Three Ways News Organizations Can Put Citizens Before Politicians in Political Reporting

A visitor from outer space exposed to major news coverage the 2012 US elections might be forgiven for thinking that the President’s job description is the Namecaller-in-Chief.  Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tries to paint Pres. Barack Obama as a feckless leader an enemy of American free enterprise at home and exceptionalism abroad. For his part, the President has tried to define Romney as a political opportunist and vulture capitalist whose company profited from eliminating American workers’ jobs and shipping them abroad.  New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen suggests the Romney camp is likely running a “post-truth” campaign. Pollsters say the attacks leave voters disaffected with both candidates.

As notes, the campaign has become not just mean-spirited, but trivial:

“Besides being marked by a cavalier disregard for facts on both sides, the campaign also has become bitter and trivial. It is failing to engage the public in a fact-based discussion of the hard choices that will very soon be forced on Washington.

“In its triviality, the 2012 campaign so far resembles the infamous 1988 contest that pitted George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis. The ‘issues’ featured then included Dukakis’ support for a state prison furlough program and Bush’s knowledge (or lack of it) about aid to Nicaraguan rebels. Neither side said much about an unfolding debacle in the U.S. Savings and Loan industry, which eventually cost taxpayers more than $130 billion.

“This time the real issues facing the country are much bigger: A lagging recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s, a string of $1-trillion-plus deficits, inexorably rising medical costs that burden both state and federal taxpayers, and a Social Security system unable to pay full benefits for more than another 20 years or so. Just to name a few.”

It’s enough to make conscientious political journalists and commentators sick. Alex MacGillis despairs that journalists seem to have grown weary of holding the candidates’ feet to the fire for their campaign’s false and misleading statements.

All indications are that the vitriol will only increase as we stagger toward Election Day. What are responsible journalists and their spin-weary audiences to do? Here are three thoughts:

1. Shorten the shelf-life of the spin-counter-spin stories. Granted, when the candidates or their surrogates make claims about the other candidates, the press has to give it some attention. But fact-check the claim up front, and include the conclusions of that fact-checking in subsequent reporting.

2. Get to the policy questions implicit in the attack ads – and stay there. For example, with all that we’ve heard about outsourcing this election season, I would have hoped for some discussion of the proposed Bring Jobs Home Act, which was spiked by Senate Republicans earlier this month. The Obama administration backed bill would have ended tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas and offered breaks for companies that create jobs in the US.  I haven’t found evidence that Romney’s taken a position on the issue.

Similarly, there seems to be broad recognition that Obama’s recent comments that entrepreneurs don’t succeed on their own is simply an argument that public investment can help private enterprise. Romney has made the same point himself. So the real debate is over the extent and nature of the kinds of investments the candidates support.  That’s the question that needs to be continually asked, and those are proposals that need to be scrutinized.

3. More policy experts and voters’ voices, fewer political strategists, please. Stop focusing so many stories on what the candidate’s attack ads and speeches mean for their campaigns. Stop asking reporters to be commentators speculating on the candidates’ thoughts and attitudes. When a candidate advances a policy position, stick to the evidence about the soundness of the policy, instead of worrying so much about how the idea will play with some segment of the electorate.  We should be seeing a lot more of the kinds of questions raised by Nieman Watchdog’s Ask This column, and a lot less focus on speculation and spin.


Curb Cut Alert!

A three-block walk through Center City Philadelphia turned into a 25-minute obstacle course yesterday because of street repairs. While I appreciate the efforts put into street maintenance, what constitutes a minor inconvenience to most people can turn into a real challenge and safety issue for mobility-impaired individuals.

Street repairs make wheelchair passage more difficult. Taken July 19, 2012 on 18th street and JFK Blvd, Philadelphia.

I spend a lot of time navigating the streets of old East Coast cities – Philadelphia, Pa.; Trenton, New Jersey; and New York City especially — and I sometimes travel by wheelchair. On more than one occasion, I’ve been forced to detour or take unsafe routes because curb cuts were either non-existent, poorly maintained or compromised by street construction or other obstacles. I’ve decided to create a social media platform for documenting these obstacles. I’m calling it Curb Cut Alert! because  I’d like this to become a tool that allows people in chairs to navigate more safely.

