The Direction of News

In seventh grade, distraught from my recent findings on MSNBC that lip gloss may cause cancer, I began my search for a new news source. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular–most of my life questions were fielded by Seventeen and Teen Vogue–but I was hoping for something that could convey huge amounts of information to someone with an impossibly short attention span.

Seventh grade was 2005 trickling into 2006. It wasn’t until 2007 when election coverage became serious and I finally found the only articles on the election that I could begin to understand–The New York Times graphs and multimedia articles. In 2008, when this interview with Steve Duenes, Graphics Director of the NYTimes came out, I first saw the future of news.

It was this email that Steve Duenes quoted in his interview that made this change so apparent to me:

From: Nicholas Kristof Subject: the power of art

in september i traveled with bill gates to africa to look at his work fighting aids there. while setting the trip up, it emerged that his initial interest in giving pots of money to fight disease had arisen after he and melinda read a two-part series of articles i did on third world disease in January 1997. until then, their plan had been to give money mainly to get countries wired and full of computers.

bill and melinda recently reread those pieces, and said that it was the second piece in the series, about bad water and diarrhea killing millions of kids a year, that really got them thinking of public health. Great! I was really proud of this impact that my worldwide reporting and 3,500-word article had had. But then bill confessed that actually it wasn’t the article itself that had grabbed him so much — it was the graphic. It was just a two column, inside graphic, very simple, listing third world health problems and how many people they kill. but he remembered it after all those years and said that it was the single thing that got him redirected toward public health.

No graphic in human history has saved so many lives in africa and asia. 

I’m sending you a copy of the story and graphic by interoffice mail. whoever did the graphic should take a bow.

nick kristof

The Elements of Journalism ends with a discussion on the purpose of journalism as a whole–something to be defined by its new constituents who are redefining news gathering and sharing. I don’t disagree with this conclusion. I also see the level of involvement of bloggers, tweeters and social media activists only growing in the upcoming decades, but I think the way in which we encapsulate our information is already rapidly changing. Visual communication skills should slowly be integrated into the current curriculum. Our 3,500 word articles will become a combination of a short video or handful of pictures taken with our phones, supplemented by clean visual representations that hopefully every grade school student can create just as easily as the heralded 5 paragraph essay.

Journalism is becoming more loosely defined with the rise of new outlets to share stories (and what is a “story”, exactly?), but I think the key will be in the ways in which we communicate. I don’t see news turning into a pure feed of microblogs and mobile uploads. I think it has a lot more to do with the tools and skills we are given that enable us to communicate more effectively with visual representations of our stories.


What does a news phoenix look like?

“What do you want news to do?”

When we were asked this question two weeks ago, I had many vehement opinions about the future of news. I had been thinking about almost nothing else since hired at the Globe. Like many millennials, I was accustomed to the free access of information. When I began my job, and the reality of the journalism crisis suddenly woke me from my naiveté, my mind dashed off daydreaming about that “ah-ha” moment when journalists exalted their newfound path into the digital age. But as I continue to learn more, it seems as though there may not be an “ah-ha” moment, and that the entire enterprise of news is poised to crumble. And unlike other industries, there is yet to be a comparable, financially viable replacement to this establishment.

As I ruminated on and researched the possibilities for journalism, it became clear that–regardless of the current state of news–journalism is a highly skilled and necessary craft essential to progress as a modern society. Without it, we would be lost in something similar to the Dark Ages, subject to a sort of tyranny that naturally evolves from ignorance. In my mind, the question “What do you want news to do?” permutated into, “What are the pieces of modern news that must be preserved?”

First and foremost, the kernel of news is its ability to keep society informed and its leaders accountable. Regardless of where our new news comes from, it should continue to hold this value if we hope to preserve democracy.

New independent journalism seems to be moving back to a partisan viewpoint, which is refreshing and honest. I’m personally more trusting sources that admit their bias, than those that insist on their neutrality only to be engaging in clandestine partnerships. However, it’s important to remind the public that there are many opinions in the world, and we are each entitled to our own. The internet age has consequentially brought a din of information that individuals are left to sift through and make sense of. We have access to more kinds of media and knowledge than ever before, and it’s only natural to seek out the types of information we’re most interested in. But with partisan journalism, there needs to be a way to serve content from both sides of the playing field.

