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Salvation Through Comedy

Okay, I realize that I'm not as funny as I think I am, which Mrs. Newmark will remind me about now and then.

However, sometimes I want to confront people with an unpleasant truth, and confrontation often makes thing worse. (By "truth", I mean what I think is the truth; please adjust for that.)

In the mid-eighties at IBM Detroit, I had a really good manager, John S., who told me that my confrontational habit had polarized my coworkers. They either hated what I told 'em or loved it. He pointed out that my sense of humor might be my only saving grace.

It took little time for me to realize he was right, and that in practice, it frequently didn't matter if I was right. Aaron Sorkin got it right in the movie A Few Good Men:
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Tom Cruise, in character, demands "I want the truth!" and Jack Nicholson responds: "You can't handle the truth!"

Maybe 20 years after watching the movie, I realized that comedy is what allows humans to understand an unpleasant truth.

Sometimes it doesn't matter if I'm not really all that funny, or have any more good material. As Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David reminded George Costanza, it's okay leaving them wanting more:

Okay, I really do realize I ain't all that funny, but it works.

I'm never going to do standup comedy, but in that spirit, please remember to tip the waiters!

In the meantime, check this out…

Toward Trustworthy News: “Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content”

We’re talking about an authoritative report regarding “how news websites spread (and debunk) online rumors, unverified claims, and misinformation.” That’s not, in itself, news, but it’s real valuable in that this report brings together and surfaces a lot of untrustworthy and very common practices.
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My perspective, as usual, is that I’m a news consumer, never told anyone how to fix the news, I just want news I can trust. I’m not a news professional, haven’t “been there,” I’m an outsider, and continue to respect the boundaries. That’s why I rely on professional work like this.

I just don’t do the report or its methodology justice, so please check it out.

News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.

Here’re the highlights:

• Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well. The story’s point of origin, once traced back through the chain of links, is often something posted on social media or a thinly sourced claim from a person or entity.

• Among other problems, this lack of verification makes journalists easy marks for hoaxsters and others who seek to gain credibility and traffic by getting the press to cite their claims and content.

• News organizations are inconsistent at best at following up on the rumors and claims they offer initial coverage. This is likely connected to the fact that they pass them on without adding reporting or value. With such little effort put into the initial rewrite of a rumor, there is little thought or incentive to follow up. The potential for traffic is also greatest when a claim or rumor is new. So journalists jump fast, and frequently, to capture traffic. Then they move on.

• News organizations reporting rumors and unverified claims often do so in ways that bias the reader toward thinking the claim is true. The data collected using the Emergent database revealed that many news organizations pair an article about a rumor or unverified claim with a headline that declares it to be true. This is a fundamentally dishonest practice.

• News organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations (“reportedly,” “claims,” etc.) to convey that information they are passing on is unverified. They frequently use headlines that express the unverified claim as a question (“Did a woman have a third breast added?”). However, research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences. These approaches lack consistency and journalists rarely use terms and disclosures that clearly convey which elements are unverified and why they are choosing to cover them.

The report supports all this real solidly.

The Trust Project suggests we focus on the signals of trustworthy reporting. I’d suggest a few such signals, wherein an article would assert the following affirmatively or otherwise.

1. Are all claims/facts in the article verified by independent sources?

2. Are article headlines clickbait in the sense that they are sensationalized and inaccurate reflections of the stories?

3. Does the news org publish first, then relies on crowdsourced fact checking? (I formerly believed in that, then realized that considerable harm might be done prior to a correction.)

4. Does an article cite a party that hadn’t responded to requests for comment, if sufficient time is provided for comment. (I’ve seen cases where reporters requested comment very close to deadline, or very early morning, etc)

The news business is hard and getting harder, even if the intent isn’t trustworthy. I don’t want to be a hard case, just want news I can trust, and the Silverman reports helps point the way.

Why Crowdfunding’s a Good Idea

Folks, lots of people have been doing crowdfunding campaigns lately, myself included, and they're pretty effective. In 2013 alone, crowdfunding raised about $5.1 billion worldwide – something we showed in the infographic, Cracking the Crowdfunding Code.

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Here's why crowdfunding's a good idea:

  1. Lots of people have good ideas, and I believe that the internet should be used to help people out (give real power to the powerless and a real voice to the voiceless). Crowdfunding really allows people to reach their goals, and also lets folks contribute to causes they believe in.
  2. Public teachers are a great case, doing mission critical work for little recognition and less pay. Once in a while they find students they prize, who show real promise, and that can be rewarding. Otherwise, it can be a tough life, worse when you feel the need to pay out-of-pocket for needed supplies, like pens and paper, with low pay. If you want to help, check out DonorsChoose.org – it's an online charity that makes it easy for anyone to help students in need. Public school teachers from all over America post classroom project requests on the site, and you can give any amount to the project that most inspires you.
  3. Not only does crowdfunding impact the person who started the campaign, it generally impacts all the people who are participating. For example, I support the Veterans Charity Campaign and the Holiday Challenge each year, and they really help out vets, milfams, and nonprofits raising money for good causes. Another example is the crowdfunding campaign that Humans of New York started for the kids in Brooklyn – they've raised more than $1.1 million, in less than 3 weeks. It's the real deal.

