How the JSK Fellowship is teaching me to learn to lean on others
The last year has turned my life upside down in so many ways. The JSK fellowship gave me the time, space and perspective to find out what I want to do with my life and my career. It gave me a home and a community when I felt adrift. And more recently, the fellowship has given me a protective cocoon during what has been one of the hardest times of my life.
Nothing could have prepared me for April 1, 2019. As a journalist, I’ve always hated the carelessness of April Fool’s Day and the hoaxes it inevitably spawns. In 2014, I lost my job on this day. This year on this day, I found out I have cancer.
It felt almost Shakespearean. The heroine is on top of the world, confident of her life and its direction, only to be felled by a major setback at what should have been her time of triumph. While it is never a good time to find out something like this, I’m lucky it came at a time when I have had so much support. All I had to do was learn to take it.
I’ve never been good at leaning on others. I hate asking for favors, but I love fulfilling them (blame my Ohio Methodist upbringing). For the past several years, I followed the advice of many a management book and “faked it until I made it” and part of that was also pretending I never needed help along the way. Admitting vulnerability and weakness was not an option, or so I thought. I’ve learned in my time at Stanford to embrace my vulnerability in the workplace, but I wasn’t prepared to have to do so in my personal life.
But then April 1st came.
At first, I tried to stay my usual self. Less than an hour after my diagnosis, I got on the phone in my doctor’s parking lot to interview for two different jobs. Then I had to call my mom and tell her the news. Looking back, I can’t decide if that chain of events was possible due to toughness, denial – or outright insanity.
My first instinct was to hide it, not only from all of my friends back East, but also the people who see me every day at Stanford. I didn’t want anyone to see my eventual deterioration. It quickly became evident that I couldn’t entirely keep my illness to myself. How do you reasonably answer a question like, “How are you?” without lying?
When I finally told the other JSK fellows, I felt a sense of relief I hadn’t expected. It didn’t feel like a defeat, it felt like a weight had been lifted. After the initial hugs and promises of support, my friends in fellowship really showed up for me in a ways I didn’t know I needed. In fact, I was a little embarrassed at first, to accept it.
They started delivering dinner to my house every day to take the load off my supportive and overworked husband. They offered to run errands and rides to where I needed to go. They’ve given me excuses to bail on things I didn’t feel like doing and taken notes in classes I had to miss due to my appointments. Within our circle, we can laugh at the absurdity of what I’m dealing with, whether that’s trying on hilarious wigs in pursuit of the one that’ll make me feel most normal or taking advantage of my newly minted designated driver status. They even all got temporary tattoos in homage to the one on my right arm reading: More. I have never been so touched.
Above all, my fellowship group has given me the confidence to keep dreaming and planning for my future, despite cancer being an unavoidable part of it. To many people in my life, my day-to-day health and status as a patient is an all-consuming aspect of our relationship. I’m encouraged not to worry about what I have to do, to just focus on getting better and let the future happen later, when this is all over.
But that’s not me. The other fellows know it and didn’t let me forget it.
I’m taking on the future I want regardless of what cancer has planned. I can learn to lean on my friends and colleagues, to ask for help when I need it and take time off (and naps) without guilt or fear of looking weak. I will take a new job and give the best of myself despite the fact that I’m sometimes tired, nauseous and have no hair of my own anymore.
As Sheryl Sandberg said in her 2017 commencement speech at Virginia Tech, “There are times to lean in and there are times to lean on… If you are there for your friends and let them be there for you…that won’t just make you more resilient, it’ll help you lead a deeper and more meaningful life.”
As much as it dominates my life right now, I can’t afford to let 2019 be my lost cancer year. This is the year of completing my work on disinformation and trust via Project Disconnect. It’s my year of establishing new lifelong friendships through this program. It’s my year for finding myself.
Thanks to JSK, 2019 is my year for new beginnings.
In my second quarter as a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford, I have been largely focused on my research project, which has taken me into the homes of strangers to talk to them about their relationships with news, disinformation and the communities where they live.
I always planned to approach this study not as a journalist, but as a neutral observer, combining the empathetic methods of design thinking and the analysis of the social sciences.
What I didn’t consider going in was just how much I didn’t know about what it really means to be an observer in the first place.
This past quarter, I took a sociology course called Ethnographic Methods, which I had hoped would be beneficial to helping me structure my research project to be a bit more rigorous. I was a journalist in a class of social science and communication Ph.D students and much to my surprise, while there I rediscovered some fundamental truths about journalism itself.
To put it simply, ethnography is the study of people and cultures. One might say that’s also the job of journalism, though with a less systematic approach. It is difficult to see where one might end and the other begins, as the two fields similarly approach observation, interviewing and how they report back what they’ve found.
But one thing ethnography seems to do a lot better is analyzing the role of the practitioner in conducting the study, and how who they are impacts the quality of the work. This notion of reflexivity has taken on a huge role in modern social sciences and I believe journalism would also benefit from its application in reporting, editing, community engagement and story selection.
What objectivity is — and isn’t
In journalism, the quest for objectivity started as an effort to report the news fairly and accurately, whether or not the individual journalist agrees with the facts. What it has become is a Frankensteinian monster of “bothsiderism”, false equivalencies and a fallacy that good journalists have no biases, on or off the clock.
We each have lived experiences we carry with us every day that affect how we think, who we talk to and what we believe. Ethnographers know this intrinsically and write those assumptions into their work.
Kathy Charmaz, Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, literally wrote the book on qualitative research methods. In “Constructing Grounded Theory”, she noted a researcher’s identity and background is key to the quality of data they can collect in the field.
“Just as the methods we choose influence what we see, what we bring to the study also influences what we can see,” Charmaz wrote. “We are not passive receptacles into which data are poured. Neither observer nor observed come to a scene untouched by the world.”
Objectivity isn’t a lack of belief, but rather it is an ability to critically assess one’s own biases and be transparent about them.
Or, as sociologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond described it in his book, “On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters”, “Objectivity comes to the ethnographer who knows themselves and can critically expose and assess own position relative to the field site or subject.”
