Techraking: A Thoughtful Revision of Investigative Journalism

Have Investigative Journalists, the white knights of journalism, lost their trusty steeds? Or, are they just being given upgraded steeds instead? Google would like you to believe the latter. A few days ago Google held its first ‘Techraking Conference’ at the GooglePlex in Mountain View California. The conference, co-hosted by Google and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), focused on the future of journalism and particularly the future of ‘muckraking’, or investigative journalism. The conference certainly sparked hopes of a future where technologists and journalists could collaborate as advocates for the public interest, fighting corruption with the broad swords of accountability and exposés.


But is it realistic to believe in this future? Most argue that technology has signaled the death knell of journalism, as we once knew it; the architecture of the Internet has created an environment that is thirsty for clicks, speed, and traffic rather than deliberate and thoughtful social activism. Declining revenues and shrinking news staffs have forced newsrooms to cut back, and investigative journalists are more often than not among the first to go. Given the historic role of investigative journalism, especially its role in litigation and passing legislation, like the Pure Food and Drug Act (the reason we know our Tylenol isn’t actually heroin), muckraking is not something that the nation can afford to lose.

Investigative journalism has fulfilled a specific, essential role for all people, regardless of class, citizenship, or background. But some may wonder: If the Internet enables any average person to act as a ‘citizen journalist’, do we still need investigative journalists? Will new projects like pachube which utilize crowdsourcing and mobile technology, work just as effectively as their older human equivalents?

'From WaterGate to TacoGate'

Google’s answer is a bit of yes, and a bit of no. Technology isn’t enough, but it can help. The Techraking conference placed a focus on new online services provided by Google and CIR. The first major announcement was the major launch of a Youtube channel entirely devoted to investigative news. The channel will “feature videos from major broadcasters and independent producers, both national and global, nonprofit and for-profit.” Listed among contributors to the channel are NPR, ABC News, CIR, and the Pulitzer Center for Public Integrity. Another exciting moment of the conference was the introduction of a new version of Fusion Tables, a Google service that allows journalists to collaborate and comb through large amounts of data with relative ease. Traditionally, investigative journalists will look through thousands of pages of government or financial data, records, and information for inconsistencies. Technology can reduce the enormous amount of time and effort required, meaning that stories that once took months may take weeks, and stories that once took years, may only take months to finish. Another technology, “Natural Language Processing” may also help muckrakers, for example, by comparing the language of laws and legislation state by state. Among the other big hits at the conference were immersive experiences (think journalists and video game developers working together), more open government data, and ways to search out plagiarized journalism. “You can use this to find every biblical allusion in Shakespeare in a few minutes” says one presenter, Tom Lee, about the SuperFastMatch service. CIR, one of the hosting organizations, is a wonderful example of ‘techraking’. The organization, a nonprofit, reports on a plethora of ambitious projects that utilize and unify the video and multimedia capabilities of the Internet extremely well.

Yet, even still, with these impressive ideas and even more impressive technology it is still not possible to definitively answer the question “Will technology save investigative journalists?” The American Journalism Review portrays a future of investigative journalism that’s not nearly as bright as the one painted by Google. The particular experience of one muckraker, Joe Demma, paints a picture of the current reality. Demma, a reporter on three Pultizer-winning stories and the supervisor of an investigative team of four reporters was fired from his job at the Sun-Sentinel. For two years, Demma tried to find a job inside and outside the news business, but nobody wanted him – even with the Pulitzers on his resume. Furthermore, the American Journalism Review notes a marked decrease in Pulitzer entries “from 1985 to 2010, entries in the investigative category dropped the public service category 43%”, suggesting that papers are largely forsaking the muckraking field. Now major papers like the New York Times, who have enough resources to dedicate, dominate investigative journalism and reporting; even then, the numbers in investigative journalism continue to shrink.

Historically, it was only thanks to senior journalists extremely dedicated to the muckraking cause that we ever saw the end of Standard Oil, the Tweed Corruption Ring, the WaterGate Scandal, and child labor. I, personally, am skeptical whether the influx of data and complicated machines that can look through it faster will be enough to fill the gap. There is the possibility that more aspiring independent journalists may pick up the slack, given the decrease in effort that muckraking would require. But then again, this situation also potentially falls in line with Malcolm Gladwell’s classic critique, ‘slacktivism can’t replace activism’, or basically that easier doesn’t mean better. The problem may not be in the resources of major papers but rather in their motivations, which tend to be market driven. There’s a reason we read more about sex scandals than we do about tax abuses and government oversight; the scandals simply get more traffic, which in the current news industry means another day above water.

