Joho the Blog » journalism

March 25, 2015

[shorenstein] Farnaz Fassihi on Reporting from the Middle East

I’m at a Shorenstein lunchtime talk where Farnaz Fassihi is giving a talk titled “Reporting from the Middle East.” Farnaz writes for the Wall Street Journal. Among other achievements (and there are a lot), she is the author of an email in 2004 that was at the time a shockingly frank and dire assessment of how things were going in Iraq.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She was a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger on 9/11. She insisted that her editor assign her to the Afghan war. “I always wanted to cover wars. I don’t know why.” She thinks that she wanted to make sense of events in her own life, including the revolution in Iran when she was 8. She was sent to Afghanistan, covered the second Intifada, the Iraq invasion, became WSJ’s Beirut bureau chief, covered Arab Spring, etc. She has only recently returned to the US.

“How we approach reporting has significantly changed” since she first went to Afghanistan she says. In part this is because journalists are more at risk than ever. Before 9/11, it would have been fine for her to pack a backpack and a satellite phone, and head off into Afghanistan. Now journalists have security guards, and there are zones into which journalists simply don’t go. “That’s taken some of the serendipity” out of the coverage and has made it harder to cover what’s happening on the ground. You have to rely on sources “and most of them have an agenda.” Also, now it’s visual first and mobile first, “putting even more pressure on journalists to turn things around quickly.” As a result, reporting is less original than before: when all the journalists are covering Syria from Beirut, they’re using the same Youtube feeds, tweets, etc. It makes it harder to make readers care by “putting a human face” on the tragedies and horrors. As a result, readers in the US have grown tired of reading about these events.

On the other hand, “the invasion of Iraq has gotten the US to where it is today.” There’s thus even more of an obligation to have reporters on the ground. E.g., Al Qaeda didn’t have a presence in Iraq until the invasion. “We no longer have an isolated crisis in Syria but an entire region up in arms.” We need journalists in place because, e.g., Yemen is a very tribal society that is difficult to understand. “When I started out, even in Iraq, I’d get in a car with translator, go out and talk to people. Much of my coverage in the past 13 yrs has been to put a human face on war.” She’s written a book about this. “I have a very hard time now replicating that when it comes to Syria or Yemen because I’m not there. It can be extremely frustrating as a reporter. Not just for me but for all my colleagues.”

As the result of not being on the ground, journalists sometimes miss where things are heading. “We all missed the takeover of Mosul.” “I think that was because of our lack of access.”

“In terms of where the Middle East is going, I’m not optimistic at all.” “The same forces seem to be going in cycles.” “I don’t have an answer about the right way out of this, but I do feel there is some level of responsibility that the US has.”

Q&A

Q: [alex jones] If you were advising the US President about what to do, what would you suggest, if only to have the least worst path?

A: We missed the window when we could have had real influence on the Syrian rebels. We were so traumatized by Iraq that we didn’t want to be blamed for another Arab state’s disintegration. At this point I don’t know what we can do. America’s involvement is always a double-edged sword. If you don’t go in, you get blamed for letting the radicals win. If you do, you get blamed for radicalizing moderates.

Q: [alex] If we do nothing, what happens?

A: Countries in the Middle East will turn into what Afghanistan was before the US invasion: institutional breakdown of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya. The conflict might spread. And that’s a region the US has a lot of interests in in: oil, Israel. And we’ll have to accept that the Islamic Republic will become a major power player. It already is one. If we do nothing, our influence will even further diminish.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t other Arab states as fearful of ISIS as we are?

A: They are.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t they fighting ISIS?

A: Many Saudi and Kuwaiti businessmen have funded ISIS. A lot of private donations. But local countries are fighting in different ways. Iran is fearful and leading the show. Saudi Arabia knows that now it has a very real rival.

Q: [alex] Why do the Saudis allow their citizens to support ISIS?

A: The Saudis are fearful of Shia dominance, and Iran gaining power, as well as of ISIS. After the US invasion we saw a Shia revival which was a real threat to Sunni dominance of the Middle East. These are rivalries that are thousands of years old.

Q: [alex] Why do these Shia and Sunni cultures have such incredible animosity? If you’re a Moslem do you feel a primary identity to Shia or Sunni instead of to Islam?

A: Sectarian identity is very important in the Middle East. And the Shia were oppressed for many many years. It’s a political and social organization as well as religious; it rebuilds the villages that Israel bombs when the government does not. “I don’t think we can necessarily crush” ISIS. With all of the effort in Iraq we were unable to keep Al Qaeda in check. The question is: what are we trying to accomplish? Will aerial bombardment turn it around? I don’t think so.

Q: [alex] So we’re just headed to genocide?

A: We’re already seeing that. 100,000 killed in Syria. Chemical weapons.

Q: [alex] So there’s nothing to be done.

Q: I was with the Yemen Times. How do you maintain your sanity as a reporter in a war zone. And how do your own balance your own agenda?

A: I don’t think we have an agenda. But we are human beings. It depends on the info we’re getting. Sometimes our sources are unbalanced, and that can reflect in the story. I write about Yemen with a Yemeni stringer, and we have a trust relationship. But if I’m talking with a source, I have to be very aware of what their agenda is, which can be hard when you’re on deadline.

A: 9/11 created a new generation of war correspondents. There are maybe 40 of us and we go from zone to zone. We’ve formed intense bonds. Those friendships are the most important thing. But if you spend that much time in the Middle East, you have scars. It’s difficult to continuously put yourself at risk and hear the stories of what people are going through.

