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Last week, an anonymous  source contacted privacy-researcher Chris Soghoian offering to help him write a piece about a company the source claimed was violating people’s privacy: Google.  The source promised to be able to spill the beans about how Google was amalgamating web data in a way that could rob people of their privacy.  When Soghoian asked the source to reveal who he was affiliated with the source declined.

The story got weirder when it was revealed that the “source” worked for a PR firm that Facebook had hired to draw attention to Google’s new “Social Search” functions.  As the story unfolded, it became apparent that Facebook is upset that the new Google tool is gathering information – from Facebook.  Facebook makes a lot of it’s user’s data publicly available, and Google is using that data in it’s new search algorithms.

This story represents the latest round in a war about who will store your data online.  Google and Facebook both want to be the first place people go with their information – mostly because that data is incredibly valuable to advertisers.  As much as I enjoy the services of both companies, it’s not apparent to me that either of these companies have the best interest of their users in mind.  Whether it is Google or Facebook, both are corporations and they are mostly interested in making money.

I wish I could end this post with words of wisdom.  Even words of protest or indignation would be good.  Both of these would be insincere though.  I’m not going to stop using either service.  I worry about my privacy, but Facebook and Google are too much a part of  my life for me to protest, or even get really indignant about it.  I really can’t imagine my life without them.

I’m gonna go look at Google’s news feed, and then check my Facebook wall.

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The night of Osama bin Laden’s death I tried to get my hands on every piece of information I could, and I even turned to Twitter.  I’m not big on Twitter, but the day of bin Laden’s death seemed like a good time to hear what people were saying.  I saw several people tweeting the following quote, which was attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

I enjoyed the quote because it represented a feeling that I really identified with.  I accepted it without question and moved on, and repeated it at least once to another person.  However, several days later I saw an interesting story, that argued with real evidence, that King had never said any such thing.  Further, the article points out that the quote wouldn’t make sense coming from MLK.  Who would the thousands of lives be?  Who would the enemy be?  It makes sense in the time after bin Laden’s death, but it has no contextual place in MLK’s life.

Through examining tweets using the timeline in Google’s Realtime search, the site’s authors were able to track down the original source of the quote to uncover that it a was a statement by a blogger that was accidentally attributed to MLK through Twitter retweets.

To me, what is interesting is how easily I accepted the statement as having come from MLK.  It’s easy, with hindsight, to think that people who believe false things should be able to see through to the truth, and not be take in false information so easily.  In fact, the realization that I had so easily been fooled into believing that the quote was from MLK had a humbling affect on me.  I normally see myself as a rational skeptic who is immune to being fooled by false information.  Apparently, I needed to realize that I’m just as easy to fool as anyone else.

There is no error checking on the internet, and things can move amazingly fast.  Within 24 hours of being tweeted, the fake MLK quote had been retweeted 10,000 times.  Tweets can transform a small mistake into common knowledge almost instantaneously.  In this case it appears that there were no malicious intentions on anyone’s part, just honest mistakes.  However, in a some ways this situation is scarier.  If there were direct sources who were deliberately misinforming people it would be pretty easy for people to avoid the liars. However, in this media landscape things move so fast that even reliable sources can make mistakes.  This propensity should inspire people everywhere to make the effort to be more critical of information they get.

Oh, and people are still retweeting the quote and attributing it to MLK, so beware that once a false idea has caught hold it doesn’t fade away quickly.

My reflection on Osama bin Laden’s death has been up for less than 12 hours and it’s already received more hits than any post I’ve made in the last year and a half I’ve had this blog.  The statistics page shows that the bin Laden post is already nearing half of the total views my blog has ever received.  I feel kind of gratified about the post’s success.  It was timely (I posted it 2 minutes after Obama’s speech), I used good tagging to increase my hits, and I shamelessly plugged it on Twitter and Facebook, basically employing all the tricks a couple of years of journalism school can drill into you.  More than that, I feel the post was successful because I wrote from a place of emotional honesty, and this is a topic that I have no doubt that everyone feels a lot of emotion over.

I’ve decided to follow the post up with one that is equally as timely, relevant, and emotional: that’s right, I’ll be doing a write-up of a video chat with a guest speaker in one of my journalism classes from nearly a week ago.  My sarcasm over my lackluster follow-up to a piece of my own writing that I felt was successful aside, the video chat with Stephen K. Doig really was interesting.

