Monthly Archives: December 2010

When we can’t believe our own eyes: Balance, objectivity, or transparency?

Time magazine's Wikileaks correction

It’s been a good week for followers of that endangered beast objectivity. On Friday Glenn Greenwald reported on factual inaccuracies in Time’s Wikileaks article, and the ‘correction’ that was then posted (reproduced above). Greenwald writes:

“The most they’re willing to do now is convert it into a “they-said/he-said” dispute.  But what they won’t do — under any circumstances — is state clearly that the Government’s accusations are false, even where, as here, they unquestionably are.”

Meanwhile, the BBC is facing a viral backlash (described as “lobbying” by a spokesperson) over Ben Brown’s interview with Jody McIntyre (transcript here):

Kevin Bakhurst has responded to the complaints and the copious comments on his post are worth reading in full – not only because many of them flesh out the debate extremely well (and others would sit well in a textbook on interviewing technique), but because they provide a compelling story of how people’s relationship with the media is changing.

In particular, on the subject of balance one journalist comments:

“This story demonstrates the fallacy of ‘balanced reporting’. On the evidence of the video Mr McIntyre is almost certainly a victim of an assault and battery, he should sue, and if he does – he will almost certainly win. Even if were he found to be in some way contributorily negligent ‘for rolling towards the police’ as it were – the Tort will still have been committed by the police. The Law makes it clear there is no such balance, yet through this kind of aggressive cross examination, perpetrator and victim are reduced to the same standing in the eyes of the viewer: both are placed under suspicion. And – vitally – to begin with such suspicion is not sceptical, but cynical. There’s a considerable difference.”

Meanwhile Kevin Marsh makes a strong argument against the swing from objectivity towards “transparency” as “replacing one impossibility with another”.

I lay all these out as fertile ground for any discussion on objectivity, transparency and ethics.

Hyperlocal voices: Brian Ward, Indolent Dandy (Fitzroy, Melbourne)

This latest in the Hyperlocal Voices series of interviews looks at a second Australian hyperlocal blogger: Brian Ward, who runs Fitzroyality, a blog covering Fitzroy in Melbourne – which he describes as “vehemently anti-commercial” – as well as a number of aggregator blogs around the city. He has successfully fought major publishers on inaccuracies and copyright, and the site has now broken 1.4m pageviews.

Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds?

Fitzroyalty is entirely my work. I’ve been using computers since I was 12 and have been online since 1990, the year I started university. I have a PhD in literature and have worked as a writer and editor in print publishing. I now work only in electronic publishing and have expanded into social media marketing and managing online communities. I’m a cliched digital native.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

I wanted to do some writing online, and spent months examining the blogging phenomenon in 2005-2006. I wanted to understand the motivation to create free content, and to ensure I had the motivation to maintain my interest in my subject(s) and to keep publishing regularly.

I read a lot about the online content ecology, about search engine optimisation and audience engagement. I also have an IT background, so it was fun to learn more about managing servers, installing open source software and other tasks associated with electronic publishing, which was essential to being able to operate indpendently.

The theme took some time to discover. I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and moved to Melbourne 8 years ago. I was passionate about my new home in the bohemian centre of Melbourne, Fitzroy (the cultural equivalent of Hackney, Spitalfields or Shoreditch in London), and decided to write about it.

I was significantly influenced by a hyperlocal site for the nearby suburb of Abbotsford (http://abbotsfordblog.com/ – still online but defunct since 2008), which started about 3 months before I started Fitzroyalty. It was very important to have a theme I would not get bored with.

I was keenly unimpressed with the inane superficiality of the local (suburban) weekly newspapers (which tend to feature little local news and lots of syndicated content – they’re just vehicles for real estate advertising). I thought I could create something new that people would find useful and entertaining. Fitzroy is Melbourne’s oldest, smallest (about square 1km) and most densely populated (9000+) suburb. In 150 years it’s gone from industry to slum to gentrified urban cultural precinct. It has the critical mass of people and culture to enable an online local news publication to work.

When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

I started Fitzroyalty in May 2006. After researching platforms I decided against a free hosted one like Blogger and opted instead to host my own WordPress installation because I wanted to be free and independent of potential censorship, interference or intellectual property disputes (some hosts make claims on the content you publish on their platforms).

I registered a domain, bought hosting, installed WordPress and started writing and publishing. I already knew HTML and learned some CSS and PHP so I could alter WordPress templates, and also some (very basic) SQL to administer the database underneath.

