Does journalism work?

How do we know that the work that journalists do accomplishes anything at all? And what does journalism do, exactly, beyond vague statements like “supports democracy” and trivial ones like “gives me movie reviews”?

I made this image a couple months ago to introduce the question at a conference. A reporter researches and writes a story. The first arrow represents the process that gets that story published. We understand that process quite well, and the internet makes publishing really cheap and easy. Then there’s a process that takes published, accurate information and turns it into truth and justice for all. That’s the part that’s fuzzy. In fact I don’t think we understand it at all. I call this “the last mile problem” in journalism — how does journalism actually reach people?

Journalists occasionally claim a scalp, such as by embarrassing a politician enough to force them to resign, or focussing attention on some issue long enough to get legislation passed. Journalism also theoretically informs citizens so they can vote responsibly, in the elections which happen every few years. As I’ve argued before, these are weak levers by which to shift society. I’m less interested in what journalism does in extraordinary times, and more interested in how the journalist’s work improves the day-to-day operation of a society, and the experiences of the people living in it.

It’s possible that much of the journalism we have is effective. Maybe the mere existence of consistent reporting on the machinations of the powerful keeps them in line, and we’ll only know what journalism really gave us when it disappears and civilization collapses into a mire of secrecy and corruption. Or maybe that’s already happened. How would we know? How can we tell whether journalism, as a local or a global endeavor, is doing better this year than last?

Other fields have goals
I like to hang around the international development community, and those people have real problems. People working in public health are charged with improving access to clean water or preventing the spread of HIV. Others try to get more girls into school, or to raise entire communities out of poverty.

There are lots of ways to attack such complex social problems. An NGO or a foundation or a UN organ could lobby local politicians, produce research reports, provide services directly to affected populations, or launch a public awareness campaign. The way in which an organization proposes to have an effect is called their “theory of change.” This is a term I hear frequently at gatherings of development workers, and from the staff of NGOs and international organizations. Such organizations must continually develop and articulate their theory of change in order to secure philanthropic funding.

Journalism has no theory of change — at least not at the level of practice.

I’ve taken to asking editors, “what do you want your work to change in society?” The answer is generally along the lines of, “we aren’t here to change things. We are only here to publish information.” I don’t think that’s an acceptable answer. Journalism without effect does not deserve the special place in democracy that it tries to claim.

The question of “what change should journalism produce” is hard because it is unavoidably a normative question, a question about how journalists envision a “better” world. At the moment, the field of professional journalism is mired in intense confusion about its role and the meaning of classic standards such as “objectivity.” This has obscured discussion of the field’s goals at a moment of great transition brought on by new communications technology, precisely the time when clarity is most needed.

It’s telling that discussions of journalism’s fundamentals frequently harken back to the great debate of Lippman vs. Dewey. That happened in the 1920s. This was not only before live television and before the internet, it was before bastions of modern reasoning such as statistical inference, the study of cognitive biases, and the social construction of knowledge were fully developed. Other fields have done much better in adapting to the philosophical and technological revolutions of the last century.

Medicine in general and public health in particular have become relentlessly evidence-based. It’s no longer enough to run anti-smoking ads; we now require those responsible for public health to show that their preferred method of behavior modification actually reduces disease. Meanwhile, marketers have rallied around the idea that purpose of their work is to get targeted individuals to do something, whether that’s purchasing a product or voting for a particular candidate. That may not be an appropriate goal for non-advocacy journalism, but marketing and public relations researchers have made very careful studies of communication, recall, and belief.

Similar concerns over how messages are received arise in many fields, from crisis communications to public diplomacy. But not in journalism. If journalism does not change action it must change minds, but the tools and language of belief change seem to be entirely missing from the profession.

