31 December 2011

Business Insider story advises Patch to "keep scraping content"

A former Patch salesman advised the company to keep scraping content, ostensibly because "cheap content is king."

Nate Carter, I am glad you have high hopes for the future of local news. But tell me, why should an editorial department listen to a salesperson about content generation? I'm sure you have an intelligent perspective, but the mingling of news with sales in any way is exactly where journalism should not be going.

But this is beside the point. Consider Mr. Carter's grand homage to Huffington Post's (over) aggregation techniques:
Keep scraping content. This should be done at HQ. Have 4 or 5 low-level staffers at Patch HQ who just content scrape from around the nation. We all hate it, but see point #2. This could be managed with simple Google News alerts and a copy and paste technique. If they perform well they could be promoted to the Huffington Post.
Does this only scare me? How could anyone talk so blatantly about plagiarism as if it were normal? (The #2 he referred to mentioned a heavier load for the local editors, so I'm guessing that scraping would help them hit their story quota. I almost think this entire post is sarcasm...)

Aggregation can be a great story supplement, and smart aggregators such as Jim Romenesko offer a valuable service for content creators. But over-aggregators such as the Huffington Post straddle an ethical line and in some cases cross that line and leave it in a dust-filled distance. 

Sometimes over-aggregation could be copyright infringement. It's not fair use if an aggregation provides enough content to prevent a person from visiting the site where the original story was published, as this post by AdAge's Simon Dumenco illustrates.

Some of Mr. Carter's suggestions to make Patch more efficient make sense. Patch should cut its editorial staff, but the suggestion to employ freelancers to cover beats is already happening, at least at some Patch sites. 

The bottom line is we should all be appalled that content scraping is being suggested. What happens when we scrape the scrape of a scrape? When does it end?

30 December 2011

Twitter-think and comment-think: how we flock to common sentiments

When I first read about Jay Rosen's pressthink concept, it was one of those "ah ha" moments that Archimedes might have felt when he discovered water displacement. I felt like I had made Rosen's discovery along with him... and it made sense. Lots of it.

It was one of those words that when it finally came into existence, there was finally something to define what we have known all along — the mainstream media measures the newsworthiness of a story based on whether other media outlets are covering it.

Most stories get covered automatically, but for controversial topics that require moral judgement, stories can languish. Although these says, "languishing" often means that independent journalists and bloggers will pick up the slack, which ironically enough can also validate a story's newsworthiness (PDF).

Pressthink, like the psycho-social phenomenon of groupthink, really highlights human nature and how we tend to gravitate toward an opinion that resonates with us in a certain moment. We like to think we are rational creatures, but time and time again, we have proven that our emotions drive us to action. Even if we think we are being rational, we might not see or understand the emotional complexity of our state of mind in that moment and how it could affect our better judgement.

Without getting too academic, let's consider how Twitter and comment threads iterate this idea even further. Given that I'm a Twitter newbie, my experience is limited. However, I notice that many tweets are not re-tweeted, but rather, tweeted originally but to the same story or group of stories. It's as if a headline catches our attention and we think it's worthy of passing along, regardless of whether the story is good or not.

Do you read all the stories you recommend people to read through Twitter? I'm sure many people do, but I'm also sure many people don't. People want to be "in the conversation," so they tweet what seems popular, or hip in that moment. I'd love to hear alternative points of view on this, and I'm open to them.

Comment threads are similar. Rarely is a good story written in black and white. Good journalists provide all sides, not just both sides, but oftentimes a story can leave a reader without an obvious conclusion. A good story does not tell the reader what to think, but shows the reader how to think about a certain topic, and allows the reader to cast her or his own personal judgement.

But ambiguity often rests in the minds of people after they read a news article, especially one that covers an unusual or foreign topic.

That's when the comment section comes in. People with "knowledge" about the story chime in by the dozens, making their anonymous (or not) voices heard and never afraid to dole out the ALL CAPS or the creative punctuations. They have no shame in their vomitular grammar, and their emotions are often pure and blistering.

Occasionally the voice of reason makes an appearance, and the "conversation" takes a turn. Then another voice of reason appears, opposing the first rational voice. Then people begin to take sides. Then it makes sense to them. But oftentimes there is one overarching opinion that devours the commenting. People latch on to the common sentiment because it feels better to be in, than it does to stand out.