Q: Covering ISIS reflects the problems of journalistic cutbacks. How do we cover these issues given the cutbacks and the dangers?

A: Security comes first. I discourage new journalists from going to rebel-controlled territory. But people do. If our paper is not sending staff, we don’t send freelancers. The idea is that no story is worth your life. We try to fill the gap by having more experienced regional reporters who understand the context. So you mainly have seasoned reporters writing the analytic pieces. But the unique and amazing reporting usually comes from freelancers who take those risks.

Q: Charlie Sennott‘s GroundTruth project tries to set up guidelines for coverage. Is it having an effect?

A: Too soon to tell. But no matter how much security you have, if you’re surrounded by militants who are determined to behead you, you can’t really protect yourself. When I went to Afghanistan I didn’t get any training. Now journalists are trained. The more training the better, but nothing can fully protect you.

Q: Talk about Iranian domestic politics?

A: Grand policies in Iran such as nuclear negotiations or its goals in Syria are determined by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. From everything we can gather, he’s given the green light for a deal. I think the reality of sanctions and falling oil prices is making it very difficult for the Iranian regime to sustain itself. They also know that there’s real dissent in the country. The regime is trying to hold off by the working class. Getting a nuclear deal is essential for that. It seems that for the first time Iran genuinely wants a deal. But just like in the US there are hardliners that don’t. As Pres. Obama said, it’s very odd that those 47 US Senators have such much in common with the Iranian hardliners.

Q: When you were 4 yrs old, I was a guest of the empress of Iran for two weeks. At this Meeting of 100 Leaders, no one anticipated that the change would come from the right. Now my source is Anthony Bourdain. His program on Iran is spectacular and says that the public is nowhere near the leaders.

A: You’d be very surprised if you went to Iran now. It’s become very urban — 70%. 60% of university students are women. Women are big part of the workforce. The Iranian Republic has pushed to modernize rural areas, with healthcare, and modern roles for women. Women are a force of change from within. Iran is also very connected: one of the top users of the Internet. The young generation is very eager to be in touch. It’s probably the most pro-American population in the Middle East. Iranians are not extremists by nature. Change will not occur there the way it’s occurred in Syria. They want change through moderate means.

Q: The bombing in Yemen and Tunisia?

A: Tunisia was the one example of where Arab Spring worked. I don’t want to rush to judgment and say Tunisia is a failed enterprise, but it does make one worry that ISIS is gaining momentum there. The conflicts are no longer localized.

Q: Couldn’t the US help bolster Tunisia. Are we?

A: I don’t know.

Q: It’s ironic that the French Defense Minister lost her job at the beginning of the revolution by suggesting France could help. Tunisia is tiny and unable to defend itself. But back to Iran: the Supreme Leader is apparently ill. Could Pres. Rouhani become the Supreme Leader?

A: He’s lacking the right credentials, although exceptions can be made. But the council that picks the next Leader just appointed a very conservative council head.

Q: Anything positive?

A: Some of the most gratifying moments have been encountering the resilience of human beings in war zones. Even in those circumstances, people still try to find a way to live a dignified life. E.g., a wedding in Baghdad was made enormously difficult because of security. Car bombs were going off but people were dancing. Or the women in Afghanistan. I interviewed a teacher who had been banned because women were not allowed in the workforce. She turned her basement into a classroom for neighborhood girls, staggering their hours so the Taliban wouldn’t notice the stream of children.

Q: In addition to all of the dangers there’s the incredible apparatus of the US military’s PR machine. What’s it like dealing with the US military?

A: If you embed you have to follow guidelines: your PR person stays with you, if you’re in an attack you can’t send photos of injured or dead soldiers, etc. If you violate the rules, you’re kicked off the embed. Because they take you on the embed and protect you, they expect you to write something positive. Sometimes you don’t. And then you and your organization are in the doghouse. They didn’t like what I wrote about the capturing Saddam Hussein and for three months the WSJ couldn’t get an embed.

Q: [me] A few times in my life I’ve seen an about-face in coverage of villified countries. Are we likely to see this with Iran?

A: I think we’re already seeing it. Since Ahmadinejad left, it’s been quite positive coverage.

Q: Why are there no gay people in Iran? (laughter)

A: [audience member] It’s a world leader in sex change operations.

A: I know many gay Iranians.

Q: What is Iran’s real attitude toward Israel?

A: Despite the rhetoric, I don’t think Iran has any plans to eradicate Israel. But they do support the Palestinian cause, and arm Hezbollah and Hamas. So I don’t think those tensions will go away. Netanyahu would like to derail the talks because then Israel loses its puppet enemy.

Q: If there’s no deal?

A: I think Iran will open up their centrifuges and continue with the program.

Q: A Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian has been jailed in Iran. Why? Also: The former head of Mossad said that Iranians are the most well-educated, brilliant people in the the world.

A: Journalists are arrested all the time in Iran. He mostly wrote features, not investigative reports that would anger the govt. But reports, especially Americans, are always at risk. Sometimes Iran wants a bargaining chip, or a prisoner exchange, or domestic politics. It’s very seldom because the person is a real threat.

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March 3, 2015

[liveblog] David Sanger on cybersecurity. And Netanyahu

David Sanger of the NY Times is giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk about covering security.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

David begins by honoring Alex Jones, the retiring head of the Shorenstein Center with whom he worked at the Times.

