Understanding Journalists’ Information Security Choices

In the roughly two years since the Snowden revelations, information security and source protection has become an ongoing focus of conferences, surveys, and how-to guides geared towards the journalism community. Yet despite chilling effects, targeted hacking, and the high-profile prosecution of sources, a Pew Research Center survey (conducted in association with the Tow Center) of investigative journalists released just a few months ago found that relatively few of them had changed their practices in light of these events.

On its surface, this seems counterintuitive. If journalists know that their communications and data may be under surveillance or the target of attack, why haven’t they adapted their practices to mitigate these risks? Surely both protecting and reassuring sources is crucial to building the kind of relationships on which essential journalism is based. Yet apart from select news organizations, strong information security is still seen as optional by many working journalists.

Eight months ago, my collaborators and I set out to explore why this might be, by learning more about how journalists collect, store and transmit information on a day-to-day basis. The full results of this study – based on in-depth interviews with institutional journalists at a range of news organizations on two continents – will be presented at USENIX Security in August, but the paper is already available for download here.

Many of our findings will not surprise industry professionals, yet present shared challenges faced by organizations and journalists across coverage areas and countries, suggesting opportunities for collaboration and additional development:


  • The infrastructure and overhead of many security-enhancing tools are incompatible with journalists’ and sources’ available technologies. Sources’ preferences tend to drive journalists’ use of a particular communication channel, and the most vulnerable sources may have limited or non-exclusive access to the accounts and devices required to use existing information security tools.  For example, some participants reported working with sources that owned only a feature phone or did not personally own a computer.
  • Journalists’ information security priorities are influenced by the resources and culture of their organization. Several of our study participants felt that they did not have anyone within their organization to ask about information security issues; of those that did, many referenced a colleague covering information security rather than a technical expert. Many study participants also lacked both the software to secure their communications and data (such as PGP), and the privileges to install such software on their work computers.
  • The risks, benefits and best applications of existing tools are poorly understood. Only one journalist in our study expressed concerns about the use of third-party communication and data storage tools, despite weak legal protections for the extensive data and metadata stored with them. Likewise, participants expressed skepticism about using anonymity-supporting platforms like SecureDrop, even though it can be used to conduct ongoing conversations between journalists and sources to verify submitted data.
  • Journalists have unaddressed information management needs. Many participants reported using third party and/or cloud based tools – often connected to personal accounts – to collect, organize and search story-related research, notes and other data. While these systems introduce vulnerabilities, they indicate an opportunity to create secure, journalism-oriented software solutions for note and data storage, organization, and retrieval.
  • Journalists tend to think of information security as an individual rather than a collective problem. Many of our participants said that they did not believe their work was likely to be the subject of either legal or technical targeting. Yet many participants also reported some sharing of resources with editors, proofreaders or collaborators, meaning an attack on a colleague could affect their work or vice versa.

While the results of this work suggest that there is still much to improve about journalists’ information security practices, it also highlights some distinct paths for future research, tool development and educational interventions, some of which are already in development. In addition, we are currently conducting research around the challenges to information security that journalistic outlets experience at an organizational level, and are actively seeking collaborators. If you are interested in learning how your organization can help with this work, please contact Susan McGregor at


Grant Awarded to Eyewitness Media Hub

Last May the Tow Center for Digital Journalism launched Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content. As a direct result of the research, co-authors Claire Wardle, Sam Dubberley and Pete Brown were given $60,000 by Storyful as seed money to create the Eyewitness Media Hub.

This month, Eyewitness Media Hub was awarded a 2-year grant to build and manage a destination website called First Draft. It will host a resource library with training materials dedicated to teaching journalists about the issues associated with UGC: verification, ethics, vicarious trauma, along with posts by a coalition of other UGC experts.

One of the experts working on this project is Tow Fellow Craig Silverman, due to his work on the platform, Emergent — a tool built as part of his Tow Center report, Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.

Reuters Digital News Report: Why Research Matters

Four years ago, I watched Nic Newman present his latest research at a BBC social media conference I’d helped organise. (You can watch his session on YouTube here). He emphasised to the audience that search engines were no longer the primary source of news but were starting to be replaced by social discovery. Many of the social media early adopters in the room nodded in agreement, but this shift was still big news for those in the mainstream news industry.

This research – published in 2011 – led to the creation of the annual Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.  Yesterday marked the publication of the fourth Digital News Report. The results were based on an online survey, carried out in 12 countries.

