Archive for the ‘future-of-journalism’ Tag

MediaBugs and the path to more accurate news

A few months back Scott Rosenberg and I filed our final report to the Knight Foundation on the first two years of MediaBugs. Here’s the full top-line summary from it, detailing how our various wins and losses with the project looked from our perspective. (And for much more on our work, check out our various commentary and analysis collected on the MediaBugs blog.)

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At the end of 2011 MediaBugs is pivoting from a funded project to a volunteer effort. We’ve racked up some considerable successes and some notable failures. Here’s a recap covering the full two years of project funding:

Successes:

* We built and successfully launched first a Bay Area-based and then a national site for publicly reporting errors in news coverage. These projects represented a public demonstration of how a transparent, neutral, public process for mediating the conversation between journalists and the public can work.

* We surveyed correction practices at media outlets both in our original Bay Area community and then nationally and built a public database of this information.

*We built and maintained a Twitter account with approximately 500 followers to spread awareness of both MediaBugs itself and other issues surrounding corrections practices.

* We maintained our own MediaBugs blog and contributed frequently to the MediaShift Idea Lab blog, where our posts were selected by the 2011 Mirror Awards as a finalist.

* We led a campaign to improve those correction practices in the form of the Report an Error Alliance, collaborating with Craig Silverman to promote the idea that every story page should have a button dedicated to inviting readers to report the mistakes they find. The practice has gained some momentum, with adoption at high-traffic websites like the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.

* We handled 158 error reports with the two largest outcomes being closed: corrected (59) and closed: unresolved (68). Those results included corrections across a range of major media including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Fox News, CNN, National Public Radio, CBS News, the Associated Press, Reuters, Yahoo News, TechCrunch, and others.

* We took one high-profile error report involving “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, KQED, and the New York Times, and used it as a kind of teachable moment to publicize some of the problems with existing corrections practices as they collide with digital-era realities. Our extended effort resulted in the Times correcting a story that the subject (through his father) had failed to get corrected for nearly a decade. The full write-up of this story was published on The Atlantic’s website in July, 2011.

* Our surveys of correction practices and related public commentary led many news outlets to revamp and improve their procedures. And many of the specific error-report interactions that led to corrections helped shed light on formerly closed processes in newsrooms, leaving a public record of the interaction between members of the public who brought complaints and journalists who responded to them.

* We partnered with other organizations, including NewsTrust and the Washington News Council, on efforts to correct inaccuracies in news coverage and establish regional MediaBugs organizations. Our software platform became the basis for Carl Malamud’s Legal Bug Tracker project.

Failures:

Our single biggest failure was our inability to persuade any media outlet with a significant profile or wide readership to adopt our service and install our widget on their pages. This limited our reach and made it difficult to spread our ideas. Users had to know about our service already in order to use it, instead of simply finding it in the course of their media consumption.

Our efforts to solve this problem — outreach to friends and colleagues in media outlets; public and private overtures to editors, newsroom managers, and website producers; back-to-the-drawing-board rethinks and revamps of our product and service — occupied much of our time and energy through the two years of the Knight grant.

We did find some success in getting MediaBugs adopted by smaller outlets, local news sites and specialty blogs. In general, it seemed that the people who chose to work with us were those who least needed the service; they were already paying close attention to feedback from their readership. The larger institutions that have the greatest volume of user complaints and the least efficient customer feedback loops were the least likely to take advantage of MediaBugs.

We identified a number of obstacles that stood in our way:

* Large news organizations and their leaders remain unwilling even to consider handing any role in the corrections process to a third party.

* Most newsroom leaders do not believe they have an accuracy problem that needs to be solved. Some feel their existing corrections process is sufficient; others recognize they have a problem with making errors and not correcting them, but do not connect that problem with the decline in public trust in media, which they instead attribute to partisan emotion.

Our other major failure was that we never gathered the sort of active community of error reporters that we hoped to foster. Our efforts included outreach to journalism schools, promotion of MediaBugs at in-person events and industry gatherings (like Hacks and Hackers and SPJ meetups), and postings at established online community sites whose participants might embrace the MediaBugs concept. But our rate of participation and bug-filing remained disappointing.

One explanation we reluctantly came to consider that we hadn’t originally expected: Much of the public sees media-outlet accuracy failures as “not our problem.” The journalists are messing up, they believe, and it’s the journalists’ job to fix things.

A final failure is that we have not, to date, made as much progress as we hoped in transforming journalists’ way of thinking about corrections. We imagined that public demonstration of a more flexible view of errors and corrections would encourage a less secretive, less guilty-minded, more accepting stance in newsrooms. But two years after MediaBugs’ founding, getting news organizations to admit and fix their mistakes in most cases still demands hard work, persistence and often some inside knowledge. Most of the time, it still feels like pushing a boulder up a hill. This needs to change, for the good of the profession and the health of our communities, and MediaBugs intends to keep working on it.

How USA Today tiptoed away from the GE tax hoax

Last Wednesday, USA Today editor Doug Stanglin reported about the Associated Press’s hugely embarrassing misfire-of-a-story on General Electric. In a blog post headlined “AP falls for prank report that GE is giving back a $3.2B tax refund,” Stanglin quoted from AP’s correction, included the full text of the retracted AP story on GE, and cited a report from Reuters about the activists behind the hoax.

It was a thorough rundown except for one thing: USA Today had also fallen for the prank report. The fact that it ran the bogus story from AP, and later removed it from USAToday.com, did not make it into Stanglin’s blog post. Why not?