David tells us that he wrote his news analysis of the Netanyahu speech to Congress last night, before the talk, because people now wake up and expect it to read about it. His articles says that a semantic difference has turned into a strategic chasm: we’ve gone from preventing Iran from having the capability of building a weapon to preventing Iran from building a weapon. Pres. Obama dodged this question when David asked him about it in 2010. If the Iran deal goes through, says David, it will be the biggest diplomatic step since Nixon went to China.

Probably six years ago David had just come back from writing The Inheritance, which disclosed that GW Bush had engaged in the first computer attacks on Iran. He came back to the newsroom saying that we need to start thinking about the strategic uses of cyber as a weapon, beyond worrying about kids in a basement hacking into your bank account. This was an uphill struggle because it’s extremely difficult to get editors to think about a nontraditional form of warfare. Drones we understand: it’s an unmanned aircraft with familiar consquences when it goes wrong. We all understand nuclear weapons because we saw Hiroshima. Cyber is much harder to get people to understand. To make matters worse, there are so many different kinds of cyber attacks.

When you think about cyber you have to think about three elements, he says. 1. Cyber for espionage, by states or by thieves. 2. Cyber for economic advantage, on the cusp between business and govt. E.g., Chinese steal IP via operations run out of the Chinese Army. The US thinks that’s out of bounds but the Chinese think “What’s more important to our national interest than our economy? Of course we’ll steal IP!” 3. Cyber for political coercion, e.g. Stuxnet. This tech is spreading faster than ever, and it’s not just in the hands of states. We have no early concept of how we’re going to control this. We now claim Iran was behind cyberattacks on Las Vegas casinos. And, of course, the Sony hack. [He recounts the story.] “This was not a little drive-by attack.”

He says he would have predicted that if we got into a cyber war with another country, it would be an attack on the grid or some such, not an attempt to stop the release of a “terrible” commercial movie. “We’re in a new era of somewhat constant conflict.” Only now is the govt starting to think about how this affects how we interact with other companies. Also, it’s widened the divide Snowden has opened between Silicon Valley and the govt. Post-Snowden, companies are racing to show that they’re not going to cooperate with the US govt for fear that it will kill their ability to sell overseas. E.g., iPhone software throws away the keys that would have enabled Apple to turn over your decrypted data if the FBI comes along with a warrant. The head of the FBI has objected to this for fear that we’re entering a new era in which we cannot get data needed to keep us secure.

The govt itself can’t decide how to deal with the secrecy around its own development of cyber weapons. The Administration won’t talk about our offensive capabilities, even though we’re spending billions on this. “We can’t have a conversation about how to control them until you admit that you have them and describe the circumstances under which you might use them.”

Q&A

Q: [alex jones] Laypeople assume that there are no secrets and no privacy any more. True?

A: By and large. There’s no system that can’t be defeated. (Hillary Clinton must have come to be so suspicious of the State Dept. email system that she decided to entrust it to gmail.) There’s no guaranteed system. We’d have to completely redesign the Internet to make it secure.

Q: [alex] What’s the state of forensics in this situation?

A: It’s not a sure thing. All govts and law enforcement agencies are putting a lot of money into cyber forensics. In the nuclear age, you could see where the missiles are coming from. Cybercrime is more like terrorism: you don’t know who’s responsibile. It’s easy to route a cyberattack through many computers to mask where it’s coming from. When the NYT was hacked by the Chinese govt, the last hop came from a university in the South. It wouldn’t have been so nice to have assumed that that little university was actually the source.

The best way to make forensics work is to have implants in foreign computing systems that are like little radar stations. This is what the NSA spends a lot of its time doing. You can use the same implant for espionage, to explore the computer, or to launch an attack. The US govt is very sensitive about our questions about implants. E.g., suppose the NSA tells the president that they’ve seen a major attack massing. The president has to decide about reacting proactively. If you cyber-attack a foreign computer, it looks like you struck first. In the Sony case, the President blamed North Korea but the intelligence agencies wouldn’t let him say what the evidence was. Eventually they let out a little info and we ran a story on the inserts in NK. An agency head called and officially complained about this info being published but said more personally that releasing the fact that the govt can track attacks back to the source has probably helped the cause of cybersecurity.

Q: Are there stories that you’re not prepared to publish yet?

A: We’ve held some stuff back. E.g., e were wondering how we attacked Iran computers that were disconnected from the Net (“air gap”). If you can insert some tech onto the motherboard before the product has been shipped you can get access to it. A Snowden document shows the packaging of computers going to Syria being intercepted, opened, and modified. Der Spiegel showed that this would enable you to control an off-line computer from 7 miles away. I withheld that from the book, and a year or two later all that info was in the Snowden docs.

Q: [nick sinai] Why haven’t the attacks on the White House and State Dept. been a bigger story?

A: Because they were mainly on the unclassified side. We think it was a Russian attack, but we don’t know if was state-sponsored.

Q: How does the Times make tradeoffs between security and openness?

A: I’m not sure we get it right. We have a set of standards. If it would threaten a life or an imminent military or intelligence operation we’re likely not to publish it. Every case is individual. An editor I know says that in every case he’s withheld info, he’s sorry that he did. “I don’t blame the government” for this, says David. They’re working hard to prevent an attack, and along comes a newspaper article, and a program they’ve been working on for years blows up. On the other hand, we can’t debate the use of this tech until we know what it can do. As James Clapper said recently, maybe we’re not headed toward a cyber Pearl Harbor but toward a corrosive series of attacks, institution by institution.