Instead of putting up a facade that we don’t have any biases, let’s critically evaluate them and be hyper-conscious of them when approaching our work. Let’s be honest with the audience about who we are and what we bring to the table as journalists — and let them decide if we are being fair and truthful in our work.
In other words, journalism needs go back to the original concept of objectivity, as described by Walter Lippmann back in 1919: The method of journalism needs to be objective, not the journalist.
We can change a story just by being present
One element of reflexivity is understanding how the presence of a researcher — or, in this case, a journalist — changes the environment. We show up to a crime scene, a protest, etc. and everyone changes their behavior when they see a notebook or camera come out. Every field reporter or photographer has run into this dilemma before, but how can they account for it in the final product?
Familiarity is a major factor in capturing an authentic scene. How long the journalist can spend in the neighborhood or with the subject in question will naturally lead to some familiarity. All too often, journalists don’t have this luxury. We are in and out, the story filed, and on to the next.
The ethnographer can spend weeks, months and years at a field site, becoming an invisible part of its fabric, and still note in their final work what may have been different because they were there to see it. While we might not need to write these observations into final works for publication, the question of, “How much of what I observed was meant for me to see?” and “What did I miss?” should come up in the discussions between reporters and editors before reporting and as the story comes together to help ensure the story we are telling is the right one.
Others’ views of us can affect our access to information
Journalists and ethnographers may both consider their professional missions to be inextricably linked to the relationships they form with sources. To do our jobs well, journalists often seek to tell the story from the vantage point of the source; to get a sense of how their life experience has shaped their impressions of the world. Often missing in this narrative exercise is….ourselves.
How the source sees us — the observers and storytellers — very much shapes what information and insight they will allow us to access about them. In my own research so far, I have found interviewees’ opinions not only about me as an individual, but also the profession of journalism, has had a major impact on what they are willing to discuss.
In his ethnographic study of a public housing complex in Chicago, urban ethnographer Sudhir Venkatesh found out how the neighborhood residents viewed him over his time in their midst greatly affected both his access and what information he was able to collect. To reflect this in his study, he incorporated what he called a “reconstruction of the informant’s point of view”, or, rather, the subjects’ impression of the field researcher and the ultimate goal of his research.
In journalism, we need to be comfortable with this practice of positionality, carefully evaluating how we look to the people we are covering, and how that might affect their interactions with us and the stories we tell from those interactions.
Am I coming across as a person of privilege covering a low-income community? Could my questions reflect judgement of how this person lives? How comfortable is my subject with me telling their story if I’m a college-educated, white, upper-middle class professional (and they are not)?
Asking these questions of ourselves before and after interviews can help us get better insights into the communities we cover — and develop better relationships with our sources along the way.
Understanding power dynamics in the source-journalist relationship
Ethnographers take care to be keenly aware of the power dynamics in the interactions they have with informants. In the typical journalist-source relationship, the power balance may not be as even we might want to believe.
Author and communications educator Ruth Palmer found this out first hand when she interviewed people who had been at the center of news stories about their experiences.
Journalists seem powerful to ordinary citizens for several interrelated reasons. The first is that journalists have a much larger audience than most people can reach through their social networks. Journalists can be gatekeepers to publicity and fame. But, most important, they control how people’s stories are told to the public: what is included, how it is framed, and who is cast as the hero or the bad guy. Those decisions can have favorable or destructive consequences for the people they are reporting about — consequences that are magnified online. And yet, journalists seem to dole out those benefits or damages pretty cavalierly.
Understanding the source’s point of view towards the journalist and the media at large can help us to not only build trust, but also discover better stories. Charmaz wrote about how differences in power and status may affect the quality of an interview.
“Powerful people may take charge and turn the interview questions to address topics on their own terms, and control the timing, pacing and length of the interview,” she wrote. “[The disempowered] may recite public relations rhetoric rather than reveal personal views, much less a full account of their experiences.”
In this democratized age of information, individual journalists might not feel powerful, but we need to realize the significance of our role in the lives of our sources, who may feel they have no power at all. When we seek to interview those who are vulnerable due to their age, gender, economic status, legal status, etc., we hold all of the cards. The source has everything to lose, the journalist so much to gain.
In her interviews with former news sources, Palmer found most were pleasantly surprised to hear that reporters don’t often use their power unethically, but “it was not nearly as salient as the feeling that they always could.”
Realize it might not be your story to tell
We are entrusted with so much when we are given someone’s story to tell. Much like our counterparts in the social sciences, we have to be vigilant in analyzing when, how and even if we as journalists are the best representatives to tell these stories at all.
In many cases, allowing those with less power to be able to tell their own stories can be far more effective and a more accurate presentation of that person’s worldview. Sometimes our job is to just stay out of the way.
Write for the audience and the source (within reason)
Desmond wrote that social science studies have three languages they need to speak: That of his social science peers, the reading public and the subjects of the study. Journalists should keep a similar vein in mind in how we write about those in our communities.
While I’m not particularly concerned that we consider the feelings of every person we cover (most political reporting would probably go extinct), I feel we should consider the source who acts in good faith, especially those who are not public figures, as a key audience to the final product.
We should ask ourselves some key questions like, “Will this story make them look foolish, uneducated or immoral? Will they be embarrassed to see how they are portrayed? Will they regret talking to me?”
For example, I regularly read election year reporting from my home state of Ohio and find myself cringing at the portrayals of people, people who could very well be my family or neighbors, as “flyover state” caricatures. Maybe the reporter just thought he was describing them as they were, other than as how he saw them…but did he stop to think of how they’d see themselves after reading the article? I doubt it.
Show your work
Like all of the sciences, ethnographic studies meticulously detail their methodologies and references. An ethnographer would lay out why they selected their field site, chose informants, and cite any other studies that influenced their approach. Journalism should be no different.
If we want people to trust our work, we need to show the receipts. Why we chose this story over that one, how we found the right sources to interview, who else has covered this topic and what we added that was new. Think like a scientist; tell what you know, what you don’t and why you do what you do.
