Here’s a tale that reveals how journalists tend to think of their role in the conversation that makes up news and society.
I think the conversation is happening all around us, with or without the journalists. I teach now that it’s the role of the journalist to add value to that conversation: verification, debunking, facts, reporting, context, platforms, teaching…. The late James Carey defines the role differently. As Jay Rosen explains in the Carey Reader: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”
But I’m seeing that news organizations think it is their role to lead the conversation (they set the agenda), allow the conversation (you may now comment on our story, now that it’s done), and judge the conversation (see Bill Keller’s sniffing at vox polloi).
That’s why I went theatrically batshit on Twitter against the BBC for holding the first day of a meeting this week about *social media* under Chatham House Rule, which decrees: “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”
That’s a fancy, British way to say “not for attribution.” Or as I said in another tweet, “Chatham House Rule turns everyone into an anonymous source. Precisely the wrong thing for a journo org to do!” That is especially an issue for a public journalistic institution, which should be setting an example for other journalists and their sources.
But it’s most shocking that the BBC would impose this rule on a meeting that is not only about *social media* — I thought all Brits bragged about having a sense of irony Americans lack; apparently not — but worse, one that carried the haughty ambition to formulate “a universally accepted set of verification guidelines for social media material” and “an accepted ethical framework for using sensitive material from social networks.” Don’t they see that one can can longer set true standards for the rest of the world in closed rooms with invite-only guests who are gagged or anonymous and prevented from interacting with that world? Then the outcome becomes a standard only for that small subset of people, which negates its authority as a standard. At best, it’s another club rule.
The arguments back to me on Twitter were mostly that employees needed the comfort of anonymity to speak freely about their employers. My response: The meeting wasn’t streamed. Anyone could request the courtesy not to be quoted or that what he or she says isn’t to be attributed. But the BBC made secrecy the default. Tone deaf. Shameful.
The next morning, at the open and streamed second day of the conference, Peter Horrocks, head of news for the BBC, attacked critics for attacking the BBC for limiting comments on its site to 400 characters (2.85 tweets), calling them extremists and zealots. Horrocks is bidding to control the conversation about controlling the conversation. Oh, my.
But that is the reflex of the journalist: to control the conversation.
Later in the afternoon, by coincidence, I heard from the BBC’s flagship show, Newsnight, asking me to come on to talk about privacy and the superinjunction row in the UK. I told the producer what I had to say about how futile and noxious to my idea of free speech it was for the courts of London to think they could control the conversation and do so in secrecy.
Later, I heard from the producer that “we have booked someone here in London who can make it into the studio, which always works better, and it would imbalance the discussion to have a third person.” Imbalancing a discussion sounds just up my ally. Pity I couldn’t. But that’s fine, it’s their prerogative as it’s their time on their air. But this moment illustrates the point: What journalists have done for a living is manage a conversation.
That is the presumption they now bring to online and the world’s comments.
The problem with comments, I’ve argued lately, is that the form and timing of them is essentially insulting to the public: It says we journalists don’t want to hear from you, the public, until after we are done with our work making content for you to consume. Then the public speaks and journalists don’t listen (because they think their stories are done) and the commenters are insulted and so they insult the journalists and the journalists say that’s the proof that the comments and the commenters aren’t worth the attention. A very vicious cycle. The conversation catches cooties.
The reason the BBC cut its comments down to 400 characters is cost. In a discussion on Twitter with the BBC’s Nick Reynolds, the social media executive who oversees moderation of all BBC social media, that became clear. Comments require moderation and that’s a cost. True enough. But I tried to argue with Reynolds in Twitter that the conversation writ large could also save costs. I couldn’t get it through to him. He kept defining the conversation as comments and “UGC.” I kept defining the conversation as collaboration.
Collaboration is not allowing people to comment. Collaboration is not giving them opinion polls. (Carey, by the way, argued that polling is “an attempt to stimulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming,” but that’s another topic.) Collaboration is not enabling them to send in the pictures of the snow on their back porches, something I hate when TV news does it as it condescends — it says the public can’t provide real news or quality images; we’re merely humoring them. “UGC” is bullshit.
No, collaboration is about sharing the work of journalism. Collaboration brings value and can even save costs. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian (he closed the BBC’s conference but, unfortunately, video of it is not online), often talks about the mutualization of news and how opening up its work can enable a journalistic organization to produce journalism it otherwise could not do or afford to do.
At the BBC conference, Esra Dogramaci of Al Jazeera gave an impressive presentation of the networks’ use of social media to collaborate. Then the BBC moderator quizzed her about whether social media would “drive the agenda” of the news. And a BBC staffer fretted that by providing cameras and training to protestors in the Arab Spring, “aren’t you now intertwining yourselves with the protestors?” The moderator asked whether Al Jazeera’s mission of “giving voice to the voiceless” encourages the revolution. Another BBC staffer suggested that by providing the means for the people to talk, Al Jazeera may be subversive. Dogramaci replied, most articulately, that Al Jazeera is on the side of the people and if that is subversive, then so be it.
In what Al Jazeera does, we see the seed of a new definition of journalism and its role in the conversation: as a service to it.
There is yet a further extension of the model in what Andy Carvin has been doing on Twitter covering the Arab Spring (he also spoke at the BBC event). What strikes me there is that Andy does not start or enable or even necessarily serve the conversation, as the conversation is going on with or without him. The witnesses to news are telling the world what they are seeing. Andy observes it and plucks out the good and reliable witnesses and he passes what they observe on, adding value along the way: vetting, questioning, debunking, context, explanation, assigning….
News, then, begins to take on the architecture of the internet itself: end-to-end. At one end are the witnesses sharing, at the other the readers reading and interacting, asking their own questions, having their own say, passing on and recommending what interests them. No need for a gatekeeper. No need for a distributor. No need for a central hub. No tolerance for controllers. The conversation is occurring on its own.
Journalism is sometimes a subset of that conversation. It can add value. It can serve. But it should not think of itself as the creator of the conversation, the setter of the agenda, though that is what I see in so much of the BBC’s worldview as demonstrated at events this week. They might have learned that better if instead of a meeting, they held a conversation.
The conversation is news.
: MORE: Adam Tinworth wonders why a group of big-media people deserves the protection of CHR but the larger group doesn’t. Ah, the Brits and class.
: Here’s the BBC’s explanation of its decision re Chatham House Rule.