National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News

(This is a revised and expanded version of a post that ran at Idea Lab July 17, 2008.)

1. The Giant Pool of Money: Greatest Explainer Ever Heard

Behold the special episode of “This American Life” called The Giant Pool of Money. It’s a one-hour explainer on the mortgage crisis, the product of an unusual collaboration between Ira Glass, the host and force behind This American Life, producer Alex Blumberg, who works with Glass and told the story, and NPR, which lent economics correspondent Adam Davidson. He used to work for the show he was collaborating with.

If you don’t know “The Giant Pool of Money” you really should (here: download the podcast) because it’s probably the best work of explanatory journalism I have ever heard. I listened to it on a long car trip when everyone else was sleeping. Going in to the program, I didn’t understand the mortgage mess one bit: subprime loans were ruining Wall Street firms? And I care because they are old, respected firms?

That’s what I knew.

Coming out of the program, I understood the complete scam: what happened, why it happened, and why I should care. I had a good sense of the motivations and situations of players all down the line. Civic mastery was mine over a complex story, dense with technical terms, unfolding on many fronts and different levels, with no heroes. And the villains were mostly abstractions! Typical of the program’s virtues is the title. It’s called The Giant Pool of Money because that is where the producers want your understanding to start. They insist.

Lots of people have noted how effective the program was. Adam Davidson told NPR’s ombudsman, “By a very long margin, this is the most positive response I’ve ever seen to any story I’ve worked on.” I knew there would be fans of this episode listening, so I asked the people in my Twitter feed what made it different and “explainey” to them.

  • Mike Plugh: Compression of time and space, like in a classic movie, “a broad network of characters into a few representative types.”
  • Liza Sabater “Because when Richard finds out the bank lied about his monthly income, it sums up how the loans were just a scam.”
  • Denise Covert: “Because it used small words. Because it still used big words for those of us who could grasp them.”
  • Scott Karp: No demonizing. Instead, “why it seemed like a good idea at the time… What were they thinking when they were doing all this? And why did they think it would work?”
  • Howard Sherman: It met the ultimate explanatory test. “I could actually explain the mortgage debacle to someone else.” He calls it viral: you can pass the explanatory gains on. “It also made me really angry. Their incredulity was contagious.”
  • “You can almost lust, with the characters, after the money that the idiots have left available.” Oh, sorry… that was me, talking on Twitter.

2. Explanation leads to information, not the other way around

I noticed something in the weeks after I first listened to “The Giant Pool of Money.” I became a customer for ongoing news about the mortgage mess and the credit crisis that developed from it. (How one caused the other was explained in the program’s conclusion.) ‘Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information. Before that moment I had ignored hundreds of news reports about Americans losing their homes, the housing market crashing, banks in trouble, Wall Street firms on the brink of collapse.

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior reports.

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and make note it. (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

On top of that, if I decide to buckle down and really pay attention to “subprime lenders in crisis” news—including the analysis pieces and the economics columnist—I am likely to feel even more frustrated because the missing narrative prevents these good-faith efforts from making much of a difference. The columnist who says he is going to explain it to me typically assumes too much knowledge (“mortgage-backed securities?”) or has too little space, or is bored with the elementary task of explanation and prefers that more sophisticated work appear under his byline. Or maybe, as with this story, the very people paid to understand the story barely know how to explain it. That’s the opening theme of this column from The New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt, “Can’t Grasp Credit Crisis? Join the Club.

I spent a good part of the last few days calling people on Wall Street and in the government to ask one question, “Can you try to explain this to me?” When they finished, I often had a highly sophisticated follow-up question: “Can you try again?”

I remember reading this column at the time and feeling grateful that someone at least tried. (He got about a third of the way there.) But Leonhardt’s column wasn’t displayed or classified in the right way. It should have been a tool in the sidebar of every news story the Times did about the mortgage mess. Instead it was added to the content flow, like this: news, news, news, “analysis,” news, news, news, “interpretation piece,” news, news, news, news, “Leonhardt: explain this to me,” news, news, news…

That’s messed up. That’s dysfunctional. We have to fix that.