Doig is a journalist and pioneer in the field of power journalism, which for the many (very many) of you who haven’t seen my past posts on the topic is the use of tools such as database analysis and statistics to augment reporting.  Doig won a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Hurricane Andrew for the Miami Herald.  His most successful pieces involved the use of statistical tools to prove that the worst damage had occurred in newer homes because of weakened building codes and lack of inspections and enforcement of building codes.

Doig’s discussion was interesting to me for two reasons primarily: A) because he talked about how people with the proper skills can still find work in the journalism field, and B) because he talked about how much power journalism has changed in the nearly 20 years since this story broke.

I was interested in the first for purely self-centered reasons, so I’ll just skip right on past that for the benefit of people who may be reading this to, you know, learn things.  According to Doig, the biggest change to power journalism in the past 20 years is how much easier it is now.  This should not be surprising, computers have come a long way since then, so it would be a big deal if computer-assisted reporting hadn’t also progressed.  Doig says that it doesn’t take specialists to do this kind of reporting anymore and any journalist should be able to do it.  The reason why the increased ease of power journalism is so interesting to me is because it seems like news today is often too shallow to use investigative tools like power journalism.  If power journalism has become this easy it makes it all the more disappointing that our media have decided that it’s more important for me to know what type of pudding was served at Prince William’s wedding than how much money various businesses spend lobbying, or finding ways that the state government mismanages its funds.

I suppose though that the situation is more complicated than that.  The computational tools available are better than ever, but they can’t do anything if you don’t have data to work with.  Equally bad is the public’s own disinterest in serious news stories.  The fact that our country is currently involved in two and half wars is also shockingly under-reported, but I guess that is because people eventually become numb to the tragedy of it.

I set out to write what I thought would be a fairly simple summary of Doig’s discussion, but I somehow found my way back to the conflicts in the middle east.  I guess that shows you where my mind still is.

I was fourteen when the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center took place on September 11th, 2001.  I very clearly remember the entire day, and it was one of the defining moments of my transition from childhood to adulthood.  In the days that followed the attacks I learned who Osama bin Laden was for the first time.  I’m not a hateful person, but I learned to hate bin Laden in that time.  I read the email forwards of jokes about his death, and silently agreed with my dad whenever he would menacingly wish for the opportunity to have “five minutes alone with bin Laden.”

Now the breaking story of the night is that bin Laden is dead.  America’s boogeyman for the last ten years is gone.  I haven’t thought about bin Laden much in the last few years, but I’m really surprised by my reaction, given how much I, like many others, learned to hate him after 9/11.  I feel hollow.  I think I was much like the rest of America in the first weeks and months after the attacks.  We wanted to get him. When we started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there seemed to be an undercurrent that we would go in, kill the bad guys like bin Laden, and leave, victorious.

The subsequent years have gone somewhat differently.  We’ve watched thousands of American soldiers die.  We’ve dumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the wars while we’ve seen unprecedented cuts in spending on health care and education.  As a country we’ve committed torture and abandoned the rights that we declared inalienable at our founding more than 200 years ago.  We’ve watched American influence wane and the foundations of our economy falter.  We are now facing what is very likely the end of the American era.

Think of what it has cost us.  Billions of dollars are just the start of it.  Even the abandonment of our fundamental values like habeas corpus and the Eight Amendment are only a piece. In the wake of that and the sheer human costs of war, the death of Osama bin Laden does not feel like a win.  It’s empty.  The fighting will keep going on.   Soldiers, insurgents and civilians will keep dying.  The troops aren’t all gonna come home tomorrow, and when they do, what will it have cost them?  What has it cost America?

I’m reminded of the old adage that things are always worth just a little bit less than what you give up to get them.  I’m guessing there will be some general celebration of this news over the next few days.  I won’t look down at anyone who does celebrate.  I’ll probably even return the high fives and join in the celebration.  However, I hope that we all take a moment to ask ourselves if getting our revenge was worth what it cost us.

For more information:

Cost of War

iCasualties

Amnesty International – Guantánamo Bay

I am fundamentally a curious person.  I want to understand the world around me.  I fail miserably at it, but I try nonetheless.  In the tougher moments of being involved in journalism I occasionally am inclined to give the whole thing up, but when it’s good I get to learn some really cool stuff.

For me there is a joy in learning, new ideas are to me, almost comparable to a drug.  Yesterday, I got a crazy information high.

The chain of events was kicked off by me watching the RSAnimate video I linked to yesterday.  After finishing my post, I watched a few more RSAnimate videos.  Then I watched some TedTalks on hulu.com.  Then I watched got caught up watching Nova on PBS Video.   From there I fell down what Urban Dictionary calls a Wikipedia hole.  This is when you go from one article to the next, following link after link to sources and subtopics and articles on related subjects.

