News media’s growing Facebook co-dependency challenges journalism’s limits on acquiring informational ethically

In the pre-dawn of the media age the main delivery system for news in much of the country consisted of sleepy boys on bikes, who pedaled from house to house before daybreak and stuck papers into mailboxes or threw them in the general vicinity of front doors.

I did that one summer for The Washington Post, a dreary job that was legal only thanks to the longstanding exemptions from child labor laws the newspaper industry had finagled. I got a dollar per subscriber per month. It would’ve been more, except the boy who had sublet the route to me insisted on handling the collections and, I later learned, pocketing the tips.

Now, under traditional newspaper economics, what subscribers paid for their papers covered only distribution costs. If the papers had been distributed cost-free to subscribers, publishers could have given them away and still made a profit. The real money was from advertising.

As it still is. Now, however, things have changed. I started thinking about how radically they’d changed after reading a pair of articles in The New York Times about Facebook. The stupendously successful social media network has morphed from a place where friendships are carried on to one of the primary ways that people find out about the world.

Citing a Pew Research Center study, The Times noted that 64 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook at least monthly, and roughly half of them get news there. That means that instead of clicking directly to the home pages of news outfits to find out what the editors there think readers should know about, the readers are taking the advice of Facebook friends: They then enter news sites through side doors to view what the editors there might very well consider sideshows.

In effect, the news organization’s Facebook presence has become its online newsrack.

I first became aware that this was Facebook’s plan back in 2011. That’s when the company’s brass—led by Sheryl Sandberg, who hadn’t yet become the cultural lodestone she is now, but was still Facebook’s chief operating officer and a speaker of immense appeal—carpet-bombed the American Society of News Editors annual gathering in San Diego with a single message: Facebook was the future of news.

Facebook was aiming to become the Macy’s window on the Internet for the news biz, offering fully modern functionality, visual pizzazz, and, above all, an unbeatable storefront on the same network that was fast becoming the choice online meet-up space for about a fifth of humanity.

That seems to be what now has happened. By throwing in with Facebook, news sites rent space in a virtual metropolis teeming with enthusiasts, who send traffic their way, and permeated by commercial vendors.

That’s the good part of the story. The rest of the story is that their readers’ online comings and goings, likes and dislikes, are noted, rummaged, inventoried, and harvested for data to be acted on and resold by Facebook and its collaborators.

It’s as if, back when newspapers were hand-delivered, they were given away for free. Then, in exchange, the paper boys got to record their observations about cars in the driveway and bikes in the yard, sift through the subscribers’ trash bins for commercially actionable intelligence, note any repairs on the house, check if the garden was tended and see which veggies were growing, and pass along information about family visitors, backyard swing sets, retail buying, empty milk bottles, etc.

None of that would be appealing, but a larger question looms: Isn’t Facebook-style informational pillage especially problematic when it’s undertaken on behalf Continue reading

Squeezing out foreign students means disinvesting in our own future

I enrolled in the University of Paris at the age of 23, having drifted up to France after a year in Africa traveling and working—leaving, like generations of pale-skinned expats before me, with more money than I arrived with. At the Sorbonne I spent a year studying philosophy. Lodging and meals were subsidized; tuition ran about $35.

After a couple of years in the States working as a reporter I was admitted to the London School of Economics, and five years later left with a Ph.D. British tuition was low, and the generous rules of the day required me to pay for only two of the years I spent there, so that Ph.D. cost me about $600.

Of course there were other costs. In France I took in typing and translations, and fried eggs, washed dishes, and mopped floors. In England my wife kept us alive by teaching school, while I taught undergraduates.

But still and all, the world was a permissive one, and I got six years of graduate study and two very respectable degrees for well under $1,000 in tuition.

That was then. Now the LSE costs $25,000 a year, and I’m in an ironic position. I run one of the country’s premier journalism graduate schools, which is embedded in a great, nominally public university, the University of California, Berkeley. And because public funding has not kept up with rising costs, we’re seeking a sizable increase in tuition—one that would be especially burdensome to students from abroad, just as I was.

