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kottke.org posts about journalism

Blame Fox News for Fake News, Not Facebook

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2018

In the Washington Post, Henry Farrell interviews Yochai Benkler, whose recent book with co-authors Rob Faris and Hal Robert, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, presents evidence that right-wing media functions in a completely different way than the rest of the media does.

On the right, audiences concentrate attention on purely right wing outlets. On the left and center audiences spread their attention broadly and focus on mainstream organizations. This asymmetric pattern holds for the linking practices of media producers. Both supply and demand on the right are insular and self-focused. On the left and center they are spread broadly and anchored by professional press.

These differences create a different dynamic for media, audiences, and politicians on the left and right.

We all like to hear news that confirms our beliefs and identity. On the left, outlets and politicians try to attract readers by telling such stories but are constrained because their readers are exposed to a range of outlets, many of which operate with strong fact-checking norms.

On the right, because audiences do not trust or pay attention to outlets outside their own ecosystem, there is no reality check to constrain competition. Outlets compete on political purity and stoking identity-confirming narratives. Outlets and politicians who resist the flow by focusing on facts are abandoned or vilified by audiences and competing outlets. This forces media and political elites to validate and legitimate the falsehoods, at least through silence, creating a propaganda feedback loop.

The authors also argue that Fox News is doing much more harm to our democracy in spreading false information than Facebook or Twitter.

The highly asymmetric pattern of media ecosystems we observe on the right and the left, despite the fact that Facebook and Twitter usage is roughly similar on both sides, requires that we look elsewhere for what is causing the difference.

Surveys make it clear that Fox News is by far the most influential outlet on the American right — more than five times as many Trump supporters reported using Fox News as their primary news outlet than those who named Facebook. And Trump support was highest among demographics whose social media use was lowest.

Our data repeatedly show Fox as the transmission vector of widespread conspiracy theories.

I’ve been beating this drum for awhile and still don’t know why this 2017 study that showed compelling evidence that Fox News moved the 2008 presidential election Republican vote share by 6.3% to the right all by itself isn’t a much bigger deal.

In other results, we estimate that removing Fox News from cable television during the 2000 election cycle would have reduced the overall Republican presidential vote share by 0.46 percentage points. The predicted effect increases in 2004 and 2008 to 3.59 and 6.34 percentage points, respectively. This increase is driven by increasing viewership on Fox News as well as an increasingly conservative slant.

In keeping with Benkler et al’s findings regarding media asymmetry, the study did not identify a similar swing to the left for MSNBC or CNN viewers.

The question is, what the heck do we do about Fox News? Shun Rupert Murdoch? Sleeping Giants and other groups have been effective in hamstringing other right-wing media sources like Breitbart (as well as some Fox News shows), but Fox News has worked hard to position itself as mainstream, so pressuring advertisers would be tough to muster support for. What about a boycott of other Fox properties? If the Disney sale goes through, those properties would include the Fox channel (home of The Simpsons, NFL games, college football, etc., The World Series), Fox Business News, and a number of sports channels (Fox Sports 1 & 2 and Fox Soccer Plus). Are people going to be willing to give up watching The World Series and The Super Bowl to put financial pressure on Fox? And my pals who do startups…are they going to refuse to go on Fox Business News promote their businesses? I have my doubts about that.

Network Propaganda is available on Amazon and also as a free PDF download here.

The Future of News on Smart Speakers

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 16, 2018

Radio News.jpeg

At Nieman Lab, Laura Hazard Owen checks in on whether and how people are consuming news on smart speakers and smart displays. It turns out, they aren’t, really:

Smart speaker news briefings didn’t get much love from users in this research. Here are some of the complaints Newman heard:

— Overlong updates — the typical duration is around five minutes, but many wanted something much shorter.

— They are not updated often enough. News and sports bulletins are sometimes hours or days out of date.

— Some bulletins still use synthesized voices (text to speech), which many find hard to listen to.

— Some updates have low production values or poor audio quality.

— Where bulletins from different providers run together, there is often duplication of stories.

— Some updates have intrusive jingles or adverts.

— There is no opportunity to skip or select stories.

Based on my experience with these devices and general trends in news and media consumption, I have a few predictions as to how this will change in the near future:

Republican Extremism and the Myth of “Both Sides” in American Politics

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2018

In this video, Carlos Maza talks about how the Republican Party has become more extremist than the Democrats, which has caused our government to cease working in the way that it should. It’s worth watching in full.

Over the past few decades, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have moved away from the center. But the Republican Party has moved towards the extreme much more quickly — a trend that political scientists’ call “asymmetrical polarization.”

That asymmetry poses a major obstacle in American politics. As Republicans have become more ideological, they’ve also become less willing to work with Democrats: filibustering Democratic legislation, refusing to consider Democratic appointees, and even shutting down the government in order to force Democrats to give in to their demands.

Democrats have responded in turn, becoming more obstructionist as Republican demands become more extreme.

Maza references the work of Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who have written several books on Congress, most relevantly 2012’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. The pair have been saying for some time that the present dysfunction in American politics is the fault of the Republican Party, as in a 2012 Washington Post piece titled Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem. and a 2017 piece in the NY Times.

