Adding value in the new news ecosystem

How can and should news organizations and others add value to the new news ecosystem that is being used in the Iran story?

Or to put the question another way: The New York Times keeps talking about how expensive its Baghdad bureau is and what a fix we’d be in without it. Well, the essential truth in Iran is that no one has a Tehran bureau (or if they do, it has been rendered useless by government diktat). So we have no choice but to replace that bureau with the people, with witnesses empowered to share what they see.

The New York Times, the Guardian, and Andrew Sullivan, to name three, have been doing impressive work with their live blogs, sifting through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, trying to add as much context and as many caveats as they can. The live blog is print’s equivalent of live TV; it is the way to cover a story such as this: process journalism over product journalism.

But clearly, in that coverage of and by the people, we are experiencing severe filter failure, to use Clay Shirky’s term. Look at the hundreds of tweets that emerge every minute and at the overuse of the word “confirmed” on them, which is meaningless if you don’t know who’s doing the confirming. There’s no way to tell who’s who, who’s there, who’s telling the truth, who’s not.

Note the repeated word: Who. The greatest value a news organization can add to this new news ecosystem is to identify, curate, vet, and train people. Ideally, that needs to happen before the big story breaks. But it can even be done outside the country, as I saw CNN do this morning, talking with a Columbia University student from Iran, who knew who was real and was there from her network of family and friends. Of course, even if you know the people you’re listening to, it’s impossible to know whether everything they say is true unless you can verify it yourself. But that’s the point: You can’t.

So you need to have the best head start you can have. The larger the network of people a news organization can organize, the better shape it will be in when news breaks, the better it can filter the reports that come – whether from people in that network or in the larger network of people those people know. The more people in the network, the more who can go to the scene of news or research closer to it – the more you can ask for help.

Global Voices is an example of this infrastructure: someone who knows someone who knows someone, each able to judge what the next in the chain is saying.

I’ve also been arguing that for journalists, saying what you don’t know is becoming as important as saying what you know. That is all the more critical as misinformation and rumor can spread at the speed of information online. So I imagine a news organization creating a kind of anti-wiki – a dynamic, collaborative Snopes: a list of what we don’t know so we can see what is unconfirmed and so these things can be confirmed – so journalists can add journalism.

On Twitter right now, for example, I’m seeing a great deal about people being taken to embassies instead of hospitals. It is possible for journalists to call their diplomatic sources and confirm at least that, check that off. We need structure around that process.

See also the post below about YouTube holding unique information about the provenance of video. YouTube should not reveal identifiable information about those sources. But news organizations should be able to contact YouTube to help sift through them and find out least which videos came from Iran.

News organizations could also equip their networks of witnesses. Alive in Baghdad distributed cameras to people there. Today, that can be done so much less expensively – think Flip cameras. Bild in Germany sold 21,000 of equivalent devices in five weeks. Michael Rosenblum is planning to distribute 100 Flips in Gaza.

How else can and should news organizations add value and structure to this very disorganized and live new world of news?

  • invitedmedia

    don’t watch tv, but if cnn did indeed show a “student from columbia university” (or use her real name) that puts her friends and family in jeopardy, doesn’t it?

    btw- good to see you mention rosenblum’s gaza project.

  • http://scripting.com/ Dave Winer

    Jeff, they should have invented Twitter.

    Or failing that they should be Not Inventing it.

    That’s what Microsoft would do. :-)

    Maybe that should be the title of your sequel.

  • Brian Hayashi

    It would be interesting to use online to curate different perspectives on #iranelection. For example, (1) might be an unfiltered stream of tweets and (3) could be a feed composed solely of people that CNN people on the ground knew to be authentic.

    Your example of Flip cameras is important. News agencies will increasingly need to be able to count on a minimum level of technological capability/compatibility from its stringers, wherever and whoever they are.

    Methinks the ability to crowdsource, filter and visualize information in the form of easily-understandable infographics is going to be key. I look at the real-time displays used by CBS or ESPN to convert a stream of text information into gamecasts as an important vector for future news organizations.

  • http://listics.com/ Frank Paynter

    Breathless and lame your post extends the great game… Burma Shave.

    You assert, “Well, the essential truth in Iran is that no one has a Tehran bureau…”

    Al Jazeera is there, though the govt “suspended the work” of their Tehran news channel. They’re still getting hard hitting, principled coverage out:

    http://tinyurl.com/lttc3s

    AlJazeeraEnglish is out there gathering and reporting the news. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/06/200961615355050345.html

    The point is that Al Jazeera has the news that is being tweeted and they’ve a professional interest in vetting it.

    There’s an interesting new communications media story coming out of Tehran, but you, sir, have not nailed it.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Frank, what’s your point: that you like Al Jazeera English?

