Online Journalism

Filter bubbles, the gerontocracy and why George Osborne makes me angry

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This blog has been a bit unloved over the last few weeks, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Below are the pieces I’ve been busy with – both journalism and politics related. Hope you enjoy.

A man creates a huge bubble and a small girl runs towards it
Bubbles by Mandoft, on Flickr. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Writing about filter bubbles and echo chambers

I’ve been writing a series of articles about how journalists, entrepreneurs and technologists are fighting extreme politics and echo chambers on the internet, over on the Online Journalism blog. There are several posts:

How journalists (and everyone else) can use Nuzzel with Twitter lists

I’ve also written a piece using Nuzzel – a Twitter tool that allows you to short cut to the most popular stories being shared by your friends on Twitter.

The rise and fall of the Gerontocracy

I’ve written two pieces about how our current focus on policies that hark back to an earlier age do not bode well for our future. One is a bit serious, the other really not.

Why George Osborne’s appointment as Evening Standard editor makes me angry

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer announced he would take over as editor of the Evening Standard. Here’s why it’s bad for journalism. (Since this was written, Osborne has said he won’t stand for re-election to his seat, Tatton.)

 

 

Posts

Hyperreality, fake news and the lost power of linking

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Painting of Trump - fake news

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, fake news has been in the ‘real’ news.

Detractors claim Facebook negligently allowed baseless attacks, masquerading as real news, to damage Hillary Clinton’s reputation and seal victory for her rival. A senior writer at the Washington Post even argues that Facebook should employ an editor to stop the fake news virus spreading any further.

A journalist calling for more journalism appears self-serving; it also ignores the practical and ethical questions that flow from employing editors at Facebook. How, for example, would a journalist act as the moral arbiter for hundreds of millions of users exchanging billions of separate pieces of information mostly for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with current affairs?

Facebook users have different political and religious persuasions, languages and cultures. Even ostensibly similar users have competing world views that are hard to define or even understand. So how would employing editors to judge their output not end up threatening free speech? And how do you determine what is fake and what is not, anyway?

Trumping fake news

A list of fake news sites produced to help students stay aware of distorting ‘news’ is illuminating, but not as you might expect. Reportedly the work of a media lecturer, the list included the well-established, much-respected British news magazine, Private Eye because it’s satirical. Satire often manufactures ridiculous stories to highlight stupidity or hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean it should be lumped in with fake news sites. It does, though, demonstrate how blurred the boundaries are. Indeed, one self-confessed fake news author claimed in an interview that his sole reason for cranking out hundreds of fictitious memes was to highlight ‘alt-right’ supremacists’ use of false information.

Fake news is not one-sided, either. Following Trump’s election victory in early November, one piece of fakery appeared in my own news feed repeatedly. It reported Trump telling People Magazine in 1998 that if he ever sought the presidential nomination it would be with the Republicans, because their supporters were gullible and easy to manipulate.

Picture and text reporting Trump: If I were to run, Id run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters

Thousands of people exchanged the meme without questioning its authenticity, no doubt because it matched their impression of Trump. In fact, it’s a delicious (or perhaps unpalatable) irony that it was precisely because people thought Trump was preying on the gullible that they believed a fake news story about him.

Confirming bias

In this sense, fake news stories are confirmation-bias memes. They work because they tell us something we already believe in – and we are all, therefore, vulnerable to them. That leads to an uncomfortable – if obvious – conclusion about fake news: it’s not that different from real news – and not just because it looks like real news. Firstly, fake news and real news can help to support or propagate a particular world view: The Daily Mail, Fox News, The Guardian, even The New York Times, have determined editorial perspectives that are there to support their readers’ view of the world. Yep, there’s a difference: these news providers mostly report on ‘facts’, i.e. things that verifiably happened, rather than stuff that’s just made up. But the lens they apply to these facts is one designed to a serve a world-view, nonetheless.

Secondly, both real and fake news expect us to trust that what they are saying is real. In a news meme, whether the news is real or not, it’s often disconnected from the sources that establish its veracity in the first place. Indeed, news inherently has this problem anyway, even when it’s presented on news sites or newspapers or on news TV channels, let alone when it’s on social media. It is, after all the point of news. You read or hear that something has happened to be informed; you don’t then expect to have to go and make sure that it did actually happen.

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and fake news

Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher and cultural theorist. In Simulacra and Simulation,  published in 1981, Baudrillard explores a phenomenon he calls hyperreality. This is the idea that in a world where everything is experienced through media, our impression of ‘reality’ is in fact completely removed from the actual real. Instead what represents truth isn’t truth at all, because it is so disconnected from any empirical thing in the first place. At first that idea seems ridiculous – not least because it’s so disturbing: One of the most popular references to Baudrillard’s idea is the film The Matrix (where a copy of Simulacra and Simulation is used as a prop). In the film, the world that appears real soon turns out to be a simulation. A character quotes the book, calling it ‘the desert of the real’.

