Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

 They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy

 image1By happy coincidence my two latest library books were delivered at the same time: a hardback on Shakespeare’s coded writing, Shadowplay, by Clare Asquith and a digital copy of Robert Scheer’s They Know Everything About You.

Though separated by almost 500 years they share a number of common themes: manipulation of the law, curtailment of individual rights and abuse of power.

It’s tempting to think of a meeting between Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham and his present day NSA counterparts. How he would have marveled at, and enjoyed, the apparatus of the watchers of the modern state.

Along with William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, Walsingham turned England into a police state.  Feared threats from Catholic plotters at home and Jesuit infiltrators abroad were met with manhunts, torture, extracted confessions and executions.

Fast forward to the post 9-11 period and substitute al-Qaeda or ISIS for the Catholic menace and the same tactics and justifications are being made for the extraordinary powers needed to protect the homeland.

Since 9-11 the US has spent more than $500bn on intelligence, according to veteran journalist Scheer.

Following the attack on the World Trade Center, “priorities shifted from viewing the preservation of individual liberty as the guarantor of freedom to the justification of unbridled government power exercised in the name of preserving national security”.

And we’ve all gone along with it. We’ve become inured to intrusion and surrendered our privacy.

We accept CCTVs recording our presence, we know our emails are sifted for keywords, we willingly surrender our location history, we helpfully codify our social networks, we give up our relationship status and a million other things without being compelled to do so. We do it because on balance it makes our lives easier; we’ve traded convenience for privacy.

So far, so yawn. But Scheer reminds us there’s also a darker side to today’s unprecedented level of data gathering: “The point of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was was to show that the public would come to accept totalitarian intrusion as part of the normal fabric of life, as something that was actually good for them”.

Except, of course, that it’s not. Scheer contends that the US surveillance state, governed by secrecy, drew the country into a futile search for weapons of mass destruction, a war with Iraq, and laid the foundation for the emergence of a jihadi caliphate hundreds of times bigger and better organized than al-Qaeda.

The war on terror had become a war on the public’s right to know, a bipartisan crusade that destroyed the foundation of democracy – an informed public.

It was only through whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures that we came to learn digital behemoths like Google, Facebook, AoL and Microsoft had been compelled (some more willingly than others) to surrender vast amounts of data to the state surveillance apparatus.

The dirty secret of the internet was that it was privacy and not just advertising that was being sold.

Scheer states: “While there is no doubt the commercial exploitation of our most intimate practices to enhance advertising sales is destructive of privacy, it is a qualitatively different assault than secret monitoring by a government agency.”

He argues that government intrusions subvert constitutional intent and basic rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of private space to collect one’s thoughts and papers free from the intimidating surveillance of government.

All the more surprising then that President Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has not only continued Bush-era surveillance powers but has expanded “on that horrid legacy” by cracking down on the press and prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous US presidents combined.

It is here that Scheer delivers his most withering criticism of the president using a campaign speech the then-Senator Obama delivered in 2007 to deride President Bush’s “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand”.

His own administration, he said, would provide tools to take out terrorists without undermining the Constitution: “That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime…No more ignoring the law when it is not convenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works…”

Scheer’s analysis is a gift to critics of the Obama administration but his frustration goes far deeper than simple partisan politics. He is neither a hysterical commentator, nor a soapbox scaremonger, but a man who believes the nation is sleepwalking on a dangerous path towards its own destruction.

In a rallying call for citizen action he cites the dictum that: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any”.

And he warns: “If we persist in apathetically accepting the privacy invasions of corporations and the predations of our own government – perhaps believing the war is already lost – our dystopian future is clear: a world where our private and public spheres are the same, where any agency or business or even individual who can afford the fee can scrutinize us at their leisure, and penalize us for any perceived defect or nonconformity.”

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Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop – Guardians of the American Century

The names Woodward and Bernstein are probably still the first to come to mind when considering the high point of investigative journalism in the US.

