Category Archives: regulation

The straw man of data journalism’s “scientific” claim

Guardian cover March 10 2012: Half UK's young black men out of work

Over the weekend Fleet Street Blues has had a bee in its bonnet about the “pretence” of data journalism and Saturday’s Guardian front page: “Half UK’s young black men out of work“.

This, says FSB, is a lie that demonstrates the “pretence” that “‘crunching the numbers’ is somehow an an abstract, scientific, mathematical task”. Continue reading

Database copyright: labour has to be ‘creative’

Posted in full over on the Online Journalism Handbook blog is a summary of a recent judgement in the Court of Justice, which suggests the idea of ‘database copyright’ has to involve creativity and originality – important for those involved in data journalism who are either seeking to establish copyright over their work, or understand the situation regarding the copyright of databases they are using.

Here’s a key quote:

“criterion of originality is satisfied when, through the selection or arrangement of the data which it contains, its author expresses his creative ability in an original manner by making free and creative choices […] and thus stamps his ‘personal touch’”. Therefore, the Court continues, the criterion is “not satisfied when the setting up of the database is dictated by technical considerations, rules or constraints which leave no room for creative freedom”.

More over there

FAQ: Online journalism ethics, accuracy, transparency and objectivity

Answers to another set of questions around ethics and online journalism, posed by a UK student, and reproduced here as part of the FAQ series:

Do you believe online journalism presents new ethical dilemmas and should have standards of its own?

Yes, I think any changing situation – whether technological or cultural – presents new ethical dilemmas.

But should ‘online journalism’ have a separate code? I don’t see how it can. Where would you draw the line when most journalists work online? Ethical standards are relatively platform-agnostic, but journalists do have to revisit those when they’re working in new environments. Continue reading

Soft skills: can you make a ‘born journalist’?

Perseverance and confidence - what students want to learn

When asked to write what they wanted to learn, two students in one of my classes explicitly asked for "Perseverance" and "Confidence"

Are journalists born or made? Some will tell you that there are certain qualities you can’t teach: dogged determination, for example; nosiness; skepticism.

It’s a sort of nature/nurture debate that runs through not only the profession itself, but also many of those who train journalists. “There’s only so much you can teach,” they will say.

But is there? Continue reading

Are Sky and BBC leaving the field open to Twitter competitors?

At first glance, Sky’s decision that its journalists should not retweet information that has “not been through the Sky News editorial process” and the BBC’s policy to prioritise filing “written copy into our newsroom as quickly as possible” seem logical.

For Sky it is about maintaining editorial control over all content produced by its staff. For the BBC, it seems to be about making sure that the newsroom, and by extension the wider organisation, takes priority over the individual.

But there are also blind spots in these strategies that they may come to regret.

Our content?

The Sky policy articulates an assumption about ‘content’ that’s worth picking apart.

We accept as journalists that what we produce is our responsibility. When it comes to retweeting, however, it’s not entirely clear what we are doing. Is that news production, in the same way that quoting a source is? Is it newsgathering, in the same way that you might repeat a lead to someone to find out their reaction? Or is it merely distribution?

The answer, as I’ve written before, is that retweeting can be, and often is, all three.

Writing about a similar policy at the Oregonian late last year, Steve Buttry made the point that retweets are not endorsements. Jeff Jarvis argued that they were “quotes”.

I don’t think it’s as simple as that (as I explain below), but I do think it’s illustrative: if Sky News were to prevent journalists from using any quote on air or online where they could not verify its factual basis, then nothing would get broadcast. Live interviews would be impossible.

The Sky policy, then, seems to treat retweets as pure distribution, and – crucially – to treat the tweet in isolation. Not as a quote, but as a story, consisting entirely of someone else’s content, which has not been through Sky editorial processes but which is branded or endorsed as Sky journalism.

There’s a lot to admire in the pride in their journalism that this shows – indeed, I would like to see the same rigour applied to the countless quotes that are printed and broadcast by all media without being compared with any evidence.
But do users really see retweets in the same way? And if they do, will they always do so?

