Category Archives: Media

Transparency and Process Journalism

There’s two schools of thought when it comes to publishing news.

There’s the traditional approach, where you take your time and make sure you have multiple named sources you’re personally and directly in contact with. That is, in my mind, the best possible way to ensure you’re getting your facts straight.

The second school relies on several factors:

  1. Direct single sourcing (named official at Dept of Defense told me)
  2. Reliance on third party sources (New York Times reported through (named source)
  3. Reliance on third party unnamed source (New York Times reported through senior government official.

We see a lot more of the second school these days than the personally acquired source and that leads to less reliable reporting. Worse yet, there’s often no accountability or a documentation how the story evolved over time as better sources emerged.

The traditional method of reporting has become less common as new media outlets rely on aggregation of sources. Even traditional reporting relies on a combination of both personally acquired sources and a mix of aggregated reports.

What’s usually lacking from either of these methods is a way for the reporter to provide to the reader the ability to understand how the story evolved. An “Editor’s Note” that appears at the top or bottom of the post seems insufficient. Something like NewsDiffs can be useful but doesn’t plug directly into the existing website (if it could, that might be a good solution.)

What would be ideal is a way for the reader to turn on the corrections/changes made by clicking a link at the top of the post that turns the post into a “track changes” mode, which shows the updates made over time. You might even allow the reader to see what the story looked like on a particular day. In addition, it would be useful to simply give the reader the ability to follow the story and be alerted each time it gets changed or corrected. We did exactly that with Circa, but it would be even better to see it built into existing media properties.

This transparency builds greater trust between the reader and the publisher. It also reclaims something that is becoming lost when readers are led to many places through social media rather than relying on a single publication: loyalty. If I am given the ability to track a story over time and understand I’ll be told if something changes or is corrected, I’m more likely to go back to that same source which I’ve subscribed to.

It’s no longer sufficient to think you can change a story and think nobody will notice, you might as well be upfront with readers as the story evolves and allow them to stay connected to those changes as they happen. The alternative is hope nobody will notice only to have others explain how you’ve made those changes and tried to act like nothing happened, which serves to do nothing but erode credibility and trust in the publication.

Traditional media’s refusal to enter the link economy

Blogger ethics tend to be better than traditional journalism ethics when it comes to linking to sources. It’s actually far more likely you won’t find a single link in any articles in most mainstream news publications online. Sometimes they may even write out the source, but won’t link to it.

Here’s an example of where the New York Post cites TV Newser and Mediaite, but refuses to link to either. Both Newser and Mediaite are generous with links to their sources. Apparently the New York Post is a common offender. The Post has gone so far as to have allegedly admitted, by way of correspondence from one of their reporters, that they in fact have a policy to not credit blogs (or anyone else) if they can verify independently after they’ve been tipped off from the source they choose not to cite. Other parts of News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch’s empire, which includes the Post, may have the same policy as well.

Recently, NBC New York used a good deal of their reporting from a post written by NYC The Blog, which does excellent coverage of stories that often fall between the cracks, and does so with great detail. The author of the post originally did not bother to mention his source, then added the mention, but has yet to link to it.

Why are mainstream news outlets so averse to the link economy? Even here at Reuters, links are rarely seen, if ever, in the context of the articles we post. Felix Salmon recently referred to the Wall Street Journal as “the kid in class with his arm around his homework” in reference to their refusal to link. The New York Times is just as stingy with their links, relegating their modern link-friendly journalism to excellent places like The Lede.

The Lede is one of the few places I’ll return to multiple times a day, because it’s indicative of the way the world works now: real-time and part of a cooperative effort among outside sources, linking back and forth to one another, without regard for their internal or external affiliation.

Journalism today is a collaborative effort and the digital natives link to their sources as a matter of course. They understand the value of the link economy and it is rarely a one way street. Linking out doesn’t take traffic away from your site; instead, it makes your site more valuable as a comprehensive source of where information is flowing, it helps to show you’ve done your homework and are able to back it up.

This is not particularly new ground I’m covering here. Jeff Jarvis has written extensively on the link economy. Our own president of media, Chris Ahearn, believes in the link economy and Felix Salmon has weighed in on how the link economy benefits Reuters.