Journalism as surveillance of ignorance
It used to be the job of an editor to decide what to publish. Maybe it is now the job of an editor to decide what needs to be known. These are not at all the same thing. They used to be, when nothing could be done with a story after the ink hit paper. The internet allows so much more — promotion within specific communities, feedback on readership and reception, conversation as opposed to oratory. And potentially, cheap techniques to determine what people already believe.

We should expect that users will largely be choosing for themselves what to read and view. That’s reality, and that’s fine, and systems that make it easy to satisfy curiosity are systems that will make us smarter (even though we’ll mostly use them for entertainment.) But I believe there will still be an identifiable set of common content, the few things that the public — or some targeted fraction of it — absolutely has to know to participate meaningfully in the civic issues of the day. This is more or less what editors put on the front page today. But rather than the headlines reflecting the most important events, perhaps they should reflect the most pernicious misconceptions. Good journalists already have some sense of this, and every so often we learn of an alarming gap in public knowledge. A majority of Americans believed for years that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11, for example. Today, most Americans don’t know what’s actually in Obama’s new health care laws. (I apologize again to my international readers for the US-centric examples; I’d love to hear of similarly woeful tales from other countries.)

Combatting ignorance is harder than publishing. It’s my best guess for the second, mysterious arrow in the diagram above. Fortunately we also have new tools. We have reams and reams of data that people voluntarily put online, the “data exhaust” of entire societies. We also have old-fashioned public opinion polls, and their lightweight cousin online polls (though self-selection bias may render online surveys useless for all but the most casual work.) Somewhere in all this data and all this communication, it must be possible to figure out what it is that people actually believe — and where those beliefs are factually wrong in an uncomplicated way, precisely the way that an editor would say “that’s not true, we can’t print it.”

There are many possibilities for understanding the beliefs of an audience. I am particularly intrigued by opinion mapping, deliberative polling, and the attempts of UN Global Pulse to create data-driven societal monitoring systems. It may actually be possible to cheaply measure the state of public knowledge, which would also give us concrete metrics for improvement. We need new ways of thinking about the surveillance of ignorance, and we need software to implement them. But more than anything else, we need journalists attuned to what it is that people don’t know. Good journalists already are; they can see what is missing from discussion — whether that’s a question that no one has answered or a challenge to a prevalent belief — and do the hard work of adding it.

This effort applies at all scales. Each journalist has an audience or audiences, their communities of concern. Each could track what their audience already knows and believes. The job of the journalist, so conceived, is not merely to report the happenings, but to ensure that the audience is aware of and understands the most crucial of them. That won’t be easy. Aside from the challenges of determining what an audience already knows, people don’t like to be told they’re uninformed or wrong. This is why I believe a journalist needs to learn everything there is know about public communication, borrowing and adapting from marketing experts and public health planners. Genuine honesty and humility seems to me the ethical core, and newsroom transparency is a critical check on this power.

Of course, decisions would have to be made about what are misconceptions and which of them are important enough to combat. Decisions have to be made already about what to cover and promote with limited resources, and these hard choices are the iceberg that sinks any hope of a truly “impartial” journalism. It’s a reality that the profession has to deal with every day, and I wish we would get on with the work of crafting and communicating our normative stance, rather than insisting that “objectivity” means we don’t have one. (Even Wikipedia explains its norms in great detail.) I’d like to start with a list of things that journalists wish were better known. Be honest. I know you’ve already thought about this.

But if we can get over that hurdle — if we can admit that journalism needs concrete goals — then we stand a chance of doing better journalism, and knowing when we’re doing it. For me, the insane possibility of new communications technology carries with it the obligation to do better than we ever have before.

UPDATE: As if on cue, a major study was released four days after I published this, showing that a majority of American voters were misinformed about the issues they voted on in the recent mid-term elections. I discuss what that means here.

Designing journalism to be used

There are lots of reasons people might want to follow the news, but to me, journalism’s core mission is to facilitate agency. I don’t think current news products are very good at this.

