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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Can Digital Culture Be Ethical? Some Positive Signs

I was invited to speak to a group of Ontario elected officials and civil servants about the future of reliable information in the environment of "fake news." On the panel with me were two very thoughtful digerati: Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman
 and Tessa Sproule who runs an impressive website called Vubble.
Both Craig and Tessa are powerful proponents for finding a way in which digital culture can co-exist and thrive in the present media environments. That is difficult as media organizations still cling to digital as a solution, when instead the technology is still in my opinion, just another tool and not a replacement culture.

Still I was encouraged to hear how Craig and Tessa are confronting the issue of dis- and misinformation directly. In my remarks (see below) to the group, I expressed a certain skepticism. Thanks to Tessa and Craig, I may have to rethink some of that.

Why Newsrooms Have Become the Digital Sweatshops

Media managers are wondering what went wrong. They are asking why journalism doesn't pay any more. If the solutions are hard to discern, they have only to look at the technology they so eagerly embrace.

It's the digital technology. Digital emerged in the late 90s and early 2000s. It has spread throughout many industries including journalism, like a virus. As ratings and circulation declined, media organizations, pressured by shareholders and desperate to find a way to return to the great profit margins, seized on digital as the silver bullet of transformations. But if ever there was a poison pill, it is the digital culture. It has enlarged our possibilities while offering up cat videos, celebrity sightings and listicles. It is driving journalistic deviance downward, to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Yet media organizations cling to digital like a torpedoed sailor clings to a raft, hoping that the submarine won't hit them again.

Recently in Toronto, at a gathering sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, three prominent newspaper publishers discussed the future of the business. To a person, they were all bullish on the future. And that future for newspapers, they said, is digital, digital and more digital. I think that’s code for “more layoffs coming soon!”

We live in strange times.
  • We have a lodging system called Air BnB. It doesn't own any actual hotels.
  • There's a food delivery service called Foodora. It doesn't own any restaurants.
  • There's a video service called Youtube. It doesn't own movie or TV companies.
  • There's a taxi company called Uber. It doesn't own any cars.

All of those businesses - and many others - have been transformed by digital. While customers have benefited from the ease, cost-effectiveness and simplicity of digital, there is also a powerful downside: wages for workers in those industries have plummeted, working conditions for journalism are often worse (turning newsrooms into the equivalents of digital sweatshops) and company morale, in many instances is still dropping and not yet hit rock bottom. 

At the same time, profit margins in many industries, have never been greater.

Journalism is also being Uber-ized.  Newspapers have closed or been downsized, broadcasters have cut their more expensive (and usually more labour-intensive) content. Freelancers are being hired while experienced, older journalists are laid off. In the rush to return to the once rich profit margins of the early 2000s, media organizations are being urged by their shareholders to dispense with expensive ventures like international reporting. Instead, news consultants are hired to telling their news clients that weather, traffic and crime (WTC) are what most audiences prefer.  

Not co-incidentally, WTC also happens to be the cheapest and most readily available content. And all three bits of low-hanging journalistic fruit, happen to originate from government sources. So much for independent journalistic inquiry. 

Worse yet, media organizations, especially broadcasters, try to entice their audiences through “clickbait.” This is defined as "an eyecatching link on a website which encourages people to read on. It is often paid for by the advertiser ("Paid" click bait) or generates income based on the number of clicks."

It's rarely newsworthy, but it does attract eyeballs. The assumption seems to be that audiences will stay for the "serious" content after gorging on the fluff. The CBC's website seems to be particularly smitten with "clickbait" even though their own journalists complain and the public resents this waste of the public broadcaster's journalistic efforts and reputation.

No technological change can ever be reversed. Occasionally, it can be slowed, even questioned. Can the effects of the digital culture be made to work on behalf of the culture, rather than against it? If journalism in Canada (and elsewhere) is to survive, then it has to resist digital's worst qualities (listicles, cat videos and celebrity sightings) in order to let the digital culture offer what's best on behalf of the public.