Q: At what point do cyberattacks turn into cyberwarfare?

“Cyberwarfare” is often an overstated term. It implies that it might turn into a real-world war, and usually they don’t. Newspapers have to decide which ones to cover, because if you tried to cover them all, that’s all you’d cover. So the threshold keeps going up. It’s got to be more than stealing money or standard espionage.

Q: Will companies have to create cyber militias? And how will that affect your coverage?

A: Most companies don’t like to report cyber attacks because it drives down their stock market valuation. There’s a proposed law that would require a company to report cyber attacks within a month. The federal govt wants cybersecurity to come from private companies. E.g., JP Morgan spends half a billion dollars on cyber security. But there are some state-sponsored attacks that no private company could protect itself against.

Q: How does US compare with our enemies? And in 30 yrs how will we remember Snowden?

A: The usual ranking puts US on top, the British, the Israelis. The Chinese are very good; their method seems to be: attack everyone and see what you get. The Russians are stealthier. The Iranians and North Koreans are further down the list. A year ago if you’d told me that the NKs would have done something as sophisticated as the Sony attack, I would have said you’re crazy.

I have no problem believing both that Snowden violated every oath he took and multiple laws, and that the debates started by the docs that he released is a healthy one to have. E.g., Obama had authorized the re-upping of the collection of metadata. After Snowden, the burden has been put on private companies, none of which have taken it up. Also, Obama didn’t know we were listening in on Angela Merkel. Now all those programs are being reviewed. I think that’s a healthy kind of tradeoff.

Q: What enduring damage has Snowden done?

A: The damage lies between immediate to enduring. Immediately, there were lots of intelligence programs that had to be redone. I don’t see any real damage outside of a 5 year frame.

Q: Might there be a deal that lets Snowden come home?

A: A year ago there was interest in this in order to find out what Snowden knows. But now the intelligence services feel they have a handle on this.

Q: Netanyahu speech?

A: Politically he probably did a little more damage to his cause than good. Some Dems feel coerced. On the substance of it, I think he made the best case you can make for the two biggest weaknesses in the deal: 1. It doesn’t dismantle very much equipment, so when the deal’s term is over, they’ll be up and running. 2. We’re taking a bet that the Iranian govt will be much easier to deal with in 10-15 yrs, and we have no idea if that’s true. But Netanyahu has not put forward a strategy that does not take you down the road to military confrontation.

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February 24, 2015

[shorenstein] CNN Digital’s New Rules for Modern Journalists

Meredith Artley , editor in chief of CNN Digital, is s giving a Shorenstein Center talk on “new rules for modern journalists.” [Disclosure: I sometimes write for CNN.com. I don’t know Meredith and she doesn’t know me.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Meredith started at NYTimes.com where most of the work was copying and pasting into online. She left as second in charge. Then she spent five hears in Paris for the International Herald Tribune. Then exec. ed of LATimes.com. She’s been at CNN for 5 years. Digital CNN includes CNN.com, CNN Money on desktops and mobile, and more. There are 300 people on the digital team. Part of her remit is also to tap into the rest of CNN.

Rule #1: Slow down a bit.

For journalists, there’s more to consider than ever: writing, choosing images, building your personal brand across media. You need the discipline to be the best at what you’re doing.

For example, CNN had a story about this relentless winter. At first the headline was “Boston braces for more snow.” But that headline didn’t do very well; CNN tracks the clicks and other online responses. That headline tells you “Boston: More of the same.” So they came up with the headline “Boston would wave a white flag if it could see it.” That story went straight through the roof. A little emotion, a little wink.

#2: The best and brightest modern journalists pick a measure of success that matters to them.

Some video journalists pick completion rates: how many people make it through the entire 3-4 min video. Or time-spent on text stories. People viewed the story about the woman luring three young women into ISIS for an average of 6.5 minutes, which is a lot. “That’s powerful.” That tells CNN that maybe they can go long on that story. “We’re using the audience data to help steer us into our assignments.”

Another example: CNN gets a lot of reports of what posts are doing well. They had a lede that explained what’s at stake in the clash of powers in Ukraine rather than starting with that day’s developments. That got people into the story far more effectively

#3 Pick a social platform that suits you and suits your story — those are two separate things.

Facebook is good for several kinds of stories: for video, for evening publishing. Twitter is really good at reaching an influencer audience and having a connection to TV. Certain stories lend themselves to certain platforms.

Example: A correspondent was in a beseiged city. He did a Reddit AMA. The numbers weren’t astronomical, but the quality and caliber of the conversation was fantastic.

#4: Publishing is not the end.

The old model was that you hope your story gets posted prominently, and once it’s out, you’re done. The best and brightest rockstar journalists now know that publishing is the moment where you start to engage audiences, look at how it’s performing, thinking about how you might reach out to social media to get it seen, listen to the conversation around the story to see if there are followups….

E.g. At CNN Money they pore through data and find the best jobs in America based on particular criteria. Being a dentist made the list one year. CNN tweeted this out to the American Dental Association. “This is a great way to reach the people you’re talking about.” “It really isn’t enough these days to put it on a site, or tweet it and walk away.”