Why does this matter? As journalists moderate comment sections, it's important to take the popular sentiment with a grain of salt, and take the minority sentiment with a splash of sugar. As Mark Twain once said, once you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect.

I'd link to a comment section to illustrate this idea, but I think it's best if we start our own on this page. Let me know your thoughts below or shoot me an electronic mail.

29 December 2011

The business of journalism: inevitable marriage or grotesque oxymoron?

The definition of journalism has changed. But what is this new definition? Is there a difference between journalism and digital journalism?

The Web overflows with stories about the media revolution, about mobile apps and social networking, about new tools that have changed the process of news reporting. The various functions within a traditional news organization are merging — technical skills, marketing, design strategies, brand development, and even sales — to create super-journos, with skills that appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit.

However, is this mass convergence appealing to the spirits of those journalists who died protecting the right to full access to information? New media compliments traditional media, but it certainly doesn't replace it, as noted in the Meghan Peters' Mashable article, which discusses Andy Carvin's live tweeting from Tunisia as the Arab Spring sprang alive. His work added to the story, but it wasn't the story.

But as we "brand" ourselves as online journalists through social media and personal websites, do we risk losing the forest for the trees? Is being a great journalist now more important than being part of a great news organization?

The money making apparatus that pays for journalists to work is changing. Fast. It should be embraced, but should we all be business owners? Doesn't that, by nature, remove any power we have to be completely independent? Isn't 'independence' one of the four ethical standards included in the Society of Professional Journalists' oath?

If you have an alternative view or any insight into this subject, please comment below or send an email to savingethicaljournalism(at)gmail(dot)com.

28 December 2011

If the media sets the agendas, and the medium is the message, what is the message?

The ever-entertaining saga of sage Ron Paul continues to entertain, baffle, irritate and inspire hoards of Americans across political spectra. His extremism, when coupled with the Tea Party on one side and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the other, has created an Overton window the size that this country has never experienced.

But the media's role throughout the event has been most interesting. As noted in a Salon.com post by Steve Kornacki, the media's ignorance of this Texas gynecologist's steadfast ideology has proven a double-edged sword — while he's not getting equal recognition as other GOP runners, his appeal has grown, perhaps even because of the media's exclusion. The media is, after all, a biased and consuming machine driven by political and ideological toadies, right? 

As Kornacki notes, the media's exclusion allowed Paul "to present himself to audiences on his own terms and helped him become something of a sympathetic figure. In effect, Paul was able to take advantage of the many  nontraditional means of communicating with voters that now exist without those voters being subjected to screaming mainstream press headlines about Paul controversies and gaffes."

But has the media's ignorance of Paul also given him credibility, because people are not trustworthy of the media? Could it be people feel sorry for him being excluded, and choose to support him because they feel bad for him? Who knows.

Politics aside, the power of media, including the internet, is vast. Our realities are based on our environments and our interactions with these environments. The more time we spend online, the more power the internet has to set agendas — a well-known and controversial power that for the past century or so has been wielded by traditional media, if you buy into Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaws' theory.

The internet is now the No. 1 news source for people under 30, and the No. 2 source for news in America after passing newspapers in 2008, according to a Pew poll, and it's gaining on television for the top spot. It is no longer a non-traditional method of news for people — it is becoming the source. And television is falling fast, while the internet has nothing but gains in its future.

How will the internet, with it unlimited capacity for information sharing, be a vehicle for positive social, political and cultural evolution without also being a source for derision, lies and misrepresentations? What kind of education system do we need to ensure that harm is minimized, and that "news agencies" are free from agendas? What kind of enforcement system should be in place so there is accountability?

If popular extremism means the middle is becoming more inclusive, what does that mean for the media, and what is our role in keeping the playing field alive with healthy players?

27 December 2011

Journalism of assertion and the art of confabulation: the difference between honesty and truth

Saving Ethical Journalism —

For better or worse, journalists provide meaning in society. But when journalists screw up and don't get caught, that mistake can become common knowledge. And since the modern definition of "journalist" seemingly encompasses everything from aggregators to commentators to bloggers and beyond, the ramifications of this reality are extensive.

Writers Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel coined the phrase "journalism of assertion" to refer to how modern news outlets portray assumed truths as real truth. This is a professional form of a confabulation — a psychological disorder that involves people who tell lies that they wholly believe are true.

