Archive for June, 2011

‘A rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other’ – on public activism and civic media

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This post was first published at PBS MediaShift Idea Lab on Thursday 30th June 2011

The smell of public activism wafted across this year’s Knight Civic Media conference at MIT.

Mohammed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera English (AJE) spoke about how Al Jazeera covered the Egyptian revolution. Political consultant Chris Faulkner spoke about Tea Party activism; Yesenia Sanchez, an organizer for the P.A.S.O./Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talked about the “Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic” campaign; NPR’s Andy Carvin spoke about curating and verifying tweets from Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab Spring; and Baratunde Thurston, digital director of The Onion, gave a tremendous riff about his own — and his mother’s — activism.

If discussions were not actually about Tahrir Square, Tunisia or the Gay Girl in Damascus, they were infused by the same spirit.

Given this activist spirit, it was highly fitting that, at the start of the conference last week, Chris Csikszentmihalyi announced that Ethan Zuckerman would be succeeding him as director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media (where the conference was held). Zuckerman has been a central figure nurturing, filtering and aggregating civic media over the last decade at Harvard’s Berkman Center and particularly through Global Voices Online that he set up with Rebecca McKinnon in 2005.

Civic media is hard to define, Zuckerman told the audience. It combines at least three elements:

  • Organizing in a virtual and physical space simultaneously
  • Self-documentation using participatory media
  • Use of broadcast media as an amplifier

Digital tools for civic purposes

In Tunisia, for example, people recorded themselves protesting and then published their recordings on Facebook. In Egypt, Facebook helped people organize political meetings and support groups. Zuckerman referred to other examples across the world where people were using digital tools for civic purposes. In Russia, people have been tracking wildfires using Ushahidi at Russian-Fires.ru. (Ushahidi is a Knight News Challenge winner.) In the United States, at LandmanReportcard.com, farmers and landowners have been keeping records of visits from “Landmen,” negotiators for oil and gas companies, to expose disinformation and make sure they get a fair deal.

In Egypt, the public and the media learned from one another, AJE’s Nanabhay told the conference attendees. People recorded themselves protesting and published it online. Al Jazeera amplified those recordings. As a consequence, people recorded themselves more. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of public media that grew and grew.

People are now all too conscious of the power of self-produced media, Nanabhay said. In the past, people committed dramatic “spectacles of dissent” in the belief that this was the only way of grabbing the attention of mainstream media. Now they stand with “a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other,” recording, publishing and promoting themselves and their causes, he said.

In the United States, the grown-up children of illegal immigrants have been taking videos of themselves “coming out” as having no documentation. The more people who take videos of themselves and publish them on the Net, the more empowered they feel, and the more others join them. See, for example, this YouTube video of an Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic rally in March.

NPR’s Carvin spoke about how many of his connections and sources in Syria, who had started tweeting anonymously, were now using their real names and pictures. They had crossed a line, they said, and there was no going back. If they were to die, then they wanted others to know who they were.

The conference captured the flavor of how people are now using digital tools to empower themselves and give volume to their dissent — though this is by no means all about public anger and protest. Cronicas de Heroes Juarez, a project that came out of the Center for Future Civic Media, gathers and projects good news stories from the town of Juarez, Mexico. It was set up to balance the many bad news stories coming from the town that were creating an impression of a place in hopeless decline.

Public empowerment

A number of this year’s Knight News Challenge prizes reflected this feeling of public empowerment, of people taking control of their own representation and information.

The biggest prize winner was The Public Laboratory, a project that initially appeared less digital and more paper, scissors, stone. The project uses string, balloons, kites and cameras to take aerial photographs of landscapes. These photographs are then threaded together digitally to provide detailed information about land use, pollution, and the progress of environmental initiatives. The project found its calling after the Gulf oil spill when satellite photographs simply were not detailed enough to see the spread of oil or its impact on the environment.

Zeega, another of this year’s big winners, will help people video their own stories and edit them together on its open-source HTML5 platform. NextDrop gets even more practical still. It will provide a service that will tell communities on the ground in Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. The Tiziano project emerged from work done in Kurdistan and is intended to give communities the equipment, tools and training to illustrate their own lives.

These projects are highly pragmatic, focused on the public, not media professionals, and apply existing technologies to real-world problems. They don’t start with the technology and then figure out what you might do with it.

