Tag Archives: media

Why Banning Anonymous Comments is Bad for Postmedia and Bad for Society

Last night I discovered that my local newspaper – the Vancouver Sun – was going to require users log in with Facebook to comment. It turns out that this will be true of all Postmedia newspapers.

I’m stunned that a newspaper ownership would make such a move. Even more so that editors and journalists would support it. We should all be disappointed when the fourth estate is unable to recognize it is dis-empowering those who are most marginalized. Especially when there are better alternatives at ones disposal. (For those interested in this I also recommend reading Mathew Ingram’s post, Anonymity Has Value, In Comments and Elsewhere from over a year ago.)

So what’s wrong with forcing users to sign in via Facebook to comment?

First, you have to be pretty privileged to believe that forcing people to use their real names will improve comments. Yes, there are a lot of people who use anonymity to troll or say stupid things, but there are also many people who – for very legitimate reasons – don’t want to use their real name.

What supporters of banning anonymity are saying is not just that they oppose trolls (I do too!) but that, for the sake of “accountability” we must also know the name of recovering sexual abuse victim who wants to share their personal perspective on a story in the comments. Or that we (and thus also their boss) should get to know the name of an employee who wants to share information about illegal or unethical practices they have seen at their work in a comment. It also means that a comment you make, ten years hence, can be saved on a newspapers website, traced back to your Facebook account and so used by a prospective employer to decide if you should get a job.

What ending anonymity is really about is power. Now, those who can comment will (even more so) be disproportionately those who have the income and social security to know they can voice their concern in public, safely. So I’m confident that this move will reduce trolls – but it will also snuff out the voices of those who are most marginalized. And journalists clearly understand the power dynamics of our society and the important role anonymity plays in balancing them  this is why they use anonymous sources to get scoops and dig up stories. So how newspapers as an institution, and journalists as a profession see narrowing the opportunity for those most marginalized to challenge power and authority in the comments section as being consistent with their mission, I cannot explain.

There are, of course, far better ways of handling comments. The CBC does a quite decent job of letting people vote up and down comments – this means I rarely see the worst trolls and many thoughtful comments rise to the top. The Globe does an adequate job at this as well. Mechanisms such as these are far less draconian the “outlawing” anonymity and preserve room for those most impacted or marginalized.

But let me go further. Journalists and editors often complain about the comments section as being wild. Well how often to they take even the tiniest bit of energy to engage their commentators? There are plenty of sites that allow anonymous comments with fantastic results – see flickr or reddit – but this is because those sites invested in creating norms and engaging their users. When has a journalist or commentator in this country ever decided to invest themselves in engaging their readers and commenters on a regular and ongoing basis in the comments section? While I’m sure there are important exceptions, by and large the answer is almost never. Indeed, I’m always stunned by the number of journalists and commentators I talk to who more or less hold much of their audience in contempt – seeing them as wild. No wonder the comment section has run amok – we can pretend otherwise but the commenters know you don’t respect them. If newspapers are not happy with their comment sections, they really have no one to blame but themselves. This is after all, the community they created, the norms they fostered, the result of investments that they made. Shluffing it all off to Facebook both runs counter to their mission but is also a shirking of responsibility (and business opportunity) of the highest order.

Of course, handing the problem to Facebook won’t solve it either. It was suggested, at last count, that over 80 million facebook accounts are fake. Expect that number to go up. But of course, the people who will be most happy to create that fake account are going to be the trolls who want to use it regularly, not the lone commentator who has an important perspective about a story but doesn’t want to tell the world who they are out of fear of social stigma or worse.

What’s worse, Postmedia has now essentially farmed its privacy policy out to Facebook. Presently that means that, in theory, you can’t be anonymous. But what will it mean in the future? Postmedia can’t tell you. They can’t even influence it.