3. A case of demand without supply?

After the first version of this post ran at Idea Lab, blogger Simon Owens interviewed This American Life producer Alex Blumberg about some of the ideas in it. ““I feel like my constant problem with the daily news media is that either you’re always entering the story in the middle or often at the end,” Blumberg said. “And they don’t do a very good job of talking about the beginning and what got us to this point where it became news.”

Exactly. And that’s a problem. It’s been a problem for a long time, except that no one ever does anything about it. Why? Because they get paid to produce “the news,” not the big narratives that would permit more people to understand that news. But this may be a case of demand without supply. “The Giant Pool of Money” is This American Life’s most popular episode ever. Blumberg told Owens that it beats its nearest competitor by 50,000 downloads. Turns out my reaction was a common reaction:

People were saying things like, “I didn’t really understand this. It was in the news all the time but I didn’t know what they were talking about until I heard that episode.” It was very gratifying because that’s exactly what my intent was. Because that was me; I didn’t understand it either.

The producers of this American Life started with the same feelings I had: ill-informed, overwhelmed, and out of the loop about the “subprime” story. But then they mastered it; and it is that trajectory—from drift to mastery—that the listener takes during “The Giant Pool of Money.” In a way the star of the story is understanding itself. It struggles but emerges victorious.

Simon Owens ends his post with something I told him over the phone: “It’s not only necessary background for the future readers of news, but also the future writers.” I learned this from Meranda Watling, a young journalist working for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Ind. Shortly after I started Twittering about “The Giant Pool of Money” she got an assignment to do a story on the local fallout. Watling reports on K-12 education most of the time; here she was pressed into service on a mortgage crisis story.

FREDDIE MAC/FANNIE MAE FALLOUT — Charticle on A1; impact story for back page. A look at what the local fallout will be. Talking to investors, mortgage lenders, house hunters (potential borrowers), real estate agent about what this could mean for this area. Meranda 12 inches w/wire story.

“That was essentially my total direction,” she said. “The idea was to take something our readers would be hearing about on a national level Monday and give it a local spin. Our business reporter was tied up finishing a Sunday package, or he would have done it himself.” Hearing about it on Twitter, she grabbed the transcript of “Giant Pool” and read it before heading out for interviews. Public radio’s national explainer fed local competence, making a journalist in Indiana marginally better.

“I was able to ask intelligent questions of the bankers and real estate agents,” Meranda Watling told me. “Rather than say just ‘how do these changes to the mortgage practices impact us locally?’ and hope they give me an honest answer I understand.” Here’s her story. It wasn’t one of her best, she said, just marginally better because of the same quick gains in mortgage crisis literacy that my other informants reported. Absorbing the explainer “helped me save face, ask the right questions and understand what the bankers were telling me.”

Saving face. Asking the right questions. Grasping what the bankers are telling you. Watling’s reasons for needing it are the same reasons driving the hundeds of thousands of downloads.

4. Start with clueless journalists!

And so I ask you: What’s basic? If the providers of information aren’t providing the basic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. If explanation is required for information acquisition, then the explainer comes “before” the informer as a pre-requisite. We typically have it the other way around.

So as we think about new models for news we need to think about expanding that little what’s this? feature you sometimes see on effective web sites. That’s not about web design. That’s a whole category in journalism that I fear we do not understand at all.

In a recent post about an ethnographic study of news consumption sponsored by the AP (the pdf is here) Ethan Zuckerman summarized one of the researchers’ findings:
“News consumers in the US get lots of facts, quickly updated and delivered through a variety of media. But they get very little backstory to help contextualize the facts delivered, and rarely get follow-up stories, or speculations about the future.” Zuckerman doubts that the AP intends to provide much of that, even though it would be a worthy service and the study it commissioned says there’s a need.)

To close this, here are the striking things for me in the story I told you.