For now, organizations like the CIR, California Watch, and ProPublica, non-profits that are funded by generous grants, are doing their best to maintain dedicated and qualified staff to cover and uncover the most pressing of issues. It takes commitment and idealism to make investigative journalism a successful effort. Google itself realizes this: “Good data is nothing without great journalists to analyze it.” Fortunately,  Google, a multi-billion dollar corporation who was once an enemy, now seems to be a friend. The introduction of these tools, while neither an immediate revolution nor solution, is a step in the right direction; any effort to arm our muckrakers with better tools is a good one. So, despite the gloomy scene set in place by the messy print-to-digital transition, the Techraking conference shows that an enthusiastic willingness to fight for the journalism we once had still exists, and perhaps the future arrival of the watchdog we’ve always wanted.



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Food for thought: Google glasses?

You thought the iPhone 4S was something to "wow" over? Think again. If Google glasses actually comes through, it will completely revolutionize the way in which we see the world (literally). Read more in the NYT article.

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Ideological Segregation Online at Yale

The internet has given Yale students more opportunities to consume political information and participate in politics. We receive emails about events occurring on campus, we are encouraged to sign online petitions, we follow our favorite organizations on Twitter, and we read news online. Now, more than ever before, students at Yale can easily find the political information they seek. How open-minded are we towards considering different perspectives?

I recently performed a study to see whether Yale students would discriminate against consuming online information that challenged their beliefs. Last Wednesday, April 4, I sent an email to 85 registered republican undergraduates and 85 registered democrat undergraduates. The email came from a fake organization called Yale Against Obamacare, and it encouraged recipients to click a link containing conservative political information from the Heritage Foundation about the negative economic impact of Obama’s health care plan.

This email was sent to all 85 registered republicans in Wards 1 and 22 and 85 randomly selected registered democrats in Wards 1 and 22. This study received Yale Human Subjects Committee Exemption.

I tracked the number of clicks on the link in the email. Seven republicans clicked the link (8.3% click rate), while no democrats did. The difference in clicks was statistically significant, meaning that the odds of these results occurring due to random chance are extremely small.

The results of my study suggest that republican Yalies are more likely than democrat Yalies to read political information online that affirms their preexisting beliefs. Based on this result, it seems likely that partisans at Yale prefer consuming information that affirms their beliefs.

Cass Sunstein and other political theorists worry that the internet provides people with more opportunities than ever before to consume political information that mirrors their beliefs. They argue that productive political deliberation is impossible without understanding of different perspectives. Political debates and discussions at Yale could become hostile and useless if students operate with different partisan information. A liberal arts education is supposed to expose students to new beliefs and challenge students to question their assumptions, but the internet could be making this harder by allowing students to view mostly the information they already believe.

This fear about ideological segregation online, though, rests on the simplistic and perhaps naive assumption that increasing peoples’ exposure to information from divergent political perspectives will improve the deliberation process. This may not be the case.

One problem is the confirmation bias. When reading opposing views, people tend to remember and agree with information that affirms their preconceived beliefs while ignoring information that contradicts their beliefs. Thus if a republican and a democrat read an article on the pros and cons of increasing corporate taxes, they will process and remember the information differently. Republicans will likely remember more cons, while democrats will likely remember more pros. The confirmation bias could reduce the benefits of acquiring information from different perspectives.

Other cognitive biases cause people to process opposing viewpoints in ways that could actually hinder deliberation. Stonybrook University Professors Charles Taber and Milton Lodge conducted a famous study that demonstrated that politically aware partisans are both closed-minded and defensive about their beliefs. When presented with a balanced set of pro and con arguments about partisan issues, partisans’ preexisting attitudes become even stronger. As an example, Taber and Lodge found that gun control opponents became even stronger opponents after reading information about the benefits of gun control. Yalies are very likely to exhibit these biases: Taber and Lodge found that these effects were the strongest in those most knowledgeable about politics.

Pew reports, academic studies, and my most recent study at Yale all attempt to measure what type of information partisans choose to consume. But perhaps this approach is too simple. Any strategy that rests only on finding ways to increase exposure to different views online could actually make deliberation more difficult. What really matters is people’s willingness to engage in rational reasoning rather than motivated reasoning. This problem has been largely ignored in the debate over ideological segregation online, and this is what needs to change if we want people to truly consider different perspectives.

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Looking forward: Loss of Credibility in the New Media

Nikki Haley is probably not a fan of the new media.

