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August 20 2012


How Wikipedia Manages Sources for Breaking News

Almost a year ago, I was hired by Ushahidi to work as an ethnographic researcher on a project to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during breaking news events.

Ushahidi cares a great deal about this kind of work because of a new project called SwiftRiver that seeks to collect and enable the collaborative curation of streams of data from the real-time web about a particular issue or event. If another Haiti earthquake happened, for example, would there be a way for us to filter out the irrelevant, the misinformation, and build a stream of relevant, meaningful and accurate content about what was happening for those who needed it? And on Wikipedia's side, could the same tools be used to help editors curate a stream of relevant sources as a team rather than individuals?


Ranking sources

When we first started thinking about the problem of filtering the web, we naturally thought of a ranking system that would rank sources according to their reliability or veracity. The algorithm would consider a variety of variables involved in determining accuracy, as well as whether sources have been chosen, voted up or down by users in the past, and eventually be able to suggest sources according to the subject at hand. My job would be to determine what those variables are -- i.e., what were editors looking at when deciding whether or not to use a source?

I started the research by talking to as many people as possible. Originally I was expecting that I would be able to conduct 10 to 20 interviews as the focus of the research, finding out how those editors went about managing sources individually and collaboratively. The initial interviews enabled me to hone my interview guide. One of my key informants urged me to ask questions about sources not cited as well as those cited, leading me to one of the key findings of the report (that the citation is often not the actual source of information and is often provided in order to appease editors who may complain about sources located outside the accepted Western media sphere). But I soon realized that the editors with whom I spoke came from such a wide variety of experience, work areas and subjects that I needed to restrict my focus to a particular article in order to get a comprehensive picture of how editors were working. I chose a 2011 Egyptian revolution article on Wikipedia because I wanted a globally relevant breaking news event that would have editors from different parts of the world working together on an issue with local expertise located in a language other than English.

Using Kathy Charmaz's grounded theory method, I chose to focus editing activity (in the form of talk pages, edits, statistics and interviews with editors) from January 25, 2011 when the article was first created (within hours of the first protests in Tahrir Square), to February 12 when Mubarak resigned and the article changed its name from "2011 Egyptian protests" to "2011 Egyptian revolution." After reviewing the big-picture analyses of the article using Wikipedia statistics of top editors, and locations of anonymous editors, etc., I started work with an initial coding of the actions taking place in the text, asking the question, "What is happening here?"

I then developed a more limited codebook using the most frequent/significant codes and proceeded to compare different events with the same code (looking up relevant edits of the article in order to get the full story), and to look for tacit assumptions that the actions left out. I did all of this coding in Evernote because it seemed the easiest (and cheapest) way of importing large amounts of textual and multimedia data from the web, but it wasn't ideal because talk pages, when imported, need to be re-formatted, and I ended up using a single column to code data in the first column since putting each conversation on the talk page in a cell would be too time-consuming.


I then moved to writing a series of thematic notes on what I was seeing, trying to understand, through writing, what the common actions might mean. I finally moved to the report writing, bringing together what I believed were the most salient themes into a description and analysis of what was happening according to the two key questions that the study was trying to ask: How do Wikipedia editors, working together, often geographically distributed and far from where an event is taking place, piece together what is happening on the ground and then present it in a reliable way? And how could this process be improved?

Key variables

Ethnography Matters has a great post by Tricia Wang that talks about how ethnographers contribute (often invisible) value to organizations by showing what shouldn't be built, rather than necessarily improving a product that already has a host of assumptions built into it.

And so it was with this research project that I realized early on that a ranking system conceptualized this way would be inappropriate -- for the single reason that along with characteristics for determining whether a source is accurate or not (such as whether the author has a history of presenting accurate news article), a number of important variables are independent of the source itself. On Wikipedia, these include variables such as the number of secondary sources in the article (Wikipedia policy calls for editors to use a majority of secondary sources), whether the article is based on a breaking news story (in which case the majority of sources might have to be primary, eyewitness sources), or whether the source is notable in the context of the article. (Misinformation can also be relevant if it is widely reported and significant to the course of events as Judith Miller's New York Times stories were for the Iraq War.)


This means that you could have an algorithm for determining how accurate the source has been in the past, but whether you make use of the source or not depends on factors relevant to the context of the article that have little to do with the reliability of the source itself.

Another key finding recommending against source ranking is that Wikipedia's authority originates from its requirement that each potentially disputed phrase is backed up by reliable sources that can be checked by readers, whereas source ranking necessarily requires that the calculation be invisible in order to prevent gaming. It is already a source of potential weakness that Wikipedia citations are not the original source of information (since editors often choose citations that will be deemed more acceptable to other editors) so further hiding how sources are chosen would disrupt this important value.

On the other hand, having editors provide a rationale behind the choice of particular sources, as well as showing the variety of sources rather than those chosen because of loading time constraints may be useful -- especially since these discussions do often take place on talk pages but are practically invisible because they are difficult to find.

Wikipedians' editorial methods

Analyzing the talk pages of the 2011 Egyptian revolution article case study enabled me to understand how Wikipedia editors set about the task of discovering, choosing, verifying, summarizing, adding information and editing the article. It became clear through the rather painstaking study of hundreds of talk pages that editors were:

  1. storing discovered articles either using their own editor domains by putting relevant articles into categories or by alerting other editors to breaking news on the talk page,
  2. choosing sources by finding at least two independent sources that corroborated what was being reported but then removing some of the citations as the page became too heavy to load,
  3. verifying sources by finding sources to corroborate what was being reported, by checking what the summarized sources contained, and/or by waiting to see whether other sources corroborated what was being reported,
  4. summarizing by taking screenshots of videos and inserting captions (for multimedia) or by choosing the most important events of each day for a growing timeline (for text),
  5. adding text to the article by choosing how to reflect the source within the article's categories and providing citation information, and
  6. editing disputing the way that editors reflected information from various sources and replacing primary sources with secondary sources over time.

It was important to discover the work process that editors were following because any tool that assisted with source management would have to accord as closely as possible with the way that editors like to do things on Wikipedia. Since the process is managed by volunteers and because volunteers decide which tools to use, this becomes really critical to the acceptance of new tools.



After developing a typology of sources and isolating different types of Wikipedia source work, I made two sets of recommendations as follows:

  1. The first would be for designers to experiment with exposing variables that are important for determining the relevance and reliability of individual sources as well as the reliability of the article as a whole.
  2. The second would be to provide a trail of documentation by replicating the work process that editors follow (somewhat haphazardly at the moment) so that each source is provided with an independent space for exposition and verification, and so that editors can collect breaking news sources collectively.


Regarding a ranking system for sources, I'd argue that a descriptive repository of major media sources from different countries would be incredibly beneficial, but that a system for determining which sources are ranked highest according to usage would yield really limited results. (We know, for example, that the BBC is the most used source on Wikipedia by a high margin, but that doesn't necessarily help editors in choosing a source for a breaking news story.) Exposing the variables used to determine relevancy (rather than adding them up in invisible amounts to come up with a magical number) and showing the progression of sources over time offers some opportunities for innovation. But this requires developers to think out of the box in terms of what sources (beyond static texts) look like, where such sources and expertise are located, and how trust is garnered in the age of Twitter. The full report provides details of the recommendations and the findings and will be available soon.

Just the beginning

This is my first comprehensive ethnographic project, and one of the things I've noticed when doing other design and research projects using different methodologies is that, although the process can seem painstaking and it can prove difficult to articulate the hundreds of small observations into findings that are actionable and meaningful to designers, getting close to the experience of editors is extremely valuable work that is rare in Wikipedia research. I realize now that in the past when I actually studied an article in detail, I knew very little about how Wikipedia works in practice. And this is only the beginning!

Heather Ford is a budding ethnographer who studies how online communities get together to learn, play and deliberate. She currently works for Ushahidi and is studying how online communities like Wikipedia work together to verify information collected from the web and how new technology might be designed to help them do this better. Heather recently graduated from the UC Berkeley iSchool where she studied the social life of information in schools, educational privacy and Africans on Wikipedia. She is a former Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board member and the former Executive Director of iCommons - an international organization started by Creative Commons to connect the open education, access to knowledge, free software, open access publishing and free culture communities around the world. She was a co-founder of Creative Commons South Africa and of the South African nonprofit, The African Commons Project as well as a community-building initiative called the GeekRetreat - bringing together South Africa's top web entrepreneurs to talk about how to make the local Internet better. At night she dreams about writing books and finding time to draw.

This article also appeared at Ushahidi.com and Ethnography Matters. Get the full report at Scribd.com.

