Monday, February 25, 2013

Learning to Count

"1, 2, 3, 4, Let's Go!" Journalists are words people. They take pride in their propensity to pun and parse and prune and parry. They are also instinctive types. They tend to rank gut feel above logic and numbers. In a nutshell, journalists are analog people lost in a digital era. And this may be their problem.

The world isn't short of scribes. It isn't short of pundits. It isn't short of 'look-at-me' performers. The world is short of people who can bring meaning and clarity to oceans of data. The world is short of reliable, trusted voices who can safely ignore the prefabricated bogus narratives being pumped out by institutions (including the mainstream media) and tell us what is really going on.

This vital role would seem to be tailor made for journalists, a profession whose most successful practitioners have traditionally combined the traits of innate curiosity, scepticism, doggedness, independent mindedness, a drive to expose hidden facts and a flair for telling stories.

But in this digital world, the problem is not so much hidden facts, but uninterpreted ones. We are awash in data - on the economy, on the climate, on education, on health, on defence, on immigration.  All the information is out there - or most of it. What's in short supply are people who can both organise the data and make sense of it for us.

Notoriously innumerate and often proudly technophobic, journalists are missing an historic opportunity to redefine their role. I have lost count of the number of newspaper journalists, usually holding redundancy cheques, who have told me they "hate maths" or are "no good at computers".

This is unforgivable for a group of people who claim to be professional communicators. It's like a town crier around the time of Gutenberg saying they are "no good at books". If the industry that employs you is crumbling because of new technology, then get up to speed or get out.

In some ways, it has never been a better time to be a journalist. All the tools you need to gather, analyse and publish information are at your fingertips. You don't needs a Big Daddy newspaper company to enable this for you. You can do it all yourself with a few RSS feeds, Evernote, Excel, and Google tools like Alerts, Public Data Explorer and Blogger.

Of course, everyone has access to those tools. And gadgets alone won't make you a better journalist. But combining basic digital literacy with the traditional journalism skills cited above should be the minimum requirement for anyone wanting to succeed as a post-industrial journalist.
If you add a facility for numbers to digital and verbal literacy, you have a killer combination. How many journalists are adept on Excel?  Not enough.

Understanding data, a basic grasp of statistics and confidence in the tools used to analyse data should be entry level requirements for journalists, particularly in a world where large news organisations employ statistics dishonestly to tell stories that suit their ideological and/or commercial interests.

A lack of understanding among journalists of how data can be used (and misused) is why the media so often fails us on stories involving the economy, climate change, education, health, retirement, financial markets  and just about every policy issue that connects with our lives. The only data that  is regularly crunched on our front pages are the endless political opinion polls that the media pay for.

Without a facility for independently analysing data, journalists risk end up being mere note-takers, parroting the self-serving claims of rival interest groups. It is what is happening to us now. And it is why democracy will fail unless journalists get up to speed.

It's also why some of the most important work now being done in new journalism is by bloggers like Possum Comitatus here in Australia or Nate Silver in the US or Simon Rogers in the UK.  Listen to Rodgers in this Ted talk. He's neither a data monkey nor a gadget guru. He is just a guy who uses freely available digital tools to tell stories in new ways.

Rogers' view is that data journalists are the punk rockers of the media, breathing new life into a profession that risks becoming redundant. For my money, this is the most exciting new development in journalism today. And I if were starting in the trade all over again, it's what I'd do:

  

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anonymice

When this blogger tweeted that Labor caucus members undermining the prime minister using the cover of anonymity be exposed as self-serving manipulators, there was a tsunami of outrage from journalists about the sacred nature of anonymous sources.

"Starting point of journalism, simple as that," said one. "You're ignoring that we have a sacred duty to respect confidentiality,' said another. On it went, platitude after platitude from young scribblers clearly psyched up after repeated viewings of All the President's Men. 

Reality check for readers: The notion that our political journalists are primarily motivated by professional ethics in suppressing the names of Labor backbenchers spilling their guts in a bar on leadership "tensions" for fear of losing their seats is ridiculous.

The truth is journalists keep writing these stories about the leadership because they are 1/ easy to churn out 2/ please their editors (or more correctly keep their editors off their backs) and 3/ generate easy quick hits on websites whose business model is about generating click bait to keep advertisers happy. Public interest? Yeah right.

If only the public knew how these leadership "stories" are dashed off at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon by journos reheating self-serving claptrap from political nobodies in the belief they are Woodward wringing vital information out of a 'Deep Throat'.

You don't have to be Einstein (or, more accurately, Bernstein) to see that Kevin Rudd has been playing this game for three years, using his proxies to wage a white-anting war against the current leadership. But it would be nice (for the public at least) if journalists would  fess up and name names.

'Oh no, we can't do that,' they'll say with hand on heart, American style. 'It's part of our professional ethics that anonymous sources be protected.'