Before I even knew what was happening, 3 hours had passed.  I’d moved from Geothermal energy all the way to the Eugene Saturday Market and then I strangely transitioned back to the environment in the form of Carbon Offsetting, by way of the article on Nike.  After this my path fragmented hoplessly into a dozen different directions.  (Complete Path from environment and back: Geothermal Power>Kola Super deep borehole> Well to Hell Hoax >Weekly World News History > Elvis Presley Phenomenon > 24 Hour Church of Elvis > Portland Saturday Market > Eugene Saturday Market > Nike Corporation > Carbon Offsetting)

The moral of the story was that this was an extremely enjoyable Sunday afternoon.  I learned some useful stuff and a lot of less useful stuff, but it was extremely fun.  I encourage everyone to get lost in learning new stuff today!

Why fiction matters

As a journalist I tend to value things that reveal the truth.  I like investigative reporting and news on important issues.  As I’ve reembarked on studying statistics this term I’ve begun to remember their value in generating reliable answers to difficult questions.  Likewise, I’ve always admired science for it’s ability to illuminate the world.  However, there is one subject that people in the harder fields of study tend to disregard: English.   However, in my opinion, fiction, while not explicitly true, can reveal important truths about the human condition.  I’ve been thinking a bit about fiction and the arts in general because I think it can often explain things in a way that is truer than the cold facts.  While in high school I learned more about racism from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mickingbird than from any textbook I ever read.  Later in college, I began to better understand mortality through reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

While I’m a sucker for fiction novels, I think it joins in the larger category of what art can do to help engage people.  In the following video, Sir Ken Robinson, an educational expert, discusses  how arts in school can help kids to engage and learn to be better critical thinkers.

A lot of what I love about journalism is that at it’s core it gives people information that hopefully allows them to make educated decisions and think critically.  I think that there is something that journalists can learn from art: the ability to engage people in meaningful ways and say things that people identify with as the truth on a emotional level.  I don’t mean to suggest that journalists should always go for emotion and drama.  Indeed, it seems like the only news organizations only use one emotion: fear.  Despite this I still think some of the best stories have a strong emotional core to them, and journalists, with all our concerns for hard facts and statistics should be aware of the essentially human nature of our profession.  This profile of a cigarette vendor published by the New York Times is a great example of this.  While it contains many hard facts describing the current situation of cigarette taxes in New York, at its core it tells the story of at a very real and human level.

Art is intrinsically aware of the human aesthetic and emotion.  Journalists can learn something from that.

The long interview

I’m guessing most people with experience in journalism have experienced an interview or two that lasted longer than they would have liked.  Those situations are part of the job and when you get more experienced with reporting you (hopefully) learn to control the interview a bit more, so that you can save yourself some time.  In the last few months I think I’ve been getting better as an interviewer, and I get better information faster than I did when I had less experience.  However, it occasionally happens that I lose control of an interview and it lasts way longer than I want it to.

I had one of those experiences recently and it was really hard to keep my subject on topic.  In the end I spent a few hours interviewing my subject but only 45 minutes of the conversation was on topic.  The situation was particularly frustrating because I used every tip and trick I’ve ever heard about to try to keep the conversation on track, but my subject kept straying to material that was unrelated to what I needed for my story.  The conversation was not unpleasant, but I ended up taking 3 times as long to do something, and as journalists know time is incredibly valuable when you are on deadline.  This source is the subject of a profile, so they are essential to the piece and I know that small talk is really important in building trust with a subject, but the situation was still difficult.

Although I’m moderately convinced that there are some sources who are always going to take longer to interview than you would like there were a few things I tried which seemed more productive than others:

1) The Segue – When you get into an unrelated discussion that lasts for a while try to find ways to steer the conversation back to the subject at hand.  The advantage of this technique is that it can be very natural and it won’t disrupt the flow of the conversation.  Simple phrases like “That reminds me that I wanted to ask about…” can be a simple and smooth way to move back to productive topics.

2) Just interrupt them – this is the opposite of the segue.  Sometimes, as rude as it seems, you just need to stop the conversation and go back to your questions.  If you are a polite person you may dislike this one at first – but after you’ve spent a bit too much time hearing about your subject’s last vacation you’ll get over that dislike pretty quick.

3) Talk about your deadline – Student journalists often have more time to work on stories than professionals; however, this does not mean that we  don’t have deadlines,  and you shouldn’t let your subjects forget either.  Not having open-ended conversations can help everyone involved be more focused.

Good luck interviewing!