What is astounding, and still largely unappreciated, is the unexpected and rapid nature of the decline in American national politics, and how one-sided its cause. If in 2006 one could cast aspersions on both parties, over the past decade it has become clear that it is the Republican Party — as an institution, as a movement, as a collection of politicians — that has done unique, extensive and possibly irreparable damage to the American political system.

In the video, Maza and Ornstein rightfully criticize the “knee-jerk neutrality” on the part of the news media, the inclination to blame “both sides” for failing to work together on specific issues and for the general dysfunction, and in the process refusing to acknowledge that Republican extremist views and tactics are to blame much of the time. They’re not talking about propaganda outlets like Fox News or Breitbart here, by the way — they’re referring to the NY Times, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, and the like. They argue that this impulse results in Americans not getting a clear picture of how our government is failing. Adam Davidson recently made much the same point on Twitter.

Both-sidism operates at every level. From the highest and most noble aspirations and core identity of journalists to the most cowardly, trying to solve a quick problem on deadline level. It is shoved into the brains of newbies and a source of enormous pride for veterans.

Both-sidism determines who gets hired, who gets promoted or fired, how editorial and business decisions are made.

It is so fundamental that there is no mechanism, no language to truly critique it from within. And little ability to adjust when it makes no sense.

You can see “both sides” at work in stories about climate change (making it seem like the science isn’t settled), vaccines (ditto), and even mass murders (“Billy was a quiet boy who loved his momma until he killed 12 children with an assault rifle”). These kinds of stories do their readers the injustice of not telling them the truth. Journalists need to stop doing this and as readers, we need to push them on it.

But what about the voters? Leading up to next week’s midterm elections, much of the focus of progressive anger has been on Donald Trump. But he seems to me to be a symptom and not the disease. The Republican Party is the disease. Take Trump away and, while that might mean fewer accidental nuclear wars, the biggest problems still remain. As long as Republicans persist in operating as a bloc with obstructionist tactics and producing legislation without meaningful debate against the desires of the people, there are no good Republicans. Vote them out, all of them.

Quick podcast recommendations

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Oct 26, 2018

Here’s a quick roundup of podcasts I’ve been into lately:

30 for 30: Bikram
Beware how you talk about this show if you have any friends who are Bikram practitioners…

Uncover: Escaping NXIVM
The journalist got incredible access because he was a childhood friend of the source. The whole story is bonkers.

The Gateway
This series about controversial social media spiritual guru Teal Swan is highly disturbing and utterly fascinating. The host and producer did an AMA.

The Indicator
Short and smart stories from the Planet Money team.

Slow Burn
Great reporting and pacing in the second season here, on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

(Thanks Marisa, Emily, and Audrey)

Apple on the “radical” use of humans to edit the news

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Oct 25, 2018

This is an interesting look at how Apple News approaches curating their product, which reaches 90 million people. Unlike other algorithm-focused Silicon Valley giants, Apple uses human editors to surface news stories. They layer those hand-picked stories, some of which will get a million views each, with trending and topic-based stories via algorithm.

Apple (surprisingly) gave access to their News editor in chief, Lauren Kern, who weighs accuracy above speed.

Ms. Kern criticized the argument that algorithms are the sole way to avoid prejudice because bias can be baked into the algorithm’s code, such as whether it labels news organizations liberal or conservative. She argued that humans — with all their biases — are the only way to avoid bias.

“We’re so much more subtly following the news cycle and what’s important,” she said. “That’s really the only legitimate way to do it at this point.”

To further her point:

When Apple in June unveiled a special section on the midterm elections, it highlighted Fox News and Vox as partners. Apple said there are as many people reading traditionally left-leaning publications as traditionally right-leaning publications on Apple News.

The piece goes further into the business side and raises the question of whether Apple News can, as it aims, help save journalism. While newsrooms are seeing a bump in traffic from Apple News, significant now that Facebook has changed how their algorithm surfaces publishers, the question remains of whether such a closed platform will grow media revenues enough to make a difference.

There are hints of what is to come:

There are ambitious plans for the product. Apple lets publishers run ads in its app and it helps some sign up new subscribers, taking a 30 percent cut of the revenue. Soon, the company aims to bundle access to dozens of magazines in its app for a flat monthly fee, sort of like Netflix for news, according to people familiar with the plans, who declined to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. Apple also hopes to package access to a few daily-news publications, like The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal, into the app, the people said.

Perhaps this is all related to the press event Apple is hosting in Brooklyn next week?

Daniel Radcliffe, Checker of Facts

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2018

As research for a role in a Broadway play, Daniel Radcliffe recently did a stint as a fact-checker for the New Yorker. They had him fact-check a piece on a NYC restaurant called Oxomoco.