In this world, in which the public organizes and records themselves, the role of the news media changes. Mainstream media shifts from recording media content itself to gathering existing material, verifying it, contextualizing it, and amplifying it. Other Knight News prizes recognized and were directed at this shift: iWitness and SwiftRiver, and — for data – Overview and Panda.

The Knight News Challenge has evolved a lot since its inauguration in 2006. But its strength lies in the consistency of its aims, and in the growing relevance of those aims: helping to inform and engage communities. Long may it continue.

Written by Martin Moore

June 30th, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Legal cost reforms will virtually kill off CFAs

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This post was first published at www.mediastandardstrust, and subsequently on the INFORRM blog, on 21st June 2011

The government has just published its legal aid, sentencing, and punishment of offenders bill, including reforms to civil litigation costs – i.e. Conditional Fee Agreements or ‘No Win No Fee’.

As it stands this aspect of the bill is supposed to achieve two big things: reduce the cost of government civil litigation costs; and reduce the cost of the legal process generally.

The scale of government cost savings is yet to be seen. And the success of the second may, in many cases, only be achieved by cutting off lots of people’s access to justice. Many people have already written about how the reforms will limit access to legal help in areas like personal injury; this post will focus on media law and specifically defamation.

Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs) were introduced to enable people who could not otherwise afford legal help to pay for it. Given that defamation cases are not covered by legal aid, this was not just for the so-called MINELAS (‘Middle Income Not Eligible for Legal Aid Support’) but for anyone who could not pay for a lawyer.

Conditional Fee Agreements have been abused. Since they were introduced they have been used by corporations and by wealthy individuals, and they have been used to line some lawyers’ pockets. This is partly because there is no eligibility test for getting a CFA.

But, at the same time, CFAs have given people the opportunity to take legal action to clear their name or, sometimes, to defend themselves when otherwise they would have had little or no redress.

Parameswaran Subramanyam, a Tamil protestor in London ostracised from his community after the Daily Mail and The Sun reported that he had secretly broken his hunger strike, was entirely vindicated after he took legal action with help from a CFA. Given his circumstances, it is difficult to see how Subramanyam would have been able to take on the Mail and The Sun without a CFA. Robert Murat, who was grossly defamed after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and won significant damages from almost a dozen news outlets, benefitted from a CFA.

Christopher Jefferies, who was ‘monstered’ by the press after he was arrested for questioning by the police in the Joanna Yeates murder trial, is fighting for legal redress with the help of a CFA. Under the new government bill he would have to put all his assets at risk if he wanted to take legal action.

Others recent cases include: Sylvia Henry, a social worker wrongly accused of being negligent in the Baby P case; Reza Pankhurst, wrongly accused of being involved in a criminal conspiracy to train a suicide bomber; Arunas Raulynaitis, a bus driver wrongly accused of being a Muslim fanatic who stopped his bus and ordered his passengers off so he could pray. There are many more.

Reform is needed to prevent abuse of CFAs. This could be done by introducing eligibility criteria for CFAs, for example by excluding corporations from access.

This is not what the government has done. The government has, instead, introduced reforms that will make CFAs virtually inaccessible. As a result, all but the wealthiest claimants and defendants will be excluded from taking legal action.

It has done this chiefly by abolishing the recoverability of success fees and ATE insurance from the losing party. (ATE – After The Event – insurance insures someone against some of the costs of legal action.)

What does this mean in practice?

But what does this actually mean in practice? Let’s say a national newspaper has just published something that you believe is entirely untrue and causes you to lose your job and your chances of getting a job in the near future. You contact a lawyer and ask what you can do about it.

“Well, you could sue” says the lawyer, “but if you pay for it yourself it will be expensive whether you win or lose”

“Oh, how expensive?” you ask

“Hmmm… maybe £200-300,000” the lawyer replies. “But it could be over a million if it’s an extended trial, or it could be as little as £10-20,000 if it’s an open and shut case and you settle quickly”.

“Yikes!” you say. “I haven’t got £20,000 handy, let alone £200,000. Can’t I get a no win no fee?”

“Well,” says the lawyer, “you could but you’ll have to take out ATE insurance and you won’t get that back”.

“OK,” you say, “and how much is ATE insurance going to cost me?”