The issue is both technical and cultural. Many of these crusty old media behemoths are still embedded in the maw of very old editorial workflows that simply make it impossible to link out. Personally, I find this hard to believe, since if they’re publishing to the web, surely they have some way of linking within their articles. What I find more easy to believe, but not entirely a valid excuse, is the culture.

The culture of current “old media” newsrooms does not have the ethical inclination to link. They’re still provincial and afraid that once someone has clicked a link to a referring source, they’re gone forever. The digital natives practically have the link embedded into their DNA. Sure, there are some bloggers with loose ethics when it comes to citing their sources by way of a link, but few of them do it by way of policy and the ones who do so often are not the ones running a business behind it.

How long will it take for the old guard to make way for the link friendly digital natives? Considering how much the powers that be are relying on those natives to help them transform the media business into something that can feasibly exist in the current landscape, sooner than you think.

(Photo credit: by cogdogblog on Flickr)

Stop matching

“Matching” — when one or more news organizations writes a story based on a news item that another outlet broke first — is an institutional problem deeply rooted within many mainstream newsrooms.

To paraphrase myself from this articlesometimes it’s a business strategy: Ignore your competition, don’t let your readers know they exist, pretend they didn’t beat you. Sometimes it’s cultural: The journalists come from a print background and didn’t grow up with the web like digital natives.Sometimes it’s technical: The CMS simply wasn’t created with links in mind (this sounds crazy but is actually true in some cases), or the system is built to serve multiple masters (print and digital), and the print side inexplicably wins out over the digital.

Often it’s a combination of one or more.

The practice of “matching” a story is an outdated one that still continues despite the fact we’re all now working with a medium that no longer requires it. If someone already reported the story, you’ve verified their story is correct, and you have nothing to move that story forward, write a brief and link to whom did the legwork already. By all means, let your readers know about the story, lead them to it. Be a beacon for all news, not just your own. Then, move on and produce something of more value.

Newsrooms are low on resource; apply those resources efficiently. Your 500-word re-write of the same article as your “competitor,” as you call them, is unnecessary and a total waste of time.

I’m not calling out anyone in particular — I’m calling out our entire industry that does this all day long and twice on Sunday. I’m begging you please, to stop. For your own good and for a public awash in duplicative information.

Anonymous Source-aholics Anonymous

Two very popular people have been in the news lately: “Senior government official” and “Law enforcement source.”

When you, the reader or viewer, see or hear either of these mysterious figures cited, proceed with caution. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • CNN’s John King and the Associated Press report that the Boston Marathon bombing suspect had been arrested and taken into custody. King based his information on his unnamed “law enforcement source.” The AP never clarified where their false information came from, presumably parroting King or the same “law enforcement source.” They both wound up being wrong.
  • The New York Times, the New York Daily News, Buzzfeed, and once again CNN and the Associated Press falsely report that the Washington Navy Yard Shooter was armed with an AR-15. All of them cited anonymous “law enforcement sources” while Buzzfeed simply created a listicle claiming “The Navy Yard Shooter Used The Same Style Weapon As Sandy Hook and Aurora.” Buzzfeed never bothered to pull the post, instead opting to change the title to“Officials Now Say That The Navy Yard Shooter Did Not Use The Same Style Weapon As Sandy Hook And Aurora” and at the very end of the post add, “The FBI has stated that they officially have no information about Alexis having an AR-15 in his posession during the attacks, contrary to earlier military reports.” The New York Timeslater updated their article but haven’t bothered to inform readers that they removed the reference they had earlier with the false report that the gunman was armed with an AR-15.The New York Daily News even ran the false report of the AR-15 on their cover. The AP’s story online still falsely stated at the time of this article being published that the gunman was carrying an AR-15.
  • The New York Times became so addicted to the use of anonymous sources in their Syria and New York mayoral race reporting, their own Public Editor called them out on it. She cited one reader’s comment that stated: “As usual, The New York Times is more than glad to help the most powerful leaders in the world get their message out without having to worry about little things about accountability, counterarguments, other facts and various unknowns…”
  • The Associated Presss ran this photo which they stated was related to the Navy Yard shooting. They later retracted the photo after learning it was not related to the shooting. (Update: AP now says the photo was redacted because they couldn’t confirm if the photo was related to the shooting, Buzzfeed has details about how the photo has now been confirmed by AP, who plan to potentially release the photo)

Respect and trust must be earned and every mistake should chip away at the credibility of the organization running these reports. However, I wonder if the average reader or viewer actually remembers these mistakes or if they continue to trust again and again. Jon Stewart provided this depressing commentary:

“The lesson they take from this is, it doesn’t matter how much they betray our trust, we’ll keep coming back.”