  • The journalists doing the explaining started with zero distance between themselves and the users; they were clueless! “Start with clueless journalists”— how often does anyone recommend that? And it’s not that I’m recommending it. I’m saying that any commonly shared opacity is a signal of deep public need that can only be met by outstanding story-tellers who are reporters too.
  • National explainers like “The Giant Pool of Money” feed the rest of journalism in two ways: 1.) creating that scaffold of understanding in the users that future reports can attach to, thus driving demand for the updates that today are more easily delivered; 2.) allowing the rest of the press to catch up quickly and deliver better reports. A product with two uses like that should be successful. (But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to get there, especially in the current climate of disinvestment and economic crisis.)
  • Too often when journalists use the term “in depth,” their reference point is not the user’s missing knowledge or the depth of field required to actually grasp a story, but rather other quicker, shorter forms of news. I can’t even count how many TV journalists have patiently explained to me that “four minutes is a long time in network news.” And it is… relatively speaking. But if journalists continue to think this way—measuring “depth” by relative length—they will never fix what’s wrong with the news system.
  • The question of which editorial “shop” will—or should—come to specialize in national explainers is an open one. I don’t know. But it would certainly be logical for Pro Publica to develop the form. (Are you listening, Paul Steiger?) And I would be surprised if this American Life doesn’t do it again. Of course the reason we don’t see more of them is they don’t break any news. But without them the news system will remain broken.

* * *

The Librarians are wondering if there’s room for them in the National-Explainer-Stream.

And these people took notice (“explanations in plain English”). To me it’s a classic example of unclaimed territory in the editorial sphere.

Public Note for Howard Rheingold’s Digital Journalism students. A possible project:

Crash Courses: If you read the post you are at, National Explainer, and two from Matt Thompson’s project, Newsless.org (see Newsless? and Ten Questions for Journalists) you will absorb the idea that new information (“news”) unaccompanied by the background narrative required to understand it is not very informative. We need to fix that. Design an elegant five-minute “crash course” for an issue or problem that is repeatedly in the news—meaning, the necessary background for understanding the updates—and produce it as a text, an audio download and a video presentation on the web.

For reference (and to start getting ideas) see Electing a US President in Plain English (“A short and simple guide to understanding the U.S. election process”) from commoncraft.com and Planet Money’s glossary, from NPR.org, and this newsy subject topic page from the New York Times. Three different attempts to get at the problem.

“The Whole Anthrax Case Would Make For a Good Journalism Class.” Brian Ross Responds.

For the background see Three Vital Questions for ABC News About its Anthrax Reporting in 2001 (PressThink, Aug. 4, 2008.)

Q. Could you tell us what happened?

A. Three confidential sources told us it was arson. Just before deadline, the fire department called. “It was not arson,” a spokesman said. So I reported: “Arson! Three sources said so.” Later, a colleague of mine went on the air to report what the fire department said: that it was not arson. I immediately went back to my sources and asked them: guys, what’s going on here? A couple days later, a fourth source said it was arson. So I reported that: four sources now say arson, though the fire department says no. Then a few days after that I again reported what the fire department said: that it was not arson, even though our sources had said it was arson. By this time, my sources had changed their mind: not arson, they all said. So I think our audience was kept well informed throughout.

Q. I see… Well, did you ever correct your first report, stating that it was arson?

A. I just told you: six days after I reported that it was arson I reported that the fire department said it was not arson. That’s a correction.

Q. But the fire department had said it was not arson even before your original report, so why did you—

A. Because on first inspection my sources said it was arson, okay? They later came to a different conclusion. That’s not my fault. You’re only as good as your sources.

Q. Did you ever report that your three—sorry, four—sources had changed their minds, and that they were wrong the first time?

A. Now why would I do that? These were confidential sources. I had the fire department on the record telling me that it was not arson. That’s a lot better, don’t you think?

Q. Well, don’t you think your original report might have created some fears in the community that an arsonist was at large?

A. It’s absurd to charge the fire department with trying to create fear in the community. They were the ones who said it wasn’t arson. I don’t get where that comes from.