#5: Beware of the big and shiny objects.

There’s a lot of conversation about Snowfall. There’s a temptation to do big and beautiful things like that. But you have to pick and choose carefully. You can start slow: publish a little bit and see if there’s interest, and then add to it.

Example: A columnist, John Sutter, asked audiences to vote on the issues that matter to them. From child poverty to climate change, etc. He said they’d find stories to cover the top five. They thought about doing big multimedia productions. He did a story on the most endangered river. He tweeted during the process — very casual and low cost, not at all like a major multimedia production. “I like that iterative approach.”

Q&A

Q: [alex jones] Your points #2-4, and maybe #5, are contrary to #1. Do you really want people to slow down?

A: I don’t find them contradictory at all. The point is to pick and choose. Otherwise there’s too much to do. Discipline is key. Otherwise it all becomes overwhelming.

Q: CNN on air’s strategy seems very different from CNN.com. On air the strategy is to pick one or two things and beat the hell out of them. Why doesn’t CNN make you the editor of the broadcast portion and have it be more reflective of what’s happening on the digital side?

A: Give me a few years. [laughter] At every morning’s meeting for all of CNN, we start with digital. When we framed the Ukraine story as an East-West proxy war, that becomes the on-air approach as well. CNN Air is a linear thing. That’s the nature of the medium. Most people watch CNN on air a bit at a time. So there was an intentional strategy to cover 4-5 stories and go deep. But because of the digital, we can go broader.

Q: How do you avoid feeling like you’re pandering when you make data so integral to the process? Not everything important is going to get the clicks, and not everything that gets clicks is important.

A: What’s important is what we’re going to do. We wouldn’t drop the Ukraine story if it didn’t get clicks. We use the data to make the story as strong as possible.

Q: Are there differences in how international audiences consumer digital news?

A: We’re seeing that the international audiences use social differently, and more actively. They share more. We’re not sure why. And, we see a lot of video usage in certain parts of Asia Pacific.

Q: How do you create synergies with traditional news media? Or do you?

A: You can’t keep TV separate from digital. Even within DNN Digital we have different pockets these days.

Q: Isn’t there some danger in media outlets sensationalizing headlines, turning them into clickbait? How can you best tread that line?

A: Clickbait is the scourge of the Internet. We don’t do it. We shouldn’t simplify into “Data bad, journalism good.” These are people who have training and instincts. We use data to help guide you to what resonates with the audience. We do it in service of the story.

Q: Can you talk about A/B testing of headlines? And we’re seeing software that turns structured data into stories. Is that the future?

A: We do A/B test headlines, all in service of the story, especially across the home pages. At CNN Money we’re A/B testing a photo with a headline above or below it. I’ve seen some examples of automated writing, but, meh. Maybe around a box score at this point.

Q: How do you see the relation between professionals and amateur journalists/bloggers?

A: CNN was early into this with I-reports. We also have the biggest social media footprint. (We check submitted reports.)

Q: The Ukraine report’s lede is more like what a newsmagazine would have done than like a newspaper lede.

A: Strategically that’s a shift we’re making. For any event there are a lot of stories that sounds the same. Commoditized news.So I’ve been asking our team to go deeper on the color and the context. We try to put it together and frame it a bit.

Q: Facebook has been emphasiszing native video. How you feel about that as opposed to linking to your page?

A: Its an ongoing discussion with Facebook.

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February 17, 2015

[shorenstein][2b2k] Wesley Lowery on covering Ferguson and the effect of social media on the reporting ecosystem

Wesley Lowery is a Washington Post reporter, recently ex of the Boston Globe. He’s giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk on covering Ferguson. [Afterwards: It was great.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Wesley’s reflections on the effect of social media on his ability to cover Ferguson seem to me to be especially insightful and nuanced. He does not cede all ground to social media, but instead uses it to do his job as a reporter, and sees its effect on every facet of his role.

Afterwards I asked him if the detailed view he gets from social media’s ability to let people tell their own story has affected his idea of what it means to “cover” an event. In particular, I asked him in our very compressed conversation whether he be satisfied if someone where to say to him, “I read you in every medium, and you’re the only person I need to read to get the Ferguson story.” He said he would be ok with that but only because so much of his social media contribution consists of references to other sources and other people, including to reports by other newspapers. Wesley is himself a web.


Wesley says he’s been covering the activities of Congress (“An easy workload,” he says to laughter). He was on social media on his phone as always when he started seeing Instagram videos of a shooting. “I jump over to Twitter and I see it’s getting traction among people who cover race.” The next day he’s getting off a flight to DC, checks his phone, and sees a fight has broken out, a gas station is about to burn down. “And I’m thinking, what’s happening in this place I never heard of?” He’s interested in race and ethnicity, so he decides to go to Missouri for a day. He’s there for six months (Aug. 11 – Dec. 11). “It became apparent really quickly that this was a story about more than an 18 yr old boy who got shot.”

He went to a NAACP town hall. He’s been to many, but over a thousand people were inside, and hundreds were waiting in the parking lot to hear what was going on. That’s when he knew that this was about something bigger.

Two days after the shooting, he meets up with someone who turned out to be important in the movement. [Didn’t get her name.] She agrees to guide him. Ferguson is a suburban town, he explains. He and she were walking up a side street when they heard the noise of a police-protestor standoff. They go to it and are hit with the first teargas of the protests. Lots of people who were just curious were caught in it — people coming out to see what the hubub was about, etc.