But for four decades before the Watergate scandal two brothers were pre-eminent in breaking the biggest stories of the time and delivering the most influential commentaries on them, the Alsops.

Author Bob Merry brings the characters of Joseph and Stewart alive with a political insider’s eye on their methods and a firm grasp of historical background to put their reporting into perspective.

The brothers were prolific writers and they were golden. Four columns a week, every week, syndicated to 175 newspapers across the country, plus opinion pieces, extended investigative articles, political profiles, deep features and even books.

With family ties to the Roosevelts and a privileged upbringing they started out with a stellar contacts book and they worked hard to cultivate even more by hosting high-level dinner parties for makers and shakers of all persuasions.

There’s a wonderful anecdote from one of the parties in the 1950s in which a phone call for Dean Rusk, then the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, disrupts the evening.

He takes the call, returns to the gathering looking ashen-faced and declares that he has to go. Within minutes Army Secretary Frank Pace and Air Force assistant secretary John McCone offer apologies and also depart abruptly. There had been, said Rusk, “some kind of border incident” in Korea.

It was, in fact, a full-scale invasion of the south by the north and illustrates one of the themes that runs through the book, the Alsops proximity to the biggest breaking stories and their close ties to those in power.

Joe saw eight presidents come and go during his time and he was a frequent guest at the White House where he was forthright with his opinions and free with his advice.

He and his brother were among the original WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who wanted to preserve the mores and values of their caste and keep its place in shaping the destiny of the nation.

They endured through the most turbulent times of the 20th Century: WW2 – from which Stewart emerged with a Croix de Guerre with Palm from Charles de Gaulle – the last gasps of the Pax Britannica, the “loss” of China to the communist party, wars in Korea and Vietnam, McCarthyism, the Oppenheimer affair, the Suez debacle, the Cuban missile crisis, the election and assassination of JFK, the Watts riots, and Nixon’s Watergate disgrace.

As the world turned, Joe’s view of America’s place in the world became increasingly out of step with the opinions and aspirations of a younger generation. His writing became increasingly polemical and his influence less and less so.

His last book, I’ve Seen the Best of It, underscores his belief that America’s best days were those when the old elite flourished and it comes with a sense of sad incomprehension that not everyone else could see it that way.

News produced by the people, for the people, without the involvement of traditional journalists – it’s a nightmare vision for survivors of the digital hurricane that has battered news organizations over the past decade.

Alternatively, it’s a vision of the future in which hyper-local events get covered that wouldn’t otherwise be on the radar of traditional media or would go unreported because of newsroom cuts.

The prospect of the audience doing it for themselves, providing “journalism as a service,” triggered researchers Andrés Monroy-Hernández and Elena Agapie to conduct a trial they called Eventful at Microsoft Labs in Seattle, Wa.

The pair presented their findings at MIT’s Collective Intelligence Conference in June, acknowledging that: “Professional journalism is a complex endeavor that we are not proposing to replace with Eventful.

“However, we are inspired by citizen journalism as a model that opens up new possibilities for non-experts to carry out journalistic tasks.”

They used their experimental platform to recruit crowd workers as writers, reporters and curators, to assign “missions” and to trial six events they felt were unlikely to be covered by mainstream media: two town hall events, an art show, a hackathon, a festival and a public talk.

These crowd workers were asked to perform tasks such as taking photos, recording audio or video, conducting interviews while getting real-time feedback from content curators, before the final piece was stitched together by writers.

Overall the tasks were accomplished and most within an hour of the event ending. Hernandez and Agapie believe they showed that Eventful could provide a sustainable end-to-end solution for local news production given time-commitment contributions from the community and what they called “interest aggregation”.

The barrier to the kinds of events it can be used on necessarily remains low before questions of legality, balance and accuracy make implementation far more trying.  “Pro-am” partnerships seem to offer far greater potential and have a good track record of excellent results.

It was a different kind of “interest aggregation” that led ProPublica to set up its Patient Harm Community group, a community which now has more than 2,300 members.  It did so not on its own site but on Facebook, an interesting departure for a news organization.