January 11 2012


3 Laws for Journalists in a Data-Saturated World

At the Cyberspace Conference in London in November, Igor Shchegolev, the Russian minister of communications and mass media, referred to sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics:


1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Earlier in 2011, after the phone-hacking scandal erupted in the U.K. and the level of criticism of the journalism profession soared, I started thinking about these three laws. Meanwhile, there is a daily deluge of excitement about data journalism - from Owni.eu to the Guardian, Telegraph and New York Times - and about hacking (enthusiasm for the white hat variety and frequent warnings about the black hat flavor).

Some sections of the media want, at least it may seem to some of us, a witch hunt against the rest for practices that have been long present in journalism, and British journalism in particular. Just this week, former editor of the Sun newspaper in Britain Kelvin McKenzie was giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry about events 20 years ago. Others want to drive so far toward data and ceaseless online information that some of us wonder what happened to the people we used to interview. And if you question either of those, you will be denounced as being part of the problem.

Obsess too much about the technology and you risk forgetting the human beings we report on, and the fact they can easily be trampled under the feet of hoards of reporters surging in their lust for immediate "information" without pause for second thought.

In an age in which "hacks and hackers" are merged into a confused space focused more on data than the people behind it, I want to see Asimov's laws rewritten.

Let me propose Three Laws for Journalists in the Digital World:

1. Digital systems must be designed to protect and ensure, to the fullest extent possible, personal data and its exchange and communication.

2. Journalists must pursue all stories deemed to be in the public interest, even where that may require challenging the security of digital systems.

3. Journalists must protect their sources as well as the innocent public to the same extent as the digital systems of the First Law, where it would otherwise render the impossibility of the Second Law.

The First Law

So-called "black hat" hackers, such as criminal gangs who attack companies for data on customers, obviously fall afoul of the First Law above. But the First Law also accommodates those hackers who deliberately challenge a system to ultimately make it safer.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario published in 2009 "The 7 Foundational Principles" of Privacy by Design, which included as No. 2: "Privacy as the Default Setting ... by ensuring that personal data are automatically protected in any given IT system or business practice. If an individual does nothing, their privacy still remains intact."

While it might be relatively straightforward for companies to protect private information, it is less so for society at large.

Michelle Govan, a lecturer in ethical hacking at Glasgow Caledonian University, teaches a course focusing on attacking systems to find the holes and then patching them. She explained that the key element of legal hacking is having the permission of the system owner or operator. For the rest of us, any information online is not private.

"Everybody has a responsibility for their own privacy," she said. "Where does privacy start? You create your own digital footprint online -- anything you put online is open to people using it maliciously.

"I always provide students with the understanding and experience of the application of legal aspects so they know they have to use these skills for good. It's all about the permission and knowledge of what limits the law sets," she added. "We have legal laws [and some] ethical laws -- it's down to a person's own values. You have to make people respect what they're doing."

There have been plenty of examples of going further with once private information as companies battle for control of as much data as possible.

Such was the recent case of Klout, which was accused of automatically creating profiles and assigning scores to minors. Klout argued that much of a user's information, such as name, sex and profile photo, is already public.

Newspaper or other media companies and their systems would also be governed by this First Law, either in protecting their own systems from criminal hacking, or their users who might be exposed to viruses or other online threats via news stories, etc.

The First Law does not exclude examples such as hackers diverting Internet connections when states crack down on civil liberties, such as in Syria. Because those hackers are ultimately aiming to protect individuals and not expose them to harm as they fight for greater democratic freedoms, they meet the requirements of the First Law.

The Second Law

One of the many flaws in the hacking of telephone voice-mail in the U.K. was that the actions were not in the public interest. There are legal precedents in the U.K. for how public interest is defined, but the behavior of celebrities would rarely fall within those categories, and certainly not when the press goes on a "fishing expedition" for scandal on any high-profile figure imaginable.

Hacking into the voice-mail of a murdered schoolgirl was not legal or ethical. But you could imagine a hypothetical case where if the police were not making adequate efforts to find the killer, or where Milly Dowler had been alive and police were not acting to help trace her; AND at the invitation of her parents, the press got involved and accessed her phone. But that is highly theoretical and was not the case.

If journalists must do investigations -- and there's a recognition we must, even if nobody knows how to pay for it -- then there will be instances where they do breach the security of digital systems.

They might need to prove, as an ethical hacker might, that a government or corporate system did not have sufficient protections of citizens' data.

The Second Law is relatively straightforward if you need to meet the standard of public interest first. There might still be legal challenges after publication, broadcast or posting online, but if you have to justify it internally first, that's a good start. Most reporters know and follow the Second Law intuitively.

The Third Law

The point of merger for these laws, and for the worlds of "hacks and hackers" is the Third Law.

Even if the hacking of telephone voice-mail wasn't illegal already in the U.K., a handful of reporters at the News of the World and potentially elsewhere were clearly not ethically protecting their sources. In that world, everyone is potentially fair game for worldwide exposure, on anything, however trivial.

Clare Harris, former editor of the Big Issue in Scotland magazine and now media and communications officer with the Scottish Refugee Council, said journalists and editors don't always think about the potential consequences to interviewees of their stories going online. While a refugee might be safe in the U.K., their family could still be at risk in the country of origin, where stories about human rights abuses could be easily accessed by government forces.


"We have to be really clear if we are putting someone forward for interview that it is likely to go on the web and go worldwide, because we are dealing with people who are very vulnerable," she explained.

"In some cases, people would be more happy to speak to newspapers about their situation if they knew their stories won't be online. No journalist has ever asked us if it is safe to put the story online," she said.

But for Harris, bigger questions still have to be asked: about the nature of sources and the boundaries for "private" and "public."

"What is a source now? Is it someone who has tweeted something? Is everything online fair game?" she asked.

Harris' comments are echoed in the Wall Street Journal coverage last year of a Supreme Court case involving questions of how GPS technology is used by police.

During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito said: "Maybe 10 years from now, 90% of the population will be using social networking sites, and they will have on average 500 friends, and they will have allowed their friends to monitor their location 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through the use of their cell phones. What would the expectation of privacy be then?"

How technically difficult is it to protect sources in the digital age? Very.

Govan in Glasgow said information is so easy to extract now, that it can be eyebrow-raising for her students initially.

"If a reporter is trying to protect their sources online, it's limited when you can get Google to locate information for you," she said. "Google caches anything online so once online, it's essentially public. It becomes public data."

The need to look beyond data

Stephen Janis is an investigative reporter for Fox 45 in Baltimore and co-author of the book, "Why Do We Kill?" While data has become more important in journalism, Janis said he always tries to find the people at the heart of stories.

But the people you find also sometimes need protection. He said it is relatively easy to find people on Facebook, and the connections they have, which can expose who you're speaking to as a reporter.

"I've dealt with a lot of sources inside agencies who could get fired for speaking to me. We are all secretive about who our sources are. But my online social relationships could be used to ferret out some sources," he said.

So if it is so easy to get information about sources, what should reporters do?

Was WikiLeaks better at protecting its sources through military grade encryption on its "drop box"? Did they fail in protecting information of individuals contained within released documents when they published everything sans redaction?

Attempts by the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera to entice whistleblowers to traditional media instead of WikiLeaks have been criticized for failing to ensure anonymity or guarantee information would not be handed to law enforcement agencies.

If Twitter has been compelled to release information by the courts on its accounts, how should media organizations encourage the flow of information via social media? Does it require, at the very least, warnings in advance so individuals make an informed choice to contact media companies that can't protect them?

Or would the media be better to advise their readers and users to apply Tor software to protect their systems from tracking before sending information?

In the pursuit of faster information and more readers/consumers, we may have forgotten the need to protect our sources, and how easily we leave trails exposing them to risk.

Does retweeting a comment from the "Arab Spring" expose the originator, however anonymous, to risk? Do the images we take from Twitter accounts include GPS tags?

Quite apart from the immorality and illegality of hacking the voice-mail of a murdered schoolgirl in the U.K., how are we using technology as reporters?

If we can't protect our sources, how can our work possibly be in the public interest? If you fail to do the Third Law, you make the Second Law impossible.

Why Three Laws and Why Now?

These questions matter. In obsessing about all the journalism practices used in the U.K. for the past 20 or 30 years, and in the rush for immediacy and intimacy with the digital world, there needs to be an underpinning of something for journalism. Every reporter knows they must protect their sources, even if we have not articulated that well to our citizen counterparts.

T. S. Eliot wrote in "The Rock," Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Data is fine. It can be beautiful and elegant and informative. But some data must be protected, and other data must be investigated. The drive to inform must have an ethical underpinning of some kind.

These three laws could be part of better guiding the professionals and those sources -- human or numeric -- with whom we interact.

Robot photo by Flickr user ra1000 and used here with Creative Commons license.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

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September 03 2011


David Winer: in a generation or two we won't be employing people to gather news

I agree with David Winer, when he writes that already today you don't have to wait for the journalists to publish the news. But I'm also quite sure, that journalists will still be there, even in two generations from now, but their role will for sure have changed.

