Gernika, news reporting and intervention

September 13, 2012

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A trip to Spain has made
me think a lot about the Spanish civil war and news reporting, and especially the bombing of Gernika in 1937 by German and Italian aircraft on behalf of the rebel military, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. The incident was rapidly reported, in particular by Times correspondent George Steer. It is a classic case study for war reporting. Several books cover it in detail. Some issues that it raises:

1. Coverage. The civil war and in particular the northern theatre was regarded as a news priority by British media. The Times, Express and Reuters all had correspondents on the ground; they were having dinner together in Bilbao when they heard the news, and drove to Gernika immediately. French and US media had less coverage and relied on syndication, pickups of other stories or more distant correspondents. What makes media cover something (or not)? Economics? Audience? Story?
2. Reporting. There was good detailed reporting from Steer and others. The correspondents were present and quickly. Steer want back the following day and his report reflects that in its detail and focus. It is worth reading in full. What makes for good, readable, immediate coverage? Why is the person on the spot so crucial? What will replace them?
3. Editorial judgement. There was pressure on the Times editor – which was resisted – to tone down, censor or remove coverage. Dawson was very much inclined towards appeasement but on this he couldn’t be moved. What makes editors act independently? What supports this and what doesn’t?
4. Fog of war. There were other incorrect reports, and use of the incident for propaganda. These muddied the waters and helped critics use misreporting to deny the incident. How do you deal with incorrect reports, especially when it isn’t easy to verify them? Does it matter if some early details were wrong? Does correcting them undermine the story?
5. Response. The response of the (Francoist) rebel military was direct denial of the attack. They claimed the republicans had done it themselves. This story still has credence in some circles. How do governments react to atrocities and humanitarian scandals? How can people stand up against this?
6. Impact. The news coverage had great popular results. It spread to all media and was a spark to wider anger about the fascists and the war. What makes a story like this work? Victims? Nature of atrocity? Immediacy and reporting?
7. Channels of distribution. “Follows” and syndication led to wider dissemination Of the story. In particular, Steer’s report went to the New York Times and to L’Humanite in Paris, the communist paper. How do stories get to readers/viewers? Are there more or fewer channels now? More or less noise?
8. “Memes“. Picasso read l’Humanite and it inspired him to paint the atrocity as part of an existing contract with the Spanish government. It thus triggered a much wider critical conversation. What makes a story part of a wider discussion? Why did this one work? Pure coincidence?
9. Objectivity. Steer had direct conversations with the Basque government and was clearly aligned with them personally. He also had direct conversations with policymakers in London. Later in his career he worked for British military intelligence in an early form of psyops. But was his reporting nonetheless objective? Is objectivity the same as neutrality?
10. Intervention. There was no decisive intervention in favour of the Spanish Republican government despite the reporting. Britain, France and the US had grave doubts about the Republicans and there was sympathy for the fascists in conservtive and Catholic circles. Under what circumstances does reporting of an atrocity in a civil conflict lead to external intervention? When doesn’t it?

Several books on this; and several academic studies. Other questions that could be asked. But: comments? Questions? Suggestions? I am going to produce a longer version of this.


Can non-profit journalism save the day?

September 20, 2010

The non-profit sector and the media continue to flirt with each other, and even have the occasional offspring. This morning, the Guardian launched its website on global development, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development. Madeleine Bunting introduced the new baby on the oped page and the web. It is interesting because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, and indeed they are credited on the site’s home page. The peg is the UN summit on Global Development in New York, though the partnership is longer lasting and more substantial.

“It is the first time the Guardian has developed a partnership with a major charitable foundation to fund a strand of its core journalism,” says Bunting. “Part of the agreement includes safeguarding the Guardian’s editorial independence. Both organisations are committed to making achievement of the UN goals a central strand of the new site. But alongside the challenge of working in a partnership with a foundation, the site has set itself a big ambition of curating a global conversation about development.”

Beyond editorial independence, a second (and related) issue is that not everyone agrees about development: its importance, how it is funded, what results are possible or desirable. There are lots of different audiences, and as Bunting says: “The problem about these different audiences is that while they often have much knowledge of the subject, they don’t much like talking to each other. Part of the challenge on the new site will be to host all these conversations – all of which are crucial to the debate in their very different ways. Will that mean that everyone gets cross at some point or another with the site? Probably.”

Non-profits have an agenda, a way of working and resolving conflicts, and they have  financial interests. It will be interesting to see how the new experiments work out. How easy will the site and its funders be with controversy? And with mistakes? And with conflict? All of these things are somewhat inevitable in reporting. The cultural issues will be significant if the new journalism is to mean more than just taking a handout.

