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July 28 2011

13:22

Political journalism fails: media blows U.S. debt crisis coverage with balance bias

The Nation :: This increasingly disorderly fight over raising the debt ceiling has not only exposed the petty dysfunctions of the US Congress, it has also revealed a core failure of American political journalism. The press has made the debt fight the top story for the last two weeks—even accounting for half of all stories on radio and cable news—but much of the coverage has failed to tell the very basics of what is happening. "Saying that 'Washington is broken' or 'both sides are squabbling' is easy. It is safe," writes Ari Melber, The Nation's Net movement correspondent.

[Ari Melber:] Let’s turn to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, a prolific media critic who has a theory, ..., that today’s political reporters are on a futile 'quest for innocence' when reporting political disputes ...

Continue to read Ari Melber, www.thenation.com

July 05 2011

20:58

Accountability - Jill Abramson: "In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion"

Poynter :: The most recent game of deleting and changing online news was played last month, when The New York Times removed a quotation by incoming Executive Editor Jill Abramson that said, in part, “In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion. In noting the deletion, some bloggers speculated whether the Times was trying to hide something, presumably Abramson’s worship of false idols. The Times said the line was dropped for a fresher quote.

[Steve Myers, Poynter:] A witness’ account in a developing news story disappears when it’s replaced by the version that appears in the next day’s paper. You remember a story saying one thing – and maybe you blogged about it – but now it says something else.

How news sites could improve accountability by tracking story changes, but probably won’t ...

Continue to read Steve Myers, www.poynter.org

March 07 2011

08:32

Culture Clash: Journalism’s ideology vs blog culture

Culture Clash: Journalism's ideology vs blog cultureIf you read the literature on journalism’s professional ideology – or just follow any argument about journalists-versus-the-rest-of-the-world – you’ll notice particular themes recurring.

Like any profession, journalism separates itself from other fields of work through articulating how it is different. Reading Mark Deuze’s book Media Work recently I was struck by how a similar, parallel, ideology is increasingly articulated by bloggers. And I wanted to sketch that out.

First, two disclaimers: I am not claiming that bloggers are a coherent body any more than journalists are. Blogging is of course not a profession, and many bloggers do not make any claims beyond their own personal beliefs.

What I am exploring here is a common ideology that a particular contingent of bloggers expresses when attacked by journalists, or when attacking professional journalism.

One of the reasons this parallels journalism’s professional ideology may be because the arguments are often made in response to that exact ideology: journalists argue that bloggers are not objective; bloggers counter by arguing that journalists are not transparent, and so on.

Secondly, this is not based on any systematic research, but rather reflecting on ongoing analysis over the past few years. I’m putting this up for discussion and as a basis for further research, rather than suggesting it is the finished article.

Ideology 1: Public service vs accountability

The journalist’s claim is that they are performing a public service, whether that is informing the public, holding power to account, giving a voice to the voiceless (or the ‘voice of the people’), providing a forum for public discussion, or something else.

Bloggers articulate a similar ideology: that they are directly accountable to the public through their comments and the ability of others to direct them in how they ‘serve’.

The journalist’s public service is top-down; the blogger’s, bottom-up.

Ideology 2: Objectivity vs transparency

This is a long-running debate that I barely have to articulate, as it is easily the most prominent ideological battle that has taken place between journalists and bloggers. But here it is: journalists say they are objective while bloggers are subjective. Bloggers argue that any claim to objectivity is flawed, that the grounds for it (limited access to publication) no longer apply, and that in the age of the link transparency is their own badge of honour. Journalists who do not link to their sources, who take credit for the work of others, and who fail to declare interests are all targets in this battle.

Ideology 3: Autonomy vs non-commercial

A part of journalism’s ideology that is employed much less often in defending the profession is its autonomy: the fact that journalists are independent of government and that there is a church/state separation between advertising and content.

Bloggers articulate a similar argument around their very non-professionalism: because we do not rely on advertising or cover sales, say the bloggers, we enjoy more independence than journalists. We do not need to chase ratings or circulations; we do not need to worry about the institutional voice, or offending advertisers.