We see Ferguson through our own lenses, he says. But each state has its own history, own demographic issues, etc. “As I learned more about Missouri, I realized so much of the distrust is not about this shooting, but about the guy who was pulled over the week before.” Wesley interviewed a kid who later was in an iconic photo of him throwing a teargas canister back at the police. The kid said, “Look, when this is all over, you’ll go back home, but we’ll still be here.” [approx.]

Boston, Wesley says, has a perpetual middle child syndrome. “We’re as good as NYC!” we keep insisting. To be a reporter in Boston, Wesley had to go to extra lengths to understand Boston’s cultural and civic history. It’s easy for reporters to fall into reporting about places they don’t know, and do so in giant swooping gestures. Wesley’s aim was seek out local people who could inform him about the reality of the place. And maybe after writing two pieces a day for months he’d be in a position to write a swooping piece.

So he used social media extensively, mainly to show people things. If you are sitting in NY or Wyoming and want to know what Ferguson is, here are the images and voices. The newspapers tend to show us the same images. But here’s a photo of the block past the iconic burning gas station that you’ve seen a thousand times. “If you don’t tackle stories this way, you’ll lose your role as essential to understanding the story.”

Before social media, people couldn’t tell their own stories. Now they can. “I won’t forget the person who watched the shooting and live tweeted it. He said something like, ‘Fuck, the police just shot a guy outside my apartment.’ I could write about that, but he can now tell his own story.” And people now can take journalists to task for particular lines in a story. It used to be that we’d decide what’s newsworthy, says Wesley. The people who are there would have to wait until 6 o’clock to see if we deem it as newsworthy. Now the people participating in the event can shame the news media into showing up. It empowers people in a way that they’ve never been before.

We saw in Ferguson the depth and nuance of the stories being told. The reporters who were able to excel were able to engage in a two-way conversation, not a publishing conversation. That changed the tenor and the depth of our coverage.

We’re now having a large-scale conversation across America about policing practices. That may be a legacy of Ferguson, but we can’t tell yet.

For the medium, the legacy is: You have to engage people where they are and recognize they can tell their own stories. And we have to be in conversation with people, ineract them. The people we cover now have more voice than ever about our coverage, which means we have to be more interactive with them. Every story I write I wonder what the response will be. We have to be responsive.

Q&A

Why did you become a journalist?

I’m not exactly sure. My dad was a journalist. My family valued it. But we clashed all the time. Even so, the first person awake brought in the newspaper, and that was the dinner conversation. That instilled a sense of the nobility of this craft that people today don’t grow up with. You became a journalist if you had some ability to take care of yourself economically, not to get out of poverty. It was for idealists. Now it frequently draws people who want to tell the story of the people they grew up with. And now there are fewer barriers to entry. You can be blogging on the side. I encourage people to go into the field It’s an amazing moment now. Everything is undecided.

Q: Are you a denizen of the Jeff Bezos wing of the Washington Post?

I don’t think that quite exists yet. A lot of Amazon is designed to make cognitive decisions lower, less friction. Now that people have so many more media choices, we have to be much more about giving readers access to the content they want. The people we’re bringing in are young, innovative thinkers, and it’s as if they’re saying, “We haven’t figured this out yet, but in three years we’re going to be awesome!” That’s the team I want to be on.

Q: How important do you think Ferguson will be ultimately?

A: It’s so hard in the moment to figure out what the moment is. In 30 yrs, Ferguson will be a linchpin, but it’s part of a whole line of events, including Katrina, the election of a black President, etc. We’ve been locked in a perpetual dialogue on race since the election of Obama. Ferguson turned a corner into action, for better or worse. This prompted the elected officials and the society to say that we can’t continue just talking about this. We have to do something. We’re still seeing demonstrations in a dozen cities every day.

Q: How does one live in a community all your life and not notice and do something about the racial imblance in the police force, for example?

A: The community is transient because it’s somewhat upwardly mobile. Few have lived in Ferguson their whole lives. [He talks about a popular African-American school superintendent fired by a mainly white school board.] The Brown shooting is part of a larger context.

Q: How do you manage pressure in the midst of such a heated environment? The community and the cops each feel unheard.

A: It’s remarkably tough. We get the feedback in real time while we’re doing it. We’re getting teargassed and someone is criticizing a word I used on Twitter. It creates this remarkable pressure. I tried to use the platform to amplify whatever anyone was telling me. But it’s hard to get the cops to speak. When they did, I’d tried to get out that word, too.

Q: What are the impacts of the coverage on the community?

A: The Internet makes us think we know about the news. We see the FB post about Ebola, but we don’t read the article. The deep saturation of media coverage often drowns out the depth of media coverage. Ferguson sorely missed having a newspaper there that was asking hard questions. There are places that really need someone to come in, notice that things are really messed up, make some information requests, etc. On the other hand, watching Ferguson on CNN burning for days and days has an impact. Our job, which we largely failed at, was to provide spatial context. Three blocks of Ferguson burned. It’s a big suburb.

Q: [missed it]

A: You’re no longer a mysterious person who’s name is at the top of the article. People read articles sometimes because they find the personality of the reporter attractive. As a reporter, who you are as a person is open to scrutiny and criticism and to feedback about things that aren’t about your work. It’s an occupational hazard now, but it’s also a positive thing: I have a lot of meaningful relationships via social media with people I don’t know. Huge pros and cons. Since Ferguson, I try to be more siloed. I take long periods of time when I’m not on Twitter — like for a day and a half.

