Sunday, May 02, 2010

Stanford Journalism conference, continued

Panel #3: Tenet = We are all journalists now.

Moderator: Theodore Glasser, Stanford University

Scott Rosenberg, author: Who is “we”? Rather than the role, journalist, he wants to talk about an activity, journalism. Anyone can do journalism: potential for participation, rather than static state of being. We/anyone: still ignore parts of society for whom the tools of the internet are inaccessible or unfamiliar. Now anyone who’s online can do journalism. If you don’t care about timeliness, you’re doing history; if you don’t care about accuracy, you’re doing fiction. Those two things make journalism. Levels of privacy also matter—to your friends or everyone. Charging for it is irrelevant, he argues; so does whether the person doing journalism gets paid for that activity. Neither are part of the definition.

Suppose you publish to a small network of subscribers who want to make money in the market. Is that journalism? ( What about when only your Facebook friends can read it? If it’s audience limited by a fee it’s journalism, but not if it’s limited by a social network?

When does identity matter? Apportioning seats at a hearing, access to police investigation. Or protecting sources’ confidentiality.

How do we determine who’s a journalist now? The ways are all bad. Accreditation by government: this is problematic under the First Amendment. Employment by a news organization? But what if you’re a freelancer? What if you self-publish and have a huge readership? If publishing makes you a journalist, any organization now can have employee-journalists. Professional accreditation? Well, that just returns us to the employment standards, or it can take all comers. Auction them off? Have a vote?

How do we maintain accuracy/accountability when anyone can claim to be a journalist? Well, doesn’t that presuppose that we did that before? If you claim to be a journalist, then we can judge you by the standards of journalism—is there accuracy, are there feedback channels to hold you accountable, can you claim to serve the public? There are plenty of journalists with cards that say so who can’t meet that standard.

More people today are doing journalism, responding to journalism, and criticizing journalism than ever before. Does this enable the people to make democracy run better? Answer very much in the air. This is more consequential than any debate about credentialing.

Glasser: There is now a proposed federal shield law. Current proposal tries to define journalism, but in the end the privilege can only be extended to a person, not an institution. “The regular gathering [etc.] or publishing of information or news” for public dissemination of interest to the public. What blogger isn’t a journalist under this definition? What does “regular” mean?

Bruce Brown, Baker Hostetler: Can the law discriminate among the large class of people out there writing without running afoul of the Constitution? Yes; Congress/legislatures make decisions about how to draw lines for things like FOIA, Newspaper Preservation Act, exemption from campaign finance regulations, qualifications for postal subsidies. There are various definitions still in play, including whether people make a substantial portion of their financial livelihood from journalism—which of course lots of traditional journalists can’t necessarily do!

Geneva Overholser, USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism: Points out that journalism has done some things well, but others badly: consider the all-white nature of the panels here. Being more participatory is more than saying that crowdsourcing can be useful to traditional journalism. We need to make journalism more democratic—the internet doesn’t do that, we do, no matter what tech we’re using. Carrying forward certain values is necessary, not because journalism used to work and is now broken but because things are changing rapidly.

C.W. Anderson, College of Staten Island (CUNY): How do professions get authority? Codes, schools, and degrees. They also claim, and embody through their work, that they do something for the public good. Original reporting is carried out by researchers on behalf of private corporations; they go out and ask questions and draw conclusions, and then return those conclusions and information to the hiring companies and don’t tell anyone else. Journalism? Andrew Sullivan collated and curated information on Iraq; might have done it in his PJs; done to produce a story about what was happening in Iraq. Is this reporting? Serves the public interest a lot more than direct information gathering.

Original reporting, Marburger said on the last panel, is so important that we need to rearrange our entire info ecosystem to help it—crushing what Andrew Sullivan was doing—but we can’t all be reporters. In the end, reporting is best done by news institutions that can pay. But we can all be citizens, communicating and discussing, collating and aggregating. Maybe that’s more democratically valid/important and we should try hard not to damage that in our rush to preserve original reporting.

