Archive for October, 2010

577 US sites publishing hNews news

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The San Francisco Chronicle was founded in 1865. It is the only daily broadsheet newspaper in San Francisco – and is published online at SFgate.com. In the 1960s Paul Avery was a police reporter at the Chronicle when he started investigating the so-called ‘Zodiac Killer’. And, earlier this year Mark Fiore won a Pulitzer Prize for his animated online cartoons for the paper (well worth watching his cartoon with Snuggly the security beardemonstrating how to make the internet ‘wire tap friendly’).

The Chronicle is also one of 577 US news sites now publishing articles with hNews(full list here).

hNews is the news microformat we developed with the Associated Press that makes the provenance of news articles clear, consistent and machine readable. A news article with hNews will – by definition – identify its author, its source organisation, its title, when it was published and – in most cases – the license associated with its use and a link to the principles to which it adheres (e.g. see AP essential news). It could also have where it was written, when it was updated, and a bunch of other useful stuff.

Essentially, hNews makes the provenance of a news article a lot more transparent – which is good news for whoever produces the article (gains credit, creates potential revenue models etc.), and good news for the end user (better able to assess its provenance, greater credibility etc.).

Up to now, though we have been aware that many sites have been integrating hNews, there has not been a published list of these sites. This seemed to us a little unsatisfactory. So we went out and found as many of them as we could and have now published them on a list as an open Google doc.

There are, I understand, a few hundred more sites that have either already integrated hNews or are in the process of integrating it. We haven’t found them yet but will add them when we do. If you know of one (or if you are one) please let us know and we’ll add it.

If you’re interested in integrating hNews and are wondering why you would, you can read a piece I wrote for PBS MediaShift (‘How metadata can eliminate the need for paywalls’), see the official specification at hNews microformats wiki, watch an hNews presentation by Stuart Myles, view a (slightly dated) slideshow on why it creates ‘Value Added News’, or see how to add hNews to WordPress.

hNews was developed as part of the transparency initiative of the Media Standards Trust, which aims to make news on the web more transparent. The initiative has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation. You can read more about the transparency initiative elsewhere on this site.

This post was first published on the Media Standards Trust site on Tuesday 12th October, 2010

Update: I’m grateful to Max Cutler for spotting a number of duplicate entries in the original list which have now been cleaned up. It’s still 577 sites since in the process of cleaning we found a few more. And, as I wrote in my original post, this number is by no means final. There are almost certainly a lot more sites publishing with hNews, it’s just a matter of finding them (through sweat and scrapers). So if you spot any that aren’t on the list, please let me know

Written by Martin Moore

October 15th, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Posted in hNews

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Pastor Terry Jones skewered by good journalism (finally)

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The interview starts very low key. Owen Bennett-Jones asks US pastor Terry Jones, the Christian pastor who threatened to burn 200 copies of the Koran, how he feels about the episode now. The pastor replies he has no regrets and that he believes the escalation of the episode was simply an indication of its importance.

Bennett-Jones moves gently on to ask the Pastor about his congregation in Florida (previously 50-strong, now down to about 30), his small town background, his conservative Christian upbringing and the development of his faith. By the time the World Service interviewer has begun asking about his religious qualifications I was wondering where it was all going and was about to switch over.

But then the tone of the interview starts to change and, over the next 20 minutes, Bennett-Jones brilliantly exposes the Pastor as unrepresentative, uninformed, and entirely unqualified to make any substantive comments about Christianity, let alone Islam. In doing so the World Service journalist also shows up the absurdity of elevating such a shallow bigot to the international stage.

The slow opening turns out to be a platform on which Bennett-Jones can show the Pastor’s astonishingly limited exposure to other faiths and lack of qualifications. It means the interviewer can then ask Terry Jones how he has come to his views on homosexuality (that ‘it is not right’ and ‘leads to death’). The Pastor cites the Bible and confirms that Leviticus is one of his sources.

“I notice you have a trimmed neat beard” Bennett-Jones then says. Yet “Leviticus states that you shouldn’t cut the hair at the sides of your head. Why are you in breach of Leviticus?”. The Pastor pleads ignorance; ‘I am not a theologian’. Bennett-Jones persists: “Do you ever wear garments of mixed fibres?” The Pastor tries to laugh this one off. But Bennett-Jones does not let go. If you do these things, he asks, “On what basis do you choose various bits of Leviticus [e.g. to condemn homosexuality] and not others?”

From the superficiality of his knowledge of the Bible, the interviewer moves on to his knowledge of Islam. On this subject you would have thought Terry Jones would be quite well-versed. He has written a book called ‘Islam is of the devil’ (2010), and he has threatened to burn 200 copies of it publicly. Yet, when Bennett-Jones asks him if he has read the Koran the Pastor confesses that he has not (“I do not need to read the Koran” he says, since all he needs to know is in the Bible). He cannot explain Ramadan. He cannot even say how many times a day a Muslim prays. He has not tried to speak to Muslims, and the only country he has been to with a Muslim majority is Egypt.

