Student Projects Memo

Despite the fact that I may have deflated her a bit with my concern over funding, I thought Kayla’s idea of Beyond Deadline has a lot of potential. I don’t know of any podcast-esque resources aspiring journalists have, and I think catering at least partially to that need could widen the audience appeal a good margin. However, maintaining a degree of focus on student newspapers is definitely important for maintaining funding – I don’t remember who suggested it, but partnering with (or being sponsored by) different colleges could be a great way to keep the publication afloat.As someone who clearly evangelizes for podcasts and podcasting as a whole, I really liked Kelli’s plan for Community Cast as well. I have a few points of concern/uncertainty – like whether it needs to be its own app instead of a website/web app, which may help reduce initial development costs. However, the fact is that there’s so much undiscovered talent in local radio and small-time podcasting that’s trapped in obscurity.  Developing something – app or not – to bring that talent to the audience size it deserves is a win for everyone involved. It’s ambitious, but it’s an ambition worth following through with.

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The Internet is Forever

Reading about George Allen’s “macaca” problem and how small-time online news sunk his (admittedly already poor) political aspirations brings to mind the power of the internet as a scandal-spreader. It’s a double-edged sword – as fake scandals like Pizzagate can demonstrate – but it’s important to keep in mind the power of the internet as a largely uncensorable tool of information – whether you’re George Allen or Barbara Streisand.

In 2003, Barbara Streisand had pictures of her luxurious seaside Malibu estate leak onto the internet. The story likely would have ended there, with the photos drifting off into obscurity and the few people interested at the time likely forgetting shortly thereafter. Instead, she attempted to suppress those photos.

As you can guess by the fact that I’m captioning the photo now, it was unsuccessful.

News of the attempts spread from the few who actually cared about her photos, to those who cared about celebrities but were unaware of the photos, to those who were tuned into internet goings-on but were uninterested in celebrities. Plastering the photos across the internet became a sort of resistance – a fight against censorship, regardless of how petty and questionable it was.

The Streisand Effect has branched into more significant world matters, such as rebelling against the Tunisian Government’s internet censorship and Scientology’s embarrassing Tom Cruise videos. The latter even led to an underground internet-based movement to oust Scientology and expose its numerous amoral practices. Each of these organizations attempted to shut out something that the rest of the world would have turned a blind eye to, had the effort of hiding it not made it clear how important they felt it was.

This does present a threat to private citizens and the innocent – witch-hunts can erupt over poorly-sourced articles. However, the power of the internet’s permanence means uncensorable accountability for those in power. Regardless of whether it’s encryption keys, racial slurs, or seaside mansions, the harder you try to hide it, the faster and further it will proliferate.

Journalism as a Civic Duty

The line between journalists and citizens has been challenged ever since the distinction between the two was meaningful. A defining line between the two has never been established, though parties have always tried. However, the inability of legislature to describe the difference in a meaningful (read: not “I know it when I see it”) fashion is not simply a failure of judges or politicians. Instead, it is a failure in the understanding of journalism.

Journalism is not just an occupation. If pursuing journalism were simply an occupation, like plumbing or chemistry, institutions of journalism would be far more rigorous with requiring credentials. In most occupations, working that job without the proper credentials is unproductive, if not downright dangerous – an untrained electrician could hurt themselves or burn down a house. Journalism, however, does not carry the same risks – some of the most important journalism has come from completely untrained sources, such as in Iran’s Green movement and Ida B. Wells.

It is a duty, and like most duties, the best should be paid to do it but everyone should be capable of it. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to do so, but the proliferation of social media and camera-enabled phones has given everyone the capability to step up. The concerns of making sure “those who shouldn’t be protected,” as Sen. Charles Schumer says, do not begin to approach the importance of protecting journalism. To his credit, he does recognize “there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to.”

As technological progress increases and the flow of information hastens, journalism will continue to expand and take forms we can hardly understand. The concern should not be in protecting journalists and distinguishing them from snoopers and rabble-rousers. The concern should be in protecting journalism, in all forms, from any source.