If you are interested in learning more about my ongoing ethnographic research into the relationship between news, disinformation and news consumers, or want to be notified when the final report is published, visit projectdisconnect.org.
When I first applied to the JSK Journalism Fellowship, “becoming a better person” wasn’t one of my goals. I saw the fellowship as a gift of time to focus on improving my professional skills, making new contacts in the industry and getting away from the news to figure out what comes next. I also looked forward to my research on what the news industry can learn from consumers of disinformation.
So far, the fellowship has been all of that, but it’s also been difficult in ways I didn’t even want to admit to all of my friends still toiling away in their day jobs.
Being at Stanford these past few months has been humbling in so many ways — being surrounded by young geniuses will do that — but nothing has hit me harder than realizing I didn’t know myself.
In the first week of my Transformative Design class, I was asked to write my own eulogy. This eulogy reflected everything I’d like for someone to say about me after I die, a sort of glimpse into how I see myself and what I value. In doing so, I realized I wasn’t on track to have that sort of legacy as a friend, as a mentor, or as a partner. I’d lost my way. I’ve spent the weeks since then figuring out how to get back.
Everyone I met going into this program — including the formidable alumni network — told me my classes were most likely going to be the least rewarding part of the experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth in my case.
I’ve been amazed by Stanford’s built-in focus on empathy across its academic offerings. The business school, especially, is far more focused on emotional connection than I would have ever imagined from the outside. I’ve spent more time than I ever thought possible learning how to communicate and be present, to let go of ego and be as open as I always imagined myself to be. It’s from these classes — and the people I’ve met in them — that I’ve already learned some truths I plan to carry into my post-JSK life.
Reasons are Bullshit
One of my d.school professors, the venerable Bernie Roth, told us this in one of our first classes and I have really taken it to heart. “Reasons” are often excuses dressed up as something more noble. If we are being honest with ourselves and those around us, we should be able to leave reasons at the door.
We make excuses for our actions and behaviors to others — when we should be willing to take ownership of them (and apologize if necessary). Worst of all are the “reasons” we give to ourselves. When I started to peel back the “why” behind some of my own actions, I realized I had more control over my life than I thought.
For instance, I have been telling myself for YEARS that I fill my schedule with work, activities and favors because that’s what the people in my life demand of me. That may be partially true, but in actuality, I do that because it makes me feel useful. I chose that life — and knowing that now, I can now choose a (slightly saner) one. It’s liberating to let go of reasons.
2. Grant permission to be creative
I’m taking a leadership class from improv master Dan Klein that is focused on leading creative teams. Most of our first few classes were spent playing improv games, with the aim of turning off our egos and reacting without fear of judgment. It’s giving ourselves permission to be a bit wild — and doing the same for others around us.
We could all stand to embrace this idea to be better colleagues, collaborators and managers. How many newsroom “brainstorming sessions” have we all been in that largely resulted in more of the same (if anything)? To inspire creativity in others, we have to give permission to be wild. That means not shooting ideas down, not homing in on the easiest or most conventional idea and celebrating truly “out there” leaps. It also means giving everyone a platform to participate — and not just letting the loudest voices take over.
3. Find strength in vulnerability
Like many women who have risen to a management level, somewhere along the way, I got the idea that I had to be more like the men around me.
For years, I had been training myself to hide any signs of vulnerability. I saw my persistent sensitivity and empathy as an anchor preventing me from becoming a better leader. Stanford’s management classes have taught me that we should embrace our empathy and hone our vulnerability as a tool. In business and in life, people are far more willing to give us benefit of a doubt if we don’t present ourselves as infallible.
4. Know your values, and call on them often
When I was younger, I had no trouble stirring the pot if something went against my values (just ask my bosses from back then). In my more recent years, I’d gotten tired of being the squeaky wheel. I was tired. I’d have these managerial out-of-body experiences where I’d see myself espouse some company line I didn’t even believe in and say to myself, “Who ARE you?”
In holding fast to our values in our work, it creates a semblance of control (something I know I crave). We can’t always control what happens, nor can we control the behavior of the people around us, but we can control how we react to them. Speaking of that…
5. Create a culture worth fighting for
In my management classes, we speak often about our role as leaders in setting the tone and culture of the groups we move in and oversee. I’ve been a part of some great cultures over the course of my career, but also some incredibly toxic environments.
I find myself now thinking back to the occasions I could have stopped a bad culture in its tracks — or promoted a better one — by being willing to be the roadblock. Being that roadblock may have meant lower productivity, harder conversations, hurt feelings, potentially less money coming in…but it would have been worth it in the long run.
As Irv Grousbeck, a truly inspiring business professor, said in our management class, “Communicate your values and live the example openly. Work hard, be nice, say yes.”
Luckily, it’s easy to say yes when you are part of a group like JSK.
So even aside from the hands-on training I’m receiving in innovation, problem-solving, management and business strategy — I’m also learning how to be a better leader, a better journalist and a better person. I’m rediscovering what I value in myself and in others, and focusing on what I really want to do with the rest of my life. Try fitting that into a brochure.
As journalists and media professionals, we don’t like to think someone is better at our job than we are, especially those who seek to undermine our work with misleading or outright made up narratives. So when I ask journalists, “What does disinformation do better than journalism?” I expect a few raised eyebrows.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to present my forthcoming research project to a selected group of professionals in journalism, technology, education and philanthropy at the Newsgeist unconference, organized annually by Google and the Knight Foundation at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix.
On Saturday morning, An Xiao Mina, Director of Product for Meedan and strategy lead for the Credibility Coalition, and I led a conversation with attendees examining the strengths of journalism and disinformation and what we in media should seek to learn from those strengths. We cheekily called it “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” inspired by none other than the first-year wizardry class in the Harry Potter universe, where students learn about dark magic and how to handle it.
We split the group into four small groups and challenged them to come up with examples of unique strengths of high quality journalism and the countering strengths of effective disinformation. Here is a sampling of what the group came up with.
