Why UGC means never having to say you’re sorry (apparently)

Perhaps I should just have one huge post on user-generated content that gets updated as merited because, to continue with the theme of UGC from the last update, this example shows what happens when a newspaper assumes everyone has the same knowledge and standards. 
Image: James Parks
The photograph on the right appeared in the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, recently – two trains, one new, one from bygone days of steam, captured barrelling along under a crisp blue sky. 
Taken by a ‘trusted contributor’ who submitted it to the newspaper, it was published on the front page of November 27 edition. 
Then, on December 17, the Standard-Examiner’s Behind The Headlines column carried what amounts to a long explanation for misleading readers
In the column, staffer Andy Howell explains that the photograph was in fact a composite, Photoshopped by the person who submitted the image and published in good faith (albeit without checking) as a genuine shot instead of a cut-n-shunt of two photos. Howell states:
I believe the photographer did not set out to deceive us or the public. The end result was more a product of miscommunication and a naive misunderstanding on the photographer’s part. It is also a cautionary tale for us and other newspapers as we rely more and more on citizen journalists and contributors…

The photo was taken by a “long-time train enthusiast”, whose work had been published by the paper before, and who deliberately set out to capture two shots that would when manipulated, show the old and the new in harmony. 
The photographer believed that his composite image told a story in the best traditions of photo-journalism:

He shot separate photos of both trains and didn’t think twice about overlaying the photos to create the composite image. He said he had read a column of mine where I explained that photojournalists try to tell a story with their images. To him, combining the photos was just a way of telling the story.

The column apologises for the deception (although one could question the depth of the apology after reading the whole column); it doesn’t accept responsibility for checking the provenance of the image, however.

The big mistake James [the photographer] made was not telling us the image was a composite. If we had known, we might still have run it… and clearly identified it as such…. James is sorry he didn’t tell us.

There should be a mea culpa from the newspaper at this point rather than a ‘James is sorry’ (the photographer misled by omission, not through an intention to deceive the newspaper).
The column says the lesson for us all is that “sincere motives can still lead to bad journalism”. Actually, not checking sources leads to bad journalism, and readers know it – read the comments accompanying the column (90 of them last time I looked).

Mistakes happen all the time but when a publisher is dealing with people who supply work (in this case it appears the photographer provided it free – his ‘payment’ being to see his work published) it cannot take things at face value. It says:

…we need do a better job of educating the public as to the role and ethics of journalism if we want them to be regular contributors.

Possibly a simple (humble?) “We are sorry and we have tightened our procedures so this cannot happen again” rather than an explaination as to why the newspaper was not to blame would have played better with the audience.
Behind the Headlines state one of the principles of journalism is: Never Deceive Your Audience. Perhaps it should remember another: Check Your Sources.

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What message are the NCE editors sending out to their newsrooms?

I saw an update on Twitter today that read: 
Editors: ‘Traditional skills more important than new media’ 
with a link that I clicked, and it took me to this Press Gazette story. 
(I appreciate the above isn’t an award-winning opening sentence but bear with me, all will become clear I hope…)
So once I’d clicked my link and visited PG this was the first thing I read: 
Editors involved in a review of the National Council for Training of Journalists’ NCE qualification for senior journalists have urged the training body to continue emphasising traditional journalism skills over the use of new media.
More than 100 editors and senior managers were asked to assess the importance of skills ranging from legal understanding to how journalists use social media.
The top four most important skills cited by editors were: writing, finding news stories, interviewing and legal knowledge – while at the bottom of the list came social media, web skills and interaction with readers.
It’s possible that third par has been worded to prod the hornets’ next a little but I guess these are – if not explicitly stated as being luxuries – viewed as of being of some usefulness but not really what journalism is about.

However, I’d be amazed if all editors really saw things as narrowly as this – after all, they are journalists and we’re trained to see the angles in everything.
Surveys can be so one-dimensional and I cannot imagine many editors who have believe the frankly-ludicrous Interview part of the NCE is more useful than web skills. Or video. Or an ability to moonwalk, to be honest.
I used to act as an ‘observer’ on the interview part of the exam (yes I was that shadowy figure who at in the corner and never spoke) and I can honestly say all that part of the day ever did was teach journalists to fire questions like ‘and did anything unusual happen during the rescue?’  in a most un-real world manner, simply because the candidates all knew there was always a hidden nugget of information – like, the guinea pig alerted the family to the fire or the rugby team was actually a women’s XV, lawdblessmysoul!