Many news outlets run wire stories using an automated feed of some kind. Given the speed and volume of the content it’s easy to see how mistakes or problems could be missed — and whether news sites should be responsible for corrections to erroneous wire stories they’ve run has been an open question, as we noted in this recent error report at MediaBugs.

But when a news outlet makes the effort to report on another outlet’s high-profile bungle — and fails to mention its own participation — readers are bound to wonder why.

If you searched for the bogus GE tax story on Google News on Wednesday, you would have seen that USA Today ran with it:

Or, if you were one of USA Today Money’s more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, you might’ve seen it there (or via one of the many people who retweeted it):

Many people quickly took notice of USA Today’s publication of the story, including the pranksters themselves. But later on Wednesday if you clicked on the link to that story, you arrived on a USA Today page simply telling you that it had been removed:

In other words, between the link to the retracted story (later on filled in with AP’s correction) and Stanglin’s blog post, USA Today essentially provided no record on its site that it played a part in spreading some majorly wrong “news.” Nor was there any mention on USA Today’s corrections page, despite the high-profile nature of the mistake, which had real consequences. (GE’s stock price dropped significantly on the fake news.)

If the AP’s blunder had been headed for USA Today’s print pages, it would have been caught and not published — but even in the unlikely event that it had been published, you can be sure the paper would have run a correction notice in a subsequent edition. Online publishing makes it easier to cause embarrassing errors to disappear, but it doesn’t remove any of a publisher’s responsibility to own up to and correct them.

MediaBugs reached out by email to both Stanglin and standards editor Brent Jones to find out why USA Today handled things the way they did. Both responded quickly and cordially, with a definitive explanation on Friday morning from Jones:

USA TODAY’s newsroom practice is to be forthright and transparent when setting the record straight. We responded to reader inquiries and published a correction on Twitter, but we should have included that we published the AP’s story when reporting on the GE tax hoax. To clarify with our readers, website editors have since updated our blog posting, posted a note on our corrections/clarifications blog and the AP’s corrected report.

It’s good that USA Today had put the word out on Twitter, and we applaud them for addressing the problem thoroughly on their site pages in response to our inquiry. (You can now see those updates here, here, and here.) Also worth noting is that USA Today’s accessibility and corrections practices put them at the front of the pack of U.S. media. Even so, in this case they needed external prodding to do the right thing.

Perhaps the online medium makes it easier to stumble in this way. It’s simple enough to unpublish something and just move on — and far too many news sites still lack a clear process for tracking and rectifying their mistakes. There may also be an increasing tendency, navigating today’s ephemeral sea of news, to shrug off responsibility for nonproprietary content. Wire stories, blog posts and tweets seem at once to come from everywhere and nowhere. That’s precisely why this case is instructive.

It’s simply not possible to walk away from the kind of goof USA Today indirectly made. Social media, search engines and other tools will capture it. As more and more content is syndicated, aggregated or borrowed (with or without permission), newsrooms may feel they are less responsible for its accuracy. But in an era of deep distrust of the media, the opposite has to be true. When a news site chooses to repeat someone else’s report it shoulders new accountability along with it — including a duty to correct errors, thoroughly and forthrightly, before they get compounded further.

[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]

Juan Williams misplays the race card

In a Feb. 24 column on FoxNews.com, Juan Williams rebuked the Washington Post for downplaying a poll measuring the views of blacks and Latinos on the recession. The poll, which the Post itself helped produce, showed those groups were more optimistic than whites about the U.S. economy despite being hit harder in the downturn. According to Williams, the Post’s poll coverage “did not make its front page” but instead was “buried” in the business section. This was typical, Williams said, of “big media’s inability to report on good news when it comes to life among people of color.”

The purpose of the column was to mount a case against unjust media, with the Post’s deficient poll coverage as Exhibit A. Williams worked his way up to a racially fraught finish:

If there is a story about black poverty, police brutality or a drug-related shooting spree in a Hispanic neighborhood, the big papers will feature it with Page One coverage. Those stories fit old racial stereotypes. And lots of old line civil rights groups and liberal cocktail party people will applaud those papers for any story about racial minorities’ complaints about life in America or stories confirming that life is bad, unjust and oppressive for people of color.

But when there is good news on race relations and refreshing evidence of blacks and Latinos leading the way by showing faith in America’s future, the big media is just not that into it.

That patronizing attitude amounts to prejudice. It is condescending and says more about the old racial attitudes holding back the big, white press than any racism holding back blacks and Latinos in modern America.

There’s one little problem with Williams’ complaint: The Washington Post hardly buried its poll. In fact, as an error report at MediaBugs details, it ran an in-depth story about its findings on the front page of the Sunday, Feb. 20 print edition — replete with a large, sunny photo illustration and oversized headline. The Post also produced an extensive multimedia package around the story on its website.

In other words, as the person who submitted the error report put it, “the entire premise of his column was incorrect.”

Williams’ blunder isn’t just embarrassing for how carelessly he flogged his apparently predetermined argument. (How could he have missed the striking A1 spread or multimedia Web package? Did he stop reading the Post altogether despite having worked there himself for more than two decades?) Equally undignified is that Williams and Fox News have ignored attempts by the public to alert them to the problem and get the record corrected.

For our part, MediaBugs tried multiple times to contact Fox News via email and Twitter since March 15. The generic address provided with FoxNews.com’s “Email Newsroom” link (newsmanager@foxnews.com) apparently isn’t effective. We have yet to get any response.

The lack of one may in part be due to the fact that Fox News has no accessible corrections info or content on its website, as we reported in our recently published study of online corrections practices across U.S. media. The news honchos at Fox might consider an approach more like the one at NPR, where Williams recently was ousted for a different prejudicial tangle. Fox may regard its newsroom as “fair and balanced” — but apparently it’s also totally inaccessible to an audience concerned with factual accuracy.

There’s some chance, once this post circulates, that Williams and Fox News will take notice of some unflattering attention and fix the piece. Better late than never. With our work at MediaBugs we’ve seen more than one case in which a long chase and critical coverage have proven necessary to motivate a response.

In the flourishing age of interactive news, it shouldn’t have to be that way. Terrific tools already exist for better communication and greater transparency. Perhaps only ideology, or just plain laziness, now stands in the way.

[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]

This is Yahoo News on speed: too fast for a correction notice

Recently the Spanish-language site of Yahoo News reported that NASA had contracted with three companies to develop some truly incredible commercial aircraft. The future planes, Yahoo reported, could be available by 2025 and fly at 85 percent of the speed of light. Just imagine: You’d be able to jump aboard one of these suckers and zing from Vancouver to Capetown in, oh, about a fifteenth of a second. Now that’s newsworthy!

And perhaps it might even be possible — but it’s not true. As a MediaBugs user reported, NASA is in fact aiming for these future aircraft to reach 85 percent of the speed of sound. (Impressive in its own right, but nothing remotely approaching the speed of light.) Apparently somebody at Yahoo Noticias en Espanol had mistranslated the NASA press release from which the story was mostly drawn.

Even seemingly small errors in the news — in this case a single mistranslated word — can matter, and they should be corrected with care. The Yahoo story was fixed a day or two after the mediabug was posted — a positive outcome — although without any notice to the public that it was changed. [*See update below.] We don’t actually know how the error came to Yahoo’s attention; I couldn’t get any meaningful response from the company when I tried to let them know about it.

Which is quite difficult to do. Yahoo News has no corrections info or content of any kind, nor any real channel for contacting its editors or producers. (When I tried the “News Help Form,” found via a barely noticeable link in the page footer, I received a comically unhelpful “Escalation Notice,” followed a day later by an email from a customer service rep promising to “send this information to our editors if necessary.” By that point the article had already been fixed.)

As we revealed in an in-depth MediaBugs study published in November, many legacy print-news companies are still stumbling big-time when it comes to error reports and corrections online. Yahoo News, of course, can’t even plead about transitioning to digital in an era of dwindling resources; it is part of a pioneering technology company native to the two-way medium of the Web. So why isn’t it doing a better job with this stuff?

Part of the answer may be that Yahoo News primarily is an aggregation site, filled with wire service stories and links to reporting from other news organizations. But in July 2010 Yahoo launched The Upshot, a news blog with original content produced by a small handful of established reporters and editors. Yahoo News already commanded huge traffic, but now the company apparently was making a bid for greater news-media relevance (and, presumably, even more traffic). Its Twitter feed, followed by roughly 62,000 people, says that its “Tweets are hand-picked by the Y! News Team and 100% RSS feed free!” In other words, there are real people behind the curtain here.

Still, good luck reaching them. In addition to trying the “help” form and contact via Twitter, I emailed an Upshot editor, Chris Lehmann, to see about reporting the “speed of light” error. He responded quickly and cordially, telling me that he had no idea whom to contact about it, particularly since the error was on the Spanish-language site. I commented that correcting a substantive error without any notice to the public is bad form. (Yahoo News has company in this practice: The New York Times and Reuters recently were caught doing this too.) “On the U.S. news blogs,” Lehmann said with regard to substantive fixes, “we always append an update to note when we’ve corrected the text.”

The Upshot also stands out from the Yahoo News mother ship by providing on its main page a visible list of editorial staff and their contact info. “Keep us honest,” editor Andrew Golis wrote last July. “Email us, comment on our posts, let us know when we’ve made a mistake. When we agree with you, we’ll be fast and transparent about fixing it, apologizing and explaining.”

The rest of the Yahoo News operation should get onboard with that agenda if it wants the public to trust in its content, already an uphill battle for the news media in general.

Here’s a suggestion to the managers of Yahoo News for a good start: Join the Report an Error Alliance. Put that snazzy little red-and-black button on every news page. When it bleeps with reader feedback, have somebody around to respond in reasonably short order (light speed won’t be necessary!) and publish the results in a transparent, user-friendly way.

UPDATE, 11:30 a.m. PT: Things have since accelerated farther away from clarity: When I returned to the Yahoo News story page today to check for an update I discovered that the text has changed back to the erroneous version first published. Whereas the segments in question had been changed from “la velocidad de la luz” to “la velocidad del sonido” they are now back to the former.

My suspicion is that while the first change was in all likelihood made by a person, the reversion to the error is probably due to a system glitch whereby that fix was overwritten. Of course, this points back not so neatly to the crux here — we have no effective way to inform Yahoo News about the problem, let alone get a clear explanation from them.

[Ed. note: This post also appeared today on the MediaBugs blog.]

WikiLeaks might make America safer

[Updates to this post, through Monday Dec. 13, follow below.]

When the “Afghan war logs” became public earlier this year, I focused on WikiLeaks from the standpoint of its huge impact on the media. The ongoing release of a quarter million State Department cables has since unleashed a torrent of hot debate about government secrecy and whether Julian Assange’s organization is a force for good or evil.

