A Developer’s Dilemma: Who’s a Journalist?

    by Dan Schultz
    January 14, 2008

    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.

    Tagged: developers membership organizations standards

    6 responses to “A Developer’s Dilemma: Who’s a Journalist?”

    1. JDNajem says:

      My first look at Idealab. Really interesting stuff going on. I’m an independent/freelance/stand-alone journalist, whatever you want to call it, working in print and multimedia. Not a member of any organization. American but working abroad. So I wouldn’t be included in your sample. I understand your frustrations and am wondering if, in addition to your #3, you could somehow draw on an existing databases like Lexis-Nexis and Alternative Press and do some sort of matching through an author (byline) field. This would 1) include freelancers like myself and ensure that we had actually published something and 2) diversify the sample geographically and politically. I have no idea about development, but it seems that relying on established organizations and traditional “definitions” of journalists (and gatekeepers training gatekeepers etc) will not go as far toward the democratic process that you seem to be trying to create. Good work and good luck.

    2. Dan Burd says:

      Enough about journalism systems — try blogging about your personal life. We’d love to get to know the Dan Schultz behind the blog!

    3. Dan, thanks for a very interesting post. What if we define a journalist as someone accepted by the peer group of other journalists. I.E. a social ranking system based on esteem by known journalists. As a new member with no rank I would not earn the title “journalist” but as my former mates at The Miami Herald recognized me in the social arena online, they would ID me as one. I would think a Facebook app would be the starting point for development here. Perhaps it’s too easy to fool my friends? (they might agree!)

    4. Hi Dan,

      Great job so far! Sorry to say that my post is out of order, but it is. I supose it’s possible that you recieve updates when each of your blogs is commented on, but on the off chance that you are occupied with class and such, I have chosen to post here.

      I’d like to address the “purgatory” process that you seem to have chosen to elect. I can see the benefit of a Diggish self policed environment to weed out the junk. However, my fear is that people will spend most of their time in “purgatory” because that’s already where they spend most of their time today, in speculation land. The speed of information systems may lend itself to a quicker weeding process, but perhaps we need to step even further outside of the box and give the people a reason to pursue the truth with the API itself. Stubleupon isn’t exactly what you want, but I think factoring in personal interest and/or fields of expertise could also be a step in the right direction. Right now we have to listen to Anderson Cooper tell us whatever he wants. I want the option to only listen to him when he talks about the topics I specify. My experience with Stumbleupon is that I am much more fact aware when reviewing my topics of interest because I don’t have to filter out Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. I begin to feel that I am part of a much larger human conversation when I exist within my interests.

      While I’m out of order I’d also like to mention that most of your posts carry “philosophical” subject matter, but are continually tagged with “tech” markers. ?

      P.S. I wish your email address was easier to find!

    5. Option #4: Let people in the network decide who journalists are. Democratic in deciding who is a journalist but can still give journalists a special role.

      I see a combination of Stephen’s way with democratic moderation as best– I subscribe to people and sources I’m interested in, so in addition to setting my own filters for place and everything I also benefit from choices people I respect are making; and at the same time something people in my networks, geographical and otherwise and overall, might consider some news so important that it is sent to me whether or not anyone in my interests group matches it.

      In this perspective, rather than journalists having a formal role they would just be more likely to have more people drawing on their work and decisions.

    6. Dan Schultz says:

      Thanks to all of you for the great comments – sorry for taking so long to respond (I read them as they came in but wanted to think on them a bit first, plus as Stephen guessed class work isn’t doing my schedule any favors).

      I guess I’ll just bundle everything into one response!

      I’m glad you like the IdeaLab! One concern that might come up with pulling bylines from publication databases is simply that bylines may be somewhat easy to just throw in there. Does publishing one article make you a journalist? This is where the problem comes down to where the industry feels a journalist is – something I can’t answer because I am in no position to decide. If having work in one of those databases makes an individual a “journalist” by industry standards then that could be a good approach.


      I’m wary to pull Facebook into this… It isn’t a great job at indicating who is friends with who (i.e. it is really easy to just say “I’m your friend”, and many do, without it meaning anything), so I’m not sure I would trust it with indicating who is a journalist. That being said, I see a lot of merit in having peer involvement, somehow… If only the somehow was clearer!

      My email –formatted here to detract spam bot attention – is dschultz “@” andrew.cmu.edu Sorry it’s hard to find… I guess they hide that stuff. I do indeed check up on comments probably more often than is healthy… That being said its easy to not notice new ones on old posts. Re the tech tag, good point! I usually added it because I see “Geotagging” and systems as a technology, but I’m definitely approaching it from a philosophical perspective so I’ll stop using the tag unless I’m being technical.

      As for being stuck in purgatory, do you mean that most people spend their time in speculation land? or that most *articles* spend their time in speculation land. I.e. are you saying that most articles never get enough “Diggs” or whatever to pass through, or that as consumers we never really focus on stories that are definitely relevant to us. The personal interest stuff is actually exactly the track I am mentally moving in – your “content feed” is tailored to whatever interests, physical locations, communities you have associated yourself with. So you don’t have to listen to Anderson Cooper unless you are likely to care.

      Thank you for option 4! That is definitely an interesting proposal… Let users elect journalists somehow and then give those elected journalists a say, right? As for the ‘related person’ preferences, that would definitely be a desirable feature (both in terms of aligning community consciousness and potentially offering intelligent suggestions).

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