Ideology 4: Immediacy vs ‘Publish then filter’

The fourth aspect of journalism’s ideology identified by Deuze is ‘immediacy’, that is, journalists’ desire to be first to report the news.

Bloggers have their own version of ‘immediacy’, however, which is that they ‘publish, then filter’, allowing users to act as their editors (or ‘curators’) rather than being constrained by any editorial production line.

It’s notable that as journalists’ claims to immediacy come under particular challenge in an age where anyone can publish and distribute information, some journalists and news organisations are re-orienting themselves towards a role of ‘curation’, and using the ideology of ‘editorial process’ to defend themselves against the new entrants.

Ideology 5: Ethics vs ethical

This is a line that has always fascinated me. Journalists frequently employ their professional ‘ethics’ as a defence against the incursion of the blogging barbarians. But if journalists were so ethical, why are they consistently one of the least trusted professions?

Journalistic ethics are explicitly declared in documents such as the NUJ’s Code of Conduct, individual organisations’ own statements of principles, and even journalists’ contracts, while organisations such as the PCC act to further enforce behaviour.

Similar attempts to create a code of ethics for bloggers have been met with objections – for reasons not too dissimilar to the reasons that journalists do not want their profession to be professionalised: it would limit access, and provide an opportunity for governments to control the medium.

But bloggers are fiercely ethical. How is difficult to pin down – the transparency ideology outlined above is part of that, and many elements are shared with the ethics asserted by journalism: protecting sources, for instance. But broadly this ideology is one that is held in opposition to the worst excesses of journalism: bloggers would argue that they do not resort to underhand tactics in pursuit of a story: exploiting vulnerable people, passing off others’ work as their own, or pretending to be someone else.

What have I missed?

There may be other themes that I have missed – or examples of the above (after I wrote a first draft of this, Jay Rosen published his own selection of quotes here, some of which I have linked to above). It may be that journalism’s own ideology is changing in response to these challenges (as it seems to be regarding immediacy vs curation). I’d love to know what you think – or if you know of any research in the area (some here and here).

March 04 2011

23:00

August 23 2010

15:45

BBC shares results of social media and accountability research

An interesting update via the BBC Internet Blog on Friday regarding the broadcaster’s approach to social media. Social media executive, BBC Online, Nick Reynolds shares the executive summary of research conducted by Unthinkable Consulting into accountability and social media use.

The findings of the research were given to the BBC in April and as such some of the recommendations made are already being worked on. But it makes for interesting reading – both in terms of what the BBC should be doing with social media, in particular blogs and user comments, and what other news organisations can learn.

Key recommendations include:

  • “We recommend that blog authors respond at least in part to popular comment threads where new points or questions are being raised. We also recommend greater empathy and consistency from hosts.”
  • “There needs to be a culture change inside the BBC such that it becomes an accepted and expected part of the job of senior editorial management to read online social media output associated with their linear brands, as well as being aware of the competition.”
  • “We recommend that the BBC should consider to what extent  conversations which are now conducted on bbc.co.uk could be conducted externally instead. Regardless of the outcome, the BBC also needs to  spend more time reading and engaging with online commentary around itself and its brands.”

Read Nick Reynolds’ full post at this link…

View the executive summary:

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January 19 2010

19:18

Announcing the Technology for Transparency Network

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Internet technologies give governments an unprecedented ability to monitor our communication, internet activity, and even the microphones on our cell phones. The Internet, however, also empowers citizens with new tools and tactics to hold their elected officials accountable, increase transparency in government, and promote broader and more diverse civic engagement.

Rising Voices, the outreach and citizen media training initiative of Global Voices Online, has launched a new interactive website and global network of researchers to map online technology projects that aim to promote transparency, political accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. Over the next three months eight researchers and eight research reviewers will document at least 32 case studies of the most innovative technology for transparency projects outside of North America and Western Europe. By thoroughly documenting and evaluating each project with a standard methodology we aim to come to a better understanding of what tactics, tools, and tips are most effective in 1) making government information accessible to the general public in a meaningful way, 2) holding political and corporate leaders accountable to the rule of law and their campaign promises, and 3) promoting civic engagement so that a wider and more representative portion of citizens are involved in policy making and political processes.