To which I say, to use the equally professional description, 'bullshit'. Most journalists of any principle know that the protection of anonymity should be used only as a last resort. Usually, it is because the source's job would be threatened (or, worse, they would be physically endangered) were they identified. To justify it, public interest must outweigh the cost of granting anonymity.

The best approach, at least according to respected news organisations like Reuters (for whom I used to work), is that primacy be given to named sources and that anonymity be granted only when everything else fails.  And remember, Reuters is casting these rules for foreign correspondents in death-threatening war zones, not for Canberra-dwelling reporters whose greatest physical risk is being scalded by a flat white from 'Aussies' cafe.

The New York Times - probably the world's best newspaper alongside The Guardian - adopts a similar policy, pointing out the primacy of maintaining the trust  of readers.
"Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality...We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is. We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack."
Using anonymous sources should be a last resort in journalism, not a default position for reporters who need to bash out 600 words by deadline on a slow news day to serve a beast whose business model is based on endless leadership speculation and paid-for-polling.

But don't take my word for it. Listen to Michael Gawenda, a former editor of The Age and someone who has expressed repeated concern about the the cosy and inward-looking loop of political journalism in Canberra.
 "The rules of engagement in Canberra no longer serve our interests," Gawneda writes. "They encourage and support dishonesty from politicians and timidity and yes, dishonesty from reporters and commentators. The rules of engagement protect 'insiders' and keep the rest of us, we poor punters with no access to 'secrets' more or less in the dark about what's really going on. As result, there is now a great divide between insiders, those who are members of the political elite and the rest of us know-nothings, who sense that we are being fed bullshit but have no way of proving it."
Call me old fashioned, but the first principle of journalism in my experience is to serve the public, to tell the truth. It is  not to "get a good yarn" or impress your boss. If there is a vanguard in the ALP seeking to undermine Julia Gillard, name them. If you don't, you are merely being manipulated.

As to who wins out of this politically, I don't care. But I think the public has a right to know who's backing whom. So while it might make a great story to talk about "seething leadership tensions", journalists would be better advised to stop allowing themselves  to be patsies for the rats in the ranks and name them so we can all make our minds up.

THAT would be a story. Don't you think?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dog Bites Man News

Life is tough in the news business. Journalists are being asked to do more with less. Print reporters, once required to file once a day, must now produce in real time for multiple platforms. Speed and volume has primacy over care and quality. The noise-to-signal ratio has arguably never been greater.

What to do? The ideal solution is to hire more staff. But we know that's not going to happen. The industry is downsizing faster than a Biggest Loser contestant as migrating audiences and advertisers cut its formerly generously proportioned profit margins to skeleton thin.

Meanwhile, the volume of information coming at us continues to increase. Fewer reporters have to fill more and more space in new mediums where there is no limit on capacity. 'News' (for want of a better word) doesn't so much break anymore as flow. It's like a fire hydrant that you can't turn off. Social media only intensifies it.

So we have a situation where the capacity for 'news' is growing exponentially as the resources to create 'news' shrink at similar rates. What do you think happens?

First, opinion replaces analysis. Second, PR fodder, bogus surveys, shared content and minimalist wire content replace branded news. Third, the voices of journalists are replaced by public actors and partisans presenting opinion as fact. Finally, the commercial and ideological interests of the media outlet are represented as news.

Where media outlets once had the luxury of employing many dedicated specialist reporters to public interest areas such as health, education, finance, the environment and consumer affairs, the tendency now is to employ generalists and "all-rounders" who are employed as fire engine chasers.

Where once, journalists could justify leaving the office for hours at a time to research a story, build contacts and pursue non-traditional sources, most are now stuck in the office on the telephone, or more likely the computer, cutting and pasting from emailed press releases, PDFs and RSS feeds. The primary aim is to feed the beast, not guard the public interest.

A consequence of downsizing is the breadth of issues has narrowed. This is why you are seeing the same topics cropping up over and over. And those topics that ARE 'covered' - the macro economy, climate change, the migration of peoples - are done so in a way that presents them as mere fodder for the predictable opinionating of the same few partisans regurgitating the same tired talking points.

I don't think I am alone in sensing a public weariness with this 24/7 circus and wonder whether the simple answer is for editors (traditionally the people who provided quality control in journalism) to exercise the "well-blow-me-down" principle in judging what goes to print or to air.

Ask yourself how often these days you are listening to the radio or television news or reading the paper and are confronted with a predictable and self-serving statement from someone with an axe  to grind  - usually a politician or a noisy lobbyist. In the olden days, this was known as the "well, he would say that" test. In this category goes:

These are all akin to "Catholicism is the Best, says Pope" or "Guns Don't Kill, says Gun Lobby", predictable and self-serving statements of the bleeding obvious.  To say this fodder, this no-more-gaps gunk that fills the spaces between the ads is 'news' is a very, very big stretch.

