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.

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.

Welcome to Mediactive

Mediactive: A Users’ Guide to Media in a Networked Age.

That’s the working title of my new project. This site will be home base for an upcoming book (and more).

What’s it about?

My goal is to help people become active and informed users of media, as consumers and as creators. We are in a media-saturated age, more so all the time, and we need to find ways to use media to our — and our society’s — best advantage.

Looking forward to an ongoing conversation…