Archive for May, 2008
Just back from giving a talk to lots of charity folk (mostly from communications / press / pr) about why they need to become more like news organisations.
By that I certainly don’t mean ActionAid should try to become like News International. What I mean is that charities should do more reporting. Not PR. Not marketing and communications. On-the-ground, face-to-face, regular, consistent, fair, factual reporting.
I haven’t space in this blog to go through my whole spiel but, in bite size chunks my argument is this:
- ‘News’, in its many and various forms, is immensely important for shaping our political outlook and directing social action. If you don’t believe me then look at the effect blanket coverage of the China earthquake had on fundraising compared to the virtually non-existent coverage of Burma. Over $900m raised for Chinese earthquake victims (approximately 74,000 deaths to date). About $55m raised for Burmese cyclone victims (approximately 134,000 deaths to date) – source, The Times (22-5-08).
- News organisations are doing less on-the-ground reporting. The evidence for this will be familiar to those who have been reading this blog and from Nick Davies, Press Gazette, and the missives sent out by the NUJ
- News organisations (and the public) are relying more and more on other sources for their news . I’m sure you’ve already noticed that most of us are now getting ‘news’ from lots of places we didn’t used to (this blog for instance). From the government, from commercial organisations (Property News anyone?), and of course ‘citizen journalists’, aka the public. According to OFCOM, for example, the government now spends over £100m a year producing newspapers and funding government ‘news’ outlets.
Problem is… most of these sources are erratic, they lack context, you don’t know what their motive is for writing / photographing / recording their content, and there’s little chance their news is informed by a sense of obligation to the public interest.
That’s where charities come in.
Now charities have an agenda too of course. But they are also motivated by a sense of obligation to the public, have a keen interest in seeing injustice reported, are structured in such a way that they can report as part of their day job, and of course they’re already ‘on-the-ground’. Plus, since they tend to wear their agenda on their sleeve (often in brightly coloured neon), at least you know where their bias is coming from.
But, and it’s a big but, charities have to understand that reporting is different from PR. They have to realise their audience is not just big media organisations anymore, it’s also the public. And as such their communication to the public should be informed by the values that inform journalism, not the values that inform PR.
If they collect factual information, report it fairly, and contextualise it properly, they won’t just start to fill the public information gap left by fast-departing news organisations, but will promote their own cause in a sustainable and ethical way.
Huffington Post looked, at the outset, like a car crash waiting to happen. Funded from Arianna Huffington’s own pocket it seemed like the sort of vanity project that would quickly flounder for lack of interest. Indeed David Cohn tells me that pretty much everyone at Wired, where he was working at the time, was convinced it would go nowhere.
Yet now, three years post launch, it is ‘ranked the most linked-to blog by Technorati and the most visited news weblog by Alexa’ (from Wikipedia). It has a roster of commentators from new and old media and, Arianna Huffington said in her keynote address to the Knight News Interactive Media conference last week, it is now expanding to employ reporters to do investigative journalism.
Its bite comes from its political partisanship. ‘HuffPo’ flaunts its left liberal values whenever it can and Huffington herself is outspokenly left wing. In a country where the press keeps its liberal credentials under the bonnet and TV coverage much prefers to be (and to be known as) conservative, such unashamed partisanship is a big selling point.
And Huffington herself manages to combine the savvy of a media mogul with the polemical nous of a stump politician (not surprising given that in her eclectic career she’s been both). Her speech exemplified this. In part a talk you could imagine being given by a Democrat candidate. In part a talk about the failures and flaws of mainstream media.
Indeed the media fits closely within Huffington’s political world view. “The media have a huge role to play” in issues like global warming and Iraq, she said. With Iraq, the media has been guilty of “complicity in toxic recycling of information”, and has failed the public by being “addicted to the idea that every truth has two sides”. Iraq is not a “mixed bag” as mainstream media likes to present it, Huffington told the audience of journalists and techies. To call Iraq a mixed bag was, she said, like your doctor telling you you’ve got a brain tumour but that this should be balanced by the news that your acne has cleared up.