Journalism, capital J, is supposed to be about ideals such as “democracy” and “the public interest.” It’s probably important to be an informed voter, but this is a very shallow theory of why journalism is desirable. Most of what we see around us isn’t built on votes. It’s built on people imagining that some part of the world should be some other way, and then doing what it takes to accomplish that. Democracy is fine, but a real civic culture is far more participatory and empowering than elections. This requires not just information, but information tools.

Newspaper stories online and streaming video on a tablet are not those tools. They are transplantations of what was possible with paper and television. Much more is now possible, and I’m going to try to sketch the outlines of how newsroom products might better support the people who are actually changing the world.

What’s a journalism “product”?

Continue reading Designing journalism to be used

My suggestions for, who aim to report on global solutions

Dowser logo is a new online news site that aims to cover solutions to social problems. It’s journalism, but focussed on what we are learning about what can be done.

A media theorist might say this is reporting from a “solution” frame. Whatever you call it, I support the idea.

They are actively soliciting feedback on their idea. This was mine:

Great idea.

I think solid information on who is solving which problems is really important. I have three broad suggestions.

1) Please consider including a set of “topic pages” as well as running news stories. Social problems are often complex and contextual, and we badly need continuously-updated primer articles that bring the newly curious up to speed on specific problems.

2) If you guys have any money at all, you should solicit contributions from freelance journalists for coverage and analysis of interesting global projects.

3) consider publishing in more than one language, or allowing hybrid computer-human translations using, e.g. the free World Wide Lexicon system.

I’m a freelance journalist and computer scientist living in Hong Kong, who specializes in applications of technology to social problems. @jonathanstray on twitter.

Would love to keep in touch.

There’s a great deal more I could say on why I made these specific recommendations. For now, I’ll leave it to the hyperlinks. For additional ideas on how to offer good translations of every page for near-free, see also, a successful volunteer news translation community with 100,000 users.

(hat tip: @NiemanLab for bringing them to my attention.)

The Structure of Social Journalism

Shortest way I can describe how I think journalism must change: the internet is not just for distribution, but production too. I’m not saying that “citizen journalists” will be making all the news. I suspect a complex collaboration between many people, including something like a newsroom full of pro journalists. In this article I’m going to explore what that might look like, by asking what the component tasks are that make up “journalism”, and thinking about who can do those most efficiently. And I’m going to sketch out the design for a piece of social software to support this.

Here’s a list of things that professional journalists do:

  • decide what should be more broadly known
  • decide what should be more deeply investigated
  • collect information from sources both public and private
  • check that information for factual accuracy
  • construct narratives to make sense of that information
  • produce content to convey those narratives
  • publish and market that content

This list is by no means definitive or exhaustive. It’s just illustrative, a starting point for a thought experiment. Who could do each of these things best? And what tools to do they need to do it?

Having a network of people producing journalism around a newsroom is not a new idea. Jeff Jarvis has been discussing networked journalism since at least 2006, and naturally I think he’s on to something. In this essay I want concentrate on process and roles. If cheap networks make new types of collaboration possible, they also set the stage for new types of specialization. I think one of the problems of the traditional, mainstream media newsroom is that it it tries to handle the entire journalistic process internally, even the parts that it’s not actually very good at.

An example

On November 25, a video appeared on YouTube which appears to be the testimonial of a young woman recently fired from the credit card collections division of Bank of America. She had been allowing the bank’s most desperate customers to enroll in fixed-payment debt recovery schemes. Many of these customers are currently paying 30% interest as a result of recent rate hikes, so this was a great kindness. It was also against company policy.

The video is powerful. It’s an amazing first-person testimonial of the greed and heartlessness of large corporations.

So is this journalism?

Continue reading The Structure of Social Journalism

What is the Right Number of Journalists?

How many journalists does the world need to adequately serve the public? It’s a difficult question, and I’m going to argue that the market won’t tell us. But here’s a thought: for the first time in history, it’s trivial to check how many outlets covered any particular story.

