Tagnew media

Wikileaks, Afghanistan & The New Rules Of Engagement

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As of two days ago Wikileaks has released 92.000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, leaked (most likely) from within the US military. After discussing this with quite a few folks, we all agreed that this will be one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of 2010.

As a former media and political science major, as well as a former editor, this stuff is pure gold to me.

First, what I am not going to go into: the Afghanistan conflict, its sense or legitimation or political implications; or the legalities of this kind of thing: does a leak like this break US law, and would that even be applicable? That’s for US lawyers to decide.

The basics first: What happened? Wikileaks got hold of some 91.000 military documents regarding the Afghanistan conflict, from analyst papers to ground reports. (What is Wikileaks?) Before releasing these documents themselves, they gave them in advance to three traditional news media: New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel (Germany). (All of the links go directly to the Wikileaks specials.) After these media ran their exclusives, Wikileaks went public with the leaked documents, called the Afghan War Diaries:

The reports, while written by soldiers and intelligence officers, and mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details. (…) The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces’ activities. The reports do not generally cover top secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

So why is the Wikileaks story so big? It’s big not just because it’s something new and a huge scoop, but because it touches on so many complex and highly relevant issues:

  • the issue at hand, the conflict in Afghanistan
  • the way the US government handles information
  • … and by extension, the bigger questions of truth & trust
  • the relationship between governments and their citizens
  • the relationship between US government and their allies, and how information flows between them
  • the way media work today
  • the (new?) role that media play today (trust center verifying information scoops rather than gathering them)
  • the way the internet changes politics and media (and how news media not bound to nation states operate under different circumstances than we are used to)
  • Is it irresponsible to leak documents?

For some great background and discussion, I recommend you jump straight to Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both who have great write-ups.

Trying not to repeat to many of Rosen’s and Jarvis’ points, there are a few things I find worth considering.

Truth & trust, governments & citizens The White House was clearly pissed off after seeing the Afghan War Logs emerge. Understandably so, after all those documents will clearly make a dent in the war effort, so to speak. However, legalities aside and assuming the documents are the real thing – the documents leaked are internal military documents. While it’s always painful to be called out on your own mistakes, it’s not job of the media to support certain policies; and it’s most certainly not the job of a whistleblower site like Wikileaks to support any policies. It’s their job to get out information so folks can make informed decisions.

It’s probably part of winning a military conflict to occasionally bluff and put a game face on. But it’s fair game to call that bluff; I’m guessing here, but I’d say that this can happen to a government just like to any poker player. These war reports seem to be such a case where the bluff (“the war is going kinda alright”) is called. The question is: Could the US government – instead of trying to clamp down on Wikileaks and the internal military source – try to make the best of the situation, for example by trying a crowdsourced effort to analyze the patterns of what has been going wrong in the conflict? (Might not work, but should be looked into by some of the smart folks within or around the US government.)

The new role of media What I found particularly interesting is the new role that media played in this case. This is not a case of investigative journalism by the media, but by a third (non-journalistic) party. We are talking about three of the most distinguished media outlets world wide. Yet, they did not get the scoop here, they did not have the sources inside. They were not the address the military sources wanted to talk to. (Why might be a moot question, but an interesting one still. Get back to that in a minute.) Instead, the media were there to a) spread the news and b) verify the information, to lend credibility. They served as a trust center for another organization’s scoop. Once they got the information, the media then did what they do best: sift through the material and make it more accessible, as well as spread the information.

As Jay Rosen put it, referring to a New York Times editor’s note:

“At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.

So, why Wikileaks not New York Times? We can only speculate why the internal source leaked the documents to Wikileaks and not to one of the major newspapers. But there are a number of considerations at play here: First, Wikileaks is much harder to subpoena than any traditional news organization that operates under US (or European) law. Second, Wikileaks is by nature very much distributed. They are a true internet-based, decentralized organization, making it harder to suppress information. Third, Wikileaks is independent, donation-funded, without anyone to report to. This can be good or bad, of course. And on certain topics, a political biased can be assumed. But again, it makes it harder to believe there could be a reason for Wikileaks to withhold this kind of information, much unlike the news organizations that also want to send their reporters into war zones as embedded journalists along the military. Fourth, Wikileaks knows about secure communications. Maybe Guardian, Spiegel and New York Times do too, but a source wouldn’t want to take any risks. Wikileaks are strong on anonymity. They are strong on crypto. They really know how to keep communication channels secure and anonymous. All of these combined make them a more secure place to go to than any single newsroom.