Q: Why haven’t the mayor and police chief felt the need to step down in the face of the criticism? And how about your arrest?

A: It’s stunning that they weathered it. In part it’s because what people on the Internet say doesn’t matter. It’s the constituents who count. Also, if you’ve been taking a group of people for granted for so long, why start now? Media don’t have as much power as they think they do.

A: About the arrest: Me and a friend were the first journalists arrested in Ferguson. We were in a McD’s for the wifi. A SWAT suggested they leave because of imminent conflict. “Do we have to leave?” The police got impatient. [That’s my gross TLDR. Here’s Wesley’s news report, with video.]

Q: I start following you when you were live-tweeting the Marathon bombing. At some point, you became the story. How does that change your responsibility?

A: The “personal branding” — he hates that phrase — makes you as a reporter part of the story. In some ways it’s a more transparent interaction. You can gauge for yourself whether I’m handling it properly. We have an obligation to be fair, honest, and transparent. You have to recognize that the Internet world is very different from your real, personal life.

Q: What were the effective platforms that were getting it right? And who?

A: When the entire media show up, I look for the people who are telling the story a little differently. I had to do a bit of both. [He gives a list of reporters. I missed it entirely.]

Q: An interesting narrative was built up around Ron Johnson, African-American Highway Patrol captainm who was portrayed as a savior…

A: The media wanted a savior. Johnson was a soothing factor for a day and a half. But when a community is actually upset, it’s not appeased by the black state trooper who the media says is going to solve all the problems. It’s bigger than that.

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February 11, 2015

Church and State merge, resulting in

Time Magazine has erased the line between editorial and advertising. Explicitly. Proudly.


The result? The current issue has a total of three pages of ads.


Plus, the cover story is a paean to Starbucks, making readers suspect that someone bribed a priest.

So, Time fails and journalism is made a little less trustworthy. Nice job, Time!

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January 25, 2015

[2b2k] Inside.com’s updates: A new rhetorical form for journalism?

Inside.com is working hard to take the Web down a notch — the notch where, say, an announcement by NASA that they’ve discovered a possibly habitable planet in another galaxy gets the headline “Scientists find another Earth…and you won’t believe what it’s going to do to the value of your home!”

Jason Calacanis, the founder of the site, and someone I hadn’t talked with since the glory days of blogging, emphasized the site’s commitment to the “atomic unit” of journalism, a particular type of summary that he calls an “update.” It’s not often you get a new rhetorical form, especially for something as important as journalism. But does it work? Does it serve a role we need or want?

It’s an interesting exercise: If you had the opportunity to design a new rhetorical form that will fit news onto a mobile device — that’s where people will read most of their news, Jason is convinced — and will do the best job possible of conveying information without sensationalizing it, what would you come up with? Something longer than a tweet, or a headline crawling under Wolf Blitzer? Full sentences? Definitely free of clickbait. But would you use bullet points?would the headline try to summarize or capture interest? Would you have a headline at all?

Inside.com has its answer to the question, and it follows the form quite rigorously. An “update” — a name I find misleading since there may not be an original story it’s updating — starts with a sentence of 12-15 words in boldface that express the basic news. That’s followed by another sentence or two telling you what you most need to know next. There’s a relevant graphic element, but no headline, so there’s no need to try to flag the reader’s interest in just a few screaming words.

 

Screencapture of an update

An update also contains a link to the original article — the actual source article, not one that another site has aggregated — the author’s name, and the name of the person who curated the article. And tags: embedded as links in the article, and one at the bottom if needed. This seems to me to be the Minimum Right Stuff to include.Updates are written by the fifty people around the world Inside.com has hired for $12/hour.

So, how does this human-crafted rhetorical form hold up against the snippets Google News algorithmically derives and features under its headlines?

Here’s Google’s report on what is the top story at Inside.com as I write this:

Yemen’s President, Cabinet resign
Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down — seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a …

And Inside.com:

A report from close to Yemen’s prime minister says the government has offered its resignation. There is no word yet on whether the president will accept the resignation. Houthi rebels still hold the capital, and the president is still a virtual prisoner in his home.

Inside.com’s seems obviously preferable. Google (which is summarizing a post at CNN.com in this case) squanders most of its space simply telling us that it’s a big deal. Inside.com tells us four things, which is three more than Google’s summary.

Another example, this time for the second article at Inside.com (for which you have to do an explicit search at Google News). Google News:

Pentagon Scolds Air Force for Wasting Nearly $9 Billion on 
Drones are expensive. Aircraft like General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper cost millions of dollars piece, while the cost of …

Inside.com:

A memo from the Pentagon says the U.S. Air Force’s investment in drones is extravagant. The memo suggests that the Air Force is wasting as much as $8.8 billion in maintaining 46 Reaper drones. The memo says the Air Force has not justified the expanding drone fleet.

Inside.com hands down. Plus, the Google News snippet comes from Gizmodo, which seems to have based its post heavily on an article in The Guardian. Inside.com links its update directly to The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with what Gizmodo has done; it’s explicit about its use of info from The Guardian and adds its own commentary and links. But I’d rather have Google News snip directly from the source.