I wholeheartedly agree that finding stories, interviewing, local knowledge, are fundamental skills for anyone who wants to report (whether that’s in msm or otherwise). But here’s the thing; why would any editor say these were more important than social media, web skills and interaction? Why would any editor not understand that these are intrinsic to finding stories, interviewing and local knowledge?
Finding stories could just as easily be called crowdsourcing, something made possible by  online social networks. Web skills surely boil down to an ability to work online effectively – be that on Facebook or in Google search – and what editor wouldn’t view an ability to use Google search that as essential?
What are print skills? Are they an ability to write a headline, sub a story, design a page? Because if you’re going to break things down into web or print, then the universal across both include: 
Meanwhile, online you have the added ability to 
Add media
… and much more
It’s no controversy to state that nine times out of ten you’ll find more stories through judicious searching on social media than you will reading public notice boards on your beat patch or the death notices in your paper. You’ll also get a faster, wider, more engaged response if you ask for help on a social network than if you put ‘Got  a story? Contact our newsdesk’ on the strap of a page. How would I have found the PG story if it hadn’t tweeted it? I’m far more likely to visit a website when prompted by a Twitter link.

Another editor’s comment that stood out for me as this one:

“I think the exam is still about fundamental journalistic standards – it is not a test of Facebook and Twitter skills or, for that matter, audio and video,” commented one editor. They have their place but they are not as important as the underlying principles of accuracy, objectivity, balance and news sense. The NCE should be about testing those.”

How must that editor’s digital team feel? Less than valued, I’d imagine, if they knew what their boss really thought of them.
As a digital journalist, you have more skills than most of your colleagues: your toolbox includes soundslides, video, running multiple social media accounts, creating unique online content, and the ability to rewrite (or just write) webheads that are SEO-ed, add photographs, embed multimedia, move the the sports pages football splash out of the Tennis story list where it’s inexplicably ended up, the list goes on.
If an editor doesn’t think that’s at least as important as what’s being done elsewhere in the newsroom, what sort of message does it send out?

Updated August 24 2011
There have been some very eloquent blog postson the report that I’ve caught up with today; I’m adding them in here as they address a wide variety of points, from different perspectives…
Educator and digital star Andy Dickinson: “Frustrating as it is, I’m not surprised by the report or the reaction to it. I’ve kind of moved beyond being annoyed by the continued blurring of the lines between NCTJ marketing and the ‘views of industry’. What annoys me about this report is that it’s so output driven – it’s all about getting the paper out not about the process”
Full post here 
Martin Belam, Lead User Experience & Information Architect at Guardian News & Media: “If you get a job in a newsroom, you will be surrounded by years of experience in “traditional” journalism. What you won’t generally have is frequent access to people with the digital skillsets the industry is transitioning towards.”
Full post here
Adam Tinsworth, Editorial Development Manager for Reed Business Information: “Trying to separate working a beat from social networking and the web is pretty much like trying to separate it from using the telephone: ridiculous. But the problem is that anything new has this vague sheen of “techie” that people seem to use as an excuse not to move beyond their comfort zone – and there’s plenty of evidence of that in the comments on the original post.”
Full post here
David Higgerson, Head of Multimedia for Trinity Mirror: “Ironically, interaction with readers scored more highly than using social media, but lower than finding news stories. Surely the three go hand-in-hand. Each can be done by the journalist on its own, but the successful, employable journalist will be one who can do all three without thinking about it.”
Full post here

I’ve now uploaded the NCE report to Scribd (embedded below)
NCE report 2011 – (function() { var scribd = document.createElement(“script”); scribd.type = “text/javascript”; scribd.async = true; scribd.src = “http://www.scribd.com/javascripts/embed_code/inject.js”; var s = document.getElementsByTagName(“script”)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(scribd, s); })(); * Pic via AccessHollywood 
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Attribution: It’s not just for quotes

I was thinking about the importance of attribution today after reading Mike Glover’s take on the issue in his post on the coverage of Bin Laden‘s death and the “outrageous gullibility of the media in the wake of the Bin Laden incident“.
It’s a thought-provoking piece of writing and  well worth a read. (Also, incident is a great word, isn’t it? Covers everything from the reported death of the world’s most wanted man to a pub brawl). 