Curation vs creation

There’s a second issue here which is more about hard commercial success. Research suggests that successful users of Twitter tend to combine curation with creation. Preventing journalists from retweeting  leaves them – and their employers – without a vital tool in their storytelling and distribution.

The tension surrounding retweeting can be illustrated in the difference between two broadcast journalists who use Twitter particularly effectively: Sky’s own Neal Mann, and NPR’s Andy Carvin. Andy retweets habitually as a way of seeking further information. Neal, as he explained in this Q&A with one of my classes, feels that he has a responsibility not to retweet information he cannot verify (from 2 mins in).

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. But both combine curation with creation.

Network effects

A third issue that strikes me is how these policies fit uncomfortably alongside the networked ways that news is experienced now.

The BBC policy, for example, appears at first glance to prevent journalists from diving right into the story as it develops online. Social media editor Chris Hamilton does note, importantly, that they have “a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts”. However, this is coupled with the position that:

“Our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.”

This is an interesting line of argument, and there are a number of competing priorities underlying it that I want to understand more clearly.

Firstly, it implies a separation of newsroom systems and Twitter. If newsroom staff are not following their own journalists on Twitter as part of their systems, why not? Sky pioneered the use of Twitter as an internal newswire, and the man responsible, Julian March, is now doing something similar at ITV. The connection between internal systems and Twitter is notable.

Then there’s that focus on “all our audiences” in opposition to those early adopter Twitter types. If news is “breaking news, an exclusive or any kind of urgent update”, being first on Twitter can give you strategic advantages that waiting for the six o’clock – or even typing a report that’s over 140 characters – won’t. For example:

  • Building a buzz (driving people to watch, listen to or search for the fuller story)
  • Establishing authority on Google (which ranks first reports over later ones)
  • Establishing the traditional authority in being known as the first to break the story
  • Making it easier for people on the scene to get in touch (if someone’s just experienced a newsworthy event or heard about it from someone who was, how likely is it that they search Twitter to see who else was there? You want to be the journalist they find and contact)

“When the technology [to inform the newsroom and generate a tweet at the same time] isn’t available, for whatever reason, we’re asking them to prioritise telling the newsroom before sending a tweet.

“We’re talking a difference of a few seconds. In some situations.

“And we’re talking current guidance, not tablets of stone. This is a landscape that’s moving incredibly quickly, inside and outside newsrooms, and the guidance will evolve as quickly.”

Everything at the same time

There’s another side to this, which is evidence of news organisations taking a strategic decision that, in a world of information overload, they should stop trying to be the first (an increasingly hard task), and instead seek to be more authoritative. To be able to say, confidently, “Every atom we distribute is confirmed”, or “We held back to do this spectacularly as a team”.

There’s value in that, and a lot to be admired. I’m not saying that these policies are inherently wrong. I don’t know the full thinking that went into them, or the subtleties of their implementation (as Rory Cellan-Jones illustrates in his example, which contrasts with what can actually happen). I don’t think there is a right and a wrong way to ‘do Twitter’. Every decision is a trade off, because so many factors are in play. I just wanted to explore some of those factors here.

As soon as you digitise information you remove the physical limitations that necessitated the traditional distinctions between the editorial processes of newsgathering, production, editing and distribution.

A single tweet can be doing all at the same time. Social media policies need to recognise this, and journalists need to be trained to understand the subtleties too.

Leveson: the Internet Pops In

The following post was originally published by Gary Herman on the NUJ New Media blog. It’s reproduced here with permission.

Here at Newmedia Towers we are being swamped by events which at long last are demonstrating that the internet is really rather relevant to the whole debate about media ethics and privacy. So this is by way of a short and somewhat belated survey of the news tsunami – Google, Leveson, Twitter, ACTA, the EU and more.