Despite its disturbing qualities – and whether you accept Baudrillard’s claim that the real isn’t real at all – it’s easy to accept his observation. In a mediated world, in which everything is represented or reproduced rather than actually experienced, it won’t take long for notions of veracity to become questionable. Indeed, questioning reality is now an actual ‘thing’ in itself.

Baudrillard developed his theories for Simulacra and Simulation in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Internet dominated news reporting and the media. Nonetheless, it makes his argument that much easier to support. Now, with a bit of tweaking, we can use an off-the-shelf WordPress theme to make a website look, ostensibly, as authentically newsy as the New York Times.

Beyond this, Twitter and Facebook offer ready-made templates for news production and dissemination that make it laughably easy to pretend to be real news producers. In the case of Facebook the platform is reported to be engineered to favour self-referencing: Uploading a video to the platform appears to elicit more engagement than linking to it on YouTube, owned by Facebook’s rival, Google.

Fighting fake news

If news was on shaky ground already, the internet then is helping to reduce that ground to sand. What the hell can we do?

Firstly, journalists need to work harder. Journalism, after all, purports to report significant, real events to audiences who aren’t there to witness them. Given that there is always going to be a gap between real experiences and an audience’s experience, it’s vital that journalists work to address that gap. Otherwise, the dislocation of reports from the facts on which they are based can be exploited to create fakery. Worse still – and more alarmingly – it also makes it much easier for people to pretend that real news is a lie when it’s not – particularly if it doesn’t suit how they feel or think. That, I think, is a bigger potential problem than the fake news itself.

The most obvious tool at an online journalist’s disposal to deal with this is the link: linking to reports, linking to source material, linking to the people in the report. But that shouldn’t be the end of it, either. Journalists need to find other ways to take people directly to where they found out the facts. I’d venture that also means adopting exacting standards of transparency in how reporting is carried out. And backing it up constantly. Indeed, linking is part of the approach used by Wikipedia to help establish ‘truth’ – and now suggested by some for Facebook.

Secondly, the Internet we’re creating increasingly looks like a trap for anyone who isn’t equipped to determine what’s ‘real’ and what’s not. If we allow companies and individuals to develop self-referring ‘realities’ that don’t rely on any objective truth, then all sorts of scary worlds can and will develop. The internet was designed with linking in mind – in fact the world-wide web was proposed as a linking system for scientists. But somehow that hasn’t prevented the web turning into a place where referencing is viewed as a self-serving process rather than one of common interest. That matters because it’s where we are ‘living’ our lives: it’s where our views are shaped and experiences defined. In other words, getting this new world sorted is a big, serious problem. And that isn’t for journalists to solve, love them as I do – or even for Facebook. It’s a dirty-great, society-wide humdinger of a thing. A problem that belongs to us all.

Blog

10 things journalists do that can really help first-time bloggers

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infographic
Blog like a hack
When it comes to making the most of a story, the tips and tricks I picked up as a journalist are fantastic. I’ve always thought these can help bloggers, particularly those new to the art. If I’m being honest, I just wish I used them more (there are plenty on this short list that I could do with heeding myself!)

 

1. The follow-up

If you find a great story don’t write about it once. Keep writing about it. Ask yourself when you’re first writing what is next? Nine times out of 10 you’ll find more great posts right there and then. Have a plan for what you’ll do with that subject matter next. How can you make your one piece into 15 more posts?

(Thinking about it, I might follow this post up with a post about the five great follows up to any post. What fun.)
 

2. Make it snappy. Don’t drone on

OK, we all know that but I used to tell myself (after a sub editor used this particular complaint to me) that I couldn’t afford to waste any more ink. Making sure each word counts is vital in news journalism and it can really help you get your posts down in length and make them better to read. It’s a discipline that initially is easily ignored online, but if you look at the best digital news outlets, it’s something that is even more vital now.

 

3. Use formulas

It’s so dull to talk about but pretty much any piece in any newspaper or magazine follows a certain forumla or pattern. Why? If you’re churning out content you want to make sure you’re using your brain for the bits that count – being accurate, luring in the reader, making the most of your quotes, finding great stories. Formulas help you do that and – perversely – allow you to make life more interesting for readers. The most famous is the much vaunted ‘inverted triangle’. This basically says: write the most important stuff for the reader up top. It forces you to get out the salient facts first and in order. But there are many more that bloggers use, like the simple list (which, ahem, I’m using here). You’ll find your own formulas but it’s good to have a few different ones up your sleeve – which will help you to vary the experience you give readers and keep their experience fresh.