Anyway, attribution of information when constructing a story is vital; journalists tend to be the questioners of eye-witnesses, rather than eye-witnesses themselves. Sometimes we’re several links down the chain, and sometimes the report of several statements gets prosed into appearing as a presentation of stone facts. 
Tempering a slew of facts with acknowledgements that the information has come from a third party is helpful for readers, I suspect, but attribution with regards to content is an equally thorny issue.
YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo, Twitpic, Facebook, Twitter, Storify, ManyEyes visualisations… just a tiny fraction of created content that lives on the internet, in the wild, that journalists can use to source or display information. But when it comes to reusing this work – the attribution – it’s so important to show genesis, or at some point the accusations of making a smash-n-grab raid on social networks will come.
I’m probably a little obsessive about attribution, or showing source as a) I would hate to be accused of pillaging other people’s content and b) it’s easy to get permission or show original ownership. Things like a quick tweet exchange over the use of an image on Twitter, a link back to the video owner’s YouTube page, a link and a nod to the person who made the Storify you’ve embedded or the ManyEyes vis – so quick, so simple. So courteous.
Flickr is a different matter; I wouldn’t use a Flickr photo on this blog without checking the Creative Commons licensing and giving clear attribution. Professionally, I wouldn’t consider a Flickr photo unless the owner had given me express permission (either by joining a group with a consent form – like the Liverpool Daily Post’s Flickr group has – or through direct contact. 

I had my own little attribution incident (see? such a handy word) recently when I made a photo-montage for WalesOnline and it got reproduced, without attribution.
But when I say I made, that’s incorrect attribution; to be accurate, I used Microsoft application software to create a photo-montage, and then something happened…

Have a look at this screengrab:

and this one from WalesOnline:

They are actually the same one. I’d made a Photosynth for the website on Friday – it took a quite bit of time to find photos that would allow a sort-of panoramic (only 87% in the end) embedded it and went on with the next task of the day.
The next morning a tweet showed up in my stream

and then another one

I’m not usually precious about this sort of thing; I enjoy using online tools like Photosynth and I support the idea of sharing content as widely as possible. Also, I could see Rafael’s point as Microsoft had allowed me to create that content in the first place.
The downside was that WalesOnline was missing out on a pretty decent traffic opportunity. And that a really simple bit of attribution had been skipped.
I’ve seen people nick other people’s tweeted jokes, and even pass off photos of their own on Flickr; this wasn’t in the same league but it still didn’t feel great. I worked hard on that thing, dammit!

But it didn’t end there, as it turned out. Tom took it up with Bing pr and look – a change of heart, thanks Bing.

How cool is that? Almost as cool as this: someone I didn’t know took up cudgels on my behalf to see attribution was properly made. I thought that was really decent; how often have complete strangers stood up for your rights in real life? Nope, never happens. Except, sometimes it does.

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The Washington Post publishing slip should give us all food for thought

I’m not sure what the hand-wringing is about with regards to the Washington Post prematurely publishing an article that featured the editor’s notes to the journalist, which was quickly grabbed and reproduced on Gawker (where it remains long after the Wash Po took the story down and put up an apology for the mistake instead). 
In the Gawker article, the comments centre mainly on the editor’s question contained with brackets in this sentence: “Each year, about 12,000 U.S. women get cervical cancer and (ANOTHER? OR IS THIS PART OF THE 12,000) 4,000 die.”
The debate rages over whether it was a”stupid question” (as one poster puts it) or whether it’s valid. No one in the comments seems to really know what that sentence means. I don’t. I do, however, find it deeply ironic that people are rowing back and forth on the issue without seeming to realise that the very need to debate it underlines the editor’s original point. 
Columbia Journalism Review says the ‘most writer’s worst nightmare’ moment is a glimpse into the progression of a news story, but I think it actually gives the reader greater insight than just that A-B journey. 
It allows, unintentionally of course, readers to see the level of scrutiny that writers can be subjected to. The sheer number of questions and suggestions here show just how much the person editing that piece cared about not just relaying the correct facts, but about making it an easy read where everything was explained and also – and this is equally important in my view – caring about the writing. 