The group is “a place for those who have experienced harm while undergoing medical treatment and their loved ones to learn, share resources and connect with others”.

While the site is moderated by ProPublica staff, the information shared in the group is public and therefore open to competitors to mine for contacts, quotes and case studies. That’s fine by ProPublica too.

In an interview with the Neiman Lab, ProPublica reporter Marshall Allen described it as a form of service journalism: “Not so much by putting them in touch with us, but more by putting them in touch with one another.”

It’s an enlightened view. For many newsgathering operations the audience is a source to be plundered. There are few long-term relationships in the quest for news; it’s mostly a series of one-night stands.

ProPublica made good with another of its collaborative pieces of journalism, crowdsourcing the flow of ‘dark money’ political ad spending during the 2012 presidential election.

Almost 1,000 people rallied to the cause and after 10 weeks of effort and 16,000 files later a billion dollars of ad contracts had been logged. It also prompted the company to challenge the Federal Communications Commission to require TV stations to submit a series of key points as structured data to make ad spending more transparent.

In the UK, one of the early triumphs of The Guardian’s crowdsourcing efforts came when it tackled the expenses claims scandal of British Members of Parliament.

Buried by a government data dump of 700,000 documents covering every claim from each of the 646 MPs over four years they turned to the audience for help in digging out the best stories.  Within the first 80 hours almost 70,000 files had been reviewed by readers.

Alfred Hermida, associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, and author of the newly-published book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, believes important lessons emerged from that exercise and that they continue to resonate today.

“The reason it worked well was down to publication, timing and implementation. The Guardian could reach out to an audience who had a pre-existing interest in politics and this type of accountability journalism.

“Timing was critical as the project was launched when the topic of MPs’ expenses was in the news, so it tapped into the contemporary zeitgeist, but one key element was the implementation of the project,” said Prof Hermida.

“The Guardian made it easy for people to engage on different levels. They could look at a couple of receipts or at 10. It also added a social factor, where readers could see how they stacked up against other readers. So it also took advantage of game mechanics to make it fun to participate in the crowdsourced project.”

Prof Hermida spelled out four key components that he thought contributed to best practices in crowdsourcing initiatives:

1) Focus: Make a clear and specific ask so that your audience knows what is required of them.

2) Levels of commitment: Enable audiences to participate on their own terms. Some people may have an hour to spend on the project, others a few minutes. Providing a range of options will help to attract a broader range of contributors.

3) Recognize and reward: Make sure to acknowledge publicly the contributions from your audience and even reward them, not necessarily financially but socially, for example through a list of the most active contributors.

4) Cultivate community: Build on your existing audiences and engage with new ones before making the ask. If audiences have a connection to your organization, they are more likely to help out with a crowdsourcing initiative.

Above all, share the project with the audiences. Engage, listen and acknowledge contributors throughout the process.

Prof Hermida said: “They are as much part of the project as the media organization. This means moving away from a transmission mindset and viewing the audience as a source. It is about communication and the audience as partners.”

That chimes well with fellow Professor Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, who revealed plans for a new social journalism degree at the City University of New York (CUNY).

The course was still awaiting state approval, he said at this year’s Online News Association conference in Chicago, but if it was given the go-ahead for January it would be turning journalism on its head.

“Rather than starting with the idea that we make content, it starts with the idea that we serve communities. How do we start? By listening to those communities, understanding them, understanding their needs and then serving them with all the tools we have at hand.

“Social journalism is more than just social media. I think that we in media look at social journalism as another way to publish, another way to get our stuff out there and that’s part of it but really, truly, social media is about connecting with real people and no longer treating people as a mass.

“You know gigantic Google understands me as an individual, it knows where I live and where I work. My newspaper doesn’t. That’s kind of ridiculous so how do we get a news organization to know people as individuals and communities first, understand what those needs are first, then figure out how to serve those needs….it’s really about relationships with the public, it’s not so much about being a content factory.”

newsroom

I’m waiting. Still waiting, that is, for a new type of news product that meets my needs.