The report is a humdinger.

With four years of data, and now with multiple years of data from five countries we can see some very key trends emerging. But what we can also see is that this stuff is complex. Once you dig down by country, age, gender and by social network, you see really interesting but very different trends taking place.

Here are three of my favourite visuals from the report. The first shows people’s main source of news by country.

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 18.03.18

In France, Germany and Japan, TV is still the main source of news by some margin. In Australia and Finland, the internet is the main source of news. In the US, 43% of people say online news is how they keep abreast of what’s going on in the world, but a striking 40% consider TV their primary source of news. TV News certainly isn’t dead.

This data gains complexity when we cross-reference it with the second graph, which looks at age. It’s very clear that older news consumers have very different patterns compared to their younger counterparts. If you’re a news executive working for an organization that has to keep both sets of audiences happy, you have your work cut out. These groups are in completely different places – literally.

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 18.03.54

The third nugget is the following one.  Most people are using two or three devices simultaneously to access the news. It’s not that smartphones are replacing desktop.


Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 16.27.52

This piece of data acts as a reminder that whenever some self-proclaimed guru stands up and makes bold pronouncements about the state of the news industry, remind them (or at least remind the snarky backchannel that is Twitter at a conference) that they’re missing the necessary complexity. Just the other day at the World News Media Congress I heard another person passing on the false claim that desktop was dead. “It’s all about mobile.” Wrong. Desktop is still important for people, especially at work. But you also have to provide content for them that performs on their smartphone or tablet for their commute or late night swiping in bed.

I acknowledge that as I write this from my position as Research Director, I might be biased, but this report yet again emphasises the need for quality, rigorous audience research. Conference presentations are full of powerpoint presentations, often based on hunches based on personal experience of individual habits. Only by looking at research of this quality and scale are you reminded of the need to really understand what is going on in terms of the digital news landscape.

The whole report is long, but the executive summary should be read by everyone currently working in the news industry.

The key findings are outlined very clearly in the Executive Summary but I want to reflect on some of the most interesting aspects for me, and how it relates to the some of the research we are doing, or will be doing at the Tow Center in the near future.

Our Director, Emily Bell, has spoken and written extensively about this growing interdependence between the social networks and news publishers (and she has an essay in this report). The increasing reliance on social networks as a place to find news is underlined in this research.  As Newman argues “social media are not seen as a destination for accurate and reliable journalism but more as a way of getting access to it.”

And Facebook is the dominant player here. 41% of people surveyed stated they use the network to find, read, watch, share, or comment on the news each week (an increase of 6% from last year). However, the reason it’s so dominant is because it’s part of many people’s day to day habits, irrespective of their news habits. But as a result, when they’re on Facebook, they see news. They can’t help it. As Newman describes, people seek news out on Twitter but they bump into it on Facebook.

And look at YouTube – still a dominant force in terms of news. As someone who is mildly obsessed by the videos of breaking news uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses, I would love to know how much of this number is people watching traditional news bulletins on Youtube, and how much is actually people seeking out raw footage from news events once they hear about it.

The different attributes of the social networks are an important reminder that we use the catch-all phrase ‘social media’ at our peril when we’re trying to understand audience habits.

This report also highlights the changing ecosystem in terms of chatapps and news. As this graph highlights, 9% of people surveyed said they had found, read, watched, shared or discussed news on Whatsapp (just lower than Twitter at 11%).

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 18.25.55

And as Newman reminds us, Facebook’s dominance is even more significant considering its ownership of Whatsapp and Instagram, both increasingly important players in the new news ecosystem.  But he also outlines the importance of different networks, particularly chatapps in different parts of the world. The increasingly important role of chatapps in terms of newsgathering but also distribution will be a significant focus of our work at the Tow Center in the coming months, so watch this space.

In many ways, this research underlines the trends that many of us already have a sense about, either from observing habits on public transport, conversations with our teenagers or our parents. But this research is so important because it documents a moment in time, and through its rigorous methodology employed in twelve different countries, it’s an important reminder that change is happening at different speeds, in different ways in different locations. One size does certainly not fit all.

What the 2015 Digital News Report Says About The USA’s News Landscape

The 2015 Digital News Report gives readers a comprehensive and dependable picture of the news ecosystem in the USA; what’s happening now, the trends, and comparisons with key global markets.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism is pleased to be the US partner for the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, a survey of more than 20,000 news consumers across 12 countries, including 2,295 people in the USA. This international, yearly research has produced a valuable resource as the industry continues to navigate a changing world.

