Trusting Unsourced Quotations

Irish Times: Student’s Wikipedia hoax quote used worldwide in newspaper obituaries.

A Wikipedia hoax by a 22-year-old Dublin student resulted in a fake quote being published in newspaper obituaries around the world. The quote was attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March. It was posted on the online encyclopedia shortly after his death and later appeared in obituaries published in the Guardian, the London Independent, on the BBC Music Magazine website and in Indian and Australian newspapers.

Wikipedia logoThere are any number of lessons to draw from this situation. No doubt, the main lesson for many critics will be to blame Wikipedia, not the person who tried to pull off a hoax or the many people who fell for it.

Certainly the site’s open nature was instrumental in the student’s ability to pull off the hoax in the first place. But a closer examination, as we see in this piece by the readers’ editor of the Guardian (one of the publications that fell for the hoax — here’s the corrected original obituary), the Wikipedia community performed well in a) discovering the lie and 2) fixing the article.

Still, the invented quote was widely used — by people who should have known better. In the Guardian, there was apparently no citation, even to Wikipedia, which would have been a tipoff in the first instance.

As the Guardian notes in the follow-up:

The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source.

That applies to everyone, not just journalists. I say this again and again, to students and anyone else who’ll listen:

Wikipedia is often the best place to start — but the worst place to stop.

Broadening Journalism Education’s Practice and Purpose

(This is cross-posted from the PBS Idealab blog.)

Accepting an award from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School for Journalism & Mass Communication several months ago, former PBS NewsHour host Robert McNeil called journalism education probably “the best general education that an American citizen can get” today.

Cronkite BuildingPerhaps he was playing to his audience, at least to a degree. Many other kinds of undergraduate degree programs could lay claim to a similar value; a strong liberal arts degree, no matter what the major, has great value. Still, there’s no doubt that a journalism degree, done right, is an excellent foundation for a student’s future.

Even if McNeil overstated the case, however, his words should inspire journalism educators to ponder their role in a world where these programs’ traditional reason for being is increasingly murky.

Continue reading Broadening Journalism Education’s Practice and Purpose

Reimagining the Book

Tim O’Reilly discusses Reinventing the Book in the Age of the Web” — and the context is his (and Sarah Milstein’s) new book about Twitter.

twitter preview.png Perhaps the biggest driver, though, was the need for speed. We couldn’t imagine writing a book about twitter that wouldn’t be immediately out of date, because there are so many new applications appearing daily, and the zeitgeist of twitter best practices is evolving equally quickly. So we needed a format that would be really easy to update. (Again, modular structure helps, since new pages can be inserted without any need to reflow the entire document.) We plan to update The Twitter Book with each new printing.

This is very much my strategy with this book/website, though the things that change rapidly will change mostly here on the site, not in the printed version.

Ebooks Must Fail? Only If They Remain in Current Ecosystem

Evan Schnittman: Why Ebooks Must Fail

How do ebooks cover the huge advances needed to buy books if we cannot generate the cash, especially at their extremely low, discounted prices, cover the advances that an entire industry has come to require? The answer is that ebooks, alone, cannot.

What this means is that unless a very different model evolves, ebooks can never become the dominant version of content sold by book publishers. It means that ebooks will always be priced to sell, but sold as an afterthought, not as the primary version of a work. It means that the need for blended e plus p models will evolve, in order to take advantage of all the great qualities of ebooks, while providing the financial support and structure that print offers. It means that consumer ebooks, as a stand-alone version of an intellectual property, must fail.

This is a valuable lesson in book economics — 20th Century book economics, that is.

The key words in Schnittman’s piece (or at least the short portion I’ve quoted) are “huge advanced needed to buy books” — an assumption that we may need to challenge as the financial ecosystem of books, not just the distribution chain, evolves over time.

The huge advances themselves seem unsustainable. That’s a good thing, because they warp the marketplace.

Moreover, it’s unclear why publishers alone are expected to cover authors’ costs given that, at least in the case of much non-fiction, authors make money in ways other than selling books — namely consulting and speeches, among other things. Why shouldn’t the various parties in this ecosystem (a word I use deliberately) collaborate to sell books and other services and share revenues? Complex, sure, but worth it in the end.

Principles at the Core of Using Media

A few months ago I published a paper as part of the Media Re:public project at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society. These principles are at the heart of this project. Unlike the tactics and techniques and technologies involved in media use, which change all the time, the principles are a bedrock.


For Media “Consumers”

Even those of us who are creating a variety of media are still–and always will be–more consumers than creators. For all of us in this category, the principles come mostly from common sense. They include skepticism, judgment, reporting, expanding one’s own vision and understanding how it all works. More specifically:

1. Be skeptical of absolutely everything.

2. Don’t be equally skeptical of everything.

3. Go outside your personal comfort zone.

4. Ask more questions.

5. Understand and learn media techniques.


For Media Creators

All of the principles for consumers are part of the toolkit of every responsible journalist or information provider. So are the following. The first four — thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and independence — are standard for journalists of all kinds, and are widely accepted inside of traditional news organizations. The fifth — transparency — is somewhat new and considerably more controversial, and even more critical in a distributed media age.

