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Why Journalists Need to Take Reader Privacy More Seriously

(A version of this post originally appeared on Medium)

Last week longtime local publisher Howard Owens, founder of the online news site the Batavian, launched a new publication covering Wyoming County in upstate New York. Buried in a parenthetical within his welcome message to readers was a fascinating promise: “We’ll also respect your privacy by not gathering personal data to distribute to multinational media conglomerates for so-called ‘targeted advertising.’”

This kind of explicit promise regarding reader privacy is increasingly important and all too rare.

Even though stories about government surveillance, commercial tracking and financial data theft have become commonplace in the press over the last two years, news organizations are still loath to talk about their own practices in regards to reader privacy. It’s time for some real talk about what we owe our readers in the age of big data and mass surveillance.

Just last week this blog published an analysis of news organizations’ use of encrypted HTTPS connections. “Virtually none of the top news websites,” writes Kevin Gallagher, “including all those who have reported on the Snowden documents — have adopted the most basic of security measures to protect the integrity of their content and the privacy of their readers.” Without this encrypted connection it becomes possible to essentially eavesdrop on what people are reading online, as the NSA did with people who visited the Wikileaks website.

Earlier this year, in a report on the challenges of encrypting news websites, theWashington Post pointed out how much this kind of surveillance can reveal about someone. “Among the issues potentially illuminated by what you choose to read, advocates say, are your health concerns, financial anxieties, sexual orientation and political leanings.”

And yet, the use of encrypted connections on news websites is just one part of a much larger and more complex issue. Continue reading

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What if Journalism Was Built for Inclusive Community Participation?

Larenellen McCann recently gave a terrific talk about community, technology and how we can and should build for “inclusive community participation.” As I watched the video, she kept talking about “civic tech” and “civic hacking” but I kept hearing “journalism” and “reporting.” The failures she is describing and the challenges she sets forth are as relevant for journalists and newsrooms as they are for technologists working in the public interest.

I have written before about the need to reorient journalism around community by building more reciprocal relationships between newsrooms and communities, relationships rooted in listening, empathy and creativity. McCann’s talk hits on similar themes but gets even more concrete about the steps we need to take to transform our work in collaboration with our communities. Be sure to read her longer, follow up blog post.

In the spirit of civic hacking, I asked McCann if I could “fork” her talk and replace her references to civic technology with journalism as an experiment in context. Below is the result. I think it captures a lot of what I’m working on with community news sites at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Continue reading

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The Rise of Hands-On Journalism

Digital journalism has made possible some incredible storytelling in recent years. Visually stunning reports on issues as diverse as gun violence, environmental disasters, and surveillance have brought stories to life on the screen. Increasingly, however, journalists are experimenting with innovations that move journalism off the screen and into people’s hands.

This spring RadioLab did a story about an ancient skull and the questions it helped answer about the origins of human history. It is a fascinating story, but it revolved around minute details scientists discovered in the skull, details a radio audience couldn’t see. So the RadioLab team took a scan of the skull, printed it out with a 3D printer, and made the scan available online for others to print out. So, now you could hypothetically feel the groves and markings on the skull as the scientists discuss them, discovering new facets of the skull alongside the narrators.

I am fascinated by the potential for these sorts of journalism-objects to help engage communities around stories and foster empathy with audiences. So I began collecting examples of what I call, “hands on journalism.”

I see this hands-on journalism as a particular kind of community engagement, one that may involve collaboration with community, but puts an emphasis on discovery and learning. Specifically the kind of learning that comes from doing. Continue reading

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Thirteen Questions About the Future of Participatory Journalism

At this year’s Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications conference I moderated a panel on legal, educational and practical debates about participatory journalism and citizen reporting. I had the good fortune to be joined by a terrific group of scholars and activists: Amanda Hickman of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Lisa Lynch of Concordia University, Madeleine Bair of Witness.org and Morgan Weiland of Stanford University.

I posted a preview of the discussion before the panel. But the panel itself was a lively and engaged debate where a number of important new issues were debated. Below are recordings of the panel’s opening remarks. You can listen to the entire half hour on Soundcloud, but below I’ve split it up into short three and four minute clips, highlighting a few key themes that emerged. Continue reading

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Finding a Better Way to Track Journalist Arrests in the United States

I spent a large part of 2011 and 2012 compiling a day by day detailed report of journalists who had been arrested at Occupy protests. In each case, I tried to track down multiple sources for confirmation, sought to detail the circumstances and capture a bit of the story of how the arrest happen, and then from there track what happened to the journalist in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time I launched a series of campaigns with Free Press, calling for cities across the United States to drop charges against journalists and defend First Amendment protections for journalists covering protests.

So when three journalists were arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, in the middle of August people began sending me tips. I was away from my computer and couldn’t track the breaking news as well as I would have liked, but thankfully as the week went on – and more reports of journalist arrests and press suppression poured in – others took up the charge and helped track these issues.

At the time of writing there are three lists tracking attacks on the press in and around Ferguson, Missouri. Each is taking a somewhat different approach and reports a different total number depending their definition of who is a journalist.

There is an important debate to be had here about who gets counted in these sorts of efforts, and who gets left out. I’ll save that debate for another post, but if you are interested I suggest reading this and this as a starting place.

After a year of tracking, I began to run up against the limitations of a tool like Storify for long-term on-going coverage. Even the lists above, with social media embedded in them, begin to get a bit long and unwieldy, after just a week or two.

Continue reading

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From Washington to Ferguson and Back Again in a Night

I was on a family vacation in Washington, DC, last week on August 14. It was a lovely summer evening and on a whim my wife and I took our two young sons down to the Lincoln Memorial at sunset.

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As the last light of day lit up the sky around the monument I walked up the steps and heard a chorus of people reciting Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The group of high school students knelt on the spot where Dr. King stood, pointing to the inscription there, and breathing new life into his words.

Half a nation away in Ferguson, Missouri, a different sound filled the night air. Just a few days earlier a young unarmed black teenager, not much older than those who stood before me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was killed by police. And on this night, protesters calling for justice met militarized police who were prepared for a fight.  Continue reading

Journalism’s Theory of Change

(Originally published at the LocalNewsLab)

In July we learned more about Jim Brady’s new local journalism start-up, Brother.ly, which is taking a networked approach to news in Philly. At USA Today Rem Rieder described the project as having a “strong civic impulse.”

For Brady and Chris Krewson, the site’s editor, community is the starting place. At theInnovate Local conference at Montclair State University earlier this year Brady said that increasingly he wants to effect “our communities through action not just providing information” and he describes Brother.ly not as a news site but as “a platform for a better Philly.”

At one time, this overt emphasis on civic action would have raised red flags for many journalists. But increasingly we are seeing some newsrooms frame their work as a springboard for action. There is evidence of this shift in both nonprofit and commercial newsrooms, as well as a growing number of journalism schools which are explicitly training more community driven and action oriented students.

Screenshot 2014-07-28 14.07.49The Christian Science Monitorjust redesigned their site with a major focus on helping people take action. The site features a “Take Action” section and on some stories the Christian Science Monitor offers “paths to action for readers who’ve been inspired by a story or something happening in the world.” My colleague Molly de Aguiar recently profiled Christian Science Monitor and two other publications that are using site design to invite more user engagement.

Also this month, the Knight Foundation awarded a Prototype Fund grant to Chicago’s Public Good Software for the development of a “Do Public Good” button and an outreach campaign designed to “work with bloggers and media organizations to include a capability to take action (‘Do Public Good’) in the context of news articles.” Continue reading