Briefly Noted

Things Read, Seen or Heard Elsewhere

Where goes truth when a new Gallup poll indicates American trust in the media is (yet again) at an all-time low?

Back in 2009, Michael Hirschorn, reflecting on the first decade of the 21st century for New York Magazine, wrote that we live “in a media age that lacks a central authority to referee reality” where there’s a “nagging sense that the agents of chaos are now so diffuse and powerful that no central authority can counteract them”.

Welcome to 2016 where the question isn’t whether we live in a fact free age but whether anyone can mediate truth from fiction.

Fox News’ Chris Wallace rejects the notion that it’s his responsibility to fact-check the candidates when he moderates one of the upcoming presidential debate. “I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad.” he told Howard Kurtz in a recent interview. But, if not journalists, then who?

A new Gallup poll indicates American trust in the media is (yet again) at an all time low. This is quite a blow for a journalists who believe, ostensibly, that they work for the public, that their job is, indeed, in the public interest and that “truth squadding” is part and parcel of their work.

Simply, if people don’t trust “the media” as arbiters of the truth, can or will they trust anyone outside their information cocoon? Long term trends on American faith in institutions suggest no. Similarly, studies show that people not only reject information that counters their beliefs, but will double down on those beliefs despite the fact that they’re based on falsehoods.

As a societal – and psychological – issue there’s no real solution to navigating truth and establishing basic facts. Yes, newsroom fact-checking is and will continue to be exceptionally valuable and important but if the audience distrusts those doing this important work, more needs to be done.

One starting point would be for our broadcast media to stop enlisting partisans as voices of authority in their segments and instead promote, dare I say, actual experts on the issues being debated. It’s a small step but could move an important needle despite distrust in experts to begin with.(1)

That said, let’s travel back to 2004 when Jon Stewart pleaded much the same to the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire. “You’re hurting America,” he said at the time. The same holds true today.

Image: American trust in the media, 1997 – 2016. Data via Gallup.

Americans Hate the Media originally appeared on the Future Journalism Project

  1. Yes, I realize there can be a disconnect here where a public that lacks faith in institutions will also lack faith in experts. We saw this in England with coverage of Brexit and we see it in the United States as well.

    I’d argue though that a primary reason for this distrust is because of the prominence our news organizations give to strict partisans.

    In this framing, experts are just another distrustful voice that viewers see and hear. That is, because of the he-said, she-said, partisan production structure employed by our media outlets, the expert is positioned to fail.

    He or she is just another “voice” that is presenting information we should be skeptical of.

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A new study shows how little we know about current and historical events. This affects strategies for how we understand and process the news.

A new study by the Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic outlines how much American university students don’t know about the world around them. If we were grading, most of us would get a solid F (PDF).

Earlier this year, CFR and National Geographic commissioned a survey to gauge what young people educated in American colleges and universities know about geography, the environment, demographics, U.S. foreign policy, recent international events, and economics…

…On the knowledge questions asked, the average score was only 55 percent correct. Just 29 percent of respondents earned a minimal pass—66 percent correct or better. Just over 1 percent—17 of 1,203—earned an A, 91 percent or higher. Respondents exhibited limited knowledge of issues critical to the United States. Only 28 percent of respondents knew that the United States is bound by treaty to protect Japan if it is attacked. Just 34 percent knew this about South Korea. Meanwhile, only 30 percent knew that the constitutional authority to declare war rests in the legislative branch of the U.S. government.

Basic conditions and realities about the world are also relatively poorly understood. Over the past five years, the number of Mexicans leaving the United States and returning to Mexico has been greater than the number of Mexicans entering the United States. However, only 34 percent of respondents recognized this fact; 49 percent said it was false.

Our assumption is older folk wouldn’t do any better.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss, though. We see this first-hand as we tumble through our current fact-free presidential election.

Interesting is a piece from the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan who reported this weekend on various news literacy programs and efforts that target our information environments.

“‘There’s a cacophony of untrue information out there,’ and it’s drowning out what’s dependable and accurate,” Leonard Downie Jr., former Washington Post executive editor, tells her. While we have more information at our disposal, she writes, we’re not better informed. Instead, we trend towards news that fits our biases or throw our hands up trying to make sense of the barrage of “facts” that come our way.

Sullivan name-checks programs and efforts — the News Literacy Project, The Lamp and the Center for News Literacy among them — that are doing serious, heavy-lifting for younger news consumers but more needs to be done. What needs to be done, though, is a difficult nut to crack when we exist in an age where spin, half-truths and outright fabrications cross our daily social feeds.

Ignorance has consequences. As Sullivan writes, “Citizens who don’t know much, and don’t care to find out, will get the government they deserve.”

Let’s deserve better. As the Council on Foreign Relations, National Geographic study shows, we’re not very good with current or historical events. We need to help ourselves help ourselves.

At the very least, check in with the likes of Factcheck.org, Politifact or The Washington Post’s own Fact Checker as the election draws closer. More important, dig through claims, and discover how, if and where they’re sourced before passing them along.

Getting to Know What We Do Not Know originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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What should the media call an armed group that takes over federal property and makes political demands? Oregon gives us a chance to consider.

What should we call an armed group that takes over federal property and makes political demands? “Armed group” is a start. So too “militants,” “insurgents” and “armed insurrectionists.” Some want even stronger language: “terrorists” or “domestic terrorists” is their choice.

The New York Times originally called the group behind the weekend takeover of a federal building in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon “armed activists,” while The Washington Post added a modifier (“armed anti-government activists”) before settling on “occupiers” in its initial reporting.

While newsrooms wrestle with the semantics, “militia” continues as a go-to term. (USA Today: Oregon militia takeover: How did we get here?; MSNBC Militia members occupy Oregon refuge, vow to stay for ‘years’; Al Jazeera: FBI seeks peaceful end to Oregon militia occupation; CBS News: FBI takes helm of efforts to end militia occupation.)