News is what's new. It's what's unusual. It's something that sparks conversation or surprise. It's man bites dog. So if times are really tough in the media business, this is where I would start cutting. Enough of the dog bites man news.  What do you think?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Society of the Spectacles

"When social significance is attributed only to what is immediate, and to what will be immediate immediately afterwards -  always replacing another identical immediacy - it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance."
   - Guy Debord, Comments on Society of the Spectacle, 1987

When Julia Gillard delivered what was her best and most substantial policy speech as prime minister recently - one in which she also announced the date for the federal election - the media's focus was on her new "hipster spectacles".

Coming a close second for attention was a manufactured controversy around the fact that her chosen election date of September 14 coincided with an obscure (to most Australians) Jewish holiday. That elections always are held on the Jewish Sabbath, necessitating pre-poll votes by that community, was lost in the noisy instant outrage.

As tasteful, considered and non-partisan as ever, News Ltd's online publication decided to combine 
these two non-stories. Even better, it managed to choose an image suggesting "Hipster Julia with four eyes on the future" had delivered a 'Sieg Heil'  to Jewish voters (see image below).

 In the days after the speech and election announcement, even the serious media managed to avoid discussion of any of the substance of her address, instead whinging about her calling "the longest election campaign on record" (ignoring the fact that the country had been in a virtual non-stop campaign since the last election) or indulging in tiresome insider musing on what it all meant tactically.

Keeping the pre-ordained narrative of government-in-chaos rolling along was the dramatic arrest in the ensuing days of former Labor MP Craig Thomson. In this case, the convenient tipping off of the media (by unknown law enforcement/political figures) had sinister echoes of the unhealthy cosiness between police and journalists exposed by the UK phone hacking scandal. There looked to be a good story there, but oddly enough, no-one in the mainstream appeared to want to pursue it. (For insight, see this investigation).

But wait, there was more. The resignations of cabinet ministers Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon - despite their plans being known by the PM last year - was taken as further evidence of the government campaign falling apart at the first hurdle. You see it's easy. You just take random events and stitch them together into a story that serves the interests of your corporate masters.

Chipping in from the sidelines and squaring the circle (or should that be swatstika) on the Third Reich references was a perpetually excited opposition politician, who felt that we were witnessing a Downfall moment.  He later retracted the comment....well sort of.

By the start of the new week, the red cordial brigade had switched its attention to Newspoll, which in press gallery circles is treated like the Delphi oracle, such is its presumed proximity to the political deities. And, of course, Newspoll's findings of a savage swing against the government was treated with due reverence, cementing as it did the chosen narrative. Never mind that weeks before - during the summer lull - it had the parties at virtual neck and neck. You pick and choose what suits the story.

Suffice to say, it was a smorgasbord of outrages that kept frenzied fingers typing in the nation's newsrooms, in all service of the spectacle. Throw in other recent momentous events like Gillard's partner making an off-colour "gaffe" about prostate exams and the driving record of the PM's chosen Senate representative for the Northern Territory and it all felt suitably armageddon-ish. Which is what  you want, really.

But irrespective of your political allegiances, just reflect for a moment. How much of this rolling tapestry of meaningless means anything to you? As much as these 24-hour outrages fill news bulletins and occupy the space between the ads in tomorrow's fish-and-chip wrappers, what is the impact on you and or your family of Julia's new specs, or the fact the election is being held  on Yom Kippur or the confected arrest of a former MP on charges of charging ice creams to his expense account or the inevitable reshuffling of the ministry?

Now contemplate some of the issues raised in the PM's policy speech - the impact on your retirement income of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, the end of ever rising house prices, the challenges of parenting AND caring for aging parents, the consequences of climate change and extreme weather events, the impact of a structurally higher Australian dollar on the industries where many of us work, the need to find a new driver of growth after the mining boom, the challenge of an aging population and its call on health services, the need to ensure adequately funded public education so children are not disadvantaged because of their parents' lack of means, the structural shift lower in federal budget revenue and how we might fund future calls on the public purse....

Whoever wins the election this year, these policy challenges are not going to go away.  Against that background, the role of the media should be to challenge politicians of all sides about how they will meet them, how they will fund them and what their long-term vision for the nation is - beyond the empty platitudes of mateship and the kitsch Australiana that lazy politicians lean on.

These big questions are what real politics is about. They are hard issues and they resist neat right-left, white hat-black hat analysis. Perhaps that's why our media focuses instead on ephemeral noise, 5-minute outrages, constant polling and clever spin. It's easy, it's cheap and it feeds the spectacle. Because reality is so much harder to deal with. Debord:
" In societies where modern conditions of productions prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation. The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be re-established. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation . . . The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images."
See also: