Susan Crawford: So one of the great things the Berkman Center does— And by the way the Berkman Center is not the law school. The Berkman Center is an over­ar­ch­ing cen­ter for all of Harvard University, with direc­tors from many dif­fer­ent parts of the uni­ver­si­ty. So it isn’t just lawyers. And one of the excit­ing things the Berkman Center does is try to bring togeth­er com­mu­ni­ties that are pret­ty dis­parate. They have their own ways of talk­ing, their own inter­nal dic­tio­nar­ies, their own sense of what’s valid and what’s not valid. Those com­mu­ni­ties include cir­cles of lawyers but also tech­nol­o­gists who have their own ways of look­ing at the world. Journalists, who have their own ways of think­ing about truth and ascer­tain­ment. Sociologists. What oth­er ‑ists can we name? There are all these dif­fer­ent cir­cles that inter­sect in Boston, frankly. And inter­sect at the Berkman Center.

And this con­fer­ence is an attempt to bring togeth­er a bunch of those cir­cles. The gaps between them are huge. The gap between the jour­nal­is­tic priest­hood and the way it looks at its role in the world and a techie who says, Well, we can just fix that with a plat­form,” is enor­mous. The gap between an urban plan­ner and a lawyer who wor­ries only about lia­bil­i­ty is enor­mous. But yet human beings are resilient and cheer­ful, and we keep try­ing to fill these gaps.

This con­fer­ence is focus­ing on gaps in an enor­mous and inter­est­ing area, which is truthi­ness. What’s pro­pa­gan­da? What’s right? And here to kick off this next sec­tion of the dis­cus­sion, we’re very for­tu­nate to have Emily Bell, who was the leader, the brain, the ener­gy behind the Guardian’s trans­for­ma­tion into the lead­ing media orga­ni­za­tion, news­pa­per, these days in the open Internet. It’s real­ly The Guardian and it’s real­ly Emily who made it happen. 

So, Emily is now at the at the Tow Center, lead­ing it at Columbia University, rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing with­in the jour­nal­ism school the train­ing of jour­nal­ists to under­stand the dig­i­tal age and to be part of it. So she’s going to begin us here as we begin to con­sid­er what the role of media orga­ni­za­tions is in address­ing the gaps that we just iden­ti­fied in our first sec­tion. So Emily take it away.

Emily Bell: Thanks very much indeed, Susan. I feel like I should have fact-checked that intro. Because I’m still real­ly a jour­nal­ist, not an aca­d­e­m­ic. I quite like the sound of it so I’m going to let it stand.

Just kind of a quick sur­vey. How many peo­ple here have actu­al­ly worked as reporters in news­rooms at some point?

Susan Crawford: Quite a few.

Bell: Okay. That makes me slight­ly ner­vous because obvi­ous­ly I was hop­ing that it would be almost none of you so that I could say any­thing I like. 

So I’m going to start off just by show­ing you what the the state of the art is in terms of open jour­nal­ism right now. So please watch carefully.

This is very messy because you all just applaud­ed an adver­tise­ment. I showed this to a col­league at Columbia who said, Wow, that’s so cool. I want to be their friends.” And I said that this is the whole point, you know. It’s not real­ly like that.

That’s an extreme­ly expen­sive artic­u­la­tion of the open strat­e­gy that I’d like to claim respon­si­bil­i­ty for imple­ment­ing. Actually it was some­body in the tech­nol­o­gy depart­ment who was respon­si­ble for imple­ment­ing it in about 1999. It was just that the orga­ni­za­tion did­n’t real­ly real­ize that. And they imple­ment­ed it by putting up an unmod­er­at­ed talk thread on the nation­al news site.

And the rea­son that that’s rel­e­vant is because I’m going to talk to you just a lit­tle bit about why debate this morn­ing is so dif­fi­cult for jour­nal­ists and why I think it’s so dif­fi­cult for jour­nal­ism. So I’m not real­ly going to talk about the future. I’m going to talk a lit­tle bit about the past.

So when The Guardian start­ed an unmod­er­at­ed talk thread in 1999, it was most­ly con­trolled by peo­ple who were inter­est­ed in ask­ing ques­tions like What is your favorite stick insect?” Which I had no idea there were so many stick insects. 

The rea­son it was insti­tu­tion­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant was because up until that point the vast major­i­ty of every­thing The Guardian spent, and indeed every major orga­ni­za­tion spent, was on the oppo­site. It was on mak­ing sure that every sin­gle word or image that appeared in the pub­lic domain had been rig­or­ous­ly report­ed, checked, double-checked, subbed, triple-checked, put on a paper, lawyered, checked, and then released. 

So this is very very dif­fi­cult for jour­nal­ists. Because all of our invest­ment up until maybe even now, actu­al­ly, has gone into bar­ri­ers around what we con­sid­er to be facts and our truth. Now, I’ll back this up by say­ing… Or rather I’ll enter a caveat here, which is most jour­nal­ists like most doc­tors go to work intend­ing to do good. And indeed like most politi­cians, again, we’re back to the sort of not many Machiavellis in journalism. 