“Hi, Justin. I’m Dan, at The New Yorker,” Radcliffe began, twiddling a red pencil. “Some of these questions are going to feel very boring and prosaic to you,” he warned. “So bear with me. First off, your surname: is that spelled B-A-Z-D-A-R-I-C-H?” (It is.) “Does the restaurant serve guacamole?” (Yes.) “In the dip itself, would it be right to say there are chilies in adobo and cilantro?” (No adobo, but yes to the cilantro.) “Is there a drink you serve there, a Paloma?” (Yes.) “And that’s pale, pink, and frothy, I believe?” (Correct.) “Is brunch at your place-which, by the way, sounds fantastic-served seven days a week?” (Yes.) “That’s great news,” Radcliffe said, “for the accuracy of this, and for me.”

The constructive-destructive axis

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2018

In his biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson reports on some comments Jobs made over dinner to News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch about Fox News in 2010.

In return for speaking at the retreat, Jobs got Murdoch to hear him out on Fox News, which he believed was destructive, harmful to the nation, and a blot on Murdoch’s reputation. “You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.” Jobs said he thought Murdoch did not really like how far Fox had gone. “Rupert’s a builder, not a tearer-downer,” he said. “I’ve had some meetings with James, and I think he agrees with me. I can just tell.”

Such an insightful comment by Jobs. As John Gruber notes:

This line from Jobs — “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive” — is truly the best summary of Trumpism I’ve seen.

It’s been eight years since that conversation and the Republican Party & their voters have doubled down in destroying opportunities for people (particularly those with little power), driven by the likes of Fox News. This destruction will be felt for generations to come.

Ed Yong on fixing the gender imbalance in his stories

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

Science writer Ed Yong noticed that the stories he was writing quoted sources that were disproportionately male. Using a spreadsheet to track who he contacted for stories and a few extra minutes per piece, Yong set about changing that gender imbalance.

Skeptics might argue that I needn’t bother, as my work was just reflecting the present state of science. But I don’t buy that journalism should act simply as society’s mirror. Yes, it tells us about the world as it is, but it also pushes us toward a world that could be. It is about speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless. And it is a profession that actively benefits from seeking out fresh perspectives and voices, instead of simply asking the same small cadre of well-trod names for their opinions.

Another popular critique is that I should simply focus on finding the most qualified people for any given story, regardless of gender. This point seems superficially sound, but falls apart at the gentlest scrutiny. How exactly does one judge “most qualified”? Am I to list all the scientists in a given field and arrange them by number of publications, awards, or h-index, and then work my way down the list in descending order? Am I to assume that these metrics somehow exist in a social vacuum and are not themselves also influenced by the very gender biases that I am trying to resist? It would be crushingly naïve to do so.

Journalism and science both work better with the inclusion and participation of a diverse set of voices bent on the pursuit of truth.

Update: NY Times’ columnist David Leonhardt conducted his own experiment and discovered I’m Not Quoting Enough Women.

Pope Francis’s definition of ‘fake news’

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 26, 2018

“Fake news” is kind of a catch-all family-resemblance concept that’s abused as often as it’s used with real insight. But I was impressed by Pope Francis’s clear definition, given as part of an official message by the Vatican to mark World Communication Day:

While President Donald Trump has often dismissed news outlets and stories as “fake news,” Francis defined it as “the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.”

He added, “Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.”

Francis’s main example of fake news? The serpent’s message to Eve and Adam about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This example shows that “there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.”

Maybe along with Bishop of Rome and father of the Church, the Pope would make a good public editor.

The Post

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2017

Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post is a historical drama about The Washington Post’s publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Steven Spielberg directs Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in The Post, a thrilling drama about the unlikely partnership between The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham (Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks), as they race to catch up with The New York Times to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets that spanned three decades and four U.S. Presidents. The two must overcome their differences as they risk their careers — and their very freedom — to help bring long-buried truths to light.

The Post marks the first time Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have collaborated on a project.

The film comes out in December.

Study: watching Fox News has big effect on voting patterns

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 08, 2017

A newly released study by Gregory Martin and Ali Yurukolu published in the American Economic Review shows that watching Fox News has a significant effect on the overall Republican vote share in Presidential elections. They analyzed the channel position of the three major cable networks (Fox News, MSNBC, CNN), compared it to voting patterns, and found that “Fox News increases Republican vote shares by 0.3 points among viewers induced into watching 2.5 additional minutes per week by variation in position”. Using that result, they constructed a model to estimate the overall influence.

In other results, we estimate that removing Fox News from cable television during the 2000 election cycle would have reduced the overall Republican presidential vote share by 0.46 percentage points. The predicted effect increases in 2004 and 2008 to 3.59 and 6.34 percentage points, respectively. This increase is driven by increasing viewership on Fox News as well as an increasingly conservative slant. Finally, we find that the cable news channels’ potential for influence on election outcomes would be substantially larger were ownership to become more concentrated.

6.3% is an astounding effect. Fox News appears to be uniquely persuasive when compared to the other channels, particularly in bringing people across the aisle:

Were a viewer initially at the ideology of the median Democratic voter in 2008 to watch an additional three minutes of Fox News per week, her likelihood of voting Republican would increase by 1.03 percentage points. Another pattern that emerges from the table is that Fox is substantially better at influencing Democrats than MSNBC is at influencing Republicans.