Like many others, I’ve marinated myself in related articles and commentary over the last week but remain ambivalent about some of the complex moral issues involved. I’ve also been pondering a question that seems noticeably absent from the discussion: Could it be that WikiLeaks is actually the best thing in a long time to afflict U.S. national security?

The cacophonous phenomenon on the world’s front pages has been a grand wake-up call — the rise of cyberwar is no longer a matter of theory. It’s here whether you believe Assange is an enemy or a hero. If it proves true that a low-level Army analyst was able to get his hands on such a colossal amount of sensitive documents, what does that say about Pentagon preparedness for the security challenges of the proliferating information age?

So far some contents of “cablegate” itself have informed our view of just how serious an issue this is. As the Times reported on Sunday, “repeated and often successful hacking attacks from China on the United States government, private enterprises and Western allies” have been taking place since as far back as 2002. One previously unreported attack “yielded more than 50 megabytes of e-mails and a complete list of user names and passwords from an American government agency.”

The China cables also show the fire with which WikiLeaks plays; you get the sense that if some of the redacted names were revealed, it could potentially be disastrous, both to individuals involved and to U.S. intelligence gathering.

It’s noteworthy that the Obama administration’s assessment of the damage from WikiLeaks has consistently been inconsistent. The latest round has Attorney General Eric Holder saying that “national security of the United States has been put at risk,” while Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that concerns about potential harm are “significantly overwrought” and that the disclosures will have a “fairly modest” impact on foreign policy. The mixed message would seem to suggest that the U.S. government yet lacks a coherent approach to safeguarding the nation’s information infrastructure.

In the later years of the Bush administration, the federal government began to prioritize cyberwar, a focus continued by the Obama administration. But today there are the troubling, all too familiar signs of unpreparedness, agency turf wars and legal muddle. The Pentagon’s Cyber Command seeks to expand its powers aggressively and is, not coincidentally, publicizing that fact now. According to the Washington Post, its general in charge recently testified to Congress that he could not adequately defend the country against cyber-attack because it “is not my mission to defend today the entire nation.” If an adversary attacked power grids, he said, a defensive effort would “rely heavily on commercial industry.” Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair warned, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”

By some accounts the world hasn’t seen anything yet in terms of the looming dangers of cyberwar. An attack could cripple America, argues former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, striking everything from train routes and electrical grids to bank data and medical records.

WikiLeaks over the last few months, then, may have exposed U.S. government vulnerability in an alarmingly useful way, if one not much in line with Assange’s ideas about undermining state power. You can bet it has lit a serious fire under officials involved with the nation’s cybersecurity, who now must be working that much more intensively to plug any leaks in the ship of state and build up defenses against future attacks. They are, of course, likely toiling in secrecy. For now, anyway.

UPDATE: On the eve of his arrest in London, Assange publishes an article in The Australian: “Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths.” He opens with a quote from Rupert Murdoch: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”

UPDATE 12/8/10: Hackers sympathetic to Assange and WikiLeaks have launched a series of cyberattacks in recent days, targeting MasterCard, PayPal and a Swiss bank. (Could Twitter be next?) The Guardian looks into the “shadowy group” allegedly behind the attacks:

A 22-year-old spokesman, who wished to be known only as “Coldblood”, told the Guardian that the group – which is about a thousand strong – is “quite a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals” and wish to be a force for “chaotic good”.

There is no real command structure in the group, the London-based spokesman said, while most of its members are teenagers who are “trying to make an impact on what happens with the limited knowledge they have”. But others are parents, IT professionals and people who happen to have time – and resources – on their hands.

It’s really too bad that Stieg Larsson isn’t still around to witness all this.

Also: Some incisive comments at the cross-posted version of my piece on MoJo from Matthew Rotando on the implications of escalating cyberwar.

And: A great primer on WikiLeaks and roundup of coverage from Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.

UPDATE 12/13/10: The WikiLeaks saga itself continues to ratchet up the potential for cyberwar. With a secret grand jury in Virginia reportedly now considering criminal charges against Assange, a headline in today’s Daily Mail raises the specter of retribution for Assange’s potential extradition: “Britain on cyber warfare alert as Whitehall prepares for WikiLeaks revenge attacks on Government website, it reads. Apparently “bank details of taxpayers and benefits claimants” could be at risk.

Stateside, meanwhile, the Times’ Scott Shane reports movement on the cyberwar front: “Whether or not the Obama administration tries to prosecute those who disseminated the information, it is determined to use technology to preserve its secrets. The Defense Department is scaling back information sharing, which its leaders believe went too far after information hoarding was blamed for the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot. The department has also stripped CD and DVD recorders from its computers; it is redesigning security systems to require two people, not one, to move large amounts of information from a classified computer to an unclassified one; and it is installing software to detect downloads of unusual size.”

Endless quest for a fix at CNN

CNN’s broadcasts these days are packed with cheerleading for the network’s viewer participation opportunities. You’re encouraged to “share your story” at CNN iReport or “join a live chat” at Anderson Cooper’s blog or check out CNN Heroes on Facebook or follow one of the network’s nearly three dozen Twitter feeds. Welcome to the brave new world of interactive news!

But what if you happen to notice an error in a CNN broadcast and want to tell the network about it?

Welcome to the jungle.

Back on October 28th, a MediaBugs user filed a bug pointing out that a CNN broadcast had misidentified the prime minister of New Zealand as a film executive. (Watch the CNN clip here.) A primary goal of MediaBugs is to help improve communication between the public and newsrooms on error reports; currently we reach out to reporters and editors to let them know about bugs as they are filed.