Even though “militia” is significant in the American lexicon (a 2011 FBI statement explains why the agency includes “militia extremists” as a domestic terror threat), critics are unsatisfied, find the word too soft and want more forceful language used.

Meantime, the Associated Press is moving away from the term but is doing so, it says, to bring clarity to its international audience.

“We’re trying to avoid terms like ‘militia’ and ‘militiamen,'” writes Tom Kent, Standards Editor for the Associated Press. “AP content must be clear for readers around the world, and ‘militiamen’ may be confusing — readers might think that the people involved are members of a government-sanctioned paramilitary force who are rebelling against government authority.”

Kent writes that the AP has settled on “‘armed men,’ ‘armed ranchers’ and so forth” to describe those who took over the wildlife refuge.

And so forth?

Listen to The Washington Post’s Janell Ross and her take on early reporting of the event:

[No] one seemed to lean toward terms such as “insurrection,” “revolt,” anti-government “insurgents” or, as some on social media were calling them, “terrorists.” When a group of unknown size and unknown firepower has taken over any federal building with plans and possibly some equipment to aid a years-long occupation — and when its representative tells reporters that they would prefer to avoid violence but are prepared to die — the kind of almost-uniform delicacy and the limits on the language used to describe the people involved becomes noteworthy itself.

Inherent in the critique is recognition of a double standard. We don’t need to close our eyes to imagine very different coverage if, as Vox notes, “black or Muslim protesters with guns took over a government building instead of a predominantly white group.”

Over on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall describes the somewhat delicate coverage of the building occupation as both a “mainstreaming of violent right wing extremism” and a type of “white privilege performance art“:

[I]f we think about it, we all know that it doesn’t get a very tough response because the country just takes it for granted that white people in the interior West just act weird and do stuff like this.

Which, sure, partially true, but more a reflection of the media bias employed when other protest groups in the US and abroad are covered. See, for example, Joshua Keating’s satirical take on how the US media would cover the takeover had it occurred in a foreign country. (“An armed rebel group has seized control of a government building in the country’s sparsely populated northwest frontier territories.”)

Which isn’t to say that we should be throwing around stronger language, specifically the “terrorist” tropes bandied about (mostly) playfully with #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS.

As Brian Beutler writes in The New Republic, the group’s behavior is “obnoxious, illegal, and incredibly reckless.” But, he adds:

It’s also quite different from, say, shooting several people in a Planned Parenthood clinic to scare women out of having elective abortions. To paraphrase Ted Cruz and the rest of the Republican primary field, these guys are radical, but they aren’t terrorists.

Coming at this from a different angle is Slate’s Jamelle Bouie who writes about the tempered law enforcement response to the occupation.

Again, critics charge that the response would be drastically different if the armed group was non-white, and especially if it was an identifiably Muslim group.

But, argues Bouie, suggesting that this group should be treated with the same aggression and force that we saw in, say, Ferguson, misses an opportunity:

[W]hy won’t they shoot at armed white fanatics isn’t just the wrong question; it’s a bad one. Not only does it hold lethal violence as a fair response to the Bundy militia, but it opens a path to legitimizing the same violence against more marginalized groups. As long as the government is an equal opportunity killer, goes the argument, violence is acceptable.

But that’s perverse. If there’s a question to ask on this score, it’s not why don’t they use violence, it’s why aren’t they more cautious with unarmed suspects and common criminals? If we’re outraged, it shouldn’t be because law enforcement isn’t rushing to violently confront Bundy and his group. We should be outraged because that restraint isn’t extended to all Americans.

The same argument extends to language. While we should hold newsrooms accountable for how they describe all groups, and the double standards that emerge when they do so, the solution isn’t the amplified and hysterical labels we so often see.

It’s smarter, more thoughtful, and more nuanced reporting than we so often see.

Language, Militias and Occupation originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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Republicans hear what they want to hear. Think everyone supports them.

The government shutdown came and went this week as some Republicans finally convinced other Republicans that threatening a global economic cataclysm isn’t the best thing to pursue.

Good on them, we suppose, but what we saw during this latest generated crisis was the filter bubble in full effect.

While the concept specifically refers to how algorithms increasingly inform what information we receive and are exposed to, it can be broadened to include the active choices we make with our media diets, who we choose to friend or follow on our social networks and how willing we are to accept intellectual dissonance when reading, watching or listening to views that run contrary to our own.

The danger of the bubble, of course, is that once inside we only hear information we want to hear. Sympathetic to the shutdown and unworried about the consequences of defaulting on the debt? Fox and friends reframed it for you. This wasn’t a shutdown, it was more of a pleasant “slimdown.”

Observations about the echo chamber the shutdown’s leaders were operating within came from both left and right. Let’s start left with Salon’s Alex Pareene:

What’s funny about all of this, though, is how much it just reinforces the insane bubble that all of these people — conservative members of Congress, conservative media people and professional conservative activists — live their entire lives in. They are all talking to each other, and only to each other. The fact that the conservative position is deeply unpopular, the fact that conservative strategy is incoherent and self-defeating, none of that is reaching them. John Boehner and Ross Douthat know what’s going on. Rep. Tim Huelskamp only knows what he reads at RedState and what he hears from people who only read RedState.

Over on the right was National Review’s Robert Costa:

[S]o many of these [conservative] members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire. The members begin to believe they can achieve things in divided government that most objective observers would believe is impossible. Leaders are dealing with these expectations that wouldn’t exist in a normal environment.

In a study of the increasingly obvious, Pacific Standard reported on the increasingly obvious. Namely, how polarizing media – our intellectual cocoons – give us respite from an outside, cruel world. This is why we gravitate toward our left/right media, silly and outrageous as they may be.

“The data suggests to us that outrage-based programming offers fans a satisfying political experience,” write Tufts University Researchers. “These venues offer flattering, reassuring environments that make audience members feel good. Fans experience them as safe havens from the tense exchanges that they associate with cross-cutting political talk they may encounter with neighbors, colleagues, and community members.”