My own brief experience in non-profits is that there are massive opportunities for both sides in teaming up, or working alongside each other, or even in replacing each other from time to time. Non-profits are starting to make interesting moves into the field; journalism is starting to look for other funding .

There are many different models. ProPublica is essentially a news venture that focuses on developing public interest stories and finances them through foundation grants and individual donations. It aims to get its stories into mainstream publications and media where possible. FreePress puts more of a political and social message around non-profit and low-profit ventures. The Guardian is featuring journalism funded by the non-profit sector, but not guided by it. National Public Radio (often forgotten) is a hybrid of public and private funding. Human Rights Watch produces its own media, more or less, and hired a bunch of journos.

Not surprisingly, this flirtation between non-profits and journos has excited a lot of policy wonkery. Duke University’s Sanford School looked at the options in this series of papers, based on a conference. This conference at UW Madison examined some of the ethical issues, including who was an acceptable backer. And the Nieman Journalism Lab has looked at what makes non-profit journalism legit, and proposed some standards. This blog covers the issues.

Despite the anguished ethical debates, conflict of interest is only part of the issue: it is at least as much a question of conflict of cultures, and this will be hard to bridge, as Mary Walton explains in the American Journalism Review. “Says Laura Frank, who is navigating the new channels as head of a startup, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ ”

There are a couple of bigger questions for the non-profits and foundations, too – like: why fund journalism? “I have in my wallet three million dollars,” said Jack Shafer, media critic of Slate, at a symposium on investigative reporting quoted in the AJR piece.  “The opera wants it, the ballet wants it, the museum wants it, the YMCA, poor kids in Africa want it.” Why give it to journalists? Or journalism? Or news? Or media?  Can they get more by handing over money, or internalizing the resources and doing it themselves? What bang for their buck do they get?

Newsosaur, a blogger who writes on the news and business, is completely unconvinced. It would require far, far more money than the charitable sector is capable of providing to pay for all current newsgathering, he says. “So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.” To be fair, no-one is saying that everything will go this way, but he has a point.

The trend can only continue; I have some (non-rhetorical) questions about this:

  1. Is this a good use of money (Can’t they get a proper job)? Why does journalism deserve charitable status or money? What are the non-profits getting out of it that they couldn’t through other means?  Why pour money into activities and people that apparently weren’t capable of generating it themselves?
  2. Will this produce good journalism (Up to a point, Lady Bountiful)? Does the institutional culture of journalism work with a foundation culture? Will people still pick fights, dig dirt, kick against the pricks? Or will it tend towards the worst aspects of non-profits and trade journalism: inward looking, clubby, self-satisfied? Does the need to sell and be read actually have a role to play 9and can these be decoupled)?
  3. What about competition (Mr Gates)? What impact will this have on other media that remains revenue-focussed? Will it price some of it out of the market? Will there still be a role for competition in the coverage of, say, development through (for example) the New Internationalist (a workers co-op, btw). Does it make sense to have competition in any case?
  4. Does this only work for some things? Does this decouple investigative and public interest journalism from the city beat, sports, financial, community reporting, politics etc? One of the advantages of the old model was that everyone competed for space and shared resources; is that over? Does public interest journalism now exist in a subsidized, gilded ghetto?
  5. What happens to the stuff that gets left out? We accept that not all new business models will cover everything. So: if some stuff can be paid for (business, sport and celebrity); and some can be locally  or crowd-sourced (community news, reviews etc); and some gets paid for by non-profits, what falls through the cracks? What can’t be covered by money, vanity, love and charity? And does it matter? Reporting on mental health? Local government?

Watching the Detectives

September 9, 2010

There are really only three ways of getting information: look it up, ask someone or steal it. The third option is often referred to by euphemism; yet increasingly the grey areas that used to exist in this regard are gone, even if practitioners are finding that hard to handle.

The current News of the World scandal in the UK – over illegal efforts by journalists to break into the voicemails of public figures, and the failure of the police to investigate it – is a reminder of the reality and prevalence of information obtained by deception, and the problems around it.

Journalists, policemen, spies and investigators all know this, and all engage in all three methods to some extent. All know two dirty secrets: that the first two methods, legal and slightly dull, account for the vast majority of information that they get, despite the mystique surrounding their professions. They demand hard work and diligence. And: what remains, the covert acquisition of information by nefarious means, is far from glamorous, often illegal, unreliable, and not neccessarily worth the risk involved. Yet they often stick with old, trusted techniques, however lazy or dangerous or illegal. Sometimes, they can generate information no other method would, and sometimes that is worth the risk.

It isn’t always illegal to obtain all information by deception; it can’t be, as the statute couldn’t be drawn up that broadly. It is, however, illegal to deceive some people in some ways for some reasons (telling a bank official you are someone else, to get their bank statement or their money for example. But it varies widely and by country. It is hard to prove. And the exceptions are significant.