Over the ensuing two weeks, I emailed CNN twice using an email form designated on its website for reporting an error. I got no response. That wasn’t entirely surprising since the form’s auto-reply message says, “While we are unable to personally reply to every e-mail, your comments are important to us, and we do read each and every one.”

CNN.com provides no contact information for editorial staff. (My search engine sleuthing for CNN Managing Editor Jay Kernis‘ email address proved unfruitful.) Eventually, I came across a Twitter account on a feedback page for CNN TV, @TeamCNN, whose bio indicates it is “dedicated to assisting our viewers.” After a cordial exchange of messages on Twitter, @TeamCNN asked me to submit the error using another email form, different from, though similar to, the one I’d used earlier. It was Nov. 18, three weeks since the bug had been filed. “We will look into,” @TeamCNN said.

After a couple more Twitter exchanges there was still no result. Another week had passed. CNN may present itself as being on the cutting edge of social media, but clearly it was time to pick up the phone. There had to be a way to reach a real live person in the newsroom, even though the only number I could find anywhere on CNN’s website was buried at the bottom of this About page. It was for contacting the network’s “Copyright Agent.” Googling farther afield, I dug up a number for a main line at CNN headquarters in Atlanta and asked the operator to connect me to the appropriate department. I reached an editorial assistant and explained the situation. He agreed that I should email him the bug report, saying he’d look into it. I sent him the link a few minutes after we hung up. A few days later I followed up at the same email address to check on a result.

As of this publication, CNN still hasn’t provided a response. Perhaps the particular broadcast error is so far in the rear view mirror at this point that correcting it doesn’t much matter to them. So what if a handful of viewers were left thinking that the creative director of WETA Workshop, Richard Taylor, is a dead ringer for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key?

Or, for all we know, the network may have already issued a correction on the air weeks ago. The problem is, there’s no way to find out on its website because CNN.com has no corrections content at all.

The point of slogging through this tale isn’t to pick on CNN, but rather to illuminate an endemic problem. CNN.com is hardly alone in its inaccessibility and unresponsiveness, as MediaBugs’ recently published national survey of news sites reveals. We’ve had similar experiences reporting errors via MediaBugs with Fox News, the LA Daily News, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

With digital platforms for news in rapid ascendancy, this status quo is untenable. Today, problems in news coverage are being discussed online by anyone and everyone; newsrooms need to welcome sincere attempts by the public to notify them about factual mistakes.

That means offering real accessibility — a clear way to report an error and a commitment to responding. Many news sites still rely on a generic email address or form buried deep in their pages, or on chaotic comments threads, for feedback. But if reporting an error using those channels feels like pulling back window curtains on a brick wall, why would anyone bother?

We’ve been glad to see several positive outcomes at MediaBugs, too, with timely corrections from CBSNews.com, and from KCBS and KNTV in San Francisco. Thus far these have been the exception. But the good news is that it’s pretty easy for newsrooms to make effective changes on this front (see our rundown of best practices in error reporting and corrections).

And let’s take it a step further, toward a real breakthrough: Maybe one day soon, the industry standard will be for all online news pages to have a prominently placed, universal button for reporting an error. A new project just launched by MediaBugs founder Scott Rosenberg and Craig Silverman of Regret the Error (and PBS Media Shift) is aiming for just that. Newsrooms of the 21st century: Please join us as part of the Report an Error Alliance.

[This post first appeared at PBS.org’s MediaShift Idea Lab.]

UPDATE 12/9/10: CNN has finally responded with a correction. Details here.

WikiLeaks exposed

No matter where you come down on the veracity, morality or impact of WikiLeaks’ mountainous Afghan “war diary,” its release has been a fascinating event. It prompted me to reread Raffi Khatchadourian’s first-rate New Yorker profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, where several passages have fresh resonance in the wake of the latest document dump. (Back in April WikiLeaks made waves when it released a controversial video showing an attack by a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad that killed seven people including two journalists.) There’s been much debate since Sunday, not to mention pushback from the White House, about whether WikiLeaks’ disclosures endanger U.S. troops and allies. Assange takes a provocative stance in this regard. As Khatchadourian reported back in early June:

I asked Assange if he would refrain from releasing information that he knew might get someone killed. He said that he had instituted a “harm-minimization policy,” whereby people named in certain documents were contacted before publication, to warn them, but that there were also instances where the members of WikiLeaks might get “blood on our hands.”

Also widely discussed right now is the idea of WikiLeaks as a kind of roguish champion of transparency — one that is itself frustratingly, if perhaps necessarily, opaque. Khatchadourian also considered this problem in striking terms: “Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most — power without accountability — is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.”

I highly recommend reading the full profile if you haven’t; Assange’s personal background and various perspectives are quite illuminating with regard to the global splash his organization currently is making.

Another major theme since Sunday has been the story’s impact on media itself. Without a doubt we are in an evolutionary moment. Jay Rosen has some great thoughts on the ramifications of WikiLeaks’ rise: “In media history up to now,” he says, “the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.”

There’s another aspect of the freshly tweaked media equation that I find fascinating: How effectively Assange and his (unknown) collaborators played a bunch of prominent global news institutions in the service of their cause. Why did they give the trove of so-called war logs to the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first, rather than just release all the raw material for anyone to dive into from the get-go?