I made the theme or concept loose enough to give me some diversity, so the site is mostly about Fitzroy, its culture, people and politics, and also whatever else I am doing. I am partially a food blogger and review places outside Fitzroy. I also do something quite unusual in deliberately analysing and commenting on the Melbourne online publishing scene, critiquing the business models of commercial guide sites, local government, and local business sites and the ethics of the blogging scene.

I also publish a series of 10 hyperlocal sites that aggregate posts from hundreds of local bloggers about inner city suburbs. They feature thousands of posts about restaurants, art, theatre, music and culture.

I started these in 2009 and so they have been running for 18-24 months (I built them over a period of months). They function as interesting destinations in their own right for local audiences, but via syndication they also serve a powerful (white hat) SEO function for the contributors, which is the incentive to participate.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

The Abbotsford blog was my primary inspiration, as well as the emerging food blogging scene, which is particularly strong in Melbourne. I’ve also been influenced by my reading about the future of media and the rapid development of social media. Hyperlocal aggregators like Outside.In have influenced me a lot, to the extent that I built my own hyperlocal aggregators using WordPress and an RSS aggregating plugin.

How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I have a vigilante hatred of commercial media corporations and the anti-intellectual, lowest common denominator banal suburban celebrity culture they perpetuate, although I mostly admire government media corporations like the BBC and the Australian equivalent the ABC. I have little in common with any of them.

I deliberately have no business model and I’m vehemently anti-commercial. I publish free content as a hobby. I refuse advertising and all offers of free goods and services that businesses and public relations agencies send to food bloggers. I have no need to meet the needs of my audience because they don’t pay me. The only thing they give me is attention, and that I have to earn by being interesting.

What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

I’m most proud of winning copyright disputes against corporate dinosaurs. News Ltd used a photo I supplied them in breach of our agreement, did not credit me and published a deliberate falsehood about me. I took them to the official body, the Australian Press Council, and won. They had to publish an apology and correction.

I also defeated the billionaire might of Formula One Management (FOM) in a dispute about ownership of video I shot at the Australian F1 GP. I forced them to concede that I understood the US DMCA better than them and my deleted videos were reinstated on Youtube.

I’ve helped break significant local news stories, such as about a telco’s lame viral marketing campaign. I also do regular name and shame posts about content thieves and PR agencies that breach privacy laws by sending me spam.

I’m willing to write about stories no one else wants to touch, such as government censorship forcing local pornography producers to leave Australia.

In 2009 I pursued an FOI request against the local government to release details of restaurant hygiene inspections (Victoria is far behind Sydney in NSW, London and other cities in transparency and disclosure in this issue). I failed to get all the data I wanted but I certainly exposed the local council to be blundering idiots (not that it’s difficult to do that).

In 2010 I had a big impact writing about the ethics of food bloggers accepting free goods.

As a former academic it is satisfying for me to know that my site is on the curriculum of one of Australia’s most prestigious universities (University of Melbourne) and I have been approached and interviewed by several journalism students from other universities.

What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

I initially published stories whenever I could – 2 or 3 a week. Eventually I managed to have enough content to publish 1 a day, and then 2 a day, which I have managed to stick with for 2 years.

The regularity really drives traffic – publishing every day helped a lot, as did a lot of SEO I did in early 2009. In October 2008 the site received only 2,800 pageviews a month. By October 2010 it was over 120,000 pageviews a month (WordPress stats), with over 10,000 unique visitors by IP a month (Google Analytics stats). At December 2010 the site had received over 1,400,000 total pageviews.

My goal was to reach a significant percentage of the Fitzroy population, and I think I have achieved that; my readership is larger than Fitzroy’s population and it’s mostly from Melbourne.

According to Google Analytics, 82% of Fitzroyalty’s total (worldwide) traffic (based on the month of August 2010) is from Australia. The traffic from Melbourne is 79% of all Australian traffic and 65% of total traffic. It’s as local as it can possibly be measured. I believe in radical transparency and take the initiative to share information others hide for commercial reasons.

I am fascinated by the broader phenomenon of social media and I conduct deliberate experiments on my audience. I see my mission as not to please an audience and make them feel comfortable and good about themselves but to stir them into reflection and action, sometimes by making them uncomfortable. I’ve discovered you don’t have to be liked to be relevant and thus well read.