When Camilla Wright, founder of celebrity gossip site Popbitch (which some years ago broke the news of Victoria Beckham’s pregnancy possibly before she even knew about it), testified before Leveson last week (26 January 2012) [Guardian liveblog; Wright’s official written statement (PDF)] the world found out (if it could be bothered) how Popbitch is used by newspaper hacks to plant stories so that they can then be said to have appeared on the internet. Anyone remember the Drudge report, over a decade ago?

Wright, of course, made a somewhat lame excuse that Popbitch is a counterweight to gossip magazines which are full of stories placed by the PR industry.

But most interesting is the fact that Wright claimed that Popbitch is self-regulated and that it works.

Leveson pronounced that he is not sure there is ‘so much of a difference’ between what Popbitch does and what newspapers do – which is somehow off the point. Popbitch – like other websites – has a global reach by definition and Wright told the Inquiry that Popbitch tries to comply with local laws wherever it was available – claims also made more publicly by Google and Yahoo! when they have in the past given in to Chinese pressure to release data that actually or potentially incriminated users and, more recently, by Twitter when it announced its intention to regulate tweets on a country-by-country basis.

Trivia – like the stuff Popbitch trades – aside, the problem is real. A global medium will cross many jurisdictions and be accessible within many different cultures. What one country welcomes, another may ban. And who should judge the merits of each?

Confusing the internet with its applications

The Arab Spring showed us that social media – like mobile phones, CB radios, fly-posted silkscreen prints, cheap offset litho leaflets and political ballads before them – have the power to mobilise and focus dissent. Twitter’s announcement should have been expected – after all, tweeting was never intended to be part of the revolutionaries’ tool-kit.

There are already alternatives to Twitter – Vibe, Futubra, Plurk, Easy Chirp and Blackberry Messenger, of course – and the technology itself will not be restrained by the need to expand into new markets. People confuse the internet with its applications – a mistake often made by those authorities who seek to impose a duty to police content on those who convey it.

Missing the point again, Leveson asked whether it would be useful to have an external ombudsman to advise Popbitch on stories and observed that a common set of standards across newspapers and websites might also help.

While not dismissing the idea, Wright made the point that the internet made it easy for publications to bypass UK regulators.

This takes us right into the territory of Google, Facebook and the various attempts by US and international authorities to introduce regulation and impose duties on websites themselves to police them.

ACTA, SOPA and PIPA

The latest example is the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) – a shadowy international treaty which, according to Google’s legal director, Daphne Keller, speaking over a year ago, has ‘metastasized’ from a proposal on border security and counterfeit goods to an international legal framework covering copyright and the internet.

According to a draft of ACTA, released for public scrutiny after pressure from the European Union, internet providers who disable access to pirated material and adopt a policy to counter unauthorized ‘transmission of materials protected by copyright’ will be protected against legal action.

Fair use rights would not be guaranteed under the terms of the agreement.

Many civil liberty groups have protested the process by which ACTA has been drafted as anti-democratic and ACTA’s provisions as draconian.

Google’s Keller described ACTA as looking ‘a lot like cultural imperialism’.

Google later became active in the successful fight against the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the related Protect Intellectual Proerty Act (PIPA), which contained similar provisions to ACTA.

Google has been remarkably quite on the Megaupload case, however. This saw the US take extraterritorial action against a Hong Kong-based company operating a number of websites accused of copyright infringement.

The arrest of all Megaupload’s executives and the closure of its sites may have the effect of erasing perfectly legitimate and legal data held on the company’s servers – something which would on the face of it be an infringement of the rights of Megaupload users who own the data.

Privacy

Meanwhile, Google – in its growing battle with Facebook – has announced its intention to introduce a single privacy regime for 60 or so of its websites and services which will allow the company to aggregate all the data on individual users the better to serve ads.

Facebook already does something similar, although the scope of its services is much, much narrower than Google’s.

Privacy is at the heart of the current action against Google by Max Mosley, who wants the company to take down all links to external websites from its search results if those sites cover the events at the heart of his successful libel suit against News International.