Foreign students are already charged top dollar—some $29,000 for each of the two years the master’s of journalism degree requires. That’s more than U.S. students pay, because foreigners are barred, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, from benefiting from the lower in-state tuition that students from elsewhere in the United States pay after they establish residency in California in their first year.

It’d be nice to think we could find some financial offsets for students from abroad, but the options are limited. In fact, it wouldn’t be fair to U.S. students, who have plenty of problems of their own, to devise support schemes that would Continue reading

Journalism codes leave vexing problems untouched

Since the 1920s journalists in the United States have been writing and rewriting codes of ethics. This began because they wanted the public and their own employers to regard them as worthy of respect (and decent pay), with rules, specialized expertise, and lofty purpose—genuine professionals, just like dentists and accountants. They also wanted guidelines that would keep them both honest and out of court.

There are quite a lot of codes around: The broadcasters have one; a good many news organizations, from tiny newspapers to major market TV stations, have their own; the Online News Association is even hosting a participatory hacking party to encourage members to draw up their own codes, “because one size does not fit all.”

Most recently, just after Labor Day the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) released a revision of its 1996 code, probably the most influential and most widely consulted among U.S. journalists.

Codes typically have many problems because they fill conflicting needs. The ones written by news outlets are often no more than employee manuals, and pronounce on confidential sources alongside overtime and severance. The deft touch of in-house lawyers is apparent, and the codes give management both deniability if reporters mess up and the moral license to nail them even if their misdeeds are more embarrassing than unethical.

But the bigger problem of codes is that they are so clearly overmatched by the swirl of ethical challenge that inundates contemporary journalism.

To be sure, right conduct can be encouraged by admonitions such as seek the truth, don’t plagiarize, correct errors, don’t shill, and treat people with respect.

But like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, those instructions constantly clash with each other and with real world pressures. Today’s journalists—and their employers—face challenges that are immensely more perplexing than those that these codes anticipate, let alone address. Take these hot-button issues the SPJ code does almost nothing to clarify:

- Clickbait: News organizations increasingly rely on web analytics that track, in real time, the traffic that particular postings draw, according to research by Angele Christin of the New School in New York. The result, Christin suggests, is the emergence of incentive structures that tilt reporters’ attention toward editorial confections with strong audience appeal but little news value. Isn’t this an ethical problem? Indeed, isn’t the way that editorial resources are used the quintessential ethical problem that journalism faces?

- Herding: Similarly, the ability to discern momentary trends in online chatter lures editorial resources toward offerings that will draw more of the mindshare of the minute and keep the news outlet “in the conversation,” as the trendy usage puts it. At what point does that constitute an abandonment of the discernment that was once called editorial judgment in favor of a continual state of market-chasing panic?

- Corporate complicity: News organizations now routinely incorporate social media into their newsgathering and online distribution operations. They crown Twitter users as trendsetters by recognizing tweets as newsworthy, they treat Google as a natural part of the utility landscape, they sell products in partnership with Amazon, and they build outreach strategies on Facebook. Yet those same vast networks are built on bare-knuckle competition, high-stakes lobbying, and problematic appropriation of user data. Isn’t this complicity a problem? Doesn’t Continue reading

Remembering Manhattan, Sept.11, 2001

This was originally published the week of Sept. 24, 2001, in The Miami Herald and other newspapers.

I watched the World Trade Center burn to death from 70 blocks away, Fifth Avenue and 45th Street in Midtown Manhattan. It gushed flame and black smoke, staining an immaculate, pale blue sky. I made it to work, and my office at Rockefeller Center was shut down at 10:30 a.m. The sidewalks overflowed with scared people who wanted to go home. By mid-day, while a colleague and I were trying to walk to her flat in Battery City, well within lower Manhattan’s dead zone, the giddiness that comes with emancipation from routine had faded. The city was numb.