Scripting News :: David Winer writes: "Journalism itself is becoming obsolete. I know the reporters don't want to hear this, and they're likely to blast me, even try to get me 'fired' (it's happened before) because at least for the next few months I hang my hat at a J-school. I happen to think journalism was a response to publishing being expensive. It cost a lot of money to push bits around the net before there was a net. They had to have huge capital-intensive printing plants, fleets of trucks and delivery boys with paper routes."

[David Winer:] Now we can hear directly from the sources and build our own news networks. It's still early days for this, and it wasn't that long ago that we depended on journalists for the news. But in a generation or two we won't be employing people to gather news for us. It'll work differently.

Continue to read Dave Winer, scripting.com

July 18 2011


Access to more than 50,000 sources: Google News makes reading a competitive sport

Chicago Tribune :: Reading news articles just became "gamified." With new features on Google News, reading news articles has turned into a game where readers are rewarded with news badges based on their reading habits. Where do you stand? On Google News, the average reader of political news has read 20 articles about politics in the last six months. According to the Official Google Blog, the site has access to more than 50,000 sources.

Continue to read www.chicagotribune.com

February 25 2011


This Week in Review: TBD gets the axe, deciphering Apple’s new rules, and empowering more news sources

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

The short, happy-ish life of TBD: Just six months after it launched and two weeks after a reorganization was announced, the Washington, D.C., local news site was effectively shuttered this week, when its corporate parent, Allbritton Communications (it’s owned by Robert Allbritton and includes Politico), cut most of its jobs, leaving only an arts and entertainment operation within the website of Allbritton’s WJLA-TV.

TBD had been seen many as a bellwether in online-only local news, as Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore documented in her historical roundup of links about the site, so it was quite a shock and a disappointment to many future-of-newsies that it was closed so quickly. The response — aptly compiled by TBDer Jeff Sonderman — was largely sympathetic to TBD’s staff (former TBD manager Jim Brady even wrote a pitch to prospective employers on behalf of the newly laid off community engagement team). Many observers on Twitter (and Terry Heaton on his blogpointed squarely at Allbritton for the site’s demise, with The Batavian’s Howard Owens drawing out a short, thoughtful lesson: “Legacy managers will nearly always sabotage innovation. Wall of separation necessary between innovators and legacy.”

Blogger Mike Clark pointed out that TBD’s traffic was beating each of the other D.C. TV news sites and growing as well. The Washington Post reported that while traffic wasn’t a problem, turning it into revenue was — though the fact that TBD’s ads were handled by WJLA staffers might have contributed to that.

Mallary Jean Tenore wrote an insightful article talking to some TBD folks about whether their company gave them a chance to fail. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau was unequivocal on the subject: “Some of us have been talking today on Twitter about whether TBD failed. Nonsense. TBD wasn’t given enough time to fail.”

While CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis lamented that “TBD will be painted as a failure of local news online when it’s a failure of its company, nothing more,” others saw some larger implications for other online local news projects. Media analyst Alan Mutter concluded that TBD’s plight is “further evidence that hyperlocal journalism is more hype than hope for the news business,” and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds gave six business lessons for similar projects from TBD’s struggles. Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton ripped Edmonds’ analysis, arguing that Allbritton “can’t pretend to have seriously tried the hyperlocal business space after a six-month experiment it derailed half-way in.”

Applying Apple’s new rules: Publishers’ consternation over Apple’s new subscription plan for mobile devices continued this week, with Frederic Filloux at Monday Note laying out many publishers’ frustrations with Apple’s proposal. The New York Times’ David Carr and The Guardian’s Josh Halliday both covered publishers’ Apple subscription conundrum, and one expert told Carr, “If you are a publisher, it puts things into a tailspin: The business model you have been working with for many years just lost 30 percent off the top.”

At paidContent, James McQuivey made the case for a lower revenue share for Apple, and Dan Gillmor wondered whether publishers will stand up to Apple. The company may also be facing scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission for possible antitrust violations, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The fresh issue regarding Apple’s subscription policy this week, though, was the distinction between publishing apps and more service-oriented apps. The topic came to the fore when the folks from Readability, an app that allows users to read articles in an advertising-free environment, wrote an open letter ripping Apple for rejecting their app, saying their new policy “smacks of greed.” Ars Technica’s Chris Foresman and Apple blogger John Gruber noted, though, that Readability’s 30%-off-the-top business model is a lot like Apple’s.

Then Apple’s Steve Jobs sent a short, cryptic email to a developer saying that Apple’s new policy applies only to publishing apps, not service apps. This, of course, raised the question, in TechCrunch’s words, ”What’s a publishing app?” That’s a very complex question, and as Instapaper founder Marco Arment wrote, one that will be difficult for Apple to answer consistently. Arment also briefly noted that Jobs’ statement seems to contradict the language of Apple’s new guidelines.

Giving voice to new sources of news: This month’s Carnival of Journalism, posted late last week, focused on ways to increase the number of news sources. It’s a broad question, and it drew a broad variety of answers, which were ably summarized by Courtney Shove. I’m not going to try to duplicate her work here, but I do want to highlight a few of the themes that showed up.

David Cohn, the Carnival’s organizer, gave a great big-picture perspective to the issue, putting it in the context of power and the web. Kim Bui and Dan Fenster defended the community-driven vision for news, with Bui calling journalists to go further: “Let’s admit it, we’ve never trusted the public.” There were several calls for journalists to include more underrepresented voices, with reports and ideas like a refugee news initiative, digital news bus, youth journalism projects, and initiatives for youth in foreign-language families.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer gave 10 good ideas to the cause, and Drury j-prof Jonathan Groves and Gannett’s Ryan Sholin shared their ideas for local citizen news projects, while TheUpTake’s Jason Barnett endorsed a new citizen-journalism app called iBreakNews.

Three bloggers, however, objected to the Carnival’s premise in the first place. Daniel Bachhuber of CUNY argued that improving journalism doesn’t necessarily mean adding more sources, recommending instead that “Instead of increasing the number of news sources, we should focus on producing durable data and the equivalent tools for remixing it.” Lauren Rabaino warned against news oversaturation, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing said that more than new sources, we need better filters and hubs for them.

Blogging’s continued evolution: The “blogging is dead” argument has popped up from time to time, and it was revived again this week in the form of a New York Times story about how young people are leaving blogs for social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Several people countered the argument, led by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who said that blogging isn’t declining, but is instead evolving into more of a continuum that includes microblogging services like Twitter, traditional blog formats like Wordpress, and the hybrid that is Tumblr. He and Wordpress founding developer Matt Mullenweg shared the same view — that “people of all ages are becoming more and more comfortable publishing online,” no matter the form.

Scott Rosenberg, who’s written a history of blogging, looked at statistics to make the point, noting that 14 percent of online adults keep a blog, a number he called astounding, even if it starts to decline. “As the online population becomes closer to universal, that is an extraordinary thing: One in ten people writing in public. Our civilization has never seen anything like it.” In addition, Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa argued that longer-form blogging has always been a pursuit of older Internet users.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a few ongoing stories to update you on, and a sampling of an unusually rich week in thoughtful pieces.

— A couple of sites took a peek at Gawker’s traffic statistics to try to determine the effectiveness of its recent redesign. TechCrunch saw an ugly picture; Business Insider was cautiously optimistic based on the same data. Gawker disputed TechCrunch’s numbers, and Terry Heaton tried to sort through the claims.

— A couple of Middle East/North Africa protest notes: The New York Times told us about the response to Egypt’s Internet blackout and the role of mobile technology in documenting the protests. And Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center gave some lessons from the incredible Twitter journalism of NPR’s Andy Carvin.

— The Daily is coming to Android tablets this spring, and its free trial run has been extended beyond the initial two weeks.

— Matt DeRienzo of the Journal Register Co. wrote about an intriguing idea for a news org/j-school merger.

— Alan Mutter made the case for ending federal funding for public journalism.

— At 10,000 Words, Lauren Rabaino had some awesome things news organizations can learn from tech startups, including thinking of news as software and embracing transparency.

— And here at the Lab, Northwestern prof Pablo Boczkowski gave some quick thoughts on how we tend to associate online news with work, and what that means. He sheds some light about an under-considered aspect of news — the social environments in which we consume it.

February 01 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Kimli used under a Creative Commons license.


Sources fight back: fabrication, complaints, and the Daily Mail

Juliet Shaw writes in a guest post on No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands about her experience of fighting The Daily Mail through the courts after they published an apparently fabricated article (her dissection of the article and its fictions is both painstaking and painful).

There is no happy ending, but there are almost 100 comments. And once again you are struck by the power of sources to tell their side of the story. For Juliet Shaw you could just as well read Melanie Schregardus, or the Dunblane Facebook Group.

