Ethical Challenges for Digital Journalism- Richard Gingras

Ethical Challenges for Digital Journalism- Richard Gingras

in spite of that very sweet introduction I'm not a journalist and don't get me wrong not that I wouldn't be proud to accept that label but I haven't earned my stripes while I have over the course of my career created or been involved in the creation of at least a half a dozen news products and in a few instances actually held the title of editor-in-chief I've never reported a story I've not worked deeply enough in the in the in the journalism trenches frankly to ever be comfortable using that term but as Sally says a large part of my career over the last third of a century has been in and around news products in and around journalistic endeavors from virtually every dimension so you know my interest in passions are there and they're keen I am a technologist I've developed products by architect products and user experiences and I have as I said spent now literally thirty three four years if not more in in the field of new media and I mentioned that to someone at Google and they looked at me like I was insane because they didn't think any of this stuff existed 33 years ago but it did now back in 1980 that was the really the first on-demand news product in the United States which was via broadcast teletext you know in in in the 90s it was the really the first graphical online experience with a world at Apple which focused on community and how people engage online it was with at home the first use of broadband and how we could use broadband to provide rich media experiences and and really delve into into news products and news experiences the likes of which we hadn't had the opportunity to do before it was various approaches which I also very passionate about of establishing technology-driven layers of trust we did that in e world in in trying to address real names versus pseudonyms which I'm now dealing with with Google+ it was also the case and a venture that I started called good mail which was looking at trust layers to certify electronic email and now at Google which I just returned to about five months ago not only in overseeing the news products at Google but the thing that really pulled me back was news the news team my organization is part of the social division at Google a report that Vic and rota and and we're responsible for Google+ and I spend at least half my time if not more really looking at how we can leverage our fabulous technologies in an algorithmic assessment of content to really see how we can build a extremely powerful interest graph in a social environment how do we help people find connections to content and end communities and I think there's just tremendous promise and potential there so which is all to say I've done a lot of things in and around the architecture and the ecosystem of news and information that doesn't mean I have answers which I also must be clear about in fact what I often say frankly proudly is that I've simply had the opportunity to make far more mistakes than most of you and what I speak at j-school is I mean that's one of the things I tell is I go out there and make mistakes make them as fast as you can and hopefully be smart enough to find them and correct them and fix them in moving forward I don't mean that in a journalistic sense of making errors in your reporting or in spelling my name wrong in programs but that's ok you know iiiii I was at news fou this weekend in Google News sponsored news fou and my name was wrong all over the place and I said hmm but Soviet doesn't mean I have the answers but but I have you know attained certain insights over those thirty years about information ecosystems in their evolution and though I might not know the answers I've certainly over time discover a lot of interesting questions so a few other thoughts we've obviously we're in a period of extraordinary and indeed revolutionary change we all know that we've moved from a comparatively unbelievably simplistic news and information ecosystem to one with capacities and capabilities that we would not have conceivably envisioned twenty thirty years ago I certainly did not as much as a Google engineer can't understand what was interesting about broadcast teletext we did not have a clue as to where all of this was going to go nor the kinds of changes that it has brought both good and bad we've moved from an ecosystem of comparatively fewer player a few players to one which is literally exponentially larger you know more information a fair to say that more information is being created by more people than we have ever experienced the entire course of human history that's a that's a powerful powerful thing in a very very positive thing of course information as we know does not equate to knowledge you know if we simply assume that that wheat the chaff ratios remain constant and I do there is exponentially more chaff there's exponentially more wheat though I would suggest that the act of separating one from the other has become pretty difficult you know whether that's the difference between good quality and bad quality whether that's the difference between data and knowledge or the various abilities that people have to make you think one is the other these are hard issues in fact I think that raises one of the biggest questions that we have to face as we move journalism forward we've also moved from an ecosystem that was was largely a top-down broadcast model right we had we were the the priests of information and everyone else listened and absorbed to one where now everyone can participate now that doesn't mean everyone gets heard but but but they're all there interesting there too is that many consumers of media don't know the difference and have a hard time detecting the difference and as we see when we look at the consumer studies we in the journalistic community don't actually start out with an advantage there often we start out with a disadvantage which is which is a real challenge so again a lot of significant things we've moved from a leap media landscape again it was largely one way to one law in audiences engage at every level so not only they creating information all over the place but they're engaging you and they're engaging you hard there's good in that there are challenges in that but the fact is it's there and then on creating information they're propagating your information that may be twisting it in wrong ways is at the same time we have also moved not in significantly from an environment where media institutions had near monopolistic control over their own ecosystems at least in a geographical sense to one where institutions even as large as the largest are where they're just