Put another way: Our day to day is hard. When we come home we want to kick back, relax and hear people stroke, if not necessarily our ontological egos, our day to day political ones. Twenty-first century life is a hassle. When a day comes and goes we want somewhere, someplace, that simply lets us rest peacefully in our beliefs.

Take it away, Pacific Standard:

In other words, being a part of, say, the community of Rush Limbaugh listeners—an identification talk-show hosts regularly attempt to instill in their fans—is a comforting social experience. It’s a way of feeling like part of a community that shares your values…

…Discussing politics with your colleagues or neighbors comes with the fear of saying something unacceptable, and subsequently being excluded from the next barbecue or water-cooler conversation. In contrast, “the comfort zones provided by the shows we studied present no such risk,” [the researchers] write. “In fact, they offer imagined and, in some cases, tangible social connections.”

The New York Times’ David Carr started to think about this last week. Much has been written about how our gerrymandered congressional districts has lead to extremism. Carr writes that our collective media habits are gerrymandered too:

The polarized political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse…

…As I flipped through cable channels over the last week, the government shutdown was viewed through remarkably different prisms. What was a “needless and destructive shutdown” on MSNBC became a low-impact and therapeutic “slim-down” over at Fox News.

But cable blowhardism would not be such a good business if there hadn’t been a kind of personal redistricting of news coverage by the citizenry. Data from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on trends in news consumption released last year suggests people are assembling along separate media streams where they find mostly what they want to hear, and little else.

But more media, and more diverse media, won’t solve any of this, argues Reuters’ Jack Shafer. Instead, he writes, Americans are purposefully, willfully and perpetually, perhaps, political imbeciles. That’s the way we roll.

Despite greater access to information than ever before. Despite all the news apps at our fingertips, Shafer cites a 2012 Pew study showing that “total minutes of daily news consumption between 1994 and 2012 is down for all age groups.”

Channeling Ilya Somin and his book Democracy and Political Ignorance, Shafer goes economic and concludes that collective ignorance isn’t due to a lack of information supply. Rather, it’s demand. Politics is too confusing. Our sense of belonging to and being able to affect the system is too obtuse. We’d rather watch football.

And so here we are. A debt crisis averted by punting it down the road. The current budget deal between Democrats and Republicans lasts until mid-January. Then we’ll be back with partisans hunkered in their bubbles while the rest of us try to grab some sanity in the next shiny thing.

Too negative a take? Facebook researchers report that our networks aren’t echo chambers at all but instead expose us to more varied opinions than what I write might lead you to think. I’m not buying it.

A version of this article original appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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No matter the content you produce, it will be broken down and remixed by your audience into its smallest – and most durable – units of sharability.

This came across my Twitter radar a few days ago where Jill Falk was kind enough to share the quote.

The situated documentary allows us to examine the emerging transformation of the storytelling model of journalism from the analog to the digital age. In the traditional model of analog journalism, storytelling is dominated by a linear presentation of facts, typically from beginning to end. The audience experiences the story in a passive—almost voyeuristic—mode. Stories tend to have a single or sometimes dual modality of media forms (e.g. text, or text combined with photographs, infographics, audio, and video). A story is published and fixed in time. Corrections might be published later as an afterthought. Stories tend to be based on events, and as such, are episodic rather than contextual. The voice of a typical story is that of a third-person narrative, perhaps best characterized by legendary CBS Evening News Anchor Walter Cronkite’s signature sign-off, “And that’s the way it is.”

The new media storytelling model is nonlinear. The storyteller conceptualizes the audience member not as a consumer of the story engaged in a third-person narrative, but rather as a participant engaged in a first-person narrative. The storyteller invites the participant to explore the story in a variety of ways, perhaps beginning in the middle, moving across time or space, or by topic. Nonlinear storytelling may come as a bit of a shock to some traditional journalists, but it is possible to adapt to new technology without sacrificing quality or integrity. — John V. Pavlik and Frank Bridges’ monograph, The Emergence of Augmented Reality (AR) as a Storytelling Medium in Journalism, published in Journalism and Communictaion Monographs, Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2013. (via virtual300)

I think this an interesting concept and one that has roots beyond contemporary multimedia storytelling.

For example, my favorite books growing up were of the choose your own adventure variety. You read a chapter and were then told to proceed to chapter X, Y or Z depending on your plot desires. Later, as a teenager, I was fascinated by Julio Cortázar’s “Hopscotch”. The table of contents told you you could read the book traditionally, from Page 01 to the end. It also gave you an alternative reading. That is, read Chapter 01, then jump about nilly-willy, forward and back between chapters. The end result is a type of narrative driven more by “impressions” than linear storytelling.

William Burroughs did this as well. “Naked Lunch” can supposedly be read any which way. Front to back, back to front, jumping about the middle. It’s all good. Urban legend has it that Burroughs dropped the manuscript on the way to his publisher. Despite pages spilled on the ground there were no worries. Again, the book could be read any which way so he gathered the pages up, stuffed them in his binder and continued on his way.

Film plays with this too. Fans of Memento enjoy the front to back and back to front chronologies. Other films employ this technique as well. Back in the 1960s, Jean Luc Goddard famously remarked, “I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.”

So let’s go back to multimedia storytelling with the Internet as a primary distribution platform. The underappreciated hyperlink is our key to moving back and forth within a narrative. Our design and UX considerations help control where the story inquisitor might go. But despite our best intentions, that independent viewer is going to pick and choose his or her way through a narrative.

Check our Multimedia Tag for references here. These are stories that have beginning, middle and end. But they’re also stories where the viewer chooses what his or her beginning, middle and end actually is. Site visitors are independent operators. We can try to guide them with our design but they’ll go where interest guides them to go.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the crux of the matter – multimedia storytelling or not – and that’s the atomic unit of online consumption.

This is a concept that’s been around for a while now. In my interpretation it means something like this: Whatever you do, whatever you post, whatever you research, whatever you pour your heart and soul into, the following will happen: your story will be sliced and diced and shared on social networks and otherwise refactored elsewhere. This could be the mere title. It could be a sentence buried deep within you article. It could be seconds 00:45 – 00:55 of a video. It could be an animated gif of that video. It could be metadata of the information that you produce. It could be an API mashup of all the above.