Over the next three months we hope to find concrete answers to the following questions: Can technology for transparency projects be evaluated individually for impact, or should they only be seen as part of a larger accountability ecosystem? Does citizen participation in such projects lead to greater overall citizen engagement and more widespread demand for accountable public institutions? Do public institutions change their policies and behavior based on the input from citizen-led initiatives? To what extent does the usage of technology tools drive action around transparency?

The Need

As of January 19, U.S. cellphone users have donated more than $22 million in text-message donations alone. In fact, roughly one-fifth of the $112 million total that the American Red Cross has so far raised for Haiti has come via text messaging. Technology has clearly had an impact on global giving for humanitarian relief efforts. The priority right now is that the money gets to Haiti quickly and is spent as effectively as possible to save lives, and provide medical care and shelter. But in the longterm, as billions of dollars of aid money flow in to help rebuild infrastructure and entire industries, how can both Haitian citizens and donors hold institutions accountable so that development programs are run properly and without corruption?

As traditional media companies are forced to cut their budgets because of falling advertising revenue, investigative journalism and international coverage are the two most common areas to be disappear. David Simon, in his testimony before Congress about the death of the newspaper industry, said that with a vacuum of investigative journalism, "it is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician." Meanwhile, Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index reveals that corruption is still a severe and worldwide problem.

However, there is also growing enthusiasm about the use of social media as a powerful tool in promoting transparency and fighting against corruption. But how does the use of technology to promote transparency differ across regions, cultures, and types of governance? What skills and expertise are missing from the current technology for transparency projects? What types of relationships have they formed with media, government, and civil society organizations to increase their impact? We will document in-depth as many technology for transparency projects as possible to gain a better understanding of their current impact, obstacles, and future potential.

The Team

Global Voices has long been reporting about uses of digital media and technology to improve governance and fight against corruption. Several veteran Global Voices contributing authors are joined by leading transparency activists around the world to make up our team of researchers and research reviewers. We are also fortunate to count on the experience and insight of a board of advisors made up of the leading thinkers in the field of transparency and good governance.

For those of you on Twitter we have made lists of our researchers, reviewers, and advisors.

The Results

As of today you are able to read three case studies documenting projects based in Jordan, Chile, and Kenya. Ishki.com is a complaint brokerage which collects and organizes complaints from local citizens about the public and private sector. Vota Inteligente uses technology to provide Chilean citizens with more information about their elected officials. Mzalendo tracks the performance of Kenya's Parliament by documenting votes, publishing records, and providing analysis and context.

Over the next two weeks these three case studies will be joined by eight others. In addition to publishing at least 32 case studies over the next three months, we will also facilitate 16 discussions on Global Voices that provide more context and background information about the state of transparency, accountability and civic engagement in specific countries and regions. We are also building a toolset of the most effective tools used by the projects that we document. Click on any of the tools and you will see which projects have incorporated it as part of their strategy.

We realize that these are busy times and that few readers will be able to read all of the thorough case studies, background discussions, and tool profiles that we publish. For this reason we have created a weekly podcast that will feature five-minute interviews with leaders of some of the most interesting technology for transparency projects that we come across. You can click on this link to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. So far we have interviews with Waheed Al-Barghouthi of Ishki, Ory Okolloh of Mzalendo, and Felipe Heusser of Vota Inteligente.

At the beginning of May we will also publish a traditional PDF report which highlights the most innovative and effective tools and tactics related to technology for transparency projects. The report will make recommendations to funders, activists, NGOs, and government officials regarding the current obstacles to effectively applying technology to improve transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. It will also aggregate and evaluate the best ideas and strategies to overcome those obstacles.

Our research will complement - and collaborate with - the work being done by like-minded mapping, discussion, and toolset projects including ParticipateDB, Participedia, the International Association for Public Participation, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, ePractice, MobileActive's mDirectory, and LocalLabs.

How to Help

This is a collaborative research project which is open to the participation and input of anyone interested in the intersection of technology and good governance. If you have suggestions for case studies that we should document and evaluate please get in touch via our contact page. If you are interested in contributing as a volunteer researcher you can register for a user account.

