Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

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What ethnography can teach us about better reporting

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.

Your access to a source is only as good as the image they have of you as a journalist. (Photo/vek via Flickr)

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.

A lot of our audience doesn’t understand how the media works. We can help them by being more transparent.

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.

Note: This is a repost from the JSK Class of 2019 Medium Site

Improving journalism by taking cues from experts in disinformation

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.

Newsgeist WhiteboardOn 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*:

  • Institutional trust
  • Experience and professional training
  • Many steps, voices and layers involved before publishing
  • Rules of ethics, code of conduct
  • Legal liability for what is published
  • Brand recognition
  • Adherence to industry norms of objectivity and fairness
  • A shared mission to inform and tell the truth
  • Transparency
  • Support and checks by editors and copyeditors
  • Audience participation
  • 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
  • Engaging visuals
  • 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

Steve accepts the Rich Jaroslovsky Founder Award at the Online News Association conference in September 2016.

Remembering Steve Buttry, the Man Who Would Always Take the Meeting

Steve Buttry, a journalist for more than 45 years, died February 19 at age 62 of 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 2016.

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.

When I heard he was hired on at an emerging new media startup I had been closely following in DC, I sent him a direct message to ask him to keep me in mind when he got there. And he did.

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

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.

NYT giving lessons in ineffective revenue models?

Last week, I and pretty much every other media blogger on the earth wrote about the potential problems facing the New York Times’ plan to charge non-subscribers for using their site. Giving a bit of credit where it is due, the Times has evolved it’s metered paywall plan to not charge those coming into stories from blog referrals, emails and social media (which had been a big concern of mine).

While this change is great in that it recognizes the importance of the passer-by reader, it does present a challenge in the sense that most online readers fall into this category – so what kind of money can they get from charging for this content in the first place? As others have noted, it isn’t even as if they’re charging for content now, just for the ability to use their site navigation. In other words, they want to kill their section front traffic, but keep their story-by-story page views.

The Times’ Opinionator Blog even grudgingly admits this seems like a bit of a back-off. No surprise, of course,  a NYT writer thinks the metered paywall is a good idea, but he realizes that online readers do not simply navigate to a newspaper site to peruse the news, they get their news from a combination of search, aggregators (including their own RSS readers) and recommendations from friends. If this trend continues and these sort of readers increase in number (which they will, as this is the preferred newsreading method of my generation and those younger), this porous paywall thingie doesn’t look much like a revenue model at all. It’s half-assed at best.

Which begs to mind the real question: Did the Times even really think this out? They made all kinds of big news when they first announced the metered paywall last week to all kinds of old-school-media backpats, but then they started immediately  backpedaling.

It’s made me wonder if they really had a firm grasp of what they sought to accomplish – audience and revenue-wise, with this plan from the get-go. I have to wonder, how much more will it change before it is implemented? And why did they announce this plan when they don’t seem to be very cognizant of what it will be or what they want out of it?

Jay Rosen hosts something of a debate about all of this on his blog. I suggest a read through the comments for a good look at what the reaction’s been to all of this re-jiggering.

How much does Facebook know about you?

Just how much do you tend to share on Facebook? Probably more than you think.

Facebook has recently been called onto the carpet by Canada (the country!) for violating their privacy laws. In particular, the Canadian Privacy Commissioner took issue with the social network’s often confusing privacy agreement, their retention of users’ personal data even after they’ve left the network and how third-party apps use members’ private info.

Facebook agreed to implement changes that would affect all users, but would get Canada off their backs. After the changes take place, FB will change their privacy policy to better explain to users how and why their info is used – and it will require apps to explain the same each time a user accesses them.

And it’s a good thing too. Recently, the ACLU has been trying to raise awareness about Facebook quizzes. Sure, they might seem harmless – after all, you’re just finding out what Simpsons character you are, right? Wrong. Actually these quizzes, in particular, can find out a ton of info about you  – like your political affiliations, sexual orientation, religious background, etc. – based on fairly innocuous questions (not to mention the info they are allowed to pull from your account when you activate them).

It’s great that Facebook will be forcing apps to explain what info will be taken and how it will be used – otherwise, where could private info about you end up? In the hands of your employer? The government? A debt collector? The possibilities are frightening to consider.

Even with these changes, Facebook will continue to expand the info it asks users to give up in efforts to expand their “real time search”, which allows you to search the entire network, including news feeds, status messages, groups and more. Just over the past few months, they’ve instituted changes that, depending on your privacy settings, can make your info available to anyone (not just those in your network like before). Even if you’ve got your privacy settings where you want the, take another look to see what’s changed. Need help? Here’s a guide for arranging your privacy settings.

Aside from Facebook’s policies and your privacy settings, you should always ask yourself  exactly what info are you sharing when you update your status or share a photo? Just think – when you share on Facebook or Twitter that you’re going on vacation for two weeks – who might find that interesting? A burglar of course! It wouldn’t bee too hard to figure out where you live (especially if you’re in the phone book), or even what house is yours (ever posted a photo online that shows your home?).

Now that I’ve got you all freaked out (I hope), get back to work.

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