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Journalism is Dead! Long Live Journalism!

By Brian | January 5, 2010 | Share on Facebook

Two weeks ago, I got on a 7:45AM New Jersey Transit to New York City. Just then, power problems developed in the tunnel under the Hudson River, causing massive delays throughout the NJTransit system. Four hours later, when it became obvious that I was still at least an hour away from getting to my office, I gave up and came home. During the entire ordeal, the train conductors kept apologizing for the inconvenience while assuring us that they would pass on any new information as soon as they received it. Meanwhile, the passengers were on their blackberries, iPhones, and other mobile devices, receiving status updates from various websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and even NJTransit itself. Those who were disconnected were treated to a steady stream of information as passengers called out the latest updates to each other and recommended courses of action for folks with various intended destinations. At the time, we joked that the train conductor should get himself an iPhone so he could tell us more than what NJTransit was telling him.

Last week, I dropped a friend off at Continental Airlines’ Terminal C in Newark Liberty Airport about an hour before someone walked the wrong way through a security checkpoint, causing officials to evacuate the terminal. About 10,000 people crammed the check-in counters and baggage claim areas, waiting for the go-ahead to re-enter the terminal and get on their delayed (possibly even cancelled) flights. My friend gave interviews to Fox News and The Star Ledger, and even received update requests from a CNN reporter who had found his Twitter feed. As with the train delay above, no one at Newark Airport or Continental Airlines was making any announcements or providing the inconvenienced passengers with any further information.

The two incidents raise the following question in my mind: has information dissemination, particularly in the case of breaking news, broken down completely, or has it changed in a way that renders the old methods obsolete and unnecessary? Certainly, both NJTransit and Continental Airlines could have made repeated announcements over their public address systems and placed public relations people in the terminals to talk to passengers and the media, but these actions would likely have yielded repetitive and less accurate information than what the passengers were finding on their own. Which is worse? Not saying anything or repeating an unhelpful message over and over again? Perhaps we’ve reached a point where these organizations realize that the passengers are informing themselves and have chosen not to bother competing?

I’ll note that in both cases, passengers joked about the lack of information coming from official sources, but did not complain about a lack of information per se. Maybe all that’s missing is a shift in public perception, where people expect to find information on their own (or from their fellow passengers) rather than have it spoon-fed to them by “an official source?”

“Crowdsourcing,” like most everything else on the Internet, will really only get big when it gets small. Wikipedia became the gold standard for research by using the whole planet to (attempt to) catalog all of the world’s knowledge. Now, we’re creating mini-wikipedias for specific events, like a security concern at an airport terminal. Given time, familiarity, and a build-up of trust, this model could eventually out-pace the concept of “breaking news” from the larger news sources.

Or so I heard on the web

Topics: New York, New York, News and/or Media | 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “Journalism is Dead! Long Live Journalism!”

  1. Jeff Porten says at January 5th, 2010 at 6:40 pm :
    The problem is that crowdsourced information has to be carefully vetted—I read on Twitter that all flights were cancelled, and all flights would go, within 30 seconds of each other. Neither was true. Consider what happens in the terminal if someone hears a mistaken news report that there’s a bomb in the waiting area.

    Official announcements would *definitely* be preferable, provided they were timely, accurate, and gave clear instructions. At the very least, “We don’t know how much longer you’ll be waiting” every 30 minutes would meet these criteria.

  2. Janet says at January 5th, 2010 at 8:08 pm :
    And Wikipedia isn’t the gold standard for anything but convenience – it really is wrong quite frequently, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes mischievously, sometimes maliciously. It is not, as Jeff said, carefully vetted, despite all their WikiWatchers.

    My most recent encounter was with a doctored list of the order of the Presidents of the United States, which was apparently not corrected for a few hours. That’s a prank and not likely to be a big deal, at least not beyond the embarrassment of someone who was silly enough to rely on Wikipedia.. But it is important to know that the population of African elephants is not, in fact, increasing just because members of Colbert Nation kept changing the statistics on Wiki. And I think we can all imagine all too vividly what a Wiki News bulletin about a bomb report might lead to.