All four professions tend to believe that they are justified in taking information: the public good justifies it in their minds and indeed often in law. That seems to be one of the main issues with the NoW. It sees itself as a crusader for truth against elites, and so may well not have seen much wrong with cracking the voicemails of the rich and powerful.

Several things are wrong with this. Firstly, the relevant UK law – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – includes no public good defence. Secondly, it is hard to see that all the stories that resulted from phone hacking are in the public good. Most are low gossip. And if you think that the judgement of an elitist, then consider: who judges the public good here?

Another defence: “stealing” is seen as somewhat relative. If I break in to your house and take a necklace, that’s stealing. If you leave your front door open and I pop in and take a look at your diary, is that stealing? If I don’t deprive you of the thing, and don’t break anything to get in? Am I stealing if I overhear your conversation? Find a letter you dropped? Read a document you forgot to delete on a public computer?

Cracking a voicemail involves accessing the system with the right number and knowing the PIN code. The message is still there, and using someone else’s PIN – well, is that illegal?

Yup. The statute is relatively clear. Read the law.

Indeed, much of what used to be routine in the investigative world is indeed now illegal. Getting bank account data and mobile phone bills is illegal, in most developed countries. People go to prison and pay fines. Bribing officials or policemen to get information is also mostly illegal. Getting hold of peoples’ rubbish and using what you find – letters, phone bills – is harder since people have got wise and shred their mail. This encourages people to use quick, cheap, reliable tricks. And they fall in love with these, since they have an air of mystique, secrecy, intrigue.

The world of private detectives, journalists, intelligence officers and so on has turned to electronic information because it’s easy, people are careless, the law isn’t always clear, it’s often hard to prove wrongdoing, and the other avenues are tough.

Each believes they have the right. They work together very closely and the best in each profession respects the others. And each tends to believe that what it does is in the public interest.

That is one of the critical points. What precisely is the public interest? Who defines it? Anyone? The Met? The NoW? The reader? The courts?

The reality of the NoW case is that the paper seems to have been very aggressive in using available techniques against all possible targets, with poor judgement about when and why. It had the resources, the editorial backing and the management space. In this case, however, this wasn’t jusitified from an editorial, legal, or risk management viewpoint and probably wouldn’t even have got them decent stories. Voicemail is a blunt instrument.

The activities of the paper’s investigative journalists are stories of legend: but no-one is talking about clipping the wings of legitimate inquiry. This was low-end stuff, not the undercover work of the paper’s star reporters.

Why wasn’t it thoroughly investigated? Because it would have been hard, because there would have been an attitude of “worse things happen in the jungle,” because none of those charged with investigating will have seen it as wholly their job, because some will have seen it as a victimless crime. The evidence and investigation (despite what the TV leads you to believe) will have been tough to piece together. Who accessed this voicemail? From where? How? And should the police let everyone know they might have been hacked? How would they know?

So – some will see this episode as a serious breach of the law by politically motivated people that felt they could act with impunity and worked in cahoots with the police. Others will regard it as an inevitable product of new challenges around electronic security and privacy. A third group will see it as journalism on the edge (for good or ill).

There is some of all of these, but in the end this was a professional failure at every level. This was poor investigative technique deployed to gather poor stories by lazy journalists who couldn’t be bothered to do real investigative work: develop sources, dig dirt, and get smart.

There’ll be more of this. Corporate, political, commercial interests will play happily with the people that do this work because they love it, and believe it right to expose the private lives of public figures. They always have done and they always will. We should make better laws and police them better, because the existing system doesn’t work. Meawhile. buy a shredder, don’t use email for difficult stuff, and don’t leave voicemails.


Do Limbaugh and Sun affect voters?

October 3, 2009

Do the media shape politics, or are they themselves shaped by it?

The Sun newspaper has just announced that it has stopped backing Labour, and instead backs the Conservatives. This is, in its way, a very significant event: the paper’s decision to back Labour in 1997 removed the last prop from the Conservative government of John Major, which lost the subsequent election.

But the media don’t make elections, despite the Sun’s claim in an earlier election that “It was the Sun Wot Won It.” Academic John Curtice has made a small cottage industry of analysing this claim, and is pretty clear that it wasn’t, and it won’t be this time either. “Certainly Labour’s leadership took the supposed power of the newspaper sufficiently seriously to devote considerable effort during the course of the 1992-7 parliament to persuading the paper’s staff and above all its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, that ‘New Labour’ was a party they could back,” he says. But: “When it comes to the outcome of elections, the disposition of the press does not make much difference at all.”

