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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.


The 2014 Olympics: Looking for the Invisible Stories

Many in the U.S. media apply the tradition of horse-race coverage of presidential campaigns to the Olympics as well, tracking on the front page the number of medals won and lost by major countries.

However, a particular element of the 2014 Winter Olympic coverage by the New York Times provided a nice example of looking for the invisible, which I discuss in Chapter 6: Training the Reporter’s Eye. As the book states, “Because people naturally turn their attention to the novel and extreme, journalists need to train themselves to look where others don’t naturally look. One of the most important things about attention is to note what isn’t being noticed.”

Fourth: What it’s like to just miss an Olympic medal” captures the reactions and faces of the athletes who finished in 4th place in their events in Sochi, Russia. The cumulative series was a crisp use of online storytelling. In several cases, a simple graphic depicts the seconds or points — whatever the events’ measure of greatness — by which the 4th place finisher missed a bronze medal.

The Olympic sports news coverage is focused on who won a medal. But the great majority of us, the great majority of your readers, never win our equivalent of a medal – landing the big promotion, becoming valedictorian, making the cut for the starring role in the class play. As I discuss in the book, much more interesting to readers is not the first and last but the great grey middle. It is where most of life happens, and finding those interesting and nuanced stories is often the key to relevancy for your readers.


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