Strengths of High Quality Journalism*:
Experience and professional training
Many steps, voices and layers involved before publishing
Rules of ethics, code of conduct
Legal liability for what is published
Adherence to industry norms of objectivity and fairness
A shared mission to inform and tell the truth
Support and checks by editors and copyeditors
Empathy through a community connection
Complicity in community action
Complexity in explaining big data, trends and human stories
* We are well aware these are strengths exhibited in only the best of newsrooms. Not all publishers are created equal in this regard (but it would be cool if they were).
Strengths of Effective Disinformation:
Speed of publishing
Novelty and excitement of new information
Responsiveness to news events and reactions
Cooperative amplification between competitors
Simplification of difficult subject matter
Trust through a lack of affiliation and complicity with institutions
Liberated from legal and ethical norms
Playing to emotions, fears, biases and reactions
Recognition of altruism as a motive for publishing (i.e. shedding a light on unknown/hidden information)
Audience participation (i.e. share this to help spread the word)
Tapping into a community’s passions and beliefs
Allowing the audience to feel as if they are part of an investigation or exposure of truths
Drives a desire to share
Successful business model driven by attention economics
Great at targeting on Facebook and other social networks
Offering related content on the same topics
Identity validation of the reader
The bolded strengths above were those we as a group felt are aspirational to be adapted into (or improved) in legitimate journalism practice. Obviously we do not want to incorporate unethical or illegal behavior into our practice, nor do we want to engage in any of the extremes of disinformation. “Simplification of difficult subject matter” in a disinformation context might be oversimplification, and “Drives a desire to share” might be “Manipulations emotions to compel sharing.” It’s important that journalists working in good faith get the balance right.
But many of these strengths are worth of being aspirational. Some of them — like “engaging visuals” and “drives a desire to share” — are skills we are always seeking to improve to compete on a level playing field with more social media-savvy outlets. Others — like “tapping into a community’s passions and beliefs” — are strengths we used to have as news practitioners, but maybe have lost our way in some markets.
These conversations also brought about questions for further reflection in our newsrooms and communities about how we as journalists might improve and what affect those changes might have. These questions also inform my own questions as I embark on my JSK fellowship research.
How is best for news outlets to show information contextually? What effect, if any, does that have on its trustworthiness?
What is the effect of decontexualization of information on the audience?
How much does the brand of the news outlets matter (if at all)?
Does personalization of the news affect its trustworthiness to skeptical audiences?
What is the role of psychological self-preservation in building “echo chambers” for our news consumption?
So what do you think?
Do you agree or disagree with anything in the above strengths lists? What else would you want journalism to learn from disinformation and those who participate in it?
Feel free to comment below or start yelling at me and everyone else on the social network of your choice.
An Xiao Mina contributed to this post. Read more about this year’s Newsgeist from Mathew Ingram
I’ve spent the better part of my career focused on people who live in the internet. Some of them were everyday eyewitnesses who happened to share newsworthy photos or videos. Others were not so everyday – they were trolls, bots or, worse, architects and foot soldiers of disinformation campaigns.
How might news organizations fight misinformation by learning from the people who believe it and share it?
While I still care very much about disinformation,I’m not particularly interested in giving its perpetrators more of my time. Instead, I want to better understand those at the receiving end of these campaigns – the regular people who happen to get caught up in spreading false stories – and what we in media can learn from their experiences.
I came to Stanford because of an interest in design thinking and using that approach to help solve problems within the information system. If you aren’t familiar with the design thinking approach, it is best illustrated as follows:
For the next five months, I intend to focus on the first two aspects of this process, empathizing and defining.
In this study approach, I will be meeting consumers of disinformation where they are – in their homes and communities – to better understand their media habits, their motivations and the struggles they face in trying to find out what is going on in the world. My end goal is to identify common pain points and useful insights from these case studies that can be shared with local newsrooms around the country, in hopes we can work together to find paths to improve audience reach and engagement.
I have discussed this research project with many journalists. About half of those – mostly newsroom executive types – said “I already know why” and proceeded to tell me about the assumed political affiliations, intelligence level and nefarious intentions of this audience.
One newsroom executive at a large news company that covers middle America told me, “I’ll save you the time, it is because they don’t care about the truth.”
That reaction is precisely why I feel this study is important. Journalists, especially news executives, think they have all of the answers as to why a huge swath of their former audience has turned away from the news. If they actually had any of these insights, or made an effort to critically evaluate this group and ask them questions, they might find they actually didn’t know the problem in the first place (let alone the solutions). Assuming we already know all we need to know about the audience and THEY are the problem is pretty much why the journalism industry is in such dire straits.
But on to the next steps:
Right now, I am identifying six to eight broad user types (in design thinking parlance, they are called “extreme users”) within the US to help focus my study. Most people who share false news stories are not activists, trolls, politics junkies or meme creators, but those sort of users in the disinformation ecosystem are well placed to help us identify the needs of a wider population. These users will not be representative of any one group or demographic, but rather, they are case studies focused on the individual and their worldview.
Exactly how I’ll identify my “test subjects” is still in the works, but will largely involve finding individuals who have followed particular sharing patterns on Facebook associated with one of the user types. From there, it’s on me to convince them to participate in the study. This winter, I will go into the field to meet my case study subjects face-to-face, ideally at their homes, to observe their environments and empathetically interview them to better uncover their tension points, media habits and more.
Right now, I’m learning in my d.school classes a bit more about this stage of the process. I’ve found that while I’ve spent my career in journalism, interviewing people from a design thinking approach is very different from doing so as a journalist. We have to keep questions open and without judgement, to observe more than just hear responses and to lean into discomfort and tension instead of away. We have to leave our humanity at the door, to some extent, to record real insights.
The plan right now is for me to have these interviews done by early spring so I can transcribe them, pull out insights, note surprises and identify problem areas for the users, with the hope there will be some commonality between user types. I will then compile those findings into a very basic report, along with case studies on the (not identified) users, to share with newsrooms, who are best placed to take this work into the next stages of ideation, prototyping and testing with their own audiences. Fingers crossed I can get everything done in time.
So what do I need?
For one, I’d love to find partners and collaborators in this endeavor. If you have ideas or feedback for my potential extreme users, identifying text subjects and or best practices in the field research – let me know.