      • http://listics.com/ Frank Paynter

  • frankiecarl

    Well, the video of a girl being murdered (from NYT via The Beast, to Mousavi’s facebook post) was vetted enough for me. I does not take a super brain to find good sources, if they are available, christ, filter it yourself. It just has to be important to you. The idea of mass participation in anything always results in these side shows. I just ignore it and enjoy the great work people are doing out there to bring us “this stuff”. I thank all of them, u 2 ;)

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  • http://www.rosenblumtv.com Rosenblum

    Thanks for the ink, Jeff. The Guardian is on board with the Gaza Flipcam Project and today we were joined by Kevin Klose, former President of NPR, and new Dean of the Merrill School of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

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  • nebben

    You can see the Flickr #iranelection photo stream alongside #iranelection tweets here, http://bit.ly/13stY6.

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  • http://www.tomgriffin.org Tom Griffin

    There’s no way to tell who’s who, who’s there, who’s telling the truth, who’s not.

    Maybe there’s a role here for wikis like Sourcewatch and SpinProfiles. I do some research for the latter and I’ve come up with some interesting background on the guy behind the green avatars on Twitter:
    http://www.spinprofiles.org/index.php/Arik_Fraimovich

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  • Bill

    I am really glad you mention Global Voices, it is a wonderful site which is doing really great work. It is also a great example of your point, if traditional journalism is looking for a way into the infowar going on through citizen journalism and internet social networks the job organizing and discriminating, a job requiring connections unavailable to most bloggers or the internet audience, is a good way to start. The less in Iran is certainly that official journalism is fairly easy to silence in extreme cases, while the people and citizen journalism can not be so silenced, but the two forces need to work together to insure that the messages and information both care about can successfully make it to the world rather than getting lost in a flood of undifferentiated data. There are some great interviews with top journalists about issues like these that influence the future of journalism at http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69 which I have found useful.

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  • http://wyman.us/ Bob Wyman

    The long-term solution to the problem you are addressing is to establish within the society a tradition and expectation of information production, analysis and exchange as a normal function, and perhaps duty, of every citizen. When there are only a few “news organizations,” it becomes trivial for a repressive government to suppress them. When the culture of news production and exchange is embedded pervasively in the society, suppressing the truth becomes vastly more difficult.

    What this means, of course, is that when there are times of crisis, it is too late to do what needs to be done. Rather, during peaceful times, we should work to build up the people’s participation in the information/news web.

    Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, etc. have clearly served the Iranian people well. What we should be asking is how can we improve these tools and what new ones should we be building based on what we’ve learned. Also, how do we get these tools, or their equivalents, integrated into the fabric of all societies so that they are there when they are really needed…

    bob wyman

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  • http://www.familygreenberg.com/index2.php Brian Greenberg

    But news organizations should be able to contact YouTube to help sift through them and find out least which videos came from Iran.

    Ooh – I like that much better than “YouTube has a responsibility to curate their own content.” Let YouTube make more information available to trusted news sources for the purpose of analysis – that solves both problems.

    Also, I think we need to remember that this isn’t all about us. Twitter’s big homerun in the Iranian elections has been its ability to help the people on the ground organize with each other. Any misinformation in that regard is quickly shouted down by others on the scene, and those on the ground who need to know the truth probably each have their own trusted sources.

    It’s ability to substitute for a “Tehran news bureau” seems to have gone through a full product life cycle in just a few days (birth, extreme growth, plateau, decline) as we all marvelled at how participatory the whole thing was, and then suddenly realized that noise can creep in as easily as signal. If anything, it highlights the need for trusted sources (“curators,” as you’ve been calling them). Maybe old journalism isn’t dead after all? Maybe this is just helping it find its place?

    • Andy Freeman

      > If anything, it highlights the need for trusted sources (”curators,” as you’ve been calling them). Maybe old journalism isn’t dead after all? Maybe this is just helping it find its place?

      Why would we trust old journalism now?

      • http://www.familygreenberg.com/index2.php Brian Greenberg

        Behold the great circular argument: without old journalism, we don’t know who to trust, but we don’t trust old journalism so we should do away with it!

        In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Maybe this is a renewed incentive for “old journalism” to build & protect their credibility? And then (before Jeff has my head on a spike) applies that credibility to the new media so we get real-time, interactive news?

      • Andy Freeman

        > Behold the great circular argument: without old journalism, we don’t know who to trust, but we don’t trust old journalism so we should do away with it!

        It’s only circular if you think that old journalism is the only entity that can be in a position of trust. It isn’t.

        However, even if it is, that doesn’t imply that keeping old journalism around is a good idea if it is in fact untrustworthy. Untrustworthy journalism is worse than no journalism.

        > Maybe this is a renewed incentive for “old journalism” to build & protect their credibility?

        Why will it change now? The consequences of being untrustworthy haven’t changed.

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