the people they reported on. (They used the “news analysis” label to set off reports that were less “objective,” though Tuchman found reporters and editors could not supply a coherent rationale for distinguishing between the two kinds of stories.)

The new, professional fact-checkers are specialized in ways that mitigate (but don’t eliminate) these concerns. They dedicate pages to analyzing even a simple claim, showing all of their work, so that someone who dislikes the result might still agree it was reached fairly. Full-time fact-checkers don’t have to worry about losing “access” to a public figure, because they don’t rely on inside information. (For the same reason, fact-checkers don’t use anonymous sources.) And they obviously — to occasional criticism — make an effort to check politicians from both sides of the aisle.

And still, fact-checkers constantly come in for vehement attacks from political figures and from the reading public. It’d be hard to prove that this is more pronounced than what traditional news outlets weather; my anecdotal sense is that it might be. (They manage this feedback in interesting ways; for instance, neither FactCheck.org nor PolitiFact allow comments on the same page as their fact-checks, though they do often run selections from reader mail.) Without validating the view that “if everybody’s mad at us, we must be doing something right” — a journalistic reflex one also hears from fact-checkers — it has to be acknowledged that this is a deeply polarizing activity. Managing that polarization is part of what fact-checkers have to do in the effort to stay relevant and make a difference in public discourse.

The hope for building fact-checks into everyday news reports is that it would push political reporters to be more thoughtful and reflexive about their own work — to leave out quotable-but-dubious claims, to resist political conflict as the default frame, and in general to avoid the pat formulations that are so ably managed by political actors. But inevitably, all of us will be disappointed, even pissed off, by some of these routine fact-checks — and perhaps all the more so when they’re woven into the story itself.

To take Brisbane’s question seriously and think about how this might be put into practice, we have to consider how reporters will manage the new set of pressures this work will expose them to. And we have to confront the paradox that trying to create a platform for a more fact-based and reasonable public discourse may also, at the same time, promote further fragmentation and politicization of that discourse.

Lucas Graves is a PhD candidate in communications at Columbia University and a research fellow at the Media Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation.

January 16 2012


Comment call: Objectivity and impartiality – a newsroom policy for student projects

I’ve been updating a newsroom policy guide for a project some of my students will be working on, with a particular section on objectivity and impartiality. As this has coincided with the debate on fact-checking stirred by the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, I thought I would reproduce the guidelines here, and invite comments on whether you think it hits the right note:

Objectivity and impartiality: newsroom policy

Objectivity is a method, not an element of style. In other words:

  • Do not write stories that give equal weight to each ‘side’ of an argument if the evidence behind each side of the argument is not equal. Doing so misrepresents the balance of opinions or facts. Your obligation is to those facts, not to the different camps whose claims may be false.
  • Do not simply report the assertions of different camps. As a journalist your responsibility is to check those assertions. If someone misrepresents the facts, do not simply say someone else disagrees, make a statement along the lines of “However, the actual wording of the report…” or “The official statistics do not support her argument” or “Research into X contradict this.” And of course, link to that evidence and keep a copy for yourself (which is where transparency comes in).

Lazy reporting of assertions without evidence is called the ‘View From Nowhere’ – you can read Jay Rosen’s Q&A or the Wikipedia entry, which includes this useful explanation:

“A journalist who strives for objectivity may fail to exclude popular and/or widespread untrue claims and beliefs from the set of true facts. A journalist who has done this has taken The View From Nowhere. This harms the audience by allowing them to draw conclusions from a set of data that includes untrue possiblities. It can create confusion where none would otherwise exist.”

Impartiality is dependent on objectivity. It is not (as subjects of your stories may argue) giving equal coverage to all sides, but rather promising to tell the story based on objective evidence rather than based on your own bias or prejudice. All journalists will have opinions and preconceived ideas of what a story might be, but an impartial journalist is prepared to change those opinions, and change the angle of the story. In the process they might challenge strongly-held biases of the society they report on – but that’s your job.

The concept of objectivity comes from the sciences, and this provides a useful guideline: scientists don’t sit between two camps and repeat assertions without evaluating them. They identify a claim (hypothesis) and gather the evidence behind it – both primary and secondary.

Claims may, however, already be in the public domain and attracting a lot of attention and support. In those situations reporting should be open about the information the journalist does not have. For example:

  • “His office, however, were unable to direct us to the evidence quoted”, or
  • “As the report is yet to be published, it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of these claims”, or
  • “When pushed, X could not provide any documentation to back up her claims”.


January 13 2012

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