How social media contribute to ‘remote-control terrorism’

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

NEW YORK — Tracking “remote control terrorism,” showing climate change’s impact and following readers’ shifts to mobile devices were panel highlights at last weekend’s Columbia Journalism School reunion.

Top reporters stressed the so-called Islamic State’s ability to innovate, forge social media connections and take “credit” for terrorist attacks it didn’t plan.

NPR counterterrorism expert Dina Temple-Raston noted that while U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are a “matrix,” ISIS keeps experimenting and improving their outreach to alienated youths.

“Don’t over-ascribe associations” between ISIS and every case of violence, she said. “But they’re very careful to take credit” for such incidents.

Washington Post reporter Abigail Hauslohner expanded on that. “An obsessive focus on ‘who gives the orders’” for a terrorist attack misses the point, she said. You can find “inspiration online.” You don’t have to go to Yemen for training.

“The remote-control terrorist” is a new phenomenon, said Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge. With social media, today’s teenagers can have “one-on-one intimacy” with ISIS recruiters without the need for face-to-face contact.

A former Al Jazeera English producer and host, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, said that framing the war against terror as a “clash of civilizations plays into ISIL’s hands. Two to three weeks of incessant texting” can convince alienated youths to adapt terrorism as a way of defending their culture.

It’s not easy being green

Climate change is a concept that’s hard to grasp. But its effects are real, and ClimateWire editor John Fialka tries to deliver the message through stories that use popular-culture references.

An example this week cites “Game of Thrones”: “As fans well know, winter is coming. But they might not realize some people are using the HBO megahit’s catchphrase to spark a conversation about shifting weather patterns brought about by climate change.”

Former Associated Press environmental journalist Dina Cappiello said the topic is underreported because “politics dictates where the coverage goes.” Now with a public relations firm, she said 2016 presidential voters will focus on health care, the economy and their own jobs — not on the environment.

Serving the mobile audience

How to give time-starved mobile device clickers both what they need to know and what they want to know?

Lydia Polgreen, New York Times deputy international editor, said her paper’s “future lies in figuring out what 20 stories each reader wants to know.”

She said the Times hopes to provide a personal and a general experience. The challenge is how to preserve the serendipity of riffling through the paper and finding interesting stories about random topics — while giving them what they need to know.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

At Rolling Stone, doubt preceded publication

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 12.26.06 PMSabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist at the heart of the Rolling Stone rape-story scandal, harbored doubts about “Jackie,” her principal source, all along — or, at the very least, had come to doubt her by the time the story was published.

That’s the only way I can make sense of a remarkable section that appears fairly early in the Columbia Journalism Review’s 12,000-word report on Rolling Stone’s article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia for which there turned out to be no credible evidence. The report was written by Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism; Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate researcher. According to the report:

A week after publication, on the day before Thanksgiving, Erdely spoke with Jackie by phone. “She thanked me many times,” Erdely said. Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.”

Erdely chose this moment to revisit the mystery of the lifeguard who had lured Jackie and overseen her assault. Jackie’s unwillingness to name him continued to bother Erdely. Apparently, the man was still dangerous and at large. “This is not going to be published,” the writer said, as she recalled. “Can you just tell me?”

Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name. Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations.

“An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely said. How could Jackie not know the exact name of someone she said had carried out such a terrible crime against her — a man she professed to fear deeply?

Over the next few days, worried about the integrity of her story, the reporter investigated the name Jackie had provided, but she was unable to confirm that he worked at the pool, was a member of the fraternity Jackie had identified or had other connections to Jackie or her description of her assault. She discussed her concerns with her editors. Her work faced new pressures. The writer Richard Bradley had published early if speculative doubts about the plausibility of Jackie’s account. Writers at Slate had challenged Erdely’s reporting during a podcast interview. She also learned that T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter, was preparing a story based on interviews at the University of Virginia that would raise serious doubts about Rolling Stone’s reporting.

