Archive for June, 2009
Anonymity in reporting did not start with blogging. But anonymous writing has exploded since the arrival of the web. Whether it is blogs, comments below blogs, comments beneath comment pieces or articles, or indeed articles themselves, anonymity – or in most cases pseudonyms – has characterized much of this first phase of democratic self-publishing.
There are certainly downsides to anonymity. Not knowing who has written something deprives comments and blogs of context. It creates another hurdle for the reader to climb to establish a piece’s credibility. It can relieve the author of feelings of responsibility. This can make the writer feel freer to write whatever they want, which can also lead him/her to extend their language or their accusations further than they might were their identity known.
There are also some big upsides to anonymity. One of these is the remarkable flowering of many new voices on the internet. This explosion of new, previously unheard voices is not only a good thing for political writing – as recognised by this year’s special Orwell Prize for blogging – but a good thing for society and for public understanding. It is part of the reinvention of journalism. Previously, people had to take their stories to a professional journalist and rely on that journalist, and his/her publication, to publish. This is no longer the case. They can publish it themselves.
Enormous numbers of people have taken up this opportunity. At BlogPulse’s last count there were 110,175,548 blogs published on the net. In the UK, there are blogs about care working (like Tanya Corbett’s), about magistrates (like The law West of Ealing Broadway), about local politics (like Bob Piper’s), and about driving an ambulance (like Random Acts of Reality).
But we are still at the very early stages of this reinvention. As the Media Standards Trust discovered with the 87 entries to this year’s Orwell Prize for Blogging (we, the Media Standards Trust – run the Orwell Prize with Political Quarterly and the Orwell Trust, but have no role in the judging), some blogs have a way to go before they could be said to have achieved Orwell’s aim of making political writing into an art. And there are clearly many unanswered questions about the responsibilities of bloggers to their work, to their colleagues, to those they work with and to the public.
Night Jack’s blog about his experiences as a policeman, which he submitted to this year’s special Orwell Prize for Blogging, was – the judges unanimously agreed – ‘wonderful’ and a clear winner. In their judgment ‘’The insight into the everyday life of the police that Jack Night’s wonderful blog offered was – everybody felt – something which only a blog could deliver, and he delivered it brilliantly’. Their decision was subsequently welcomed by many others. In an editorial The Guardian wrote that although Night Jack had stopped blogging after receiving the prize, ‘what is already there should be read by anyone who has a view on policing… This is life as the police see it. Read it’. His blogs not only illuminated the daily grind of a policeman, but shed light on the legal and judical process – something that has sadly disappeared from most newspapers with the decline of court reporting.
Night Jack was careful to disguise his own identity, and that of the people and cases he blogged about. He even stopped blogging having won the prize, conscious that his increased profile would make it impossible to continue. He did not seek to make any money from his blogs – then or since. He did not come to the awards ceremony. He donated his £3,000 prize money to the Police Benevolent Fund.
Then this week, more than two months after Night Jack stopped blogging, The Times published his real name, his picture, the police force in which he worked, and the name of one of the people in a case about which he wrote.
The Times justified its actions by suggesting that it was exposing the malpractice of a police officer. It did not say anything he had written was inaccurate, nor did it explain the public interest in publishing his real name – as opposed simply to telling the police force for which he worked (which it did) and letting them take disciplinary action (which they are). Why did it then need to publish it to an audience of millions? By publishing his identity the paper has not only prevented the continuation of the Night Jack blog (in its previous form), but significantly raised the risks of others who may be writing, or thinking about writing, from the frontline of public life.
By taking the decision to expose Night Jack The Times has almost certainly deprived us of voices that would otherwise have spoken out. It will probably have made whistleblowers and anonymous sources think twice before releasing information. It has, in other words, done a good job of suppressing free speech and freedom of expression.
In 1984 George Orwell wrote “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It appears that The Times has, in this instance, taken on the role of a large boot, stamping on a little but important voice. Is this something for which a venerable 225-year-old newspaper would like to be remembered?
Hooray! We’ve just launched a *new, improved, fresh faced Journalisted (www.journalisted.com)*. Apart from looking cleaner and more well scrubbed, we’ve added a bunch of stuff to the new site to make it – we hope – that much more useful:
- *Compare journalists who write similar articles*. Our clever semantic search tool compares the articles of all national news journalists and identifies journalists who write stories about similar subjects. Andrew Grice (The Independent), Andrew Sparrow (The Guardian), and Andrew Porter (The Daily Telegraph) – for example – as well as sharing the same first name, also all write about Westminster politics. Richard Littlejohn, Peter McKay, Peter Oborne, Macer Hall and others all tend to write trenchant pieces on the government and Gordon Brown. Charlie Brooker, who writes a TV and a feature column, pens pieces similar to Anna Pickard and Sam Wollaston (the TV ones) but also Paul Carr and Hugo Rifkind (the technology and features types stuff). It gets even more fun if you do one degree of separation but that’s for those with far too much time on their hands
- *Read similar articles by other journalists*. Click on an article and you can not only see people who are blogging about it or commenting on it, but read similar articles by other journalists. This is meant to help in three ways: (1) You can compare facts – e.g. on swine flu cases, on political revelations, crime etc (2) You can compare opinions – about books, people or politics, (3) You can see who is churning out press releases (because their articles will bear a remarkable similarity to wire copy in other papers)
- *Link to more biographical info*. We’ve made it alot easier for journalists – and the public – to send us more links to Wikipedia pages, Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts, you name it. And we’re going to encourage people to send links to prizes won, books written etc.
- *Articles from other publications*. The old site only covered the national press and the BBC. Though we don’t automatically add any additional articles on the new site journalists can now send us articles published in other publications – to better represent their output
There’s some more new stuff – and alot more in the pipeline – but I’ll let you find that for yourself.
If you’ve got any thoughts on how we can make the site better – or if you find any glitches we haven’t spotted – please let me know (by commenting here or emailing me at martin DOT moore AT mediastandardstrust DOT org).
What do these have in common:
Addiply – ‘Perfectly targetted local advertising’ software aimed at entrepreneurial journalists and online news organisations. Rick Waghorn tells you more about it on his blog, and you can see it in action on the Peoples Republic of South Devon
Talk About Local – ‘a project to give people in their communities a powerful online voice’ by teaching them how to use online community and reporting tools.
Journalisted – a directory of all the journalists published in the national press and on the BBC with links to their articles and other useful info (statement of interest – we built and run Journalisted – and are about to launch a new version) at www.journalisted.com
Debategraph – enabling you to use interactive graphics to help structure debate. “What’s cool here: This tool lets you “see” and engage with ideas, and explore their inter-relationships, very elegantly” says Craig Stoltz (from debategraph.org)
They are all news innovations that have the potential to change the way we fund, gather, publish and consume news on the web.
But it’s rare that the people who developed these innovations, who use them, or who who want to understand their potential, get a chance to meet and discuss them (the recent JeeCamp being a notable exception).
That’s why we, the Media Standards Trust and the Web Science Research Initiative, are organising News Innovation London – a half-day ‘unconference’ on 10th July, supported by NESTA (and at NESTA’s swish 1 Plough Place venue).
The idea is to get a bunch of journalists, developers and thinkers (academics and think tank types) together to talk about this stuff and learn from one another. It’s an unconference so there’s no formal programme and anyone can put their name down to present (wiki to go up shortly).
It’s free – as long as you register in time, and as long as you’re prepared to participate (and maybe even present). You can register at http://newsinnovationlondon.eventbrite.com/
If you’re developing an online news innovation yourself, or know about one you think should get an airing, please do tell me about it here or, even better, come along on the 10th.