One of the best qualities of a journalist is skepticism. But when it comes to digital, skepticism has been replaced with unquestioning enthusiasm. And the information-starved public is being left behind.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Why Allegations of "Fake News" are Strangely Comforting

Much anxiety these days among mainstream media journalists about the proliferation of so-called "fake news." The concept has been around for a while, but seemed to gain more traction during the recent US presidential election.

As defined, "fake news" is a deliberate attempt to present false information for the purpose of sowing doubt in the mind of the public about issues and politicians.

A serious consequence of "fake news" has caused the public to distrust all media even more than before, and that is a real concern. It is an updated version of "Gresham's Law" which states that "bad money drives out good." Bad media can also drive out good media, it seems. These are times that are truly fraught.

While there is no doubt that the internet has allowed for a horrifying view into the murky workings of trolls and other anti-social elements, we are being driven to a dubious conclusion about the causes of "fake news" - in effect we may be overreacting to a phenomenon and deserves scrutiny but not panic.

A recent study by the Columbia Journalism Review on "fake news" acknowledges that it exists. But it is very small compared to mainstream media consumption.

CJR notes that most disinformation is spread and reposted, largely by one source - Facebook. It also claims that most Americans overwhelmingly rely on mainstream media even as they may dip an occasional and curious toe into the murky pools of the internet.

I asked media observer Mathew Ingram for his take on this. In an email, he says,

        I think some of the panic surrounding it is definitely overblown -- fake news is a problem that   has been around for centuries, if not longer. I just wrote about how it was practiced by some of the founders of the American revolution, including John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Franklin: -- and in there I also point out that while Facebook and the social web have exacerbated the spread of fake news, they have also made it easier to debunk.  

One of the reasons why (in my opinion) the issue is gaining so much traction is in part, because it serves a purpose for mainstream media organizations to distance themselves from their recent failures in covering the US election, as well as the Brexit referendum in the UK.  It is easier to blame the internet and the trolls than it is to deal with the limitations of modern media organizations. In both the US and the UK, news organizations made assumptions that proved to be dramatically wrong.

In both countries, news organizations contracted out their intellectual and journalistic obligations to pollsters and pundits instead of going out and doing the basic "shoe-leather" reporting. There were still examples of good - even great reporting.

But in the end, news organizations now look foolish and unprofessional as they struggle to get ahead of a news agenda that seems to be leaving them behind. A better outcome would have been to acknowledge that just like America's industrial heartland, news organizations have also been hollowed out.

Rather than admitting that the years of layoffs, downsizing and digital investments have brought them to this place, it seems they prefer to blame basement bloggers and the foolishness of the voters.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Connection from Comet Ping Pong to Buzzfeed

On Sunday December 4th, Edwin Welch drove to Washington DC from his home in North Carolina with a rifle. He had read a story on the Internet that a pizza parlour was the center of a child pornography ring being run by Hilary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta.

Welch walked into the restaurant which was filled with families having lunch. He demanded that the children "held prisoner" in the basement be released. Then he fired at least one shot into the ceiling before being arrested.

Welch later explained that he read about the restaurant on a number of websites including Reddit, 4chan and Twitter where conspiracy theorists who are Donald Trump supporters spread the notion of Clinton being involved. Welch said he came to Washington to "self-investigate" what he believed to be true, because he read it on the Internet.

Even after the story broke, hundreds of people flooded the Internet claiming that Welch was a so-called "false flag" - a dupe set up by the Democrats whose purpose was to discredit the anti-Clinton sentiments in the country.

Fast forward to this past week and the online site Buzzfeed published unverified and in its opinion, "credible" information from US intelligence sources. Buzzfeed said that the CIA had made Trump and Obama aware that Russia was deeply involved in the hacking of both political parties. More controversially, Buzzfeed claimed that the Russians had taken photos of the President-Elect cavorting with prostitutes in hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg five years ago.