They also estimate that cable news has contributed greatly to the rise in political polarization in the US over the period studied:

Furthermore, we estimate that cable news can increase polarization and explain about two-thirds of the increase among the public in the United States, and that this increase depends on both a persuasive effect of cable news and the existence of tastes for like-minded news.

This analysis is especially interesting/relevant when you consider other recent activist media efforts with an eye toward conservative influence: the Russian ad-buying on Facebook during the last election (and related activities), billionaire Trump-backer Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of The Las Vegas Review-Journal, and conservative-leaning Sinclair Media’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media. (via mr)

What happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2017

Queen Elizabeth II

When Queen Elizabeth II dies, who knows how a Brexit-addled Britain might react. She’s ruled now for 65 years; so long that three of her Prime Ministers were born during her rule. That’s why the Palace has a plan (known as “London Bridge”) for announcing her death, “its ceremonial aftermath”, and the ascension of Charles to the throne.

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness - the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard — which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Unlike the US presidency, say, monarchies allow huge passages of time — a century, in some cases — to become entwined with an individual. The second Elizabethan age is likely to be remembered as a reign of uninterrupted national decline, and even, if she lives long enough and Scotland departs the union, as one of disintegration. Life and politics at the end of her rule will be unrecognisable from their grandeur and innocence at its beginning. “We don’t blame her for it,” Philip Ziegler, the historian and royal biographer, told me. “We have declined with her, so to speak.”

This is a great piece, full of interesting details and observations throughout. Like that George V was euthanized in time for the morning paper:

“The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close,” was the final notice issued by George V’s doctor, Lord Dawson, at 9.30pm on the night of 20 January 1936. Not long afterwards, Dawson injected the king with 750mg of morphine and a gram of cocaine — enough to kill him twice over — in order to ease the monarch’s suffering, and to have him expire in time for the printing presses of the Times, which rolled at midnight.

And that radio stations are equipped with a emergency system:

Britain’s commercial radio stations have a network of blue “obit lights”, which is tested once a week and supposed to light up in the event of a national catastrophe. When the news breaks, these lights will start flashing, to alert DJs to switch to the news in the next few minutes and to play inoffensive music in the meantime. Every station, down to hospital radio, has prepared music lists made up of “Mood 2” (sad) or “Mood 1” (saddest) songs to reach for in times of sudden mourning.

They’ve got this planned out to the second…no detail is too small:

It takes 28 minutes at a slow march from the doors of St James’s to the entrance of Westminster Hall.

British royals are buried in lead-lined coffins. Diana’s weighed a quarter of a ton.

(via @oliverburkeman)

Every NY Times front page in under a minute

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2017

In this short video, Josh Begley shows all of the front pages of the NY Times in chronological order from 1852 to the present. The Times began publishing in 1851 so not every front page is represented, but that’s still more than 50,000 pages in less than a minute. Since they go by so quickly, here are some highlights:

Dec 11, 1861: The Times publishes their first illustrations on the front page. One is a map of Virginia and the other two are political cartoons lampooning James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, one of the Times’ main rivals.

Apr 15, 1865: The front page columns were lined with black as they reported on the assassination of Lincoln.

Dec 1, 1896: The hyphen is dropped from “The New-York Times”.

Feb 10, 1897: The slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print” appears for the first time on the front page.

May 30, 1910: The first news photograph appears on the front page, a photo of aviator Glenn Curtiss flying from Albany to NYC at the blistering pace of 54 mi/hr.

May 1, 1926: The Times prints the first photo “radioed” to the newspaper from London. Transmission time: 1hr 45m.

Jul 21, 1969: The first use of 96 pt. type on the front page announces the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and subsequent moonwalk. The large type will also be used to announce Nixon’s resignation, the first day of 2000, 9/11, and the election of Barack Obama.

Sept 7, 1976: The columns on the front page are widened, reducing their number from 8 to 6.

Oct 16, 1997: The first color photo is printed on the front page of the Times. (The Times Machine scan is in B&W for some reason, but the photo was in color.)

Begley also made Best of Luck With the Wall, a video showing the entire extent of the US-Mexico border.

How to cover news in a media-hostile environment

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2017

Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler wrote a message to staff called “Covering Trump the Reuters Way.” After noting that “Reuters is a global news organization that reports independently and fairly in more than 100 countries, including many in which the media is unwelcome and frequently under attack,” he lays down some do’s and do-not-do’s1:

Do’s:

—Cover what matters in people’s lives and provide them the facts they need to make better decisions.

—Become ever-more resourceful: If one door to information closes, open another one.

—Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.

—Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.

—Keep the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles close at hand, remembering that “the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”

Don’ts:

—Never be intimidated, but:

—Don’t pick unnecessary fights or make the story about us. We may care about the inside baseball but the public generally doesn’t and might not be on our side even if it did.

—Don’t vent publicly about what might be understandable day-to-day frustration. In countless other countries, we keep our own counsel so we can do our reporting without being suspected of personal animus. We need to do that in the U.S., too.

