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*:
- 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
- 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
Pay-to-play commenting can eliminate trolls – and kill discussion
On July 15, 2010
In Industry News & Notes
Would you give your credit card number to be allowed to have a letter to the editor printed in the newspaper? Think it’s an absurd question? Maybe not.
Beginning today, The Sun Chronicle (in Attleboro, MA) is abolishing anonymous comments the only foolproof way they know how: By attaching usernames to credit transactions.
The paper is charging commenters a one-time fee of 99 cents to be paid by credit card to that each user’s comments and community name will be tied to the name on the paying card (which also is tied to their real address and phone number).
This isn’t all that new, of course. It is a similar approach as what Honolulu news start-up Civil Beat does for their site’s discussion membership level, which charges 99 cents a month via Paypal to leave comments on the site. When Jay Rosen was here visiting us at TBD a few weeks back, he sang the praises of this system for keeping trolls out of their (notably civil) online discussions.
I, as you might gather from past posts, do not agree with the entire premise of this plan for several reasons.
First and foremost, this move can and will eliminate certain segments of the paper’s readership from ever being able to post comments. Aside from the trolls they want to eliminate, the paper can also count out those who do not have a credit card. This can include young people, those with credit problems or otherwise bad finances, those who don’t trust online financial systems – and numerous other possibilities I’m sure aren’t coming to mind right away.
And anonymity, while it can breed ugliness in online comments, has its virtues as well. The ability to speak out without identification is a necessary part of sometimes difficult discussions (like the kind we have on news sites).
Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation expounded eloquently on this point in a different case (involving an embarrassing edict and retraction by the gaming company Blizzard):
Without anonymity, the comments may end up being quite banal. The next time the Sun Chronicle wants to crowdsource a story (if they do that sort of thing), they can rule out getting anyone to talk openly about their medical conditions, their families, if they witnessed a crime, if they’re having money problems – anything they wouldn’t want the whole community to know.
And finally, is this sort of step really necessary to control comments anyway? As I’ve said before, it is possible to create a robust online community by simply being more engaged as a staff. Better community via interaction is what we aim to do where I work.
Going back to the Civil Beat model, it should be noted the site’s discussions have staff hosts who are an active and visible presence in their threads. How much of Civil Beats, er, civility, is actually better attributed to staff interaction as opposed to their identified commenters?
Of course, that level of interaction requires staff hours most news orgs can’t or won’t spare. There are other, less time-intensive methods that are built into comment systems that other sites have managed to use to control trolls.
As the Editors Weblog noted:
It seems like a lot of overkill to ban anonymous comments in this fashion when there are other options available that can yield similar results – and yet still allow open discussion.