Therefore, Bennett-Jones shows, the Pastor’s ideas about Islam are based on nothing but his own prejudices. So why on earth did the world media (with notable exceptions) focus so much attention on him ? Why did it get to the point that the US Secretary of State and President had to intervene?

Trying to be very charitable one could say the media believed Terry Jones’ threats highlighted broader US public concerns, animated by plans to build a mosque near the 9/11 site in New York.

But why the poverty of journalistic scrutiny? Bennett-Jones may have provided a masterclass in interview technique, but where was the journalism three weeks before? Did anyone spend the time to work out that there was no reason to focus on Terry Jones’ threat since he was almost entirely unrepresentative?

This interview is a terrific justification of good journalism. It’s just a shame no-one did it three weeks ago.

The Interview: Pastor Terry Jones‘ – was first broadcast on the BBC World Service on 2nd October 2010

Written by Martin Moore

October 8th, 2010 at 3:58 pm

A defence of phone hacking, from ex-NotW journalist

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Paul McMullan is probably not the best defender of press freedom. His arguments are muddled and contradictory. He puts forward moral arguments for privacy intrusion, but then confesses to having no moral sense. Yet he is worth listening to, partly because his arguments clearly reflect the views of others working in newspapers, and partly because – as Nick Davies said at the City University debate on phone hacking last night – he is the one of the only ones “who had the bollocks to speak on the record” about phone hacking and other ‘dark arts’ practiced at the News of the World.

McMullan was a features executive and member of the News of the World’s investigations team. He now runs a pub in Dover. He told Nick Davies at the Guardian that “Getting information from confidential records, we did that regularly, time and time again. I always hid behind the journalist’s fundamental get-out clause that, if it’s in the public interest, you can do what you like. Some of what Steve [Whittamore] did was legal, like using the electoral register, but if he went a step further, I would not have given a second thought to whether that was illegal, because that’s part of your job.”

McMullan was one of six panellists debating how far a journalist should go, to a packed auditorium of 400+ students and journalists at City. Also on the panel were Guardian journalist Nick Davies, solicitor Mark Lewis, Professor Roy Greenslade, Max Mosley and Lord (Ken) MacDonald (former DPP), chaired by Andrew Caldecott QC.

For McMullan journalism pursues noble ends by ignoble means. It exposes corruption, hypocrisy, misbehaviour and moral transgressions. This is his justification not just for phone hacking but for delving deep into the private lives of public figures. If they hold themselves up as figures of public virtue, he argued, then the press should be able to show people when that is not true. We have a right to expose “dirty little sinners… breaking their marriage vows”, McMullan said.

Nor is it just public figures, but anyone who might have done something wrong. McMullan was particularly proud of a News of the World splash he worked on that ‘named and shamed’ 50 peadophiles in the UK, publishing their names, photographs and addresses in the paper. Unfortunately, as Roy Greenslade pointed out, not all of those named were paedophiles and a number later successfully sued the paper for defamation.

Privacy, for McMullan, is just another word for secrecy, and secrecy should be exposed. “Privacy is the place where we do bad things” McMullan said. “In order to have a free and open society, you must treat privacy as the demon”. Though the former NotW journalist may have been exaggerating for the sake of effect, the idea that journalists should have a right to invade people’s privacy for the greater benefit of society is shared by others. Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of Mail Group Newspapers, made a similar argument in one of his rare public outings in November 2008:

“if mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process” (Paul Dacre, Society of Editors, 9 November 2008).

Yet there are many contradictions inherent in McMullan’s argument. He does not indicate whether there should be different rules for ‘public figures’ as against ‘ordinary people’. Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on Monday night, ‘Tabloids, Tories and Telephone Hacking’, interviewed a woman who had been the victim of a sexual assault by a celebrity. She was not herself a celebrity. She had not chosen to be assaulted. She had asked for, and been granted, legal anonymity by the court. Yet she was traced, pursued and harassed by journalists and photographers because – it would appear – her personal details were hacked.

Nor is it clear what constitutes ‘a public figure’ and whether public figures deserve some privacy protection as well. Politicians are public figures but are those that head the Federation International de l’Automobile (as Mosley did)? Mr Dacre is a public figure, yet he is highly protective of his own privacy, as are other newspaper editors, owners and executives like Richard Desmond and Rebekah Brooks (of News International). And we read very little about Dacre, Desmond or Brooks in the press. Only The Independent, for example, published the news that Richard Desmond’s divorce went through this week.

Celebrities are clearly public figures, but less clear is whether exposing their private lives is in the public interest. But, the argument goes, they are role models, and often deliberately expose their private lives for their own benefit; therefore the press are justified in publishing stories that appear to contradict a celebrity’s public persona. Yet, as Max Mosley pointed out, people do not go to watch John Terry because he is a good family man, they go to see him play football. On top of which, there is something sinister about the fact that the News of the World, we learn, keeps ‘dossiers’ on public figures and celebrities.