Simply, whatever story you produce, and whatever media you use to produce it in, your content will be broken down into its smallest parts and shared on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs and the like.

This is not a bad thing. It’s an agnostic thing. This is remix culture.

Simply and unambiguously, we must deal with it. And from this side of the Internet, we deal with it pleasurably so.

About: A version of this article original appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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As the Washington Post tries to create a near real-time fact checking system for political speeches, how might it work? And do we want it to?

During the Republican primaries in 2011, Steven Ginsberg, National Political Editor for the Washington Post, was covering a Michele Bachmann speech in Iowa.

It was a small affair, not much more than fifty people, and after Bachman finished Ginsberg got on the phone with Cory Haik, the Post’s Executive Producer for Digital News. What he wanted to know was whether there was a way they could accelerate the fact checking process for political speeches and bring it as close to real-time as possible?

“Yes,” Haik recalls saying, “because to me, the answer is always yes.”

Her idea was that with the increasing frequency with which people use their mobile phones to record events, there’s almost always audio or video of a speech. If you could get a recording, you could then transcribe it and run it against a database of a newsroom’s known facts. The goal would be to try to create a real-time fact checking algorithm.

“I was thinking of Shazam and thinking of how Shazam does what it does,” Haik explains. “But a Shazam for truth.” Her reference is to the music discovery app that instantly tells you the name and artist of a song when you hold your phone to a speaker.

“Figuring out whether elected leaders are lying is one of the oldest and most vital aspects of journalism, and that remains unchanged,” says Ginsberg. “But being able to figure that out instantly and all over the place at the same time would be revolutionary.”

A $50,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge later and Ginsberg, Haik and their team have created Truth Teller, a prototype that is beginning to accomplish their goals.

How it Works

What the Post team has done at a high level is impressive. They can take a video, use speech-to-text to create a transcript, run that against a database they’ve created and start exploring facts — or fictions — as the case may be.

“Our algorithm goes through the transcript to find claims,” says Haik. “Then, whatever claims it sees in the text it touches our database and says, ‘OK, these claims match these facts,’ and this says it’s true or it’s false.”

The front end is a video with a transcript underneath it. Items considered facts are highlighted and the viewer can then select a “Fact Checks” tab to get the Post’s take on the veracity of a statement.

“Realistically, I think Truth Teller can be exactly what we’re aiming for, or very close to it,” writes Ginsberg in an e-mail to me. “Real-time fact checking of political speeches will be possible. Getting there will require an enormous commitment and a great deal of effort, but it’s clear what needs to happen and we’re confident that we know how to make it happen.”

As a prototype, what’s shown is more promise and hope than the refinement of a finished product. As Haik explains to me on the phone, there’s still much to do.

“We have to tune the algorithm,” she says.

“We’ve got to build a database of facts that we put in ourselves,” she adds.

“We need to figure out how to structure the data across our site so we can touch that data in a good way,” she continues.

As Haik finishes this thought with, “We have to get the speech-to-text faster,” you can almost hear her clicking through a much longer mental checklist. Still, she believes they’ve developed a “real framework” to get to where they want to go.

Promise, Hope and Other Difficulties

Projects like these are difficult by their nature. Like those that try to measure sentiment across our social networks, there’s the difficulty of getting speaker intent from a straight transcript. For example, is the speaker being sarcastic, humorous or purposefully embellishing to drive home a larger point? Or what about literal versus figurative speech? Much as it annoys those of us outside the Washington circus, these are well-known tropes that people use to motivate and influence audiences. (Just to show two: Republicans want to starve the poor or Democrats want to make people dependent on government.)

And then, beyond the fib, there are all sorts of lies: some are white, some disassemble, some fabricate. There are the sins of omission, commission and exaggeration. Our vocabulary for lying is large and diverse because our ability to lie and otherwise shade the truth is large and diverse. The BBC even outlines which type of lies are journalistically relevant.

Add to this that there are “hard” and “soft” facts and the difficulty of the mission continues to grow. You can see a Truth Teller project working well with hard, numbers-driven realities since we already have companies like Narrative Science using algorithms to write sports, real estate and financial news. More difficult though is to take that algorithm and place it against soft, interpretative data. For example — and keeping things current — how sequestration will affect governmental agency X, Y or Z, if at all.

The idea here isn’t to replace humans with robots, but to marry the best of old and new journalism.

“Natural Language Processing isn’t advanced enough,” explains Damon Horowitz, Google’s In-House Philosopher and professor at Columbia University, when I ask him what he conceptually thinks about a project like Truth Teller. “The databases aren’t developed enough, we don’t have the right kind of information retrieval to do the matching [ie, search], we don’t have the right kind of reasoning to make the inferences. We could derive simple systems that approximate the task, with high rates of errors; but the main issue here is that then you pay a lot of attention to those things which the system happens to be able to find, which is a curious way of advancing public debate.”

Horowitz’s career straddles two interesting components here: he’s created products and companies around the use of artificial intelligence and intelligent language processing, and he also happens to think about what this all means. “Technically, we are a long way from being able to do a good job at the particular thing being proposed,” he says.

So, yes, let’s agree that real-time fact checking is a daunting task. But let’s also agree that we can set out our goals accordingly. Here, the idea isn’t trying to get the Machine to completely tell truth from fiction, but perhaps to provide a flag or warning system for humans to observe and dive into spoken “facts” more deeply.

“It’s important to understand that Truth Teller won’t replace fact checkers,” Ginsberg says. “In fact, it relies on them, both to build and maintain the database and provide more information once lies are identified. The idea here isn’t to replace humans with robots, but to marry the best of old and new journalism.”

So How Might We Get There? And Still More Difficulties

No matter how large, a single newsroom can only do so much. It has only so much time and resources. For example, the Truth Teller team is manually entering facts into spreadsheets and their current set of facts is centered around taxes.