YouTube: No Bastion for Independent Media

Eight years ago, it was considered news that anyone could actually turn a profit and make a living as a YouTuber. And really, it was seriously impressive. Making a living off of the internet at that point was limited to retail outlets like Amazon. The idea that you could do something as fun (or at least fun-seeming) as churning out YouTube videos for a living was incredible. It opened up doors for entertainers, independent journalists, and activists across the world.

However, YouTube is a business. And business is rarely the ally of independent media.

In 2015, YouTube forced all content creators to sign under their YouTube Red contract or face takedowns. Google claimed the goal was consistency across platforms and to incentivize YouTube Red subscriptions. Part of this contract incentivized longer videos, paying content creators for time spent viewing as opposed to number of videos watched. For YouTube’s brightest stars like PewDiePie, this was no problem – videos were already typically at least fifteen minutes long, with simple content and minimal editing necessary. However, content creators that focused on smaller, more elaborately constructed videos, such as animators, musicians, and journalists, suffered greatly reduced income, forcing a change in format or a change in venue. With YouTube being the only major video hosting platform in the market, content creators outside of YouTube’s ideal format had a simple choice: adapt or die.

This past year, YouTube has taken another business-oriented step by only allowing monetization on sanitized videos. If content isn’t deemed ad-friendly – in other words, if the content isn’t deemed wholly inoffensive – YouTube would refuse to monetize it. Online political starlets The Young Turks suffered under this, as did countless other video makers making content of consequence. Those changes, alongside YouTube’s mass filtering of LGBT-related content, made it clear that YouTube was not the bastion of free speech and discourse that it was once made out to be.

One saving grace from the past couple of years is the emergence of crowdfunding – specifically, Patreon, which has allowed video makers to get around YouTube’s advertising restrictions by letting viewers pay directly. It’s by no means perfect – Patreons are only meaningful for those who consistently create content, as opposed to those who have a few or just one important video – but it’s something. And until competitors like Vid.me make it big, it’s all YouTubers who fall outside of YouTube’s ideal have.

Net Neutrality: A Tale of Two Freedoms

The long, heated and occasionally bizarre controversy over net neutrality has been a battle over the kinds of liberties America was founded upon. It’s a legal battle about the First Amendment, about forces trying to fix the market, and not letting the big guy tie you down. These core ideals aren’t just fundamental pillars of the pro-Net Neutrality movement-

-they’re also the fundamental pillars the anti-Net Neutrality movement argues for.

Really, all it needs is Comcast CEO Brian Roberts telling pro-Net Neutrality protestors, “We’re not so different, you and I.” Saying the two opposed sides fight for the same reasons would be misinformed, but there’s a decent amount of shared rhetoric. For example, one (of many) reasons to celebrate net neutrality is how it maintains freedom of discourse. Allowing internet service providers to discriminate between different organizations would allow them to prioritize which kinds of speech they prefer, allowing such First Amendment  infringements as when Verizon censored pro-choice group Naral’s text messages. Without net neutrality, Comcast could have easily stopped  123 thousand Reddit users from associating Comcast with a picture of a Nazi swastika two years ago, putting the hate symbol at the top of image search results for Comcast where it remains today.

However, Verizon has tried to use the First Amendment against Net Neutrality. Their argument essentially boils down to comparing being forced to host content they dislike to compelled speech, which goes against the First Amendment. There are several notable issues with this argument – Does this mean content internet service providers do not take down is their speech? If so, does this mean ISPs are effectively in agreement with [or at least tolerating] everything their users can connect to? Does this mean that ISPs are responsible for monitoring all internet traffic, lest they are associated with unsavory content? Because of these arguments, the idea of the First Amendment protecting ISPs from Net Neutrality is largely debunked. However, the important point is not whether their argument worked or not – it’s that this was a cornerstone argument of Verizon’s.

Ultimately, both sides of the Net Neutrality debate are fighting for their freedom. The pro- side is fighting for their freedom of expression, and the anti- side is fighting for their freedom to spend their money as they wish. It’s one incident in a long, twisted history of oversized corporations looking to push the bounds on laissez-faire as far as they can take it, and Verizon’s claims that those freedoms are tantamount to First Amendment rights demonstrate how divorced they have become from the general population.