Mosley is suing Google in the UK, France and Germany, and Daphne Keller popped up at the Leveson Inquiry, together with David-John Collins, head of corporate communications and public affairs for Google UK, to answer questions about the company’s policies on regulation and privacy.

Once again, the argument regarding different jurisdictions and the difficulty of implementing a global policy was raised by Keller and Collins.

Asked about an on-the-record comment by former Google chief executive, Eric Schmidt, that ‘only miscreants worry about net privacy’, Collins responded that the comment was not representative of Google’s policy on privacy, which it takes ‘extremely seriously’.

There is, of course, an interesting disjuncture between Google’s theoretical view of privacy and its treatment of its users. When it comes to examples like Max Mosley, Google pointed out – quite properly – that it can’t police the internet, that it does operate across jurisdictions and that it does ensure that there are comprehensive if somewhat esoteric mechanisms for removing private data and links from the Google listings and caches.

Yet it argues that, if individuals choose to use Google, whatever data they volunteer to the company is fair game for Google – even where that data involves third persons who may not have assented to their details being known or when, as happened during the process of building Google’s StreetView application, the company collected private data from domestic wi-fi routers without the consent or knowledge of the householders.

Keller and Collins brought their double-act to the UK parliament a few days later when they appeared before the joint committee on privacy and injunctions, chaired by John Whittingdale MP.

When asked why Google did not simply ‘find and destroy’ all instances of the images and video that Max Mosley objected to, they repeated their common mantras – Google is not the internet, and neither can nor should control the websites its search results list.

Accused by committee member Lord MacWhinney of ‘ducking and diving’ and of former culture minister, Ben Bradshaw of being ‘totally unconvincing’, Keller noted that Google could in theory police the sites it indexed, but that ‘doing so is a bad idea’.

No apparatus disinterested and qualified enough

That seems indisputable – regulating the internet should not be the job of providers like Google, Facebook or Twitter. On the contrary, the providers are the ones to be regulated, and this should be the job of legislatures equipped (unlike the Whittingdale committee) with the appropriate level of understanding and coordinated at a global level.

The internet requires global oversight – but we have no apparatus that is disinterested and qualified enough to do the job.

A new front has been opened in this battle by the latest draft rules on data protection issued by Viviane Reding’s Justice Directorate at the European Commission on 25 January.

Reding is no friend of Google or the big social networks and is keen to draw them into a framework of legislation that will – should the rules pass into national legislation – be coordinated at EU level.

Reding’s big ideas include a ‘right to be forgotten’ which will apply to online data only and an extension of the scope of personal data to cover a user’s IP address. Confidentiality should be built-in to online systems according to the new rules – an idea called ‘privacy by design’.

These ideas are already drawing flak from corporates like Google who point out that the ‘right to be forgotten’ is something that the company already upholds as far as the data it holds is concerned.

Reding’s draft rules includes an obligation by so-called ‘data controllers’ such as Google to notify third parties when someone wishes their data to be removed, so that links and copies can also be removed.

Not surprisingly, Google objects to this requirement which, if not exactly a demand to police the internet, is at least a demand to ‘help the police with their enquiries’.

The problem will not go away: how do you make sure that a global medium protects privacy, removes defamation and respects copyright while preserving its potential to empower the oppressed and support freedom of speech everywhere?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Twitter’s ‘censorship’ is nothing new – but it is different

Over the weekend thousands of Twitter users boycotted the service in protest at the announcement that the service will begin withholding tweets based on the demands of local governments and law enforcement.

Protesting against censorship is laudable, but it is worth pointing out that most online services already do the same, whether it’s Google’s Orkut; Apple removing apps from its store; or Facebook disabling protest groups.

Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion provides a good indicative list of examples:

“In the run-up to the Olympic torch relay passing through Hong Kong in 2008, [Facebook] shut down several groups, while many pro-Tibetan activists had their accounts deactivated for “persistent misuse of the site … Twitter has been accused of silencing online tribute to the 2008 Gaza War. Apple has been bashed for blocking Dalai Lama–related iPhone apps from its App Store for China … Google, which owns Orkut, a social network that is surprisingly popular in India, has been accused of being too zealous in removing potentially controversial content that may be interpreted as calling for religious and ethnic violence against both Hindus and Muslims.”

What’s notable about the Twitter announcement is that it suggests that censorship will be local rather than global, and transparent rather than secret. Techdirt have noted this, and Mireille Raad explains the distinction particularly well:

  • “Censorship is not silent and will not go un-noticed like most other censoring systems
  • The official twitter help center article includes the way to bypass it – simply – all you have to do is change your location to another country and overwrite the IP detection.
    Yes, that is all, and it is included in the help center
  • Quantity – can you imagine a govt trying to censor on a tweet by tweet basis a trending topic like Occupy or Egypt or Revolution – the amount of tweets can bring up the fail whale despite the genius twitter architecture , so imagine what is gonna happen to a paper work based system.
  • Speed – twitter, probably one of the fastest updating systems online –  and legislative bodies move at glaringly different speeds – It is impossible for a govt to be able to issue enough approval for a trending topic or anything with enough tweets/interest on.
  • Curiosity kills the cat  and with such an one-click-bypass process, most people will become interested in checking out that “blocked” content. People are willing to sit through endless hours of tech training and use shady services to access blocked content – so this is like doing them a service.”

I’m also reminded of Ethan Zuckerman’s ‘Cute Cats Theory’ of censorship and revolution, as explained by Cory Doctorow:

“When YouTube is taken off your nation’s internet, everyone notices, not just dissidents. So if a state shuts down a site dedicated to exposing official brutality, only the people who care about that sort of thing already are likely to notice.

“But when YouTube goes dark, all the people who want to look at cute cats discover that their favourite site is gone, and they start to ask their neighbours why, and they come to learn that there exists video evidence of official brutality so heinous and awful that the government has shut out all of YouTube in case the people see it.”

What Twitter have announced (and since clarified) perhaps makes this all-or-nothing censorship less likely, but it also adds to the ‘Don’t look at that!’ effect. The very act of censorship, online, can create a signal that is counter-productive. As journalists we should be more attuned to spotting those signals.

A lesson in UGC, copyright, and the law (again)

Terence Eden filmed the above video demonstrating O2’s phone security flaw. He put it on YouTube with the standard copyright licence. And someone at Sky News ignored that when they used it without permission. But what’s interesting about Terence’s blog post about the experience is the legal position that Sky then negotiated from – an experience that journalism students, journalists and hyperlocal bloggers can learn from.

Here is what Sky came back with after negotiations stalled when Eden invoked copyright law in asking for £1500 for using his video (“£300 for the broadcast of the video [based on NUJ rates …] £400 for them failing to ask permission, another £400 for them infringing my copyright, and then £400 for them violating my moral rights.”):

“After consulting with our Sky lawyers our position is that we believe a £300 settlement is a fair and appropriate sum.
“Our position is:

  • The £300 is in respect of what you describes as “infringement of copyright” rather than any “union rate”;
  • Contrary to what you claim, we did not act as if you had assigned us all rights. Specifically, we did not claim ownership nor seek to profit from it by licensing to others;
  • Criminal liability will not attach in relation to an inadvertent use of footage;
  • English law does not recognise violation of moral rights;
  • There is no authority that an infringement in these circumstances attracts four times the usual licence fee. To the contrary, the usual measure is what the reasonable cost of licensing would have been.”

This sounds largely believable – particularly as Sky were “very quick” to take the infringing content down. That would be a factor in any subsequent legal case.

Notably, the Daily Mail example he quotes – where the newspaper reportedly paid £2000 for 2 images – included an email exchange where the photographer explicitly refuses the website permission to reproduce his photographs, and a period of time when the images remained online after he had complained.