Also, I’ll eventually need some funding. I will be traveling in person to conduct this study in six to eight different locations around the US, which will involve flights, rental cars and likely a few nights in various shady roadside motels. I’ll also want to prove a small payment to my test subjects for their time, as they would expect in any other research study.
If you have feedback, questions, ideas or money you want to toss my way for this project, let me know. This is my first time ever really conducting a research study, so I have a lot to learn, and I’d love for all of you to join me for the ride.
Today is a bittersweet one, as it is my last day at Storyful before I go off to start a new chapter of my career.
I joined Storyful early enough to be hired on by the founders, but late enough to get health insurance. I leave it now, nearly four years later, as a bigger, better and much more grown up company.
My first day at Storyful back in July of 2014
While I’d been a part of media startups before, I never got to see one through its adolescence until I got here. The experience has been what it must be like to be a stepparent – you weren’t there at the beginning, but after surviving some critical developmental milestones together, you do your best to leave a lasting and positive impression.
In one of my interviews to join the company back in 2014, I said I would work to grow Storyful’s reputation in the media industry beyond that of a UGC video service, but rather to be seen as a respected, social-centric newsroom known for bringing real stories to the surface. I think we did that – and a lot more – with more to come as Storyful continues to grow its portfolio in the analysis of online communities and disinformation.
In the past few years, the media, technology and business spheres have taken an increased interest in the power of social movements, and thus, in the work of Storyful. We were seeking the stories behind the stories on social media long before “fake news” ever became a watchword.
It’s been an exciting (and exhausting) era in social journalism. I started at Storyful the day after MH-17 went down over Ukraine. In the years since then, we’ve covered the war in Syria, the 2016 campaign trail, the rise of nationalist movements in the US and Europe and too many terrorist attacks, school shootings and natural disasters to list. The stories have become more socially driven, the truth less easy to find, the work more important than ever.
In preparing to leave, I spent time looking through my files and rediscovered just how far we’d come in a fairly short time. I found strategies and product concepts that never got off the ground – and many more that did. I also unearthed org charts going back to 2013, scrolling through them to see 20 name boxes jump to 30, 50 and 60 in number. Hiring and developing the careers of roughly 40 social journalists has been the most valuable experience in my time at Storyful. I’ve seen kids fresh out of university become disinformation experts, traditional journalists rediscover their passion in a new medium and newbies become mentors, editors and managers.
Much like the current generation of leading social journalists working in the industry, I wholeheartedly believe the next generation of social journalists will also be powered by Storyful. I’m so lucky to have been able to be a part of it.
It wouldn’t be an obligatory farewell blog post without some words of thanks.
To David Clinch, for introducing me to Storyful, first as a fellow social journalist, then later as a client and recruit – and for his constant support every step of the way.
To Mark Little and Aine Kerr for bringing me into this team and providing the inspiration for why we do what we do.
To Rahul Chopra for showing me how to grow and giving me room to do so.
To Toby Bochan for sharing every win, burden and milestone as we grew this team together.
To Mike Hess for continually making me look smarter than I actually am.
To Aifric Iremonger Mooney for keeping me from losing my mind (and keeping the proverbial trains running on time).
To the Storyful journalists – past and present – for everything they have taught me.
And to Dublin for giving me a second home that will never be far from my thoughts.
Back where a lot of this began, with Mark Little and Aine Kerr.
The old Storyful Dublin HQ UK General Election night in 2015.
Storyful takes on the ONA conference in 2015
I swear, Storyful doesn’t exclusively hang out at pubs….just often.
Toby and I started within weeks of one another.
Storyful Hong Kong (most of them, anyway)
The Storyful Australia team circa 2016
Some of the Storyful NYC editorial team
Who runs the editorial team in the US? (Women!)
The Dublin and UK news teams as of December. What a difference a few years makes!
I am pretty sure I first heard about the JSK fellowship back in 2007 and the idea of leaving a good job to go to school seemed so odd to me at that part of my career. My youthful ambition told me if I wanted to “make it”, I would never be able to take time off – nor would I want to.
But over the course of many years since then, I have met many Knight fellows and all of them, to a person, have told me how the experience changed their lives. I’ve known for years now that it was something I would want to do when the time was right. When I saw one of the themes for this year’s program was disinformation, it felt like it was meant to be.
It may seem odd to depart Storyful just a few months after being elevated to Editor in Chief, but then again, there’s never a good time to separate yourself from a job that is your whole life.
My past [nearly] four years at Storyful have been so rewarding – and a nonstop sprint. I have rarely gotten a chance to spend time digging in on the initiatives and stories that most interest me. As the newsroom has expanded its scope to include investigation into social media movements and disinformation – I haven’t had much of a chance to really get into the hands-on work the way I wish I could. Now is my chance.
In addition to my research, I plan to spend the next year or so focusing on answering some important questions for myself: What am I doing? Why does it matter? Where do I fit into the journalism industry today? What do I really want to do with the rest of my career?
You know, the easy ones.
I look forward to a year on pause. I want to read more, get outside and hike on the weekends, and just generally spend more time being present and less time juggling the emails, all-hours meetings and constant notifications that dominate my life these days.
This is an example of how it went the last time I was in college.
I’d love to be able to revert to my college-aged self, but without the incredible angst and “working four jobs just to pay rent” part. I want to rediscover the open-mindedness I had about myself and the industry back then. Revisiting my college wardrobe would also be great (I hope cargo pants are still around!).
Best of all, as part of my agreement to join the JSK program, I agreed to publicly share my progress against my research question (more to come on that). That means this site will go back to being an active blog again, not just an occasional dumping ground for errant thoughts (though it will also be that). This should be good news for those spammers who constantly keep asking if I want a website redesign (the answer is still no).
I have a couple of weeks left at Storyful before I head out for this next chapter, but in the meantime, watch this space.
Mark Zuckerberg announced last week yet another change to the Facebook newsfeed. Following a contentious year that embroiled the platform in controversy, Facebook intends to give preferential treatment to news sites based on users’ feedback as to which providers are most trusted.