1. Do your homework, and then do some more.

2. Get it right, every time.

3. Be fair to everyone.

4. Think independently, especially of your own biases.

5. Practice and demand transparency.

Joining a Larger Journalistic Conversation

ProPublica has launched the citizen-journalism portion of its operation, or at least the first iteration. By posting The Obama Team’s Disclosure Documents and asking readers to help figure out any potential conflicts of interest or other facts that are worth knowing, the site is doing what newspapers could have been doing years ago but haven’t bothered to do. This crowdsourcing follows key early journalistic adopters, notably Josh Marshall and his team at Talking Points Memo.

Amanda Michel is leading ProPublica’s citizen component. This is a great start.

Supply Side News: New Investigative Journalism Initative

Jay Rosen (PressThink): Introducing the new Huffington Post Investigative Fund (And My Own Role in It)  The announcement of its birth, along with the $1.75 million starter budget, is really the launch of a new Internet-based news organization with a focus on original reporting. You might say the Fund’s operating principle is: report once, run anywhere.

As newspapers fail, the news ecosystem is finding a way forward. This project, like ProPublica and and several other projects, will help fill in the gaps.

We need a hundred such experiments, not just a few. Here’s hoping we’ll see more local ones, not just national ones.

A Story is Never Finished; Neither, Maybe, is a Book

(Note: Some of this is adapted from a 2006 talk I gave at Columbia University School of Journalism.)

If Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood folks can create directors’ cuts of their movies, why can’t journalists do the same — and more? Why can’t they keep updating and improving some of their own works?

They can, if they get past the publication or broadcast metaphors from the age of literally manufactured media, where the paper product or tape was the end of the process.

This is not just about newspapers or broadcasts. It’s about books, too — about any of the media forms that are making the transition into the Digital Age. This project, in particular, will be my own attempt to put this notion and others into practice.


We accrete knowledge in real life. We learn a little more about something. We factor that new information into a new understanding of the larger topic.

This maps to the way the Web works. On the Web, the best explainers accrete audiences and authority, as they attract more and more readers and inbound links. 

Because of the manufacturing model, traditional journalism has done things a different way. The process has been to create a new story each time there’s a bit more information about a person, topic or issue, and either a) expecting audiences to have enough background to understand why this turn of the screw matters; or b) add some background information that attempts to bring the reader/viewer/etc up to speed.

This is inefficient — for the journalists and for the audience. But in an online world, we can easily do better.

We can do it by creating ownership of articles, and beyond that, of topics — and then adding (and subtracting) from the original as new information comes to light. (Jeff Jarvis put it well in his piece last year when he wrote: “The building block of journalism is no longer the article.”) 

Some models are already available. Consider Wikipedia, where every version of the article — and I mean everything, down to the version where someone added a comma and hit the save button — is available to anyone who wants to see it. You can even compare adjacently edited versions side by side.

In the real world, how might this work?

Let’s say I’m just starting to understand the role of financial tools called “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs) in the current financial meltdown. And suppose that the New York Times had done a detailed explainer of CDOs. (I can’t find one, but perhaps they did.) Now comes the important part: Let’s further suppose that the Times has been updating that article on the Web to reflect new events — in addition to writing current news stories (and archiving them next to the original) and creating a huge link directory. The newer stories have lots of new details, only the most central of which make it back into the updated original story.

The Times has gone part of the way in this direction. Under the umbrella of Times Topics you’ll find a huge aggregation of articles that have appeared in the paper, including this page on CDOs

What you won’t find is what I’d like to see as well: the original uber-explainer — call it the baseline copy — and then the current, updated version one to see what’s changed. Or maybe I want to see them mashed together, with the changes highlighted using colors for additions and strike-throughs for deletions. 

The average reader would probably go to updated Big Topic story, starting and ending there for the moment. Then, when new journalism appeared about CDOs, he or she woulkd  more likely background to understand the nuance. 

The idea isn’t new, really. The Associated Press and other wire services have used what’s called the “write-through” forever — adding new information to breaking news and telling editors what’s new in the story.


As noted above, I raise this point because it’s the approach I’m taking to this project. I’ll be adding material from blog posts into publicly viewable chapter drafts. 

The chapters will keep changing even after a book is published, though it’s way too early to know how often, if at all, a new version of a book will be printed. Given the rapid progress in the publish-to-order world, it may be mroe often than I’d imagined.

It’s Also a Demand Problem

My work in much the past decade or so has been about the changing supply side of journalism. We’ve come a long, long way. Even though the journalism business model is tanking, the explosion of new kinds of content — and people who are pushing the edges of media creation — assures us of an ample supply.

An ample supply of what, exactly? Yes, we have to keep pushing for better journalism, with training and education of the content creators in this newly conversational world.

But we also need to spend a lot more time than we have on the demand side of the equation: the former audience that is now part of the process. If we don’t get this right, we won’t come through this transition with the kinds of media we need in a seriously self-informed, self-governing society.

A key question in this emergent tsunami of information, is this one: What can we trust? How we live, work, and govern ourselves in a digital age depends in significant ways on the answers. To get this right, we’ll have to re-think, or at least re-apply, some older cultural norms in distinctly modern ways.

These norms are principles as much as practices, and they are now essential for consumers and creators alike. They add up to a twenty-first-century notion of what we once called “media literacy,” which has traditionally all but missed the emerging methods of participation that are becoming such a key element of digital media.

Media consumers have to become activists. I don’t mean this in a political sense, though there’s an element of politics in almost everything we do in the public sphere. I mean it in the sense that we have to become users of media, smart users who don’t just sit around expecting people to do everything for us with no effort, apart from attention, from us.

We have to demand better than we’re getting. But to know what’s better, we need to address those principles. More on those in upcoming posts.