We can see year on year data about the brands that audiences value, which devices they’re using, video uptake, social distribution, and – crucially – the behaviors and attitudes towards key revenue sources; subscriptions, display ads and native advertising.

The Reports’ analysts have pulled out their key insights, but interested researchers can also request the full data set, including demographic and regional breakdowns.

This year’s data shows a changing of the guard in the digital news companies’ audience reach, the big national broadcasters roughly holding steady, and a horrible period for local print and broadcast news.

This unique set of insights into audience behaviors and attitudes also exposes the strategic imperatives driving the news industry’s approach to native advertising.

Meanwhile, the social platforms have consolidated their position as global news gatekeepers, the implications of which are analyzed in detail by the Tow Center’s director Emily Bell. These services provide distinct opportunities to access traditionally hard-to-reach audiences.


The big story in digital reach is Yahoo News’ decline and Huffington Post’s rise. Yahoo News has lost almost a third of its reach in two years, according to this survey. By contrast, in just one year Huffington Post increased its reach by almost a third.


The survey showed a stark contrast between the fortunes of prestigious newspaper brands and local brands online. The national newspapers, the New York Times, and The Washington Post increased their digital reach. The local newspapers online plunged two thirds collectively, going from serious players to bit players.

The Papers Digital

BuzzFeed doubled its news reach reflecting aggressive hiring in hard news and investigations. A sizable audience said they used BBC online, specifically named for the first time in this year’s survey.

The Digital News Brands

Although it’s figures haven’t changed much year to year, GoogleNews remains a solid, relevant brand, reaching 14% of online news consumers.

These are the patterns of reach amongst the digital brands which interest The Tow Center, but there are plenty more in the full report, including the online operations of the TV and radio broadcasters.


This survey of US audiences shows why news organizations are risking their brands by publishing native advertising. There’s no easy growth left in subscriptions and payments, and audiences mostly dislike whatever ads they can’t block.

Previous years’ growth in digital subscriptions and payments has leveled off at only 11% of consumers. The vast majority of people say they’ll never pay for news. From those left over, news organizations might expect to get less than $9 per user per year – split over the whole industry.

What is the maximum price you would pay for a subscription to a digital-only news service – including full access to its website, apps and any digital replicas of the newspaper? (N=1942)
$0 (I won’t pay for any digital news service, whatever the price) 66.7%
$2.50 per month ($30 per year) 13.2%
$5 per month ($60 per year) 5.9%
$10 per month ($120 per year) 3.2%
$15 per month ($180 per year) 0.4%
$20 per month ($240 per year) 0.7%
$25 per month ($300 per year) 0.1%
$30 per month ($360 per year) 0.2%
More than $30 per month (more than $360 per year) 0.1%
Don’t know 9.5%
Mean Yearly $8.39

Meanwhile, almost half the audience uses some kind of ad-blocker, large numbers of people ignore ads, or avoid experiences where ads interfere with content.

Do you regularly use Ad Blocking software (software you have installed on your device specifically to remove advertisements from news or other websites)? Please select all that apply. (N=2,295)
Yes, on desktop/ laptop 41%
Yes, on mobile 11%
Yes, on tablet 7%
No 53%
Net: Yes 47%
Which of the following statements best sums up your view of traditional banner advertising on news websites? (N=2,295)
I find advertisements distracting and will actively avoid sites where they interfere with the content too much 29%
I find advertisements distracting but put up with them to get to the content I like 22%
I mainly ignore adverts, so they don’t distract me too much 30%
I don’t mind advertisements and sometimes find them useful 13%
Don’t Know 6%
Net: Distracting 51%
Net: Not distracting 43%

In this environment, we can understand why news organizations produce native advertising, despite these dangers, which are pronounced. More than a quarter of respondents said sponsored content reflects badly on the publisher’s brand, and almost half of the respondents said they’d felt disappointed or deceived having read one of those articles, only to find out they’ve been sponsored. As one focus group member said “I think it’s a dirty way of getting your attention. Which is by lying.” The glimmer of hope is that two thirds of respondents had neutral feelings.

This year’s project includes a special report on native advertising. You can read it here.

Local TV news collectively is still the source with the greatest reach, but the trend line is down. Collectively local or regional newspaper audiences dropped by a third.

In national TV, Fox News held reach above its competitors, CNN was the only brand to record an increase, CBS and ABC fluctuate, NBC/MSNBC is trending down.