For an organization managing discussions as sensitive as newspapers do – that is a pretty shocking stance to take. Who knows what future decisions about privacy Facebook is going to make. But here’s what I do know, I trusted the National Post a hell of a lot more to manage my comments and identity than I do Facebook because their missions are totally different. In the end, this could be bad not just for comments, but for Postmedia. Many people are already pretty uncomfortable with Facebook’s policies. I expect more will become so. Even if they don’t comment, I suspect readers will be drawn to sites that engage them more effectively – a newspapers that has outsourced its engagement to Facebook will probably lose out.

I get that Postmedia believes its job of managing comments will become easier because it has outsourced identity management to Facebook – but it has come at a real cost, one that I think is unacceptable for a newspaper. In the end, I think the quality of engagement and of discussion at Postmedia will suffer. That will be bad for it, but it will also be bad for society in general.

And that is sad news for all of us.

Added @ 9:27am PST. Note: Some Postmedia journalists want to make clear that this decision was a corporate one, not theirs.

Media Watch: The Globe and Mail’s Shifting Headline

Earlier today the Globe and Mail had one of these truly terrible “balanced” articles about the proposed federal crime bill. The headline screamed: Quebec expert backs Tory crime bill amid U.S. warning on sentencing. (Image below)

So who was this expert you might ask? A university professor with years of research on the subject? Maybe some breakthrough research by a young grad student? How about a researcher from a think tank that has been investigated the issue?

Wrong on all accounts. It was, in fact, former Justice Minister Marc Bellemare from the province of Quebec. Of course, you might say… “being a Justice Minister problem should make you an expert.” If only this were the case. If Minister Vic Toews has taught us anything it is that you definitely don’t have to be an expert in something to become a Minister. Nor does being a Minister make you an expert.  But the real kicker is that Marc Bellemare was minister for just under a year. Sworn in on April 29th 2003 he resigned on April 27th 2004. Of course, the article makes no reference to the current Justice Minister of Quebec, Jean-Marc Fournier, who is both opposed to the Crime bill and has been minister since August 11th, 2010. That’s a year and a half longer making him 50% more of an expert than Bellemare!

I suspect one of two things happened (both of which I now know are wrong – see update below). Either the Globe reporter simple used language that came packaged in a press release that referred to Marc Bellemare as an expert or worse, in pursuit of “balance” the journalist felt compelled to label Bellemare’s an expert given the second part focused on how a large number of US republican “tough on crime” legislators who created mandatory minimum sentences in the 90s are trying to role them back because they have been a total failure in addressing crime and a disaster financially.

Of course Globe and Mail readers noticed the problem with the “expert” right away. The most voted for comment was the following one (yes, I voted too, might have been my first time):

comment-1

And slightly further done was a better comment pointing out some further idiotic ideas the Minister had for reforming the justice system.

comment-two

More interesting is that sometime in the later afternoon EST the Globe changed its landing page, acknowledging the “expert’s” true credentials.

GM-landing-page

I think this speaks volumes about the Globe – in a good way. Nobody is perfect, we make mistakes. Sun prides itself on getting facts wrong to tell a story and the Globe is demonstrating that they take the opposite tact. So this post isn’t to say “the globe messed up,” it’s about how newspaper can and should react to feedback from readers. It doesn’t mean you change everything all the time, but there are times when the feedback points to changes that will bring about greater clarity. It also says a lot about the power of the audience.

However, it is worth noting, the headline on the story page… remains unchanged.

7:14pm Update

I’ve made some errors of my own in the above post. I assumed above that the journalist had chosen the headline, this is, in fact, not true. As one of the editors from the Globe has pointed out to me on twitter, it was the editor who made the choice. Any assignment of blame on the journalist is misplaced, I definitely apologize for that on my part.

Not Brain Candy: A Review of The Information Diet by Clay Johnson

My body no longer kills me when I come back from the gym. However, I had a moment of total humiliation today: theoretically my ideal body weight is 172 pounds and I weigh 153 Ibs. The woman at the gym calibrated my fat/water/meat/bone ratios, made an inward gasp and I asked her what was wrong. She said (after a tentative, you-have-cancer pause), “You’re what’s technically known as a ‘thin fat person.’ “

- Douglas Copeland, Microserfs

We know that healthy eating – having a good, balanced diet – is the most important thing we can do for our physical health. What if the same is true of our brains?  This is the simple but powerful premise that lies at the heart of Clay Johnson’s excellent book The Information Diet.