    There are lots of different kinds of “authority” out there, and while generally open access is foundational to the views many of us have of how society should operate, we need to remember that the reasons Tocqueville warned about the “tyranny of the majority” are not gone – if anything, they are electronically enhanced.

  3. Sean Smith says at January 6th, 2010 at 8:59 am :
    More of the same from Manchester


  4. Steffen Konrath says at January 6th, 2010 at 9:31 am :
    Jeff (Porten), I would like to add to what you’ve written in your comment: to leave a terminal because of a wrong warning would not be a fatal error, since it is better to take security measures. It definitely would be a catastrophe if the realtime message would have been: “don’t worry there is no security issue any more” in face of a still existing danger.

    But you have the correct focus: the question is how can we make sure we get the message from a source we can trust? – It’s all about trust.

  5. uberVU - social comments says at January 6th, 2010 at 9:43 am :
    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jeffjarvis: A picture of a community sharing its own information as a new view of journalism: http://bit.ly/7k3nbv

  6. Toby Murdock says at January 6th, 2010 at 9:52 pm :
    The formula is crowdsourcing + curation. The curator of the crowdsourced content is also the keeper of the reputation and thus must validate and make sense of what the crowd is bringing in.

    This is the winning formula for success in digital media. A platform to provide it is coming soon (getgrogger.com).

  7. Brian says at January 12th, 2010 at 3:28 pm :
    Good points all, but I do feel the need to point out the expectation level crowdsourced information has achieved, even in its very infancy.

    Jeff Porten @#1 was inconvenienced for 30 seconds with faulty information about his flight status, and would prefer updates every half hour that said, “we don’t know anything for sure yet.”

    Janet Watson @ #2 cautions against Wikipedia having the order of Presidents wrong for a few hours, whereas a misprint in a textbook would be wrong until the next version was printed (months? years?).

    And practical jokes (like the African elephant population or false bomb reports) which were not possible before crowd-sourcing came around are more widely distributed and discussed today than they ever were before the technology existed.

    There are pros and cons to every new model. For crowdsourcing, I think Toby Murdock @ #5 comes close to the mark with his discussion of curators. But his model implies known/trusted individuals who are either paid to police streaming content or take it upon themselves to do so for free.

    More likely, IMHO, is the natural formation of communities of expertise – either long-standing ones (like a news desk) or spontaneous ones (like a crowd stuck in an airport terminal), from which trusted sources emerge due to frequent and consistent delivery of accurate information. Jeff Porten likely didn’t believe anything else he read from the guy who tweeted about the cancelled flights, but probably paid closer attention to the guy who corrected the misinformation. I wouldn’t use Wikipedia for a scholarly journal, but I use it all the time to satisfy my curiosity or fill in gaps of trivial knowledge in a conversation with friends. And now that I’ve heard Janet Watson’s story, I’ll be a little more careful before I trust it with the order of the Presidents, even if that was a one-time occurrence and never happens again.

    Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. Crowdsourcing gives us all the double-edged opportunity to be the trusted source or the Chicken Little in a given context. As the consequences of being wrong increase, people may become more careful about what they say, producing a self-improving system. Or, the signal will get drowned out by the noise, and we’ll returned to the walled off world of “official sources.”

    Personally, I’m hoping for the former…

  8. Janet says at January 15th, 2010 at 10:38 am :
    I’m no fan of textbooks, so I’m not going to defend them; I do think that the error is less likely in them, however, because, as Jeff pointed out, the key is in careful vetting. So your comparison about how quickly Wikipedia can be updated as compared to a new print edition doesn’t represent a good parallel, I think. Besides, the wiki-president thing wasn’t an error, it was a prank; those are possible in crowdsourcing but deeply unlikely in something as regulated as a published hard copy text book. Instead I’ll just point out that the next link on the google list was whitehouse.gov, which did indeed have Jefferson as #3; so all I’m saying in some ways is what you said about Jeff’s tweets: you’ve got to be careful who to trust. And maybe that’s not Wikipedia. (And CERTAINLY don’t cite it!)