Q. So you’re satisfied that everything was on the up-and-up?

A. You know, this whole incident would make a great case study in journalism school.

That, in effect, is what Brian Ross of ABC News told Steven Krakauer of TV Newser yesterday in response to the three questions that Dan Gillmor and I had for him and his bosses. Here, see for yourself: Ross Responds to “Vital Questions” About Anthrax Report. I defy anyone to make better sense of what Ross says in this interview than I just did in my fictional Q and A.

Be sure to compare what Ross says with Glenn Greenwald’s account of what ABC News reported here and here. And tell me if you think I have done him an injustice. I don’t think I have.

Consider:

  • Ross says just before air on Oct. 26, the White House called and said that no bentonite was found in the anthrax mailed to different targets in the U.S. But he went with his story anyway, placing a very large bet on his sources and noting White House denials.
  • Ross says those sources thought they were right based on first inspection until they thought they were wrong based on further inspection. “You’re only as good as your sources,” he told Krakauer.
  • Ross obviously thinks that reporting on the sixth day of the story the White House’s statements available on the first day of the story constitutes adequate notice that his sources had changed their minds and that his original story was wrong.
  • Ross doesn’t bother to explain how the White House could have learned there was no bentonite in the anthrax except from the very sort of “well placed” scientists he was relying on to say there was bentonite. This complication doesn’t trouble him.
  • Ross says, “My sources were good, we just got information that became outdated before they could update.” Outdated before they could update? That sounds like he’s claiming his sources didn’t know of the White House denials that came in just before air time on Oct. 26. But as Greenwald notes ABC continued to report that bentonite had been found, a telltale sign of Iraqi involvement, on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29.
  • Indeed on Oct. 29, Ross expanded his claims to “former UN weapons inspectors say the anthrax found in a letter to Senator Daschle is nearly identical to samples they recovered in Iraq in 1994.” So what could “outdated before they could update” possibly mean?
  • Ross says he never reported that his unnamed sources changed their minds because he had the White House on record saying his reports were wrong. “”From my point of view it gave national credibility to have on the record attribution and not some anonymous scientists.” Even though “some anonymous scientists” were fine for reporting on the Iraqi connection, when it came time to correct that report their anonymity worked against them.
  • In response to Greenwald’s argument that ABC’s faulty reporting added urgency and emotion to the gathering case for war (see also the Boston Globe) Ross says: the White House denied there was bentonite from day one, so how could anyone make that charge?
  • In reviewing his performance, Ross says, “The whole anthrax case is one of the things that would make for a good journalism class.”

Let’s go back to my three questions and see what we have learned:

1. Were you lied to or misled by your sources?

Ross: No, they were good, truthtelling people. “We just got information that became outdated before they could update.”

2. Who were the “four well-placed and separate sources” who falsely told ABC News that tests conducted at Fort Detrick showed bentonite in the anthrax?

Ross: “Our sources were current and former government scientists who were all involved in analyzing the substance in the letter.” (But apparently different scientists than the ones the White House relied on to say, on the record, “no bentonite.” Two teams working independently of one another, perhaps? Or conflict within the White House itself?)

3. What is ABC News doing to re-report these events, to figure out what went wrong and to correct the record for the American people who were misled?

Ross: Nothing. But this would make a great case study for a journalism school.

Satisfied?

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Glenn Greenwald interviewed me for Salon radio about this episode with ABC News. Our 15 minute Q & A is preceeded by an interview with Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Associate Editor of the quarterly journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. Here’s the transcript. A highlight:

The watchdog press died under Bush. We may have a watchdog press again some day, it could be reborn. But it died. And really the only way we’re going to know that full story is through some kind of, almost like a media truth and reconciliation commission, which I have no hope for. But without that kind of effort like that, we’re simply not going to know.

WNYC’s On the Media did a segment on the reporting of the anthrax case. You can listen to it here.

Dan Gillmor writes:

A news organization on a mission to keep its audience fully informed would have run a separate report saying that its fabulous sources from the original, sensational reports were now saying they’d gotten it wrong. This news organization preferred, for whatever reasons, to keep such highly relevant information from its audience.

