I just got back onto campus after a glorious winter break and I’m full of chocolate and food from the holidays. To get back into things I was planning on using this post to flesh out my ideas for content moderation in a user-facilitated aggregation system. To be specific, I wanted to find a way to give journalists a special place in the content judging process without losing a sense of democracy. Unfortunately, within 10 minutes of sitting down I realized that there was a big snag that needs to be addressed before the conversation can even begin.
The Snag: how can I identify journalists in the first place?
This is a pretty hefty problem and comes down to this: If I am even going to think about treating journalists differently from other users, I have to know who they are. Right now I’m left with no news industry supplied answer, which is kind of frustrating considering the fact that it is the values and ethics of the news industry that demands the feature. Nevertheless, for a solution to be acceptable it really needs to have the following traits:
- It must be scalable – the system should be able to work if there are 100 users or 1,000,000 users without an unreasonable increase in cost.
- It must be dynamic – it should recognize new additions to the journalist population; it should allow for fluctuating standards or exceptions to blanket criteria.
- It must be correct – it should recognize anyone who meets the decided criteria; it shouldn’t falsely recognize anyone who doesn’t meet those criteria.
Idea #1: Manual Checking
One way to identify a journalist user is to simply have them indicate their status and then hire or recruit someone to hand check the user’s background before confirming that the person is telling the truth. This has a few problems, the most significant being that it isn’t automated. Person-power for this type of thing takes a lot more time than a computerized process and that sort of added time could lead to scalability problems. Manual checking might also be tough because the unlucky staffer would be asked to decide something that even the industry hasn’t been able to figure out: where is the line drawn separating journalist and non-journalist.
Idea #2: Journalist by Invitation
If relying on hired moderators is too difficult then maybe some type of recommendation scheme would work. One person could do the labor intensive work just to get the system populated with a few handpicked journalists. After that those identified journalists could have the power to grant the “journalist” status to their colleagues or others that they know deserve the special recognition. In turn, the new picks could do the same.
Going down this path could legitimately solve the problem, but then the decisions would be in the hands of relatively unaccountable individuals. In this case the lowest standards would prevail by nature of the invitation process. Even if steps were taken to enforce accountability, I worry that this idea risks spiraling out of control and eventually losing any sense of qualified journalist exclusivity.
Idea #3: Outsourcing
What if I could outsource the “journalist identifier” decisions? I don’t mean pulling in a programmer from India or putting a bid on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. I mean looking to well established groups that already dedicate a lot of time to collecting lists of journalists into large databases: membership organizations. I get the idea that there are a lot of journalism societies, such as those affiliated with the Council of National Journalism Organizations that already work to screen out people whom they don’t feel meet professional industry standards and expectations.
I’m not suggesting that these already busy groups do more work. Instead, I’m suggesting the industry just build off of established infrastructure. These organizations could develop a quick and simple API – a set of tools that other programs can access over the internet – that would allow external sites to ask, for instance, the Online News Association “is this person a journalist?” They already have the information in their membership database so it should just be a matter of looking it up.
This would be scalable because the organizations have already done the grunt work. This would be dynamic because as industry standards change, so will the membership criteria of the organizations. Furthermore, new organizations could be added as they come up. Correctness, however, is not nearly as clear cut. For one thing, not every qualified journalist – whether freelance or on staff at a news organization – is a member of one of these organizations. To make matters worse, not every organization has the same admission criteria.
My Plea to the Industry: help the developer out!
Despite its flaws, I like #3 a lot and believe it has potential. I feel that these organizations are at the closest to being at the front end of defining industry standards (at least they are a lot closer than some recruited moderator or a bunch of individuals). Even if only 50% of the journalists in the world belong to these organizations, that 50% at least gives a base to start from.
Unfortunately, those kinds of simple services are not offered to news system developers, forcing those developers to fend for themselves. This is trouble for the industry because a system can be immediately successful regardless of whether or not it separates journalists from other kinds of user. In other words, I suspect that the extra difficulty is, more often than not, disregarded.
So, news industry, this is a request that you make life easier for developers. Maybe an organization like the Knight Foundation could fund an industry maintained journalist database managed cooperatively by membership groups; maybe those societies could individually start to add simple APIs that let external sites query to see who is a member; or maybe some completely different idea will come up. All I can say is that it seems that an industry driven problem, maintaining journalistic standards in the judging of news content by giving eligible journalists special recognition, will require an industry driven solution.
A second, similar snag has to do with who really has the right to say what it is to qualify as a journalist and where the line is drawn. Would citizen journalists fall through the cracks if the industry had its way? I can’t even try to answer the question but I’ll still (very cautiously) try to spend some time looking at the issue in future posts.