It’s also a timely thesis.

Everyone seems worried about how we consume information, about what it is doing to our brains and how it impacts society. Pessimists believe Google and social media are creating a generation of distracted idiots unable or unwilling to steep themselves in any deep knowledge. From the snide ramblings of Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur to alarmed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller – who equates letting his daughter join Facebook to passing her a crystal meth pipe – the internet and the type of information it creates are apparently destroying our minds, our society and, of course, our children.

While I disagree with the likes of Keen and Keller, your humble author admits he’s an information addict. I love reading the newspaper or my favourite columnists/bloggers; I’m regularly distracted by both interesting and meaningless articles via Twitter and Facebook; and I constantly struggle to stay on top of my email inbox. I’m a knowledge worker in an information society. If anyone should be good at managing information, it should be me. Reading The Information Diet forces me to engage with my ability in a way I’ve not done before.

What makes The Information Diet compelling is that Johnson embraces the concerns we have about the world of information overload – from those raised by New York Magazine authors and celebrated pundits to the challenges we all feel on a day to day basis – and offers the best analysis to date of its causes, and what we can do about it. Indeed, rather than being a single book, The Information Diet is really three. It’s an analysis of what is happening to the media world; it’s a self-help book for information-age workers, consumers and citizens; and it’s a discussion about the implications of the media environment on our politics.

InfoDietIt is in its first section that the book shines the brightest. Johnson is utterly persuasive in arguing that the forces at play in the food industry are a powerful mirror for our media environment. Today the main threat to Americans (and most others living in the developed world) is not starvation; it’s obesity. Our factory farms are so completely effective at pumping out produce that it isn’t a lack of food the kills us, it’s an overabundance of it. And more specifically, it’s the over-consumption of food that we choose to eat, but that isn’t good for us in anything greater than small quantities.

With information, our problem isn’t that we consume too much – Johnson correctly points out that physically, this isn’t possible. What’s dangerous is consuming an overabundance of junk information – information that is bad for us. Today, one can choose to live strictly on a diet of ramen noodles and Mars bars. Similarly, it’s never been easier to restrict one’s information consumption to that which confirms our biases. In an effort to better serve us, everywhere we go, we can chomp on a steady diet of information that affirms and comforts rather than challenges – information devoid of knowledge or even accuracy; cheaply developed stories by “big info” content farms like Demand Media or cheaply created opinion hawked by affirmation factories like MSNBC or FOX News; even emails and tweets that provide dopamine bursts but little value. In small quantities, these information sources can be good and even enjoyable. In large quantities, they deplete our efficiency, stress us out, and can put us in reality bubbles.

And this is why I found The Information Diet simultaneously challenging, helpful and worrying.

Challenging, because reading The Information Diet caused me to think of my own diet. I like to believe I’m a healthy consumer, but reflecting on what I read, where I get my information and who I engage with, in parts of my life, I may be that dreaded thin-fat person. I look okay, but probe a little deeper and frankly, there are a few too many confirmation biases, too many common sources, leaving my brain insufficiently challenged and becoming a shade flabby. I certainly spend too much time on email, which frankly is a type of information fix that really does sap my productivity.

Helpful, because in part The Information Diet is a 21st-century guide to developing and honing critical thinking and reasoning skills. At its most basic, it’s a self-help book that provides some solid frameworks and tools for keeping these skills sharp in a world where the opportunities for distraction and confirmation bias remain real and the noise-to-signal ratio can be hard to navigate.  To be clear, none of this advice is overly refined, but Johnson doesn’t pretend it is. You can’t download critical thinking skills – no matter what Fox News’s slogan implies. In this regard, the book is more than helpful – it’s empowering. Johnson, correctly I believe, argues that much like the fast food industry – which seeks to exploit our body’s love of salty, fatty food – many media companies are simply indulging our desire for affirming news and opinion. It’s not large companies that are to blame. It’s the “secret compact” (as Johnson calls it) that we make with them that makes them possible. We are what we consume. In this regard, for someone that those on the right might consider (wrongly) to be a big government liberal, The Information Diet has an strong emphasis on personal responsibility.