—Don’t take too dark a view of the reporting environment: It’s an opportunity for us to practice the skills we’ve learned in much tougher places around the world and to lead by example - and therefore to provide the freshest, most useful, and most illuminating information and insight of any news organization anywhere.

These are good rules. (That one about giving up on access and hand-outs is downright fire.) They’re particularly good rules for a place like Reuters, that has a specific style, tradition, and role in the news ecosystem.

But they’re not necessarily good rules for everybody. Different news organizations are going to need to fill different roles in the ecosystem, different spaces on the multiple axes of personal, political, intellectual, and business commitments. If Gawker were still here in its full glory, Nick Denton could write up “Covering Trump the Gawker Way” and it would probably be a totally different but equally valuable list of guidelines.

The other thing news organizations (and other companies too) will need to figure out in L’Age D’Trump are their commitments to their staff. Reporters and media organizations need legal protections so they can’t be prosecuted as criminals or sued by proxy billionaires for doing their job; but they also need to be able to talk freely about how to do their job and balance all of those commitments for themselves without being shown the door.

The pressure is going to be coming from a lot of directions, not always the obvious ones. When the stakes are this high, and the conditions this uncertain, it helps to allay as many uncertainties as possible. When the shit goes down, you need to know who’s going to have your back.

  1. Cf. “Marge Gets A Job

The best media corrections of 2016

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2016

The annual list of media errors and corrections by Poynter is always worth a read. Some favorites:

Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about a theological battle being fought by Muslim imams and scholars in the West against the Islamic State misstated the Snapchat handle used by Suhaib Webb, one of Muslim leaders speaking out. It is imamsuhaibwebb, not Pimpin4Paradise786.

No wonder people think the NY Times is untrustworthy. Another from the Times:

An article on March 20 about wave piloting in the Marshall Islands misstated the number of possible paths that could be navigated without instruments among the 34 islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands. It is 561, not a trillion trillion.

This one was only slightly wrong:

CORRECTION: Boris Johnson’s award-winning limerick about the Turkish president referred to Erdogan as a wanker who performed a sex act with a goat. A previous version of this article included the prompt for the poetry contest, which included a different sex act, also with a goat.

When in doubt, blame technology:

Correction at 9:58 a.m. on 3/09/2016: Due to an oversight involving a haphazardly-installed Chrome extension during the editing process, the name Donald Trump was erroneously replaced with the phrase “Someone With Tiny Hands” when this story originally published.

The truth about the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2016

You may have heard about the dumb old lady who was driving with a cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap, spilled it, and then greedily sued McDonald’s, winning millions of dollars and setting off an epidemic of frivolous personal injury lawsuits that’s still alive and well today. Well, that’s not really what happened. Adam Conover explains what actually went down in this entertaining short video.

P.S. If you’re following along, what we have here is a video by CollegeHumor of a comedian debunking misinformation deliberately spread by a large multinational corporation (with publicly available sources!), packaged as a comedy bit but is every bit as informational as a piece in the Times or on Vox. If you’re being disingenuous, you might call this fake news. (See also Last Week Tonight, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, etc.) (via subtraction)

Update: Hot Coffee is a feature-length documentary about the McDonald’s coffee case and tort reform in America. (via @aabhowell)

Update: Retro Report has a piece on the suit as well. (via @DavidGrann)

The year in photos 2016

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2016

Photos of the Year 2016

Photos of the Year 2016

Photos of the Year 2016

Photos of the Year 2016

Photos of the Year 2016

Brexit, climate change, Trump, Syria, white nationalism, Turkey, racism and police violence, the Flint water crisis, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, drowned migrants. I was tempted to just post a photo of a burning dumpster or the this is fine dog and leave it at that. But professional photographers and the agencies & publications that employ them are essential in bearing witness to the atrocities and injustices and triumphs and breakthroughs of the world and helping us understand what’s happening out there. It’s worth seeking out what they saw this year.

Several sites, publications, and agencies have published lists of the best and most newsworthy photos of the year. Among them are In Focus’ Top 25 News Photos of 2016 as well as their three-part 2016: The Year in Photos (part 1, part 2, part 3), National Geographic’s The 52 Best Photographs of 2016, Time’s Top 100 Photos of the Year 2016, AFP’s Pictures of the Year (part 1, part 2, part 3), 2016: The Year in Photos from CNN, Pictures of the Year 2016 from Reuters, the AP’s Top Photos of 2016, some of the top images from the World Press Photo exhibition, which “highlights the best photojournalism of the year”, The Top Photos of 2016 from Maclean’s, and The Best Weird and Wonderful Photos of 2016 from totallycoolpix.com.

I’ve selected five of my favorite photos from these lists and included them above. From top to bottom, the photographers are Jonathan Bachman, Brent Stirton, Kai Pfaffenbach, Anuar Patjane Floriuk, and Mahmoud Raslan. The top photo, by Bachman, pictures the arrest of Ieshia Evans while protesting the death of Alton Sterling by the Baton Rouge police and is just flat-out amazing. In a piece for The Guardian, Evans wrote:

When the armored officers rushed at me, I had no fear. I wasn’t afraid. I was just wondering: “How do these people sleep at night?” Then they put me in a van and drove me away. Only hours later did someone explain that I was arrested for obstructing a highway.