The striking thing about the hospitals where we tried to volunteer, or give blood, or something, was the medical staff: They stood around outside, chatting, drinking coffee, with nothing to do. I realized there wouldn’t be anybody to treat. By 3 p.m., we had walked back to Midtown, and from the same spot where I’d seen the towers on fire I saw only empty sky, nothing but clouds of white smoke and dust. The city’s front teeth had been punched out.

We ended up in an Irish bar run by Hispanics. An African-American guy, a building contractor, told us about running for his life after he saw the second jet hit the tower a few blocks from his job site.

I went back to work the next day and learned that the young sister of a close colleague’s wife had phoned from the 90th floor of the south tower minutes after the second plane struck. The building was on fire, and she knew she had no way out. They had heard nothing since.

A night later, a friend who lived in the neighborhood walked me through a police checkpoint in the West Village. We passed her local fire station, a quaint, storybook place that her 5-year-old son loves because the firefighters always fussed over him. My friend said that eight of its men were lost, and it’s a small firehouse.

I made my way to the financial district. The air was thick and dank with diesel and pulverized city. It was hot. The streets were ferociously loud from dozens of huge trucks. Apart from the strobes of occasional emergency vehicles and the lights of the odd Red Cross coffee truck, it was very dark. The power was gone, and the buildings were black. I got within a few blocks of one of the fallen towers and could see a giant, flood-lit lattice of metal struts poking into the air, like a rib cage on an autopsy table.

That weekend, back home in Miami, we gave a surprise birthday party for our youngest. We had sixty 13-year olds rampaging through house and yard, oblivious – the boys still young, the girls already grown, pizza in the pool. I was back from a future they hadn’t seen yet.

I thought of the old Esquire magazine cartoon: Two golfers standing on the green, in the distance a mushroom-shaped cloud. One says to the other, “Go ahead and putt. It’ll be a while before the shock wave gets here.”

How did we get here? How was it that two weeks ago we were talking about Gary Condit, shark bites and stem cells, and overnight we’re facing a tottering economy, a roll-up of civil liberties and the prospect of a long, shadowy war in a world peppered with murderous monsters?

The search for causes seems beside the point now. But it’s key to our future:

* If our protectors failed us, maybe it’s because for decades we starved our government of money and talent, cutting funding and turning public service into an unappealing career path.

* If we were pig-ignorant of the desperation and hatred in the world, maybe it’s because our media stopped telling us what was really happening out there, because the audiences were deemed sparse compared with, say, “reality” TV’s.

* If we quietly have been making enemies, maybe it’s because we were heedless of the innocent blood we ourselves, with the noblest of intentions, were spilling; the causes we summoned, armed and abandoned; and the lives we ruined.

Those questions must be posed. But now we must not only ask, must not only cope; we must prevail.

Elemental justice demands that the guilty be punished. The challenge is not only to our might, though; it’s to our wisdom. We suffered horribly on Sept. 11. To redeem that suffering will require true greatness – not just power, but humility. Our victory has to hold out a promise not just of safety for our own people but of a promising future for the rest of humankind. The whole world is watching.

 

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Murder of journalists puts news media in a quandary

The murders of the U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by their Islamist captors were trivial horrors in the spiraling calamity that has engulfed Syria and Iraq. Still, to me they were uniquely painful for reasons unrelated to the region’s incomparably greater misfortunes: They were the needless deaths of brave and committed professionals, they pointed up the frayed logic of this country’s no-ransom policy, and they reminded us of the vulnerability of the corps of freelancers on which our media increasingly rely for news from the world’s most desperate places.

As news stories the killings were was not just grim and depressing, they were perplexing too, because they couldn’t help but call into question the wisdom and morality of the considerations that define news and dictate how news is presented.

Reports of the deaths were inextricably interwoven with the spectacle that the killers created out of them, and for the news media, it was impossible to report the murders without dealing with the video of their final moments—whether displaying it, suppressing it, alluding to it, or excerpting from it.

