[Update on 22 March, 2011: Professor George Brock of City University is advocating the systematic use of footnotes by journalists to acknowledge primary source material.]
[Update on 24 Feb, 2011: in a far more elegant and effective way than I outline below, the Media Standards Trust has released a tool that exposes Churnalism, journalism recycled, or indeed copy-pasted wholesale, from press releases… More from the Guardian.]
A few minutes down the road from me, The Guardian has this weekend been hosting a hack SxSW event – which helped precipitate (in the chemistry sense) an idea for me that has been swirling for a long time, but which has been particularly swirly since long discussions at Newsfoo in December. I’m sure others are already thinking about or working on similar ideas – although my impression at Newsfoo was that perhaps not. Either way, I offer it up here, warts and all, in case it’s got some merit, and might be of some help.
A caveat: I’m not a coder or a technologist, so please forgive any tech barbarisms [update: e.g. “Metadata? Are you crazy? We can do this with basic tagging…” or “This is classic sledgehammer/nut, hammer/nail territory…” or “Uh-oh – here comes the rabbit-hole…”.] I work in sectors (journalism, media, development, human rights), however, that are profoundly affected by the work that many technologists are doing, and that are facing challenges in how to make manifest the provenance, authenticity, accuracy, diversity and representativeness of the information they provide.
Five things in particular have prompted me to thrash this post out now, starting at half-six on a Sunday morning, with regular interruptions from the kids…:
– discussions at Newsfoo about how to make manifest a layer of trust and transparency in news content – distinct from a reader’s habituated trust in a certain journalist or publication
– re-reading my friend Ethan Zuckerman’s thinking on media attention, xenophilia, homophily and other obstacles to diversity of news coverage – and wondering if the problem is less that the international media’s resources and attention are unevenly apportioned, and more that local media, closer to the story, are less able to compete, to project themselves or their analysis internationally
– by extension, a bit of media development dogfooding – what’s good enough to suggest to journalists and media outlets in the developing world should be good enough for any media anywhere
– watching immense surges of communication about the #egypt #jan25 #sidibouzid #wikileaks and other unfolding crises through the Twitterverse and beyond (including the Guardian’s Ian Prior incident described here)
– Mozilla’s Privacy Icons project – an attempt to represent at a glance how a web user’s data will be held and used by a service or website (more here and here)
There are some admirable efforts to crack the nut of information overload, especially with the huge increase in individual media production (tweets, facebook updates, and so on). Projects like SwiftRiver take a technological approach to crunching information, including news sources, and rendering it (ideally) both more contextualised, and more filterable, and therefore more useful and less overwhelming. Google News has started asking news orgs to tag their stories to distinguish between original and syndicated content. Some, like Neography, are basically hieroglyphics for the news. It’s a start, but still a fairly modest one.
None of this offers readers enough fine-grained control, nor does it present a new, different prism through which to understand news events, and it’s not designed in a way that communicates the intention of journalism. Google for one is trying to get there, but its solutions are still reliant to some degree on search (and search itself is an increasingly personalised rather than shared experience). This doesn’t yet truly level the playing field for, say, local media in the developing world, or journalists writing in their native language rather than in a global language. [A propos of which, there is still no Global Voices Online equivalent that, instead of tracking and curating blogs about or from every country in the world, systematically tracks and surfaces stories from local and national media around the world.] High-quality curation in more established international media as well as on many blogs, is helping diversify access to a wider range of original sources somewhat, but again it is constrained by individual capacity, networks, inclination.
I believe we need something extra, a reasonably independent searchable layer, that helps extract and highlight some of the things that we both value and seek to avoid in reading journalism – both ends of which may help spark deeper changes in the practice or perspective of journalism as it continues to evolve.
So, rather than having users rely on a combination of searches, aggregators, curators, recommendations, affinities, semantic crunchers and luck to find what they need, what if a broad swath(e) of news organisations, and other organisations involved in the business of journalism, developed a simple (perhaps even visual) system that, before they read an article:
– addresses both the problems of information overload and consumer choice
– surfaces some of the markers that might distinguish high-quality journalism
– provides readers with clear provenance of information
– and in doing so meets head-on the issues of transparency and trust that we discussed at Newsfoo?