There is, of course, a depressing flip side to this point: one that has me thinking about the broader implications of his metaphor. In a world of abundant food, we have to develop better discipline around dieting and consumption.

But the sad fact is, many of us haven’t. Indeed, almost a majority has not.

As someone who believes in democratic discourse, I’ve always accepted that as messy as our democratic systems may be, over time good ideas – those backed by evidence and effective track records – will rise to the top. I don’t think Johnson is suggesting this is no longer true. But he is implying that in a world of abundant information, the basic ante of effective participation is going up. The skills are evolving and the discipline required is increasing. If true, where does that leave us? Are we up for the challenge? Even many of those who look informed may simply be thin fat people. Perhaps those young enough to grow up in the new media environment will automatically develop the skills Clay says we need to explicitly foster. But does this mean there is a vulnerable generation? One unable to engage critically and so particularly susceptible to the siren song of their biases?

Indeed, I wish this topic were tackled more, and initially it felt like it would be. The book starts off as a powerful polemic on how we engage in information; it is then a self-help book, and towards the end, an analysis of American politics. It all makes for fascinating reading. Clay has plenty of humour, southern charm and self-deprecating stories that the pages flow smoothly past one another. Moreover, his experience serves him well. This is man who worked at Ask Jeeves in its early days, helped create the online phenomenon of the Howard Dean campaign, and co-founded Blue State Digital – which then went on to create the software that powered Obama’s online campaign.

But while his background and personality make for compelling reading, the last section sometimes feels more disconnected from the overall thesis. There is much that is interesting and I think Clay’s concerns about the limits of transparency are sound (it is a prerequisite to success, but not a solution). Much like most people know Oreos are bad for them, they know congressmen accept huge bundles of money. Food labels haven’t made America thinner, and getting better stats on this isn’t going to magically alter Washington. Labels and transparency are important tools for those seeking to diet. Here the conversation is valuable. However, some of the arguments, such as around scalability problems of representation, feel less about information and more about why politics doesn’t work. And the chapter closes with more individual advice. This is interesting, but his first three chapters create a sense of crisis around America’s information diet. I loved his suggestions for individuals, but I’d love to hear some more structural solutions, or if he thinks the crisis is going to get worse, and how it might affect our future.

None of this detracts from the book. Quite the opposite – it left me hungry for more.

And I suspect it will do the same for anyone interested in participating as a citizen or worker in the knowledge economy. Making The Information Diet part of your information diet won’t just help you rethink how you consume information, live and work. It will make you think. As a guy who knows he should eat more broccoli but doesn’t really like the taste, it’s nice to know that broccoli for your brain can be both good for you and tasty to read. I wish I had more of it in my daily diet.

For those interested you can find The Information Diet Blog here – this has replaced his older well known blog – InfoVegan.com.

Full disclosure: I should also share that I know Clay Johnson. I’ve been involved in Code for America and he sits on the Advisory Board. With that in mind, I’ve done my best to look at his book with a critical eye, but you the reader, should be aware.

Open Source Data Journalism – Happening now at Buzz Data

(there is a section on this topic focused on governments below)

A hint of how social data could change journalism

Anyone who’s heard me speak in the last 6 months knows I’m excited about BuzzData. This week, while still in limited access beta, the site is showing hints its potential – and it still has only a few hundred users.

First, what is BuzzData? It’s a website that allows data to be easily uploaded and shared among any number of users. (For hackers – it’s essentially github for data, but more social). It makes it easy for people to copy data sets, tinker with them, share the results back with the original master, mash them up with other data sets, all while engaging with those who care about that data set.