Among the comments is Mail reader Elaine, who says

“I have always taken their stance and opinions with a large doze of salt. It will be even larger now. Thank goodness for the internet – as a balance to the Mail I can access the Guardian and the Independent to see their take on a particular world/UK event.”

But also in the comments are others who say they have suffered from being the subject of fabricated articles in the Mail – first Catherine Hughes:

“The article was so damaging to my freelance career that editors I was working with now no longer answer my emails. ‘Heartbroken, devastated and gutted’ doesn’t even come close to how I feel. It happened in September and I am still distraught.”

Then Pomona:

“[I have] been a victim of the Daily Fail’s “journalism” on two occasions: once when my first marriage broke up and they printed a lurid and utterly innaccurate story about me (I’m no celeb, just Jo Public), and more recently when one of their journalists lifted and printed a Facebook reply to their request for information (leaving out the bit where I told them I did not permit them to use or reprint any part of my post)”

And Anonymous:

“The Daily Mail said they were looking for a real life example of a similar case of teachers exploiting trust to complement a news story. They promised to protect my anonymity, use only a very small picture and as one of a number of case studies. A week later a double page spread – taken up mostly with a picture of me – bore the headline ‘Dear Sir, I think I Love you’. The quotes bore no resemblance to what I said and made it sound like I liked the teacher?! Instead of what really happened – a drunken shuffle in the back of a car and a feeling of abuse of trust and sadness the next day.”

Jon Morgan:

“When the article was published, my role as welfare officer was never mentioned, the average overdraft had become *my* overdraft, and I was apparently on the verge of jacking in my studies in despair.”


“I applied as a case study, the photoshoot, the invasive questions. Took months to get my expenses after dozens of ignored emails. Thankfully the article never went to print. At the time I was annoyed but now I am thankful. I also work in PR and would feel extremely uncomfortable offering anyone as a case study for a client. No matter how large the exposure.”


“I complained to the editor. He insisted that all journalists identify themselves as such every time. And that his employee had done no wrong. In short, he was calling ME a liar. And as all interviews are recorded he could prove it. I said, Okay, listen to the recording then! He replied, No, I don’t need to. I stand by my writers.”

Other comments mention similar experiences, some with other newspapers. It’s a small point, driven home over and over again: power has shifted.

January 11 2011


Seeking out sources, made transparent on Twitter

As the story of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords continues to unfold, we’re seeing another example of Twitter in motion and the different approaches news organizations take to using social media.

Twitter has proven its usefulness to the media in breaking news as a real-time search tool, an instantaneous publisher, and a source discovery service. It’s that last point that is often of most use — and interest — to reporters on Twitter, finding and talking to people who could be useful in a story. But making that approach can be difficult — if not downright awkward. How does Twitter etiquette work when approaching a potential source, particularly when that approach plays out in the open?

NYC The Blog tracked the media requests of Caitie Parker, a woman who tweeted that the shooting took place near her house and that she was a former classmate of the alleged shooter. And that’s when the stampede for interviews began, with more than 30 interview requests coming in on Twitter from The New York Times, CNN, the Associated Press, and more. (Not to mention a similar number by email and Facebook.) So what were their approaches?

The 140-character interview

Anthony De Rosa of Reuters seems to be the first person to find Parker and through a series of tweets conducted something in between an interview and standard fact checking. But De Rosa’s discovery seems to be what broke the floodgates on Parker.

Playing the local card

Reporters from outlets like the Arizona Daily Star, Arizona Republic, and KTAR radio in Phoenix made a pitch for talking with the local guy, as they tried to compete with the national media parachuting in to cover the story. At least one reporter from the Los Angeles Times tried to play up his local ties, telling Parker he “went to school at UofA.”

Name dropping

Sometimes you have to roll the dice on name recognition and hope it has a little sway. The New York Times wants to talk to you! PBS NewsHour wants to talk to you!

The question tweet

At least a few reporters cut to the chase and asked Parker a question outright, or sought to verify new information about the shooter.

I feel your pain

Another approach uses a little empathy — as in, “I know yr overwhelmed,” or “sorry to add to circus.”

Going native

ABC News White House correspondent Jake Tapper is known for being savvy when it comes to using social media in his reporting. Tapper apparently decided to cut to the chase and use the parlance of Twitter when reaching out to Parker: “how can abc news get in touch w you? I will follow u so u can DM me”

The end result of all this attention from journalists?

@caitieparker: I've said it before & I'll say it again I AM NOT DOING & WILL NOT DO ANY MORE INTERVIEWS. Please leave my family, & home, alone!

November 16 2010


“That heady feeling of being totally integrated”: The elusive promise of community, flattened and “real”

In the future-of-journalism business, we’re obsessed with adoption: getting online, getting hip to the web, leaving old analog practices behind, embracing the interactivity of social media. For a long time, not getting online — not getting hip to the digital program — seemed the provenance of clueless curmudgeons, middle-aged city desk editors, and Andrew Keen. Rightly, I think, we’ve devoted most of our energy to figuring out the details of what Jay Rosen has called “the migration point of the press tribe.” Getting to the other side of the chasm means getting wired in.

One of the things I always loved about Scott Rosenberg’s book Say Everything was that it covered enough historical time that it was as much a book about blogs ending as it was a book about the adoption of blogging. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been lucky enough to read several fantastic pieces that I think speak to this question of “getting offline” in ways that go beyond the usual curmudgeonly prattle. Two writers went down this road voluntarily: Marc Ambinder wrote a farewell post called “I am a Blogger No Longer,” and Zadie Smith, in a review of The Social Network, referred to herself a 1.0 person living in a 2.0 world, a person who killed her Facebook page after a few weeks. A third blogger, however — Ruth Gledhill of The Times of London — was forced to shut down her blog when the newspaper she worked for went behind a paywall. No openness to the Internet, no point in running a blog.

For me, it was Gledhill’s comments about “life behind the paywall” that got me thinking. “In one sense,” she wrote:

I have my ‘life’ back as my blog took up all of my waking hours when I wasn’t writing news stories and I was neglecting our son and other areas of my life outside work. It was definitely an addiction. When I was wired up, I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere. I still miss that heady feeling of being totally integrated with the ‘ether’.

Ambinder’s comments about non-blog journalism being “ego free” may have garned the most attention on Twitter, but I think Robin Sloan of Snarkmarket is right when he flags this as the piece’s key point. Ambinder’s point intersects well with Gledhill’s:

The mere fact that online reporters feel they must participate in endless discussions about these subjects is something new, a consequence of the medium, and is one reason why it can be so exhausting to do primarily web journalism. The feedback loop is relentless, punishing.

The fact that one of these comments is primarily positive (“wired up,” “physically part of the internet,” “heady feeling,” “totally integrated”) while the other is negative (“endless discussions,” “exhausting,” “relentless,” “punishing”) makes it clear to me that both writers are talking about the same thing. They’re talking about an intensive process of speaking and listening, grounded in a social network that is itself embedded within a dynamic community. In both cases, the journalist is open, responsive, locked in…and open and responsive to a network of ultimately real people, not to some abstract entity that looms just over your left shoulder. This would be a hard feeling to describe to someone who had never Tweeted, blogged, surfed an RSS feed, or gotten lost on Facebook, but if you’ve gotten this far you probably have some idea of what I’m talking about. There’s a certain frisson there. I can actually feel it as I write this post.

Having spent many years teaching and befriending journalists, and having participated in some poorly defined acts of citizen journalism myself, it seems that people generally go into journalism for a number of reasons. I’ve found that my would-be journalism students are usually curious. They want to get to the bottom of things; they deal in practical reality, not theory; and they (let’s face it) love to snoop. They’re practical, inquisitive, fact-minded folks.

In addition to them, though, I know a number of journalists who went into the industry because their communicative work gave them the chance to ground themselves in a particular community, to be embed themselves within a particular public. They want to stand near the center of the communications circuit. They want to listen to people and tell them things, all at the same time. They want to learn new things, things that matter to individuals and groups, and then tell them about it. They want to know that they’ve made a difference, that the people have heard them.

One of the things I think you realize as a journalist, however, is that your “public” quickly gets reduced to your beat, and your community most often consists of folks we might call “sources” (an ugly phrase). In everyday terms, the best journalists spend most of their time talking to a rather limited group of people — and even when that circuit of people expands they’re still primarily dealing with people they usually refer to as a “source.” Journalists are workers, and as workers, they become attuned to practices that make the most logical sense, that help them do their job, and get them out the door headed towards home as quickly as possible. For journalists, the practical necessities of journalism narrow the scope of the public.