Late on Dec. 4, Jackie texted Erdely, and the writer called back. It was by now after midnight. “We proceeded to have a conversation that led me to have serious doubts,” Erdely said.

You can see the problem. The story had already been published and had created a sensation. “I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely told the report’s authors. “My phone was ringing off the hook.” And Erdely felt queasy enough about what she had written that she was still bugging Jackie for the name of the guy who led the gang rape she claimed to have been subjected to at a UVA fraternity house.

From the time that Erdely’s story unraveled, I’ve been wondering what lessons journalists could take away from Rolling Stone’s institutional failures. Those failures were so profound and so basic that it’s hard to know how we can even look at this as a teachable moment. The lesson is “don’t do any of this.” As the CJR report makes clear:

  • Erdely had just one source, Jackie, for her account of the gang rape.
  • She made no more than a passing attempt at interviewing the alleged rapists — and, as we have seen, she never did find out the name of the supposed ringleader.
  • She also did not interview three friends of Jackie’s who supposedly spoke with Jackie shortly after the rape. As the author’s reports note, that stands out as the key failure, since they would have debunked many of the details, which in turn would likely have led to the unraveling of the entire story.

Jay Rosen of New York University has posted a must-read analysis of the CJR report. He writes, “The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.” Making the facts fit the story, in other words.

In reading the full CJR report, I think there are two other major problems: an understandable instinct to believe the victim (while less understandably ignoring the small internal voice saying, “No, wait, there’s something wrong here”). And a culture inside Rolling Stone that for whatever reason did not allow the story to be derailed even though everyone involved knew there were problems.

Sexual assault on campus is an enormous problem. I know there are those who question the oft-cited statistic that 20 percent of female students are victims. But whatever the true number is, it’s too high. Rolling Stone’s failures have set back efforts to do something about it. So I’ll close by noting that the CJR quotes my former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi on the right way to do this kind of reporting. Lombardi’s work in this area for the Center for Public Integrity truly represents the gold standard. From the report:

Problems arise when the terms of the compact between survivor and journalist are not spelled out. Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.

If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.

In “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.”

Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her colleagues at Rolling Stone trusted (sort of) but did not verify.

This commentary also appears at WGBHNews.org.

Emily Bell challenges Facebook’s New Media Order

Emily-Bell-R
Emily Bell

Journalism has lost control of its platforms and means of distribution. In many ways, that’s good, because it has brought to an end the monopoly journalists once held on the news and information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. We should be deeply concerned about the mysterious process that determines what we see or don’t see in our Facebook newsfeeds.

But the age of information gatekeepers did not end with the rise of the Internet. In fact, the lowering of the moat was only a temporary blip. Now we’re living in a new age of gatekeeping. Our masters are social media — and Facebook in particular, both because of its dominance and the way it manipulates what we see.

Last week Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, delivered an important speech at Oxford about the journalistic implications of social mediation. It is worth reading in full. Also worth reading is Mathew Ingram’s analysis. Just as earlier generations fretted over what made it (or didn’t make it) onto the nightly network newscasts, today we should be deeply concerned about the mysterious process that determines what we see or don’t see in our Facebook newsfeeds.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

Sree Sreenivasan on journalism’s future

Sree Sreenivasan

Columbia School of Journalism professor and dean Sree Sreenivasan, who describes himself as a “tech evangelist/skeptic,” will be speaking to Northeastern journalism students in a few moments. I will try to live-blog this as best as I can, though at the moment my connection seems a bit flaky.

Here are Professor Sreenivasan’s tips on social media. Perhaps his most important observation that didn’t make it into my notes below is that journalists should use social media mainly to “listen,” not to “broadcast.”

3:10 p.m. “I consider myself a print guy who happens to like some aspects of the Internet,” says Sreenivasan. He reads two newspapers and subscribes to five magazines. “I’m hoping there will still be print for many decades to come.” Believes there will be print for some time, but it might be “more expensive,” “more specialized” and “more niche-ified.”