If these events occurred the way Ross says they did — and if ABC has done sufficient homework to ensure that they were not part of a scheme to manipulate the network — then ABC would be justified in not revealing the the sources’ names now. That assumes a great deal. I hope some other journalists who work for other news organizations are probing those questions now, because it’s obvious to me that ABC will not.

Dan Kennedy: “I think Ross largely met the challenge about his anthrax reporting posed earlier this week by Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor, even if he didn’t answer their three questions point by point.”

John McQuaid agrees: He says Ross “for the most part substantively addressed” the questions, and it seems ABC wasn’t duped by war mongerers spouting phony science.

But the reason this was important - and not just a technical question of journalistic ethics - is that today such a scenario is no longer unthinkable, or even unlikely. After Watergate, big media viewed itself as an effective check on government. Post-Iraq, that’s no longer the case. The media has still not really come to terms with how much has changed - neither the breakdown its own authority and credibility in the Internet age, nor the extent of the Bush administration’s reality-molding project and its own role in that. So when ABC makes a mistake like this, it’s necessary to ask: what agendas are in play here, for the government and the network?

Assuming Ross has told us everything, it looks like the agendas in this case were mainly the old-fashioned kind. Scientists and investigators thinking they just might have a smoking gun and wanting to tell the world. White House officials exercising caution, not wanting to indiscriminately hype a shaky, premature conclusion(!). ABC betting it might have the scoop of the century, even if the White House said no. And so on.

What I still don’t get, John, is which scientists conducting tests were telling the White House it wasn’t bentonite and couldn’t be Iraq, while at the same time other scientists conducting tests were saying it was bentonite and might have been Iraq. The White House wasn’t being “cautious;” they were ruling it out! Cautious would have been: “Maybe, maybe not. Let’s wait for more tests.”

Three Vital Questions for ABC News About its Anthrax Reporting in 2001

No need for a big preamble. Dan Gillmor and I are posting these questions simultaneously. (Here’s his case for them.) We think ABC News should answer them. They arise from two columns by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who has been tracking this story for some time.

  • Vital unresolved anthrax questions and ABC News, in which he shows that ABC News was probably duped by someone on a story of huge importance, putting Iraqi fingerprints on anthrax attacks that actually came from the U.S at a time when the case for war with Iraq was beginning to get traction. (Salon.com, Aug. 1)

If you want to understand our questions, go read Greenwald now.

Back? Greenwald raises many different kinds of questions. Some are aimed at a possible Congressional investigation, others at journalists willing to investigate further from here. On Saturday morning, Dan Gillmor and I had the same thought when we read Greenwald’s post: “ABC News has to respond.”

But to what, exactly? We tried to put it into three questions: tough but fair as people there would probably say on other occasions. And we’re simply asking others who want to know the answers to post the questions in some form at your own site. I would describe them as “interlocking” and aimed at the same unknowns.

Three Vital Questions for ABC News About its Anthrax Reporting in 2001

1. Sources who are granted confidentiality give up their rights when they lie or mislead the reporter. Were you lied to or misled by your sources when you reported several times in 2001 that anthrax found in domestic attacks came from Iraq or showed signs of Iraqi involvement?

2. It now appears that the attacks were of domestic origin and the anthrax came from within U.S. government facilities. This leads us to ask you: who were the “four well-placed and separate sources” who falsely told ABC News that tests conducted at Fort Detrick showed bentonite in the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, causing ABC News to connect the attacks to Iraq in multiple reports over a five day period in October, 2001?

3. A substantially false story that helps make the case for war by raising fears about enemies abroad attacking the United States is released into public debate because of faulty reporting by ABC News. How that happened and who was responsible is itself a major story of public interest. What is ABC News doing to re-report these events, to figure out what went wrong and to correct the record for the American people who were misled?

There are many other questions to ask in what is still a very murky story. But Dan and I think these three go to the heart of what ABC ought to tell us. If you do post the questions, let me know by email or in the comments, and I will add the link to this post.

My reasoning?

Though I am a frequent critic of the practice, I am not against the use of confidential sources. I am quite aware of how important it is in national security reporting to promise some sources confidentiality. And I am sympathetic to the pleas of journalists who have made contracts: “we have to keep our word or sources won’t trust us.” True.