From Zuckerberg’s post,
“The hard question we’ve struggled with is how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division. We could try to make that decision ourselves, but that’s not something we’re comfortable with. We considered asking outside experts, which would take the decision out of our hands but would likely not solve the objectivity problem. Or we could ask you — the community — and have your feedback determine the ranking.”
Who those users are, how they are selected and exactly how “trust” is measured remains to be revealed. News and media professionals don’t appear to have a voice in determining the authority and credibility of news sites.
So far, Facebook’s attempts to police its own platform have had little impact on the mitigation of disinformation and “fake news.” The platform itself reported that over 126 million Americans saw Russian disinformation leading up to 2016 election emanating from the community. Furthermore, independent fact-checkers brought in by Facebook to flag fake stories have said efforts to stem the tide of disinformation are falling short.
Outside of Facebook’s walls, trust is a contract between the audience, who gives an investment of time and the publishers’ ability to match that with quality journalism. Handing all of that power to the “community” creates dangerous opportunities for propagandists and purveyors of fake news to exploit the platform to further their own agendas. During the French elections, special interests organized on platforms like Discord to orchestrate social media events on Facebook and Twitter. More recently, following a November 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a false story spread across Facebook saying Antifa terrorists were the perpetrators.
At Storyful, we spent the last two years mapping and understanding the pathways that “fake news” travels. Our work makes it clear that Facebook is a well trod avenue for disseminating dubious information from private or semi-private platforms and communities to the masses. Following the tragic events in Las Vegas last year, we detailed false claims made by questionable entities on Facebook. In the UK, we highlighted the efforts of a special interest group to affect elections and advance an agenda. And, on our podcast, we discussed the impact of social media and disinformation in India.
Users the world over flock to Facebook to discuss happenings big and small, local and global, factual and fictional. Left alone, these would be the very same users that would assess the value and reach of stories generated by newsrooms that endeavor every day to report facts and vital information.
We at Storyful will watch for any further developments on these changes and hope industry experts will have a seat at the table to influence the fate of news on Facebook.
Steve Buttry, a journalist for more than 45 years, died February 19at age 62of pancreatic cancer.
I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t really prepared for the news that Steve Buttry was really gone. The man who seemingly bounced back from everything – be it layoffs, professional disappointments, cancer (twice) – wasn’t bouncing back this time.
Steve had so many friends in the journalism world, each with their own treasured memories of and debts owed to a man who had a bottomless capacity to give. I’m no different. I owe Steve for nearly everything I have.
If it weren’t for him, I’d probably be working in PR or marketing in Ohio after being laid off from my last job as a journalist several years ago. Even aside from the obvious affect on my career trajectory, I also think I’d be a fundamentally different person if it weren’t for Steve (and not for the better).
Steve accepts the Rich Jaroslovsky Founder Award at the Online News Association conference in September of 2016. Click to see his speech.
I first met Steve the same way a lot of people did – via Twitter. After a long career as a reporter and editor, Steve had reinvented himself as a social media trainer and digital journalism thought leader. I had started following him because of his blog. I was social media editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time, and mostly figuring out what that role was and the impact I could have if I only had a voice. He was a life raft for my flagging enthusiasm about journalism. We had struck up a correspondence over our shared challenges in teaching social media to unwilling newsrooms.
Just today I read over our DM correspondence from those few months – and even then, he gave more than he ever had to. He gave me tips on how to apply, ideas of how to best pitch the job I wanted, and above all he gave me an interview. I must have applied for 100 social media and journalism jobs in the “big cities” and had never once got as much as a reply before. That was all Steve.
In the spring of 2010, Steve hired me on as social media producer at what would eventually become TBD in Washington, DC. That job, the people I worked with, the move to the coast from Ohio – all of it was the beginning of a new life for me. It put me on a map I didn’t even know existed. More than every awesome perk that came out of that job, the best (though it took me years to realize it) was learning how to live a good life from Steve.
The TBD engagement team, summer of 2010: (L-R) Me, Jeff Sonderman, Dan Victor, Nathasha Lim, Lisa Rowan and Steve Buttry.
When I first moved to DC, I felt so much less experienced, ambitious and worldly than everyone around me. But not Steve. He lived for his time with his family and friends – and I noticed early on that he spent so much of his time doing favors for others – inside and outside our company. He had mastered the art of the network, with friends in seemingly every city, with lives he touched everywhere on his travels. I can’t adequately explain how good it was for me back then to have a fellow Midwesterner showing me every day that it was possible to excel in that world of the “coastal elite” and not lose touch with your personal values.
As a newsroom leader in that environment, he seemed to savor capturing lightning in a bottle. At our brainstorming meetings for the community engagement team, he’d encourage us on even the most far-flung of ideas. He was always the one best at teasing out something tangible from the flights of fancy.
A few years later, Steve provided me with more life-changing chances. One was inviting me to co-teach a social journalism class with him at Georgetown University – which I would go on to do for four terms (and which piqued my interest in finishing my career in academia – like Steve). He hooked me up with my first few gigs training other journalists in using digital and social tools – which became something of a second career for me. He also was instrumental in hiring me on at Digital First Media – giving me a way out of the social media world and into my first job as a manager.
In six years, Steve granted me more favors than any one person deserves. And the most amazing part is that all of what he did for me, to him, probably wasn’t even that big of a deal because he did it all of the time. How many times in his long career did Steve Buttry do someone a favor? Be it speaking to a class, giving a recommendation, passing on a job opportunity, making a introduction, judging for awards, teaching newsrooms, giving rides, sticking up for an employee or coworker…he did it all of the time. Literally every day – right up to the end of his life.
There’s no easy way to repay a debt that large, save for continuing the work.
Last month, I sent him the following in a message exchange that would end up being our last:
I want you to know this: It is because of your influence that I never leave a tweet, Facebook message, voicemail or email from a stranger unanswered. I’ll never say no to a young (or not-so-young) journalist who reaches out to me for advice, help, ideas or feedback. I never refuse a journalism professor who asks me to speak to their class. I always take the meeting, even at the most stressful of times, because you did it for me and it made all of the difference.
