Posts Tagged ‘ journalism ’

Stand back and watch the iPad war play out

Photo illustration by Brook R. Corwin. Original photo licensed by Creative Commons for commercial use with modification

The iPad hits stores today, and in making the choice to buy one, you’re not just picking out a product.

You’re picking a side.

The $500-$800 tablet computer is perhaps the most polarizing device to hit the communications industry in the past decade. It has spawned both adoration and disgust among veteran tech writers. Journalists are having a field day speculating on how it might redefine the industry, with views highly mixed. Web content developers have either cried fair or foul with the iPad’s inability to run Flash, depending on what they think of the software program that runs the vast majority of animated and multimedia content on the Internet.

(Full disclosure: most of the websites I design, including my portfolio site, have heavy Flash components. So it’s hard for me to get too excited about a product that, if successful, would force me to redesign my work or pay money to another company to convert for an iPad audience)

But these are debates for tech heads and newsies. How will mainstream consumers pick their side? It won’t come down to whether it helps the journalism industry. It certainly won’t come down to love/hate of Flash.

Design and functionality will play a huge role. If society is ready to abandon the click culture that has conditioned our computer use for decades, then the iPad’s slick use of touchscreen will forever change how we access and share information. The iPad will never replace a mobile phone (it’s simply too big to take everywhere) but it could replace a laptop.

That gets us to the big question, a cultural query that ultimately decides whether the iPad redefines all media or fails miserably. How exactly do people want to use the web? Are they looking for an open-ended, creative experience without expectations? Or do they want a simplified, controlled environment streamlined to their established tastes?

Those falling in the first category will be frustrated by the iPad’s limitations. It runs only one application at a time, can’t handle complex software and doesn’t even have a U.S.B port. Applications must be purchased from the Apple app store to make the device useful. In short, it’s pretty lousy for those who want to build their own content, ironic since the initial appeal of Mac computers was all the built-in software that let you start creating right out of the box.

An iPad dominated world also severely restricts the audience for amateur content. Applications must be approved by Apple. The company’s rejection of Flash, one of the world’s most popular software tools, shows just how far it can flex its muscle to restrict what gets seen on its devices. Is this the next generation of the AOL model, which relies on herding consumers to partner websites rather than the web’s wild frontiers?

Then again, maybe this is just what the general public is looking for after a decade of exhaustion trying to navigate the web’s limitless choices. If all you want out of your computer is the ability to send email, share photos and get information online, then the iPad makes life easier. Its company-approved apps will tailor web content to meet your daily needs. Information will be personalized to the extent that you’ll never feel the need to wander. And how many people really need to use a built-in webcam anyway?

I can’t predict which camp attracts the majority of consumers. But the iPad will do a wonderful job of sorting, and from there we can start tailoring our communications strategies to fit the revamped model of Internet consumption. Hedge your bets and stay neutral for now. We’ll know soon enough which side wins out, and how they’ll rule the new era.

The objections to objectivity

At the dawn of my journalism career, I sat in a college classroom and listened as a central tenant of my new profession was ripped to shreds.

Ripped apart by a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist no less.

That man was Allister Sparks, a distinguised reporter and editor from South Africa whose front-line work exposing the corruption in his nation’s apartheid government had won him international respect and acclaim. Sparks was now a visiting professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, teaching a small seminar course to a handful of undergraduate journalism majors that included myself.

Just a sophomore at the time, my reporting experience was limited to a single internship and a bunch of articles for the Daily Tar Heel. It was still enough time to have the idea of objectivity firmly entrenched into my code of ethics, to the extreme that I would measure the column inches I gave each speaker at a debate — regardless if one had more interesting or insightful things to say — to make sure my coverage was equal and no one could accuse me of bias.

But the notion of objectivity, so engrained in the fundamentals of my intro journalism classes, was promptly tossed out the window by Sparks. Over the course of several classroom periods we debated how merely providing balanced coverage of both sides does readers a disservice. Sparks argued that only subjective choices regarding what is honest, morally sound and relevent produced reporting on controversial issues that made a difference. Had he taken the neutral route, Sparks said, his reporting would have merely propped up the injustices of apartheid rather than pushed the nation to democracy.

