With our Knight News Challenge grant we (the Media Standards Trust and Web Science Research Initiative) are exploring and developing ways in which to help the public find and assess news on the web (for which we have also received a MacArthur Foundation grant). Part of this initiative includes developing tools for making online news more transparent.
What does that mean? It means enabling journalists, and people creating journalism, to embed basic information to their online news articles which helps the public establish an article’s authorship and provenance (the same methodology applies to photos and video but I’ll stick with articles right now).
Big ambition, I hear you say. You’re right, it is, but also an increasingly urgent one. The accumulation of content on the web is fast becoming overwhelming. A couple of weeks back Flickr announced it had passed the 3 billion photo mark. In 2007 YouTube consumed as much capacity as the entire Internet took up in 2000.
As stuff accumulates it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish between content or to assess its credibility. What is supposed to be journalism and what isn’t? When was an article first published and by whom?
This is made harder still because very few people describe what they’ve produced or how they’ve produced it, and even fewer describe it consistently. News organizations and journalists included. I’m not talking about the subjective aspects. I’m talking about the objective stuff — the basic who, what, where, when — who wrote it, who it was written on behalf of, when was it published — that sort of thing.
To some people this might seem like teaching grandmothers to suck eggs. But you would be astonished at the lack of basic information out there.
Take the “recent” United Airlines story. On Sunday 7th September, at 1:32am EST a web user was browsing the Florida Sun Sentinel site. He found a story about United Airlines filing for bankruptcy. Being the only user on the site at the time, the story automatically popped into the “most read today” box on the home page.
The Google News bot, which happened to be scraping the site at the time, picked up the story and displayed it on Google News. An investment firm saw the story and posted a summary on the Bloomberg financial information service.
That morning $1 billion was wiped off the value of United Airlines. Yet the story dated not from 2008 but from 2002. The Sun Sentinel had not date-stamped the article. When it was first published was not transparent.
Enabling journalists to add more information to their content, and giving people the means to find more information out about content — in structured and consistent ways — could be of enormous benefit both to journalists and to the public.
So that’s what we’re working on. In future blog posts I’ll talk more about where we are and what we’ve learned these past eight months (the answer to which is “lots”).