A journalist is a curator of cultural knowledge. News is like a museum of the present. A museum’s mission is to preserve the important aspects of art and culture through carefully curated sets of artifacts. News serves much the same role, but in real-time. Like curators, journalists train to dedicate their lives to the preservation of moments of reality in an insightful and engaging way. They encapsulate culture and share insight. Without curators, we are doomed to walk digital flea markets, hoping to stumble upon an important event that is crucial to our understanding of current affairs. But like most flea markets, all we’re likely to find is a collection of old recipe books from someone’s great aunt.

For journalism to continue someone must care about the preservation and curation of democracy. In a capitalist society, that someone also has to make a living from it. As is evident in software (specifically mobile) free is passable, but most paid services have a more polished product. The code is cleaner; the bugs are fewer. Obviously there are outliers on either end, but realistically this is the exception, not the rule. So as we move forward the question of “how?” remains unanswered. How does journalism remind us that we are lost without it, before we are actually lost and without?

My Aspirations for Journalism: Help Us Navigate the Science Branding Game

In fourth grade science class, I learned that taste buds were divided into regions of the tongue. We even conducted a confusing failed “experiment” in which we were supposed to confirm this with taste strips. Year later, in junior year biology, I learned that this experiment failed because taste buds are, in fact, distributed across the mouth. This taught me that textbooks are insufficient for teaching us the science by which we should live.

The alternative, unfortunately, is a volatile scientific understanding that comes from sources of questionable trustworthiness. One day, we read that coffee is bad for health because it increases blood cortisol levels. A few weeks later, we read that coffee is, in fact, good for health because it is correlated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s. Most of us do not read the journal articles or talk to the experts. We are left to throw up our hands and browse Reddit instead, resuming our previous aggressive coffee consumption habits.

Branding motivations play a major role of knowledge obfuscation. It is well known that pharmaceutical companies and tech companies try to skew public understanding to increase consumption. There is also another, more insidious branding at work: that of researchers trying to increase their influence. Even the most scrupulous researchers are susceptible to branding pressure: mainstream acceptance is influential in faculty hiring and tenure cases. As a Ph.D. student in computer science, I have learned not to tell you why the ideas I propose may never work. If I am lucky enough to get that media interview, I am not going to say why my problem is not the most important problem or why my solution is not the best solution. Because of the public’s short attention span, presenting catchy sound bytes and oversimplified explanations is good for both my interviewer and me. No wonder the science we get from the New York Times, TED talks, and blog posts is so fragmented and inconsistent.

My aspiration for journalism, then, is for journalists to provide context and curation for scientific knowledge. Journalism can publicize not just results but potential motivations, from funding sources to a scientist’s track record of stances on a topic. Rather than presenting stories in a one-sided way, journalists can solicit multiple expert opinions, including experts outside the area who may not have as much reputation and political capital at stake. Rather than pander to public desire for simple panaceas, journalists can teach the public to embrace complexity by giving people tools to help engage with conflicting opinions. The newest research on whether coffee is good for us may be different than what we heard last week, but if we know how this compares with the whole research trajectory on the topic, as well as expert opinions on the validity of the research, we are able to form educated opinions. It is only with this context and curation that non-experts can have any hope at navigating this science branding game.

Reporter as a “Connector” of Curious Citizens

by ChicagoPublicMedia (CC Flickr)

Figuring out what a journalist’s role ought to be leads me to ask this: What makes her work valuable (if it’s valuable at all) to society, and is that value aligned/misaligned with larger societal goals? Rosenstiel writes that a journalist ought to “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” This seems true, given that we want to be free and self-governing (i.e. a democracy). But if providing information is the whole story, journalists can be replaced by automated data visualization tools. There’s software that can even contextualize financial and sports data. No journalist needed.