One more example, the third item at Inside.com. Google News:

AirAsia flight QZ8501: black box reveals final moments
The cockpit voice recorder from AirAsia flight QZ8501 has revealed that “screaming alarms” warned the pilots of immediate danger before the …

Inside.com:

Divers find six bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501 but are unable to enter the fuselage. It is believed the majority of victims will be found there. Indonesia’s Rear Admiral Widodo says the wreckage will be lifted to the surface Friday. So far, 59 bodies have been found.

The score is 3:0 in favor of Inside.com as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that Inside.com is a superior news service. Google News covers many more items at this point, and refreshes more often. In fact, in the time it took me to copy and paste these examples, Google News had a posted a fresher story about the events in Yemen. Also, Google News lets you browse among many newspapers’ coverage of the same event. (Jason responds that Inside.com gets posts up in 2-7 mins after an event hits the Web, and it immediately posts submitted links even before a human has written an update for it.)

But when it comes to the actual content the two services provide, Inside.com’s human-crafted text does the job of educating us quickly far better. Google News doesn’t even try that hard; it aims at giving us enough that we can see if we’re interested enough to click on the link and read the whole story.

Then there is the broader difference in what we’d like such services to do. Google News is a form of headline news. If we only read the Google News page without clicking into any stories, we’ll have very thin knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, it couldn’t get any thinner. With Inside.com, if we just read the boldfaced first sentences, we’ll come out knowing more than if we read the Google News headlines. We do want to be sure that people understand that three sentences are never the whole story. Unless the first sentence contains the word “Kardashian,” of course.

I don’t know if Inside.com can scale the way it needs to in order to survive; Jason is very focused on that now. Also, I don’t have confidence yet that Inside.com is giving me a reliable overview of the moments’ news — and, no, I don’t know what a “reliable overview” means or how to recognize one. But I do like the update as a rhetorical form. And since Jason says that Inside.com will have an API, perhaps it can survive at least as a service feeding other news sites … maybe even Google News if Google could overcome its bias in favor of the algorithmic.

In any case, the update form Inside.com has created seems to me to be a worthwhile addition to the rhetoric of journalism.

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January 8, 2015

New Clues

The project with Doc that I mentioned is a new set of clues, following on The Cluetrain Manifesto from 16 years ago.

The clues are designed as an open source publishing project: The text is in the public domain, and we’re making the clues available at Github in various computer-friendly formats, including JSON, OPML and XML.

We launched this morning and a happy hell has broken loose. So I’m just going to posts some links for now. In fact, I’m copying and pasting from an email by Doc:

Gotta run…

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December 14, 2014

Jeff Jarvis on journalism as a service

My wife and I had breakfast with Jeff Jarvis on Thursday, so I took the opportunity to do a quick podcast with him about his new book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News.

I like the book a lot. It proposes that we understand journalism as a provider of services rather than of content. Jeff then dissolves journalism into its component parts and asks us to imagine how they could be envisioned as sustainable services designed to help readers (or viewers) accomplish their goals. It’s more a brainstorming session (as Jeff confirms in the podcast) than a “10 steps to save journalism” tract, and some of the possibilities seem more plausible — and more journalistic — than others, but that’s the point.

If I were teaching a course on the future of journalism, or if I were convening my newspaper’s staff to think about the future of our newspaper, I’d have them read Geeks Bearing Gifts if only to blow up some calcified assumptions.

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November 10, 2014

The invisible change in the news

The first chapter of Dan Gillmor‘s 2005 book, We the Media [pdf], is a terrific, brief history of journalism from the US Colonial era up through Sept. 11. And in 2014 it has a different lesson to teach us as well.

Ten years later, what Dan pointed to as extraordinary is now common as air. It’s now so ordinary that it sometimes leads us to underestimate the magnitude of the change we’ve already lived through.

For example, he ends that first chapter with stories from Sept. 11. News coming through email lists before it could be delivered by the mainstream press. People on the scene posting photos they took. A blood drive organized online. A little-known Afghan-American writer offering wise advice that got circulated across the Net and worked its way up into the mainstream. Personal stories that conveyed the scene better than objective reporting could.

This was novel enough that Dan presented it as worth listening to as a portent. The fact that in 2014 it seems old hat is the proof that in 2004 Dan’s vision was acute.

Think about how you heard about, say, Obama’s Net Neutrality statement today and where you went to hear it explained and contextualized, and then tell me that the Net hasn’t already transformed the news, and that much of the most important, vibrant journalism is now being accomplished by citizens in ways that we now take for granted.

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September 12, 2014

Springtime at Shorenstein

The Shorenstein Center is part of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The rest of the Center’s name — “On Media, Politics, and Public Policy” — tells more about its focus. Generally, its fellows are journalists or other media folk who are taking a semester to work on some topic in a community of colleagues.

To my surprise, I’m going to spend the spring there. I’m thrilled.

I lied. I’m *\\*THRILLED*//*.

The Shorenstein Center is an amazing place. It is a residential program so that a community will develop, so I expect to learn a tremendous amount and in general to be over-stimulated.

The topic I’ll be working on has to do with the effect of open data platforms on journalism. There are a few angles to this, but I’m particularly interested in ways open platforms may be shaping our expectations for how news should be made accessible and delivered. But I’ll tell you more about this once I understand more.

I’ll have some other news about a part-time teaching engagement in this Spring, but I think I’d better make sure it’s ok with the school to say so.

I also probably should point out that as of last week I left the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. I’ll get around to explaining that eventually.

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