But the only way that system can work is when sources know: if you lie, or mislead the reporter into a false report… you will be exposed. People who believe strongly in the need for confidential sources should be strongly in favor of their exposure in clear cases of abuse, because that is the only way a practice like this has a prayer of retaining its legitimacy. What’s a “clear case” of abuse? Well, we have to argue about it, and try to be clear. There’s no other way. Each case is different. Each has particulars that count.

In the confidential sources system that we have, professionals keeping counsel with themselves bargain away the citizen’s right to know. Sitting outside that transaction, we’re supposed to trust them— in the dark, as it were. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we are unable to judge how good a bargain they struck for us because the names of their sources remain cloaked.

Which is why we can never trust them if they can’t take action when they get played. This looks like a case where ABC News got played. Looks like, I said. We can’t know until the good people there answer some questions. These three would be a good start.

Also see my colleague Dan Gillmor, ABC Has Major Questions to Answer in Anthrax Story. “The network’s hyperventilating broadcasts of leaked, false allegations purportedly tying the anthrax to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime was bad enough. What the organization is doing now is journalistically unforgivable…”

UPDATE, Aug. 6. Our campaign worked, sort of. Brian Ross responds.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

See my follow-up post. “The Whole Anthrax Case Would Make For a Good Journalism Class.” Brian Ross Responds (Aug. 7). And Dan Gillmor’s follow up here.

Ex-Times-Picayune investigative reporter (and Pulitzer winner) John McQuaid says, “It’s imperative for ABC to tell us what happened here.” He also says: “Big media and the government are already in a kind credibility death spiral. This doesn’t help.”

At Media Nation, Dan Kennedy joins our campaign: “ABC News has some explaining to do.”

Larisa Alexandrovna, an investigative reporter with a blog, agrees: “ABC needs to come clean.”

A journalist has what is called a “good faith” agreement with their anonymous source. It is basically an understanding that the journalist will protect the source at all costs, including going to jail if need be and in exchange, the source will not intentionally mislead, lie, or in any way abuse the relationship. If the journalists violates this agreement, they will likely never work as a reporter again. If a source violates this agreement, the contractual understanding is discharged. In addition, if the public trust is violated so extremely or the public is in any way affected by the source’s manipulation or dishonesty, then it is not only important for the journalists to unmask their sources, it is necessary.

Particularly intriguing is her explanation for why “four well-placed and separate sources” is so unlikely. If they’re really separate they would not be wrong in the same way.

Kim E. Pearson at Poynter’s E-Media blog: “Most blog memes are quizzes, games, or questions that people pass around from site to site for the sake of novelty or entertainment. The creation of a blog meme in an effort to hold a news organization accountable for its reporting is an intriguing strategy that seems to have caught on with bloggers.”

After reading this, I conclude that any reporter who publishes a story on this case based on confidential sources is taking a giant risk with his or her credibility and could end up being embarrassed mightily.

Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum:

In practice, most journalists refuse to identify their sources under any circumstances at all, even when it’s clear that those sources deliberately lied to them. But should that be the standard? Or is the profession — and the rest of us — better off if sources know that they run the risk of being unmasked if their mendacity is egregious enough to become newsworthy in its own right? I’d say the latter.

At a guess, Brian Ross is re-reporting this story as we speak. I’d be shocked if he were doing anything else — and I’d say that part of that re-reporting ought to include a full explanation of exactly who was peddling the bentonite lie in the first place, and why they were doing it.

Drum on outing confidential sources back in 2004.

Scott Rosenberg: when sources lie or mislead, “the public good probably demands that you expose them.”

Peter S. Canellos, The Boston Globe’s Washington bureau chief: “The significance of the anthrax attacks in shaping US policy in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has largely been forgotten.”