But what if a bunch of news organizations came together to create The Giant Database of Facts™ and augmented it, for example, with additional information from governmental agencies and trusted foundations and NGO’s? Plug in some some API’s and perhaps you have something to work with.

Perhaps. Your base set of facts will be huge but you can also see partisans decrying the facts to begin with (see, Climate Science, or last fall’s brouhaha over unemployment numbers during the election). That is, it’s easy to see arguments erupt over whose numbers are used, and who’s the gatekeeper to those numbers.

Culturally, you could see popular resistance to this type of system. People will always complain about “the media” and perceived bias within it, but will they be comfortable with an automated, supposedly objective system put in its place?

Let me backtrack for just a bit: This article was motivated by a question posed to The FJP on our Tumblr that runs like this:

Hi, I am a student in journalism and am preparing an article about robots (like the Washington Post’s Truth Teller) validating facts instead of journalists. I am curious to know the Future Journalism Project’s point of view of about this. What are the consequences for journalists, journalism and for democracy?

There’s a lot to unravel in the question and Horowitz identifies an inherent tension we have with accelerated technological change. We want it and we don’t want it.

“Socioculturally, reactions to automation are always revealing,” he believes. “On the one hand, there’s human desire for uniqueness, and a general conservatism and a dislike of change. On the other hand, there’s the dream of an automated future where we could escape the messiness of human affairs and doing things manually. There’s the hope that there is such a thing as a simple world of facts which could be exhaustively recorded, and the record could then be set straight.”

Haik, like Ginsberg, doesn’t think Truth Teller will replace human fact checkers, or interpret data and political statements. Instead, it’s an aid through the process.

If we keep it here, I think we have a tremendous tool for the newsroom. Consider it an early warning system that reporters, editors and the audience can all use. For example, the reporter files a story, submits it to Truth Teller and is alerted to possible errors or idiosyncrasies of fact. He or she can then go back to the data or the source to clarify or refine, or discover that the “fact on record” is, in fact, incorrect.

Obviously, this process can be repeated throughout the editorial workflow and speed the entire process. I’d argue the public should have access to something like this too. An interface through which they can drop articles and speeches to check things out on their own. Students and teachers have a system like this in TurnItIn, a plagiarism detection tool.

But technologies advance and someday soon we might see something quite different: an algorithmic truth teller tracking our every step.

If it isn’t happening yet, it will sometime soon and the robots will be watching us.

Image: Marvin the Paranoid Android, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Bonus: Jeff Hancock, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science and Communications at Cornell University, researches how people lie in digital and mobile environments. In November 2012, he gave a TED talk called The Future of Lying.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Future Journalism Project.

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Politico complains that Obama plays the press. Same as it ever was: Every president's played the press.

Politico’s Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen came out with a longread yesterday about a rift between the Obama administration and the Washington press corp. Specifically, the issue is about access to Obama. More specifically, about how the White House has conducted few interviews with establishment media.

In Vandehei’s and Allen’s eyes, Obama is a media “puppet master” who, along with his staff, “has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting).”

The results are transformational. With more technology, and fewer resources at many media companies, the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government. This is an arguably dangerous development, and one that the Obama White House — fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press — has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.

The story is one of disruption. That is, disruption of an establishment press corp that feels slighted that the White House can – and does – go around them with its messaging by using social media and content marketing strategies. But there’s also a sense of entitlement permeating the piece.

For example, for all their handwringing that the president hasn’t given “an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO and others in years,” Vandehei and Allen point out the Obama does give frequent interviews. Matter of fact, 674 in his first term, over 500 more than George W Bush gave in his first term.

But these interviews aren’t with the right people. Instead, “they are often with network anchors or local TV stations, and rarely with the reporters who cover the White House day to day.” Reporters who, in their estimation, would ask the tough and unpredictable questions. (See Allen’s  tough and unpredictable questions for George W Bush above from his 2008 one on one interview with the president.) 

And then there’s the complaint that the administration is creating content and taking that directly to the public rather than going through press intermediaries:

Still, the most unique twist by this White House has been the government’s generating and distributing of content.

A number of these techniques were on vivid display two weekends ago, when the White House released a six-month-old photo of the president shooting skeet, buttressing his claim in a New Republic interview that he fires at clay pigeons “all the time” at Camp David…

…The government created the content (the photo), released it on its terms (Twitter) and then used Twitter again to stoke stories about conservatives who didn’t believe Obama ever shot a gun in the first place.

All of which is to say, And?

In an age where everyone’s a publisher and everyone’s a brand, it would be surprising for a presidency not to employ these tools. In fact, they follow a long, if frustrating, history of political stagecraft and media manipulation.

In “Stagecraft and Statecraft: Advance and Media Events in Political Communication”, Dan Schill writes:

There is a complicated relationship between newsmakers and the journalists that cover their activities. [Philip] Seib reviews this relationship: “The journalists try to gather information, the politicians try to shape the news. This process tends to become a struggle for control over the information. Reporters can gather plenty of newsworthy material on their own, but they also need some cooperation from the candidates and staff members. Any major campaign will offer a rich diet of media events, but real news is often in short supply.” While the relationship can be adversarial, it is largely symbiotic – what is good for the candidate is usually also what is good for the reporter. Both campaigns and the news media want a compelling narrative, compelling pictures, and large audiences… Reporters rarely deviate from the news narrative that has been established. Especially at the presidential level, politicians can control the rules of engagement and “freeze out” reporters who do not follow those rules. According to [Tim] Cook, “Reporters, dependent on presidents’ cooperation, end up prisoners in the all but hermetically sealed pressroom, reluctant to roam far from their connection to fame and fortune in the news business. Instead of encouraging innovation and enterprise, the White House breeds concern among reporters about missing out on the story that everyone else is chasing.” Members of the news media should recognize this relationship and understand the factors that allow newsmakers to exploit this relationship, control the news agenda, and receive favorable coverage.

