What Journalists Can Learn From: Web Theorists

By on June 5, 2012

1. Imagine possibilites to find new story angles

Being mentally flexible can help journalists break out of rigid story ideas and frameworks. One of the topics explored at the recent Theorizing the Web conference explored the idea of what the web could be. For example, why do we have to have IP addresses? Is there a different way to sort and categorize data? Who, exactly, gets to control the internet from a financial perspective? Does our current system of serving and hosting meet the needs of the users?

There are no easy answers, but co-presenters Katie Shilton and James Neal wanted to make a valuable point. So much of how we understand the internet is based on the norms we adopted when services were born. But if different users had designed the initial system, we could have had a completely different set of norms for the internet. This sounds opaque, but think about the privacy wars around Facebook and other services. Facebook didn’t magically appear out of the air one day; it was created, and the creators made choices about design, usability and privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a great timeline on the evolution of Facebook’s privacy policy. Matt McKeon, a software engineer at Google, created an interactive infographic of the data here, if you prefer a visual.

While lawmakers are conducting their own probes, researchers like danah boyd are thinking deeply about what privacy means. As she explained in the Wall Street Journal:

Positioning privacy and publicness in opposition is a false dichotomy. People want privacy, and they want to be able to participate in public. This is why I think it’s important to emphasize that privacy is not about controlling information, but about having the ability to control a social situation. People want to share and they gain a lot from sharing. But that’s different than saying that people want to be exposed by others.

Protecting privacy is about making certain that people have the ability to make informed decisions about how they engage in public. I do not think we’ve done enough here.

That said, I am opposed to approaches that protect people by disempowering them. I want to see approaches that force powerful entities to be transparent about their data practices. And I want to see approaches that put restrictions on how data can be used to harm people.

For example, people should have the ability to share their medical experiences without being afraid of losing their health insurance. The answer is not to silence consumers from sharing their experiences, but rather to limit what insurers can do with information that they can access.

So how different would the web be if it was created by someone like danah? And, if we start examining some of our core assumptions about how the web works, what possibilites arise in how we tell the story?

2. Think (and frame) globally

Kira Jumet, a Ph.D student at Rutgers University, spent quite a bit of time documenting the social uprising in Egypt, and her conclusions are slightly different than our current media narrative. She notes:

While social media is not necessary for organizing revolutions, it served two important functions leading up to the Egyptian Revolution. It aided in building a politically conscious civil society over the course of a number of years prior to the Revolution and it lowered the threshold for engaging in political participation and dissent by providing a relatively safe, easily accessible space for political debate in a country that outlawed gatherings of five or more people.

Interestingly, the western perspective tends to frame the situations happening abroad through lenses that the average viewer will understand. So it is logical that we saw the idea being propagated that this was a Twitter revolution — it is a lot easier to convey the point that way than to try to explain the complex factors that solidify into an uprising.

However, by flattening the narrative, the media did everyone involved a disservice. New angles on the story almost exclusively focused on what happened over social media, which amplified the voices of a connected few, and most casual consumers of news were left to believe that Twitter helped to spark dissent, when the use of social media just allowed distant observers to follow the conversation.

Jumet is journeying to Egypt to continue her research this year. While journalists don’t have to go quite that far, cultivating more relationships and information sources could aid in reporting a more accurate picture.

3. Don’t fear the academy

Academic information is not for the faint of heart. It is often summary-resistent, full of modifications and qualifying statements, frequently too complicated for soundbites, and long, detailed explanations are not deadline friendly. However, as many news outlets have a commercial interest in what’s happening online, it’s the academy that can construct a critical voice. Academics can spend their entire careers unlocking the “why” beyond social and cultural phenomena, and have the background knowledge to condense an amazing amount of data. That is, if we let them.

Often, reporters facing a tough deadline can’t reach academics in time for them to contribute to a story. But for journalists with a beat, or those who find themselves increasingly covering complicated subjects, it may be worthwhile to cultivate relationships with academics across the spectrum. The information locked away in the academy is designed to be shared. And while it may take some decoding, it is worth unlocking.

Slide photo is by Cayusa via Flickr.