The National TV Brands

The survey recorded offline reach jumping for New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, a counter-intuitive result those newspapers’ marketers may want to explore more deeply.

Newspapers' Offline Reach


Few observers will be surprised that smartphone news reach is up, significantly. It jumped a third this year. But at only 44%, there’s still a lot of growth potential, which equates to opportunity for newcomers and danger for incumbents.

For computers the trend line goes the other way; this year news-via-computer reach dropped an eighth to 64%, while tablets’ news growth has been barely perceptible; now at 21%.

Within this device data, however, is a worrying trend for the industry. It concerns the share of news attention on this platform. The vast majority of people using a computer consumed news. In smartphones (the main growth platform), the figure is lower and on tablets (also a growth platform overall) news’ share of attention has dropped a lot over the last three surveys.

So, as audiences spend more time on smartphones and tablets instead of computers, news’ reach reduces relative to other uses.

Device's News Use


The survey showed that news, for most US audiences, is a social experience. When combining news commenting, sharing, liking, uploading, voting and in-person discussion, almost three-quarters of respondents participate in news production or distribution in an average week.

More than a quarter of people comment on news stories: on social media or on the news site. Uploading video or pictures: 10% of people have uploaded something; only 3% have contributed directly to a news website.

There is a small trend away from sharing over email, but other than that these behaviors appear entrenched.


Facebook is the single most significant gatekeeper for digital news in the USA. 40% of the population use it for news, a rise from last year and the year before. That said, Brazilian audiences outstrip even the US. In that country, 70% of the respondents get news from Facebook.

Emily Bell’s essay notes that news reaches vastly different audiences on social platforms. Whereas direct visits to news websites, email signups and news alerts skew male, social news discovery skews female. Social services also get to lower income populations and casual users; populations that most mainstream news organizations have difficulty attracting.

News use within social platforms has developed distinct demographic contours; Facebook and YouTube skew much older than Instagram, Tumblr, and reddit, with Twitter sitting between.

You can download the full Reuters Institute Digital News Report directly.

Audiences of this report may also be interested in The Tow Center report
Post Industrial Journalism, by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky.
The data about trends in video consumption are well-complemented by Professor Duy Linh Tu’s
Video Now report for the Tow Center on multimedia production in US newsrooms.

The Tow Center is a research and development group within the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. The Center helps the journalism industry navigate in this current era of continuous change, and prepares the next generation of journalists to enter the workforce with relevant and valuable digital skills.

Measuring impact with NewsLynx: The Impact Platform

On Thursday, June 4, 2015, we hosted Tow Fellows Michael Keller and Brian Abelson to present their Tow-Knight paper, NewsLynx: A Tool for Newsroom Impact Measurement.  The release of the paper coincides with the conclusion of nearly 2 years of work on behalf of Keller and Abelson in developing a platform for measuring the impact of journalistic pieces once they have been published.  The platform combines quantitative data collection and qualitative analysis.

Keller and Abelson presented their work in conceptualizing the project and developing the platform for implementation.  Following their presentation, they were joined by: Sarah Nir, a New York Times reporter whose recent exposé ‘The Price of Nice Nails’ prompted swift responses from city and state regulators; Lindsay Green-Barber, the Center For Investigative Reporting‘s Impact Analyst; and Blair Hickman, the Audience Editor at The Marshall Project, an organization aimed specifically at amplifying the national conversation about the criminal justice system.  The group’s discussion touched on how different organizations and individuals define impact, and the myriad ways in which impact may be defined related to the goal of a journalistic product and its audience.

birth set

The event was recorded and live-streamed; the video-recording of the event may be accessed at the Columbia Journalism School YouTube channel, here.


Eyewitness Media – how do online and broadcast compare?

This time last year, almost to the day, Sam Dubberley and myself presented the results of a new study on user-generated content and its use by broadcast media. You can find the full report here, and our presentation here.  Our research assistant on that project was the super smart Pete Brown.

Over the past year Pete has been working on a partner study, examining the integration of user-generated content (which we now call eyewitness media – see why here) by online news sites. His research was published last week, and you can find the research website and full pdf here.

What I want to do here is compare the two reports. What are the main differences between the ways in which television broadcasters and news websites use eyewitness media? There are differences, and it turns out digital media performs better, but not so much that we can all go home.

In the first study we analysed three weeks of output (November 25 until December 15, 2013) by eight different international news broadcasters – Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera English, BBC World, CNN International, euronews, France 24 English, NHK, and Telesur.