That class didn’t instantly make me a convert. But it planted a seed that grew over the next eight years as I worked in print journalism. Time and time again the “objective” reports simply transcribed two opposing views without any insight into which had merit, while the meaningful investigative pieces carried a fact-based viewpoint that highlighted the important information while dismissing the trivial. Over time I came around to the idea that true objectivity in journalism, even if obtainable, could never deliver the change and enlightenment the profession seeks to create.

Others monitoring the industry have also come around to this idea. Among those is Robert McChesney, whose exhaustive critique of the modern media landscape continues to dominate much of my class discussions for graduate school. McChesney derides objectivity as a tool inserted into the standard protocol of “professional” journalism by elites hoping to maintain the status quo. If reporters are shackled from revealing too much information that favors a particular side, then even dishonest positions can maintain credibility in the eyes of the public.

It’s one thing to be fair and accurate in reporting. It’s quite another to ignore obvious truths because doing so would reveal your preconceived beliefs and bias on a topic.

Strangely enough, it’s this desire to be freed from objectivity that has propelled me into public relations, an industry McChesney (and many of my old journalism colleagues) deride as ethically bankrupt for spinning facts to suit an agenda. There’s no doubt that does take place in some corners of the industry. But at its heart PR involves spreading information and viewpoints that need to be heard. If I help a courageous non-profit raise its voice to a large audience — as my fly-in project to Panama seeks to do — then I am reporting with a subjective agenda, but one that helps a worthwhile cause.

Objectivity has its merits, especially with regard to research papers and governmental reports. But when it comes to making a difference in communications, often the subjective approach proves more powerful.

Is PR the new partisan press?

Last fall I was helping a political newcomer with her campaign’s media relations, and it came time to warn her of PR’s limitations. I tried to explain that the press release I had written for her would not be reprinted in the local newspaper, but hopefully paraphrased to the extent that her views would be heard.

I ended up proving myself wrong when the newspaper printed quotes from the press release verbatim, without even calling her for a follow up. So much for my cautious view of PR’s power over print.

This is exactly the type of situation that would make Robert McChesney, a media critic and scholar whose book I’m now digesting for class, cringe with disgust. Or maybe he would just shake his head with acceptance. McChesney frequently makes the point that the PR industry has an ever-growing sphere of influence over what “objective” media report as news these days. The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. In a televised interview on PBS, McChesney points out that in the 1960s there was roughly the same number of PR professionals and  journalists in the workforce. But now there’s a 3-1 ratio in favor of PR.

This statement left my classmates debating whether the papers they had worked/interned for would ever resort to the practice of printing press releases. The views were mixed.

Practices are mixed as well. The half-dozen community papers I’ve worked/interned for during the past decade would never quote a press release for a major story, but for briefs and featurey pages the prepared statement sometimes came through unfiltered. Other times the press release got a rewrite, but the content and message remained unchanged.

The more and more newsroom staffs are decimated by layoffs, the more frequent this practice will become. If a staff is going to produce some meaningful stories — or even just a fully filled edition — on a shoestring budget with declining manpower, that often means resorting to PR for the minor stuff. Ideally all media outlets would print only staff-written copy, but the economics of the industry today force these companies to cut staff or fall into the red.

Is this the end of objective, unbiased journalism? Perhaps. But it’s also a great opportunity for worthy causes to get their message out directly to the public, provided that they’re willing to create content. There’s a void right now that honest, engaging PR can fill. A non-profit can’t always find a reporter to tell its story anymore, but if it figures out how to tell the story on its own, there are outlets to find an audience.

This concept goes against the modern-day standards of the unbiased news outlets. But that model is quickly falling away, both because it now struggles to turn a profit and because most readers still see journalism as biased anyway. It’s worth noting that the news industry began in this country using a highly partisan model, where papers printed information with a specific agenda. McChesney even praises this model in his book, talking about how the multitude of strong views ensured that those in power would always be challenged somewhere.

Could a news industry where PR has a prominent place mark a return to the partisan model? Hopefully the arguments and agendas will be carried out with more civility and honesty than they did circa 1800, but we shouldn’t automatically fear journalism with an agenda. What matters in the end is that every voice — be it through a reporter or through PR — still gets heard.

Polls deserve their own set of questions

Colorfully presented polls are the go-to-move for newspapers or researchers looking to boost readership. They even have entertainment value for some. You know those USA Today poll results presented in the lower left-hand corner of the paper? My Dad made guessing the results of the question into a family “game” at the dinner table , much to the pain of my siblings and I.