It’ll be one that makes the best use of my time, which signposts important material, riddles out the irrelevant and delivers the unexpected.

I’d like some contrarian content in the mix, something that challenges my world view, jolts me from my perch of certainty and make me re-evaluate my position.

By necessity I’m going to have to give up a lot of information about myself and my interests to get what I want. And I’m willing to do that if it delivers the relevance I crave.

I’m happy to enter into a relationship where what I share creates a better experience for me and a better business proposition for my news provider.

I want them to come to know me better, to change and develop their offering as our engagement deepens.

I’m unique, of course, just like you. And what you want and what I want isn’t going to be the same.

The successful news provider of the future is going to have to pander to each and every one of us, to manage millions of nuanced relationships and to cope with requirements in a continual state of flux. Pushing the same stuff at everyone simply isn’t going to cut it.

We’ve transitioned away from a world of time-specific TV news broadcasts and individuals’ favored newspapers and magazines. The virtual doorstep is piled high with content and no matter how much you wade through there’s always more to take its place.

It’s all very well for author Clay Shirky to dismiss the idea of information overload as “filter failure” – even though he’s correct in his observation. Without effective filters consuming news is a Sisyphean task.

So where are the tools that let me, the person who knows me best, define what I want or, perhaps more usefully, what I know I don’t want?

Up to now, Zite has come closest to resolving the filtering problem and its recent acquisition by Flipboard’s Mike McCue makes for a doubly exciting prospect.

As well as delivering stories from a wider range of sources than I would have reached by my own efforts, Zite does a pretty good job of aggregating content by topic headings.

I say pretty good, because the oh-so-clever algorithm regularly comes unstuck and delivers items about garden gates into my Bill Gates aggregation pot.

Marking stories with indications of approval or disapproval is a good step too, especially if the feedback assists in the selection or rejection of future pieces.

That said, the thumbs up, thumbs down, notifications can seem insensitive. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to give a thumbs-up to an article about Auschwitz or a disaster or an atrocity. And what does it signify anyway – that you enjoyed reading it, that it was insightful, or that you agreed with its conclusions?

At least Zite is soliciting feedback, even if it’s pretty basic. Offering consumers a chance to give reactions is laudable and much as I’d like to have something more sophisticated I concede that it’s likely to be a minority sport for the foreseeable future.

I like, too, that Zite allows me to indicate that my news preferences skew towards certain publications and individual journalists – more from these, less from others. It lets me hone the organizations and people I want my content to come from.

The danger with this kind of filtering is that it ends up reinforcing existing prejudices, you only hear what you want to hear and that’s when the serendipity engine needs to kick in. Whether it’s based on the zeitgeist of most read, most watched, most shared material or a counter-culture of contrarian opinion there needs to be some wild card content in the mix.

Another of my requirements has taken root in Cir.ca – the ability to track a story by flagging an interest in it.

Cir.ca stories come with a “follow” button and they have identified this as one of their key metrics. When a reader follows a storyline it tells them the person has more than a passing interest; if there’s something new to learn, they want to know.

Capturing “follows” lets Cir.ca target notifications to those who actively want to keep abreast of developments while avoiding those with only a passing interest.

As it states in its blog, push notifications are nearing saturation and these types of update have become both a blessing and a curse.

“Our solution is to put the choice in your hands and allow you to decide what’s important enough to push. You could say we have two main goals: to inform and to respect your time while doing it.”

I’d like Cir.ca to take this process further, to allow me to fine tune my “follows” to take account of the waxing and waning of my interest.

There are times when news is breaking that I want every detail to be passed on as soon as it emerges. There are others when I want only the most significant developments to be pushed through – a development that would require the story’s intro to be recast. And there times when I want a longer term notification, an update on a story that was big news but has since gone off the boil: Haiti’s earthquake four years on, for instance.

No single news provider is going to be able to accommodate all these needs. Businesses are going to have to figure out how to work with rivals to synthesize content and share the proceeds.