This is why I think so many journalists get so excited about the social possibilities of digital technology. In the most basic sense, “the shock of community” that the Internet provides gets represented by quantitative audience metrics. Whatever audience-tracking tools may or may not be doing to the editorial process, there’s no mistaking the fact that when reporters first encounter those heady sheets of Omniture data, it blows their minds. “Finally! The invisible audience has returned! These are the people I cared about when I first went into reporting…I forgot about them — but here they are!” In more poetic terms, it’s what Gledhill talks about when she writes that “I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere…totally integrated with the ‘ether’.” It’s not just metrics, but it’s comments, links, email, and conversation.

When I was doing research in Philadelphia, this is how a local journalist/blogger described the evolution of his blog:

…the key lesson is that my blog got picked up and accepted as being an authentic part of the blogging community, which in his case was the left-wing blogosphere. And the way I did that was to link to these other blogs, to engage with them, and to seek them out. Some of our other blogs that are run by journalists are struggling with how to gain that acceptance. I remember a moment in September 2003 when one of my posts was linked by the leftwing website Buzzflash [which was popular at the time]. Comments came rolling in. Emails to me went through the roof — that was the kind of national attention I was looking for!

Ambinder, on the other hand, points to the aftermath of that social-network high: the endless comment moderation, the exhaustion that digital immersion can cause. And Zadie Smith goes one step further. For Smith, the community journalists have been so excited to rediscover isn’t actually real. It’s limited. It’s flattened. On Facebook,

If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos…Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees.

Smith’s point is philosophical: digital technology reduces us. Like any grand philosophical point, it’s ultimately unprovable, which is why I’ve tried to come at it from an oblique angle, by talking about publics and journalism. Does online journalism give us a community that’s more real, or less real, than the one we leave behind? I think that digital technology does flatten people. But it flattens more than just people. It flattens objects, concepts, publics, and relationships as well. And it’s not just digital technology that flattens things; the daily act of working, of day-to-day practical living flattens things too.

Reporters may go into journalism to be with the public; they eventually find beats and sources and the daily grind instead. Reporters may go online to find a community more responsive than the one they encounter in their daily work, but it’s a community that can be exhausting, pummeling, and not quite real. So get offline if you wish. Get online if you can. But in either case, never make the mistake in thinking that you’ve found a community, a public, a reality, that’s more authentic than the one you’ve left behind. We can’t will authentic community into being. It sort of sneaks up on us. And just as quickly — as soon as we turn our heads — it’s gone.

Photo by Matthew Field used under a Creative Commons license.

October 14 2010


Bill Simmons on breaking news in a Twitter universe

A brief treat for sports fans and future-of-media junkies: Bill Simmons’ column at ESPN.com about his accidental tweeting last week about Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss’ trade to the Minnesota Vikings. Simmons heard a rumor about the trade from a source and meant to send a direct message (“moss Vikings”) to ESPN reporter Adam Schefter. Instead, Simmons accidentally tweeted it to the world, which made the story blow up from private rumor to public discussion in record time.

The column talks about how that happened, but more interestingly, it also gets into how journalists think about Twitter today, as an outlet for breaking news, as a source, and as a forum for speculation. It’s worth a read, but here are a couple excerpts:

Twitter, which exacerbates the demands of immediacy, blurs the line between reporting and postulating, and forces writers to chase too many bum steers. With every media company unabashedly playing the “We Had It First!” game, reporters’ salary and credibility hinges directly on how many stories they break. That entices reporters to become enslaved to certain sources (almost always agents or general managers), push transparent agendas (almost always from those same agents or GMs) and “break” news before there’s anything to officially break. It also swings the source/reporter dynamic heavily toward the source. Take care of me and I will take care of you.


On the surface, this annoys me to no end. Who cares? It’s not like we have some giant scoreboard keeping track of everything. But my reporter friends all say the same thing: It’s not about one scoop but the entire body of scoops (not just for the reporter, but the company that employs them). Think of Ichiro grinding out 200 hits every season. Yeah, most of them are mundane singles … but they add up. For readers, that volume turns it into a “feel” thing.

I feel like that guy breaks his share of stories, hence, I trust him. Or flipping that around: I don’t trust that guy, he throws stuff out there left and right and half of it’s not true.

So yeah, there’s no official scoreboard for scoops. We just subconsciously keep score. As do editors. As do media companies. Some will do whatever it takes to pad their stats, whether it’s pimping every decision someone makes to get repaid with information later, playing the odds by reporting something they hope is true (and if it is, they look like a stud), spinning every angle against someone who once butted heads with a favored source, whatever. The best reporters maintain relationships, avoid agendas, craft good narratives, never stop cultivating new sources and — occasionally — break news simply because it’s an outcome of being good at their jobs. That’s what should matter. And that’s how they should be judged. I wish that were always the case.


In the Twitter era, we see writers repeatedly toss out nuggets of information without taking full ownership. It’s my least favorite thing about Twitter (because it’s wishy-washy) and one of my favorite things about Twitter (because nonstop conjecture is so much fun for sports fans). We saw it happen during the LeBron saga, the baseball trade deadline, Favre’s latest round of “I Might Come Back” — it’s just part of following sports in 2010. Call it “pseudo-reporting”: telling your audience that you think something happened or that you heard something happened, and somehow that sentiment becomes actual news.

Simmons also gives a window into the source development process, detailing how an NBA-exec candidate tried to get Simmons to promote him for a job in exchange for the promise of later scoops. Overall, it’s a great, self-aware piece useful for any journalist thinking about how Twitter fits into new workflows.

September 17 2010


Network effects: The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger on newspapers and blog networks

Last week, I wrote about the Guardian’s new network of science blogs, which — in a first for the paper — is allowing its (growing) cadre of bloggers to publish directly to the Guardian’s site. The effort, though new for the Guardian, isn’t necessarily new for media organizations in general. In 2008, Eric Berger, a science reporter at the Houston Chronicle — and author of the paper’s SciGuy blog — assembled a team of scientists to contribute to a network of blogs whose topics include climate change, the environment, astronomy, and more. The goal: “to provide a neutral space for scientists and the general public to meet and speak on the issues of the day.”

The “.sphere” experiment — the blogs had titles like Atmo.sphere, Cosmo.sphere, and Evo.sphere — “had some successes and failures,” Berger noted in a later blog post. Some of the blogs fizzled; new ones were born. And one of the biggest determinants of success was, unsurprisingly, the dynamics of authorship: the people at the blogs’ helm. As the project evolved, the focus went from group contributions — several scientists, and some volunteer lay people, writing the content and guiding discussions — to blogs that are written “mostly by individuals.”

I spoke with Berger about that shift. We focused on science blogs; the lessons, though, are relevant to any news organization looking to extend its reach through tapping the talents and expertise of independent bloggers.

Personal interest leads to quality blogging

Blogging requires passion — about the subject matter and about communication itself. Dave Winer’s notion of a “natural born blogger” is instructive not just for amateur bloggers, but for those networked with professional sites, as well. ”People have to want to do it; they have to be interested in it,” Berger says. “And if they like doing it, then they’ll do it more, and they’ll do it better. Because if you’re writing about stuff that you’re interested in and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to come through in your writing. It’s going to show your readers that you’re engaged — and going to make them more prone to be engaged, as well.”

Conversation is key

The common conception of the scientist locked in academia’s ivory tower is one held not only by many members of the public, but by some scientists, as well. There’s an occasional tendency, Berger points out, for scientists to see themselves and their work as isolated from the rest of the world. (That’s a tendency, I’d add, that can afflict journalism, as well.) Success in blogging, though, requires getting down to solid ground. “You’ve got to have someone who wants to have a conversation with the public about topics that the public is interested in,” Berger says. And, when it comes to guiding a blog, “a big part of it is convincing the scientists that it’s worth their time not only to write blog entries, but also to interact with people in the comments.” Many scientists have no interest in that, he notes — so the trick is finding the ones who are willing to join the fray.

“You’ve got to find the right scientist” – someone who understands the public with whom they’re conversing. Scientists in particular are used to communicating with peers, Berger notes. But “it’s different with a newspaper — it’s an audience of lay people. A lot of people are looking at the website when they’re at work – and so they’re looking to amuse and to educate themselves.” A good blog network will be populated by writers who strike a balance between those two goals.

Emphasize the news hook

In addition to looking for Winer’s “natural born bloggers,” you want scientists who are able to marry the expertise of their fields with the ability to connect with the public. “Generally, it’s the people who write more to a general level” who are most successful at blogging, Berger says. “People are not going to read a blog that is primarily educational,” he notes. And “most people aren’t spending their free time on the web to get astronomy lectures, I hate to say.” Instead, in general, “people want stuff either that’s related to the news of what’s happening or that has some kind of popular hook. It’s difficult for science as a topic to compete with things like sports or religion — or politics, of course — which are some of the most popular blog subjects here and elsewhere.” To make it compete, you need writers who are able to refashion science from a niche topic into one of general interest — by moderating content and by writing with, for lack of a better word, flair.