There’s so much fear in that photo — institutional fear, racial fear, societal fear — but none of it is coming from Evans. Total hero.

Update: Buzzfeed shares The 46 Most Powerful Photos of 2016 and the BBC has the 15 finalists in the 2016 Art of Building architectural photography competition.

Update: The NY Times offers up The Year in Pictures 2016.

Update: From Artsy, The Most Powerful Moments of Photojournalism in 2016.

Update: World Press Photo announced the winners of their 2017 Photo Contest (of photos taken in 2016).

Things you notice when you quit the news

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2016

David Cain quit following the news many years ago — “I’m mostly talking about following TV and internet newscasts here” — and noticed several benefits.

A common symptom of quitting the news is an improvement in mood. News junkies will say it’s because you’ve stuck your head in the sand.

But that assumes the news is the equivalent of having your head out in the fresh, clear air. They don’t realize that what you can glean about the world from the news isn’t even close to a representative sample of what is happening in the world.

The news isn’t interested in creating an accurate sample. They select for what’s 1) unusual, 2) awful, and 3) probably going to be popular. So the idea that you can get a meaningful sense of the “state of the world” by watching the news is absurd.

Their selections exploit our negativity bias. We’ve evolved to pay more attention to what’s scary and infuriating, but that doesn’t mean every instance of fear or anger is useful. Once you’ve quit watching, it becomes obvious that it is a primary aim of news reports-not an incidental side-effect-to agitate and dismay the viewer.

What appears on the news is not “The conscientious person’s portfolio of concerns”. What appears is whatever sells, and what sells is fear, and contempt for other groups of people.

Curate your own portfolio. You can get better information about the world from deeper sources, who took more than a half-day to put it together.

I watch and read plenty about current events, but the last time I “followed the news” was probably in high school. 95% of it is gossip & soap opera and the 5% that isn’t, you can get elsewhere, better.

How the NY Times prepared for Castro’s death

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2016

In a peek at how the media sausage is made, the NY Times has documented how the newspaper prepared for the death of Fidel Castro. For instance, they’ve had an advance obituary on hand for him since 1959, which has been revised and rewritten dozens of times before it was finally published over the weekend.

Fidel Castro’s obituary cost us more man/woman hours over the years than any piece we’ve ever run.

Every time there was a rumor of death, we’d pull the obit off the shelf, dust it off, send it back to the writer, Tony DePalma, for any necessary updates, maybe add a little more polish here and there and then send it on to be copy-edited and made ready — yet again — for publication.

Even deep into his 70s and 80s, the Cuban dictator outlived the broadsheet size of the paper and digital media formats.

One piece that didn’t make it into this weekend’s digital coverage was a four-part, 20-plus-minute-long audio slide show on Mr. Castro’s life. The audio slide show — a mostly bygone format intended to marry photos and audio in an age when slow dial-up connections couldn’t handle video — was originally produced around 2006 by Geoff McGhee, Lisa Iaboni and Eric Owles and featured narration from Anthony DePalma, who wrote The Times’s obituary.

With over 80 photos and several audio files, the slide show was managed with a custom-made program called “configurator” that lived on a single, aging Macintosh in a windowless room on the ninth floor of the Times building.

That Mac and the program it housed died 7 years before Castro did.

Update: The Miami Herald also wrote up their preparations for Castro’s death, which they called The Cuba Plan.

I have a bulging file filled with various iterations of The Cuba Plan, before we relied on a shared Google Doc.

The plan changed drastically over the decades, driven by both changes in the industry and politics on the island.

Early in our planning, the document was 60 pages long.

Fidel Castro was still healthy and in power, and we planned for a possible political revolution. We played out the most extreme scenario, espoused by many experts, of unrest in the island, and Cubans on both sides of the straits taking to the seas. We thought carefully about the multiple ways we might get reporters into Cuba, knowing that at the time the government would not permit a Miami Herald journalist on the island. One plan might even have involved renting a boat.

(via @Julisa_Marie)

Walter Cronkite Spit In My Food

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 04, 2016

Today’s Google Doodle honors the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary newsman Walter Cronkite.

Today would be the 100th birthday of the man known widely throughout the ’60s and ’70s as “the most trusted man in America.” Walter Cronkite, the legendary broadcast journalist reported, served, and comforted a nation during its most trying times, including World War II, Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of JFK, to name a few.

Walter perpetuated an objective reporting style rooted in justice and integrity: “Press freedom is essential to our democracy, but the press must not abuse this license. We must be careful with our power. The free press, after all, is the central nervous system of a democratic society.”

Since I missed most of Cronkite’s career as a TV news anchor (I was 7 when he retired), I mostly associate him with the coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the early web meme Walter Cronkite Spit In My Food.