Go back to Timothy Crouse’s 1972 book, “Boys on the Bus,” about that year’s presidential campaign and reporters are complaining about “media events” and message control.

Or fast forward to the Reagan years and press complaints about Reagan’s mastery of political television and the importance of image over substance and you have, largely, the same phenomenon. It’s just different technology these days.

This isn’t to suggest that sit downs with the president aren’t important. They most certainly are. But the tug and pull between administrations and journalists is well known and well understood. It’s the journalist’s job to inform the public and if the only way they can do that is to get the coveted presidential interview they’re not doing that job well.  

To blame techniques such as social outreach and content creation by non-media actors is to cling to a traditional information flow that media modernity has long eclipsed.

We’re well into a new day and a new age. Instead of griping about it, change your tactics. There’s a whole lot of important reporting to do.

Related, Part 01: The Seven Secrets of Political Theater.

Related, Part 02The Staging of a Photo-Op.

Meantime: Here are selected questions by Politico’s Mike Allen during his 2008 interview with George W. Bush, as posted to Twitter by Gawker’s John Cook. Complete interview transcript via Politico.

About

A version of this article originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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How news organizations are covering fact and fiction in the 2012 presidential campaign.

While much is being said today about the veracity of Paul Ryan’s convention speech, if you turned off your set after listening to the talking heads last night you’d come away with the belief that this, by far, was: The. Best. Speech. Ever.

I had the unfortunate displeasure of listening to Politico’s deeply cynical panel that appeared late night on CSPAN. It was a good half hour of brushing aside the factually challenged and pimping the excellent and energetic delivery, the quotable one liners, the zing. Never mind that the main thrust of Ryan’s arguments are untrue.

While Politico’s on camera team waxed effusive about Ryan’s stirring rhetoric, Wolf Blitzer had one of his Wolf Blitzer moments. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo calls it Great Moments in CNN Euphemisms:

Blitzer: So there he is, the Republican vice presidential nominee and his beautiful family there. His mom is up there. This is exactly what this crowd of Republicans here certainly Republicans all across the country were hoping for. He delivered a powerful speech. Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward, I’m sure they will. As far as Mitt Romney’s campaign is concerned, Paul Ryan on this night delivered.

Yes, I’m sure there’s a profession out there, somewhere, that might “want to go forward” with some of those points. Considering his perch atop CNN’s news team it’s too bad Blitzer hasn’t figured that out yet.

And in an up is down, left is right world, it’s Fox News (!) among the cable networks that starts to set the record straight:

On the other hand, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.

Fortunately, a journalistic slumber begins to lift. Over at The Atlantic, James Fallows collects a number of non-network sources debunking what he calls the “Post-Truth Convention Speech“:

To restate the larger points for the moment: The bad one is that a major party’s nominee for national office apparently just doesn’t care that he is standing in front of millions and telling easily catchable lies. The less-bad one is that parts of the media are noticing, and are trying to figure out what they can do in response.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent believes news organizations need to bring lies front and center. Stick them in the headline, he writes, don’t bury them four paragraphs deep. He praises the Los Angeles Times for doing just that when a Tuesday headline read, “Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama”.

Writes Sargent:

I didn’t expect this, but the epic dishonesty of Romney’s campaign is finally prompting something of a debate among media types about whether what we’re seeing here is unprecedented — and how to appropriately respond to it…

…There seems to be a bit of a strain of media defeatism settling in about this. James Bennet, the editor of the Atlantic, wrote yesterday that he is glad to see news outlets calling Romney’s falsehoods out for what they are. But he wondered whether we are about to discover that the press is essentially impotent in the face of this level of deliberate dishonesty: “what if it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares?

I’m sympathetic to the question. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the Romney campaign’s gamble here, which is that the press simply won’t be able to keep voters informed in the face of the sheer scope and volume of mendacity it unleashes daily.

Earlier this summer Harvard’s Nieman Foundation released a report called Truth in the Age of Social Media.

“Verifying information has always been central to the work of journalists,” its authors write. “These days the task has taken on a new level of complexity due to the volume of videos, photos, and tweets that journalists face. It’s not only the volume that presents challenges but the sophisticated tools that make it easier than ever to manipulate information.”

We recommend reviewing it. The report looks at how news organizations are addressing truth and verification. Would be nice if some of the big players covering our conventions would take notes on it too.

About: Dazzling. Deceitful. Distracting. originally appeared on the Future Journalism Project.

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The good. The bad. The brutal. Welcome to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Before we leave the Olympics behind here’s a selective roundup of some of the best (and worst) coverage we saw during the last two weeks.

We call it the FJP Media Games, English Language Edition.

Best Olympic Coverage
Gold: The BBC
Why: From FJP contributor John Johnston: “The BBC’s coverage has been amazing throughout. They’ve had a stream of every sport on their website uninterrupted, their live player has had chapters installed to let you go back to any point of the action on their TV stations. They’ve had great pundits, great insight and have just covered it impeccably.“

Best Use of Lego Animations to Get Around IOC Licensing Issues
Gold: The Guardian
Why: The International Olympic Committee is rather aggressive when it comes to protecting its brand. Only those who’ve paid steep licensing fees can broadcast moving images and other brand marks associated with the games. (For example, an English butcher near a yachting event was told he couldn’t display his sausages as Olympic rings).

The Guardian obviously didn’t have video to use in its reporting so it did the next – and possibly best – thing: It recreated weightlifting, gymnastics, basketball, track and swimming events out of stop motion legos.

Best Introduction to a Sport We Previously Dismissed
Gold: Brian Phillips, Grantland. Sparkle Motion
Why: Writing on deadline, Phillips needed to come up with something about the Olympics. His plan was to write something snarky about “one of the sillier-sounding Olympic sports ‘race walking, maybe, or trampoline’” but then he discovered a love for Rhythmic Gymnastics:

The problem my little plan almost immediately ran into is that when, as part of my research, I started watching [Rhythmic Gymnastics] videos, I found that I actually liked it. I mean, I think you’re not supposed to say that if you’re an American sports fan with pretensions to red-bloodedness, but fuck it: These women are amazing. If you care about sports on any level beyond box scores and regional rivalries, if you love watching a wide receiver make an acrobatic catch or a striker score an off-balance goal, if you ever feel astonished by, just, like, the incredible things people do with their bodies — then I defy you to watch a few minutes of RG and not think it’s pretty cool.