In this second study, Pete Brown again examined three weeks of coverage, although different dates to the first sample (August 26 until September 15, 2014). For this study his sample included eight newspaper websites, which were located across five continents, and had the largest relative readership. They were: Cairo Post[1], Clarín (Argentina), the Daily Mail (UK), the Guardian (UK), New York Times, Sydney Morning Herald and the Times of India.

How much do broadcasters use in comparison to the news websites?

On TV, there were 2,115 pieces of eyewitness media broadcast on the eight channels over the three weeks. Online, there was 4,974 – almost 2.5 times as much content. Each broadcaster had 24 hours of programming to fill. Online publishers, in comparison, have unlimited space. Online, there was a vast difference in terms of the number of articles that were featured on the homepage. The Daily Mail had an average of 465 articles each day, compared to Clarín, which had 37 per day. Overall, both studies show the consistent, and significant use of eyewitness media.


Broadcasters News websites
Number of ‘items’ of eyewitness media over 21 consecutive days 2,115 4,974
Average Eyewitness media was used every half an hour of programming Eyewitness media was used once every 5.6 articles


Some broadcasters – such as Telesur – used hardly any, but for those who understood how to use eyewitness media in their output, it is being used, particularly as a way of covering breaking news stories. Online, it’s also certainly a way of creating articles that otherwise would not be written. For example a story of a bear dancing on a golf course needs pictures!


In what types of stories is it used?

(Here is the Daily Mail article on the dancing bear)

On television, eyewitness media was almost entirely related to breaking news coverage, or the ongoing conflict in Syria.  Photographs and videos were used as part of packages to add depth and colour.

Online, eyewitness media was also used for breaking news coverage, but it was also used to create photo galleries to illustrate a particular trend or experience, to create stand-alone stories based around a particular video, or used as part of more in-depth coverage, for example explainer videos about ISIS (this was an area in which the New York Times was particularly strong). The variety of formats that exist online meant that eyewitness media appeared in a number of different ways. There were definitely more examples of ‘softer’ types of stories, such as talented (or potty-mouthed) children, or entertaining animal encounters.


How much was credited?

Our first study received quite a bit of interest because of the evidence that eyewitness media is frequently not credited. We found only 16% of the eyewitness media broadcast during the study period had been actively credited. (We say ‘actively’ because we did not consider a watermarked logo in the top left hand corner of a video uploaded by a Syrian activist group to be a clear credit, from the audience’s perspective).

In the online study, the results were quite different. 49% of the content was credited. It’s worth noting that 19% of that was an ‘automatic’ credit because the content was embedded, which means the DNA of the piece of content is automatically available as part of that process, i.e. you can see the username, click through to the picture or video on the social network that hosts it.


Broadcasters News websites
Percentage of eyewitness media credited 16% 49%


Overall, it’s pretty depressing to note that less than half of all content was credited to the eyewitness. In certain situations, crediting is not the right thing to do. Sometimes eyewitnesses do not want to be credited, either for safety or privacy reasons, and best practice is for journalists to ask the eyewitness whether they would like to be credited and how. It’s certainly not the case that 51% asked not to be credited, particularly as this research also included a number of conversations with the eyewitnesses whose content had been found during the study. Many of them revealed that they hadn’t even had their permission sought, let alone been asked how they would like to be credited. In one example, the eyewitness gave permission for her photo on the condition that she was credited, only for it to be re-used the following day without credit.


How much was embedded?

Embedding is a really interesting question when comparing broadcasters with online publishers, because broadcasters can’t embed. TV producers who want to use footage they’ve found on YouTube or Facebook, don’t have the option to embed. They have to download the content and re-upload to their own systems. In order to do that, the broadcasters should be seeking permission from the person who filmed the content (crucially not the person who uploaded it; the person who filmed the footage and therefore retains the copyright). Embedding therefore has significant benefits, particularly during breaking news events as online news publishers can embed photos and videos without having to wait for permission.

Embedding also comes with a couple of downsides. Mainly that if the eyewitness deletes the post, your online site suffers from a black hole where the content used to be. Embedding also means that the person’s identity is automatically being shared much more widely with the world. Someone caught up in a active shooter situation might post to instagram to share information with family and friends, but embedding that post on a news site that receives significant traffic might not be the ethical thing to do.