Plagiarists should at least be *competent* plagiarists – Media Ooops 002

This is a shorter version of an article appearing on the Wardman Wire.

Plagiarism is an interesting game.

You can either rewrite the piece, find a bit more information, leave other bits out, and – if you’re the Daily Mail – reduce the reading age by a year or three.

Or you can acknowledge that the story came from somewhere else, and give a hat-tip for a nugget, or a small fee for an article.

Or you can try and ride both horses and end up sitting on your backside in the middle.

So, we have Exhibit A, from Dizzy Thinks:

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a dedicated civil servant working on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012? Not particular shocking really, but there is an oddity.

According to an FoI release, one of the roles of this civil servant is the development of equalities impact assessment for the Queen’s celebratory bash. Why does a celebration for one person need an equalities impact assessment?

Mind you, as an eagle-eyed reader put to to me. Perhaps it’s because she’s (a) a woman, (b) a pensioner, (c) dependent on state benefits, and (d) married to an immigrant?

and Exhibit B, from the Daily Mail:

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a dedicated civil servant working on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012. One of the roles of the civil servant is the development of an ‘equalities impact assessment’. Why does a ­celebration for one person need an equalities impact assessment? Is it because she’s a woman, a pensioner, relies on the state for handouts — and is married to a foreigner?

The two are nearly the same, and it’s only an item in a Diary column, for heaven’s sake. A tip would cost about twenty pounds or a gift voucher, and an acknowledgement would cost nothing.

(Hat-tip: Dizzy).
[Update: re-edited]

Wikileaks – a documentary

Here’s a well-produced (even in rough-cut form) documentary on Wikileaks by Swedish network SVT, published on YouTube in 4 parts. It covers quite a bit of the history of the organisation, the lessons it learned and the partnerships it made along the way – all of which provide valuable insights for any student of journalism as a practice or a cultural form, not to mention a more complex understanding than most coverage of the current situation provides. It really is essential viewing.

The photographer’s role in the age of citizen journalism: grab the guy filming on his mobile

The Guardian reports on the AP photographer whose image dominated the front pages today. The following passage on how he returned to his office with a member of the public who had filmed it on his mobile phone passes by without remark:

“The adrenaline was running by now. So I turned [the flash] on and took five pictures. I realised they were important and I saw another guy shooting video on his phone.

“So I got him into a taxi and we went back to AP’s offices in Camden.”

Worth noting.

One ambassador’s embarrassment is a tragedy, 15,000 civilian deaths is a statistic

Few things illustrate the challenges facing journalism in the age of ‘Big Data’ better than Cable Gate – and specifically, how you engage people with stories that involve large sets of data.

The Cable Gate leaks have been of a different order to the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. Not in number (there were 90,000 documents in the Afghanistan war logs and over 390,000 in the Iraq logs; the Cable Gate documents number around 250,000) – but in subject matter.

Why is it that the 15,000 extra civilian deaths estimated to have been revealed by the Iraq war logs did not move the US authorities to shut down Wikileaks’ hosting and PayPal accounts? Why did it not dominate the news agenda in quite the same way?

Tragedy or statistic?

I once heard a journalist trying to put the number ‘£13 billion’ into context by saying: “imagine 13 million people paying £1,000 more per year” – as if imagining 13 million people was somehow easier than imagining £13bn. Comparing numbers to the size of Wales or the prime minister’s salary is hardly any better.

Generally misattributed to Stalin, the quote “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” illustrates the problem particularly well: when you move beyond scales we can deal with on a human level, you struggle to engage people in the issue you are covering.

Research suggests this is a problem that not only affects journalism, but justice as well. In October Ben Goldacre wrote about a study that suggested “People who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm a smaller number. Courts punish people less harshly when they harm more people.”

“Out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who read the three-victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30-victim readers. Another study, in which a food processing company knowingly poisoned customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results.”

In the US “scoreboard reporting” on gun crime – “represented by numbing headlines like, “82 shot, 14 fatally.”” – has been criticised for similar reasons:

“”As long as we have reporting that gives the impression to everyone that poor, black folks in these communities don’t value life, it just adds to their sense of isolation,” says Stephen Franklin, the community media project director at the McCormick Foundation-funded Community Media Workshop, where he led the “We Are Not Alone” campaign to promote stories about solution-based anti-violence efforts.