Best Retro Technology Used to Report The Olympics
Gold: The Animated GIF
Why, part 01: As Buzzfeed’s deputy sports editor Kevin Lincoln told Nieman Lab’s Andrew Phelps, “What GIFs do is sort of bridge the gap between an image and a video, which becomes incredibly useful in sports — you don’t have to wade through and listen to an entire highlight video, but at the same time, you get the motion and action that makes sports sports.”

Why, part 02: Check this use of animated GIFs to illustrate how and why a Korean fencer refused to leave the floor after a timing dispute lead to her defeat in a match for Olympic gold.

Best Owning of an Olympic Meme
Gold: McKayla Maroney
Why: To be sixteen. To be an odds on favorite to win Olympic gold. To fall short, get caught in a photo with an odd expression your face and have that turn into a viral meme. That is the case of McKayla Maroney. Lesser spirits would hide under the table.

McKayla owns it though, posting a picture of herself and some teammates on Twitter/Instagram that they were #notimpressed that the Olympic pool was closed.

Dishonorable Mention

Worst Olympic Coverage
Gold: NBC
Why: Criticizing NBC became a sport in itself. But know what? Like other gold medalists, the network earned it. It wasn’t just the tape delays. Here’s a critique from Jim Sylvester in a comment to one of our posts.

NBC is offering some form of reality show that is loosely based on the Olympics, but it is not “sports coverage.” …For one, it lacks coherence.  It’s some sort of wretched compromise between continuous coverage and a Sports Center highlights review.  What NBC is peddling  is chopped up drips and drabs of pieces of events that interrupt the unceasing flow of advertisements – which is the real content being provided.

Supposedly there is an out (but only with a cable subscription – which seems to serve the purposes of NBC’s owner Comcast) to access all events live and online, but as anyone who has suffered with that service knows, it is unreliable, crashes, repeatedly buffers, and is heavily laden with ads imposed at short intervals that can and do interrupt events at critical moments.

Worst Reaction to An Olympic Gold Medalist
Gold: Some Haters on the Internet to Gabby Douglas’ Hair
Why: We consider this self evident.

Most Dickish Profile of an Olympic Athlete
Gold: Jere Longman, New York Times. For Lolo Jones, Everything Is Image
Why: From Slate’s Alyssa Rosenberg:

[A]s Olympic gymnastics and swimming competitions wound down and London and the world geared up for track and field, the New York Times published one of the nastiest profiles I’ve ever seen of an athlete, or really anyone, an indictment of the media presence of hurdler Lolo Jones. “Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be—vixen, virgin, victim—to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses,” wrote Jere Longman, in a piece that flayed Jones, while passing less judgment on the media outlets that have asked her to pose while scantily dressed or the companies that have purchased her endorsement.

In an Olympics that’s been marked by stories about the financial woes of athletes, and the financial disparities between the families of competitors, there’s something deeply strange about condemning a competitor for doing what it takes to fund a rigorous training program and to stay financially afloat.

See also, Isaac Rauch, Deadspin. What Did Lolo Jones Ever Do To The New York Times?

Worst Reaction to Olympic Media Criticism
Gold: (tie) Twitter and NBC
Why: As #NBCFail trended to a fever pitch, Twitter informed NBC how to file a complaint against British journalist Guy Adams for posting the corporate email address of NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel.

NBC followed through and Adams’ account was suspended until public outcry eventually got him reinstated.

Next Up

We’re sure you have your own so hit it in the reblogs or comments below. Next stop, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and then on to Rio.

A variation of this post originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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Pussy Riot gets the headlines. Meantime, killings and massacres continue. Why the media covers what it covers.

Last week when news broke that a Russian court sentenced members of Pussy Riot to two years in jail, The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner asked whether the case was getting too much coverage in the Western press.

In his article, Chotiner compared the guilty verdict coverage to the lesser coverage given to 22 Shias pulled off a bus in Pakistan and executed by the Taliban.

I don’t want to undercut the reporters who have chronicled Russia’s long, miserable record on free speech. Locking up a band for criticizing the president, or the church, is terrible. But I can’t help but think there’s something a little off-kilter in the sheer amount of attention Pussy Riot is getting. The coverage is morphing into the human-rights equivalent of the blanket coverage afforded to the lone white girl who goes missing on a tropical vacation.

Of course, you can’t measure every story by whether it is more or less outrageous than the slaughter of 22 bus passengers who happened to come from the wrong religious sect. But the media frenzy does make me think that for many people in the news business, the story of the band is appealing in large part because of its name and the camera-friendliness of its members–not to mention the celebrity of Pussy Riot defenders like Madonna, Sting, and Paul McCartney.

While apples and robots, the critique reminds me of something The New York Times’ Samuel Freedman wrote a week earlier about the killing of six Sikhs near Milwaukee.

In it, he notes that immediate media reaction was that the killings were most likely a case of mistaken religious identity. That the killer, Wade M. Page, thought the Sikhs were Muslim. But then he asks this important question:

Yet the mistaken-identity narrative carries with it an unspoken, even unexamined premise. It implies that somehow the public would have — even should have — reacted differently had Mr. Page turned his gun on Muslims attending a mosque. It suggests that such a crime would be more explicable, more easily rationalized, less worthy of moral outrage.

“Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it,” said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar on religion. “And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.”

As a Sikh, Vishavjit Singh has found himself wrestling with the subject these past few days. “If this had happened at a mosque, would our reaction be different?” asked Mr. Singh, a software engineer in suburban New York who also publishes political cartoons online at Sikhtoons.com. “I hope not, but the answer might be yes. You’d have the same amount of coverage, but you might have more voices saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s understandable, we’re at war, we’ve been at war.’ That’s an unfortunate commentary on our society today.”