Whether or  not they provide the basis for Family Feud style competitions, polls add an instant degree of interest and credibility to any report. It’s no surprise that as my class hits overdrive mode on multiple research papers, we’re scrambling to find surveys relevent to our topics, with teachers encouraging us to display the results in creative ways.

But the most snazzy data visualizations (new media speak for what most others call info-charts) won’t cover up a faulty survey. Readings for my Public Opinion class have revealed countless examples of manipulative polls where the methodology or the presentation of the results was highly misleading. Here’s five key questions to ask of every poll as we vet out which make good additions to our own reports.

  1. How were the respondents picked? Those who have taken statistics (which should be a required class in my opinion) know that a few thousand can be a remarkably accurately sample for the views of millions. But it has to be a representative sample. If a poll’s respondents were self selecting like all those online surveys, the results won’t necessarily reflect the entire population. Same is true for a survey that only finds respondents in a certain place, or during a certain time of day, or by only using names in the phone book.
  2. How were the questions worded? Think of the difference between asking about support for “rescuing the auto industry” vs “bailing out a mismanaged corporation.” Very subtle changes in word choice can influence opinions. One’s man’s “government spending” is another’s “public investment.”
  3. Do the respondents have any idea what they’re talking about? The average American knowns little to nothing about foreign affairs or complex domestic policies, but polls come out on these subjects nonetheless asking for opinions. How can we expect a survey to be accurate if it doesn’t screen its respondents for knowledge on the issue?
  4. Is there a “don’t care” choice? Even if you’re knowledgeable about, say, education reform, that doesn’t mean you feel strongly one way or the other about the issue. If a poll presses people into yes or no answers without the choice to opt out, then non-attitudes skew the results.
  5. Who conducted the poll? Political campaigns and private corporations can conduct unbiased polls, and they often do so for internal use. But they have zero incentive to release results unfavorable to their cause. It’s better to stick with credible news organizations, whose self-interest in publishing polls is more about accuracy than  persuasion.

There’s always room for more details on the web

Note: the following is a short essay for One Web Day on how the web has impacted my profession. You can see a video of me reading an abridged version here.

In print, my words had no hope of reaching an audience.
Online, there was always room for my voice.
As a college undergraduate working for The Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill, space was tight to publish stories from the dozens of staffers working each day. But thanks to the paper’s website, space was plentiful to give every qualified story a platform. The web provided assurance that everything staffers wrote could reach an audience, while simultaneously motivating writers to improve their craft.
No matter how far we progress in the communications field, that appeal of the web remains just as strong.
In many ways, the benefits only grow with experience.
A good communicator, be they in journalism, public relations or filmmaking, will produce a volume of quality content that easily eclipses the available space in print. Photographers take hundreds of pictures at an event, filmmakers record hours of footage, advertising campaigns produce dozens of related marketing pieces. In the pre-Internet days, only the absolute cream of the crop could be viewed by the general public.
The Internet blew open the door of in-depth content for those curious about a particular topic, while at the same time empowering those compiling the information. Rather than just post the bare minimum that will fit in print, communicators strive to create as much compelling content as possible, knowing it can have life on the web.
It’s enlivened our consumption of media based upon specific interests. Rather than just hope the latest edition of Slate has a piece by insightful political writer John Dickerson, readers can quickly go back and access all his past stories or tweets. When entertaining sportswriter Bill Simmons hits on a great topic at espn.com, he’s not constrained by word counts and can link us to his sports and pop culture inspirations. While fans are waiting for the captivating television show Lost to start a new season, they can go to official sites or fan message boards for new content built around past episodes. When inspiring news columnist Nicholas Kristof posts a compelling piece in the New York Times, readers can check up on his blog or Facebook page to see all the news gathering and the thought processes that went into the writing.
This doesn’t ensure that all content reaches a mass audience, or even that it won’t just be ignored once posted online. But the web provides assurance that nothing of quality need ever remain buried, and that fans of any fictional or non-fictional piece can always dig beneath the surface for more details. No matter how constrained or restricted access to a traditional platform remains for up-and-coming media professionals, they always have a place to share their knowledge and let their talents shine through.