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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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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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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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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Ground Report Founder and CEO Rachel Sterne talks citizen journalism and an interesting question arises: in our evolving journalism landscape, can sites such as hers serve as early warning systems to mainstream media organizations?

Are citizen journalists more agile than their professional counterparts, often breaking news before the big boys have had time to react?

The answer is anecdotal, and looks in part on how people use social tools such as Twitter and Facebook to report on the world around them. It also includes content produced for citizen journalism sites such as upstarts EveryBlock, Global Voices and Neighborhoodr as well as mainstream initiatives such as CNN’s iReport and AOL’s high profile Patch network of community news sites.

Social Web followers are familiar with the fact that the first image of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River appeared on Twitter; Facebook’s use by activists to report on protests in Moldova, Colombia, Venezuela and elsewhere; and Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and other social networks as prime channels for the world to learn what was happening in the streets after the contested 2009 Iranian elections.

More recently, Jose L. Leyva wrote about how citizens in Monterrey, Mexico are taking to social networks— and creating new ones — in order to document drug cartel violence.

Twitter, Facebook and other online forums have also become a primary source of information in a society in which self-censorship and anonymity have become one resort for journalists covering the drug war to avoid threats by cartels or harassment by Mexican authorities. Social media platforms have also become a place in which people eager know what’s going on the streets can get real-time information.

Interesting too are anecdotes given by Rachel Sterne, Founder and CEO of Ground Report, a global citizen journalism site launched in 2006. Speaking to a class I teach at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Rachel put her site head to head with the New York Times to demonstrate how her network of 9,000 reporters has broken news ranging from January 2008 suicide attacks in Peshawar to Albino killings in Tanzania.

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.

This idea dovetails nicely with a conversation I had with Mitchell Stephens, Journalism Professor at NYU and author of A History of News, over the summer for the Future Journalism Project. At the time he said something counterintuitive that makes more sense as I’ve thought about it over time: Journalists, he said, have to get out of the news business.

By this he meant focussing less time on being a “reporter” telling the world about the daily events that are going on, and more time being a “journalist” contextualizing the significance of what is going on. In other words, in a social media landscape where we already know the who, what, where and when, journalists and news organizations need to harness their scarce resources on delivering the how and why.

Perhaps, as Rachel suggests, citizen journalism sites such as hers can increasingly fill the early warning reporting role. As she says in her presentation above, her contributors aren’t necessarily amateurs, they’re often journalists in their own countries or subject matter experts with deep knowledge of the specific verticals they’re writing about.

In Rachel’s screencast below, she talks about Ground Report, its founding, how it works and who it reaches. She also offers insight into the technical and sociological changes occurring across the the social media landscape.

About: This screencast is from a course I taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs that focussed on how NGO’s, non-profits, governmental agencies and citizen journalists use Internet and mobile technologies to communicate with core constituencies.

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