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Beyond “Filter Bubbles:” Broadening the Scope of Journalism

by Sue Ellen Christian

Journalists’ jobs have become more critical in the online age for many reasons – for curation, verification, and also for magnification. Let me explain.

The most powerful websites online are tailoring their responses to individual users to reflect back what they think those users are most interested in. The days of news outlets telling news consumers what they need to know, as opposed to what they want to know, are well over and have been for some time, thanks to digitalization and the power of the search engine and clicking away from one outlet to another, all for free.

The upshot, however, is that audience members continue to access an increasingly myopic view of the world and its issues, ideas, crises and celebrations. Internet users aren’t getting the full picture of the world via the Internet because the picture is being cropped by the users themselves, albeit inadvertently. Eli Pariser, online activist and thinker, calls the phenomenon a “filter bubble.”

In an interview with Salon’s Lynn Parramore and in his own TED talk, Pariser explains the dangers of how the Web connects us back to ourselves via personalized search results based on our interests. The danger of this is that we never see a version of the world other than the one we already know and presumably, love – we are never challenged to put our attention anywhere other than where we’ve already been.

As Pariser said in his Salon interview, “What it’s looking like increasingly is that the Web is connecting us back to ourselves. There’s a looping going on where if you have an interest, you’re going to learn a lot about that interest. But you’re not going to learn about the very next thing over. And you certainly won’t learn about the opposite view. If you have a political position, you’re not going to learn about the other one.”

In this environment, algorithm-free information sources such as Twitter become all the more essential. “Twitter feeds which are not determined by an opaque corporate algorithms (sic) but my own choices” is how author Zeynep Tufekci put it when writing about the importance of Twitter for calling attention to the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American male, fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer in 2014.

The phenomenon of “filter bubbles” requires that journalists do more to turn audience attention to the little-seen and little-noticed stories of the world. In Chapter 6 of Overcoming Bias, I discuss how journalism has an ethics of attention and urge news reporters to mind their attentional blind spots to keep coverage innovative, interesting and relevant.

To continue to broaden your scope of the world and what is being done in terms of news storytelling and how and why, visit these two innovative sites:
http://www.storybench.org/vision/ and https://medium.com/message.


What’s Holding Digital News Back?

Author Sue Ellen Christian recently wrote an article for Zeteo about a gap in the quality of Web-based journalism. In her article, she notes that good journalism is harder to find in the digital age because money flows from posts that attract page views, which are often written to induce excitement rather than to report important information. Read the full article here.


Covering the Transgender Community Requires Clarity and Sensitivity—Part I

An extremely useful discussion can take place in newsrooms and classrooms due to the recent appearance of writer and trans activist Janet Mock, on the primetime CNN interview show, “Piers Morgan Live.”

Perhaps we can stop this post right now, because the hurried, harried reader might have already quit reading, wondering: What is a “trans activist”?

As comedian Steven Colbert said on his show, The Colbert Report, when introducing Mock as a guest: “You see, as a broadcaster, when it comes to transgender issues, I don’t know what I should say to these people. Here to say what I should say to these people, please welcome transgender activist . . . Janet Mock.”

As usual, Colbert nailed it. Yes, journalists’ primary allegiance is to their audience and that means clarity and conciseness. However, in complicated matters of individual identity, gender expression and transitioning from one gender to another, the brevity of news writing does not always serve the laypeople in the news audience or the transgender community being covered.

Which brings me to the Mock-Morgan clash, a true learning moment for all. Mock, the author of the New York Times bestseller Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, appeared on CNN to promote her book. The video is here.

After the interview, Mock tweeted that she was displeased that Morgan repeatedly described her as having been born a boy and that she used to be a man. Mock posted on her Facebook account that she and fellow transgender woman, actress Laverne Cox, “did not appreciate the lack of nuance in framing my story.”