The person who edited the piece makes all sorts of suggestions that improve the flow of the copy, tweaks and amends that would let the reader just read, without them being jerked out of the story by sudden gearshifts in pace, bad grammar or questions that haven’t been clearly answered. As a former news editor, I know how much rewriting is part of the job – the facts might be there but they are buried so deeply in impenetrable prose that there’s no way you could foist them on an unsuspecting public. Sometimes it’s just faster to rewrite it yourself than send it back to whoever failed utterly to see the glorious story buried under a ton of wordy crud in the first place.
A design editor once suggested a new byline format: “From an original concept by XX XXX” which would acknowledge that while one person had conducted the interview, several others had  been involved in revising and presenting the finished article. I laughed, but now I come to think about it…

Also, it’s great for people to be able to see that articles that appear in print or online don’t spring, fully formed like Pegasus, from the editor’s brow. There are people working across various levels, making mistakes, making edits, making improvements, and you can’t show that with print. Online, there is more opportunity to show edits and progression – I’m thinking blogs just because that’s the simplest platform to clearly show updates but it’s something news sites need to think more of. 
I’m intrigued by the idea of how a wiki concept would work on a regional newspaper’s site. Or an annotation facility that allowed people to highlight certain parts and comment around it. My Kindle can do it – if I want to, I can see the notes and highlights other users around the world have made on paragraphs, sentences or words. Is it really that different?
And if you could do it, would you? Would a newspaper site add the kind of functionality that would hand so much control over to audiences? I like the idea in theory but I wonder if it’s the kind of thing that reads better than it lives – I’ve been bitten by trolls so often that sometimes it’s hard to remember that most of your readers would want the opportunity to engage on an equal footing, and not just use it for mischief and snark. 
On the whole, though, I would like to try this. I’d love an annotating option for text, and I’d really love to see if a wiki community on a regional news site could succeed. I’d also love to know if something similar could be attempted without expensive CMS overhaul. 

I am sure what happened with the Washington Post story wounded the writer’s pride – I can’t imagine for a moment it’s pleasant for all your scribing shortcomings to suddenly go viral – but I also think it’s a little bit great.

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No news to report? Are you sure about that?

A tweet by Jay Rosen led me to this online news story by the Jackson Sun, which says that there have been no newsworthy incidents in the area overnight. So far, so boring right?
I wonder. Because I have also played the ‘there is no news’ card – and there was a very calculated reason for it, although it is a bit of a long story…

In the mid-ninties I was working for the Gloucester Citizen as a senior reporter, somtimes helping out on the newsdesk, mostly just bemoaning the fact that I had missed out on covering the Rose West trial because the only hotel room left in the whole of Winchester was a twin bed one, the other reporter assigned to cover it for the Citizen was a bloke (who had covered the West horrorfest since the start, to be fair), and the company didn’t feel able to have a co-ed bedroom.
So as I kicked around the newsroom, complaining, an unexpected thing happened; the editor’s door opened, a shaft of sunlight appeared and a voice issued forth saying: “I need you to go and relaunch the Forest of Dean edition”. Truly, I was blessed.

For anyone not in the know, the Forest of Dean is a breathtakingly beautiful area of countryside on the Gloucester/Wales border, where sheep roam the roads freely (and get smeared along them by speeding motorists just as often) and tiny lanes lead to dizzying hilltops from which you can gaze across some of the most amazing views in Britain. In the mid-nineties. it also had one of the most bloody miserable, unhelpful, intransigent police forces that it’s ever been my misfortune to have to ring on an early shift.

Nothing happened in the Forest according the FoD police. Nothing. Even when a serving police officer – who went on the run from the North East following a string of dubious incidents, including how he attained the status of widower – turned up dead in a bathtub in a Cinderford semi, after assuming a false identity and joining the local am dram group. The Rapture could have happened in the Forest, and the local police would have denied any such activity.
So one day, several weeks into the relaunch, I snapped. It was a Monday, 7.30am, and there was snow on the ground when I phoned Coleford police station to find out what had happened overnight. “Nothing” came the reply. And at 11.30am the Forest edition started landing at newsagents with a nib in the p6 Briefs column that read: “Not crimes have been committed in the Forest of Dean overnight”. Same story in the Incident Book at Cinderford’s small police office – the Forest was at peace, and had been for several days, if that was to be believed.
Tuesday came, and I spoke to the desk sergeant at Coleford again. “Nothing”. “No crimes have been committed in the Forest of Dean since Saturday” ran the p6 nib. People were starting to ring say this was inaccurate because they were the victims of crimes; we explained the situation, and asked them to contact Coleford Police, also suggesting that perhaps they wouldn’t mind telling their friends of this conversation?
Wednesday and Thursday came and went, and so did the p6 nibs. And on Friday I was summoned to see the superintendent at Coleford Police Station for an exchange of views that led with me climbing off my high horser, and them agreeing a series of protocols for working with the press, and asking me to go on their next drugs raid.