Is Wikileaks acting irresponsibly? One could make the case for either the value of keeping information secret, or for absolute transparency. In a military conflict, that’s a tough one. But it seems to be like Wikileaks is going to great lengths to be as careful and responsible as the overall context allows (once it’s decided to publish leaked info, that is). They are holding back a significant number of documents until further review and clean up (think removing names etc):

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

Giving the documents to some trusted traditional newspapers of making sure the information is getting a decent journalistic treatment, followed by full disclosure of all the source material for extra vetting.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of getting it all right: Responsible dealing with the information as well as working the media right.

Jeff Jarvis raises an interesting point in his post: Will leaks like this incentivize organisations not to write down as much because they fear leaks, leading in the long run to less transparency? I certainly hope not, but it’s not a fear I share. Large-scale organizations need documentation, and where there is documentation there is a chance of leaks.

What I’d hope for instead is that the mere chance of leaks alone will lead to more transparency up front. After all, if an organization is more transparent the chance of getting called out on grounds of hiding information is a lot lower.

We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, if you do appreciate this kind of document leak, I do recommend you consider donating for Wikileaks.

Google, the FTC and Germany: Public vs Private Media

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There’s a war going on, and it’s not pretty. The old conflict between publicly funded and private media, and the fight about who regulates the whole sphere. Of course all of it was triggered by the internet. How could the net just allow information to be spread so easily and at such a low cost!

But jokes aside, there’s some seriously disturbing stuff going on right now. Namely, two focal points in this conflict about who should make media and under what conditions, and how should media be consumed.

Focal point #1: Google vs FTC

The FTC published a paper as basis for further discussion (“Staff Discussion Draft”, PDF) to evaluate the situation of news media today and to draft policy proposals. One of them: additional intellectual property rights to support news media against “free riding by news aggregators”. This by itself is one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a while. News aggregators (read: Google News), of course, channel traffic to the media sites. There’s no cannibalization going on, it’s the other way round. It’s good to see – and just fair to point out – that the draft also states that “expanded IP rights could restrict citizens’ access to this news, inhibit public discourse, and impinge upon free speech rights.” Yes, that it might well do.

Google reply on their Public Policy blog and the response is well worth reading:

Comments to FTC 20 July 2010

If you prefer the summary, jump straight to Jeff Jarvis, who sides clearly with Google as well as I do: This is not really a legal battle, but one over business models. And protecting an old, broken system should not be in the FTC’s (or anyone’s) interest.

Focal point #2: German public broadcasters are “depublishing”

A similar problem is discussed in Germany these days, if maybe in slightly different environment. In Germany we’ve had strong (and well-funded, particularly compared to the US) public broadcasters. (Note: not newspapers.) These broadcasters have done a tremendous job in the past, and even though there has been a lot of criticism over budgets and spending and about certain areas of engagement, they have a fairly strong support on a societal level. They have a clear mandate to provide basic information in all areas (including entertainment), and at least kind-of-clear limits of their engagement (no dating sites etc). These limits are based mainly on protecting private companies from publicly funded competition.

And it’s this eternal conflict of interests (here: “the public” vs “private publishing corporations”) that’s at the core of the dilemma. Public broadcasters in Germany were always very limited on what they could do online. But now, content has to be “depublished”* after some time. (Depending on the kind of content, which is evaluated by a three step system of the more absurd kind of type, after a week, a year or some other time span.) The content won’t be deleted, but hidden.

(Links with some background in German: Tagesschau summary of the regulating Rundfunkstaatsvertrag, Tagesschau’s Jörg Sadrozinski’s take on Depublizieren.)

How much protection do private publishers need from the government?

Now this raises all kinds of interesting questions. (The biggest of which is of course: WTF? But let’s save that for another time.) Questions I cannot necessarily answer off the top of my head. Like: Should private broadcasters really be protected from public broadcasters? How much so? Are there certain fields where this protection should be stronger than others? (Sports? Mobile services?) But also: How can content that we paid for by our (publicly collected and handled) fees be locked away after we paid for it, and how can even more of our money be spent on locking it away? What happens to all the references in Wikipedia that linked to said public content? How can a generation of tax and fee payers be expected to pay for fees if the content won’t be available through the channels they use?

I cannot even remember the last time I watched TV at home, on a TV set, live, on the air. And I certainly won’t start now.

So we need to ask ourselves: How much protection do we want to give to publishers and broadcasters, and what price are we willing to pay?

There’s a war going on, and it’s not pretty.

  • The word makes me want to invoke Godwin’s Law. But I’ll hold back, I promise.