From Google News just now:


In this case, there were 2,907 articles on the web covering the story of Iran freeing the Brits. Even accounting for the fact that most of these pages will be mirrors of the same text, we can see that Aljazeera, The Telegraph, the Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, and many others covered the story. And they all did their own reporting, a horde of journalists from all over the world making phone calls and doing interviews.

Meanwhile, written-word reporters are getting laid off right and left, essentially due to the end of the print-based information distribution monopolies. Last year, 35,000 journalists lost their jobs in the US. This has made a number of quite clever people fret about the end of “accountability journalism,” the press that keeps people honest by serving as a watchdog.

This talk between Clay Shirky and Alex Jones is a great introduction to the argument that we’re “losing the news,” to use Jones’ phrase.

But what the Google numbers suggest to me is that, if we really are losing the kind of journalism that is essential for democracy, it’s not because we have too few people. It’s because they’re doing the wrong things. According to people like Shirky and the Knight Foundation, local news in particular is vastly under-served.

I discussed this with a journalist from the International Herald Tribune yesterday. He raised the point that we definitely need more than one organization covering each story. Competition is important, as is a plurality of viewpoints — I think we really do want to preserve the difference between the CNN and Al Jazeera.

So the right number of newsrooms on each story is greater than one. But I bet it’s less then 10 or 20, which is what we have now. Sadly, I think this means that there is a currently a tremendous duplication of effort in the global news-gathering system.

The world’s journalists need to get better organized and stop wasting their efforts. Markets are very good at maximizing efficiency for all sorts of things, but I think this is a case where just letting the market strip apart newspapers until they’re profitable again (if ever) is unlikely to give us the right answer.

Journalism is, arguably, a public good in the economic sense. This means that everyone benefits from it, but everyone also shares it — you will tell your friends the hot news, which makes it difficult to charge for. It’s been understood for at least a century that a competitive market tends to produce too little of a public good. The only reason we had so many newspapers before the internet is that they had a monopoly on distribution. Presses and paper are expensive.

I am not arguing that newspapers need to be run as non-profits or government subsidized, as some people have (and it’s worth noting that the world-wide BBC operation runs on UK government money.) Personally I favor hybrid “social-venture” models that subsidize news through other means. I find Jay Rosen’s list of ways that the news has been subsidized in the past to be particularly enlightening.

It seems likely to me that the bare market is going to under-produce journalism, at least the general-interest public service sort of journalism (financial journalism is currently quite profitable, thank you very much.). If we believe this, and we are going to start designing models and policies to ensure that we get more, then the question of when we have enough needs to be asked in a serious, empirical way.

Counting story duplication isn’t a very complete answer to “how do we know when we have enough journalists?” but it’s a start.

What I really don’t know how to address is the question of how many stories should have been written, if only someone had been there to cover them.

Advertising Got There First

Phantom 3D objects floating in the air, visible only through the portal of your phone? An urban game played with same? Mobile ad boutique The Hyper Factory seems to have got there first. Their recent ad campaign for Nike used image recognition of printed targets (on posters, in magazines, on the ground of a football field, etc.) to superimpose hovering shoes over the real world.

This is, without a doubt, creative. But looking at it strictly as a creative work, it is severely hamstrung by the fact that the objective is to sell shoes. My guess is that it will be games that push the aesthetic and technical boundaries of this technology. We’re going to see strange reality-fantasy hybrids that will make World of Warcraft and Second Life look old, boring, and flat. Then again, it might also make LARPing socially acceptable, and do we really want that?

And after the technology is ubiquitous and cheap, we’re going to use it to put deep labels on our environment in real time — this is already starting with a sort of Wikipedia for objects. If you’re one of those people who feel sorta blind without your smartphone, just wait until it’s built into your sunglasses.

The Search Problem vs. The News Problem

I think I’ve found a useful distinction between the “search” and “news” problems. News organizations like to complain that search engines are taking their business, but that’s only because no one has yet built a passable news engine.