Mock asserted that Morgan’s persistence in differentiating between the before and after of her surgical changes missed the nuanced point that she was female long before she physically took on female characteristics. This can be difficult to convey quickly in a headline or a news story, but it is important to maintain the goal of accurately representing a source.

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Morgan’s response was anger that Mock hadn’t said anything to correct his depiction of her during their interview, which both agreed was a pleasant exchange. Morgan said he didn’t think he had said anything offensive or inaccurate during the interview but had emphasized his support of Mock’s identity and her work. Morgan insists he is an ally, supportive of Mock and a champion of equality for LGBTQ people. Here was his Tweet in response to the maelstrom of criticism he received from Mock supporters and the transgender community:

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Morgan invited Mock to return to the show to sort out the terminology and her reaction. If you don’t have much time, watch this second appearance as opposed to the first interview. It highlights the perspectives of both journalist and source in a head-to-head exchange:

In addition, Morgan invited three guests on a later show to critique the interview and his performance. Each guest had a different take on what went wrong and right during the interview. Watch a portion here, or simply read a quick text recap at the same link.

Take a moment to think about the perspectives presented in both of the exchanges. What points do you agree with and why? What lessons are to be learned here? What stereotypes or clichés come to your mind with the topic of transgendered individuals? Try to identify your personal attitudes about this group of people; then, take the next step of addressing how you would combat unfair or biased attitudes when reporting on the transgender community. (For tips in identifying and managing stereotypes, “Ch. 4, Story Without Stereotype, may be helpful.)

Journalists can find their way through this changing landscape with a few basic tools:

* First, the Associated Press, among other style guides, advises journalists to use the pronoun preferred by the source. If no preference is given or available, then use the pronoun that reflects the gender that the person lives publicly.

* Second, always ask a source how they want to be described. If the person goes by a different name than the one on their birth certificate, use it. Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga and other celebrities get that treatment. (In legal and crime cases, a full legal name is necessary to report the story and track the documents.)

* Third, get educated. Read up on the LGBTQ community and its issues, including proposed laws, demographics, crime stats against community members, economic issues and more.

* Fourth, only mention where the person is in his or her medical transition process if it is relevant to the story. Move beyond the before-and-after coverage of transgendered individuals. Capture their humanity in their daily living and focus on what makes them the subject of a news story in the first place.

Journalists’ first service is to their readers/viewers/listeners. Dean Baquet, the managing editor of the New York Times emphasized this when explaining that the news outlet’s decision, initially at least, was to continue using the name Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning, who was convicted of releasing classified U.S. government documents, announced a day after the court sentencing that she was a female and requested to be called Chelsea Manning.

“Generally speaking we call people by their new name when they ask us to, and when they actually begin their new lives. In this case we made the judgment readers would be totally confused if we turned on a dime overnight and changed the name and gender of a person in the middle of a major running news story. That’s not a political decision. It is one aimed at our primary constituency—our readers.”

The Times shortly after adopted the policy of using the “she” pronoun and the wording “Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning.” But in the midst of an ongoing news story, clarity ruled.


One man, one execution, many descriptions

Edgar Tamayo was described in many ways in the hours preceding and following his execution by the state of Texas. The range of descriptors assigned to him captures the range of interpretations of his story.

In reading these descriptions, it is telling to note the news source, whether is U.S.-based or Mexican-based or somewhere else altogether, and how Tamayo is presented. In each case, the headlines and leads are enough to get the sense of how his story is being framed: Tamayo as a convicted cop killer or Tamayo as victim denied his rights.

These various descriptors highlight the power of words as discussed in Chapter 8 of Overcoming Bias, as well as the notion of perspective — U.S. or Mexican or global — that is discussed throughout the book. Consider the “Fault Lines” of race/ethnicity and geography discussed in Ch. 1, Context, Culture and Cognition, when looking over these examples:

  • “Cop Killer In Texas, Edgar Tamayo, Given A Heroes Burial In Mexico”

headline from The Global Dispatch (an online news site)

  • “Mexican man executed in Texas for killing a police officer is given a hero’s burial in his home town”

“The 46-year-old Mexican was controversially executed in Texas less than two weeks ago for the killing of a Houston police officer in 1994, despite outrage from human rights groups and last minute appeals from his lawyers for clemency on the grounds that Tamayo was mentally disabled.”