Huffington lambasts both politicians and journalists. Some of her harshest criticism was reserved for Bob Woodward, the “dumb blond” of American media, as she called him. How could a revered journalist, she asked, have such political access that he can write two books about the Bush White House and yet completely miss the big story (i.e. that intelligence had been fabricated and there were no WMD in Iraq)?
The UK has neither a Huffington nor a Huffington Post. We have partisan political websites – particularly on the right (like Conservative Home and Iain Dale’s Diary), and we now have non-partisan online newspapers/magazines like First Post (that deliberately obscures its political outlook, telling its readers proudly that “Our political opinion has been described as ‘ill-defined’ and even ‘all over the place’”). But none that do both. Presumably because our press, unlike that in the US, has always been politically partisan. Are we missing out?
I can now explain why I’m in Las Vegas (and it’s not so I can enjoy the biggest seafood buffet in the US at this, the Rio, hotel – in a city that’s an hours flight away from the sea). Up till now we’ve been told we can’t talk about why we’re here.
We (we being the Media Standards Trust and the Web Science Research initiative) have won an award from the Knight Foundation to fund our joint transparency initiative. The Foundation has given us a grant of $350,000 (about £175,00) to develop ways to enable journalists – and people producing journalism – to add information to their articles online so the public can search for them more intelligently and, when they find them, assess them more fairly and consistently.
The project hopes to start to address the growing issue of how, given the astonishing accumulation of information on the web, people can distinguish journalism from commercial content, from government information, from personal posts etc. It will do this by developing the tools that allow journalists, news organisations, and those producing journalism (i.e. bloggers too!) to highlight basic factual information about their articles (or, to use that wonderful word ‘metadata’).
Information like, for example: that it is intended to be journalism, who it is written by, who it is written on behalf of, when it was first published, when it was last updated…. Once this has been highlighted it then becomes much much easier to enable people to search for it.
This is NOT about telling people what’s a good article or a bad article. It is NOT going to enable people to tell truth from falsehood. It is not about protecting ‘mainstream media’. Nor will it predict the winner of the 2010 election.
What it will do, we hope, is start a process in which journalists and news organisations become more transparent about their work and more consistent in describing it – to the mutual benefit of the journalists themselves and the public.
It’s non-profit, it will all be open source, and it’ll be evolutionary. We want to encourage as much flexibility and decentralised development as possible. We don’t yet know what information would be most useful to capture or indeed the best way to capture it (though we’ve got some ideas). So we’ll be documenting what we do and putting it online for people to comment on, use, adapt, develop etc.
If you have any questions about it you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you once I escape this bizarre town in the middle of the Nevada desert.
The LA Times has a distinctly different take than most newspapers on the Chinese earthquake on its front page today. The article – ‘Amid the tragedy lies opportunity’ – suggests the Chinese government is using the disaster as ‘an opportunity for a dramatic image makeover’.
‘After months of relentless coverage of Tibetan clashes and human rights abuses,’ Barbara Demick writes, ‘the earthquake shows a new China, one that is both compassionate and competent’. Demick emphasises how ‘much of the footage seen at home and abroad so far comes from state-owned CCTV television’.
Too cynical? Well, if you compare it to the New York Times it is. The NY Times, which also assesses media coverage of the earthquake, comes to a very different conclusion. For the NY Times, ‘the rescue effort playing non-stop on Chinese television is remarkable for a country that has a history of concealing the scope of national calamities and then bungling its response’.
Like its West Coast counterpart, the NY Times notes that the Chinese government news agency, Xinhua, has ‘offered an unusually vigorous stream of updates about casualties and problems confronting rescue teams’. But the East Coast paper has a much less sceptical explanation. Indeed it concludes by quoting a Chinese media professor saying that ‘this is the first time the Chinese media has lived up to international standards… I think the government is learning some lessons from the past’.
Still, Chinese media’s recent reaction to the Olympic flame debacle adds some fuel to the LA Times’ scepticism. During the protests Chinese television news was screening, on a repetitive loop, the moment when a protester tried to grapple the flame away from a disabled flame carrier. In other words – you got it – protester horrid and bad, carrier of the flame good.