Good source = good blogger

Since communication is so important to the blogging equation (see point one), experts who make good sources might also make good bloggers, Berger notes. “If I’ve interviewed someone in the past, and they’ve been really helpful, or have explained things in a good way, or been willing to return calls quickly, then that person would be a good candidate – or at least someone to suggest” as a blogger, Berger says. Often, he points out, the PR people at universities have a good sense of their faculty’s comfort with external communication; they can be a great resource in finding academics who’d have both the interest and the ability to become good bloggers.

Don’t try to control (too much)

A good blog network, Berger says, depends in large part on a willingness to experiment — not only on the part of the bloggers themselves, but of the network leaders, as well. Perhaps the primary principle is trial-and-error. “I had some hits and I had some misses,” he notes of his two years of network-ing, but by being open to trying out different bloggers and formats and content areas, the network is also open to unexpected successes.

“You kind of have to let people do what they do, when they can,” Berger says. “Different people are going to write different things. Some people are doing it because they want to write, and they’re interested in saying their piece on things; other people are interested in educating. You just kind of let people do what’s to their strength.”

September 15 2010


September 14 2010


September 07 2010


Tumblr improves attribution process

Tumblr has announced an upgrade of its attribution feature which will now only provide attribution to original sources within the post content, rather than all re-bloggers.

In the announcement on its staff blog, Tumblr says the upgrade was needed to fix issues within its automatic ‘via’ system, such as links being dropped, credit being buried under re-blog links, frequent mistaken attributions and the resulting impact on post appearance.

Starting today, reblogging will no longer insert attribution into the content/caption of the post except to quote content added by the parent post.

The new feature will also enable authors to attribute content to a source outside of Tumblr which will then be attributed whenever the post is reblogged on Tumblr, while the entire reblog history will remain in the post notes.Similar Posts:

June 16 2010


What will Iceland’s new media laws mean for journalists?

The Icelandic parliament has voted unanimously to create what are intended to be the strongest media freedom laws in the world. And Iceland intends these measures to have international impact, by creating a safe haven for publishers worldwide — and their servers.

The proposal, known as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, requires changes to Icelandic law to strengthen journalistic source protection, freedom of speech, and government transparency.

“The Prime Minister voted for it, and the Minister of Finance, and everybody present,” says Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who has been the proposal’s chief sponsor. Her point is that Iceland is serious about this. The country is in the mood for openness after a small group of bankers saddled it with crippling debt, and the proposal ties neatly into the country’s strategy to be prime server real-estate.

But although the legislative package sounds very encouraging from a freedom of expression point of view, it’s not clear what the practical benefits will be to organizations outside Iceland. In his analysis of the proposal, Arthur Bright of the Citizen Media Law Project has noted that, in one major test case of cross-border online libel law, “publication” was deemed to occur at the point of download — meaning that serving a controversial page from Iceland won’t keep you from getting sued in other countries. But if nothing else, it would probably prevent your servers from being forcibly shut down.

There might be other benefits too. Wikileaks says that it routes all submissions through Sweden, where investigations into the identity of an anonymous source are illegal. Wikileaks was heavily involved in drafting and promoting the Icelandic package, and whatever your opinion of their current controversies, they’ve proven remarkably immune to legal prosecution in their short history. Conceivably, other journalism organizations could gain some measure of legal protection for anonymous sources if all communications were routed through Iceland.

All of which is to say that issues of press censorship have long since passed the point of globalization. When an aggrieved party in country A can sue a publisher in country B through the courts of country C (as in these examples), press freedom must be understood — and fought for — at an international level.

“It has not only an impact here, but in changing the dialog in Europe,” Jónsdóttir told me.

But it will be some time before the full repercussions of Iceland’s move are felt. For a start, the new laws are not yet written. Icelandic lawyer Elfa Ýir of the Ministry of Culture is leading the drafting effort, and expects to have the help of volunteer legal experts and law students. (“Iceland is still suffering from the financial meltdown,” says Jónsdóttir.) The complex legislative changes will be passed in several parts, possibly beginning late this year.

“It should be done in about a year,” Jónsdóttir said. “I’ll be following this very closely.”

And then it may be further years before we understand, from case law, exactly what an “offshore freedom of expression haven” means to journalists worldwide. Nonetheless, I hope to get a discussion started among the high-powered media law types at the Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute next month, and we’ll see if we can get a more precise understanding of the practical consequences of Iceland’s move — and how journalists might use it to protect their work. If you have some insight, do drop the Lab a line.

Photo of Iceland by Trey Ratcliff used under a Creative Commons license.

May 05 2010


Drawing out the audience: Inside BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub

The BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub is responsible for connecting with the huge organization’s audience for news-gathering purposes, and they’re good enough at it to have won a Royal Television Society award for their coverage of the 2007 UK floods. They’ve also been instrumental in the BBC’s coverage of the post-election protests in Iran, the July 7 bombings in London, and the recent earthquake in Chile, among other stories.

The hub sits in the “heart” of the BBC’s newsroom in London, and has been operating 24/7 since last fall with a staff of about twenty people. Journalism student Caroline Beavon posted a tantalizing video interview with unit head Matthew Eltringham earlier this year, but there was so much more I wanted to know. How does one find sources for stories happening overseas? Why centralize all social media interactions within one unit at the BBC? To what extent does audience reaction and suggestion drive the news agenda?

So when I bumped into one of the hub’s journalists at a talk in Hong Kong recently, I fairly pounced on her for an interview. Silvia Costeloe, a broadcast journalist at the UGC Hub, very kindly sat down with me to explain that the purpose of the hub is to find and connect with the people around news stories, wherever they are in the world and whatever tools or sites they use to communicate.

What our team does is it interacts with communities around the Internet. So, where the social media communities already form, so obviously Twitter and Facebook. And it’s got a community of people getting in touch with our own website too. And we do a lot of news gathering, and we get a lot of reaction from users to feed back into our stories, to get human stories, and elements, and do some news gathering on breaking stories as well.

Hub journalists scour the Internet for pictures, videos, and other content that might contribute to a story, which they then verify and clear for use. But they also find people, sources who can be contacted by reporters in other departments within the BBC.

In many instances, the first pictures these days that come out are user-generated pictures. And so we get the thumbs up, so to speak, from people, and then we run with them. Obviously if the people were there, they might have a really interesting story to tell, so…what I’ll be giving to TV often would be just a name, a phone number, and a very brief two lines of what the person’s actually done. But we go through a very vigorous verification process as well…For example, in Iran during the election protests, some of the videos coming out were being said to be one date when they were actually another. So we had a really rigorous kind of verification process, and we worked with Persian Service at the time to verify the videos.

What sorts of specialized skills does this demand? “Well, you need to be a journalist, really,” said Costeloe. But the job is also about filtering the enormous amount of noise on the Internet for that one original tweet by an eyewitness. Costeloe said that finding those gems is mostly a matter of persistence and organization. Still, she offered a few practical hints, such as searching for people with a specific location listed in their Twitter profile, or putting “pix” or “vid” in your search to find multimedia content, or watching who local news organizations are watching.

The other thing is local news as well. If you know the area that you’re interested in, if you go to the Twitter sites of local news around them, especially if it’s in the U.S. where they’re quite sort of advanced, you will see that the local news people will be really good at being in touch with people from the area.

But the hub does more than collect what’s already out there: it uses the BBC’s own website to solicit content, sources, and stories. Costeloe told me that much of their most interesting news gathering comes from comment forms at the bottom of stories, asking for feedback.

And that usually generates really great stuff because it’s very targeted. And it’s low entry because, when we do that people don’t actually have to sign in. And obviously signing in is a huge barrier, not to many people in the U.K., but certainly someone who’s seen a bomb go off in Pakistan might not have a BBC account…but if they’ve been a witness they’re likely to go and look for it on the Internet, and if they find it, if we put a question at the bottom of the story they might reply, and then we’ve got someone who is an eyewitness who we can talk to.

The hub’s journalists answer emails generated by stories and read the comments. This makes them the primary back-channel from the BBC’s audience to its journalists. There was a fascinating and comprehensive 2008 study on the impact of “user-generated content” at the BBC, which found that “journalists and audiences display markedly different attitudes towards…audience material,” among many other things. So I asked Costeloe to what degree user feedback shapes the news agenda today.

Our team’s always kind of pitching ideas of stories, of new stories. We do cover new stories that come out from social media. But often it’s about finding new angles to a story. So, I don’t know, Maclaren’s buggies…kids were getting their fingers chopped off in the buggies…That was a big story in the U.S.. In the U.K. it didn’t seem like a big story, but the moment that we put up a form on the BBC web site saying about what happened in the U.S., loads of people wrote in in the U.K. with sort of similar experiences. So that really expanded the story. It turned into a really big U.K. story, whereas it wasn’t before. So often you’re expanding the story, sometimes you’re finding the story, and sometimes you’re just finding new angles on the story.