So, what happened? Why is any of this interesting? And what does it have to do with journalism?

Exactly a month ago Svetlana Kovalyova of Reuters had her article – Food prices to remain high, UN warns – re-published in the Globe and Mail.  The piece essentially outlined that food commodities were getting cheaper because of local conditions in a number of regions.

Someone at the Globe and Mail decided to go a step further and upload the data – the annual food price indices from 1990-present – onto the BuzzData site, presumably so they could play around with it. This is nothing complicated, it’s a pretty basic chart. Nonetheless a dozen or so users started “following” the dataset and about 11 days ago, one of them, David Joerg, asked:

The article focused on short-term price movements, but what really blew me away is: 1) how the price of all these agricultural commodities has doubled since 2003 and 2) how sugar has more than TRIPLED since 2003. I have to ask, can anyone explain WHY these prices have gone up so much faster than other prices? Is it all about the price of oil?

He then did a simple visualization of the data.

FoodPrices

In response someone from the Globe and Mail entitled Mason answered:

Hi David… did you create your viz based on the data I posted? I can’t answer your question but clearly your visualization brought it to the forefront. Thanks!

But of course, in a process that mirrors what often happens in the open source community, another “follower” of the data shows up and refines the work of the original commentator. In this case, an Alexander Smith notes:

I added some oil price data to this visualization. As you can see the lines for everything except sugar seem to move more or less with the oil. It would be interesting to do a little regression on this and see how close the actual correlation is.

The first thing to note is that Smith has added data, “mashing in” Oil Price per barrel. So now the data set has been made richer. In addition his graph quite nice as it makes the correlation more visible than the graph by Joerg which only referenced the Oil Price Index. It also becomes apparent, looking at this chart, how much of an outlier sugar really is.

oilandfood

Perhaps some regression is required, but Smith’s graph is pretty compelling. What’s more interesting is not once is the price of oil mentioned in the article as a driver of food commodity prices. So maybe it’s not relevant. But maybe it deserves more investigation – and a significantly better piece, one that would provide better information to the public – could be written in the future. In either case, this discussion, conducted by non-experts simply looking at the data, helped surface some interesting leads.

And therein lies the power of social data.

With even only a handful of users a deeper, better analysis of the story has taken place. Why? Because people are able to access the data and look at it directly. If you’re a follower of Julian Assange of wikileaks, you might call this scientific journalism, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it certainly is a much more transparent way for doing analysis and a potential audience builder – imagine if 100s or 1000s of readers were engaged in the data underlying a story. What would that do to the story? What would that do to journalism? With BuzzData it also becomes less difficult to imagine a data journalists who spends a significant amount of their time in BuzzData working with a community of engaged pro-ams trying to find hidden meaning in data they amass.

Obviously, this back and forth isn’t game changing. No smoking gun has been found. But I think it hints at a larger potential, one that it would be very interesting to see unlocked.

More than Journalism – I’m looking at you government

Of course, it isn’t just media companies that should be paying attention. For years I argued that governments – and especially politicians – interested in open data have an unhealthy appetite for applications. They like the idea of sexy apps on smart phones enabling citizens to do cool things. To be clear, I think apps are cool too. I hope in cities and jurisdictions with open data we see more of them.

But open data isn’t just about apps. It’s about the analysis.

Imagine a city’s budget up on Buzzdata. Imagine, the flow rates of the water or sewage system. Or the inventory of trees. Think of how a community of interested and engaged “followers” could supplement that data, analyze it, visualize it. Maybe they would be able to explain it to others better, to find savings or potential problems, develop new forms of risk assessment.

It would certainly make for an interesting discussion. If 100 or even just 5 new analyses were to emerge, maybe none of them would be helpful, or would provide any insights. But I have my doubts. I suspect it would enrich the public debate.

It could be that the analysis would become as sexy as the apps. And that’s an outcome that would warm this policy wonk’s soul.