It’s why the coming together of Flipboard and Zite is one of the best and most exciting developments of recent times.

More than two million magazines have been created since Flipboard’s inception in January 2010. It offers both abundance and niche, a pro-am aggregation mix, and packaging that attractively reformats itself as new content rolls in.

With Zite it gets expertise in personalization and recommendations, meaning better and easier content discovery.

Facebook hasn’t been standing still while this unfolds. It recently launched a mobile app called Paper in the US, which takes a leaf from Flipboard’s book and recrafts users’ news feeds into something more elegant and magazine-like.

The winner will be the one that can build the deepest relationship with its readers and viewers while meeting the needs of the individual as well as the masses.

ISOJ logoA couple of weeks ago I spoke about mobiles, metadata and the future at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, Texas.

One of the other speakers I met was Seth Lewis, an assistant journalism professor at the the University of Minnesota, who gave a presentation on the ways in which organizations like The New York Times, NPR, and the Guardian have created and used their own application programming interfaces (APIs) to work with outside developers.

His talk struck a real chord; I’m still at a loss to fully understand why the BBC closed Backstage, the community it brought together back in 2005 for people to get creative with its content.

Seth has now posted a piece on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog which gives a good overview of the merits of tapping the wisdom of the developer crowd and the learnings to be had from taking such an approach.

President of the United States Richard M. Nixo...

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On a visit to Poynter earlier this week Bob Woodward of Watergate fame reflected on journalism and digital media and made the point that technology on its own is nothing without high quality, probing journalism.

Nowadays high quality, probing journalism involves harnessing digital tools and using them to mine vast amounts of data as well as the virtues and skills Woodward deployed in his day.

There’s no better recent example than the work of Seattle Times reporter Michael J Berens whose tenacious approach earned him the $20,000 Bingham Prize for investigative journalism.

Berens produced a six-part series that dealt with the treatment and exploitation of elderly and frail people in Washington State’s adult family homes.  Along the way he filed 50 state record requests, acquired and then analysed thousands of pages of health service documents and interviewed 250 people.

You can read a fuller account of the investigation here and if you’re interested in learning more about data journalism then Elena Egawhary at the BBC in west London  is a fount of wisdom on the subject.

On this topic, however, Woodward gets the last word with his acerbic world view: “I get up in the morning and I ask the question: ‘What are the bastards hiding?’…You get at the truth at night, the lies during the day.”

ONA10Two days, 1,300 journalists, hatfuls of awards (though, sadly, not for the BBC) and a blizzard of panels, workshops, keynotes and show-and-tells made for an exhausting, if stimulating annual conference in DC.

There were lots of highlights, but I’m going to pick out two and provide a few links to the rest.

The first came from a meeting with Vericorder CEO Gary Symons, who’s been leading the charge on MoJo, or mobile journalism.

The former CBC journalist has helped develop what the company calls “the world’s most advanced iPhone mobile media applications for recording, editing and sending files”.

Gary was CBC’s go-to guy for rapid coverage from the field of fires, explosions, crashes and disasters, and the expertise he acquired along the way has been poured into the software – it’s designed by a journalist for journalists.

He’s now pushing ahead with a major hyperlocal project in Canada and also touting a freelance journalism marketplace called findstringers.com

While the stringer network idea is nothing new, the clever bit is its back-end integration with newsroom systems.

The second conference highlight came from a session about shooting video with a DSLR and it was the work of independent film-maker Danfung Dennis which struck me.

His hour-long documentary about US involvement in Afghanistan, Battle for Hearts and Minds, showcased better than anything the power of great storytelling using a digital camera.

Embedded with Marines in hostile territory, his combat footage was shot on a Canon 5D and with only one lens (24-70, f 2.8) to avoid problems with dust in the body and to avoid missing the action.

For audio he used a Sennheiser shotgun mic (ME-66) and a G2 wireless system, though at that stage the technicalities became a bit like listening to fly fishermen talking Gold head wets and Cat’s Whiskers – a bit overwhelming.