3:16 p.m. Sreenivasan finds that when he talks with prospective journalism students, “there’s a sense of optimism and excitement about the media that isn’t shared by older people.”

3:23 p.m. Sree is sharing a post written for Mashable by one of his students called “8 Must-Have Traits of Tomorrow’s Journalist.” Perhaps the most important trait: be entrepreneurial.

3:24 p.m. “I may be the only Indian in the world who can’t do math.”

3:27 p.m. Need to be able to do video, photos, audio slideshows. Sree’s involved in a start-up called DNAinfo, which covers New York’s neighborhoods, and it involves the heavy use of multimedia skills. Also need to be a blogger and a curator. “Be a great pointer.”

Being a good pointer is in “direct conflict” with what a traditional journalist does. You have to be able to point to your own work, talk about it, and point to other people’s good work. Hard to do because journalism “has traditionally been such a competitive field.” If readers believe you can be trusted to be a good follower, they will follow you.

3:30 p.m. “The Tra-Digital Journalist” is a phrase coined by one of Sree’s colleagues — “a traditional journalist with a digital overlay.” Traditional journalism skills are as important as they ever were.

3:33 p.m. “I have news for you. All of you are going to be radio journalists whether you like it or not. Only it’s not called radio. It’s called audio.” Check out Blog Talk Radio, which allows anyone to have a talk show. “Problem: not everyone who wants to have a radio show should have a radio show.” It’s a great way to practice.

3:39 p.m. Following the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Sree and other members of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) interviewed some 50 guests via SAJA’s channel on Blog Talk Radio.

3:52 p.m. “It’s really important to add these vitamins to your media diet”:

  • Mashable (the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times of social media)
  • MuckRack (follows only the tweets of journalists)
  • LifeHacker (“how you can use technology to improve your life,” explains Sree)
  • ReadWriteWeb (how the Web is changing)
  • PaidContent.org (the future of the newsroom and how people are going to pay for our content)

3:53 p.m. Need to learn skills now. “When the plane lands in the river, it’s too late to learn about Twitter.” Students should join LinkedIn now, for instance, even though they won’t need it for job-hunting until later.

3:59 p.m. Facebook can be used as a tool for journalism. “Learn to use it better.” In a course he teaches on social media, he tell students it’s a professional tool, and they should take more control. Three advantages:

  1. Find sources and stories
  2. Connect with your audience
  3. Bring eyeballs to your work

Human attention is an increasingly scarce commodity, and Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn can help command some attention.

4:04 p.m. “Facebook is the greatest time sink in human history.” You should put people in lists and label them. If you’re a Washington Post reporter, you can see what Senate staff members are talking about, or State Department employees. “You’re not learning everything that’s going on, but you’re learning something.”

4:08 p.m. “LinkedIn is one of those things that everyone is on, or should be on, but they don’t know how to use it better.” If you’re writing a story about the Red Sox, you can use LinkedIn to find not only people who work for the Red Sox, but who used to work for them, and who live near you. Also, you can pose questions to your community, a useful reporting tool.

4:11 p.m. Some acronyms: BAW (bored at work), CPA (constant partial attention), CCT (conference call time), CMS (content-management system) and Bit.ly (a link-shortener that provides you with analytics).

4:14 p.m. “The power of Twitter is not in the tweet. The power of Twitter is in the retweet.” To be a successful tweeter, you should do everything in 120 characters, because “I want people to retweet my work.” He’s often wanted to retweet something, but he doesn’t because he has to edit it. “Don’t make me work for you.” “Make it as easy for them as possible.”

People are often skeptical of Twitter because of the 140-character limit. Yet there are virtually no newspaper headlines that are longer than 80 or 90 characters.

“Success on Twitter is listening, and then listening to the right people.”

4:18 p.m. One of Sreenivasan’s students was stuck in Haiti when the earthquake hit. He was able to let his wife know he was all right because someone tweeted it.

4:23 p.m. @Digidave, founder of Spot.Us, is a former student of Sree’s.