Taking this into account, it’s still worth looking at embedding practices. Would it be more ethical if newsrooms asked permission to embed, for example? There is certainly a conversation to be had here. Overall only 19% of eyewitness media was embedded by the news sites included in this study.

How much content was labelled?

Crediting involves identifying who the eyewitness was, by including their username or real name on screen or within a caption. Labelling simply means explaining that the content audiences are viewing was captured by someone unrelated to the newsroom. Interestingly, in some UK-based focus group research carried out by Pete Brown (to be published soon) many participants argued that they didn’t need labels as they could always ‘tell’ when something was eyewitness media. As a research team that has been examining eyewitness media for almost two years, we need to explain that it is certainly not always clear, and often as part of the research we had to carry out quite detailed investigations to confirm the provenance of a piece of footage.

It is also much more than simply labeling whether a piece of footage is eyewitness media, it is also about providing context for the audience. If a piece of footage was captured by an innocent bystander, someone caught up in a breaking news event, that is one thing. But many other people, filming on their mobile phones and uploading to the social web, have other motivations. It could be relatively benign, such as a humanitarian worker documenting their experiences in the field, or it could be less so – such as when it is someone related to ISIS documenting the capture of a town – or it could be an activist at a protest. It is important for the audience to know the ‘source’ of the picture or video as it provides crucial context, and I use the term ‘source’ deliberately here.


Broadcasters News websites
Percentage of eyewitness media labelled 28% 74%


On television, only 28% of the eyewitness media examined included a label. Online, it was 74%, a significant difference. The additional space online provides more options, undoubtedly, but I would also argue labeling is an example of how online there are higher expectations in terms of transparency.


And finally…

No research is perfect, and this sort of comparison is a little bit unfair. The three weeks studied were not the same as the earlier three weeks examined for the broadcast study. Similarly the averages used here hide really significant differences between broadcasters or publishers. But still there are trends that can be seen here, that suggest there are importance differences in the way broadcasters and publishers are using eyewitness media.

The most significant take-away is that eyewitness media is a really important source for news outlets. And as both of these reports show in different ways, particularly the qualitative aspects (the interviews with journalists, as well as uploaders), it is a wild west out there. There is a great deal of ignorance both in newsrooms and amongst eyewitnesses about the legal and ethical questions that remain.

The original Tow Center research led to the formation of the Eyewitness Media Hub, and as a result this latest research. Pete Brown has continued researching this area, and his report on the way audiences think about the news industry’s use of eyewitness media will be published very soon. The bottom line about all of this research is that there is still a long way to go in supporting newsrooms so they know how to use it, as well as educating eyewitnesses on their rights. We hope the research will provide evidence for newsrooms that they need to think about their current practices, and we are continuing to build resources to help people navigate their way through these issues.

[1] Pete had originally intended to focus solely on newspaper websites ranked in the top 1000 for web traffic by Alexa. He had hoped to include Youm7, but as a non-Arabic speaker he had to make a compromise. He decided to include the Cairo Post instead because it is English language and produced by Youm7.

Supporting Citizen Journalism in Turkey

An audio recording of a recent discussion with the co-founder of 140journos is available here on SoundCloud.

Thanks to the rise of social media and crowd-sourcing, an increasing amount of reporting now comes from individuals without specific journalistic training. While communications researchers often focus on the impact of citizen reporting on journalism, we rarely interrogate how closely it is linked to civic engagement: Are citizens who send reports from the ground already engaged in other areas of civic life? What are the ways of building diverse citizen news communities online? And how can social media be used to spur a conversation – not to mention action – despite the constant stream of new information that these tools provide?

Engin Onder, co-founder of Turkey’s 140journos, a Twitter-based citizen journalism network, visited Columbia Journalism School last week to talk about his organization’s experience of building and engaging a news community online. Founded in early 2012, 140journos set out to counter media manipulation and censorship in Turkey, whose media environment has been degrading for several years. In its 2014 press freedom rankings, Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “partly free” to “not free.” “Turkey’s TV stations aired 44 hours of live speeches by President Erdoğan in one week” said Onder – meaning many major stories that matter to certain political, social, ethnic, religious or intellectual communities remain underreported.

In its first 18 months, 140journos operated in relative obscurity. Onder and his co-founders were reporting directly from street protests or courtrooms, sending 140-character Twitter reports about events that mainstream media largely ignored. When the Gezi protests began, however, Onder said their role changed almost overnight. In the information vacuum left by mainstream media, hundreds of people turned to Twitter to report and share news. Sifting through thousands of tweets, 140journos began curating and verifying social media content instead of reporting on the ground. “We wanted to keep a neutral identity so we were always avoiding to be part of the conversation during the Gezi protests,” Onder said.

