Q&A With Henry Jenkins on Future of Media

Henry Jenkins, a USC professor and author who knows more about participatory media than just about anyone else, asked me some questions about the news/information ecosystem and media literacy in the 21st century. Here’s how the conversation went, in two parts (Part 1Part 2). 


Q: What role should the news media itself play in fostering basic civic skills, including those of critical reading and thinking? For example, how should the news media be responding to persistent rumors about Obama, such as those promoted by so-called Birthers? Is this a “teachable moment,” as one would say in the Education Schools, and if so, how should teaching taking place via the news media?

A: I wish the news media had made this a core mission a long time ago. They didn’t, and still haven’t. That’s a real shame; it would have helped not just their audiences but themselves – because audiences would have gotten a better idea what it takes to do quality journalism and had more respect for it.

If I ran a news organization and learned that a sizeable percentage of people in my community believed something that was false – birtherism, for example – I would make it part of my mission to help them learn the truth. That sounds easier than it would be, because people who believe lies are invested in those beliefs, but teachable moments abound in today’s world.

UK Police Attacking Journalists Who Uncovered Police/Journalism/Government Scandal

The British voicemail hacking scandal just took a hugely dangerous turn. Scotland Yard is making war on the journalists who broke the voicemail-hacking scandal that Scotland Yard refused — corruptly or ineptly — to fully investigate on its own.

The police had all but ignored most of the immoral and almost certainly illegal acts of News Corp.’s top-selling and now defunct UK newspaper, News of the World (and maybe others). Scotland Yard’s lack of interest in the case — putting the lid on the investigation after several early arrests — may have been simple incompetence, but the other possible explanation is a corrupt alliance with crooked journalists and governments. 

But the Guardian (for which I write a weekly opinion piece) did its job when other journalists didn’t. Almost singlehandedly, the Guardian kept the story alive until the public saw more clearly what had happened.

Now the police are using one of the UK’s most draconian laws, the Official Secrets Act, against the newspaper. This is a blatant effort to punish the one news organization that dared to stand up for the public’s right to know about a scandal that implicated the nation’s most powerful media company, governments run by both major parties and, as increasingly seems safe to assume, the police themselves. 

Scotland Yard, stung by honest journalism, is attempting to criminalize that journalism. What an outrageous move. 

Tom Watson, the member of parliament who’s been on the case more than any other, puts it well in the Guardian’s coverage:

“It is an outrageous abuse and completely unacceptable that, having failed to investigate serious wrongdoing at the News of the World for more than a decade, the police should now be trying to move against the Guardian. It was the Guardian who first exposed this scandal.”

Cory Doctorow on Self-Publishing

Terrific piece by Cory (a friend) about who’s cut out for self-publishing, and who may not be. Excerpt:

I firmly believe that there are writers out there today who have valuable insights and native talent that would make them natural successes at marketing their own work. If you are one of those writers – if you have a firm theory that fits available evidence about how to get people to love your work – then by all means, experiment! Provided, of course, that you are pleased and challenged by doing this commercial stuff that has almost nothing in common with imagining stories and writing them down. Provided that you find it rewarding and satisfying.


Washington Post’s (Endless) Social Media Guidelines: Progress, but Not Enough


(Note: My original title for this post was much harsher on the Post and its guidelines than it should have been, and did not reflect what I wrote below. That’s regrettable and I apologize for it.)

The Washington Post’s newly public “Guidelines for Digital Publishing” are more than 5,200 words long. That’s about 5,100 words too many.

This is not an attack on what the Post, which labored for many months before giving birth to this behemoth, has put together. The guidelines are, in fact, an interesting examination of how technology’s collision with journalism has forced journalists to rethink what they do and how they do it. The document offers examples that would be excellent teaching tools for journalism students and working journalists alike — and will be interesting reading for a public that has little understanding of what goes into journalism or how organizations consider, often deeply, the consequences of their deadline-driven decisions.