You can subscribe to our RSS feed for newly published case studies and to our podcast for interviews with leading doers and thinkers in the field. Please follow us on Twitter and become a fan of our page on Facebook to receive extra updates about daily news and information related to technology for transparency. Finally, if you would like to engage in debate and discussion about the application of technology to improve governance in countries outside of North America and Western Europe, please subscribe to the Transparency for Technology mailing list.

For years now there has been an ongoing debate about whether the Internet is good or bad for democracy. But we have few case studies and even fewer comparative research mappings of Internet-based projects that aim to improve governance, especially in countries outside of North America and Western Europe. Hopefully the Technology for Transparency Network will lead not only to more informed debate about the Internet's impact on democracy, but also to more participation and interest in projects that aim to empower and improve the livelihoods of citizens who were previously excluded from political participation.

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December 08 2009

14:44

What’s your problem with the internet? A crib sheet for news exec speeches

When media executives (and the occasional columnist on a deadline) talk about ‘the problem with the web’ they often revert to a series of recurring themes. In doing so they draw on a range of discourses that betray assumptions, institutional positions and ideological leanings. I thought I’d put together a list of some common memes of hatred directed towards the internet at various points by publishers and journalists, along with some critical context.

If you can think of any other common complaints, or responses to the ones below, post them in the comments and I’ll add them in.

Undemocratic and unrepresentative (The ‘Twitterati’)

The presumption here is that the media as a whole is more representative and democratic than users of the web. You know, geeks. The ‘Twitterati’ (a fantastic ideologically-loaded neologism that conjures up images of unelected elites). A variant of this is the position that sees any online-based protest as ‘organised’ and therefore illegitimate.

Of course the media is hardly representative or democratic on any level. In every general election in the UK during the twentieth century, for example, editorial opinion was to the right of electoral opinion (apart from 1997). In 1983, 1987 and 1992 press support exceeded by at least half the Conservative Party’s share of the vote. Similar stats can be found in US election coverage. The reasons are obvious: media owners are not representative or democratic: by definition they are part of a particular social class: wealthy proprietors or shareholders (although there are other factors such as advertiser influence and organisational efficiencies).

Journalists themselves are not representative either in terms of social classgender, or ethnicity – and have become less representative in recent decades.

But neither is the web a level playing field. Sadly, it has inherited most of the same barriers to entry that permeate the media: lack of literacy, lack of access and lack of time prevent a significant proportion of the population from having any voice at all online.

So any treatment of internet-based opinion should be done with caution. But just as not everyone has a voice online, even fewer people have a voice in print and broadcast. To accuse the web of being unrepresentative can be a smokescreen for the lack of representation in the mainstream media. When a journalist uses the unrepresentative nature of the web as a stick, ask how their news selection process presents a solution to that: is there a PR agency for the poor? Do they seek out a response from the elderly on every story?

And there is a key difference: while journalism becomes less representative, web access becomes more so, with governments in a number of countries moving towards providing universal broadband and access to computers through schools and libraries.

‘The death of common culture’

The internet, this argument runs, is preventing us from having a common culture we can all relate to. Because we are no longer restricted to a few terrestrial channels and a few newspapers – which all share similar editorial values – we are fragmented into a million niches and unable to relate to each other.

This is essentially an argument about culture and the public sphere. The literature here is copious, but one of the key planks is ‘Who defines the public sphere? Who decides what is shared culture?’ Commercial considerations and the needs of elite groups play a key role in both. And of course, what happens if you don’t buy into that shared culture? Alternative media has long attempted to reflect and create culture outside of that mainstream consensus.

You might also argue that new forms of common culture are being created – amateur YouTube videos that get millions of hits; BoingBoing posts; Lolcats; Twitter discussions around jokey hashtag memes – or that old forms of common culture are being given new life: how many people are watching The Apprentice or X Factor because of simultaneous chatter on Twitter?

The ‘echo chamber’/death of serendipity (homophily)

When we read the newspapers or watched TV news, this argument runs, we encountered information we wouldn’t otherwise know about. But when we go online, we are restricted to what we seek out – and we seek out views to reinforce our own (homophily or cyberbalkanisation).