Two Takes On The Future of Media: Rubert Murdoch and Clay Shirky

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Today I happened upon these two videos in which two experts share their take on (among many other things) the future of the media. The two experts are old-school media magnate Rupert Murdoch, often called one of the most influential people in the media industry; and NYU professor Clay Shirky, who I think is one of the most brilliant thinkers on the topic of how media work nowadays and will be working a few years from now. (You can tell I’m biased, and strongly so.)

What you’ll see in the videos are two judgments (or rather: worldviews) that couldn’t be more different. Murdoch argues that the audience should be charged for news, and that search engines shouldn’t be allowed to “grab our content and run” (i.e. to index it). Shirky on the other hand says that newspapers probably can’t be saved and moves on to save journalism instead, and putting up a paywall certainly doesn’t enter the equation there.

But watch for yourself, you’ll be entertained (by the first video) and enlightened (by the second).

(via boingboing)


(via netzpolitik.org)

Next-generation content management for newspapers (is in the making)

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Image: Howard Beatty by Flickr User Ann Althouse, CC licensed (by-nc)Steve Yelvington helps newspapers get the web. Newspapers have a hard time adapting the new ways of the web, what with all this user-generated content, changing consumer habits and dropping sales. It’s a huge cultural problem – traditional vs new vs social media – too. (And it’s not that newspapers, their editors or their management are stupid. Of course they aren’t. Still, they struggling.)

Working with Morris DigitalWorks, Steve is working on a next-generation news site management system. Quite a claim to fame, but both his track record and the few details he already shares back it up. So what’s different here?

We’re integrating a lot more social-networking functionality, which we think is an important tool for addressing the “low frequency” problem that most news sites face. We’re going to be aggressive aggregators, pulling in RSS feeds from every community resource we can find, and giving our users the ability to vote the results up/down. We’ll link heavily to all the sources, including “competitors.” Ranking/rating, commenting, and RSS feeds will be ubiquitous. Users of Twitter, Pownce and Friendfeed will be able to follow topics of interest. We’re also experimenting with collaborative filtering, something I’ve been interested in since I met the developers of GroupLens in the mid-1990s. It’s how Amazon offers you books and products that interest you: People whose behavior is the most like yours have looked at/bought/recommended this other thing.

That’s music in my ears. The whole thing is based on Drupal, which has always been strong on community features. Here, it seems, the whole platform will be aimed at creating mashups, drawing in RSS feeds, pushing them around and spitting them out. In the end, you should end up with a pretty lively site full of both professionally produced and user-generated content and commentary. Of course, by providing both input and output channels for RSS feeds, the data isn’t restricted to just the website, it lives on beyond, way in the cloud.

And the best thing: Usability-wise it’ll be aimed not at techies, but at editors. No major coding necessary:

Open tools and open platforms are great for developers, but what we really want to do is place this kind of power directly in the hands of content producers. They won’t have to know a programming language, or how databases work, or even HTML to create special presentations based on database queries. Need a new XML feed? Point and click.

That’s great news, and certainly a project to watch closely. Can’t wait to see the launch. October it is.

(via Strange Attractor)

Note: So far, the CMS code hasn’t been released under a GPL, but they’ve pledged to do so. All in good time.

Image: Howard Beatty by Flickr User Ann Althouse, released under Creative Commons (by-nc)

What will The Next Newsroom look like?

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Mainstream American media have experienced shipwreck and newsrooms need to transform themselves to survive. Sounds harsh? Not if you ask Journalism That Matters (JTM). New media and the Social Web are both the challenge and the solution. How so? That’s the big question and there are no final answers yet.

JTM News Tools 08 (journalismthatmatters.wordpress.com) News Tools 08: The old news story. Image courtesy of Journalism That Matters. (Click the image or here for a larger version.)

Newsrooms face three challenges One thing is already clear, though: Newsrooms face three key challenges which are outlined in JTM’s Next Newsroom plan (PDF):

  • the revenue challenge
  • the technology challenge
  • the community challenge

One proposal of a kind of eco system of participatory and professional journalism (or hybrid participatory-professional news sites, as PhD candidate Sven Engesser of LMU, Munich calls it) is pictured below:

Journalism That Matters - News 08: An Emerging News Ecology. Image courtesy JTM News Tools 08: An Emerging News Ecology. Image courtesy of Journalism That Matters. (Click the image or here for a larger version.)

I’ll try to look into this more in-depth over the next few days, but wanted to share these links first. The picture above was created at News Tools 08, the most current JtM gathering that is focused on innovations for “journalism that matters.”. You can read up on it on the JTM website.