— headline and lead from the UK’s Daily Mail

  • “Texas executes Mexican national after Supreme Court rejects appeal”

“Texas executed Edgar Tamayo Wednesday night after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an 11th-hour appeal to keep the Mexican national from death at Huntsville State Penitentiary in Texas. Tamayo, 46, was convicted of fatally shooting Houston police Officer Guy Gaddis in 1994.”

— headline and lead from AlJazeera America

  • “The US state of Texas has executed a Mexican for murder, despite objections from the US and Mexican governments.”

— lead from the BBC News

  • “HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) A Mexican national has been executed in Texas for killing a Houston police officer, despite pleas and diplomatic pressure from the Mexican government and the U.S. State Department to halt the punishment.”

— lead in The New Zealand Herald, which used an Associated Press story.

  • “EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, has condemned the execution of Edgar Tamayo Arias in the US state of Texas. Tamayo was on death row for killing a police officer in Houston, Texas in 1994. The Mexican government also said that his execution violated international law.”

— the lead from NewEurope (which describes itself as “the European Political Newspaper that mainly publishes and discusses news concerning EU politics and issues”).


The lessons from the Manti Te’o Hoax aren’t easy to learn

The Manti Te’o hoax may well become a newsroom verb of caution for any large-scale digital dupe. Before giving the OK to proceed on an Internet-centric story, editors will warn: “Just make sure we don’t get Te’o-ed.”

Te’o, a 21-year-old linebacker for the University of Notre Dame hoping to be drafted into the NFL, has since told ESPN and Katie Couric that he wasn’t part of any hoax but the victim of a scam. But he did admit to leading people to think he had met the person with whom he had an online relationship before she died.

Journalists did not check every single fact of the Te’o – Lennay Kekua love story.

But who can blame them?

I don’t.

You’d be in good company if you believed Te’o. See the list of those who did believe Te’o and didn’t check out the whole story. An element of what I’ll call “gotta confirm”-ation bias courses through this story. For more on the confirmation bias, see Ch. 7 of Overcoming Bias: “Critical Decisions Before Deadline.” The subhead of that chapter is particularly worth mentioning in this post: Why even experienced journalists neglect certain facts and what to do about it.

Until more reporting brings forth the why and how of this saga, the story remains so extremely bizarre that any reporters who claim they wouldn’t have been duped aren’t being honest — with themselves, mostly. (See Jeremy Schaap on ESPN.com on this topic.)

Too Good to Check

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at the New York Times, wrote a column about the newspaper’s Te’o coverage. The paper’s coverage was fairly limited but nonetheless Sullivan urged a “trust but verify” approach to all stories. In an appearance on msnbc’s “Morning Joe” news show, she stated: “There’s a category of journalism called ‘too good to check.'”

In Ch. 3 of my book on how the mind organizes and interprets information, I quote Kurt Andersen of New York Magazine reiterating the longtime newsroom joke about how “some juicy fragment of reporting is a ‘fact too good to check.'” (p.41)

With any dramatic tale, the journalist (or at least a part of him or her) prays that no source or document will come along that will undo the magic of the story. You hold your breath that it checks out so you can run with this great read. The Manti Te’o story was such a compelling one because it was all there: young lovers, tragedy, heroism, inspiration.  It caught the attention of reporters from Sports Illustrated to ESPN to the South Bend Tribune and many others.

(See this Poynter column examining why journalists didn’t find out about the hoax sooner.)

When journalists fall in love with the story, just like with true love, they can lose their judgment. The can lose their critical thinking skills.

