Free Flow of Information for whom?

In response to widespread criticism of the Justice Department for secretly obtaining phone records of AP journalists and even non-journalist employees across the organization, WashPo today reports that:

…the White House began pushing for a federal media shield law in an apparent act of damage control amid criticism by members of both political parties and the news media…. The Free Flow of Information Act would protect journalists from being compelled to testify about their confidential sources, unless all other avenues are exhausted and exposure is in the public interest.

But this leaves unanswered the important question, “Who is officially recognized as a ‘journalist’?”

And who is not?

If a citizen journalist/blogger blows open a story that embarrasses and exposes the powers that be, is that blogger to be protected from revealing the source?

The privileges and protections accorded to “professional journalists” are not applied to bloggers, who are subjected to fines and legal action for refusing to reveal sources, nor to organizations like Wikileaks for publishing leaked information (though Officially Recognized Media Outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian are allowed without penalty to make money by republishing and analyzing Wikileaks content).

This proposed law is nothing new, by the way. We are hearing about it in today’s news as though the push to pass such a bill is originating at the White House, when in reality this is an Obama-flip-flop. Acccording to Clothilde Le Coz writing for PBS back in 2009, noting the struggle since 2006 to get such a bill passed, “Even President Obama, who supported the bill as a senator, now seems to have changed his mind.”

And, sure enough, the 2009 version of the bill “currently defines a journalist as a person who: (iii) obtains the information sought while working as a salaried employee of, or independent contractor for, an entity.” In other words, the legions of citizens out there reporting news on their own time at their own expense can be sued and might rot in jail for 224 days for protecting their sources.

In this new era of journalism wherein the lines between Pro and Am reporting are increasingly blurred, in this age in which major news outlets rely increasingly upon bloggers and tweeters to report news from the ground (as was the case after the killing of Osama bin Laden) … what good is a Federal Shield Law, or this languishing Free Flow of Information Act that has suddenly found new favor with the White House, when in actuality protections are only afforded to Big Media that are already pwned by the government?

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Amateur video, our only view into the Syrian conflict

The New York Times has been curating, as one of their “projects,” amateur videos uploaded from Syria to YouTube into a multi-page section of their website called “Watching Syria’s War.”



Storify-like, they are incorporating tweets related to videos, and professional newspaper-like they are carefully including context: “What We Know,” “What We Don’t Know,” links to related videos.

The project also at times solicits — via blogger Liam Stack’s Twitter account — further information from citizen reporters, although one has to wonder how many Syrians in the midst of chaos and gore are following a New York Times reporter:

nyt-watchingSyria-talkToUsWe know some things, we don’t know a lot of things about this conflict and the day-to-day unfolding actions and consequences, but the effort the Syrian government is putting into producing their own televised propaganda videos is itself a testament to the threat posed by cameras and internet connections (quite possibly via Tor) in the hands of the rebels.

Today, the Times published a video (too bad they do not allow embedding, though, eh?) that puts the project as a whole in context. (Oddly, I cannot find a link from this video to the actual “Watching Syria’s War” project itself, and have pointed this out to @nytimesworld.)

Kudos to the Times for this well done curation of amateur content, and for their attempts to interact with the boots on the ground, and most of all for bringing to the new-media project the context and related information that a newspaper with old-school journalistic practices knows how to provide.

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Overview – uncover stories and connect the dots

Overview is a free browser-based tool for journalists — developed by a team at Associated Press and funded by the Knight News Challenge — that automatically organizes a large set of documents by topic, and displays them in an interactive visualization for exploration, tagging, and reporting.

Journalists have already used it to report on FOIA document dumps, emails, leaks, archives, and social media data. In fact it will work on any set of documents that is mostly text. It integrates with DocumentCloud and can import your projects, or you can upload data directly in CSV form.

You can’t read 10,000 pages on deadline, but Overview can help you rapidly figure out which pages are the important ones — even if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. As Jonathan Strays, the project lead at AP, explains, “Because reading every word is impossible, a large data set is only as good as the tools we use to access it. Search can help us find what we’re looking for, but only if we know what we are looking for. Instead, we’ve been trying to make ‘maps’ of large data sets, visualizations of the topics or locations or the interconnections between people, dates, and places. We’ve had a few notable successes, such as this visualization of the Iraq war logs.”

Overview Iraq War Logs visualization.

Successful mapping of data relationships from the Iraq war logs (revealed by Wikileaks) by the Overview team. Click the image for a very large-scale version.

Poynter News University offered a webinar on March 15 re how to use Overview, and you can download a pdf of the slides or replay the a/v webinar here.


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Up-to-date list of digital journalism tools

Liquid Newsroom logoLiquid Newsroom (LNR) maintains a List of tools for digital journalists and news organisations that they say will be updated regularly. First posted on July 12, 2012, indeed there are some recent updates, which they conveniently list at the top of the post.