We've written before about how the explosive growth of new media has lessened readers' trust in what they read or hear. In the past, newspapers like the New York Times could throw their considerable weight behind whatever appears in their pages. Journalists were professionals, trained to verify their sources and well-versed enough in whatever they were writing about to earn readers' faith. But with the decentralization of media from larger, centuries-old institutions to smaller blogs and twitters, and professional journalists slowly drowned out by the masses of so-called citizen journalists, telling the truth — which to Walter Lippman is the highest law in the profession — has already begun to telling the most explosive story the quickest. Welcome to the Age of Gawker.

Two weeks ago, an up-and-coming blogger posted that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley could soon be facing indictment for tax fraud. He cited "two well-placed legal experts," and promised that more would come. That was at 12:52 p.m.

At 12:54 p.m., a blogger for The Hill tweets about the article to his followers, who include several important political journalists. Some of them retweet the article — on-the-ball BuzzFeed at 12:56, and the Washington Post at 1:14. At 1:03 p.m., the Daily Beast posts a short article about the post, along with others like the Daily Kos and Daily Caller that soon follow suit. The Atlantic Wire titles its post "Nikki Haley Probably Won't Win Republican Veepstakes. All of this in a matter of minutes. At 3:29 p.m. the Drudge Report — one of the most popular blogs on the internet — posted a link to the Daily Caller article, and by the next morning The State in Columbia, South Carolina's largest newspaper, ran an article about Haley on its front page, despite protests and denials of Haley's office.

Turns out, none of it was true. The IRS eventually released a letter that said there wasn't any tax investigation at all. Who's to blame here? The blog's editor, Logan Smith, told the New York Times that he "reported that credible sources said they believed the governor would be indicted" — not that [he] knew she would be indicted, or even whether or not [he] personally believed she would be indicted." Instead of doing what a classically trained journalist would likely do, he posted the post before asking Haley's office for comment. In other words, in a rush to promote himself, Smith threw aside the truth.

But that's not the worst part. Smith ran a small-time blog, with a small, local readership. The idea that I find scariest is that credible organizations like the Washington Post and other readership ran stories that amounted to nothing more than rumors. At the Yale Daily News, journalists get lambasted if they include unsubstantiated claims in their stories; in this case, some of the largest names in news did so in an attempt to be fast enough. While the majority of the stories tended to say something along the lines of "this blog says Haley will be facing indictment, Haley denies" — which is 100%, factually true — the story still does damage to Haley's reputation. A better question would be if they should have reported this in the first place.

Without the new media, it's unlikely any of the big-time news outlets would have run a story. After all, the blog that posted the original post is fairly small, and before the onset of new media it would have been nearly impossible for it to interject itself into the national conversation. But with the online platform the blogs offers — as well as the conversational-like nature that Twitter offers us — smaller voices have been given a megaphone. While there have been smaller instances of false reporting driven by the new media before, there hasn't been anything of this scale that involved so many major news institutions. Looking forward, it's probable that more and more of these false reports will occur, unless some (unlikely) structural changes take place. This is a worrisome trend: if we can't trust the Washington Post to report the truth, where will we go for our news?

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The Echo Chamber and Google+

Beware of the Echo Chamber.

This warning has been given time and time again, by theorists ranging from Cass Sunstein in his work Republic 2.0 to Eli Pariser in his work The Filter Bubble.  After the March 1st implementation of Google's new privacy policy moreover (the stated purpose of which is to offer "tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results"), this caveat has never seemed more pertinent.  The Mayans were right. The 2012 apocalypse is upon us! The core of democracy is dead!

Er, no, actually.  It's not.

According to a recent study published by Eytan Bakshy of Facebook's data team, the reality is that, while it is true that we are more inclined to consume or share content that is posted by our closest friends, the sheer quantity of our you-know-Kevin?-I-know-Kevin!-too-type Facebook friends means that the vast majority of information that we actually interact with is novel in nature.  Thus, social networks may ultimately "increase the spread of novel information and diverse viewpoints" [emphasis mine].  

And there was much rejoicing.

Of course, it is essential to note that the study in question pertains only to Facebook, and thus it begs the question: Do we see the same thing on Google+?

My inclination is that, if we don't already, we will.  Since it's launch in 2011, Google+ has attracted 170 million users, a number that is sure only to increase over time.  Look no further than last Wednesday when Google announced that it is redesigning the social network, and you'll realize why this is the case.  Users will now have the benefit of being able to "customiz[e] apps and the navigation bar...[have] more flexibility with profile pages and pictures...[and peruse the] new Explore page that posts what’s interesting and trending across the site."