Starting with Center City Philadelphia, I’ll map the obstacles that I come across, and share them via twitter using the #CurbCutAlert hashtag. I’ll run a twitter feed on my site to pick up information from other sources as well. Ideally, I want others to be able to add information easily, but this is my first use of  MapPress, so I will take it one step at a time and see how it goes.

[mappress mapid=”1″]


What’s the right hyperlocal news model for journalism education?

  1. Hyperlocal many not be what the big city newspaper’s business is, but it’s one important site where beginning reporters first learn their craft. How can the academy and industry work together to improve hyperlocal reporting and journalism education? Some questions for discussion below.

    What does the New York Times’ retreat say for student-professional partnerships?

    Nieman Reports identified five key lessons from the Times’ hyperlocal project, which teamed newspaper staffers with community contributors including New York University students working under the guidance of faculty mentors. The East Village Local is old-school shoe-leather reporting with a multimedia flourish. It’s labor-intensive stuff all the way around, and not very profitable.According to the article, the Times’ brass concluded that: while professional journalists’ involvement is important for quality control,  “It doesn’t pay big media companies to pay their staffs to go hyperlocal.” 

  2. “What we have been trying to figure out at the Times — and I think what lots of people in this space have been trying to figure out — is how do you prompt communities, and can you prompt communities into the act of covering themselves in a meaningful way?”  – Adrienne LaFrance, “Five Things the New York TImes Learned…

  3. Lisha Arino
    Sad to hear this. I learned a lot from my internship there last summer. 🙁
    Tue, Jun 26 2012 13:49:15
  4. What I’m hoping we’ll see soon are articles from the journalism professors and students involved in the East Village Local and other pro-am hyperlocal partnerships.  Technology makes new models of news reporting possible, even necessary. The question is, which models provide the best journalism, the most sustainable business mode
  5. Journatic: Bringing economies of scale to the newsroom at the expense of journalism, ethics

  6. Understandably, news organizations are like any business in that they want to produce as much salable content as possible at minimal cost – and that means minimal personnel expenditures. But that logic has led to the gutting of newsrooms and a retrenchment from the kind of reporting that relies on getting to know the members of a community and its issues.

    Enter Journatic, a company that bills itself as a “provider of extensive hyperlocal content.” According to its website, Journatic has an “efficient,”  “data-driven content creation model” that relies a distributed network of Filipino freelancers and low-paid American editors.  In an April, 2012 article,  Journatic CEO Brian Timpone reportedly told Chicago Reader reporter Mike Miner that the Filipino contributors are mostly data researchers, not reporters, but Miner cites a Journatic Philippine newspaper ad calling for writers who could turn out 250 events “stories” weekly for $.35 to $.40 each.   According to This American Life’s interview with Journatic staffer Ryan Smith, he spends much of his time editing the Filipino contributors’ stories based on information extracted from databases such as
    The Filipino writers’ work work is often published under fake English bylines. The Tribune Company, which is a major Journatic partner, now says it will investigate the use of fake bylines in content that Journatic produced for the Chicago Tribune. It’s also alleged that Journatic reporters tell sources that they are part of their clients’ news staffs, giving the false impression that they are local journalists.

    Smith says his pay is $10/hour without benefits. (According to, the company started paying benefits to full-time employees June 1 of this year.)