The least I can do, that any of us can do, is to live the best kind of life possible – the way Steve did. We take the meeting. We get on the flights (and tweet about the delays). We teach. We give favors big and small. We are there for others – when the time comes, they are there for us.
Thanks for the lessons, Steve – and thanks to Mimi and the rest of the family for sharing him with an entire grateful industry for so many years.
There’s been much ado in media circles this past week about the prevalence of “fake” newson social networks and what, if any, effect that had on the outcome of the U.S. election. Stories from big players like InfoWars and The Blaze as well as cookie-cutter outlets like Occupy Democrats, WorldNetDaily, The Other 98% and US Uncut have taken off on social media, largely because they hit the right buttons with their target audiences.
The formula is simple, but brilliant. They start with an incredible headline intended to upset or delight a particular type of reader. That reader skims the story, is set off by particular triggers, then immediately shares it to their network of like-minded friends. The story spreads like a virus across the network, with little attention paid to whether or not the information is real or where it really originated. It’s classic social media strategy, greatly amplified.
Though some of the news on sites that have been called into question is undoubtedly made up whole cloth, there are many more stories that may have started with a sliver of truth, but these stories are so dubiously sourced and creatively written that they barely resemble the truth by the time they start their travels around the social web. And, sadly, a Buzzfeed investigation has found that such stories performed better on Facebook during the election cycle than stories from the leading news sources.
Many have been quick to point fingers at the social networks, Facebook in particular, for allowing fake news sites to thrive in their environments. But those who are most guilty here are the creators of these sites, their success aided by the lack of media literacy among social network users. In the past few days, Google and Facebook have announced plans to try to stop the spread of manufactured news. This is welcome, but the real work needs to be done by the users, and that includes all of us.
Since Storyful’s specialty lies in verifying and debunking content found on social media, we hope we can help.
Granted, we are most known for working with user-created content (what is often the raw material for news) and not news generated by “professional” outfits, but the same principles we use for verifying eyewitness content can be used by anyone who consumes news.
The first thing any reader, brand, researcher or journalist should do is maintain constant vigilance.
This means to approach every story or account you read online with skepticism. That’s what we do at Storyful, and it usually serves us well in identifying a fake.
How to Find Out if the News Is Real
Note where the key information comes from
Are direct quotes attributed to someone with good reason to be familiar with a certain situation, or to know what they claim to know, such as an expert or someone with provable experience in the field? Or is the piece quoting someone of dubious “expert” credentials, or with little apparent ties to the situation being discussed?
Follow the links
Does the story reference a business/government report or cite another story on another website? If the story is based entirely on a different story, click through and read that source (if there is no link, simply Google the purported source). Keep doing that in every subsequent story until you find the original report and original sources.
You may find that the shadiest sites will reference stories on similar sites that reference stories on similar sites until you’ve made it full circle without finding an original source. I call this “aggregation inception.” Or maybe, even worse, you’ll hit a total dead end looking for that original source. This should be a major red flag.
Who is the author?
If all of the notable information seems plucked from thin air or from the writer’s opinion, look into that writer. How do they know what they claim to know? Maybe he or she is an expert in that field, and that’s great. Or maybe they are a crackpot conspiracy theorist, or an ill-informed teen in his parents’ basement, or someone using a fake identity.
Look for a second source
What is standard good practice for the journalist should also now be for the reader. If nobody else is reporting the news, there’s a good chance it isn’t real. Sometimes this is because the site in question has a huge scoop and if that’s the case, great! You were among the first to know (though the window of exclusivity is very short nowadays). But there’s also a chance that this was made up, and that is why you aren’t finding it on any other known, legitimate site.
A few more tips on spotting fake news sites:
Look closely at the URL. From the appearance of the shared item on social, it may look like it is from a known source like ABC News or CNN. When you click through, the site may even look like the familiar source, but look at the URL. It may have an additional domain after the “.com” – which indicates it is likely not a real site.
Be wary of websites that have odd domain names and particularly non-standard domain extensions (i.e. not .com, .edu, .net, .gov, etc.). It’s much easier and cheaper for fact-factory sites to spin up a new site using domain names from other countries.
Look on the site’s “About Us” page for any information you can find: Who runs the site? Who owns it? You might also find this information at the bottom of the site’s pages. All legitimate news sites will have this information.
Check the name of the site in Wikipedia, Google and Snopes.com to see if they are known for fake stories.
If you spot a lot of misspellings, use of all capital letters or generally odd use of language, be suspicious that the site may not be a legitimate news source.
The same goes for web design. If the design is difficult to navigate, doesn’t open properly or seems to be on an amateurish site, proceed with caution. It may be a legitimate self-starting journalist or expert, or it may be a total fake.
Take note of the author. If the post or story doesn’t have an author’s name – or any information about the author – they may not be a legitimate news source.
And this doesn’t just apply to sites with weird names or political pop-ups, but all forms of media. Most of the newspapers, TV news sites, magazines and online news brands out there do good work – but sometimes they don’t. Maintain constant vigilance.
Finally – one of the best ways to combat misinformation and the bias of your own filter bubbles in navigating the news is to simply ensure you are reading a range of sources, especially on the stories you find yourself saying are too good, too terrible, too amazing to be true (because they probably are). This sort of varied media diet is not only useful to identify any bias from one outlet or another, but, ideally, to give yourself a fuller picture. Different reporters are able to talk to different sources and you can get a more complete story by seeing a variety of perspectives.
In an age where news is easy to manufacture but difficult to get right, we all must demand better of our news sources and ourselves as the audience.
When first read Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in high school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Thompson’s distinctive voice and writing style leapt off the page no matter what the subject matter – there was simply no mistaking you were reading one of his stories. His personal story — of a boy from Kentucky making it into some of the best publications in the world — spoke to me too. His success was based on ability and scrappiness alone.
When Thompson committed suicide in 2005, it was the first time I ever cried over the death of someone I’d never met. Yesterday was the second.