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Have you tried crowdfunding? What's been your experience? My whole philosophy's to really create change for the better, and I think this is a good start.

4 Useful Social Platforms Right Now

Hey, I'm pretty social online; something that might seem counter-intuitive considering I'm a hardcore nerd, but actually we nerds tend to be very comfortable online, that is often our primary social milieu. The informal email list/newsletter which evolved into craigslist was a great example of the kinda social I’m good at.

(Yes, otherwise, I'm fairly unsocial, having a limited social appetite.)

I like to keep in touch with what orgs are doing, and help 'em out when I can. For some time, I've been asked how nonprofits can share their stuff with me so that I can re-share it, and here's a guide on how to do that.

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In the meantime, here are the social platforms that I think are really useful right now:

1. Medium has quickly become a serious platform for influencers to connect with other influencers and beyond.

The White House even released the State of the Union transcript on Medium before the speech started – something they've never done before. For the very first time, the entirety of the SOTU was available for public consumption in advance. (This made birding and SOTUing much more compatible…)

2. Twitter is the way I connect with people in a more casual way, it's a great way for people to have a voice and build their personal reputations and brands.

3. Facebook is a more challenging platform for people to connect, socially, or to get the word out. That challenge comes from increasing changes to the algorithm which controls what's shared with readers incoming streams.

4. LinkedIn is how people network, often preparing the way for future jobs, or sometimes to promote their companies. It's also, in part, a media platform for business networkers.

I tend to write a coupla times a month over on LI, mostly giving my opinion. Things like advice for your first 90 days at a new job, how to restore trust to the news, and knowing when to keep your mouth shut

What social platforms are the most useful for you? And what do you think'll be the best upcoming platforms in 2015?

 

How to Restore Trust in News

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To Restore Trust in News, We Need Less Click Bait, More Accountability

This is an evolving discussion in response to hopeful signs from people in the news industry who are committed to seriously trustworthy journalism.

My personal bias is simply that I'm a news consumer, and just want news I can trust. I feel that trust might be the primary challenge in news today, à la "trust is the new black." Major challenges include finding successful business models for news, but I defer that to the news professionals.

There are a lot of good people under considerable pressure to write stories that people will actually read. However, that pressure inflates questionable behavior, which even a guy like me can see.

That is, most journalists and editors really want to print what's really true, but there is sometimes intense stress to cut corners, like the acceptance of conventional wisdom, or even to cite sources that haven't been vetted. Their boss might only care that a story is plausible.

It's hard to trust the news overall when many major stories are ignored by news outlets.
For example, there's now considerable evidence that financial instability was a big problem well before the economic troubles of 2008, well documented by Dean Starkman at the Columbia Journalism Review.

There's the highly reported fake IRS scandal, as opposed to a much more serious, underreported scandal, well reported in rare publications including ProPublica.

Emerging: Sunlight Foundation has documented a deeply serious threat to the American people — the degree of influence buying in Washington:

After examining 14 million records, including data on campaign contributions, lobbying expenditures, federal budget allocations and spending, we found that, on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government. The $4.4 trillion total represents two-thirds of the $6.5 trillion that individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury.

It's hard to trust the news when some of the press is kind of complicit in deceiving the public.

Reporters are smart, and they often know when a public figure (particularly a politician) is lying, or might be. In the latter case, due diligence might require as little as a quick Google search. However, a sensational lie might sell advertising, so a news org might repeat the lie, with no fact-checking, doing actual damage to people's lives. For example, there was the whole "death panel" thing, which might have compromised public health and people's lives.

While Jon Stewart calls this "CNN leaves it there," the problem is far more pervasive. Jay Rosen explores the issue in depth.

It's hard to trust the news when the press does so little fact-checking. danah boyd expresses her frustration regarding (another) fake study, which indirectly does great harm to people:

Why why why do journalists feel the need to spread these kinds of messages even once they know that there’s no evidence to support those claims? Is it the pressure of 24/7 news? Is it a Milgram-esque hierarchy where producers/editors push for messages and journalists/staffers conform even though they know better because they simply can’t afford to question their superiors given the state of journalism?

I’d get it if journalists really stood by their interpretations even though I disagreed with them. I can even stomach salacious headlines that are derived from the story. And as much as I hate fear-mongering in general, I can understand how it emerges from certain stories. But since when did the practice of journalism allow for uncritically making shit up? ::shaking head:: Where’s the fine line between poor journalism and fabrication?