But providing information is only part of the story. I think that we also value communities. And although Rosenstiel writes that a journalist’s providing information becomes “the basis for creating community, making human connections”, he doesn’t say how that happens. I would go one step further than Rosenstiel and argue that a journalist’s role is not just to provide information, but to help form communities. What does that mean? By filtering and presenting information via narratives, good journalists can make abstract concepts and distant events relatable. If the story is compelling enough, they can extend the circle of people, events and ideas that readers care about. And that’s a pretty unique and meaningful position to be in. Unlike a novelist who connects readers to characters in history or the imagination, unlike a data scientist who connects audiences to facts, unlike a blog writer who shares opinions, the journalist contextualizes facts in new and interesting ways. She forms a connective tissue out of seemingly disparate parts.

The greatest example of informative, engaging and community-driven journalism that I’ve recently seen is WBEZ’s Curious City. The project features an online platform on which listeners can pose questions and then vote on them. The questions are then assigned to a team of reporters. The reporters first talk to the “curious citizen” to find out which facets of the question they’re more interested in. Sometimes, they take the community member on reporting trips and post reporting updates in real time. To come up with the most satisfying explanation, reporters talk to experts, post interactive maps, timelines and other types of media. For example, in a story in which a listener asked “Where does our unmistakable and loveable Chicago accent come from?”, reporters teamed up with George Mason University linguist Corrine McCarthy. McCarthy wrote a script that’s supposed to draw out stereotypically Chicago sounds from people who read it. Then, listeners (361 of them) called in and WBEZ collected voicemail recordings of the passage they read. McCarthy wrote a listening guide for reporters who then evaluated the recordings and created visuals, text and listening tracks to summarize their findings.

In another story sparked by the question “What can you get in Chicago that you can’t from any other place?”, the Curious City team turned to Facebook and Twitter for input, made a list of the community’s “report” and then taped a Chicago musician to make a song out of the most credible suggestions, which they then posted on the site.

Jennifer Brandel, a lead Curious City producer, says that the project aims to flip the power structure of radio. Rather than an assignment editor choosing a story, listeners choose which story they’re most interested in. This defies the idea of radio as a one-way medium. It turns reporting into a community project. Here, the reporter’s job is not to simply provide information, but to connect community members with experts, with each other, with ideas.

This model for a reporter as a “connector” of community members’ questions, expert knowledge, and research seems much more satisfying to me than a reporter as simply a provider of information. Listeners are given agency by being involved in the question-asking, research and reporting process.

The Future of News, Civic Engagement, and Everything

The future of news is tied directly to the future of how citizens are informed. This connection is confirmed by Starr and Kovach and Rosenstiel. I would go a step further and say that the news is connected to civic engagement and participation. This is increasingly true as participatory and social media provide a way for anyone to join the discussion of events and articles. I think this trend towards greater participation and engagement with the news is a good thing and should continue, but I also think there is a place for traditional media.

Participatory media alone has two opposite problems; either there is so much information on an subject that it is impossible to fully understand the discussion and topic itself or not enough people talk about and analyze a subject. I think traditional media serves two key roles to balance out a mostly participatory news ecosystem. First, traditional media synthesizes and distills the discussions in participatory media and projects this information to a broader audience. Second, traditional media serves as a guidepost for what topics are important for citizens to discuss and investigate.

The traditional media is still in an incredibly powerful and potentially dangerous role. If anything, it is more powerful than before as citizens intentionally or unintentionally base their own increasingly spread beliefs on what they hear in the traditional media. As a result, it needs to be handled carefully. One example of an issue highlighted by Kovach and Rosenstiel is the corporate influence of news. We need to develop ways of minimizing and disclosing these external influences if traditional media is to have its ideas spread throughout participatory media.

Just as participatory media is balanced by traditional, this issue with traditional media can be tempered by participatory media. In the early stages of a story, journalists can listen to the conversations in participatory media, understand them, and incorporate them in the story. We need to make this balancing cycle easier by developing tools and fostering collaboration between professional journalists and citizens.

Aaron Swartz proposed an interesting solution for the future of transparency and news. He suggested that journalists, bloggers, programmers, lobbyists, and people with all sorts of skills work together in investigative strike teams to understand and fix society’s problems. I think this is a great way for traditional and participatory media to benefit from each other in a way that results in not only increased access to information but also tangible improvements to the world.