These observations that violence against Muslims is expected, understandable and more explicable – yet, reminder, not excusable – gets to the crux of Chotiner’s Pussy Riot critique.

Again, it’s apples and robots, but the infatuation with the Pussy Riot case is how mundane the original protest is to Western eyes and ears, and how disproportionate the punishment is to the original “crime”. Wouldn’t a simple fine and some community service have done the trick?

The absurdity of the Pussy Riot case encapsulates a wide swath of what’s happening in Russia today. It provides an easy peg to explore the return of Vladimir Putin to official power in Russia’s strange political landscape, the country’s tenuous straddling between East, West and somewhere in between, its desire to still be considered a superpower and the fledgling democracy movement within the country.

Here’s Julia Ioffe, also writing in The New Republic:

[T]he case of Pussy Riot had become an easily consumable image of good and evil: Three young women against an Evil Empire. The heretofore little-known punkettes received such unanimously positive international publicity that one began even to pity the Kremlin and the Church a little: They had clearly and severely miscalculated.

As is so often the case with the Russian government, it was Putin himself who dramatized the pathos. Just before Putin’s departed for the London Olympics—halfway through the trial—London mayor Boris Johnson spoke up for Pussy Riot; upon his arrival, Prime Minister David Cameron broached the issue with Putin in their private meeting. Putin took notice of these slights; as swaggering and rude as he is (he’s been late to meet just about every foreign leader, including the Queen), he very much cares about his image in the West. It is where, after all, all his friends and subjects have their money. It is also important to Putin to be the leader of a world superpower, which is what he thinks Russia still is. He cannot be an Assad or a Qaddafi; it is very important for him to be what the Russians call “handshakeable” abroad. And so, while his instinct is often to hit first and think later, Putin knows it’s in his interest to cultivate the image of a centrist.

And this, I think, makes the continued coverage legitimate. It’s a story that helps us pull back the onion peel that is Russia.

For the unfortunate in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world we aren’t necessarily learning anything “new” by the atrocities taking place. These humanitarian catastrophes have become expected, understandable and more explicable.

Deserving of coverage, always, and certainly, and not ever, excusable.

Background

Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic. Is Pussy Riot’s Persecution Getting Too Much Coverage?
Samuel G. Freedman, The New York Times. If the Sikh Temple Had Been a Mosque
Julia Ioffe, The New Republic. How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink

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"Are citizen journalists and bloggers 'real journalists'?"

Here’s a question that that came to us at The Future Journalism Project:

Hello!
I’m a journalism student currently working on an essay where the question is “Are citizen journalists and bloggers ‘real journalists’?”

Do you have any views on this?
Thank you :)

Oh dear, you’re really opening up a can of worms.

Here’s what I think I think.

But before I think, let me back up and ask, what is this creature you speak of? What is this “real journalist”?

Is it a paid professional who ventures out into the world, reports what’s happening, verifies that reporting, distills and concretizes the results and publishes it through some means for consumption by some audience?

Better, does that professional need to be working for an established organization that somehow defines its mission as “news-gathering”?

It could be. And time once was when only well financed organizations had the means of production and distribution to make it so. And so it was.

But what then do we make of the rest of us, the rabble with our blogs and tweets and podcasts and such? Maybe we’re part of an organization but the organization is small. Maybe we plan to make money at it but we don’t quite do so yet. But maybe we do all that stuff the paid professional at the established organization does. Are we then journalists? And is payment a prerequisite for professionalism? Or are we just amateurs playing a pick-up game of journalism basketball?

Or what of the media teams at advocacy organizations such as non-profits and NGOs that can now have media teams because media is in the hands of all and peer production can be very, very powerful?

Some say these people can’t be real journalists because they’re advocates working for advocacy organizations. Where’s the objectivity, these people say. But what then of journalists who work for partisan news organizations? Aren’t they just advocates too in different colored clothing?

I don’t ask these questions to be clever. Instead I ask because they’re questions that are being asked.

And if you asked me really and truly, what is a “real journalist,” I hedge and hedge again and then paraphrase former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he wrote about trying to define porn: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be journalism, but I know it when I see it.”

So let me get back to what I think I think.

Never before have we had such complete and total access to the ignorance, depravity, ugliness, mundanity and folly of others than we do now.

And never before have we had access to the wit, wisdom, intelligence, humor and warmth of the human spirit as we do now.

It’s this latter access that enthuses me. The ability to read, watch, listen to and interact with people who have deep, deep knowledge on discrete subjects is something that perpetually amazes and gives me great hope for the information age we are in. I’m optimistic that way.

Are all these people journalists? Or “real journalists” as the case may be?

Most likely not. But they are citizens. And this is much more important. And they often commit acts of journalism as they go about being citizens and then share that with us through their online lives.

This could be on a personal blog, or it could be by submitting material to a CNN iReport, sifting through document data dumps with news organization like the Guardian, or posting videos and photos and short messages about what’s happening on the street in Egypt and Iran and Tunisia and Yemen and Algeria. Or, less dramatically, your backyard.

Last fall I invited Rachel Sterne to guest lecture a class I teach. Rachel is currently the Chief Digital Officer of New York City. At the time she was the founder of a global hyperlocal news site called Ground Report. This is what I wrote about her thoughts at that time:

While readily admitting that her network of reporters can’t compete with mainstream outlets like the Times on access and persistent, overall journalism quality, she does outline how citizen reporting such as that done on Ground Report brings entirely new perspectives and voices to the news cycle. In that way, she thinks publications like Ground Report can function as early warning systems in our future journalism environment.

I hope these stray ideas give you food for thought as you write your own. As I said, your question really opens up a can of worms.

Here’s another one for you: what’s the difference between a reporter and a journalist?

Yours,
Michael

About: What’s a Journalist originally appeared on the Future Journalism Project

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