Overholser: There has been a strong government role in journalism since the inception of this country; it’s not that scary. Big government and big business leads to a need to have some big media counterweights. There are nonjournalism organizations like Human Rights Watch doing original reporting in the public interest. We don’t have to vote for the old guys v. the new guys. The public interest includes both.

Rosenberg: Institutions have lifespans; no institution is guaranteed perpetuity. It wouldn’t hurt democracy for large institutions to disappear, as long as the infrastructure is there that allows new institutions to grow and take their place.

Brown: people seem to be trapped by the question of who is a journalist when it comes to the shield law. Don’t be trapped by current institutions.

Anderson: Institutions emerge whether we want them to or not. We are unlikely to descend into shifting nonpermanent networks. Wikipedia is an institution: it has bureaucracies, rules, people with more power than other people.

Overholser: People want strong voices, but that need not be ideology: she is hopeful there will instead be transparency/clarity about what it is the news organization is trying to do.

Anderson: fact-checking disbursed. You might have thought, pre-internet, that news was generally good but missed a lot of nuance/understanding when it came to covering things you knew a lot about (e.g., when it covered a court case and you read the opinion yourself). In fact, news was doing an equally crappy job with everything; you couldn’t detect that. These days all that dissection of the initial ruling, and of the mainstream news coverage of the ruling, can be done in public. (I feel the same way about TV/movies about the law; I actually assume that fiction gets everything just as wrong as it gets law, though I admit that I can enjoy a good coroner story as much as the next person.)

Panel #4: Tenet = The Web has eroded the quality of public discourse.

Moderator: James Fishkin, Stanford University

Jaron Lanier, author and technologist: He’s been a booster in his time, but we’re doing well enough in Silicon Valley that we can afford to be self-critical. Paid journalists as canaries in the coal mine: relationship between tech and labor, as in late 19th century—how do people make a living when machines get better? Some forms of labor become obsolete. The answer: new forms of human labor are then required. A computerized loom needs a programmer, which is a nicer job than being a weaver. Can this continue? Can we really tell journalists that they need to write books, show up in person, and sell t-shirts to sustain themselves?

Problems of insularity—talking only to your own—and inability to divide fact from fiction.

The responsibility of technologists is to be empirical. Our politics in the US are weirdly dysfunctional by historical standards, and wealth is too; something is broken, so it’s not enough to say the internet is creating wealth and democracy.

Joshua Cohen, Stanford University: Start with Habermas—informal public sphere, unorganized. How does the internet shape this? Does the internet generally or the blogosphere in particular foster deliberation or invite cloistering? Most discussion has focused on linking—does 15% linking to people you don’t agree with represent less or more cloistering when you compared to other sources? Plus, linking is basically irrelevant to polarization. Blogs are not black boxes of links. What kinds of discussions take place? Also, blog readers are not link followers. Users engage in less self-cloistering online than with national newspapers. There’s no compelling case for concern yet.

Costs of acquiring all sorts of information relevant to public discussion has markedly diminished. Public influence: mixed results, but basically not so bad. It should be as easy to provide information as to use it. We are working towards that.

What about quality of information? There is a big danger. Newspapers lack a business model. You can’t have a successful public sphere without the information newspapers have traditionally supplied: investigative journalism. Internet has been damaging: craigslist has caused lots of trouble. Investigative journalism isn’t married to newsprint, but there’s no alternative, certainly not the blogosphere in terms of resources, access, legal defense, and training/mentoring—blogosphere is parasitic off of traditional investigative reporting. As with poetry, philosophy, and physics, it can’t be crowdsourced.

Jay Rosen, New York University: Always important to compare what you want from the system (open, closed) with what you can get from a different system, not with some platonic ideal. Clay Shirky: the old stuff is being broken faster than the new stuff can be brought online. If that were true, there’d be a lot of pain—which we’ve heard about. But different timeframes look very different—imagine comparing journalism 70 years ago with journalism now. Or journalism at the Founding. A very long struggle to include the public in the system by which we govern ourselves.