It is this latter feature that is particularly intriguing to me, for this is the type of "park" experience that Sunstein addresses in Republic 2.0.  Users not only now have a public sphere for unintended experience but they also know exactly where to turn to get it.  This is furthered, moreover, by the "Hangout" feature, which allows users to chat with strangers (although let's hope that this doesn't devolve into a chatroulette-type scenario). 

Should this quell fears about the effects of Google's personalized search?  Not exactly.  But the good news is that, as Google now combines data for users across all of its platforms, should most users really utilize the "Explore" feature, these users may record a lot of similar data points.

Thus, we may see an Echo Chamber.  But it will be an Echo Chamber that reflects common experience across a lot of users.

And that is nothing if not encouraging.




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Food for Thought: Google's Questions on the Future of Journalism

At a recent conference on Google's Mountain View campus, the head of the company's news services posed eight questions about the future of journalism in an online world. His questions largely address the changing architecture of online media platforms, and how traditional news media fit in.

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In Online Activism, Where is the Old Media?

For anybody tapped into digital media and social network platforms - Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, WordPress, and so on - SOPA and PIPA were impossible to ignore. The twin pieces of legislation were introduced in May and October of 2011, respectively, and sought to limit piracy and copyright infringement online. Specifically, the bills would hold websites legally responsible for the content uploaded by their users. If websites were found to be hosting copyrighted material, the Department of Justice would have the ability to prohibit advertisers from doing business with the sites, stop search engines from linking to the sites, and require internet service providers to block the sites entirely.

Unsurprisingly, the digital media platforms - the sites SOPA and PIPA would most likely affect - exploded in protest. Fight for the Future, an online advocacy group, organized American Censorship Day on November 16 in protest of the legislation. Later, they coordinated a day of digital action on January 18, called the largest online protest in history: 115,000 websites blacked out their homepages or logos, 10 million individuals signed online petitions, 3 million tweets mentioned SOPA and PIPA, and the hacktivist network Anonymous brought down the websites of the FBI and Department of Justice, among others. In all, an estimated 162 people saw some form of online activism on that day alone.

But, throughout all the cyber uproar, the traditional media were largely absent. In the months between October 26, when SOPA was introduced to the House of Representatives, and January 12, the six largest TV news networks devoted only two segments to the legislation and protests. On the night of January 18, only three segments covered the protests, totaling less than five minutes. Newspapers did not do much to fill these gaps in coverage: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post ran a total of only 31 stories on the topic between October 26 and January 19.

Was the traditional media's lack of coverage of their digital counterparts (competitors?) an anomaly? Other issues that have provoked widespread online debate - such as the Susan G. Komen scandal and the Trayvon Martin tragedy - have received significantly more coverage in the traditional media. A study by the Pew Research Center's Project for the Excellence of Journalism, for example, found that 18% of nightly news coverage was devoted to the Martin case in the two weeks following the shooting.

As more of our political and social debates move online, we should question the role of traditional media in our national discourse. Nearly half of Americans have a Facebook account, and traffic to news sites from social networks has increased by more than 50% in the last two years. Often, twitter trends often dictates what becomes news. While many critics have alleged that digital media companies like Google and Wikipedia used citizens as "corporate pawns" to further their corporate interests in the SOPA/PIPA protests, media watchers cannot deny that online news often emerges more organically, from a more grassroots level, and with more agency on the part of citizens.

But does that mean that traditional media - including newspapers, television, and radio - no longer have the responsibility to curate and explain current events to the public? Traditional media approaches news from above, relying on professional journalists to decide what information our citizens require to maintain a vibrant, healthy democracy. When 22.5 million Americans tune into the evening news each night, I think that role of traditional media in our news culture remains central. What has changed, however, is traditional media's interactions with new media.

Cable broadcasts and newspapers may not have sparked the online protests over SOPA and PIPA, but when that topic dominated digital discourse for weeks, they did have a responsibility to cover and analyze it. The result, I believe, would be a mingling of bottom up and top down, bringing issues of concern to citizens to light, but ensuring they remain contextualized and analyzed by professionals.