So does this mean unscrupulous online journos need some e-Prozac? How do we sift through the massive amount of online information and decide what's true? Based on a news organization's reputation? The credibility of the author? The quality of the piece?

Online fact checking is easy, especially if sources are also links to the original material. But what about all other statements that appear as fact but don't have a source? Is this because most of society has agreed that something is true without giving it much thought? Is this acceptable, or should be be more critical?

Also, what is the responsibility of the reader in all this? If readers are also news-gatherers, what role do they play (or should they play) with online fact checking?

26 December 2011

Ethical Conundrum: How much is too much?

Saving Ethical Journalism —

Aggregation and curation have become a normal part of online news processes. It seems acceptable to take a certain amount of content from a source, as long as you attribute properly and provide outside links, so there's no confusion about where you got the story.

The question is, how much content can you take before you actually felt like you were violating the intellectual property rights of the original author? 10%... 20%... 50% or more? How much is too much and how much is okay?

This is a legal question (10% is the rule in Australia, but U.S. Copyright law does not define a word count or limit), but it is also a question of ethics, perhaps even morality. Credible aggregator Jim Romenesko got flak from Poynter's Julie Moos in November for not putting quotation marks around direct quotes, but Mr. Romenesko's attribution was clear.

But how much information is okay to take, with or without quotation marks? After the frivolous Righthaven lawsuits were exposed for what they are, it seems aggregation can be a Fair Use, but how do we define "fair"?

25 December 2011

Celebrating co-optation in the 21st Century

Do human beings posses an innate sense of sharing, to the point where we might take something from someone under the assumption it should be shared with us? 

Several billion people around the world celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 — the day the church (aside from Julian calendar followers) decided to mark the day that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. It's also near the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and celebrated by pre-Christians for centuries.

24 December 2011

Is plagiarism becoming acceptible?

October of 2011 was the worst month since 2005 for plagiarism, according to Regret the Error's Craig Silverman.

Silverman wrote a post for Poynter.org where he reported nine cases of plagiarism in October. The second worst month was in March of 2008, according to Silverman.

What does this mean for modern journalism? Obviously people are still being reprimanded in some way, but some of these cases could even be considered copyright infringement. These reported cases are likely a small fraction of actual word theft.

Does this mean limited plagiarism is becoming acceptable, as long as the theft doesn't take away from the value of the original piece? Or does it mean that we are just not keen-eyed enough to catch all cases? Does any of this matter?

Let us know in the comments.

23 December 2011

Saving Ethical Journalism: No better time than now

Saving Ethical Journalism —
The golden age of journalism. What a phrase. And what a time to be living as a professional wordsmith. For anyone who is passionate about storytelling and digging at the truth, no time in history comes close to living right now. 
But with every yin there is a yang. Content farmers, over-aggregators, scrapers, brand journalists and their ilk have invaded the journalism profession, tainted it with rubbish and spoon-fed it to the masses. Plagiarists and copyright infringers face little penalties for online theft, as it has become so commonplace it is apparently acceptable. Not only is respect for the journalism profession falling each year, but it becomes harder and harder to be professional as a journalist. 
So how do we bring ethics back to our profession, when there are “journalists” who steal content and claim it as their own? How do we maintain any ethical integrity when there are special interest groups such as oil companies, investors and energy firms creating content and presenting it as news? How do we stop content farmers from cutting and pasting entire stories, which could actually make us appear as the thieves? 
This blog is dedicated to ensuring that the journalism revolution does not devolve into a daytime talk show. We are committed to exposing hidden agendas among content generators, and connecting people who believe the future is bright, if only we can agree to respect each other. 
We care about free societies and the whole truth. We are optimistic skeptics; excited about our new tools but concerned about misuse. We invite you to join our efforts and help us to evolve beyond this ethical ambiguity and toward a renewed sense of integrity and esteem for the one profession that is tasked with keeping all other professions working properly — especially our own. 
Join us!

12 December 2011

About Saving Ethical Journalism's David DesRoches

I graduated from the College of Charleston in 2003 with a bachelor's degree in media studies. After years of traveling and working on different projects and barely scraping by, I began working as a newspaper reporter in 2009, where I continued to barely scrape by.

I later worked for an unethical media company, which inspired me to examine trends in journalism and how the profession can maintain integrity while still utilizing modern tools. I now work as an assistant editor for the Darien Times newspaper in southwestern Connecticut.

Check out my personal website here.