    I’m not sure I entirely buy your argument about self-policing, however. You said “as the consequences of being wrong increase, people may become more careful about what they say, producing a self-improving system.” That sounds lovely, but what consequences are we talking about? What consequences did the guy who tweeted the wrong flight info face? What consequences did the presidential prankster face? What consequences has Stephen Colbert faced? (I still think he’s funny, for whatever that’s worth.) The consequences were potentially only for Jeff, my student, and the African elephants – and if they had trusted bad information (as the student did), then their consequences could only make them more careful about crowdsourced information; that’s not the same as improving the quality of the information itself.

  9. Brian says at January 15th, 2010 at 6:13 pm :
    From Janet @ #8:
    I do think that the error is less likely in them, however, because, as Jeff pointed out, the key is in careful vetting. So your comparison about how quickly Wikipedia can be updated as compared to a new print edition doesn’t represent a good parallel, I think. Besides, the wiki-president thing wasn’t an error, it was a prank; those are possible in crowdsourcing but deeply unlikely in something as regulated as a published hard copy text book.

    The difference here is that you’re looking at Wikipedia at a point in time, and I’m looking at it as a “living document” which changes constantly. The textbook doesn’t have a prank (or an error) like that because an editor reviews it, catches it and corrects it before printing. Wikipedia is never printed, so it’s being edited all the time. Hours after the prank was launched, an “editor” found it and corrected it, just like a textbook editor would do.

    What consequences did the guy who tweeted the wrong flight info face? What consequences did the presidential prankster face? What consequences has Stephen Colbert faced?

    The consequence is a loss of credibility which, depending who you are and what you do for a living, can be enormous. The guy who tweeted about the flight got a reputation of being misinformed, even if only for the microcosm that was that particular incident. Colbert has zero credibility, but of course, that’s how he likes it. The Wikipedia prankster has no consequences as long as he stays anonymous, but odds are pretty good that a person pulling a prank like that doesn’t want to be anonymous, and so if he ever wants anyone to trust anything he writes again, he’s discouraged from doing such things.

    If you don’t believe me here, think about the long & successful career of Dan Rather and how it crashed and burned over one particularly egregious factual error…

  10. Janet says at January 16th, 2010 at 6:25 pm :
    I’m looking at Wikipedia at a point in time, and you’re looking at it as a “living document” that constantly changes. Sure. But we each experience Wikipedia at a point in time, when we consult it; maybe an editor has looked at this bit recently, and maybe not. I can’t tell, and that’s why it isn’t reliable. And does indeed deservedly have a reputation for not being so (though even the people who know that often forget they know that). Yes, the editor caught the error and corrected it, just as a textbook editor would; but I also wouldn’t be offered the textbook unedited proofs as a source, which is what Wiki is doing all the time. Or at least might be doing – and again, I can’t tell.

    I agree that the costs of loss of credibility can be huge – they could certainly end my career, if my scholarship were ever seriously and legitimately questioned. I would suggest, however, that the tweet guy’s reputation “for the microcosm that was the particular incident” is a very low cost indeed, a very low disincentive for him not to tweet without thinking next time. Some group of mostly nameless mostly strangers to him knows he got something wrong – and he goes on with his life, without that having an impact on much of anything. Colbert indeed doesn’t want credibility, so there are no real costs to him – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t costs, just that his persona protects him from them. So his incentive, in fact, is the opposite of your initial quality-control claim – his reputation is enhanced by such actions. And the prankster is more looking for approval not from people he wants to trust his reliability, but from people he wants to admire his cleverness at deception, so I don’t think he’s facing much risk either.

    As for Dan Rather – well, it ended his career at CBS. And I’m not a great fan of his (and wasn’t before). But there are plenty of people who still admire his career in journalism, and who see him as a victim of political maneuvering rather than as someone justly punished for a reporting error.

    And I can certainly give you counterexamples, as well – Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose don’t seem to have suffered much, in the long term, for their credibility crises. Plenty of people still value what Oliver North has to say, too. You just need the right audience (the one that already agrees with you). And sometimes, to wait awhile for people to get nostalgic about you. And maybe for other people to do things that seem even worse. You want to talk about changes in reputations, just look at Richard Nixon. Or Bill Clinton.


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