small players in a larger ecosystem that cannot be controlled by anyone and that's a good thing I mean I think you know my biggest fear with the evolution of the Internet is where governments come in and try to control the ecosystems you know Google News you know one of these if we have additions in 70 languages around the world we do very different things in places like Zaire to try to protect the users I mean we do everything to block information from flowing through there because we know you know governments in certain countries aren't friendly to that sort of thing what are the effects of all this change you know obviously at this point we only partly know while many of us including me probably especially me believe with tremendous fervor that the future of journalism will be better than its past that that doesn't mean that it's easy getting there because we also know at least looking at the environment today you can't assume that the future will be this civil Nirvana of civic knowledge and wisdom frankly at the moment anything but that's a huge challenge and we also know that the transition of to the other will not be without great pain or tremendous challenge and God knows I don't have to say this to anyone in this room you know it far better than I do I'm pretty amazingly privileged to be sitting in the chair that I sit in today but the challenge is that most of which we are keenly aware of you know are driving us to really think hard about every aspect and that's certainly as I've talked to folks in the journalistic community is something I push very hard is don't just think that this is and I'm not saying people here think this way today certainly ten years ago it was a very different story five years ago it's a very different story that we can't look at the evolution of the web as simply a different vehicle of distribution right that's just one tiny part of it oh yes the evolution of the business model and we still haven't figured that out and that's going to be time coming it's the evolution of the product and its form that's going to continue to change what's the future of the destination news site in a world where we're increasingly more time is spent consuming information in social environments as an example you know what's the evolution of the architecture of the news story itself what's the evolution of the means of creation and the workflow that leads to that end product what's the evolution of the roles of the creators themselves I think is a really important none of these changes are required I'm accept if you're interested in how you succeed going forward they're not required because past methods were wrong but they're required because those methods may or may not be suited to the needs opportunities and challenges of our present and of our future now if all of that weren't challenging enough anyway have one more set of questions to consider which is the massive proliferation of information and the ease with which it can be propagated and accessed is obviously not without issue among the many powers of the internet and and frankly the power this most concerning is the ability to provide support for any opinion any belief any fear in give it greater volume that's a that's a that's a deeply concerning thing that was probably always there in our you know in our you nations but but we just could it's just too easy to get access to anything and again test test that theory come up with the most bizarre belief and you'll find something on the internet that says that's cool and sadly feeding on that both political entities and to an extent media companies know all too well that affirmation sells a lot better than information affirmation is far easier than hearing challenges to whatever ill-founded beliefs I think what someone might have or as clay Johnson put it who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they are right right a challenge a big challenge so how should journalism evolve to address a media ecosystem an ecosystem that can affirm any belief what does it say about the mission of journalism you know one of the things I was taken with in going through Sally's notes which I wasn't expecting and I think it's really a profoundly important question do news organizations need to expand their missions beyond simply telling the truth to missions that recognize that an informed populace also requires not only media literacy but cognitive reasoning can we impact that in some way that's a hard thing to take on I know and it's not like we're all saying here you know our businesses are all running so smoothly we're just looking for new challenges to take on but in the end if the role of the journalist is in a sense to provide knowledge and insight then it's also in our interest to try to create environments in context where that knowledge and insight can be heard so what does that say what does that say about the role of the journalist in conveying not only facts but insight what does that mean to how journalists engage with their audiences you know I'm much more on the side of engaged with the audiences in all manner or form this is no longer this is a dialogue and it has to be a dialogue and yes it's hard and yes it's painful and yes people say things you don't want to hear for all of us have experienced that but you've got to go there and next what are the ethics that guide the behaviors of those who practice that profession given the very different world we live in and again this is not to suggest that the mission or the ethics must change but they need to be reek and as necessary be modified be appended or affirmed right certain core principles stay the same we may indeed conclude as they expect we will that most of those principles do indeed remain the same but that fresh reconsideration the likes of which we're addressing today and the likes of which I hope continues far beyond today but that fresh consideration is at the least a healthy and at this point in time in my view a crucially important intellectual process that we take ourselves through and probably one that continues on going forward another thing that has occurred to me particularly of light is what are these changes say about the focus of journalistic institutions in themselves again how do we respond to an environment where there is literally too much news right I mean someone pointed out several months ago which is obvious when they when you hear it but not necessarily obvious before that which is you know the problem with the economics of journalism is it simply too much of it I think that's actually a very very accurate point so what does that say does that suggest that journalists should professional journalistic institutions continue