Search is when the user asks the computer for a particular type of information, and the computer finds it.

News is when the computer has to figure out, by itself, what information a user wants in each moment.

This definition has useful consequences. For example, it says that accurately modeling the user and their needs is going to be absolutely essential for news, because the news problem doesn’t have a query to go on. All a news selection algorithm can know is what the user has done in the past. For this reason, I don’t believe that online news systems can truly be useful until they take into account everything of ourselves that we’ve put online, including Facebook profiles and emails, and viewing histories.

And yes, I do want my news engine to keep track of cool YouTube uploads and recommend videos to me. This in addition to telling me that Iran has a secret uranium enrichment facility. In the online era, “news” probably just means recently published useful information, of which journalistic reporting is clearly a very small segment.

It’s worth remembering that keyword web search wasn’t all that useful until Google debuted in 1998 with an early version of the now-classic PageRank algorithm.  I suspect that we have not yet seen the equivalent for news. In other words, the first killer news app has yet to be deployed. Because such an app will need to know a great deal about you, it will probably pull in data from Facebook and Gmail, at a minimum. But no one really knows yet how to turn a pile of emails into a filter that selects from the best of the web, blogosphere, Twitter, and mainstream media.

Classic journalism organizations are at a disadvantage in designing modern news apps, because broadcast media taught them bad habits. News organizations still think in terms of editors who select content for the audience. This one-size fits all attitude seems ridiculous in the internet era, a relic of the age when it would have been inconceivably expensive to print a different paper for each customer.

Of course, there are some serious potential problems with the logical end-goal of total customization. The loss of a socially shared narrative is one; the Daily Me effect where an individual is never challenged by anything outside of what they already believe is another. But shared narratives seem to emerge in social networks regardless of how we organize them — this is the core meaning of something “going viral.” And I believe the narcissism problem can be addressed through information maps. In fact, maps are so important that we should add another required feature to our hypothetical killer news app: it must in some way present a useful menu of the vast scope of available information. This is another function that existing search products have hardly begun to address.

Not that we have algorithms today that are as good as human editors as putting together a front page. But we will. Netflix’s recent million dollar award for a 10% improvement in their film recommendation system is a useful reminder of how seriously certain companies are taking the problem of predicting user preferences.

The explosion of blog, Twitter, and Wikipedia consumption demonstrates that classic news editors may not have been so good at giving us what we want, anyway.

Rating Items by Number of Votes: Ur Doin It Rong

Digg, YouTube, Slashdot, and many other sites employ user voting to generate collaborative rankings for their content. This is a great idea, but simply counting votes is a horrible way to do it. Fortunately, the fix is simple.

A basic ranking system allows each user to add a vote to the items they like, then builds a “top rated” list by counting votes. The problem with this scheme is that users can only vote on items they’ve seen, and they are far more likely to see items near the top of the list. In fact, anything off the front page may get essentially no views at all — and therefore has virtually no chance of rising to top.


This is rather serious if the content being rated is serious. It’s fine for Digg to have weird positive-feedback popularity effects, but it’s not fine if we are trying to decide what goes on the front page of a news site. Potentially important stories might never make it to the top simply because they started a little lower in the rankings for whatever reason.

Slightly more sophisticated systems allow users to rate items on a scale, typically 1-5 stars.  This seems better, but still introduces weird biases. Adding up the stars assigned by all users to a single item doesn’t work, because users still have to see an item to vote on it. Averaging all the ratings assigned to a single item doesn’t work either, because it can push something permanently to the bottom of the list, if the first user to view it rates it only one star.

There are lots of subtle hacks that one can make to try to fix the system, but it turns out there might actually be a right way to do things.

If every item was rated by every user, there would be no problem with popularity feedback effects.

