Towards a better news system

Posted: June 5, 2011 by Steve in Uncategorized

The following post was going to be my submission to the Mozilla-Knight Foundation challenge for People Powered News, until I realized that the limit was 500 words. My next posting was my actual submission.


I follow Jay Rosen and Dave Winer and love their take on a new news system and how it might work. They have great ideas and great ideas can matter and change things. But often great ideas fail not for lack of their greatness but because of how they fit into the landscape of power in society. If the “powers that be” don’t see the advantage for them in accepting these ideas, and the “powers that aren’t” don’t champion them as a way to upset the current power structure, then they don’t go anywhere. In short, the best ideas don’t always or even often win.

When it comes to journalism (defined as a broadly as possible, involving not just journalistic professionals but anyone who wants to journal about life’s ongoing events), there are considerable impediments to improvement in terms of who is delivering news now and why they are delivering it in the way that they do. The process of improvement must start by illustrating what is broken with the current system of news. To see what’s broken, we need to see how it deviates from an ideal for a news system in society.

What’s Broken

The ideal system of news should supply the most timely, and accurate information to the people that need it to make decisions on how best to live their lives individually and collectively into the future.

The current system of news fails us in numerous ways.

  • it focuses on trivial matters that have little impact on the real lives of people (Charlie Sheen, etc)
  • on substantive issues, it doesn’t seek to clarify, but just report what both “sides” say (he said/she said journalism)
  • news is reported without context so that it the understanding of important events is relayed without any historical reference
  • what counts as news is often determined by frames set up by official sources
  • more and more news coverage sourcing comes from PR firms that either generate stories or provide slanted content (for the benefit of their clients) to provide framing for the story.

The Truth Matters

What underlies much of this is a lack of focus on getting to the “truth”. Much of the way news is covered is really about avoiding and obscuring unpleasant truths that the powers that be would rather that the public didn’t know or understand.  It is not clear whether the type of news produced is the result of demand or supply. That is, do we get the news system we demand or the news system that is provided to us? Since, there is competition between news outlets, someone should have stepped up and provided us better more accurate news that I am looking for. On the other hand, there are overarching powers in society such as government and business that constrain unpleasant truths to the margins of news coverage. Part of what brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were releases of truthful information so long hidden by their governments and and by the US government. Since that release of truth, there has been a large backlash by the US government for further truth telling by the severe prosecution of whistle blowers (read: Bradley Manning). The powers that be tolerate the current news system because it gives the appearance of a news system that works when it actually doesn’t.

My Principles

My emphasis on power structures leads me to my suggestion for a component of the rebooted news system (to use Jay Rosen & Dave Winer’s phrase): a citizen owned, power balanced, model of news collection with a focus on using power balance to get at the truth. That is a mouthful, but in essence the pursuit of truth is a three legged stool with one leg being the desire to pursue the truth,  the second the method used discern facts from fiction, and the last the power structure being the truth searchers.

The desire to pursue the truth is key to arriving at the truth. Without a public acknowledgement of that desire, there will be no guiding principle that these organizations can be held to by the public. This desire can bridge the gap between partisens in that it is not in support of this policy or that policy, but in support of what is true, what works and what doesn’t. Others will rely on these organizations conclusions as approximations of truth for the decisions that they make about their futures.

Before discussing a method to pursue the truth it should acknowledge that the term truth is a slippery subject. One person’s truth is another person’s lie. Yet I believe that there are judgements that can be made about topics of public concern (what are the causes the deficit, unemployment, or global warming) that use the scientific method to obtain the most likely explanation for such events. In my opinion, the scientific method is our best hope to sift through observations and conclusions made by everyone to arrive at an ongoing approximation of the truth.

Lastly, power relationships matter greatly in how observations and conclusions are weighed in pursuit of the truth.  Power relationships broadly defined means the amount of control one person has over another person’s needs. If a corporation that got rich through military contracting also owns a news outlet, there will be pressure to not cover negative stories about military contracting, or to downplay them if they come up. Career trajectories will be adjusted according to what stories are pursued and which stories are ignored. The people paying the salaries call the tune.

My Proposal

My proposal to meet the above requirements is to create an eco-system where organizations can form that embody those principles. The eco-system would be supported by software, a web site and perhaps native apps, that would embed within them the rules that enforce these values.

The first and most complicated aspect to address is the last leg of the stool, the balance of power relationships within and between these organizations and within society.  A key tool in maintaining a balance of power is to measure how power is distributed through the use of transparency. Who is getting paid and how much and by whom? Who is funding these organizations? Where are stories/news originating from and who is controlling their trajectory.  I am proposing a completely open structure including all accounting so that all flows of people, money, agreements will be seen by all and auditable and measurable by all.  People’s perspectives, and backgrounds will not be hidden. This will not be the view from nowhere. Every contributor to a story or event will have a public profile  stating their views and positions and a history of changes in personal positions and reasons for it. Transparency allows observers both inside and outside to see if and how power relationships are changing.

Secondly, it is important to encourage a very diverse membership in these organizations. Diversity should be pursued through many axes: gender, class, race, sexuality, geography, age, religion, political leanings, etc. Every person brings differing perspectives on what constitutes an important story to follow, highlight and research.  compromised in some fashion. In the pursuit of truth, many perspectives are needed to get down to what is true and what is not. For all of us there are issues for which we have assumptions about things that we have no direct experience with. We not only need to have diversity within the funding structure where people work, get paid and form the center of the organization, but also in the people that volunteer their time and knowledge in building and covering stories (through blogging, twitter and what ever other means are used to communicate throughout the organization’s eco-system).

The desire to pursue the truth through scientific and systematic inquiry are the two other legs of the stool and they give purpose and drive to the project and a way to satisfy that desire in a way that will yield results. The scientific method (ie. develop a hypothesis, test it through experimentation and observation, modify, rinse, repeat until the hypothesis fits the observations) has been the greatest driver of human knowledge in the past 500 years. It is our best hope in our fight for the truth and against ignorance.

So in final summary, I am proposing setting up a software eco-system to support the functioning of open transparent news gathering organizations in the pursuit of truth in a systematic and scientific manner.

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