But the document, a copy of which I received before it was made public, starts off with an admonition that makes the entire exercise a bit weird:

These guidelines for digital publishing are meant to guide Washington Post journalism as we deliver news and information in a rapidly changing media environment. We consider these guidelines to be a “living document” that we will continually modify and update based on feedback from our journalists, from our readers, and from our perceptions of our changing needs.These guidelines supplement but do not supplant the established principles that govern our print publications in the Post stylebook. Because the circumstances under which information is obtained and reported vary widely from one case to the next, these guidelines should not be understood as establishing hard and fast rules or as covering every situation that might arise. You should consult with an editor if you have a question about how these guidelines should be applied in specific circumstances.

Boiled down, this seems to say: “The guidelines don’t actually mean too much, because when it comes to difficult situations we’ll just make case-by-case decisions.”

Still, it’s progress. The meat of the guidelines, reflecting the Post’s remarkably rigid view of its world, won’t surprise. The paper is essentially telling its journalists to remain professional even as they attempt to take best advantage of the new tools now available to us all in the social media era. Some of the examples tell me the newspaper is overly cautious, but again that’s not shocking given the organization and its longtime style.

I’ve had a copy of this document for months, and held up posting about it after the newspaper said it was being revised. The revisions are minor. (One absolutely hilarious change — part of a discussion of “Taste/Tone” — modifies the word “shit” to “s–t.” Really.)

The “living document” language (new in the final draft) is intriguing, and it suggests a strategy the Post might have used to develop its guidelines: It might have posted an early draft online, and then invited its readers and others who care about the newspaper and journalism to offer their own ideas. Instead, of course, the organization kept its own counsel.

The Post could do better, now that the document is in the public sphere, by taking seriously what it says it wants from the rest of us. Not only should the paper genuinely invite feedback and suggestions, but all subsequent changes should be easy to see and understand, annotated and explained as part of a longer conversation we all can have about the topics raised here.

In the end, I can’t help contrasting the Post’s endless semi-rules with the ones posted by John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register Co., a small newspaper chain that may be doing more to adapt to the new world than any other traditional media company. (Paton can do this, in part, because he took over a company coming out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, which gave him some running room to experiment in ways the Post undoubtedly can’t even imagine.) Here’s what Paton wrote on his blog:

Some of you have asked what are JRC’s Employee Rules For Using Social Media. To keep it simple I have reduced them to three:




Had I been in charge of the Post’s rules, I would have (sort of) split the difference. I’d have written:

1. Be human.

2. Be honorable.

3. Don’t embarrass the company.

Then, I’d have added: “We will make some mistakes, and we’ll be honest about them and correct them. But we’ll keep working on this, because we are part of a conversation that includes everyone — and, besides, we have no alternative.”

NY Times Offers Multimedia Reporting Lesson Plan Using Current Events

The New York Times is offering an excellent lesson plan for multimedia journalism based on its Libya coverage. 

News organizations should lead the way in 21st Century media literacy. This is a good example of how it can be done.

Rolling Stone Ahead of the Crowd, Again, on Financial Sleaze

Once again Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has been ahead of the rest of the financial journalists covering the sleaze of Wall Street and its pet regulators in Washington. The latest piece shows how the SEC has remained almost totally in Wall Street’s pocket during the Obama administration — yet more proof, not that we needed it, that this president isn’t interested in rooting out the crooks, public or private.

It’s also disgusting to see that some media organizations, notably the Wall Street Journal, are reluctant to credit Rolling Stone. I read a follow-up to Taibbi’s piece in yesterday’s print edition, and it failed to mention that this was a RS scoop. The online edition didn’t credit RS until the 11th paragraph.

I recently resubscribed to Rolling Stone after many years of not getting the magazine. The work of Taibbi and his colleagues is a key reason.

Arizona Republic Website Comments A Model of Incivility

A good indication of the type and level of discourse on the Arizona Republic (Phoenix-area newspaper, largest in the state) website is found in the comments on a story about a dust storm rolling through the metro area as I write this. (I’m at the airport awaiting a flight, which I still hope will happen though they’ve closed operations at least temporarily.)