I wish he was wrong but I suspect he’s right.

The disconnect between traditional media and UGC

The majority of newsworthy video out of Syria, Egypt and all over the world, shot by camera phone finds its way to YouTube by way of citizens. The first thought of the shooter is usually not: “I need to share this with a major TV news network” because they don’t care about traditional television news networks or more likely they’ve never heard of them.

They have, however, heard of the Internet and that’s where they decide to share it with the world.

Companies like Storyful understand this and realize that UGC doesn’t magically come to you and it’s unlikely to seek you out. In order to be the first to discover it, you need to know where to look and develop good systems for hunting it down. It’s very much a traditional journalism exercise but requires very non-traditional journalistic tools to find them.

What we do need more of is people who know how to hunt down UGC and better tools for finding it. We’re pretty much all set with tools on how to capture it and where to upload it. News organizations would like to set up ways for themselves to be the sole place people choose to present that content, but the many attempts to do this have had very poor results.

Think of one of the more recent, most newsworthy photos: a high resolution image of the Boston bomber that was uploaded to, you guessed it: Facebook.

I think it’s incredibly cool to give citizens new tools to get UGC in the hands of the media, just don’t expect them to do something other than what the majority of citizens already do: whip out their phone take a photo or video and share it to Facebook or Twitter.

The people who will win are the ones who can find it.

(Photo credit:  Digital Trends)

News agencies must evolve or face extinction

Imagine you’re a reporter and you suddenly witness a major news event occurring right before your eyes. Do you snap it to the wire, file a story to your website, or tweet it out to your followers? If you’re at the AP, you damn well better not choose the latter.

In a perfect world, you’d want to do all the above, though your employer is going to likely want you to do the first two before you tweet. Today, Reuters is a lot more than just a wire service. We’ve built — and are continuing to build — what we think is the world’s greatest news website, in the form of Reuters.com, and part of that is providing our readers with reliable and timely news, information, opinion and analysis.

An extension of that website is the information we post on our social media accounts, at Google+, Twitter and on Facebook. We’re not just reporting our own news there, but have become a beacon for all news, being as comprehensive as possible so readers come to us first for all they need to know. We’ve got things like Counterparties, created by Ryan McCarthy and Felix Salmon that does a great job at bringing news from around the web to our readers.

The wire is still a huge part of our business and always will be. However, acting in a way that handcuffs us from doing our best work on Reuters.com and on social networks, which help drive traffic and extend our brand, is writing a death sentence for us as a future media company. To bury our head in the sand and act like Twitter (and who knows what else comes into existence next month or five years from now?) isn’t increasingly becoming the source of what informs people in real-time is ridiculous.

In order to compete with these new and existing technologies, our wire will need to increasingly become better and faster, not only for our subscribers but for the reporters using it to file reports. The fact that it is easier to fire off a Tweet than it is to snap a wire report is unacceptable. Having a policy where you’re asked never to post something on Twitter before it goes out over the wire will put us at a competitive disadvantage, as other news organizations develop a reputation for being the first to report accurately all the news that matters. As my esteemed colleague Robert MacMillan points out: “in some cases, the tweet before the scoop might be the only way to beat your competitor if your competitor has no restrictions on tweeting,” and “when a news outlet tells a reporter, “don’t tweet first,” in some cases that means that news outlet has lost the edge.

The institutional brand building you create by having your journalists be great on social platforms cannot be underestimated. Part of having your journalists on these platforms is giving them the freedom to be a normal human being, not a robot, a PR machine or a slave to the wire. Do we want to serve the wire above all, since our paying customers deserve to get that information first? Yes, we do. But we can do that without sacrificing the incredible value we create by making ourselves a must-follow on all social networks because of the information we provide and two way conversations we can have with our readers. We can only do that if we’re not tied down by rules that ignore the reality of the present and the future of media.

Our direct competitors and two guys in a basement somewhere are already developing tools to be the next generation newsroom. If we’re not busy doing the same thing, we’re dead.