“It’s counterintuitive,” Assange explained in October 2009. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”

It’s certainly no coincidence that three media giants (from countries with troops in the war zone) were offered the embargoed material; WikiLeaks could bet that the New York Times wasn’t going to pass on it knowing that the Guardian or Der Spiegel might well produce a big exposé (and vice versa). You can sense the effect of this calculation bristling beneath comments from New York Times executive editor Bill Keller about his organization’s subsequent reporting project:

First, The Times has no control over WikiLeaks — where it gets its material, what it releases and in what form. To say that it is an independent organization is a monumental understatement. The decision to post this secret military archive on a Web site accessible to the public was WikiLeaks’, not ours. WikiLeaks was going to post the material even if The Times decided to ignore it.

Keller also noted: “At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.”

By which Rosen further points out: “There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.”

Here are some additional pieces to the WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story that are well worth checking out:

Amy Davidson with a thoughtful take on the huge trove of raw information: “WikiLeaks has given us research materials for a history of the war in Afghanistan. To make full use of them, we will, again, have to think hard about what we are trying to learn: Is it what we are doing, day to day, on the ground in Afghanistan, and how we could do it better? Or what we are doing in Afghanistan at all?”

Philip Shenon discussing the WikiLeaks phenomenon on “Fresh Air”: “You certainly hear at the Pentagon, at the White House, concern that one of these days somebody is going to leak something really important to an organization like Wikileaks. The example given to me is American nuclear secrets or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Would Wikileaks put that out to the world without much filtering, and isn’t there a threat in that?”

Steven Aftergood, a respected voice on government secrecy, noting that WikiLeaks represents a creative solution to “over-control of government information” — but ultimately blasting WikiLeaks as being “among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.”

The WikiLeaks “about” page, which offers some bold declarations of purpose: “In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.”

Here’s the main page for the New York Times series.

And you can follow WikiLeaks activity on Twitter. (Bio: “We open governments.”)

UPDATE 7/28/10:
Forget the dismissive Pentagon Papers comparison that’s becoming conventional wisdom — see this sharp analysis from Joel Meares at CJR on the value of the Afghanistan docs: “The WikiLeaks documents put an underreported war back on the nation’s radar. It doesn’t matter that the pundits are yawning.”

Also now on CJR: Clint Hendler traces in detail how the WikiLeaks docs made their way into the Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel, “from Brussels, to a bunker, to blockbusters.” Part of his reporting underscores my view above as to how Assange played his hand with the three powerhouse news outlets:

On June 22, during a six hour coffee-soaked meeting in a Brussels café, Davies [a Guardian reporter] says Assange suggested another idea — that The Guardian and The New York Times be given an advance look at some information the site had on the Afghanistan war, with each paper publishing their own takes on the documents. Within the next twenty-four hours, Davies says Assange told him Der Spiegel should be included as well.

The piece recounts the unusual, highly secretive collaboration between the three news outlets that followed, as well as differing views on Assange’s involvement in the process. It’s an intriguing read that answers some questions while raising others — not only about how a rather mysterious new media force drove a global news cycle, but also about how things will go down when WikiLeaks makes its next move to foment a “global revolution,” as it puts it, in government and institutional accountability.

UPDATE 7/29/10:
Some commentators have suggested that the WikiLeaks story essentially was over after a couple days. Far from it, judging by the reaction of U.S. officials.

Speaking at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday, Defense Secretary Bob Gates said that the disclosures had “potentially dramatic and grievously harmful consequences,” including for Afghans identified in the documents who had helped the U.S. war effort. Added Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff: “Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” (It’s interesting that Mullen seemed to refer to Assange’s source as a single person.) Meanwhile, the Justice Department apparently is looking into possible espionage charges against Assange and his organization. (That may be a stretch.) And Assange has said that WikiLeaks has another 15,000 unreleased Afghan war documents in its possession.

Hard to get a fix

Just about every professional journalist under the sun will tell you that accuracy and transparency in news reporting are essential to a media organization’s credibility. It would seem to follow, then, that most newsrooms would make tracking and correcting errors a priority — particularly in the digital age, in which they have unprecedented capability to interact with the public. But that’s not at all the case right now. Over at MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg and I have just published our first major report on the state of corrections practices across the Bay Area news media. What we found will not boost public confidence:

The results of MediaBugs’ first survey of Bay Area media correction practices show that 21 out of 28 news sites examined — including many of the region’s leading daily newspapers and broadcast news outlets — provide no corrections link on their websites’ home pages and article pages. The websites for 17 of the 28 news organizations examined have no corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.

Sites that do offer corrections-related content frequently make it relatively difficult to find: It is located two or three obscure clicks into the site, or requires visitors to use the site’s search function. Once located, the corrections content is, in most cases, poorly organized and not easily navigated.

In the above report, you can see the specific rundown for most major news outlets headquartered in or regularly covering the Bay Area (including some major national outlets). We’re not just looking to highlight these problems; we also hope to encourage news organizations to fix them — and the good news here is that the necessary improvements are pretty easy to make. To that end, we’ve also published a companion piece outlining best practices in error reporting and corrections.

Also see Scott’s excellent post over at MediaShift Idea Lab for more insight into why news sites have stopped short in this realm — and where we think they should be headed, most ambitiously. (Nutshell: Adding a “Report an error” button as a standard feature on every news page online. The promotion of which is a project in our pipeline.)

And be sure to check out the fun little movie we just released (with the help of our talented friends at Beep Show) — the hard-hitting yet heart-warming story of MediaBugs, as told by men in shorts.

Bonsai music, the sound of sadness, and a killing via Twitter

Gentle readers: It’s been another busy month, including a trip to MIT for the Future of News and Civic Media Conference, where we showcased the first phase of MediaBugs and hung out with a bunch of interesting folks working on some intriguing cutting-edge projects.