Recall that the old generation of the press wasn’t all that great at what it claims for itself: holding powerful people accountable. Check American history over the past 30-40 years. Didn’t prevent the S&L crisis; didn’t prevent us from going to war with a phony case; didn’t prevent the current financial crisis. Do we really have accountability? We’ve got to rebuild the instruments of accountability because they’re not working very well. It’s true that there’s an unsolved problem of investigative journalism. Government doesn’t have the answer; advertisers don’t; publishers don’t.

Elisa Camahort Page, BlogHer: What were our reputable sources when we were growing up? In the 60s & 70s, there were three network news stations; your house was either Time or Newsweek, and you got a local paper. Maybe if your parents were liberal elites they got the NYT, or conservative, the WSJ. The people running them looked pretty much the same. How do you know you got more depth from them? There was extended analysis, but shallow diversity of perspective. Now you can go anywhere and find out what anyone has to say, and we don’t know who to trust; it’s confusing. (But, as I’m sure she’d agree, that “we” who had the privilege of being full of trust always left a bunch of people out.) It’s not binary—there are sources where there is curation of pro and user content together to make a more comprehensive and more diverse story.

What percentage of CNN’s coverage contributes to social good? What percentage is investigative reporting? That’s not the bulk of the paper and never has been.

Advertisers do care about quality content, because users care. We no longer want to passively consume media/marketing messages. We expect to talk back, we expect a response: that affects media companies and it affects brands. LA Times is adding marketing links in blog posts, sports, entertainment, etc. but not in “news.” Because apparently those things don’t count as news.

And then, as part of the same innovation (add scare quotes if you like): Reporters are encouraged to comment on posts, but preferably not to state an opinion and preferably not more than twice. She finds this odd. People want to talk about the news. If you think that maximum two comments is the way to do that, then you deserve for people to link to you and have the conversation elsewhere. Why are news comments sections so crappy? They’re unmoderated, full of crap, and the reporters never come back. You’re begging people to go elsewhere for conversations.

Fishkin: without good information, the free/cheap punditry doesn’t work. Journalistic talent is going into PR and corporate promotions.

Lanier: illusion of widespread viewing—maybe you have 100,000 hits on YouTube but that doesn’t mean people watched the whole thing or paid attention.

Q: it’s the collapse of advertising, not openness, that is causing the problems.

Cohen: many causes, including press shooting itself in the foot. His point is that when you think about creating a new model of journalism, openness is one good thing, but other elements are important too. Maybe in the happiest world the most open system is the one that brings the other things like high-quality reporting, but maybe the most open system produces crap.

Page: having a bunch of good stuff and a bunch of crap is SOP; plus we aren’t sure if we can sort good from crap yet.

Cohen: people bought papers not for investigative journalism but to get other stuff, with which investigative journalism was packaged. That’s what fell apart. (Well, yeah.)

Page: studies show that the blogosphere is actually more diverse than the TV commentariat. People also seek out sources they think are objective online, though whether those sources are objective is certainly up for debate.

Rosen: doesn’t understand the nostalgia for the past, where Walter Cronkite was trusted, yes, but his audience also lacked options. Now we have to persuade people to seek information, go out and encounter the other, and so on because people have choices. The media can’t enforce a common culture, it has to be chosen. Even if people choose delusion, that’s more democratic.

Cohen: If you think it’s better to choose knowledge, you have to provide the models for high-quality/reliable information, perhaps even before there is an audience for it.

Rosen: science journalism: high quality information is easier to come by now, as is bad information. If you seek information, you get it.

Cohen: true that people have to want to consume the information, but the solution may be to go out and provide information due to a conviction that it’s important. You can’t wait for people to come knocking and ask for its provision.

Lanier: Educators are asking journalists to fix the problems of unreliable information to educate students that they can’t just use wikipedia; we can’t foist problems off on some other group of experts.

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