During Gezi, 140journos gained a loyal following on social media and a reputation as a reliable citizen news network. Today, the organization has a core group of citizen reporters around the country that has already been vetted by 140journos’ editors. “We’re friends with many of them,” said Engin, adding that the group can generally rely on these reporters when there’s a particular story to be covered. 140journos also uses social media in creative ways to build intelligence around what kind of stories might become critical via Twitter lists or Facebook groups based on events or places.

The success of the group has prompted wider interest in their methods. 140journos was recently awarded a European Cultural Fountation grant to organize citizen journalism workshops in cities where there are not enough citizen reporters. Editors from 140journos are meeting with local change-makers or activists who already use social media platforms, but have yet to use them for news reporting. “In Turkey more than 30 million people use Facebook and more than 10 million are on Twitter, but not everyone may not be aware of how to better use the existing infrastructure,” said Onder.

It is one thing to have a large, diverse network of citizen reporters, and another to engage this network in an ongoing conversation. Turkey’s social media can be highly partisan and host to heated commentaries. 140journos, however, is very meticulous about using neutral language – to the extent that they keep a collection of “controversial words on social media.” While 140journos might not be liked on social media because their coverage is so neutral, Onder admits, he believes it is essential in order to reach to a diverse set of communities.

140journos strives to turn heated moments into “meaningful discussions” by using explanatory tools, such as maps. Onder described how 140journos created a community discussion around the death of Turkey’s former president Kenan Evren, who died on May 9. Evren was strongly disliked in much of the country at the time of  his death, so the news immediately became the most popular topic on Twitter. Among all the visuals and commentaries people were sharing on social media, 140journos team noticed a front-page story from the year Evren was elected president. Though was a poor-quality image, it displayed the results of Evren’s 1982 referendum, showing how cities around Turkey had voted. Using that image and the data it contained, 140journos created these new maps that, Onder explained, offers many insights into Turkey’s current political controversies, thus generating a more informed debate.

140journos is now working on two fronts by growing their team and community, and using better information and visuals to contextualize partisan issues. A key part of this, Onder said, is getting to know the country better by actually visiting cities and organizing workshops. “I can’t really tell where all these efforts are going to take us,” Onder confessed. “But we believe it is going to empower people.”

An audio recording of the event can be accessed on SoundCloud, here.

Read about Professor Susan McGregor’s upcoming work in Turkey with the President’s Global Innovation Fund at Columbia University.

Stills from the Showcase

On Tuesday, May 12th, the Tow Center co-hosted the Columbia Journalism School Showcase with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.  The showcase is an annual open house event that allows students and researchers to share their work with professional journalists, industry partners, entrepreneurs, technologists, academics, and the public.

This year’s showcase featured projects on data visualization, computational journalism, video and audio storytelling and research. Selected projects were installed and presented in the Brown Institute in Pulitzer Hall, and over 100 people came to celebrate the end of the year, and see the students’ and fellows’ work.

Digital Media Associate Joanna Plucinska photographed the event, a selection of her photos appear below.

BrownShowcase-36  BrownShowcase-5  BrownShowcase-21  BrownShowcase-4    BrownShowcase-10  BrownShowcase-8  BrownShowcase-31  BrownShowcase-14  BrownShowcase-30  BrownShowcase-11  BrownShowcase-24  BrownShowcase-33

Assistant Director Susan McGregor to Partner with Global Centers

Read the announcement by the Columbia Provost here.
The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School is proud to announce that Assistant Director Susan McGregor was among those selected to receive 2015 funding from the Columbia University President’s Global Innovation Fund for her project, the Global Operational Data Index. McGregor’s project was one of sixteen proposals chosen for funding from among the more than fifty submissions received.
Through a collaboration between the Tow Center and Columbia University’s Global Center in Istanbul, the Global Operational Data Index will collate information about on-the-ground communication conditions in countries around the world. By gathering and publishing region-specific information about the legal and technical circumstances affecting digital communications, the Global Operational Data Index will serve as a centralized, up-to-date reference for journalists, academics, human rights workers and others who depend on these communication systems for their work.
“In conversations with a wide range of journalistic and non-governmental organizations, it has become clear that accurate contextual information is essential to operating safely” in a given region, McGregor said. “Yet despite the wealth of knowledge contained in these organizations’ networks, a centralized repository of this information does not currently exist.  By drawing on the diversity of Columbia University’s students and faculty, in addition to forging partnerships with the Global Centers and others, the Global Operational Data Index can provide an essential resource for everyone wishing to work safely and effectively in a region foreign to their experience.”
Tow Center Director Emily Bell adds, “Freedom of the press and security for sources and journalists in a digital age is a key area of interest for the Tow Center. Working with Global Centers gives us an opportunity to develop our research and resources internationally.”
To learn more about the President’s Global Innovation Fund and McGregor’s project,  read the Columbia University press release and full project description.
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A Measurable Effect: Using Metrics in the Newsroom