A Journalist’s Debt

After discussing Mayhill Fowler’s dodgily-acquired scoops and the Vanity Fair piece criticizing her, I felt thoroughly conflicted. We’re inundated with bad journalism every day, including fake news, spun news, and poorly-researched newspoorly-researched news. But to put Fowler’s errors in withholding her standing as a journalist up next to those examples of bad journalism feels wrong – not simply out of any sense of magnitude, but in who exactly the victim of each of these errors are.

An incorrect article, whether it be a wholesale lie concocted to garner views or a fact-checking error that slipped past whatever editorial team is available, primarily does a disservice to the reader. Readers read articles because they have faith that what they are reading will be useful in some fashion, and that utility is rooted in fact. To her credit, there’s no reason to think anything Fowler reported is untrue – as a journalist, she’s fulfilled her contract with her readers.

Instead, the conflict is between her and the individual she was reporting on – and by extension, her employer. She put her reputation as a journalist sources may want to work with in jeopardy by doing this, and her association with whichever publication she chooses to write for will be affected by this. Despite this, I don’t believe this to be an issue of journalistic ethics. This was an issue of professional ethics, and framing this as an issue of journalistic ethics harms journalism.

While there are exceptions to every rule, there are few, if any, cases where infringing codes of journalistic ethics is necessary. Everything outlines in the SPJ Code of Ethics is for the creation of true, meaningful journalism. The closest the list comes to mentioning Fowler’s problem is “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” Even that is not a hard-line absolute, merely a warning.

To be clear, I am not dismissing the problematic nature of Fowler’s lack of transparency to her sources. However, lumping that omission in with errors of journalistic ethics does a disservice to Fowler and journalism as a whole, either diluting the real and relevant issues of misinforming readers, or elevating the needs of sources with the needs of readers. Either case threatens real, important journalism, which occasionally needs to go around the interests of sources, and always, always needs to be true.

The Rise of the Passion Project

Over the last century, growing media conglomerates have made independent projects – whether they be newspapers, radio stations, or television programming – progressively more inaccessible to the average individual. However, the advent of the internet and its unregulated international connections has allowed for a resurgence in independent media of all sorts. Even more recently – in the past decade – crowdfunding has emerged as a major way for independent and niche content creators to find their audience, get their projects off the ground, and keep them afloat without managing corporations taking the majority of the cut.

Starting any kind of media business – journalism especially – is a long and difficult process. Much as everyone would like to pursue that which is most important to them, it’s just not fiscally feasible most of the time, especially because drumming up support (read: money) requires marketing knowledge on top of everything else. The options have been to stick with the corporate status quo, be extremely lucky and make it big, or do your best impression of a starving artist – until crowdfunding.

Now, an African chocolate company can raise over $33,000,  cutely-animated videos about science can make over $28,000 a month, and a congress watchdog publication is making $3,020 a month off from 428 readers. While each of these examples had to have the marketing experience to find their audience, they didn’t need to worry about locality or splitting the money with agents, dealing with loan agencies, or any other middleman business. Even something as counter-mainstream as a role-playing game system about supernatural LGBTQ teens managed to raise over $70,000.

Because of crowdfunding, nobody had to prove to corporate staff and marketing crews that a project they care about could make money. Nobody had to try and justify taking time away from a disappeared Malaysia Airlines plane for their coverage of congressional misdeeds. While mainstream media platforms may try to shut out the results of crowdfunding, they will only lose more viewers to the content viewers want and are willing to fund, rather than the content the conglomerates are serving.

You Don’t Get It Part 1: Shock Humor and Ironic Decay

After an in-class discussion about fake news and online paranoia, I noticed the pen name used at the top of a particular article of fake news: Jimmy Rustling. The brief bio itself is plainly a joke (bragging about his fourteen Peabody awards and Russian mail-order bride,) making it clear that a single ounce of research would break any illusion of truth. However, the name Jimmy Rustling is itself a joke – or, more accurately a reference. Anyone familiar with the culture of some of the internet’s darkest, dankest places should recognize it immediately.

Jimmy Rustling
There’s an explanation as to how gorillas and antiquated terms for agitation are related, but it’s almost as much of a waste of time as the websites that love this stuff.