Eventually McMullan’s defence defaulted to the public. “The bigger jury is the readership” he said. If people do not approve of the stories than they will stop buying the paper, and then the paper will have to publish less intrusive stories.

This argument falls down on many fronts. People used to flock to public executions, but that was not used as a justification to maintain the death penalty. In addition to which, people did not know how the News of the World, and other newspapers, were finding their stories until the Guardian and the New York Times started investigating it.

Which brings us to the final irony in McMullan’s argument. If transparency is such a public good, why has News International reportedly paid out almost £2 million already to prevent files held by the police coming into the public domain? Wouldn’t it be to the benefit of everyone if these files – which purportedly have details of thousands of examples of privacy intrusion by the press – were opened up so we could judge for ourselves whether they were done in the public interest?

Other blogs about the City University #phonehacking debate:

Phone hacking: ex-News of the World journalist ‘tapped up’ by police‘ Josh Halliday

Mosley and McMullan ‘star’ in News of the World phone-hacking debate‘ Roy Greenslade

Nick Davies apologises to the News of the World‘ Jon Slattery

Privacy or press freedom? journalism needs to juggle both‘ Wannabe Hacks

Written by Martin Moore

October 6th, 2010 at 1:07 pm

How can journalism harness collective public attention?

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There are weeks where you learn a lot. This, for me, has been one of them. I’ve been immersed in talks and discussions about the future of the web – first at the Royal Society in London, then out at the Kavli Centre out in Buckinghamshire (a sort of Bletchley Park type retreat for scientists).

The Kavlie Centre

I’ll let others much smarter and more tech-savvy than me talk about the tech stuff (which you can read about here, and here, with more to come). My particular interest was with what the future of the web means for journalism and public interest news.

On this I learnt two big things. One about the importance of metadata (which I’ve written lots about already). The other about the value of collective attention. Journalists think a lot about individual attention (ie how you grab someone’s attention), and have begun thinking about collective intelligence (ie how the public can help fill the role of the Fourth Estate), but much less about the value of collective attention.

Collective attention, in the sense of lots and lots of people around the world focusing on the same thing, has come of age with the internet. It is one thing to have 10 million people watching an episode of a soap opera on TV. It is another order of magnitude to have 500 million people updating their Facebook profiles.

Luis von Ahn, a professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, has thought a lot about collective attention. Ahn has spent the last decade or so mulling over how to use people’s collective intelligence for useful and constructive ends, as he told the audience at the Royal Society on Tuesday.

It started with captcha. You know, that annoying distorted text you have to reproduce when you’re signing up to a web service like gmail.

von Ahn invented captcha to help stop spamming. But, having invented it, he started feeling guilty. Guilty that he was taking up 6-10 seconds of millions of people’s time to do something pretty useless in the bigger scheme of things. Indeed he felt so guilty that he decided to reinvent captcha so that it would do something useful.

Captcha uses human intelligence to interpret something a computer can’t. A computer cannot read horribly distorted letters and numbers, a human can. What else can a human read but a computer can’t, von Ahn asked himself. Old books. Old books and manuscripts are often hand written, or typed in fonts that are incomprehensible to computers. This doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in a library reading books but is a real problem if you want to digitise them and make them widely available on the net.

But what if you could take the words from old books that a computer can’t read, and put them into captcha? That way you can harness human intelligence towards a constructive end. So this is what von Ahn did.

Having come up with the idea and how to do it he then did a deal with Google, which made captcha (now renamed ‘re-captcha’) freely available to others – provided it could collect the words people typed in for use in digitising books.

There are now 750 million people a year typing re-captchas. That means 750 million people interpreting words scanned from old books. That translates into about 2 million books now being digitised each year.

Luis von Ahn is not alone. Many others are trying to harness the collective attention (nb see The Social Computer experiment), but what about public interest journalism?

Spot.us has recently started using collective attention to help fund stories. The site (run by the endlessly creative thinking David Cohn) enables people to donate money for news stories they want investigated. The problem is, it turns out lots of people want things investigated but don’t have much money to donate (e.g. students). So Cohn got around this by asking them to donate time rather than money.

If they take the time to fill in a survey then they earn ‘credits’ which they can then donate to an investigation. The credits translate into real money thanks to partnerships spot.us has organized with various companies.

Collective intelligence is slightly different. With collective attention you’re not asking too much of the public, outside a little bit of their attention. With collective intelligence you’re asking the public to perform a task – scrutinize public documents for example. The Guardian has done this with MPs expenses. The Straight Choice did this in a different way by crowd sourcing election materials. In the internet age there is clearly a big role for collective intelligence, but so is there for collective attention (though the line between the two will often be blurred).

Many news websites now count their audiences in the tens of millions each month. Yet despite these astonishing numbers they find it very hard to earn enough in advertising revenue to fund original journalism. Maybe they need to be more creative about how they harness collective intelligence.

Written by Martin Moore

October 1st, 2010 at 4:08 pm