I also think this is happening naturally in many ways. Leaking organizations are one example of this process. Many leaking organizations are independent institutions run by normal citizens who receive and verify information, find background and supplementary information, analyze documents, and work with traditional media partners to release and explain the information. At their best, leaking organizations work very much like Swartz’s investigative strike teams. We need to encourage investigative strike team-like partnerships, teach people how to make participatory media, and build structures to make it easier to get involved and understand all the information available. I have one specific proposal for doing that in leaking here.

Erhardt’s Response to The Elements of Journalism

In working on my response to Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, I read a piece by Ann Marie Lipinski for Nieman Reports drawing parallels between Aaron Swartz and Eugene Patterson, who both happened to pass away around the same time last month. She discussed the comparison with Nicco Mele and recounted his observation concerning the state of the institution of newspapers: “One of the questions raised by the comparison is about the role of editors and journalists in our communities…. Eugene Patterson’s life makes it clear that newspapers were a crucial perch for true leadership—a disappearing perch. And I’m not sure we’ve got any institutions poised to fill that void…. Aaron was, in a sense, the spiritual heir to the crusading editor. How do we encourage more nerds to be like Aaron?”

Mele had earlier cited Swartz’s “moral suasion” as the characteristic which seems to align him with the high principle and high calibre journalist Patterson. This resonated with my current thinking on journalism, which has been to try and reduce journalism down to its basic elements, not unlike Kovach and Rosenstiel attempt to do. What I find is a set of principles and processes, traditionally embodied and practiced by the institutions of the newspaper and the profession, whose members we call journalists. However, I believe these institutions can be separated from the elements of journalism and reconstituted as a civic skill set, exemplified by Swartz at his best, which is to say the pursuit of knowledge, openness, and democracy through principled practice.
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Journalism and the Difference Quotient

Response to “What is Journalism For?”

Last week we read excerpts from the book “The Elements of Journalism” by Kovach and Rosenstiel in which they posed the important and timely question: “What is Journalism For?”

For Kovach and Rosenstiel, journalism is a timeless function of our human instinct to know about the world around us – what they call “The Awareness Instinct”. According to uncited anthropologists, pretty much all people around the world share the same definition of news and news values. They trace the history of journalism from publick houses in England to its present day and assert that its purpose has remained essentially unchanged across that time until this particular moment of crisis. What is that purpose? What is journalism for? They answer:

The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. – p 12

The journalism described in the essay is high-minded and has everything to do with good moral things like justice and democracy and nothing to do with bad evil things like propaganda, nation-building, scapegoating, war-mongering and hate-building (all things I would claim that the media in a democratic society also do). This journalism is an abstracted ideal that the authors attempt to naturalize with links to supposedly inherent human instincts and to strip of its specific cultural and historical manifestations by claiming that it has been ever the same across all time and space until this particular moment of corporatism. I became less irritated by this essay once I stopped thinking of it as a bad historical or descriptive account and started thinking about it as a defensive manifesto for a field in crisis trying to justify its existence.

As a manifesto, it raises valuable questions – What are our ideals for journalism in the 21st century? How linked is journalism to the institutions – newspapers, tv news, their corporations – that produce it – and is journalism’s power directly related to being part of large, powerful organizations that many people see and many people trust? In an increasingly globalized world where the media entities are part of corporate conglomerates can journalism maintain any of its supposed “free press-ness”, it’s ability to report independently on powerful interests? And as the corporations get bigger, the audiences get sliced and diced in ever-smaller niche chunks. As audiences move to a “pull” mode of delivery where we increasingly select which news we wish to be exposed to, how can journalism be an engine of difference versus an echo-chamber for our existing selves?

Ok, so now I’ve diverged into my own questions. But it’s sort of like driving a car versus taking the bus. They accomplish the same purpose but with radically different “difference quotients” – i.e. how much of the world are you exposed to that you don’t already know (and that you might not choose to be exposed to even if you did know?) In a car you are your own little individual car-person. You choose, you turn, you arrive. You are the great consuming last man – comfortable in the power of your consumer choice to determine your destiny. Whereas on the bus, you go the bus’ way. There are probably people who are not your color. There are probably obnoxious people or homeless people or kids doing weird things. You hear little conversations, sit uncomfortably close to strangers, and probably learn more about these people than you ever care to.

But at the same time there’s something to be said for that bus experience, right? There’s something to be said for just smelling other people occasionally.

So, I’m not sure I buy the heroic story of journalism as the timeless bulwark of a democratic society, but I do think that one of the things that should be troubling to us in the whole journalistic crisis is that the difference quotient of our individual lives is being diminished with every shrinking public good, whether that is public transit or public information. And when we see, smell, hear and feel less difference we are less tolerant. And therefore less democratic. When we need to look for everything we want to know we will be entertained and engaged like never before but completely unaware of the many complex worlds that used to sit next to us on the bus.



Capitalizing on Hyperconnectivity

My interest in the future of news, and thus in taking this course, does not stem from a professional background in journalism or technology. Instead, it derives from experiences I have had while working in post-conflict areas. The overt lack of access to credible information in many of these contexts—and its implications for transparency, corruption, etc.—motivated me to explore the relationship between information, news, and democracy, and founded my belief that the words “news” and “truth” should be synonymous.

Realizing the relationship between news and certain civil and political rights, such as free speech and access to information, drove me to really ponder the significance contained in the U.S.’s First Amendment. But a curiosity that was spurred by a proud celebration of my nation’s commendable values concluded with a deflated and disillusioned understanding of the rights contained therein.  Specifically, while sifting through the web I found vignettes—such as the fact that CNN signs advertising contracts with governments that it covers, or that most major US news outlets agreed not to publish soldiers’ coffins at the request of the U.S. government—which suggest a news industry whose coverage is dictated by corporate and government interests. And although the above examples may be exceptions, I cannot be sure because these outlets are almost as obtuse as the governments and businesses they purportedly hold accountable. As such, although I have many journalist friends who lament how increasingly challenging it is to earn a decent income, I am excited by emerging forms of participatory media, fueled by interconnectivity, that could potentially provide a paradigm for challenging the existing monopoly over news content.

But before celebrating social media, and besides the fact that my friends are losing jobs, a negative result of the changing nature of news is that many outlets are closing their foreign bureaus. When I asked one of my friends why her paper, the Lebanese English-language daily The Daily Star, was not covering the uprisings in Bahrain more frequently, she lamented that what her paper publishes is dictated by the information that the news wires contain.  Existing traditional publications are relying on a shrinking pool of verified sources for their information, and this too is problematic; neutrality in specific pieces is meaningless if only a narrow slice of events happening around the world is reported on.

At the same time, a non-curated jumble of information on the net that perhaps touches upon a wider array of issues could never supplant the quality reporting and analysis we see in The Washington Post or the BBC. We should not expect it to, and must be careful to idealize phenomena such as We Media, if for no other reason than that most content that the most popular tweeters discuss still links back to ‘credible’ publications for sourcing. And I will not even endeavor to address the ethical, verification, and other issues that accompany using “citizen journalism” in reporting. Indeed, the million-dollar question now is not whether we need news curators or not. We unquestionably do.

Instead, the question toward which to focus our efforts concerns who the new curator will be, where this entity’s interests lie, and how a model can be designed whereby truth and transparency, as opposed to money and politics, dictate content and information flows.

These criteria automatically disqualify governments and most current news outlets from assuming this role.  So what are our options?  I believe we must think in terms of the increasingly international and interconnected nature of our lives, on which much of new media’s success relies. As such, what about an international body (not limited to government members) that funds and is responsible for ensuring broad, verifiable coverage on world events? I know this sounds ridiculous and totally unrealistic today, but a public, nongovernment entity may facilitate an open, international conversation about what the role of news should be and how to improve it terms of quality and equity, bringing news into a broader conversation about individual rights.

Specifically, addressing such a mammoth topic as information on the international level may facilitate a more robust discussion of development topics related to communications, like the digital divide. Access to the Internet, and underlying that basic literacy, are at least as massive of impediments to an informed citizenry of the world as is lack of transparency. And until we also draw such issues into the debate surrounding the future of news, the discussion will transpire among a class of elites instead of the “citizens” that journalists purportedly aim to serve. Bringing news content regulation to the international level could help to change all that.

Writing for an audience, or why science is not like football

This week, we were asked to write about what it is that we want news to do.

I am a science writer. A lot of science writers are, for lack of a better word, reformed scientists. They used to study C. elegans or neutron stars out on a lab bench somewhere, until realizing one morning that they infinitely preferred learning and talking about science to actually doing it. Consequently, the field is full of journalists who are exceptionally passionate about their chosen subject matter. They love biology (or chemistry or geology or whatever the case may be), and aspire to cultivate that same powerful fascination in others.

This is mostly a good thing. But sometimes the blanket desire to communicate to “the people” can be overwhelming. At this year’s ScienceOnline unconference, I attended a fantastic session called ‘Opening Doors: Science Communication for Those that Don’t Care/Don’t Like Science’ (co-led, incidentally, by MIT professor Tom Levenson). During the conversation, it quickly became clear that many of us shared the same desire to communicate with “the people,” and the same confusion over how to do it.

Check out more tweets in this Storify created by David Ng.

I also heard several people at the session compare writing about science and writing about football. For example, two attendees debated how broad an audience the NFL reached, and whether they shared our idealistic goal of getting the message out to everybody. Later, I hear another writer express concerns that he was tripping the line between journalist and activist; someone else pointed out that sports journalists never had to worry if they were going to be conflated with sports activists.

This was confusing to me. A science article and a football article are two totally different kettles of fish. Just I would never pick up a recap of a Cowboys-Giants game, there are people out there who would never read an update on the search for exoplanets. There are occasional pieces of media that transcend the divide, sure, but those tend to be exceptional cases, and often involve the recommendation of a source that the reader already relies on and trusts. And yet, many seemed to think that the solution to our audience problem was to combine a single kind of high-level content with masterful social media trickery, thus sneaking knowledge into the hands of every member of the unsuspecting public.

“Citizens have become an abstraction, something the press talks about but not to,” write Kovacs and Rosenstiel. Many of the writers at that SciO session were so ardent about communicating their science that they hadn’t considered too closely who they want to communicate it to. I am equally guilty. Whenever I work on a piece for my graduate seminar, I spend a lot of time thinking about the lay reader. But I never really stop to ask myself who exactly that lay reader is.

One audience member, Danielle N. Lee, was ahead of the curve on this problem. Lee is a biologist by day, and she writes about biology/ecology for minority audiences at Scientific American’s The Urban Scientist. She’s designated a particular sector of the public who she wants to communicate to, and customizes her work for them by, e.g., using hip-hop analogies. “Speak their language,” she said. “And if you can’t, don’t feel bad or obligated.”

I think, now more than ever, science writers need to heed this advice. We have far more control on the internet than we ever could in a newspaper or magazine. Anyone with a decent internet connection has the power to publicize their ideas, and to promote their work through social media to those who they suspect will be interested in it. Bloggers like Ta-Nehisi Coates openly cop to deleting deleterious comments on their posts in order to cultivate a particular atmosphere of discussion. YouTube vloggers like the Green brothers literally give their audience its own name.

With this control, we relinquish the claim to be all things to all people. One of lessons I took away from last week’s media diet exercise was that I rely on very specific sources for my daily news — blog networks rather than magazines, news trackers rather than print newspapers, reddit rather than Facebook. Even publications that might have once been described as belonging to the general audience now have their own defined demographic. (Last week my father forwarded me a USA TODAY article about a golfer who had been bitten by a black widow spider. Perfect example of something I would probably never read on my own finding its way to me.)

I’d like to see newsmakers embrace this freedom of choice. Think not only about what we’re saying, but who we’re saying it to. Accept that to say yes to one audience may mean saying no to another. Let news be a personal experience.