How the WSJ's former owners could REALLY screw Rupert Murdoch

When the News of the World scandal began to really explode at the beginning of the month some intrepid reporter went and tracked down members of the Bancroft family – the former owners of the Wall Street Journal – and asked them if they regretted selling their controlling stock of the newspaper to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Many did.

Since then, there has been some talk about the recourse available to the Bancrofts with an emphasis on a toothless special committee – which is supposed to ensure editorial independence – and how it could create some headaches for News Corp. I doubt it will matter.

But if the Bancrofts really do care about the Journal – or if a sub-segment of them do – there is something much more powerful they could do to screw Murdoch.

Offer to buy it back.

Remember, News Corporation paid $60 per share to the Bancrofts for their stake of Dow Jones & Company (the publisher of the Wall Street Journal). This represented an enormous 67% premium, or $2.24 billion, over the market valuation. In 2009, a mere 14 months later, News Corp wrote down the value of the purchase by almost half, accepting a loss of $2.8 billion. In other words, the value of Dow Jones is now back to, or even below the $35 a share it was at when the Bancrofts sold it.

Why not offer to buy it back at a theoretical valuation of $40 a share? The Bancrofts (or the members of the family that want to) certainly have some of the capital. They would essentially be using Murdoch’s own money to regain control of the WSJ at 2/3’s the price they paid for it. Clearly they would need to find other investors to be part of the group. But they couldn’t form the core of a new investor group.

Of course, you would say: Rupert Murdoch would never sell his crown jewel. But that’s the fun of it.

This week’s Economist references Nomura investment analyst Michael Nathanson’s assessment of News Corporation after the scandal:

Michael Nathanson, an analyst at Nomura, separated News Corporation into three hypothetical companies: a good one, based on television; a bad one, which makes films; and a downright toxic one, which runs newspapers. He suggests investors focus on the former.

An offer by the Bancrofts would force Murdoch to tell investors what type of company he intends to run. Refusing to sell the Wall Street Journal could confirm investors worst fears that Murdoch intends to cling to his newspapers empire. Worse, he would have to do this at a moment when defending that option is the most difficult for him. It could further weaken him as CEO in the eyes of investors and potentially speed up efforts to replace him. So even if the Bancrofts were rebuffed, it would allow them to extract some revenge for how Murdoch treated the Journal after their departure. On the flip side, if accepted, the Bancrofts would recapture their prized asset at a fraction of what they paid for it.

Of course, in The Man who Owns the News biographer Michael Wolff hardly paints the Bancrofts as a united group. Quite the opposite. So I’ll admit the above scenario does not feel all that likely: the Bancroft capital is no longer sufficiently concentrated. But it would have made for an interesting power play to observe.

The End of the World and Journalism in the Era of Open

For those not in the United Kingdom a massive scandal has erupted around allegations that one of the country’s tabloids – the News of the World ( a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) – was illegally hacking into and listening in on the voicemails of not only the royal family members and celebrities but also murder victims and family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The fall out from the scandal, among other things, has caused the 168 year old newspaper to be unceremoniously closed, prompted an enormous investigation into the actions of editors and executives at the newspaper, forced the resignation (and arrest) of Andy Coulson – former News of the World editor and director of communications for the Prime Minister – and thrown into doubt Rupert Murdoch’s bid to gain complete control over the British satellite television network BskyB.

For those wanting to know more I encourage you to head over to the Guardian, which broke the story and has done some of the best reporting on it. Also, possibly the best piece of analysis I’ve read on the whole sordid affair is this post from reuters which essentially points out that by shutting down News of the World, Newscorp may shrewdly ensure that all incriminating documents can (legally) be destroyed. Evil genius stuff.

But why bring this all up here at eaves.ca?

Because I think this is an example of a trend in media that I’ve been arguing has been going on for some time.