By Sybile Penhirin

Metrics have become an inevitable component of today’s journalism. Many websites, such as Chartbeat and Google Analytics, offer various ways for newsrooms to measure and develop their audience. Even people who do not necessarily subscribe to these services can gauge their stories’ success by seeing how well they do on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

However, there has been little empirical research on how these metrics are produced and how they affect newsrooms’ cultures and journalists’ daily work, said Caitlin Petre, who recently published a report on the topic.

Petre presented the main points of her study, “Traffic Factories: Metrics at Chartbeat, Gawker Media and The New York Times” at a Tow Center event on Thursday night. You can read her report here and the key findings here.

She then invited three panelists to join the conversation: Sam Henig, one of The New York Times digital deputies in charge of broadening the use of metrics throughout the company’s newsroom, Chadwick Matlin, a features editor for FiveThirtyEight who is helping develop that newsroom’s approach to audience analytics; and John Herrman, whose ‘Content Wars’ series for The Awl examines the journalism industry’s metrics-driven moves and counter moves.

When understood and used well, analytics can help newsrooms know and target their audience better, the panelists said. Editors can manipulate different elements, such as headlines or the time a story is published, and then analyse the metrics in real time to determine which option attracts the most readers.

Matlin said he recently changed the photo on a published piece about Deflagate, which proved to be an efficient move to retain readers.

Similarly, The New York Times published the first part of their one-year long investigation on nails salons early on Thursday morning to optimize the number of readers reached.

“It’s very obvious to us that we should be publishing things at times when our readers are coming to us,” Henig said when talking about the publishing process of the company.

This strategy ensures that not only an optimal number of readers read the piece, but there is also a greater potential for the story to be shared and to go viral.

Thanks to analytics, media companies can explore dozens of features to optimize their stories’ spread.

“If you work at a place that is truly analytics-savvy, the thing that is most fluid is form,” Herrman noted.

A place like BuzzFeed, which is very analytics-savvy, seeks new ways of delivering their entertainment and news stories by experimenting with innovative concepts and formats for instance, he said.

“You can categorize that as a slippery slope, but I’m not sure what’s at the bottom, a lot of traffic and a lot of posts that people really like and share online,” he said.

Metrics, used as feedback, can also have a positive impact on writers and editors. In her report, Petre found that journalists sometimes turn to these data as a reassuring reminder of their professional competence.

“If you write online, you can sort of get the feeling sometimes that no one is reading or that you might not even exist, you need to be reminded a lot,” said Herrman when asked why metrics matter.

But data used in newsrooms also come with several underlying issues, Herrman, Henig, Matlin and Petre noted.

One of the pitfalls, for instance, is for the company’s end-goal to become reaching as many “clicks” as possible.

News organisations experimenting with their stories’ features in order to optimize their audience have to be careful that the piece form does not overwhelm its editorial part, Madlin said. A stand alone slideshow on the Syrian conflict might get a lot of visitors but is probably not the best editorial way to tell the story, for example.

“You write to be engaging and you can take that way way too far, analytics provide a lot of temptations to do that,” Herrman said, adding this trap was not so much inherent to analytics but rather to a loss of perspective from the institution’s part.

“That’s the kind of thing that happen in intuitions where you don’t have structures built around analytics, you don’t have someone to interpret it for you,” Herrman said.

To be well understood and used, metrics need to be placed into context and they cannot be interpreted on the fly, Petre noted in her report.

Henig agreed and explained that after their Innovation report, the New York Times brought several specialists – including a former hedge-fund employee, analytic experts and employees from the company’s product side – to form their team handling metrics.

To learn more about Metrics at The New York Times, but also at Gawker Media and Chartbeat, you can download Petre’s report by clicking here.