The Fabian society’s blog reports this and analyses it here. The Independent demolishes the thesis. “The idea that people read their favourite newspaper’s instructions and then robotically go out and vote is laughable – and certainly not borne out by any evidence. Moreover, in this instance, The Sun is plainly following public opinion, rather than shaping it. The opinion polls show that the public mood in much of the country swung against Labour some time ago.”

“The real influence of newspapers lies not in their hold over the votes of their readers, but in their hold over elected politicians.”

Meanwhile, David Brooks, conservative columnist at the New York Times, makes the same points about talk radio hosts, and Rush Limbaugh in particular. “Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he’s not.”

And he agrees, too, that the politicians and various others conspire to make it look as if these guys matter. “They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.”

“The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.”

The media are part of the complex political ecology of decision-making, opinion forming and attitude shaping, but only part; and they are as much acted upon as actors. Simple conspiracy arguments about the “power of the media” mistake cause and effect, misunderstand the way people consume media, and over simplify the decisions that ordinary people take about politics.


Americans to media: drop dead

September 24, 2009

The American public don’t trust the news media and don’t want public money spent to bail it out, says a survey released this week by Sacred Heart University.

Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans would oppose any plan to spend tax dollars to aid failing newspapers,”  Editor and Publisher notes dolefully. But, perking up slightly that people dislike television even more, it adds: “Much of Sacred Heart poll concerns mainstream television news, which respondents clearly view with jaundiced eyes. Fully 83.6% said national news media organizations were very or somewhat biased while just 14.1% viewed them as somewhat unbiased or not at all biased.”

According to SH Professor and Chair Dr. Gary Rose, “The low level of trust exhibited by poll respondents towards the media is in some respects a manifestation of the growing resentment and distrust among the American people regarding large and powerful institutions in general. The American people have become increasingly skeptical and suspicious towards institutions which they perceive as distant and manipulative. Small wonder that the media, which is now controlled by a handful of large corporations, is perceived in such a negative light.”


America’s first foreign correspondents

September 20, 2009

51S0J%2B3ez-L__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_ “It is no longer desirable, or even safe… for public opinion in this country to rely, as it now does, almost exclusively on foreign agencies, most of them subsidized by foreign governments, for their news of foreign countries.” A beautiful piece on the invention of American foreign news by John Maxwell Hamilton, a former foreign correspondent, now academic, focussing on the Chicago Daily News. Taken from his book , “Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Newsgathering Abroad.” Quoted by the ever-stimulating Newsosaur.


Bureau for Investigative Journalism seeks boss

July 20, 2009

A very desirable job is on offer at London’s new Bureau of Investigative Journalism as Managing Editor. The Bureau, likely to be based at City University, is funded by the Potter foundation. This is the press release announcing its launch.

“Its aim is to foster independent public interest journalistic inquiry while encouraging a new generation of reporters,” says Roy Greenslade in the Guardian.

“It will hire a managing editor, two or three reporters and will also fund freelance investigators and researchers,” says Press Gazette. “Its aim is to dig out – and then sell – the stories that many news organisations say they can no longer afford to cover in-house.”

“One of the journalists behind the campaign, Stephen Grey, will be acting editor of the new bureau as it prepares for launch, until a permanent managing editor is appointed.” Many journalists will know Grey from his work on extraordinary rendition.

The project is supported by the Investigations Fund, launched by the newly created Foundation for Investigative Reporting. The FIR includes a a number of UK luminaries, including Grey, Misha Glenny, Antony Barnett, Martin Bright, Heather Brooke, Peter Barron, Nick Davies, Nick Fielding,  Mark Hollingsworth, Andrew Jennings, Philip Knightley, Paul Lashmar, David Leigh and Jason Lewis.

The organisation is essentially a copy of ProPublica, the US body. “ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” it describes itself. “Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

Gavin Macfadyen, the Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, and one of the founders of the Bureau sayes in the press release: “We will experiment with all the techniques available to us from ‘crowdfunding’ to ‘crowdsourcing’ and provide content across the media spectrum. But there is no substitute for first rate reporters being given time and resources to deliver great stories, which hold the powerful to account. The Bureau will offer investigative journalists both proper funding and the support of senior and experienced editors and researchers to carry out important investigations that are in the public interest.”

Will it work? That probably depends on what you mean by work. It will produce journalism as a “production house” rather than a publisher – a news agency. Such models are hard to make work. The lack of a commercial factor will help in the sense that revenue will not be a daily fixation, but it still needs money to survive. And the lack of publishing platform means that it will need others to help drive audiences.

As paidContent sniffily says: “Journalism Now A Charity Case.” It notes “the irony – buoyed by The Telegraph’s MP expenses investigation and The Guardian’s mobile hacking story, investigative and data-driven journalism is more popular than it has been in years.”