“That depends” the lawyer replies, “on how far the case goes and how much cover you need. You could, for example, take out a premium of 50-60% of whatever your opponent’s costs are at any given time. In the case of a newspaper these costs could add up to about a quarter of a million pounds. Or you could take out a fixed premium that increases in stages but rises to over 50% by the time we go to trial.”

“Hang on” you say, “wouldn’t that mean I could be liable for tens of thousands of pounds in ATE payments?”.

“You could”, the lawyer says, “And even if you won, given that damages in defamation cases are usually about £10-20,000 then that won’t nearly cover your costs.”

“Plus”, the helpful lawyer continues, “I’m not that keen on CFAs because if I lose I get no fee, and if I win I only get my fee plus one to two thousand in success fees. If I take the case I could find myself working for free for the next 6 months”.

So, the lawyer doesn’t want to take the case on a CFA and, even if s/he does, then you’ll have to stump up a minimum of a few thousand pounds but potentially £100,000 plus.

How many people – not including the wealthy and powerful – do you think will take legal action given these options? Not many.

Of course the rich and powerful will still take action and newspapers will still publish inaccurate and defamatory stories. Trouble is, the rich and powerful will be able to do something about it. Everyone else won’t, without putting all their worldly goods on the line.

Written by Martin Moore

June 30th, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Posted in CFAs

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Open letter to schema.org

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This open letter to Google, Bing and Yahoo!, following the launch schema.org, was first published at www.mediastandardstrust.org on 7th June, 2011

Dear schema.org

Let me first say how good news it is to learn about the launch of schema.org. Consistent, structured metadata is a very good thing. Structured metadata will not only help search, it should provide a more solid foundation for the future of the web.

We also have a request. A request that you seriously consider integrating principles to schema.org/NewsArticle (expressed as rel-principles in hNews). This should be to the benefit of individuals and organisations producing news, and to the benefit of the public. Below I explain why.

We have been developing and evangelising about consistent metadata in news for over three years. During that time we successfully developed hNews – a microformat for news – with the Associated Press, and thanks to support from a Knight News Challenge award and from a MacArthur Foundation grant. hNews has now been integrated to over 1,200 news sites across the US.

hNews will continue to be relevant and useful to all those publishing in HTML4 since it is light, simple, and easy to integrate. For individuals and organisations who want the benefits of consistent metadata without having to make a major investment, hNews will be the most sensible approach.

But, as news organisations move to HTML5 it will make sense for them to adopt HTML5 standards. Microdata schema is one of these. This is a natural and positive development, and schema.org/NewsArticle contains many of the same values as hNews.

There is, however, an important property missing – principles. This property would provide a link to the statement of principles, if any, to which an article adheres. It does not define what those principles ought to be, or what they should or should not include, it just links to them. In hNews this is expressed as rel-principles. You can see an example of an embedded link to principles at the AP’s essential news – click on the blue ‘P’ at the top (e.g. http://apne.ws/imN772).

There are three reasons why a machine readable link to principles is so important and in the interests of schema.org:

  • It tells people it’s news: we all used to know what people meant when they talked about ‘news’. It was that thing which was produced by journalists and published by news organisations. That is no longer the case. News can be produced and published by anyone and sits within a huge ecology of other media content. There is no easy way to tell if something is meant to be ‘news’ unless someone describes it as such
  • It distinguishes news from other web content: link to news principles and suddenly people – and search engines – can distinguish news from other content on the web – particularly from personal, government or commercial content. This is not only helpful for search but has a social value too
  • It explains what news is: news is generally informed by certain values, even if these are sometimes subconscious. We used to take these for granted when news was printed or broadcast. We can’t now. We need to know where news comes from and what has informed its production. Basic information like how wrote it and when it was written get us part way there. But to get any further we need to have access to the principles – if any – to which the news adheres.

Of course it is already perfectly possible for people to link to principles of their own accord using microdata or microformats. But, as we have learnt over the last three years, organisations are unlikely to add metadata unless they can see a direct advantage. If principles was within the core schema then it would significantly increase the likelihood that news organisations would add it.

Adding principles to schema.org/NewsArticle would benefit search and assessment. It would also help the future of news.

That is why we think it would make sense to integrate principles to schema.org. We would, of course, be delighted to talk more about it. Please do get in touch – all contact details at www.mediastandardstrust.org.

Written by Martin Moore

June 30th, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Posted in Metadata

Tagged with , , ,