to devote resources and again I'm just putting this out as an intellectual question I don't even have a view should they continue to devote resources to the near valueless documentation of trivia what is the state of Lindsey Lohan's psychosis or might it be better to focus on the creation of higher value knowledge and insight you know Kent can can we go there does aggressive focus on the format and I say that particularly because one of the things I find and I was as guilty of this and Emmas guilty of this in many regards we were at salon it's like in your effort to drive audience you kind of drive popular content because you know you got to build audience to drive advertising it's on the unfortunate ugly way the world of online advertising works today not at the same time one of the things you do find is a lot of that audience that you'd bring in doesn't have a huge amount of value all right the CPM is you can actually charge for a fairly de minimis so it does to me raised the question is does aggressive focus on the former the trivia actually diminished perceived value of the ladder you know something to struggle with again I truly don't know the answer to the question but it might be well worth considering so let me wrap up with just a few cautions one is on the pace of change it will not slow down it will only increase you know I think we often and understandably we think of the period we're in as a transition from one steady state that we knew and were very comfortable with to another steady state that will ultimately get to and somehow get comfortable with I don't think that's going to be the case because they ain't going to stay the same alright that that time is over and and and in a side note here you know a lot of us talk about and I myself I say you know it's very hard in journalistic institutions to transform cultures that have been so used to doing things in certain ways and that is true and I say it however I say that without one add your criticism to it because it's really not fair and appropriate and the reason is simply this if you look at the history of newspapers you go back 100 years the truth is is until the onset of the web the form and function of a newspaper didn't change didn't change yeah did color printing right we had bigger pictures higher quality presses the foreman function didn't change but we're now in a world where the foreman function does change in this changing all the time so hard to expect I mean when it's Salon when I was there for a couple of years recently you know I was like I tried so hard to get the editorial team involved and rethinking the product and it was virtually impossible and I came to the conclusion that it wasn't necessarily that they weren't interested in it but they didn't know how to think that way because they never had to think that way understandable and that's why I think when I didn't talk recently at a journalism school back east was like you we have to teach people how to deal with change we have to teach people how to innovate constantly in a fast changing environment because that's the environment that we're in right 15 years ago we introduced the consumer Internet itself and that was one thing 10 years ago it was about the role of search and how information was found and acquired and delivered and accessed shortly after that we saw the onset of the blogosphere and substant huge explosion and self-publishing five years ago was the emergence of the social layer barely five years ago with the emergence of the social layer a change that does not even come close to showing as full set of capabilities attendant opportunities attendant challenges only at the beginning there but that's not the end of it what are we going to be talking about five years from now I'm sure in five years when I'm not going to be talking about the social layer we're going to be talking about something else maybe that'll be two years from now maybe that'll be next year hopefully some of those things will be people that have been spawned by people in this room so the change is going to continue to happen and I think we have to keep that in mind as we as we struggle with these client questions because you just you just you have to run to stay in place next on the role of Technology and again I'm a technologist technology has tremendous value but it has no values which we have to remind ourselves and I particularly remind folks who are in the technology space it has no values technology is not the solution it can be part of solutions but those are only solutions when people create them right it's up to us to figure out how to use the technologies but don't assume it's technology somehow is going to save our bacon technology in some cases has the ability to help save our bacon but we're the ones who have to figure out how so important to keep in mind as well and then last in these discussions regarding the past versus the present versus the future we can't go home again right there is no room for romanization of the past we can argue about that all we want but frankly it's not productive because we can't wind back the clock whether we thought it was better back then or not does not matter we're in a different world we're in an ever-changing world and our struggle is to deal with that we are where we are so I'm closing you know as I said earlier I am one who believes journalism's future will be better than it's past but more importantly given the challenges of our media and political landscape I believe that must be the case we have to figure out how to make the future of journalism better than its past you know and again I say all of this with extreme recognition for how hard this is particularly when you're all working in a business which is under challenge in every way but at the same time we're all here because we're passionate about something you are all in the careers you chose because you were passionate about something and I hope we can continue to be passionate about figuring out what the answers are to some of these questions for tomorrow and for the next year and the next year after that I thank

3 thoughts on “Ethical Challenges for Digital Journalism- Richard Gingras

  1. I disagree, it is not that there is too many news, it is the fact that all newspapers repeat the same news. I is so boring, e.g. all talking about bombings and or the same superstar for weeks!! No newspaper has their authenticity they are all copies of each other.

  2. Resources and discussion questions related to this talk can be found here:

  3. Very nice, am particularly interested especially in the blogging area and am actually using the google+ blogger site!

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