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.
Truthiness in Digital Media event site