It's hard to trust the news when there's little or no accountability in news outlets; note that these are ongoing problems which threaten U.S. democracy.

That's why I say that "a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy" and when the press fails in that regards, well, we get the situation in Washington like we have today.

Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post says it way better than I ever could:

Newspapers don’t tell the truth under many different, and occasionally innocent, scenarios. Mostly when they don’t know the truth. Or when they quote someone who does not know the truth.

And more and more, when they quote someone who is spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.

And finally, when they quote someone who is flat-out lying. There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times — in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything. It wasn’t always that way.

There are journalists of good will who want to restore trustworthy behavior to the press profession.

Both the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Assocation have impressively updated their ethics codes. I'd note that "ethics code" is pretty much "guidelines" for trustworthy behavior. However, few reporters or publishers seem to have heard of this.

The Trust Project, part of the Markkula Center for Practical Ethics at Santa Clara University, is making a really serious, very impressive start in these regards.

Jeff Jarvis summarizes their take, and builds on it impressively:

In their Trust Project, Richard Gingras, head of Google News, and Sally Lehrman, a fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, argue the need to rebuild trust in news and they propose a set of practical tactics. I want to suggest further steps to support their campaign.

The reforms Gingras and Lehrman propose:

  • News organizations and journalists should craft and publish statements of mission and ethics.
  • Journalists should disclose their background to reveal both levels of expertise and areas of personal interest and conflict.
  • For disclosure and accountability (and credit, I’d add), news organizations should reveal all the hands that work on content: researchers, editors, 'even lawyers.'
  • News organizations should aspire to an academic ethic of citations (links=footnotes) and corrections. They would also be wise to disclose their methodology — i.e., whom they interviewed, what they researched.

I see more opportunities in building systems and companies around:

  • gathering and analyzing signals of authority;
  • building relationship data and analysis for media companies to increase their relevance;
  • membership structures for media organizations to give clients — the public — greater voice in the use of journalistic resources;
  • establishing new metrics for news as a service (did we improve your life and your community?), enhancing accountability;
  • creating the means for trusted, recipient-controlled communication that is free of trolls and other online plagues (as opposed to email, Twitter, et al, which are sender-controlled);
  • advertising and revenue models that value quality over volume;
  • new forms of TV news that do not rely on cheap tricks to fill time and build volume but instead get rewarded for delivering value; and on and on. Technology companies — not just Google — and investors, media companies, universities, and foundations can invest in and support such innovation to build trust.

I'd add that news orgs need to provide, as part of their ethics code, some means by which they can be held accountable for when something goes wrong.

That is, when inaccurate news is posted, it should be corrected as soon as possible, in a way that doesn't reinforce misinformation. If necessary, the originating news org should work with other news orgs that might be propagating the misinformation. Challenging, but … "do no harm."

They should also label opinion pieces as such, and avoid deceptive click bait. (I'm taking the position that click bait isn't wrong in itself; if honest, maybe that's OK.) That is, the title or headline for a particular article should accurately reflect what's in the article.

Note that re/code does a really good job regarding ethics tags, like for Kara Swisher.

Jay Rosen presents summarizes a lot of this, from a news professional view, impressively succinctly in "How to be literate in what’s changing journalism":

  1. Transparency and trust. As “trust us, we’re professionals” gives way to “show your work.”
  2. Fact-checking and rumor control. The press used to deal with false information simply by not letting it through the gate. Now there’s an affirmative duty to track and call out false stories.

Beyond ranking trustworthy news links more highly, Google has recently introduced a means by which I'd sure like to pay for trustworthy news. Perhaps it should clearly note which news orgs have committed to trustworthy behavior.

Mathew Ingram summarizes Google Contributor:

Google Contributor, which is designed to allow web users to pay sites that they visit a monthly fee, and in return see no Google ads when they visit those sites.

Could Google Contributor become a realistic alternative to a paywall for large news sites or even individual content creators? That remains to be seen, but Google deserves some credit for continuing to experiment with different forms of monetization.

I'm with Mathew here; in its current form, Contributor is mostly a promise, but it could offer rewards for those news orgs who signal and follow through with trustworthy behavior.

OK, I'm an optimist, looking for reasons to hope to find news I can trust.

Emily Bell gets to the point regarding the tech industry and news:

Accountability is not part of Silicon Valley’s culture. But surely as news moves beyond paper and publisher, it must become so. For a decade or more, news organisations have been obeisant to the power of corporate technology, nodding and genuflecting at the latest improbably impressive magic. But their editorial processes have something to offer technologists too.

I feel tech and new orgs need to be accountable to the public. This is the best I can find, so far.

Looking for more — what would you suggest?