David Carr, in my opinion the greatest writer working in the business, died on Feb. 12 after collapsing in the newsroom of the New York Times.
David Carr portrait from Wendy Macnaughton, shared on Twitter via @wendymac
Like Thompson, Carr had an incredibly distinctive style — in writing and speaking — that set his work above anyone’s on the media beat or elsewhere. There was no mistaking that Carr voice. I remember one time I was reading an in-flight magazine, some one-page Q&A with a celebrity, and three paragraphs in I said to myself, “Is David Carr writing this? Surely not…” It was. Of course it was.
In watching the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times”, I was enamored with Carr’s personality, which I had never seen on video before. That drove me to read his memoir, “The Night of the Gun“, which I think should be required reading for any aspiring journalist.
Carr wasn’t polished, he didn’t have a prestigious background and, like me, he was from “flyover country” (in his case, Minnesota). Throughout his early professional life, he had been his own worst enemy, struggling for years with drug addiction. He overcame himself, outran his past and ended up writing some amazing stories and generating a thousand quotable quotes.
That someone as imperfect as Carr could, based on the power of his talent alone, end up working — and thriving — in the newsroom of the New York Times is proof that success is possible for any of us.
If Thompson was the driver for me to get into this industry and the fire behind my early years, Carr was the inspiration for the journalist I wanted to grow into. He was crazy-smart and could be very cutting, but he was witty and funny and kind in all the right ways and all the right times. We’d all love to be remembered that way.
“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”
I’m grateful the New York Times took a chance on journalist who was flawed and amazing and oh-so-worth-it. I’m grateful to still be a part of an industry where survivors are all holding on for dear life. I’m grateful for the daily miracle of news.
For three weeks in September, I lived without a cell phone of any kind. When I was away from home or work, I was an island.
This wasn’t some grand experiment staged so that I could write a blog post about it and wow you all with my insights into Disconnected Life – it just happened. My iPhone died a sudden death at Kolkata airport in the middle of a two-week trip in India. One minute it was there, the next, the screen faded to black, as if it had suffered a digital embolism. I was tethered to a constrictive U.S. cell contract and two weeks away from receiving the latest advancement in Apple technology. I decided to wait it out.
Going from a connected life – a very connected life, I’ll admit – to one of total, sudden disconnection, was in some ways like losing one of my senses.
I have had a cell phone of some sort since I was 19 years old. Before that, I’d had a pager issued by my parents – which probably gives you a pretty good clue about my age. Somehow, I made it through high school and one year of college without a cell phone. I was pretty active on social media in 2008, when I got my first smartphone. At the time, that act was something like giving a self-functioning meth lab to a cough syrup addict. I never would be alone again – with my thoughts, with someone else, without a clue as to what’s happening, for better and for worse.
At first, it wasn’t so bad, as I was already on limited use, traveling on international data limits through my phone plan. I rarely use my phone for actual voice calls – I bet I take less than five total a week – so that wasn’t a huge loss at first, either.
But after a few hours of being alone in a foreign country – and really alone without access to the world beyond – the enormity set in. I was off the grid. If I got lost in India, nobody would even know. Not even me.
Without a phone, I felt so alone in the world, which was at once freeing and terrifying. On one hand, I didn’t have the burden of always being connected and, thus, always being one email or text away from a problem at work or home. On the other, I was adrift and unfindable. I had no way to tell anyone where I was. If I didn’t know where I was, I had no maps app to consult, I had to ask for directions like some sort of tourist (which, in New York City, is akin to telling someone you have leprosy).
It manifested itself in many small ways, too. If I couldn’t find a cab (which happens in Queens), I couldn’t just bring up my Uber app to have a car come save me. I didn’t know when trains were due to arrive, so I was often late. I couldn’t text my husband to tell him to pick up kitty litter. I couldn’t check my work email between meetings. I couldn’t take conference calls on the way to the office anymore. I couldn’t multitask. I couldn’t check sports scores or see what was happening in the world outside my immediate space. And the most odd experience: I was often the only person at a restaurant, on a subway car, in a meeting or airline terminal that was actually looking at other people, which made me feel like a creep.
It was a lot of “first world problems”, to be sure, but three weeks without a digital tie to the rest of my world forced me to become a bit more resourceful. I had to change some habits and, in doing so, had to confront some uncomfortable truths about the life I was living.
A few lessons learned from the Great Disconnection
1. It isn’t a good idea to be overly reliant on maps apps. Once upon a time, I was a Girl Scout. I could read maps and had a decent sense of direction. As an adult, I run out the door never even bothering to check addresses or to learn the basics of navigating the city where I live. At the very least, I know I should be aware of the address I’m going to and have enough working knowledge of the city grid to get close without getting lost.
2. Leave early to be on time. I am bad about timeliness all of the time, but it was especially bad without calendar reminders, directions and train schedules. I need to leave earlier – I know this. We all know this. We should be better.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for information. I realized I often use my phone in circumstances where it would have been easier to just talk to a human in real life for information. When did I become so anti-social?
4. Stop checking in, because it is dumb. I’ve been a habitual user of Foursquare since its inception. Between the introduction of Swarm and this phone drought, I’m finally over it. It turns out, it really isn’t much of a value add to my or anyone else’s life to know where I am.
5. Push alerts are not actually necessary, in most cases. Facebook messages about friends spamming me with events in faraway cities, headlines of news in other places, “your friends are talking about X on Twitter” alerts… I don’t actually need to know that stuff when I’m not on the phone. Unless that headline is “Giant fireball headed for New York”, chances are, it isn’t so bad to not know immediately.
6. Get over yourself. It turns out, in my weeks without updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so often, nobody seemed to miss me and my witty outlook on the world. Most of my friends will be surprised to learn I was ever gone.
7. Pay more attention to others when they are actually there, in person, with you. I know, I shouldn’t have had to learn this lesson, but when all of your friends (and your spouse) are always-connected journalists, it is easy to forget a time when we weren’t all keeping one eye on the phone. It is never more obvious when you have no phone in a room full of people – or even just the one you’re trying to spend time with – who aren’t looking up. Look up.