Keeping track of what’s happening online. Finding sources close to the story. Paying attention to audience feedback. Aren’t those things every journalist should be doing in the Internet era? Yes, says Costeloe, but there is still a strong argument for a specialized unit.

If you haven’t made it already as a journalist, you won’t become a journalist unless you engage with social media, I don’t think. But I think having a central team, especially in a news corporation as big as the BBC, is really vital because…often you’re trying to get in touch with people who’ve just witnessed traumatic events, and you have to do that delicately as it is…So we contact them first-hand, and then…if they have to be contacted by more people we can give the details out to the wider BBC. That makes a lot more sense as a model then having a free-for-all, everyone on Twitter going, you know, we want to talk to you and we want to use your pictures.

But also having people who are really dedicated and used to going through and sifting through what is often a lot of information, what’s often a lot of noise, to find these gems and to find those people, and to find those angles to the story, I just think it’s a very specific skill. And while journalists definitely need to know how to do it, if they’re out reporting on a story, doing lives, doing two-ways, they won’t be able to sit there and go through every comment that people have sent in.

We also discussed the BBC’s comment moderation approach, the working relationship between the hub and the developers of the BBC web site, how stories are updated based on user feedback, and other good stuff. Listen to the 20-minute interview in the player below, download the MP3 here, or read the full transcript which follows.

[See post to listen to audio]

JS: All right, so, can you tell me your name and what your job is?

SC: Yeah, sure. My name is Silvia Costeloe, and I am one of the journalists that works at the UGC Hub, which is a user-generated content hub at the heart of BBC news. And what our team does is it interacts with communities around the Internet. So, where the social media communities already form, so, obviously Twitter and Facebook. And it’s got a community of people getting in touch with our own web site too. And we do a lot of news gathering, and we get a lot of reaction from users to feed back into our stories, to get human stories, and elements, and do some news gathering on breaking stories as well.

JS: So, you were telling me earlier that there are specific reasons that the BBC has centralized the interaction with social media in one particular unit.

SC: Yeah, I think– I mean I’ve been on the team for a year or so, and the team’s quite a lot older than that. But it sort of started off when, you know, the Internet was getting bigger and getting more interactive. And there was a feeling that there should be a team, you know, it started off as a very small team [in mid 2005 --JS] I think sort of just to capture what was going on in social media, and see how that could feed into news, and sort of what difference that was– how that would evolve. And it’s grown quite steadily because it’s just been incredibly useful for news. Obviously the BBC’s a really big operation, so to have people that can be really focussed, especially on breaking stories, in finding eyewitnesses and case studies.

So whether it’s the Mumbai bombings, or whether it’s the Chilean earthquake, or whether it’s the Iran elections, to have people who can find those pictures, and find those eyewitness accounts, and then farm them out to output. So give them to TV, give them to radio, give them to online, and sort of make sure that, you know, the story’s being told across all our several platforms, and, you know, our output, is very important. I mean obviously journalists these days are increasingly, you know, it’s an absolute core part of their roles, sorting out, watching what’s going on in social media when they’re working on a story. But to have it centralized is really useful, especially when it comes to breaking stories, because, you know, our reporters will often be sent out on field location. They might not be living somewhere, so they’ll have to travel somewhere, and in the meantime we’re doing lots of news gathering, we’re giving them contacts of people on the ground.

So if there’s an earthquake we can put a form, even just putting a form on a story because we’ve got lots of users, obviously, using the BBC web site. Lots of really interesting people will write in, saying that, you know, if they’ve been affected. Something that’s obviously, a lot– you might have to trawl through a lot to find that special story. And it’s maybe something that a reporter hasn’t got the time to do when they’re sort of running out to be, to do field work. So we can kind of trawl through what’s happening on blogs, what’s happening on Facebook groups. I mean, recently there was a story, a big explosion in Connecticut, and within an hour of the explosion there was a Facebook group devoted to the explosion, and the families of the explosion, because no one really knew what was going on. So that proved to be a really good source of news gathering. But you can’t expect a journalist on that sort of breaking story who’s got to do a lot of output as well to be that focussed and find everything that’s going on on social media, whereas our team tries. And when we find those people then we share them, we share them with the rest of the BBC.

JS: So what exactly is it that you give to other reporters? It’s both sources and content?

SC: Yeah, or pictures. So often when there’s a breaking story, often it’s just pictures that are needed. So if we find the pictures on the web, we get permission. I mean depending on what kind of story it is, whether we feel that it’s covered by fair use or not. Obviously if it’s stills it isn’t. So we try and get– and talk to people, and first of all get their permission to run the pictures. So we might have, in many instances, the first pictures these days that come out are user-generated pictures. And so we get the thumbs up, so to speak, from people, and then we run with them. Obviously if the people were there, they might have a really interesting story to tell, so we then, what I’ll be giving to TV often would be just a name, a phone number, and a very brief two lines of what the person’s actually done. But we go through a very vigorous verification process as well. So we’re giving out these contacts and we’ve verified them beforehand. So it really speeds things up, once we give our people out. And, sort of, you know, it– wires now are often sending round YouTube videos, and often they’re absolutely fine and we’ll run with them. But, for example, in Iran during the election protests, some of the videos coming out were being said to be one date when they were actually another. So we had a really rigorous kind of verification process, and we worked with Persian service at the time to verify the videos. So, I think that’s how it works, quite well, in a sort of centralized way.

JS: Interesting. So what specialized skills does someone working in this type of news gathering need?

SC: Well, you need to be, you need to be– well, you need to be a journalist really. So have a sort of interest in the story, and have a bit of a, I don’t know, sort of a nose for a story. And you need to want to sort of dig around, and you need to be interested and have a passion for social media, really. I mean often, the other thing that we’ll do is we’ll find stories in social media that maybe aren’t being covered by the mainstream outlets, and make something of those stories. So, you need to, yeah, you need to know how to sort of dig around. I mean, there’s lots of websites out there, so it doesn’t really matter, I guess, what you use. I mean, different people use different things. There’s the main ones that everyone uses, like Twitter and Facebook, you sort of have be across those, but you know there’s lots of aggregators, and whichever ones people want to use, I think it’s sort of up to them.

But yeah, you need a real passion for it, and you need to want to dig, and you need to be able to kind of go back, you know, and you need to know who you’ve contacted and who you haven’t, so it’s quite a lot of organization. And, yeah, the usual journalist skills really. But on a breaking story as well, you need to know how to refresh a lot and know what sort of searches to do, because it’s not– I mean there’s so much noise on Twitter as well, with so many people re-tweeting. You know, when there’s a breaking news event, if it’s a big event, it can be absolute hell to find that one tweet which is actually a person saying, I’m living here and this happening down my street. That can be really tough. So, a real notion of how to search for– how to search for pictures, and how to search for people with experiences. I think that’s sort of, that’s a skill that comes over a lot of practical work, really. Looking for stories and people.

JS: Any hints you can give us, on how to make sense of a flood of Twitter messages and find that one good one?

SC: That’s the– it’s difficult, it’s difficult. I mean obviously if you search by location, so if you go to search engines like search Twitter, you can, if people have entered their location you can search for that. So the Chilean earthquake we’re looking for the epicenter, then kind of fan out fifteen, twenty miles around that and see who’s tweeting around there. But a lot of really good stuff, you know, a lot of people won’t put where they’re from, or the search engine’s not that reliable, so, I mean that’s one of the many things you can do. Again, there’s search engines that will let you look for, sort of search people’s profiles as well. So again there, you might be able to see if it’s someone who’s in a specific area, they might have mentioned that there.

Or you might, if you’re looking for pix and vids, often just putting in “pix” or “vid” in your search actually really helps, because often then you’ll get the link to that YouTube video that you want to see. So often it’s really simple things, but it’s just, sort of, thinking around them, and coming up with different searches, because if you’re just going to search for “earthquake in Chile” you’re going to have literally thousands of tweets every, you know, every handful of seconds. And it’s just too much, you can’t sort of physically go through everything.

The other thing is local news as well. If you know the area where, that you’re interested in, if you go to the Twitter sites of local news around them, especially if it’s in the US where they’re quite sort of advanced, you will see that the local news people will be really good at being in touch with people from the area. So sometimes it’s their local reporter so it might not be useful for you because they might, you know, they might be working for a different news outlet. But often local, if you’re working– I mean we work globally, so obviously our local knowledge isn’t always, you know, will never be the knowledge of a local news agent. So if you go to them and see who they’re talking to, maybe that can also help you find interesting conversations, as opposed to just looking for the hash tag.