Countering this, it is worth pointing out that in print people tended to buy a newspaper that also supported their own views, whereas online people switch from publication to publication with differing political orientations. It’s also worth pointing out that over 80% of people have come across a news article online while searching for something else entirely. Many websites have ‘related/popular articles/posts/videos’ features that introduce some serendipity. And finally, there is the role of social media in introducing stories we otherwise wouldn’t encounter (a good example here is the Iran elections – how many people would have skimmed over that in a publication or broadcast, but clicked through because someone was tweeting #cnnfail)

That’s not to say homophily doesn’t exist – there is evidence to suggest that people do seek out reinforcements for their own views online – but that doesn’t mean the same trend didn’t exist in print and broadcast, and it doesn’t make that true of everyone. I’d argue that the serendipity of print/broadcast depends on an editor’s news agenda and the serendipity of online depends on algorithms and social networks.

‘Google are parasites’

This argues that Google’s profits are based on other people’s content. I’ve tackled the Google argument previously: in short, Google is more like a map than a publication, and its profits are based on selling advertising very effectively against searches, rather than against content (which is the publisher’s model). It’s also worth pointing out that news content only forms around 0.01% of indexed content, and that news-related searches don’t tend to attract much advertising anyway. (If it was, Google would try to monetise Google News).

It’s often worth looking at the discourses underlying much of the Google-parasite meme. Often these revolve around it being ‘not fair’ that Google makes so much money; around ‘the value of our content’ as if that is set by publishers rather than what the market is willing to pay; and around ‘taking our content’ despite the fact that publishers invite Google to do just that through a) deciding not to use the Robots Exclusion Protocol (ACAP appears to be an attempt to dictate terms, although it’s not technically capable of doing so yet) and b) employing SEO practices.

Another useful experiment with these complaints is to look at what result publishers are really aiming for. Painting Google as a parasite can, variously, be used as an argument to relax ownership rules; to change copyright law to exclude fair comment; or to gain public subsidy (for instance, via a tax on Google or other online operators). In a nutshell, this argument is used to try to re-acquire the monopoly over distribution that publishers had in the physical world, and the consequent ability to set the price of advertising.

‘Bloggers are parasites’

A different argument to the one above, this one seeks to play down the role of bloggers by saying they are reliant on content from mainstream media.

Of course, you could equally point out that mainstream media is reliant on content from PR agencies, government departments, and, most of all, each other. The reliance of local broadcasters on local newspaper content is notorious; the lifting of quotes from other publications equally common. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – journalists often lift quotes for the same reasons as bloggers – to contextualise and analyse. The difference is that bloggers tend to link to the source.

Another point to make here is some blogs’ role as ‘Estate 4.5‘, monitoring the media in the same way that the media is supposed to monitor the powerful. “We can fact-check your ass!

‘You don’t know who you’re dealing with’

On the internet no one knows you're a dog

Identity is a complex thing. While it’s easy to be anonymous online, the assertions that people make online are generally judged by their identities, just as in the real world.

However, an identity is more than just a name – online, more than anything, it is about reputation. And while names can be faked, reputations are built over time. Forum communities, for example, are notorious for having a particularly high threshold when it comes to buying into contributions from anyone who has not been an active part of that community for some time. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a rich history of anonymous/pseudonymous writing in newspapers).

Users of the web rely on a range of cues and signals to verify identity and reputation, just as they do in the physical world. There’s a literacy to this, of course, which not everyone has at the same levels. But you might argue that it is in some ways easier to establish the background of a writer online than it was for their print or broadcast counterparts. On the radio, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Rumour and hearsay ‘magically become gospel’

They say “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” And it’s fair to say that there is more rumour and hearsay online for the simple reason that there is more content and communication online (and so there’s also more factual and accurate information online too). But of course myths aren’t restricted to one medium – think of the various ‘Winterval’ stories propagated by a range of newspapers that have gained such common currency. Or how about these classics:

Express cover: Migrants take all new jobs

The interactive nature of the web does make it easier for others to debunk hearsay through comments, responses on forums, linkbacks, hashtagged tweets and so on. But interactivity is a quality of use, not of the thing itself, so it depends on the critical and interactive nature of those browsing and publishing the content. Publishers who don’t read their comments, take note.