These are all factors to consider whichever side of the situation you end up in.

PS: Part of Eden’s reason for pursuing Sky over their use of his video was the company’s position in pursuing “a copyright maximalist agenda” which Eden believes is damaging to the creative industries. He points out that:

“The Digital Economy Act doesn’t allow me to sue Sky News for distributing my content for free without my permission. An individual can lose their Internet access for sharing a movie, however there don’t seem to be any sanctions against a large company for sharing my copyrighted work without permission.”

An interesting point.

Comment call: Objectivity and impartiality – a newsroom policy for student projects

I’ve been updating a newsroom policy guide for a project some of my students will be working on, with a particular section on objectivity and impartiality. As this has coincided with the debate on fact-checking stirred by the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, I thought I would reproduce the guidelines here, and invite comments on whether you think it hits the right note:

Objectivity and impartiality: newsroom policy

Objectivity is a method, not an element of style. In other words:

  • Do not write stories that give equal weight to each ‘side’ of an argument if the evidence behind each side of the argument is not equal. Doing so misrepresents the balance of opinions or facts. Your obligation is to those facts, not to the different camps whose claims may be false.
  • Do not simply report the assertions of different camps. As a journalist your responsibility is to check those assertions. If someone misrepresents the facts, do not simply say someone else disagrees, make a statement along the lines of “However, the actual wording of the report…” or “The official statistics do not support her argument” or “Research into X contradict this.” And of course, link to that evidence and keep a copy for yourself (which is where transparency comes in).

Lazy reporting of assertions without evidence is called the ‘View From Nowhere’ – you can read Jay Rosen’s Q&A or the Wikipedia entry, which includes this useful explanation:

“A journalist who strives for objectivity may fail to exclude popular and/or widespread untrue claims and beliefs from the set of true facts. A journalist who has done this has taken The View From Nowhere. This harms the audience by allowing them to draw conclusions from a set of data that includes untrue possiblities. It can create confusion where none would otherwise exist.”

Impartiality is dependent on objectivity. It is not (as subjects of your stories may argue) giving equal coverage to all sides, but rather promising to tell the story based on objective evidence rather than based on your own bias or prejudice. All journalists will have opinions and preconceived ideas of what a story might be, but an impartial journalist is prepared to change those opinions, and change the angle of the story. In the process they might challenge strongly-held biases of the society they report on – but that’s your job.

The concept of objectivity comes from the sciences, and this provides a useful guideline: scientists don’t sit between two camps and repeat assertions without evaluating them. They identify a claim (hypothesis) and gather the evidence behind it – both primary and secondary.

Claims may, however, already be in the public domain and attracting a lot of attention and support. In those situations reporting should be open about the information the journalist does not have. For example:

  • “His office, however, were unable to direct us to the evidence quoted”, or
  • “As the report is yet to be published, it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of these claims”, or
  • “When pushed, X could not provide any documentation to back up her claims”.

Thoughts?

The problem with defining ‘a journalist’

Cleland Thom writes in Press Gazette today about the list of requirements specified by an Oregon judge before a person could claim protection as a journalist in his court.

  1. Journalism education.
  2. Credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity.
  3. Proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest.
  4. Keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted.
  5. Mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources.
  6. Creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others.
  7. Contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

This seems a reasonable enough list of criteria – I’m interpreting the phrasing of the judge’s opinion as indicating that any single of these criteria would suit, rather than all 7 (as is the case in the Reynolds defence mentioned by Thom).

But I think there’s a broader problem (unrelated to the specific case in Oregon, which was about a protection from being sued for libel only afforded to journalists) with trying to certify individuals as journalists when more  journalism is done collaboratively. If, for example, one person researches the regulations relating to an issue, another FOIs key documents; a third speaks to a victim; a fourth speaks to an expert; a fifth to the person resposible; and a sixth writes it all up into a coherent narrative – which one is the journalist?