  7. Anna Tarkov pursued the story in more detail in this June 30 story for
  8. Not surprisingly, readers and listeners were disturbed by Journatic’ outsourced news model:
  9. DDpan
    “The foreign freelancers make as little as 35 cents per story item” via @Poynter
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 08:00:36
  10. Mandy Jenkins
    The Journatic story really fired me up, and I hope it’ll fire up local newsrooms who might someday have to compete with this sort of outsourced news operation. We need to show our readers that we live here, too.
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 10:18:25
  11. Eloise Davis
    Listening to “This American Life” and just amazed about one of the stories. It seems there’s a company called Journatics which handles outsourcing of hyper-local stories for some newspapers, like Newsday. They hire people to write local stories–people in the Philippines and elsewhere, (including some Americans who will work cheaply). So the local news is being written using cheap labor, while the local journalists are being fired. I guess even newspapers are exporting jobs! I wonder if that’s going to happen with the Tiimes-Picayune?
    Sun, Jul 01 2012 15:45:19
  12. The Chicago Tribune reacted as well:
  13. Medill Watchdog
    The Tribune is NOT amused by This American Life report on Journatic, that revealed fake bylines appearing in Tribune local edition:
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 09:52:01
  14. Cast down your buckets where you are, Journatic

    Journatic CEO Brian Timpone defends his business model by saying it’s cost effective. The Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner quotes Timpone making his case to This American Life:

    “We have a solution that helps solve the problem. Cutting staff is not the way to growth, but empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines—that’s a really smart thing to do. The criticism’s fine, but at the end of the day, what’s a better solution? Do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea. I’m all ears.” 

    Here’s one for you, Mr. Timpone.

    It strikes me that Journatic would not have had to resort to anonymous or pseudonymous bylines if it had brought college journalism classes in on tasks like obituary writing, where the reporting is usually done over the phone.  From a journalism education perspective, there is a good conversation to be had about the economics of reporting, and the trade-off that occurs when you have a distributed news force.
    While I’m no fan of having students work for professional news sites for paltry sums – or worse, yet, for free, I understand the reality of the contemporary news economy, and course credit would at least be some compensation. Journatic would get reporters who can write in standard English. Students could get exposure to their content management system, and research could be done on more efficient ways to mine and organize their data.
    Of course, all of this is assuming that Journatic comes clean and stope with the stupid fake bylines. Now that the cat is out of the bag, com why can’t they identify themselves in the same way that a wire service might.  Also,  requiring student reporters to lie about who they are is a non-starter – why not just say, “I’m a contractor for the Houston Chronicle” or whatever the paper is?)
  15. DiligenceEngine
    @richards1000 re: Journatic, you heard of Narrative Science (algorithms write news articles)? Here’s a post on them
    Sun, Jul 01 2012 19:19:41
  16. Narrative science: The product of a journalism and computer science classroom collaboration

    One model of hyperlocal journalism seems to be prospering – and that scares a lot of journalists. Narrative Science is a company that uses artificial intelligence to program robots that generate news stories from spreadsheet data. The AI is based on input from journalists.  Their hyperlocal content draws on information such as parents’ youtube videos of their kids’ Little League games. They also produce basic financial stories for outlets such and Forbes. What is most interesting about this from my perspective is that it came about as a result of a class project by graduate journalism and computer science students at Northwestern University’s Medill school.
    Like anyone else, I have my qualms about the prospect of a robot one day cranking out Pulitzer-worthy scoops. But rather than shrink in horror, I think we need to examine these kinds of models more closely and think about ways of improving upon it and building upon it. For example, here are some areas of human and tech collaboration that would be helpful in meeting the information needs of underserved communities:
    1. Making environmental data intelligible and accessible to local communities
    2. Improving science and health reporting.
    3. Using robotics to realize the potential of news gaming
  17. DD: Narrative Science Creates Automated News Stories
    Thu, Apr 19 2012 17:26:22
  18. StartupsFormD
    $3M raised by Narrative Science Inc #vc #startup
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 13:51:24
  19. StylianosIordan
    Your Tweets Are Why The Next Walter Cronkite Will Be A Robot via @FastCompany
    Thu, Jun 28 2012 08:58:06
  20. Previews Narrative Science
    Thu, Feb 02 2012 10:52:23
  21. There are other interesting models for hyperlocal reporting – Philadelphia’s Newsworks is a great example. Spearheaded by public radio station WHYY and supported by foundations, Newsworks relies on contributions from the University of Pennsylvania and LaSalle College, among others. But that is another conversation.