It was an unbelievable account of a drunken Walter Cronkite raging at a honeymooning couple in a restaurant. It included an obviously faked video clip of Walter Cronkite spitting and a fuzzy photograph of a man who looked vaguely like Cronkite.

Google’s honor is a bit ironic given that Cronkite favored tougher libel and slander laws for “would-be writers and reporters on the Internet”:

I am dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet. I expect that to develop in the fairly near future.

as well as legislation against anonymous expression online:

I favor legislation that requires people to stand by their words by identifying themselves on the Internet. They should not be permitted to operate anonymously.

He was clear that he was not after censorship:

I hope to make it clear that I did say that I am opposed to any form of censorship. This is identification… forced identification by those who use the Internet. Not censorship. It is simply requiring them to take the same responsibility that people in print and in broadcasting have to take.

Is your smartphone betraying you?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 21, 2016

Introspection Engine

Edward Snowden and Bunnie Huang are working on a system to help smartphone users determine whether their phones can be tracked. Their aim is to protect journalists from being detected while they’re in the field.

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has been working with prominent hardware hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang to solve this problem. The pair are developing a way for potentially imperiled smartphone users to monitor whether their devices are making any potentially compromising radio transmissions. They argue that a smartphone’s user interface can’t be relied to tell you the truth about that state of its radios. Their initial prototyping work uses an iPhone 6.

“We have to ensure that journalists can investigate and find the truth, even in areas where governments prefer they don’t,” Snowden told me in a video interview. “It’s basically to make the phone work for you, how you want it, when you want it, but only when.”

They are calling the device an introspection engine:1

Snowden and Huang are calling this device an “introspection engine” because it will inspect the inner-workings of the phone. The device will be contained inside a battery case, looking similar to a smartphone with an extra bulky battery, except with its own screen to update the user on the status of the radios. Plans are for the device to also be able to sound an audible alarm and possibly to also come equipped with a “kill switch” that can shut off power to the phone if any radio signals are detected. “The core principle is simple,” they wrote in the blog post. “If the reporter expects radios to be off, alert the user when they are turned on.”

Huang also announced today that he’s suing the US government over Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act:

Section 1201 means that you can be sued or prosecuted for accessing, speaking about, and tinkering with digital media and technologies that you have paid for. This violates our First Amendment rights, and I am asking the court to order the federal government to stop enforcing Section 1201.

  1. Good name, although I believe they missed a good opportunity to call it the Snow Bunnie. Perhaps that was the code name?

Newspaper front pages about Brexit

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

Economist Brexit

Buzzfeed has a collection of newspaper front pages and magazine covers related to Brexit. Newseum has a more extensive collection (900+ newspapers) and the Guardian has a nice selection as well.

Out of all of them, I think the cover for next week’s issue of the New Yorker is perhaps my favorite:

New Yorker Brexit

Ah, Monty Python.

John Oliver on the media’s science coverage

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2016

On Last Week Tonight last night, John Oliver took the media’s often shoddy coverage of science to task. Like cherry picking the results of single studies that “prove” that chocolate prevents cancer and that sort of thing.

As a somewhat reluctant member of “the media”, I’ve been guilty of this sort of behavior to varying degrees in the past. In the last few years, I’ve been working to improve on this count — by reading studies, declining to post stuff that doesn’t make the grade, reading what other trusted media sources are saying, using softer language like “could” or “may” instead of “does”, distinguishing between correlation and causation — but I still make mistakes.

At a certain point though, you have to rely on the scientific literacy of your readers. I can’t explain the scientific process to everyone every single time. At some point, I need to assume we’re all taking the results of studies with a similarly sized grain of salt.

In the end, I love science and I want you to love it too. That’s why I often write about it, about the history of how we came to know what we know, about the limits of our knowledge, and, especially, about efforts to push beyond the boundaries of the known. There’s always the temptation to gussy science up, to fit the facts to my world view. But deep down, I know that’s unnecessary — science is awesome all by itself! — and harms the goal of increasing scientific literacy and interest. I’m gonna trying reminding myself of that more in the future.

“A cult meeting in adoration of the leader”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2016

Someone took the audio from a BBC News report on North Korean military parade held in honor of Kim Jong-un’s birthday and played it over footage of the parade held in London in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s 89th birthday.

Front page NY Times editorial on gun control

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2015

In their first page one editorial since 1920, the NY Times argues for strict gun control.

But motives do not matter to the dead in California, nor did they in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and far too many other places. The attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.

It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.

I don’t really want to get into it on a sunny Saturday morning, but 1) this doesn’t go far enough for me…I’m one of those people who does want guns taken away from everyone; and 2) the media also needs to make tough choices about how and how much they cover shootings like this. CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin can’t write an essay about how she’s sick and tired of reporting on gun violence and then her network gives their viewers a guided tour of the apartment where the suspects in the San Bernardino shooting lived (which Baldwin tweeted out to her followers advising them to TURN ON #CNN).