Contrary to what news people would have you believe, my sense is that most people don’t trust newspapers – no more so then they trust governments. Starting in 1983 Ipsos MORI and the British Medical Association have asked UK citizens who they trust. The results for politicians are grim. The interesting thing is, they are no better for journalists (although TV news anchors do okay). Don’t believe me? Take a look at the data tables from Ipsos MORI. Or look at the chart Benne Dezzle over at Viceland created out of the data.

There is no doubt people value the products of governments and the media – but this data suggests they don’t trust the people creating them, which I really think is a roundabout way of saying: they don’t trust the system that creates the news.

I spend a lot of my time arguing that government’s need to be more transparent, and that this (contrary to what many public servants feel) will make them more, not less, effective. Back in 2009, in reaction to the concern that the print media was dying, I wrote a blog post saying the same was true for journalism. Thanks, in part, to Jay Rosen listing it as part of his flying seminar on the future of news, it became widely read and ended up as getting reprinted along with Taylor Owen and I’s article Missing the Link, in the journalism textbook The New Journalist. Part of what I think is going in the UK is a manifestation of the blog post, so if you haven’t read it, I think now is as good a time as any.

The fact is, newsrooms are frequently as opaque (both in process and, sometimes, in motivations) as governments are. People may are willing to rely on them, and they’ll use them if their outputs are good, but they’ll turn on them, and quickly, if they come to understand that the process stinks. This is true of any organization and news media doesn’t get a special pass because of the job it plays – indeed the opposite may be true. But more profoundly I think it is interesting how what many people consider to be two of the key pillars to western democracy are staffed by people who are among the least trusted in our society. Maybe that’s okay. But maybe it’s not. But if we think we need better forms of government – which many people seem to feel we do – it may also be that we believe we need better ways of generating, managing and engaging in the accountability of that government.

Of course, I don’t want to overplay the situation here. News of the World doomed itself because it broke the law. More importantly, it did so in a truly offensive way: hacking into the cell phone of a murder victim who was an everyday person. Admitedly, when the victims were celebrities, royals and politicians, it percolated as a relatively contained scandal. But if we believe that transparency is the sunlight that causes governments to be less corrupt – or at least forces politicians to recognize their decisions will be more scrutinized – maybe a little transparency might have caused the executives and editors at News Corp to behave a little better as well. I’m not sure what a more open media organization might look like – although wikipedia does an interesting job – but from both a brand protection and values based decision making perspective a little transparency could be the right incentive to ensure that the journalists, editors and executives in a news system few of us seem to trust, behave a little better. And that might cause them to earn more of the trust I think many deserve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Curious Case of Media Opposing Government Transparency

My gosh there is a lot going on. Republicans – REPUBLICANS(!) who were in charge of America’s prison system are warning Canada not to follow the Conservatives plan on prisons, the Prime Minister has renamed the government, after himself and my friends at Samara had in Toronto the Guardian’s Emily Bell to talk wikileaks and data journalism (wish I could have been there).

It’s all very interesting… and there is a media story here in British Columbia that’s been brewing where a number of journalists have become upset about a government that has become “too” transparent.

It’s an important case as it highlights some of the tensions that will be emerging in different places as governments rethink how they share information.

The case involves BC Ferries, a crown corporation that runs ferries along critical routes around the province. For many years the company was not subject to the province’s Freedom of Information legislation. However, a few months ago the government stated the crown corporation would need to comply with the act. This has not pleased the corporation’s president.

To comply with the act BC Ferries has created an FOI tracker website on which it posts the text of FOI requests received. Once the records are processed they are posted online and some relevant listservs. As a result they can be read by an audience (that cares).

Broadly, journalists, are up in arms for two reasons. One bad, the other even worse.

The terrible reasons was raised by Chad Skelton (who’s a great reporter for whom I have a lot of respect and whose column should be read regularly).

Skelton argues that BC Ferries deserves part of the blame for stories with errors as the process lead news agencies to rush (carelessly) in order to beat each other in releasing the story. This is a disappointing position. It’s the news media’s job to get the facts right. (It’s also worth noting here that Skelton’s own media organizations did not make the mistakes in question). Claiming that BC Ferries is even partly responsible seems beyond problematic since they are in no way involved in the fact and error checking processes. We trust the media (and assess it) to get facts right in fast moving situations… why should this be different?