Trump has vehemently denied the allegations, blaming Buzzfeed (along with CNN which reported only what Buzzfeed said).

Other media outlets didn't hesitate to report the controversy while taking cover under the guise that this is all "unverifiable".  Buzzfeed had - without question - a big scoop. And many digital journalists supported Buzzfeed for its boldness. Mathew Ingram, writing in Fortune said that the public does have a right to know what is being talked about behind closed doors, even if the information can't quite be confirmed.

I regard Mathew as a friend and colleague who has spoken to my journalism students on a number of occasions. But I have to disagree with his argument because there is not a lot of difference between Edwin Welch and  Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed. They both acted on unverifiable rumour, the consequences of which could have been tragic in the first instance. As for the fallout from the Buzzfeed "scoop", we are still watching this play out in the days before PEOTUS is inaugurated and the Trump years begin.

If Buzzfeed had been able to give us more information as to where they got this story, who was circulating it, how the Russians have often resorted to blackmail, and other evidence that some real journalism had gone into this story, it might have given restored the public's trust.

But it would have taken a brave (or foolhardy) editor to say "we aren't touching this story until we know more."

We are entering John Le Carré territory here: Was this story was another example of Russian "dizinformatsiya" designed to discredit Trump? Or was it an American intelligence agent getting back at Trump for his open distrust of the CIA? Or what about a former British spy (now in hiding) who gathered this information for a client in the US who he won't identify?

We just don't know enough...yet. And if if the media don't know enough to inform us, they shouldn't publish.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Is There an Ethical Way to Fund Public Broadcasting in Canada?

                                                             (The Toronto Star)
With a new year almost upon us, there seems to be nervousness in the land among people who care about this issue.

As the federal government and the regulator are looking at what would constitute a reasonable annual subsidy for the CBC/Radio-Canada, lines are being drawn by supporters and detractors of the CBC.

The pro-CBC forces are in two camps: 1) restore full funding which would mean giving the public broadcaster about $2 billion a year in direct support from Parliament. And 2) maintain the present level of funding (about $1 billion) but with no additional revenue from advertising in radio, TV or online. Both camps insist that some form of private support for public broadcasting is un-Canadian.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am in the second camp. But only up to a point. The CBC needs to figure out its role in a digital environment: should it be all things to all Canadians? Or should the entire enterprise be more like CBC Radio - which is (mostly) about a form of non-commercial (some say, excellent) broadcasting.

More about this position later, but first...

The anti-CBC forces are also in two camps. Camp #1: get rid of it. The argument being that the private sector does a better job of delivering programming to a mass audience and it does it for less money.

Camp #2,  the CBC deforms the media landscape by being publicly subsidized. So in order for commercial media - both print and broadcasting - to survive, the CBC must be a much smaller, non-commercial and much less intrusive entity. More like TVO, the provincial public broadcaster in Ontario whose ratings are tiny and whose programming is often high-quality and frequently British.

Both the pro-CBC and to a lesser extent, the anti-CBC positions are united in their opposition to an American public broadcasting funding model.

The argument against is that the CBC should not become PBS/NPR North with its seemingly endless and annoying "beg-a-thons" where the public is solicited for a donation, three or four times a year.

But what would be an appropriate form of financial support that fulfills both the needs of a public broadcaster, and does it in a way that is seen as ethical?

I think it should be mixture of governmental support and public subscription. For many, this is tantamount to saying that we will accept a version of PBS/NPR North. I think that the arm's length relationship to the government could also be applied to corporations, foundations and charitable groups. But it would need to be made clear to all.

And the hundreds of CBC employees, now are required to find ads mostly for TV, might just as well be required to look to the audience not the commercial interests for support. It would likely change the tenor of the Corporation - and for the better.

For the sake of argument, let's consider this model and see if it might work.

One argument against public solicitation of funding for the CBC is that it is "un-Canadian." As if it's embarrassing for any public entity to be asking for support.