The story is about the dust storm, of course. But check out the comments, which start off stupid and get worse. You won’t be surprised that extreme politics — this is Arizona — enter the mix in a big way.

The Republic’s comment threads are often like this — and it’s obvious that the paper doesn’t much care, or else is too busy and resource-hungry to do anything about it. But it’s a perfect example of the wasteland in American newspaper “conversation” online, and another reason why people gravitate to places where intelligent and moderated conversations take place.

New Shamelessness from Huffington Post

Huffington Post learned a lot from the pushback after AOL bought the company — which rose to prominence in significant part due to blogging by people who were never paid — for more than $300 million. 

What did the management learn? Keep asking people to provide stuff for free. 

Now it’s a logo. Read the comments to see how this latest bit of “you do the work, we take the money” game-playing is going over — not well, to put it mildly. For all that, HuffPost will no doubt get what it wants in any case. 

I have a great deal of respect for some of the people working at the company. But this scheme is just another reminder of its fundamental shamelessness.

Educators Should Use Social Media to Engage and Empower Students

(This post is by Kristy Roschke, a high school teacher in Phoenix who is working on lesson plans for Mediactive. Kristy has a master’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.)

When I first started teaching high school eight years ago, it did not occur to me to give students my phone number or personal email address. Not because I thought it was inappropriate, but because it seemed unnecessary. Funny how things change.

Today, I share my mobile phone number, my Gmail address and my Twitter handle with my publications staffs on the first day of school.  Why the 180? It’s certainly not my great desire to be accessible to my students 24 hours a day. But it only takes a few instances of a missing memory card or dead battery in a camera during an important football game to realize that many high school journalism emergencies can be avoided with a little communication. And although I do sometimes get annoyed by the 9 p.m. emails asking what the word count on the aforementioned football story should be, I know it was my decision to open those lines of communication (and to push it out to my iPhone at all hours of the day), and so I answer the question. The fact is, the way my students and I communicate — in our own lives and with each other — has evolved over the past eight years because communication itself has evolved. And while I don’t believe that just because you can use it, you should (as is the case with Facebook, which I’ll explain later), I think it’s incredibly short-sighted and naive to pretend these profound changes to the way we communicate aren’t relevant to the way we teach our students.

Some in education will read this and think I’m nuts. They think that communicating with students outside of school is never appropriate, and that social media is little more than a breeding ground for potential improprieties. I will put these people in two categories: those whose relationships with students never extend past classroom hours (for any reason, whether it be a sport or club or tutoring), and those who are reluctant to embrace new technology. These people don’t need to share their personal information because a student would never have occasion to use it. That’s just fine for them, but it simply doesn’t work for me and an ever-growing number of educators out there who want to run their classrooms like it’s the 21st century.

The school district in which I teach, like most school districts, I’m sure, is extremely cautious with new technology, particularly with social media. The Internet within the confines of our district’s filtering system looks a little like the Internet of the 1990s — there is no YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Ning, and only parts of Google work.  I can understand why this is.  I use all of these services and I see what’s out there. And I know that all it takes is one call from one parent whose child came across something inappropriate while searching YouTube at school to shut down the whole Information Superhighway.

But here’s the thing: I’m an educator. My job is to educate students, and while my teaching certificate says I’m qualified to teach high schoolers about Journalism and English, I believe it extends way beyond that. I believe my job is to educate students on how to survive their lives outside of high school. In my own little corner of the school, I do this by teaching them how to use their words (and images and designs) to effectively communicate, not just in a literary analysis essay, but also in a job interview or an important client meeting or to an ailing patient’s family or in front of their own classrooms.  How can I do this without mentioning social media? Are we really to pretend that these methods of communication will not play a prominent role in the rest of their lives? And if we, the educators, are not allowed to show students how to effectively use these tools, who will?