I can’t say we became the best of friends but the ‘there is no news’ did at least kickstart the conversation and lead to some much-needed venting. I think both sides were arrogant and held each other in low estime, and with hindsight I feel a little ashamed that I used the Citizen’s readers as a stick to beat the police with; it wasn’t fair on those victims of crime, but… it did make a difference to how we were able to report crime, and -maybe? – how the police viewed those taxpayers.
So, I can’t look at the Jackson Sun’s little nib without wondering if there is some gameplay going on. I sort of hope there is.

Google Wave, transparency* and engagement

I’ve been using Google Wave for about a week now and every time I log on I discover something new. I’ve read a few gripes about things being broken, or it being too confusing, or too quiet, but for me the biggest problem is having time to play around with it enough to learn everything it can do.

Lifehacker has been invaluable, as has this post and this one although when I swept off in a, well, in a wave of enthusiasm to embed a wave on here I swiftly discovered my limitations. I was pretty downcast as well until I realised that it should be quite easy as it’s all done by automation but the facility isn’t switched on yet. And since my coding skills are pretty lowly I am really not up to tackling this without bot assistance. So instead of getting hung up on what it can and can’t do, I think I’m better off trying to work out the rules of engagement.

For example, I’ve just crashed a Wave. It’s about Flickr, I didn’t mean too, but I have just added myself to the discussion simply by clicking ‘reply’ to see if I could. No one cared but it was weird that a debate was going on between a group of people who obviously know one another and suddenly I’m in the middle of it. All a bit too “Ta-daaaaaaa!” for me right now. I guess it’s because I am still treating it like it’s a private conversation; it is a public Wave on the public timeline but, like Twitter, it’s not easy to keep that in mind when you’re using it. It becomes a little world and when someone new arrives it’s a surprise.

Here’s something else to, raised by Nick Miller in the ‘Wave, journalism and the mainstream media’ wave I joined today:

Watching people type in real time is fantastic, in a voyeuristic way. You can see their minds working.

But do we want people to see our minds working? How many times have we written an email, tweet or forum comment, only for our censor to kick in and say ‘don’t send that!’.

How many times? For me, a lot. Right now I’m getting mocked for my poor typing skills by fellow wavers who can see me correcting as I’m going – but there’s a lot more onus on me now to think through what I’m going to say. You know in Google Chat when it says X has entered text and it generally means they’re sense-checking what they’ve written? In a wave, your thoughts are revealed letter by letter. And I get very self-conscious if I start a sentence, then backtrack/delete and rephrase it while other people observe me making those changes.

What Google has done is create an application that allows those watching a wave to see thought-proceses at work; a wave is an aid to Transparency. A journalist using a wave is asking people to collaborate wiki-style in information-gathering – in fact, s/he should be writing the article in the wave, so contributors can participate in living, breathing news-making – a space where they can throw questions, facts and comments in themselves – not be served up a flat, one-dimensional statement of facts that ends when the story is thought to be the required amount of words.

I remember last July when a crane collapsed on an apartment block in Liverpool, and how Twitter was integral to the Post and Echo’s coverage – imagine if we’d been able to start a public wave on the topic and embed it on our websites. By bringing a contributing audience into our site and asking them to help us – using maps and images being added alongside observations and comments – the ‘journalist as gatekeeper’ would have been truly defunct. Rumours posted could be quickly checked and a breaking story updated constantly. And it would remain open for users to revisit, and add to. The playback option shows exactly who made what changes when, which is also pretty handy.

It’s not Twitter, or Facebook, or a wiki, or even email but it is, I think, a great learning opportunity for journalists who are prepared for the sense of exposure and vulnerability it brings. Letting someone see the messy spaghetti of a story-in-progress is something we’ve been conditioned against for decades – it’s many years since I sat my NCE but I’ll bet the NCTJ is still interested in the end product, not the journey – and Google Wave is all about in-progress. It would be unsettling (and possibly, initially, irritating) as a journalist to type a statement and then see another wave participant dive in and start editing the text you’ve just written to change a fact, or add information but I’d imagine it would also be exciting to see a news story being woven out of random strands of questions and facts.

Google Wave is going to be what a journalist wants make it – crowdsourcing, debating, real-time news-gathering, breaking news, image sharing, archived events, live-blogging, polling, asking for feedback – but, I think, the most exciting thing it offers is the opportunity to change the way we think about interaction and engagement. As a learning tool for transparency, it really could be amazing.

* Shortly after I published this post it was pointed out to me that the headline read ‘tansprency’; I told you my typing was hopeless…