In lieu of posting here since an early June dive into the Gulf calamity, I offer a third experimental installment of self-aggregated micro-blogging, which has proven a considerably easier way to riff while on the run. (Also see installments one and two.) Nicholas Carr may believe web links are rotting our brains, in which case I’ve already spoiled your screen, but I’m more with Steven Johnson on the “greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture” thing. Happy browsing.

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Rolling Stone is “back on a roll.” And apparently not because of that booty-licious Lady Gaga cover. http://nyti.ms/dssVSY about 6 hour ago via web

#BP’s audacious new plan to drill, baby, drill off Alaska: http://nyti.ms/cQ6RVn Thu Jun 24 17:37:58 2010

embattled and/or bespectacled journos reportedly should not stir outcry about senseless murders in the leafy suburbs: http://bit.ly/9RBzFK Thu Jun 24 14:42:41 2010

A serious bonsai tree jam: http://j.mp/dubR2D Wed Jun 23 18:59:19 2010

ancient big weather and what may be the world’s largest dinosaur graveyard: http://bit.ly/bP2wZd Wed Jun 23 15:38:14 2010

The same intervals that express sadness in music also found in speech: http://ow.ly/21KDz Tue Jun 22 11:05:53 2010

Utah attorney general live tweets execution by firing squad: http://yhoo.it/bv3ol8 Fri Jun 18 12:20:12 2010

in Iraq, “the biggest campaign of dog execution ever.” And KBR is involved. http://bit.ly/azxcYc Fri Jun 18 08:37:46 2010

CNN “expert” says that Obama’s Gulf speech used, uh, too many words, or words w/too many letters, or… somethin’ http://bit.ly/cUfOZg #dumbcoverage Thu Jun 17 12:01:11 2010

what’s the carbon footprint of that thing you’re about to buy? Very cool project, Sourcemap, from CFCM at MIT http://bit.ly/zA1a4 #knc10 Wed Jun 16 15:36:58 2010

Tom Waits’ personal playlist: http://bit.ly/bMlZAp Wed Jun 16 15:29:46 2010

now that’s politics with brains! accusing your opponent of “waterboarding” the economy: http://politi.co/cTGh0a #WTF Mon Jun 14 12:49:57 2010

“We must save the oceans if we want to save mankind.” -Jacques Cousteau (born 100 yrs ago this Friday) #oilspill Wed Jun 9 14:42:11 2010

AP dateline: UNDER THE MURKY DEPTHS OF THE GULF OF MEXICO (reporter into “thickest patch of red oil I’ve ever seen”) http://yhoo.it/cfQfaH Wed Jun 9 09:38:34 2010

the catastrophe of oil-soaked birds, explained: http://bit.ly/doM9gd #BP #oilspill #alt-energy-now Tue Jun 8 11:32:34 2010

MediaBugs: Where you fix the news!

I’m excited to announce that we’ve opened the doors today to MediaBugs, a new project intended to help improve the quality of news coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you see an error or problem in a news report that you think needs to be corrected, please come on over and submit a bug report! From there, we’ll help start an open conversation between you and the journalist(s) behind the story, with the aim of getting the issue resolved.

For more about the thinking behind MediaBugs and how it works, check out this report from Mallary Jean Tenore today at Poynter Online. Craig Silverman (of “Regret the Error” fame and one of our project advisers) tells Tenore that “fact checking is becoming one of the great American pastimes of the Internet age.” If so, we should soon have plenty of fresh bug reports for the Bay Area public and media community to consider. As Tenore points out, research by Scott Maier, a journalism scholar from University of Oregon, shows that fewer than 2 percent of errors in daily newspapers ever get corrected. (And there are reams of errors, studies show, in newspapers and across all manner of news media.)

We also hope that journalists will benefit from MediaBugs. We’ve met with many of them around town over the last couple of months to introduce the project, and have been pleased to encounter lots of interest and positive response. Not only do we think MediaBugs offers newsrooms a handy new tool for tracking error reports, we also hope it will help them win greater confidence among their readerships. As Tenore suggests in her piece:

While running a correction might make journalists cringe, doing so can actually make them look good. Maier said public opinion research shows that the public tends to trust the media more when they see corrections being made. In that sense, correction-tracking software like MediaBugs, Maier and Silverman said, can help journalists gain credibility.

And that could only be a good thing, with said credibility having tanked of late.

For some great related reading, also see Silverman’s own recent piece for CJR, in which he notes that corrections aren’t just for journalists and news organizations anymore: “Anyone who generates content or shares information will inevitably encounter a moment when they have to correct a mistake. Thanks to the Internet, mobile devices and other technologies, more and more people are engaging in content creation—and the act of correction.”

UPDATED: More on the project launch from Megan Garber at Nieman Journalism Lab. Also, here’s where you can follow MediaBugs on Twitter.

UPDATED, 10/27/10: MediaBugs has gone national.

Twitter fix

Dear Loyal Readers:

You’ve probably noticed a slower pace in this space recently; I’ve been immersed in a couple of projects, including getting MediaBugs off the ground. But if you’re on Twitter, you know how easy it is these days to keep the conversation going, at least 140 characters at a time, and indeed I’ve found it to be the best channel for sharing thoughts and links of interest in the interim. (I plan to return to more active blogging again soon.) Several times daily (on most days) you can follow my finger on the digital pulse here.