The extensive categories of tools are in and of themselves instructive, opening up to the amateur citizen journalist some provocative possibilities for media and app integrations, social hooks, content resources, quality control, and promoting one’s work:

  • Accuracy Checklist
  • (Enterprise) Analytics
  • Audio
  • Automation/Algorithm Based Tools (=>”Robot Journalism”)
  • Business Models
  • Community Management
  • Content Curation
  • Country Switch / Geographic content filters
  • Data Journalism
  • Headline a/b tests
  • Live Reporting
  • Maps and Mapping Services
  • Paywalls
  • Plagiarism detection (in education)
  • Podcasts
  • Photos/Pics
  • Real-time search
  • Robot Journalism
  • Trauma/catastrophe reporting
  • Techniques: Scraping
  • Trend Monitoring
  • Twitter tools
  • Typography
  • Video/Streaming
  • Video Streaming/Broadcast
  • Visualization of data

Within these categories is an incredible wealth of resources to investigate for ramping up one’s citizen journalism.

In fact, LNR itself is a journalistic tool, a sort of virtual newsroom, a very interesting project, and is a new discovery for me. It enables selective content curation from the real-time stream, and facilitates collaboration between journalists who may live on opposite sides of the planet and who had not previously known each other. It is unclear to me from their site, more than two years after the LNR started getting press, whether the platform is fully developed. I do not see a way to sign up and begin using it, though I am out of time for now and perhaps am overlooking something. More about LNR in a future post.

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The downside of digital technology …

In my “Bubble Up Change” blog on civic engagement, I will be posting material and thoughts that highlight the dangers citizens are exposed to, as much as we are empowered, by using the Internet and digital communications.

Today, my reflections in the wake of Aaron Swartz’s suicide:

…as much as technology in general and digital communications in particular give grassroots groups tools for effective organizing and for spreading ideas and for cross-pollinating and collaborating and all that good stuff, we must be open-eyed about the extent to which the government and the capitalistic plutocracy views the seething masses of us out here on the virtual plain as a horrifyingly free, uncontrolled threat.

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Happy 20th Brthdy Txtg!!

  • The U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate for the U.S. population in 2011 was 311,591,917.
  • The Bureau says that around 24% of the population is under 18, meaning 76% are adults, which would amount to 236,809,856 people.
  • Pew Research says that 45% of U.S. adults own a smartphone. So we’re talking about 106,564,435 adults owning smartphones.
  • Pew also puts the median number of text messages sent per day by adults in the U.S. at 41.5.
  • If we cheat and use the median as an average (since no average number is available that I could find), the number of texts sent daily by everyone over 18 is:

4,422,424,052 texts per day sent by adults

That’s right, 4.4 billion.

And likely the average number of texts sent is higher than the median, since among the 18-24 year old cohort the median is … one hundred and nine point five text messages per day.

Texting can be a way to send silent jokes across a boardroom table. Or a way to guilt-trip your kid into walking the dogs (I should know). Or a reminder to one’s domestic partner to pick up some fill-in-the-blank on the way home from work. Texting is used to vote on the next American Idol. Texting is used to alert you when your credit card is close to its limit.

Texting can also be a way to organize volunteers on the ground. Texting is used in Africa across a geographically dispersed network of farmers to advise about weather conditions and other agriculturally relevant information. Texting is cheap, easy and, clearly, PLENTIFUL.

Pew Research just now posted this status on their Facebook page:

Pew Research FB status

Well then … Happy Birthday, Text Messaging!

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Petition power

When we sign an online petition are we practicing some form of citizen journalism? In a future post I will deliberate that question. Online petitions undoubtedly, though, do represent a fabulous means of exercising one’s civic voice and leverage a response from public officials.

In this example, New York City restored most of the proposed cuts to its public library budget due to the petition campaign launched by NYPL.

The adopted city budget restores $39.6 million of the $42.6 million proposed cut to The New York Public Library. Below is a statement from The New York Public Library about this restoration:

“Over the past five years, libraries have faced significant economic constraints, which have strained the resources we are able to offer our patrons. With this year’s budget, we expect that all of our libraries will provide a minimum of five-day service and The New York Public Library will continue providing our communities with free essential services such as books, access to computers and the Internet, workshops and programs, job search resources and more. We would like to take this opportunity to thank our patrons for sharing the love they have for their libraries and making their voices heard….”

Other recent successful online petitions in the U.S. have forced the Komen Foundation to reverse their decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, and have persuaded many corporations and legislators to step away from their seat at ALEC’s table.

So, while clicking links to sign petitions is a low-risk, zero-sacrifice form of activism, it is still worth “signing and sharing.”

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Privacy and the power of customer inquiry

Capital One privacy policy and Android permissions: Update

A few months ago I posted some thoughts on Android security, and shared an email I wrote to Capitol One regarding an update that, if applied, would grant their app the permission to “Read phone state and identity,” including the phone number of a contact I might be speaking to. The email response I received suggested I call their Online Technical Support Department, so that’s what I did. And I suppose other customers called with the same questions, because this story has a happy ending.

Continue reading

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How citizen journalism drove the news of bin Laden’s death

One year ago, news of the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of an elite team of C.I.A. agents and U.S. Navy SEALs kicked off a worldwide storm of media activity. This was perhaps the first major global news event that found citizen journalists and bloggers on the vanguard of reporting the unfolding story, and they sent mainstream news outlets and government mouthpieces scrambling to keep up. Continue reading

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Before you get all Googly-Eyed…

Google just approved my request for the new Google Drive service (directly competing with services such as Dropbox) for storing and sharing files, so I’ve had a minute to cruise around and see what it’s about. Continue reading

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