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Let's Hope Dreams Really Do Come True

Advocating a cause using the New Media may actually help to get things done. It may allow citizens to circumvent the muddled political system and permit even the voices on the outermost margins to be heard, but it may also make a cause another part of the political game played in Washington. is a website that incorporates all aspects of the new media from facebook and YouTube to blogging and encouraging activism online like petitioning and donating to promote the passage of the dream act and other forms of legislation that attempt to fix the US immigration system.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio just introduced a new version of the Dream Act that would have similar conditions to the versions that have been previously drafted except that it would “legalize” undocumented immigrants instead of granting them citizenship. Some would say that activism including has helped this issue gain the attention of our representatives and therefore has indeed aided the democratic process. However, there is another way to view Senator Rubio’s actions. It could also be that Senator Rubio and his fellow Republicans are making a play to Latino voters in the upcoming election. It could be that, in the words of Prerna Lal of Dream Activist, “the GOP does not want to grant citizenship to 12 million undocumented immigrants because it has much to fear from our votes, much to gain from our disenfranchisement,” but that they want to make some sort of appeal to the Latin American community to steal some votes before the election.

As an op-ed in the New York Times put it, Republican proposals all “seem to shimmer with promise but lead to the same no-future dead end.” And ultimately, “this idea is nothing more than some newly invented third-class status—not illegal, but not American.” It will create a class of Americans that are legal in the sense that they will have a social security number and the power to claim tax credits but all without representation. Ultimately, if this bill passes it will create a class that is taxed without representation, one of the main causes of the Revolutionary War that led to the founding of this country; our history, it appears, is not devoid of irony.

So what does this all mean for Dream Activist in particular and the New Media in general? It can certainly help bring people together and unite for a common cause or spread stories like this one.

And it seems that it can help to force our representatives to recognize these issues that matter to us. But ultimately, as Prerna Lal says, “undocumented youth continue to serve as [a] mere political football to be tossed from side to side.”

Continue reading

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Bloomberg's Social Media Push

It seems that President Obama is not the only one with a "Chief Digital Officer" (CDO) in his staff - the position seems to be important enough to have trickled down to the Mayor's office in New York. As of January 24th, 2011, twenty-eight year old Rachel Sterne, founder of "GroundReport"*, holds the position of CDO to Mayor Bloomberg (you might remember her from a recent issue of Vogue).

Mayor Bloomberg and his team are a perfect example of how even local governments are getting increasingly involved in online/new media. And it is not just a token effort, I don't think. In a recent interview on Morning Joe, Rachel Sterne talks (albeit briefly) about her role, and about the city's efforts to engage with citizens using online media. There were a couple of interesting points that I think were brought up in the interview.

1. The way the government has incorporated new media into its operations

Facebook is just one of the ways, but I must say, they have a pretty looking Facebook page (as far as Facebook pages go). It tells you about events of interest, shows you pictures, and gets citizens to engage with the city.


What is really interesting, is that the Facebook page even personalizes the feed for the user (or so I would think). When I went on the page, I saw a post that a high school friend had written on someone's wall:

NYC's Facebook page personalizing posts?

The most important takeaway, however, is how Bloomberg (via Rachel) is embracing this shift to online, and making it part of mainstream. The fact that the administration is on a mission to make all of NYC a Wifi Hotspot (including parks, subways, and mabye showers?), suggests that the government is in fact promoting online/social/new media.

2. Using new media to help "urban branding"

Using new/social media helps the government stay in touch with its citizens, increase its reach, create awareness, and so on. But it also helps with the city's urban branding. The I Love NYC campaign was one of the first really successful shots at urban branding - making NYC a destination global city. But now it's being pushed one step further. The NYC's Mayor's office is using the internet and online media tools such as Instagram and Facebook to further the I Love NYC brand - they are encouraging citizens to take snaps of what their NYC looks like, and what they love about the city, and upload it via Instagram to the Facebook page (I wonder what the screening process for this is - I'm sure there have been some unflattering pictures submitted).

[Here's an interesting side note - Facebook just bought Instagram for $1 billion.]

3. The disconnect between the older and newer generations

This is really more of an observation, but the interview really showed the disconnect between the older and newer generations when it comes to online media. Joe and his hosts wanted Wifi everywhere, but gave up on Facebook after a few days and found the idea of Foursquare appalling. This raised a somewhat obvious question: How do we keep the older generations content while switching over to online - what seems to be the way forward? My younger brother is already far more comfortable than I am with everything digital and online, and I consider myself pretty tech-savvy. Generations seem to no longer be defined by birthline (parents--children--children's children), but rather by what is going on in the world. And increasingly, "what is going on" is all about technology and the new media.


*I would like to make a quick observation about GroundReport - somehow everything on the site as I see it is about India or Pakistan. I wonder what the rest of you see...

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Food for Thought: "Hillz" on Tumblr

Here is another example of the impact politicians can make by responding to social media themselves.  In this case, Hillary Clinton makes a big splash on Tumblr.

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