America’s junk news binge epidemic

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2015

In the midst of this piece by Matt Taibbi on Republican presidential candidates blaming media bias for their outright falsehoods are two paragraphs which perfectly sum up the state of contemporary news media:

It’s our fault. We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.

If Americans are getting intellectually fat and lazy binging on junk news, perhaps the solution is something akin to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” Michael Pollan’s advice for healthy eating: Follow the news, not too much, mostly facts.

Update: I was reminded that Clay Johnson wrote an entire book called The Information Diet (at Amazon).

The modern human animal spends upwards of 11 hours out of every 24 in a state of constant consumption. Not eating, but gorging on information ceaselessly spewed from the screens and speakers we hold dear. Just as we have grown morbidly obese on sugar, fat, and flour-so, too, have we become gluttons for texts, instant messages, emails, RSS feeds, downloads, videos, status updates, and tweets.

We’re all battling a storm of distractions, buffeted with notifications and tempted by tasty tidbits of information. And just as too much junk food can lead to obesity, too much junk information can lead to cluelessness. The Information Diet shows you how to thrive in this information glut-what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective. In the process, author Clay Johnson explains the role information has played throughout history, and why following his prescribed diet is essential for everyone who strives to be smart, productive, and sane.

Johnson spoke at Webstock the same year I did…here’s a video of his talk about Industrialized Ignorance. (via @philipashlock)

The Larcenous Curtis Granderson and His Fabulous Metropolitans

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2015

Mets Allen Ginter

Ahhhh! Dan Barry of The NY Times went all olde tymey in his recap of game four of the NLCS between the Cubs and Mets, sorry, Metropolitans.

The Metropolitans — also known as the “Mets” — sent six safely across the plate before the third inning, mostly as a result of the derring-do of their Bunyanesque first-sacker, Lucas Duda. The mighty Californian smote a home run and a double to tally five of those six runs before the Cubs seemed to comprehend that a game concerning their possible erasure from the 2015 field was well underway.

The ignominious rout of the valiant but overmatched hometown squad turned the deafening cheers of the Chicago multitudes into plaintive keens, for now their agonizing wait for another championship — the last in 1908, during the presidency of the rough-riding Theodore Roosevelt — must continue.

I say! Capital stuff, old chap.

Writing while passive

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2015

In McSweeney’s, Vijith Assar writes about the increasingly pernicious use of the passive voice in the media and how it may have developed, one small step at a time, from:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

to “the ultimate in passive voice”:

Speed was involved in a jumping-related accident while a fox was brown.

Naming names of shooters

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2015

Josh Marshall argues provocatively and persuasively that news media, law enforcement, and everyone else should name the offenders in these mass shootings, in part because the refusal has become an empty sort of action that people can take to “help”.

It is a grand evasion because we need to make ourselves feel better by finding a way to think we are doing ‘something’ even though we’re unwilling to do anything that actually matters. Except for those immediately affected or those in the tightly defined communities affected we also shouldn’t give ourselves the solace of watching teary-eyed memorials or all the rest. Again, as a society we’ve made our decision. I would go so far as to say that it’s good for us to know Mercer’s name since we are in fact his accomplices. It’s good that we know each other.

Withholding knowledge is not the way forward.

Update: From the NY Times back in August, Zeynep Tufekci writes: The Virginia Shooter Wanted Fame. Let’s Not Give It to Him.

This doesn’t mean censoring the news or not reporting important events of obvious news value. It means not providing the killers with the infamy they seek. It means somber, instead of lurid and graphic, coverage, and a focus on victims. It means not putting the killer’s face on loop. It means minimizing or not using the killers’ names, as I have done here. It means not airing snuff films, or making them easily accessible on popular sites. It means holding back reporting of details such as the type of gun, ammunition, angle of attack and the protective gear the killer might have worn. Such detailed reporting can give the next killer a concrete road map.

(via @riondotnu)

Update: Read all the way to the bottom of this Mother Jones article for ways that they have changed how they report on mass shootings.

Report on the perpetrator forensically and with dispassionate language. Avoid terms like “lone wolf” and “school shooter,” which may carry cachet with young men aspiring to attack. Instead use “perpetrator,” “act of lone terrorism,” and “act of mass murder.”

Whistleblower Edward Scissorhands

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 30, 2015

HLN (which used to be CNN Headline News) needed someone to talk about Edward Snowden, US government whistleblower. They meant to invite a gentleman named John Hendren, a journalist for Al Jazeera, onto the show but instead invited funnyman Jon Hendren, who goes by the username of @fart on Twitter. Hendren, Jon used the opportunity to defend both Edward Snowden, briefly, and then sexy-but-misunderstood barber Edward Scissorhands.

Well, you know, to say he couldn’t harm someone, well, absolutely he could. But I think to cast him out, to make him invalid in society, simply because he has scissors for hands, I mean, that’s strange. People didn’t get scared until he started sculpting shrubs into dinosaur shapes and whatnot.

The best part is that anchor Yasmin Vossoughian just keeps on plowing right through her script like they’re not talking suddenly about a man with scissors for hands, deftly demonstrating what a farce these TV news “conversations” are. (via nymag)