More interesting is the critique that this model of transparency undermines the ability of journalists to get a scoup and thus undermines the business model of traditional media.

What makes this so interesting is that is neither true nor, more importantly, relevant.

First, it’s not the job of government to support the business model of the media. The goal of government should be to be as transparent as possible about its operations. This can, and should, include its FOI requests. Indeed, one thing I like about this process is that an FOI request that is made but isn’t addressed starts to linger on the site – and that the organization can be held to account, publicly, for the delay. More importantly, however, I’m confident that the media will find new ways to exploit the process and that, while painful, new business models will emerge.

Second, the media is not the only user of FOI. It strikes me as problematic to expect that the FOI system should somehow be tailored to meet needs alone. Individuals, non-profits, businesses, opposition politicians and others all use the FOI process. Indeed, the policy strengthens many of these use cases since, as mentioned above,  delays in processing will be visible and open the organization up to greater pressure and scrutiny. Why are all the use cases of these other institutions somehow secondary to those of journalists and the media? Indeed, the most important use case – that of the citizen – is better served. Isn’t that the most important outcome?

Third, this form of transparency could make for better media. One of my favourite quotes (which I got via Tim O’Reilly) comes from Clayton Christensen in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article:

“When attractive profits disappear at one stage in the value chain because a product becomes modular and commoditized, the opportunity to earn attractive profits with proprietary products will usually emerge at an adjacent stage.”

So BC Ferries has effectively commoditized FOI requests. That simply means that value will shift elsewhere. One place it could shift to is analysis. And wouldn’t that be a good thing to have the media compete on? Rather than simply who got the fact fastest (a somewhat silly model in the age of the internet) readers instead started to reward the organization with the best insights? Indeed, it makes me think that on superficial issues, like say, the salary of an employee, it may be hard for one individual or organization to scoop another. But most often the value of these stories is also pretty low. On a more significant story, one that requires research and digging and a knowledge of the issue, it’s unclear that transparency around FOI requests will allow others to compete. More interestingly, some media organizations, now that they have access to all FOI requests, might start analyzing them for deeper more significant patterns or trends that might reveal more significant problems that the current scattered approach to FOI might never reveal.

What’s also been interesting is the reaction stories by journalists complaining about this issue have been received. It fits nicely in with the piece I wrote a while ago (and now published as part of a journalism textbook) about Journalism in an Open Era. The fact is, the public trust of opaque institutions is in decline – and the media is itself a pretty opaque institution. Consider these three separate comments people wrote after the stories I’ve linked to above:

“I wonder over the years how many nuggets of information reporters got through FOI but the public never heard about because they didn’t deem it “newsworthy”. Or worse, that it was newsworthy but didn’t follow their storyline.” (found here)

“And the media whining about losing scoops — well, tough beans. If they post it all online and give it to everyone, they are serving the public –the media isn’t the public, and never has been.” (found here)

“The media’s track record, in general, for owning up to its blunders continues to be abysmal. Front page screw-ups are fixed several days (or weeks) later with a little “setting it straight” box buried at the bottom of P. 2 — and you think that’s good enough. If the media were more open and honest about fixing its mistakes, I might cut you a little slack over the BC Ferries’ policy of making your life difficult. But whining about it is going to be counterproductive, as you can see from most of the comments so far.” (found here)

While some comments were supportive of the articles, the majority have not been. Suggesting that at the minimum that the public does not share the media’s view that this new policy is a “controversial.”

This is not, of course, to say that BC Ferries implemented its policy because it sought to do the right thing. I’m sure it’s president would love for their to be fewer requests and impede the efforts of journalists. I just happen to think he will fail. Dismally. More concerning is the fact that FOI requests are not archived on the site and are removed after a few months. This is what should get the media, the public and yes, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, up in arms.