JS: Right. Would you consider that there’s a community of users around your news, or a community of readers?

SC: Yeah, I mean there’s definitely a community of users, and we’ve got our blog, and we’ve got our sort of community of people commenting on stories. So, we’ve got talking points, and we publish three or four talking points a day, and write blogs, and people talk about that. So there’s definitely a community of people who come back, and return. But we also link to our talking points or ask for comments on stories. So we’re always sort of expanding that community, who will come because they’re interested in a specific story and might want to have their say and contribute in that way.

And often the most interesting stuff that we get is, we’ll sometimes put up post forms where people, you know, just kind of, just a little form at the bottom of a story, saying, you know, contact us, send us your comments. Are you in the area? Send us your story. And that usually generates really great stuff because it’s very targeted. And it’s low entry because, when we do that people don’t actually have to sign in. And obviously signing in is a huge barrier, not to many people in the UK, but certainly someone who’s seen a bomb go off in Pakistan might not have a BBC account, so to speak, but they are– if they’ve been a witness they’re likely to go and look for it on the Internet, and if they find it, if we put a question at the bottom of the story they might reply, and then we’ve got someone who is an eyewitness who we can talk to.

JS: Right. Do you have to manage that? I mean do you ever– do you have to moderate flame wars, do you have to delete offensive comments? What’s involved in terms of work load on your side in managing that group of people?

SC: Well we’ve got sort of community boards and we, you know, everything is pre-moderated so there is a lot of work involved in terms of moderation. We do actually, we do do reactive debates as well, but I’d say most of our debates are probably pre-moderated. So somebody does read the comments before they go up. So there’s, you know, by all means there’s a lot of work in moderation in comments. There’s only so much that we can get away with saying as there’s kind of a responsibility I suppose, with the BBC, to have certain standards, I guess, in your comments. And if people– we’d sort of be held liable for all sorts of things on our web site. [US sites are generally not legally liable for comments, but UK sites probably are --JS] So, yes, everything is moderated. Most things are moderated.

JS: How many people handle all of that moderation?

SC: We’ve just, to be honest, we’ve just gotten a wholly new moderation system, so I can’t really say, but we’ve just literally outsourced our moderation, so I’ve got no idea now how many people have been–

JS: Oh, interesting.

SC: Yeah, because we did it in-house until about a month ago. And now it’s gone. [At the end of 2008 the BBC said there were four in-house moderators for Have Your Say --JS] So I’m sure there’ll be– there’s an editor’s blog actually that we, we’ll be sort of posting up what’s going on with the new moderation, how that’s going. But you know it’s a lot of work. We get a lot of, a lot of people writing in wanting to talk about stories, and commenting on stories, but within that we also get really valuable, well obviously we get valuable comments, but we also get valuable stories for news gathering purposes, and case studies to illustrate and to add to stories, whether it’s UK based– if it’s a health story and people have had experiences of a particular story, or, as I said if it’s a bigger event then people who are sort of out in the field.

JS: And how many people are the UGC team?

SC: Oh it’s about, I don’t really– we work rotas so maybe 20 or so? I couldn’t be quoted on that. [There were 23 in September, according to this report --JS] But yeah, there’s a lot of people because some of us are assigned to specific areas, and contribute a lot of content to the BBC news web site, so some people are more web site production journalists, so they’re writing lots of stories for the BBC News web site, or stories that come from the experiences of specific people who’ve got in touch with us. Whereas others are specifically chasing people and comments and breaking news stories.

JS: So what are the areas? How do you divide that work up?

SC: There’s different areas in terms of– someone’s covering Europe, and the States, and so it’s geographical areas.

JS: And did you say you rotate people through? Did I understand that, or…?

SC: We rotate in the sense that we open 24 hours, so there’s always someone overnight.

JS: Oh, okay, okay.

SC: Yes, sorry, yeah, no, we rotate time-wise.

JS: Got it.

SC: So it’s a bigger team than it seems when you’re, when you’re out there in the day time, because there might only be eight people or something in the day time, but then there’ll be someone overnight as well.

JS: Right, okay. Yeah, right.

SC: So there’s always someone on the news desk.

JS: So how do you see this evolving? What do you see happening in the future?

SC: Well, you know, I’m part of a wider team, so I’m not really privy to a lot of the, sort of, wider conversations that go on at a higher level. I think there’ll always be– I think it’s a very important role. I mean lots of people say, the view of many people is that this team will eventually die as journalists get more and more advanced at using social media tools. Which I completely— I agree that journalists will get a lot more advanced, I think a lot of them are already, and I mean it’s just such an obvious, I mean I don’t think you can be a journalist anymore, definitely not in the future. If you haven’t made it already as a journalist, you won’t become a journalist unless you engage with social media, I don’t think.

But I think having a central team, especially in a news corporation as big as the BBC, is really vital because when you’re getting in touch with people who are, you know, going through– you know often you’re trying to get in touch with people who’ve just witnessed traumatic events, and you have to do that delicately as it is. And the problem is, if everyone at the BBC is trying to get in touch with someone, trying to get their pictures, trying to– you can’t possibly– that needs to be an organized approach. So if we contact them first-hand, and then we can give the details, if they have to be contacted by more people we can give the details out to the wider BBC. That makes a lot more sense as a model then having a free-for-all, everyone on Twitter going, you know, we want to talk to you and we want to use your pictures. But also having people who are really dedicated and used to going through and sifting through what is often a lot of information, what’s often a lot of noise, to find these gems and to find those people, and to find those angles to the story, I just think it’s a very specific skill. And while journalists definitely need to know how to do it, if they’re out reporting reporting on story, doing lives, doing two-ways, they won’t be able to sit there and go through every comment that people have sent in, to find the comment, you know, written by the family of someone who’s just suffered an event. They just wouldn’t have the physical time, or the patience in a moment of stress to go through it, to go through that, because often it is a matter of sticking to the story and trying to find something, and finding that needle in a haystack.

JS: So you mentioned finding angles on a story. To what extent do discussions happening on social media direct your coverage, or direct the BBC’s choice of what stories to do?

SC: Well, I think in terms of completely new stories, I mean that happens all the time. I mean our team’s always kind of pitching ideas of stories, of new stories. We do cover new stories that come out from social media. But often it’s about finding new angles to a story. So, I don’t know, Maclaren’s buggies, that was a big story in the UK and the US recently. Buggies got, dangerous buggies, it was a consumer story, you know, kids were getting their fingers chopped off in the buggies. We ran US– that was a big story in the US. In the UK it didn’t seem like a big story, but the moment that we put up a form on the BBC web site saying about what happened in the US, loads of people wrote in in the UK with sort of similar experiences. So that really expanded the story. It turned into a really big UK story, whereas it wasn’t before. So often you’re expanding the story, sometimes you’re finding the story, and sometimes you’re just finding new angles on the story, you know, new– if you’re covering a massive disaster like an earthquake, there’ll be people writing in with really interesting new stories, whether it’s about not being able to get certain aid through, or sometimes really unexpected angles as well. It’s just trying to cover a story in as many, trying to get as many stories out, valuable stories out, as possible. And often we’ll write something up, and people will write in and say, you know, “that picture is not of a Boeing 572, it’s of something else.” So sometimes people will just write in and just point out errors and mistakes, or suggestions, and so we take all that into account as well.

JS: You actually update the stories based on people’s comments?

SC: Yeah, well if someone writes in, often I won’t be the one who’s written the original story, but if I’m, you know, someone sends an email saying, “oh, that’s the wrong ship,” that happened a couple of weeks ago, and then someone else writes in saying something similar, you’ve got alarm bells going and you need to double– obviously you don’t just, you don’t take that that as certain, but you will do more digging. I mean obviously you go through it and you have a look, and then you update the story. I mean, yeah, absolutely.

JS: Right. Does your team have any say in the software design in all of the system? You know, what the actual interface for comments are? Do you work with the developers, or how is that…?

SC: Yeah. I mean, the future media technology team, they are, at the BBC they’re the people who actually do the build. But it’s sort of, they do that working along side us. So we’ll have like one or two people in the team who will constantly have meetings with them, and you know, check out their design, kind of product manage it to certain degree. So yes, absolutely they work closely with the journalists. They don’t work as closely as, you know, it’s not sort of a scrum, agile kind of session world, although it is in other areas of the BBC. It’s more, you know, it’s more the two teams working sort of in parallel, rather than sort of physically sitting together. But it, you know, it works.

JS: Right. Okay. Thank you very much.

SC: No problem.

JS: I realize you’re terribly jet-lagged, so I apologize for ambushing you, but–

SC: Well I apologize for any slurred words. It is due to the jet-lag.

JS: All right, thanks a lot.

January 30 2010

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