Instead of playing Monday morning quarterback (sorry), I’d like to acknowledge the power of the age-old narrative coupled with something comparatively new: The Internet. One tool that can help a journalist avoid biasing herself toward a story is to limit her consumption of the master narrative already coursing through the digital veins of the Internet. In cognitive terms, it’s called exposure control. (Ch. 10: Journalism and Reflective Practice, p. 181)

Controlling exposure to biasing information — in this case the stories that had already been reported on Te’o and his girlfriend — may have prompted more scrutiny and less acceptance of the master narrative.

That said, what journalist doesn’t do his homework and check out the prior coverage when doing background research? The lessons in this hoax aren’t easy to learn because this story is so strange it feels like the exception and not the rule. Ironically, it’s an ideal time to remember the tried-and-true guidelines that protect against digital dupes on both the everyday and the exceptional stories.

So, Potential Lesson One:  Don’t follow the pack. (Ch. 6, p. 107).

Huffington Post writer Michael Calderone wrote that: “Te’o’s story was the type sportswriters — or really, journalists in general — flock toward. Here was a talented young man, who in the face of deep personal loss, triumphed on the field…The Deadspin investigation may be remembered as much as an indictment of the media’s herd mentality than for its revelations about the hoax itself.”

After the hoax was revealed, senior columnist Gene Wojciechowski, who covered the story for ESPN, said on SportsCenter:

“Well, I sat across from him and I was moved by his story and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming and as it turns out totally untrue. But short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case. But in researching it before I wrote the script, I remember trying to find an obituary for his girlfriend and could not. And couldn’t find any record of this car accident. But we asked Manti, could we contact Lennay’s family and he said the family would prefer not to be contacted. Could we have some photos of Lennay? He said the family would prefer not to provide those. And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes. But in retrospect, you can see where some of those things simply were not adding up to make sense. Easy to say now. At the time it never enters your mind somebody was involved in that kind of hoax.”

But wait. It’s not as easy as all that, to pin the blame for believing on journalists’ love of a good story and pack mentality of journalists. Some smart journalists were on this story, and ESPN was also investigating its veracity.

So, Potential Lesson Two: Counterargue the story’s premise. In this story’s saga, this means counterarguing not only someone’s death but her very existence. Which, as the NYT sports editor Joe Sexton pointed out when he responded to Sullivan’s question for her column, is pretty ludicrous:

“I could never imagine in editing such a story, with the references existing as they did, asking the reporters: Do you know for a fact his grandmother is dead? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend is dead? Do you know for a fact his grandmother existed? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend ever existed? And any editor who tells you they would have or should have asked those questions is kidding you.”

Sports Illustrated senior writer Pete Thamel’s account of his recorded interviews with Te’o and other sources shows that he asked a lot of good questions — probing questions, questions to pin down time and place and circumstances. Wrote Thamel: “[Te’o] never specified that he’d met her in person, and I didn’t ask. Why would you ask someone if he’d actually met his girlfriend who recently died?”

Potential Lesson Three: Acccountability.

Deadspin reporter Timothy Burke, who broke the story with colleague Jack Dickey, told Poynter’s Mallary Tenore that, “You can learn a lot about what happened by looking at the contradictions between other journalists’ stories. That was what really tipped us off, after all, that something was weird here. Major news organizations disagreed on the date of a person’s death by up to four days.”

Deadspin.com’s fact checking was a simple and thorough search for verification, as you’ll see here:

“Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.

Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.”

The lasting legacy of the Manti Te’o hoax may well be that it becomes a cautionary tale around newsrooms, much like the Richard Jewell case has taught journalists to avoid jumping to conclusions when it comes to reporting on suspects, or the Duke lacrosse case taught them to avoid stereotypical narratives. Instead of “a fact too good to check,” we need to rewrite the age-old motto to fit these digital times: No fact is too good to check.

 


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