“Natalie Moore, the South Side Bureau reporter for the Chicago Public Radio, asks: “What do we want people to know? Are we just trying to tell them to avoid the neighborhoods with many homicides?” Moore asks. “I’m personally struggling with it. I don’t know what the purpose is.””

Salience

This is where journalists play a particularly important role. Kevin Marsh, writing about Wikileaks on Sunday, argues that

“Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the public interest – if we mean capturing the public’s attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material. “

He is right. But Charlie Beckett, in the comments to that post, points out that Wikileaks is not operating in isolation:

“Wikileaks is now part of a networked journalism where they are in effect, a kind of news-wire for traditional newsrooms like the New York Times, Guardian and El Pais. I think that delivers a high degree of what you call salience.”

This is because last year Wikileaks realised that they would have much more impact working in partnership with news organisations than releasing leaked documents to the world en masse. It was a massive move for Wikileaks, because it meant re-assessing a core principle of openness to all, and taking on a more editorial role. But it was an intelligent move – and undoubtedly effective. The Guardian, Der Spiegel, New York Times and now El Pais and Le Monde have all added salience to the leaks. But could they have done more?

Visualisation through personalisation and humanisation

In my series of posts on data journalism I identified visualisation as one of four interrelated stages in its production. I think that this concept needs to be broadened to include visualisation through case studies: or humanisation, to put it more succinctly.

There are dangers here, of course. Firstly, that humanising a story makes it appear to be an exception (one person’s tragedy) rather than the rule (thousands suffering) – or simply emotive rather than also informative; and secondly, that your selection of case studies does not reflect the more complex reality.

Ben Goldacre – again – explores this issue particularly well:

“Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months, which is about 6 weeks. Some people might benefit more, some less. For some, Avastin might even shorten their life, and they would have been better off without it (and without its additional side effects, on top of their other chemotherapy). But overall, on average, when added to all the other treatments, Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months.

“The Daily Mail, the ExpressSky News, the Press Association and the Guardian all described these figures, and then illustrated their stories about Avastin with an anecdote: the case of Barbara Moss. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006, had all the normal treatment, but also paid out of her own pocket to have Avastin on top of that. She is alive today, four years later.

“Barbara Moss is very lucky indeed, but her anecdote is in no sense whatsoever representative of what happens when you take Avastin, nor is it informative. She is useful journalistically, in the sense that people help to tell stories, but her anecdotal experience is actively misleading, because it doesn’t tell the story of what happens to people on Avastin: instead, it tells a completely different story, and arguably a more memorable one – now embedded in the minds of millions of people – that Roche’s £21,000 product Avastin makes you survive for half a decade.”

Broadcast journalism – with its regulatory requirement for impartiality, often interpreted in practical terms as ‘balance’ – is particularly vulnerable to this. Here’s one example of how the homeopathy debate is given over to one person’s experience for the sake of balance:

Journalism on an industrial scale

The Wikileaks stories are journalism on an industrial scale. The closest equivalent I can think of was the MPs’ expenses story which dominated the news agenda for 6 weeks. Cable Gate is already on Day 9 and the wealth of stories has even justified a live blog.

With this scale comes a further problem: cynicism and passivity; Cable Gate fatigue. In this context online journalism has a unique role to play which was barely possible previously: empowerment.

3 years ago I wrote about 5 Ws and a H that should come after every news story. The ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of that are possibilities that many news organisations have still barely explored. ‘Why should I care?’ is about a further dimension of visualisation: personalisation – relating information directly to me. The Guardian moves closer to this with its searchable database, but I wonder at what point processing power, tools, and user data will allow us to do this sort of thing more effectively.

‘How can I make a difference?’ is about pointing users to tools – or creating them ourselves – where they can move the story on by communicating with others, campaigning, voting, and so on. This is a role many journalists may be uncomfortable with because it raises advocacy issues, but then choosing to report on these stories, and how to report them, raises the same issues; linking to a range of online tools need not be any different. These are issues we should be exploring, ethically.

All the above in one sentence

Somehow I’ve ended up writing over a thousand words on this issue, so it’s worth summing it all up in a sentence.

Industrial scale journalism using ‘big data’ in a networked age raises new problems and new opportunities: we need to humanise and personalise big datasets in a way that does not detract from the complexity or scale of the issues being addressed; and we need to think about what happens after someone reads a story online and whether online publishers have a role in that.