‘Unregulated’ lack of accountability

Accountability is a curious one. Often those making this assertion are used to particular, formal, forms of accountability: the Press Complaints Commission; Ofcom; the market; your boss. Online the forms of accountability are less formal, but can be quite savage. A ream of critical comments makes you accountable very quickly. Look at what happened to Robert Scoble when he posted something inaccurate; or to Jan Moir when she wrote something people felt was in bad taste. That accountability didn’t exist in the formal structures of mainstream media.

Related to this is the idea that the internet is ‘unregulated’. Of course it is regulated – you have (ironically, relatively unaccountable) organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation, and the law applies just as much online and in the physical world. Indeed, there is a particular problem with one country’s laws being used to pursue people abroad – see, for example, how Russian businessmen have sued American publishers in London for articles which were accessed a few times online. On the other hand, people can escape the attentions of lawyers by mirroring content in other jurisdictions, by simply being too small a target to be worth a lawyer’s time, or by being so many that it is impractical to pursue. These characteristics of the web can be used in the defence of freedoms (see Trafigura) as much as for attacks (hate literature).

Triviality

Trivial is defined as “of very little importance or value”. This is of course a subjective value judgement depending on what you feel is important or valuable. The objection to the perceived triviality of online content – particularly those of social networks and blogs – is another way to deprecate an upstart rival based on a normative ideal of the importance of journalism. And while there is plenty of ‘important’ information in the media, there is also plenty of ‘trivial’ material too, from the 3am girls to gift ideas and travel supplements.

The web has a similar mix. To focus on the trivial is to intentionally overlook the incredibly important. And it is also to ignore the importance of so much apparently ‘trivial’ information – what my friends are doing right now may be trivial to a journalist, but it’s useful ‘news’ or content to me. And in a conversational medium, the exchange of that information is important social glue.

To take journalists’ own news values: people within your social circle are ‘powerful’ within that circle, and therefore newsworthy, to those people, regardless of their power in the wider world.

‘Cult of the amateur’ undermining professionals

This argument has, for me, strange echoes of the arguments against universal suffrage at various points in history. Replace ‘bloggers’ with ‘women’ or ‘the masses’ and ‘professionals’ with ‘men’ or ‘the aristocracy’ in these arguments and you have some idea of the ideology underlying them. It’s the notion that only a select portion of the population are entitled to a voice in the exercise of power.

The discourse of ‘amateur’ is particularly curious. The implication is that amateur means poor quality, whereas it simply means not paid. The Olympics is built on amateurism, but you’d hardly question the quality of Olympic achievement throughout time. In the 19th century much scientific discovery was done by amateur scientists.

Professional, on the other hand, is equated with ‘good’. But professionalism has its own weaknesses: the pressures of deadlines, pressures of standardisation and efficiency, commercialism and market pressures, organisational culture.

That’s not to say that professionalism is bad, either, but that both amateurism and professionalism have different characteristics which can be positive or negative in different situations.

There’s an economic variant to this argument which suggests that people volunteering their efforts for nothing undermines the economic value of those who do the same as part of a paid job. This is superficially true, but some of the reasons for paying people to do work are because you can expect it to be finished within a particular timeframe to a particular quality – you cannot guarantee those with amateur labour (also, amateurs choose what they want to work on), so the threat is not so large as it is painted. The second point is that jobs may have to adapt to this supply of volunteer information. So instead of or as well as creating content the role is to verify it, contextualise it, link it, analyse it, filter it, or manage it. After all, we don’t complain about the ‘cult of the volunteer’ undermining charity work, do we?

Thanks to Nick Booth, Jon Bounds, Will Perrin, Alison Gow, Michele Mclellan, King Kaufman, Julie Posetti, Mark Pack, James Ball, Shane Richmond, Clare White, Sarah Hartley, Mary Hamilton, Matt Machell and Mark Coughlan for contributing ideas via Twitter under the #webhate tag.

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