We live in a world where most communication is narrowed down to 140 characters. Young people abbreviate everything, capitalize nothing and punctuate at random. But it goes far beyond the obvious language usage issues. Young people are the stars in their own reality shows. They (over)share information about themselves that makes even me blush. Everything they do is available for public consumption. Those of us who were fortunate enough to make our youthful mistakes before the invention of the mobile phone camera understand how misguided and damaging this type of disclosure can be. Just like I teach my students the proper way to send a professional email, I should be modeling for my students the proper way to manage their other online interactions.

The state of Missouri doesn’t want teachers to send private messages to students, whether it be through non-district email or Twitter or Facebook direct messages. I understand their intent — to discourage sexual misconduct and prevent teachers accused of such behavior from being hired in another school district — but this action is misguided. Those troubled individuals who exploit their position as an educator will continue to exist, sadly, with or without technology. By putting such restrictions on technology use, the Missouri state government has publicly admitted how little it understands about the evolving nature of communication, not to mention how little faith it has in its educators as ethical professionals.

I have a very active online profile, which I take great care to manage. My passions are education, media and technology, and I am lucky I get to integrate these things into my daily life. I would not be doing my job as a journalism educator if I didn’t stay abreast of new modes of communication and share them with my students.  I use my Twitter account mainly to share articles and insights about the subjects I teach. I encourage my students to follow me so they can benefit from this information. And while I don’t share my personal blog with my students because it’s really just silly fun, I don’t hide it from them. It’s the first thing that turns up when you search my name on Google, so it would be futile to try to. The knowledge that students might read my blog is always in the back of my mind when I post.

I do not friend high school students on Facebook. When former students sends me friend requests, I typically accept them, but I put them in a separate list with its own set of privacy rules. This is not because I’m embarrassed about what I share on Facebook. It’s for the same reason I live on the other side of town from my school: I don’t want my students knowing too much about my life outside of the classroom. This is my choice, though, and I should have that option.

Like Missouri educator Sean Nash, who so astutely outlined his thoughts on social media in education, I don’t see Facebook having much value in the classroom at this point. My student publications use it as a marketing and reporting tool outside of class, and it’s great for that. The brand-new Google+, with its close integration to other useful Google tools and its Hangouts, however, could possibly be a game-changer for the classroom. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but I will undoubtedly have to be on the sidelines for that one, as it’s only a matter of time before my school district blocks the site.

The point here is that I am a fervent user of technology, so I understand the important role it plays in my students’ lives, both now and in the future. I have a duty to help them utilize it in a mature manner and to help maximize its potential as a learning tool. Hiding from social media is just another way public schools are running from any real education reform. Even as school districts across the country are demanding we integrate technology in the classroom (Show them a PowerPoint with animated graphics! Have them complete a Web Quest on the Great Depression!), they are making our classrooms less relevant to the outside world. Even worse, we are losing our ability to engage our students.

Teachers, administrators and school board officials need social media training. They need to learn how to manage their own profiles and understand that they have some pretty effective controls on what they share and don’t share — which means their students do, too. They need to understand how their students use these sites, and what skills they need to use them in a more appropriate manner. Think of the potential positive outcomes of this: training to prevent cyberbullying or to help students navigate relationships, showing students how their online profiles could be used to get (or not get) a job or scholarship or internship, using social media as an RSS feed to stay up on current events. Educators are in a position to show young people that social media doesn’t have to be all social.

Yes, the Internet is a scary place. But we’ve known for a long time that, like rock ‘n’ roll, it’s here to stay. I, for one, want to emphasize all that is good about it and give my students the tools they need to confidently navigate it. To me, this seems like the only rational way to keep them from getting taken in by it.

Thank You, Tim Berners-Lee

Twenty years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee posted this announcement on Usenet (the main Internet forums of the day). The key line:

“The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow links to be made to any information anywhere.”

Berners-Lee didn’t just give this to the world. He deliberately declined to patent this work, because he wanted wide adoption of his invention and believed in a culture of open, not closed.

We are all in his debt.