That’s completely impractical with thousands or even millions of items. But we can actually get close to the same result with much less work, if we take random samples. Like a telephone poll, the opinion of a small group of randomly selected people will be an accurate indicator, to within a few percent, of the result that we would get if we asked everyone.

In practice, this would mean adding a few select “sampling” stories to each front page served, different every time. Items can then by ranked simply their average rating, with no skewing due to who got to the front page first. (In fact, basic sampling math will tell us which items have the most uncertain ratings and need to be seen with the highest priority.) In effect, we are distributing the work of rating a huge body of items across a huge body of users — true collaborative filtering, using sampling methods to remove the “can’t see it can’t vote on it” bias.

This is not an end-all solution to the problem of distributed agenda-setting. User ratings are not necessarily the ideal criterion for measuring “relevance.” One problem is that not every user is going to take the trouble to assign a rating, so you will only be sampling from particularly motivated individuals. Other metrics such as length of time on page might be better — did this person read the whole thing?

Even more fundamentally, it’s not clear that popularity, however defined, is really the right way to set a news agenda in the public interest.

However, any attempt to use user polling for collaborative agenda setting needs to be aware of basic statistical bias issues. Sampling is a simple and very well-developed way to think about such problems.

American Press Covers Debate, Not Health Care

Representative Joe Wilson yelled “you lie!” at the president, and the papers loved it. Unfortunately, by a count of more than three to one, the major media articles covering the event did not bother to comment on the substance of issue of that provoked Wilson’s outburst: whether or not illegal immigrants would be provided health care under proposed reforms. There is no health care debate in the mainstream American press. There is only political drama.

The president did not lie. All of the proposed health care reform bills contain language excluding those residing illegally in the US from government-subsidized coverage. This single-sentence fact check was entirely absent from 50 of the 70 articles mentioning “wilson” and “lie” on the New York Times and Washington Post websites as of Monday night. Of the 20 which discussed actual policy, only nine articles mentioned it in the first two paragraphs. (Spreadsheet here.)

Wilson’s outburst will be forgotten long after millions of Americans are insured — or not — under Obama’s plan. It’s just noise and heat. Yet some of the most reputable newspapers in the world have lead with it for the last five days. In fact, the press has in some cases actively dodged the underlying issue. Consider this exchange from an online Q&A session with Dana Milbank of the Washington Post:

Cincinnati: Are you saying the President wasn’t lying when he said illegal immigrants won’t be covered? Why not look at the House bill and tell us whether or not it allows illegals to be covered? The Congressional Research service issued a report last week saying there was NOTHING in the House bill that excludes illegals from receiving government-run health care. In other words, be a REPORTER instead of a hack for Barack.

Dana Milbank:  Actually I wasn’t addressing the factual nature of Obama’s speech. The issue wasn’t that Wilson thought the president wasn’t telling the truth; part of the presidential job description calls for expertise in truth shading. The issue was shouting “you lie!” at the president on the House floor during an address to a joint session of Congress.

(For the record, the CRS report in question notes that HR 3200 says “Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.” Which has, oddly, been spun as meaning that illegals would be subsidized!)

It should be no surprise that there is actually substance to the question of coverage for illegal immigrants. Only nine of the 70 pieces get into it: yes, a few undocumented workers could end up getting subsidized health care. No, it’s not worth taxpayer money to add an enforcement mechanism.

But even this is one level removed, and only one article grappled with the fundamental question: would it really be so bad if the poorest workers in America got a break? In fact we might even owe it to them. On average, migrant labor is thought to be a small net gain to the American economy.

I get that Wilson’s little moment is a great story, right up there with the guy who threw a shoe at Bush (who was imprisoned for his prank, with far less coverage.) And I do understand the logic of a populist press as the paper ship sinks. What cannot be excused is the omission of any mention of the substantive content of the debate from the majority of coverage — 50 out of 70 articles said nothing at all about anything that will last.

We are reporting on court theatrics while the citizens starve.