Danfung also spoke about combining the aesthetics of still photography with cinematic storytelling and how that shaped his approach to the subject.

Fellow panellists Rii Schroer and Travis Fox had different kit solutions and less lofty approaches but showed equally impressive skills.

Rii presented a quirky feature piece, shot in a day, about the World Snail Racing Championships in Norfolk which she did for The Sunday Times, and Travis Fox showcased a Frontline package on highly decorated Haiti buses known as Tap Taps.

Now think about how this kind of work might plug into YouTube Leanback or Google TV, where individuals can become channels in their own right or their content can be reaggregated into underserved niches. The iPTV revolution is gathering pace.

Some other conference highlights:
Amy Webb’s top 10 tech trends
The top 10 lessons for hyperlocal journalism
Is Patch evil?

Journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray asks why Americans spend only 12 minutes a month on the average news site versus seven hours a month on Facebook and concludes that journalism needs a root-and-branch rethink.

He argues that existing journalism formats are not very good at engaging curiosity and that news can no longer be about the mass update, it needs to become intensely personal so people get lost in it like they do in Facebook and Wikipedia.   I think we can all agree on that, though the “how” part is elusive.

Stray wants journalists to look beyond notions of how to make better stories and ask:  “Who are our users, what would we like to help them to do, and how can we build a system that helps them with that?”

And he suggests that emulation of previous media fetters thinking: “Newspaper web sites and apps look like newspapers. “Multimedia” journalism has mostly been about clicking somewhere to get slideshows and videos.

“This is a little like the dawn of TV news, when anchors read wire copy on air. Digital media gives us an explosion of product design possibilities, but the envisioned interaction modes have so far stayed mostly the same.”

Whether you share his conclusions or not, his observations do provide food for thought even if they only take us so far; identifying issues doesn’t necessarily lead to solutions.

He’s right when he talks about the “tremendous knowledge and capability scattered throughout society, untapped”. But unlocking the potential in crowd-sourced news or collaborative journalism is far from trivial.

Curation isn’t cheap, rules of engagement are a minefield and stoking active participation through community needs eternal optimism, the subtle art of diplomacy and a very thick skin.

I’m not convinced, either, that comparing time spent in a news site against time spent on Facebook is valid or useful. Personal relationships and the ties that bind people will always win out over wider, more general themes – it’s what makes us human.

The growing importance of smartphones in breaking news coverage has again been underlined, this time by a finalist in the 2010 Online News Association awards.

The Seattle Times has already won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of a coffee shop shooting in which four police officers were killed.

Mobile played a major part in its reports on the hunt for a gunman who roamed the Tacoma area for 40 hours before he too was shot dead.

Lead producer Tiffany Campbell told Poynter Online “We made use of video apps like Ustream, Qik and Twitvid to stream live video.

“Whether it was 2am police press briefings or the neighbourhood scene after the suspect was shot and killed, we were able to go live at a moment’s notice.”

She said the paper was focused on smartphones as a primary production platform for live events, particularly when streaming video or social media updates were called for.

Campbell has an excellent presentation on the advance of mobile as a journalism tool: Smartphones = mobile, real-time news production

AOL’s hyperlocal news experiment – Patch – has partnered with 13 journalism schools in the US in an arrangement which sees students work under the guidance of professional editors while at the same time earning academic credits.

The devil’s in the detail of course: it’s either a brilliantly inventive way of mentoring young journalists with on-the-job training, or cynically exploitative of a green but eager pool of workers.

As an indentured trainee with Berrows Newspapers in the days of em rules and hot metal my training was a mix of classroom work – shorthand, law, public administration – and out-and-about reporting with an experienced old-timer.

Being able to watch someone do a “death knock”, or strike up conversations with people from all walks of life, was as valuable as anything I learned in more formal settings.

Guiding lights on the Patch advisory board are Phil Meyer and Jeff Jarvis.