If you’re a Twitter user you also know how easy it is to miss a million things in the collective news stream you’ve let flow; to try to take in everything would be like drinking from a fire hose all day long. You may not even realize your own effect on the flow, and it can be illuminating to take a look back over your collective contribution. The sum of the parts can almost start to take on a flarf-like quality. Here are some recent bits from my adventures in micro-blogging, with lots of links for your browsing delight and/or distraction…

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well, there goes another “entire copy desk” at a major newspaper http://bit.ly/9wj5Sn about 3 hours ago

“The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting” http://nyti.ms/boSnGB about 4 hours ago

Seder at the White House sounds pretty cool http://nyti.ms/aKnvmv about 5 hours ago

Jesus was way hungry http://nyti.ms/diC4Hq 12:23 PM Mar 29th

war gaming Iran. Conclusion? Not a great idea. http://nyti.ms/a2cqsq 11:33 AM Mar 29th

vivid Jim Marshall photos: Jimi http://bit.ly/dD5ko3 … and Johnny http://bit.ly/b1Hcl0 10:09 PM Mar 25th

the dark side of nanotech? http://bit.ly/cHGvja 5:43 PM Mar 24th

global warming upshot: ocean swallows disputed island in Bay of Bengal http://bit.ly/chJyUr 4:21 PM Mar 24th

uh, not just anyone can hope to dodge home foreclosure with the help of PETA http://bit.ly/bhIXWU 4:13 PM Mar 24th

some say blogging is dead, respected bloggers included. @scottros says not so fast http://to.pbs.org/a94Cax 4:03 PM Mar 24th

you are watching your TV and surfing the Web at the same time, aren’t you. http://j.mp/aetKD7 11:09 AM Mar 22nd

finally got up the nerve to watch “The Cove” last night. Extraordinary film. Check it out, spread the word. http://www.takepart.com/thecove/ 10:02 AM Mar 22nd

7 years of war in Iraq today. Consider the names & faces of the dead: http://nyti.ms/c8p3tf 9:18 AM Mar 19th

Ailes to Fox staff unhappy w/insane Glenn Beck: “We prefer people in the tent not dumping on other people in the tent” http://bit.ly/9pzCFR 11:22 AM Mar 18th

RIP Alex Chilton http://bit.ly/9s6SGe 12:42 AM Mar 18th

from the dystopian California files: more than 23,000 school teachers get pink slipped http://dlvr.it/DRdg 6:00 PM Mar 15th

think twice before doing crimes at your keyboard http://bit.ly/bdIRVe 12:55 PM Mar 15th

French bread was spiked with LSD in CIA experiment: http://bit.ly/akIZn6 8:48 AM Mar 12th

Congrats to Haida artist Robert Davidson for receiving the 2010 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts http://bit.ly/dgXJVv 1:43 PM Mar 11th

the ultimate crime deterrent: San Quentin reviewed on Yelp http://tcrn.ch/dgDp8N (Indeed, the food apparently is “horrible”) 1:49 PM Feb 23rd

how many Tweets per day now? Oh, about 50 million. That is, 600 *every second*… (via @robinsloan) http://is.gd/8X8NI 12:56 PM Feb 22nd

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Go here to drink more from the fire hose!

Helping fix the error-filled news

I’m very happy to announce my involvement in a new startup called MediaBugs, where I’ll be serving as associate director and community manager. I’m joining with project founder and director Scott Rosenberg (with whom I had the great pleasure of working during my years at Salon) for what we anticipate will be an exciting and, hopefully, groundbreaking effort. We are now in the process of building out our Web site, with plans to start rolling out the service in early 2010. The two-year project is funded by the Knight Foundation, and will focus on all manner of media in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a nutshell, MediaBugs will provide a neutral, civil forum where the public can report errors they encounter in the news and try to get them fixed. The idea is to leverage the open-source power of the Web to achieve greater transparency and dialogue among media institutions and the public, and thereby improve the quality of the news.

1948_DeweyDefeatsTruman

We see it as a winning proposition for everyone involved — a way to begin rebuilding public confidence in the media, while offering our fellow journalists a compelling tool they can use to enhance their work in this ever-dynamic digital age.

Why focus on fixing errors in the news? For one, public trust in the media wallows at a historic low. As Scott explained in a recent blog post, there are several reasons for this — perhaps chief among them that the news is riddled with mistakes, and an extraordinary percentage of them go uncorrected.

There are different kinds of errors, but even the seemingly trivial ones matter. (And there are a great many of them, as detailed at the above links, a status quo surely not helped by today’s painful editorial cutbacks.) If the local paper or news site regularly publishes misspelled names or inaccurate dates, how can its readers trust that it got the really important stuff right?

The problem afflicts small and big players alike. This week, the Washington Post’s public editor Andrew Alexander was compelled to explain why a respected sports columnist at the paper whiffed big time with some of his World Series coverage.

“By my count,” Alexander wrote, “the column contained at least 20 typos, grammatical errors or misspellings.”

Curiously, the Post treated a cleaned-up version of the piece, posted online after the shoddy print version went out, as separate. That’s a questionable distinction, with the lines between blog posts, columns and articles rapidly blurring these days, and with digital and print newsroom operations fast merging. There is still no correction appended to the online version of the World Series column, so unless you’d already caught wind of Alexander’s write-up you wouldn’t even know about the flurry of mistakes that appeared in print. Doesn’t seem like the best way to win over skeptical readers.

For more details on how MediaBugs will work, visit our site here, and stay tuned for more soon.

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