There are some peo­ple who pos­si­bly are more inter­est­ed in mon­ey. Who are moti­vat­ed by get­ting onto TV. Might moti­vate by all sort of things, but most jour­nal­ists when they go to work actu­al­ly want to do good. And the sys­tems which had allowed them to do good in the past were all about pro­tec­tion. Protection of the words or the images that you put into the public. 

And if you go to any news­room now, the big exis­ten­tial cri­sis is about we can only afford three peo­ple not sev­en to look at the copy twice. We can’t go through the fil­ters that we could go through before. There was a very inter­est­ing debate a cou­ple weeks ago from broad­cast­ers about don’t break news on Twitter. Make sure it goes through the news­desk first. 

So this idea of con­trol is so baked into the jour­nal­is­tic psy­chol­o­gy that actu­al­ly this artic­u­la­tion, done in a highly-controlled envi­ron­ment with an adver­tis­ing agency, is one which even though it’s not new to the open Web is still very very very new to jour­nal­ism. And what we don’t have at the moment is any­thing like a bal­anc­ing invest­ment in the kinds of things which allow us to par­tic­i­pate in the crowd. 

And I have to say that I’m a jour­nal­ist but I’m also an advo­cate, you know. This is part of what I worked on at The Guardian. This is some­thing that I very very strong­ly believe will make jour­nal­ism sus­tain­able. In oth­er words allow­ing peo­ple to inter­act with your con­tent to share it, to pass it around, to anno­tate it, to com­ment on it. And to have sys­tems that actu­al­ly work in favor. So when we’re actu­al­ly look­ing at this as a prob­lem which involves jour­nal­ists, it’s as well to think about that invest­ment gap, because that’s where it real­ly all starts.

And if you think about as well the fact that how many peo­ple here as jour­nal­ists work con­sis­tent­ly with new tools that add fact-checking abil­i­ties to their own work, it’s prob­a­bly very low. There’s still a low recog­ni­tion or accep­tance that there are tech­nolo­gies which sit out­side your own orga­ni­za­tion that can pro­vide you with a high­er qual­i­ty of work. Again, this is a sort of psy­cho­log­i­cal attack on what many jour­nal­ists have thought has been their key role. Many edi­tors have thought well, you know, We know best. Our sys­tems work best. Our jour­nal­ists are best. And any­thing which chal­lenges that we have to not be open about. We have to be defen­sive about.”

So the shift that’s tak­ing place at the moment real­ly is into a world where we have to accept the pos­si­bil­i­ty of wrong as jour­nal­ists. And not just accept it but embrace it and put it into process. 

So I sup­pose what I would like to see and what I think we should be talk­ing about and teach­ing in jour­nal­ism schools, and what I think we should be talk­ing about and invest­ing in in news­rooms, is how do we shift from that psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly defen­sive world to the glo­ri­ous utopia of the Three Little Pigs. Incidentally I don’t think those were police, I think they were Arthur Sulzberger’s truth vig­i­lantes break­ing down the doors there.

So, until you see news orga­ni­za­tions actu­al­ly putting in process ways to link— There are very very few news orga­ni­za­tions that have a process or guide­lines around how to link out from your sto­ries. There are very very few news­rooms that can afford to or have yet invest­ed in any way in data. And by data I mean a frame­work for col­lect­ing, under­stand­ing, ana­lyz­ing, and rep­re­sent­ing large data sets. There are a few; they tend to be the large inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions. And even with­in those that’s a very very small num­ber of people. 

And there’s very very lit­tle invest­ment at the moment in that rela­tion­ship between jour­nal­ism and the crowd. So how many peo­ple here have heard the phrase The prob­lem with com­ments is they’re all ter­ri­ble?” [light laugh­ter] Oh come on, put your hands up. You’ve all heard that phrase. And the fact is that it’s often true. But it’s often the least invested-in part of the news process. It’s left often to chance. There again is no process for— And jour­nal­ism is a process. There no process for open­ing this, there’s no train­ing around engagement.

Now the orga­ni­za­tions that are doing this most vig­or­ous­ly (And I would pick out obvi­ous­ly The Guardian, also The New York Times. Back in the UK the BBC have invest­ed a great deal of mon­ey in this.) are the ones who I hope will get to a point where we can actu­al­ly val­ue those trans­ac­tions prop­er­ly. Because unfor­tu­nate­ly what we don’t have at the moment is a cur­ren­cy that says this real­ly does ele­vate both our jour­nal­ism and offers a more truth­ful” and bet­ter qual­i­ty of infor­ma­tion to give to our readers.

So as I say, I come to this from the point of advo­ca­cy. I know that there are oth­ers who come from the point of view that actu­al­ly clos­ing down con­tent, with­draw­ing from the open Web, being more elit­ist about this pre­sen­ta­tion, being very cau­tious about the crowd, see that as an equal and valid way for­ward. But I want­ed to frame the prob­lem, real­ly, as the first per­son up (and I’m out of time now), because as I say, I think that this is some­thing where we’re beg­ging here for your coop­er­a­tion and under­stand­ing as jour­nal­ists. Because this is not a world that is very easy for us to nego­ti­ate. But now that we have ads about it, hope­ful­ly every­body else will take it up as well. Thanks very much, Susan.

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site