 

4. Prefer shorter words

The English language is great: you have a huge number of words to choose from. But writers often like the longer ones because (and I am guilty of this a lot) we like to show how clever we are. But every long word you use has the potential to distract or confuse readers and – even when the meaning is clear – makes the information less like to be digested. Plus, you look like a know-it-all.

 

5. Steal

I’m not advocating copying people’s work. No way. That’s the worst thing in the world that you can do (apart from all the other things that carry heavier prison sentences). But you can and should pinch ideas from other people. The best (ethical and creative) way to do this is to look beyond the people who are most similar to what you’re doing and see how other journalists and bloggers are getting ahead. Copying of this kind is to be openly rewarded because it can get you ahead of your competitors.

 

6. Use your calendar

Tie your stories to events that are universally understood. It’s Christmas so talk about Christmas. OK, that’s obvious. But stare at that calendar and think about all the dates that relate to your subject matter. Put them on the calendar and then work them in to your posts. Journalists talk about off-diary and on-diary news, to distinguish stuff you can plan for from erm… the stuff that just happens. The point is that you get to plan out a hell of a lot of content throughout the year.

 

7. Give yourself a deadline

You have 20 minutes to write this post. Can you do it? The clock is ticking. Ultimately one of the things that sets apart a successful blogger from a… well… blogger is regularity and volume of content. How long do you want to spend writing your blog in a year? And how many posts do you need to keep readers engaged? Do the math(s).

 

8. Say one thing

Make your post about one thing and one thing only. Stay on message. This will help you with points one and two of this blog post. Hey, I’m not cheating. It all fits together, that’s all.

 

9. Follow the trend when it matters

Don’t ignore the prevailing wind of the news. Even local newspapers end up writing about national stories when they get up a certain head of steam, which demand the most focus and attention. Make sure you use these stories and find ways to link them to what you’re writing about.

 

10. Audience, audience, audience, audience

Only do what matters to your readers and always keep them in mind. How do you do this? Bloggers and online journalists have great an enormous amount of data at their disposal to help understand what readers want and don’t want, as well as the joys of A/B testing, but there are some old-fashioned journalism tips that still work. One simple thing is to spend time with readers to understand them better. Local newspaper journalists traditionally had this easy – they often came from the places they wrote about and spent plenty of time with their readers. For bloggers this same connection is created by the online connections you make through comments and social media.

 

Have you got any more tips and tricks?
I would love to hear them – whether they’re journalism related or not.
Silly stuff

The big society is a bit like… [add your thoughts here]

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I think I might have become a fan of the Big Society. Not because I think it’s brilliant (although at least some bits of it do make sense), but because it’s incredibly difficult to describe. Things that are difficult to describe make life tricky for journalists and commentators (let alone civil servants and junior ministers) and result in fantastic similies and metaphors – rich in both imagery and variety.

While the policy (is it a policy? Or a slogan?) may seem destined to die a slow and painful death, at least it has had us all working hard to sum up what the hell it actually means. Oddly I think this trend may have actually started in earnest with Nick Clegg who, long before he realised he might one day have to defend it, said that David Cameron’s pet project was ‘a bit like a party in a pub where your card is behind the bar’. It was a joke, I think, but it also presaged a golden era of ‘the Big Society is a bit like’ creations.

In the hope that this creativity is not lost, I have started to collect what I’ve spotted on Delicious. Below I’ve listed the best. Admittedly not all are direct comparisons – some are simply associations. A good many are excellent articles that do very well to describe what might be behind some aspects of the Big Society. And possibly one or two others are just plain mad, even quite stupid. I hope you enjoy them all.

The Big Society is a bit like…

Cool Britannia (Anthony Zacharazewski, The Democratic Society).

Downton Abbey (Deborah Orr, The Guardian).

Harry Hill’s TV Burp (The Waugh Room, Politics Home).

The Great Society (Chris, Prerogative of Harlots).

Communism. Yes, that’s right, communism. (From the David Icke forum. Hmmm… the places I get.)

Bullshit (Anne Shooter, Daily Mail).

A toy town (Hillary Wainright, The Guardian Cif blog).

Oliver Twist (Mike McNabb, Outside Left).

The 1950s (Statement from Unite the Union).

Common sense (Janet Daley, The Telegraph).

A cloak (Ed Miliband, The Independent).

Cheese (CMPO).

Ballroom dancing (Phil Redmond).

Education, education, education (The Archbishop Cranmer blog).