Shocker! Columbia Journalism Review isn’t sure. At this point, nothing but questions. Liz Cox Barrett writes:

In ABC News’s case, what point does it serve to out these people? Would it be instructive/cautionary to future lying sources, as Drum suggests? Is it just vengeance? What might be gained and lost if journalists in general adopted a you lie to me, I out you sort of ground rule? Would we get fewer leaks but leaks of higher quality? Missed stories? What if ABC News’s sources didn’t knowingly lie? If ABC News outs its sources in the face of public outrage (or, at least blogospheric outrage), what precedent does that set?

Translation: “Our constituency doesn’t like ruckus this at all. Not one bit.” CJR is promising to look into the matter some more this week, which is good….

… And they did! Justin Peters writes: “The questions are good ones, and ought to be answered by ABC News. But the debate over ABC News’s practices shouldn’t end there.” He goes on to ask others, like: “What steps, beyond a simple retraction, will ABC News take to insure that an egregious mistake like this does not happen again? Will anybody involved in the production of the story be held accountable for its flaws?” I’m impressed, CJR.

Hmmm. Found this from March. Fox News says it got hold of an email:

In an e-mail obtained by FOX News, scientists at Fort Detrick openly discussed how the anthrax powder they were asked to analyze after the attacks was nearly identical to that made by one of their colleagues.

“Then he said he had to look at a lot of samples that the FBI had prepared … to duplicate the letter material,” the e-mail reads. “Then the bombshell. He said that the best duplication of the material was the stuff made by [name redacted]. He said that it was almost exactly the same … his knees got shaky and he sputtered, ‘But I told the General we didn’t make spore powder!’”

It’s the [name redacted] part that intrigues me. If it was redacted by Fox, as opposed to whoever gave it to Fox, that would mean Fox knows… something.

The New Republic’s Dayo Olopade: “Pressure on ABC to out their sources should be swift and sustained.”

Freelance journalist Wendy Hoke posts our questions at her blog and says that ABC’s anthrax coverage throws a curious light on attempts to pass a Federal shield law.

The New Republic’s John Judis: “I join those who believe that some kind of congressional investigation is in order. There are too many echoes of Niger and uranium.”

Except for this part, which doesn’t echo with Niger at all: “Reports that the anthrax letters sent to the offices of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle contained the additive bentonite - known to be used by Iraq - were dismissed by the White House.” The Guardian, Oct. 31, 2001.

Marcy Wheeler: “Who First Spread the Iraqi Anthrax Claim?” Important. And see her timeline of the case.

Lawbeat blog from the Syracuse University J-school: “Yet another illustration of the dangers of relying on anonymous sources and the rush to judgment when only part of the story comes out via shadowy channels.”

Trying to remember where this all fits? Iraq and the Media: A Critical Timeline.

Journalist Charles Feldman posts our questions: “It is vital that ABC News tells the American public how it came by its anthrax stories to see just who it was who manipulated the network and for what purpose.” Oh and thanks, Paul Jones.

On Saturday I submitted through two different portals my recommendation that ABC News reply to the questions Greenwald raised. Through one of them I got back this, “Thank you for your input. We will get back to you if we decide to investigate your lead. Brian Ross & The Investigative Team.”

Nothing yet.

A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

There are other definitions, but they will have to be discussed in the comments.

… And here’s the video version, “Got it?” by Chuck Olsen for The Uptake (“Will journalism be done by you or to you?”). YouTube has a thread for it.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

See also on this subject a newer post. If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t. So Let’s Get a Clue.

Portuguese blogger, journalist and new media person Alexandre Gamela reacts at his blog: “What really stands out is the absence of the middle man.”

American blogger, journalist and new media person Ryan Sholin in the comments: “I think to inform each other is the crucial piece of business.”

Yeah. If a definition can have a strategy, mine is to eliminate any reference to the news media as pipe through which current information vital to the public has to flow.

Lisa Williams in the comments: “I named the site I run Placeblogger in part as a reaction to the term ‘citizen journalism’…”

This post began on Twitter, where the tight restrictions of the form—140 characters, no more—make you make nice with concise. Twitter is a micro-blogging service where you follow people’s 140-character updates and they follow you. To see my Twitter feed go here.