This isn’t the first time that has happened, but I think the need for media to strike the balance between, on the one hand, judiciously conveying publicly significant information and imagery and, on the other, refusing to serve as a terrorist conduit requires a moral clarity that has been elusive.

I didn’t view the video of either killing and don’t intend to, for reasons that will be clearer in a moment, but my understanding from those who have is that they don’t actually show the beheadings. The screen fades to black as the ostensible executioner, standing alongside their kneeling prisoners, brings out the knife; the images return to show the immediate aftermath.

I mention that apparent fastidiousness to make a point that’s important—that these weren’t newsreels; the “news”—the slaughter itself–wasn’t shown. What was shown was a carefully composed set piece of physical domination and verbal polemic constructed around an offscreen act of cruelty, and it was produced to make a point.

The reluctance of various news media to show the videos—and the decision by Twitter and YouTube to remove the Foley video from their servers, and Continue reading

Could the surge in mobile destroy what’s best about the Internet?

Back in 2004 I heard a presentation by an eminent media analyst at a conference of broadcasters in New York. He talked about “the capacity explosion”—the wild proliferation of broadband channels into and out of homes—and then offered remarkable observations about storage capabilities: The capacity to keep movies, video, and data of all kinds at home was rising 72 percent per year: What it cost to store 57 movies then would cover more than 2,000 in five years.

That sounded like fun, but my interest was in the political implications of his analysis, which were vast: A degree of communication independence for ordinary people that would have been historically unprecedented.

With immense in-house storage capabilities and blazing upload speeds, the distinction between media consumer and producer would vanish. Each of us would possess our own hope chests of content and become autonomous centers of intelligence and initiative, drawing freely from resources that lay entirely within our control, captains of our destiny, free to convene our own networks of communicants.

Too bad this forecast was almost entirely wrong. It didn’t foresee the advent of the Cloud. Now we have apps based God-knows-where that own our family photo albums and music play lists, and induce businesses to entrust even back-office operations that were always handled in-house to invisible helpmates deriving heaven-knows what shadowy benefits from the assistance they proffer.

The upshot is that we are infinitely less, not more, independent of our informational masters than we were a decade ago.

Now, a penetrating research paper presented this month at an academic gathering in Montreal suggests that perhaps the most powerful force in what can only be called the subordination of the vast majority of Internet users—their continuing downward transformation into mere consumers with only meager access to the creative potential of the digital network—is the rampant growth of mobile technology.

The paper, titled “The Emerging Mobile Internet Underclass,” by Philip Napoli of Rutgers and Jonathan Obar of the University of Ontario, opens with a surprising observation from Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

In a 2013 TED talk, Brin said he found his smartphone “emasculating.”

The argument is that though limber and endlessly convenient, mobile technology offers dramatically inferior Internet access to that available through PCs: slower speeds, reduced functionality, far less content availability (as of 2012 only an estimated 10 percent of the Web was mobile-ready.) Continue reading

The sliming of George Zimmerman

If it had happened to anybody but George Zimmerman, more people might have cared. But when your own lawyer calls you America’s most hated man you can’t expect a groundswell of sympathy, even when an immensely powerful broadcaster slimes you.

Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch zealot in Florida who picked a fight the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, with 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whom he mistook for a prowler. Martin rose to the bait, they fought; Zimmerman shot him dead and claimed self-defense.

Initially police in Sanford, Fla., did nothing, reasoning that the state’s “stand your ground” law authorized Zimmerman to shoot rather than back off the confrontation he’d provoked. After a public furor—the town has a legacy of racism, Martin was African-American and Zimmerman isn’t—he was charged with second-degree murder, only to be acquitted at trial.

I thought the acquittal was preposterous. But my intention here isn’t to rehash the unavenged wrong Zimmerman did. It’s to examine the lesser known wrong that was then done to him—and how it exemplifies the license that U.S. courts have given news media to mangle facts and defame powerless individuals.

On five occasions, NBC and its Miami station WTVJ broadcast excerpts from a recording of Continue reading