But the CBC 's unwillingness to plead its case has allowed for anti-CBC animus (that's you, MP Kelley Leitch) to define a future for public broadcasting in Canada. Those who would speak up for public broadcasting have been mostly half-hearted or even suspect as to motives.

Another argument against corporate philanthropic support for the CBC is that Canadians feel they are entitled to public services through their taxes. That's a strong tradition in Canada. There is the concern that somehow, corporate Canada will have "undue" influence on editorial matters.

Yet, no one inside the CBC worries that the government might have some influence over editorial independence. Mostly the CBC has a tradition of what's called the "arm's length" relationship with the government of the day. And mostly, that's the case. Yet there is a certain amount of self-censorship especially in political reporting. Always has been. It requires a clear statement of independence from senior management to embolden the journalistic ranks.

Still another argument claims that Canadians won't pony up to give to the CBC. Yet NPR/PBS border stations  in Vermont, New York and Washington State get as much as 40% of their funding from Canadians. So Canadians will give, if they are asked.

As the federal government looks at ways to support a public broadcaster, we need to be less defensive about asking for financial support from listeners and viewers. Having advertising has only made the CBC look and sound like it's more interested in placating commercial interests than in the public whose support is waning by the day.

A hybrid of support from government, balanced by financial support from "viewers like you" would be a strong indication that the public broadcaster is committed to serving its public as citizens, and not just as consumers.

And that may be the most ethical (and effectively political) way to support a public broadcaster with the cultural history that is the CBC.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Polling and the Decline of Serious Political Journalism

I’m not being entirely facetious when I say that I blame the media.

Rust belt industries aren’t the only enterprises that have been hollowed out by free trade; so has North American journalism. The respective causes are only marginally different.

While our industrial strength has been transferred overseas, media organizations have adopted a similar model by doubling down on digital. The result has been that the number of media workers (aka journalists) in North America has declined by almost 50% since the turn of the century.

The French government did a study a few years ago which claimed (then) that the amount of content on the Internet increases by 10% annually. But the number of eyeballs (aka consumers) has remained relatively unchanged. This has forced news organizations that still think their main role is to deliver readers to advertisers, to look for new sources of revenue. But nothing seems to be working. Eyeballs are still going online. 

Increasingly for cat videos.

In desperation, news organizations are resorting to gimmicks including clickbait, more bloviating commentary and ultimately, less real reporting. The CBC is now encouraging some senior journalists to engage only in opinion commentary - mostly on the CBC website, as a potential source of audience growth. This seriously undervalues real reporting by giving the impression that the public broadcaster in Canada prefers opinion over fact-based reporting. 

New organizations are also contracting out their intellectual and journalistic property to pollsters who increasingly resemble modern day snake oil salespersons. It is in fact cheaper to pay a polling company than to double down on shoe-leather reporting. So editorial control of polling has been left in the hands of non-journalistic commercial interests.

This is one of the better explanations about how we were so deluded by the pollsters.

To be fair, pollsters are under similar economic pressures: they are also cutting corners by pandering to self-selecting, internet polling and avoiding the time-consuming aspects of serious polling, such as "return to sample" - calling back later if no one is at home when the pollster calls.

There is also the still unexamined aspect of "response bias" - a large percentage ofTrump supporters may have been less likely to admit their preference to a stranger cold calling.

Believing their own flawed results, a lot of polling simply stopped several days before the election, assuming the race was over (see above Dewey Defeats Truman*).

At NPR, I once suggested in a story meeting, that we stop reporting polls for the week before a mid-term election.

 “But what will we have to talk about?” said one anxious host.

Friday, August 19, 2016

When Media Organizations Say: "No Comment!"

NPR has joined the ranks of other media organizations in ending the ability of listeners (and others) to comment on its website.

"We've reached the point where we've realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism," Scott Montgomery, NPR's managing editor of digital news, explained.

Most other journalists have said this is long overdue.

Chris Cillizza, writing in the Washington Post expressed the hope that other media organizations will follow NPR's lead.

On Facebook, NPR journalists commented in approval (perhaps not everyone appreciating the irony).

Some media managers have used comments to determine their own news agendas. If a story gets a lot of comments or "hits," editors have unfortunately used this as a rationalization to keep doing the same story. Over and over again. Eventually, it degenerates into clickbait.

While comments have become an all-too frequent swamp of racism, misogyny and general weirdness, dispensing with them may not be in the best interests of news organizations.

As I mentioned on Facebook:

There is a downside: even though trolls make up a sorry proportion of commentators, the fact that NPR now removes itself from giving access to listeners (legit ones, that is), makes the gap between the public and the media that much greater. Comments should be moderated by NPR, and not abandoned, imo. But of course, that costs money and fewer media orgs can afford it. Can they afford to ignore the audience entirely?

That was followed by a post by one John Pemble from Des Moines who opined:

Yes. We aren't a public forum. We never were.

Really John? I thought that the purpose of news organizations is to act as the intermediary between citizens and the issues.

Of course, the one ray of hope in all this is the role of the public editor - a position still important although as news organizations look for ways to monetize their product, an ombudsman/public editor can be viewed as an extravagance. 

Two problems and two solutions:

One, the digital culture has democratized media with its attendant problems of anonymity and the coarsening of public conversation. 

Two,  if citizens feel that the media is even more removed from their concerns, this will only strengthen the feelings of alienation and anger that we see the Trump (and the Bernie) people expressing.

As for solutions, media organizations need to pay attention to the web - even the nasty side of it. In my role of ombudsman at NPR, I had to deal with a lot of that. And I admit, it's become much nastier. 

But I also connected with people who had real concerns and passionately expressed. It was exhausting, but still the most interesting job of journalism one could have.

Secondly, media organizations need to find an effective way to triage the comments. Journalists make choices all the time. They need to find a way to connect with the best and most thoughtful ideas (even when they are harsh), and trash the rest.

Not all ideas deserve sunlight which pace Justice Brandeis who said: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

In these overcast days, we need more online electricity to brighten our way.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Dangers of Reporting Breaking News

From the excellent WNYC/NPR program On The Media - guidelines for journalists and media consumers about what to watch for when all hell is breaking loose:

1. Remember, in the immediate aftermath almost everyone will get it wrong. Terrorist attacks are designed to sow mayhem and confusion. Even using best practices, news outlets, witnesses, and governments need time to get the facts straight.
2. As always, local, non-anonymous, and verified sources offer better info. Most news sources will be operating off of second- and third-hand information. Wait for trustworthy, verified reports from those who actually know.
3. Amid all the contradictory statements, focus on consistent reports.
4. The more emotional the commentary, the less reliable the information. Rational thinking is essential in these moments, as well as remembering the lessons of history.
5. Really don’t pay attention to politicians. Incidents like these are uniquely suited to political manipulation, especially in a campaign year, and politicians of all stripes will be tempted to push their favorite agenda.
6. In fact, examine the credentials of all putative “experts.” Just because someone worked in government doesn’t make them a terrorism expert. Even a CIA background is no guarantee of expertise.
7. Pay attention to the language the media uses:
“Mastermind” … endows terrorists with more power than they have.
“Sophisticated” … overestimates crudely planned mayhem.
“Unprecedented” … there is little “new” in terrorist methods.
8. Inevitably, whole populations and religions are scapegoated. Ignore this.
9. Resist reflexive retweeting. Number of shares belies accuracy. Even well-intentioned social media users will get things wrong. Better to wait than to share an inaccurate meme that could have negative consequences. In fact, generally…

10. Be patient. No matter what, the unfolding of the story will take time and mistakes will be made. Allow the coverage to develop and let those who were affected recover and respond in their own way, on their own time.