Wikipedia says citizen journalism is:

The act of citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information,” according to the seminal report “We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information,” by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis… Citizen journalism should not be confused with civic journalism, which is practiced by professional journalists. Citizen journalism is a specific form of citizen media as well as user generated content.

“What became known as citizen journalism is the result of the digital era’s democratization of media.” Dan Gillmor in a post he put up today, after a journalist asked him if he knew “who coined this term and when it entered the mainstream media.”

Not all citizen media is citizen journalism. Most is not.

As to who coined it first in its current, digital-age meaning, or at least came closest, I’m not sure there either. But I’d start with Oh Yeon Ho, founder of Korea’s OhmyNews, who said back in antiquity (2000) that “Every citizen is a reporter.” Mr. Oh is one of the real pioneers in this arena, as we would all agree.

I certainly would. He’s one of the founders of the form.

Andy Dickinson has got it. “Jay’s definition is about defining the activity and not its relationship to the media.” That it can happen without the media may be the reason the media cannot get a grip on it. And he asks: is user generated content dead, as some are saying?

Picking up on my definition of citizen journalism, the Rising Voices project of Global Voices Online lists some fine examples of how enterprising people in the developing world “employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.”

Heights Observer, a place blog in Shaker Heights, Ohio, says: “This publication, and particularly the way it is produced, fits the definition of citizen journalism coined by media analyst Jay Rosen…”

Invaluable if you’re trying to get your mind around it: Steve Outing, The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism. His post is “designed to help publishers and editors understand citizen journalism and how it might be incorporated into their Web sites and legacy media.”

The parallels between citizen journalism and similar shifts in education are explored here. A bit more here.

And how have pro journalists reacted to citizen journalism?

  • The most common reaction—an ignorant, breezy, hapless condescension—is illustrated by this post. “When I hear the term ‘citizen journalist,’ I reach for my pistol…”
  • A better showing is this forum at The Guardian site.

“When the people formerly known as Christians employ the spiritual gifts they have been given to reach the lost, that’s missional evangelism.” Link.

Observe how the “so-called” tick works. This is from the PBS Newshour, with producer Jeffrey Brown:

For old and new institutions alike, the action is increasingly moving online. USA Today, with the nation’s largest circulation, combined its print and online newsrooms. And it, like other organizations, is incorporating more elements of reader-generated so-called citizen journalism. (Jan. 2007)

There, “citizen journalism” is something the media is doing more and more of.

PC mag in its encyclopedia of IT terms says citizen journalism means:

News and commentary from the public at large. Using wiki sites and blogs, anyone can contribute information about a current event. Also known as “collaborative citizen journalism” (CCJ), “grassroots media” and “personal publishing,” the concept behind citizen journalism is that many volunteers help to ensure that the information is more accurate than when it is being reported from only one source.

Daniel Bennett says my definition needs some adjustment:

I think it might be worth adding emphasis on publication by including the word “many” and also sticking in the phrase “an event deemed to be newsworthy” or for brevity just ‘a newsworthy event’. Here’s my stab at it:

“When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform many others of a newsworthy event, that’s citizen journalism.”

Some similar advice from PeriodismoCiudadano (CitizenJournalism) in Spanish.

Leonard Witt: “Jay, is this definition the first step in clealy articulating citizen journalism as a journalistic philosophy in its own right? It would be nice.”

The BBC Radio 4 program, “Anaylsis” did a half-hour on the connection between the “public journalism” movement of the 1990s and the situation today with the press and citizens media. Kevin Marsh, the former editor of the Today program and now an executive with the BBC’s College of Journalism, hosted and thought it through. I was interviewed. So was Charlie Beckett, the UK’s leading explicator of networked journalism. Here is how the program ends:

…Reinvention, migrating the tribe, re-skilling to share the news business with former readers. Whatever you call it and whichever way you slice it, the press has a job on its hands and the finances of news mean time isn’t on its side. But it might just be that the public journalism movement in pre-web America got it more right than they earned credit for. Maybe, in the end, it will be the public that saves the press for the public.

You can listen here. Here’s the transcript.