Namely, 4chan, infamous image board extraordinaire. It’s been generously called the “armpit of the internet,” and has most recently been a driving force behind Donald Trump since the beginning of his candidacy. They’re the group that co-opted a cartoon frog enough that it’s been “associated with white supremacy,” even if the original cartoonist is voting for Hillary. But how has a website with a user base solidly in the white, young, tech-savvy male demographic has swung to the alt-right?

4chan started as a website created by a 15-year-old to discuss Japanese animation, computers, and other introvert-centric topics. Since the beginning to today, every post enforces total anonymity, with exceptions only for moderators and the microscopic number of users who wish to associate their posts with their name. As more boards for different topics cropped up on 4chan, the combination of total anonymity and moderation by a few teens lead to what you might expect: mischief and murmurings centered around intense and edgy shock humor. Race, gender, abortions – anything that could get a rise out of someone was fair game. The important point is that, no matter how reprehensible their jokes were, they weren’t sincere reflections of the user base’s beliefs – it was all just shock humor fodder to them. Then, time passed.

https://img.4plebs.org/boards/tv/image/1401/31/1401318786704.jpg

On a website centered around anonymity using simple text and images to communicate, it’s nearly impossible to read the tone and intent of a user’s post. Over the years, the sense of irony or insincerity in 4chan’s race/sex/everything-ism faded, and now the same site that raided an online game with rumored racist moderators and attacked Fox News’ website in protest of their coverage of Occupy Wall Street is infamous for propagating mass hate speech on behalf of “God Emperor Trump”.

Tying this back into independent media, understanding the histories of entities like 4chan is important so as to avoid looking as laughably ridiculous as this old FOX News segment on 4chan (in which 4chan is framed as a terrorist organization, instead of the internet equivalent of a bunch of teens huddled around a phone, making crank calls.) Moreover, understanding the difference between a joke and a statement seems to be eluding many more than just 4chan users.

In part 2, I’ll be diving into the “news” that fools casual readers, dedicated viewers, and Chinese state media without even trying: satire – and independent media’s vulnerability.

 

News Polarization and the Media Refugee Crisis

After speaking with William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection, an offhanded comment of his that stuck with me was his mildly baffled note that, after Donald Trump’s election, traffic on his independent conservative news site increased by around 25%. It brought to the forefront of my mind an issue that I’ve been growing more and more concerned about since the beginning of the election cycle: the alienation of non-liberals from moderate and mainstream media.

Trump made it clear from very early on in his campaign that the media (read: any media that didn’t fall in lock-step under his banner) was his enemy, and the media has largely accepted that title with a frankly inspiring candor. It seems every news outlet not prostrating at the Trump administration’s ankles has had a near-constant outpour of governmental criticism.
Every lie, mistake, and scandal (of which there are many) is being criticized with a laser-focused unseen in the past several presidencies. However, where does this leave conservative voters who feel warmer about Trump than the popular vote but aren’t quite at the level of God-Emperor worship?

By and large, the consensus seems to be either to face the music or find somewhere else to read your news – namely, bootlicking propagandists like Breitbart or the Drudge Report. Unsurprisingly, in a choice between routinely having one’s political views dragged through the coals and retreating to a warm and cozy echo chamber, people by and large choose the latter. But this isn’t about damning those media migrants – let the first liberal who has never read a Trump-critical article with an air of smug self-satisfaction cast the first stone.

Legal Insurrection represents a now-anorexic portion of the news outlets: ideologically right-wing while still tonally moderate. No Milo Yiannopoulos, no Alex Jones, no Rush Limbaugh, just the even-tempered tone standard of a writer who started in law. As the conservative blogosphere and independent press has had to either constrict or radicalize, sites like Legal Insurrection are going to generate more traffic as conservatives who want a more comfortable publication seek alternatives from the mainstream media – but more will turn to Milo Yiannopulos, Alex Jones, and Rush Limbaugh.

I am not suggesting the mainstream media ease their assault on the Trump administration – it’s needed now more than ever. I don’t know if I can honestly offer a foolproof solution. What I do know is that some sort of olive branch needs to be extended to conservative readers and viewers who haven’t yet retreated to the dankest corners of right-wing/alt-right propaganda. Until that happens, mainstream liberal media is going to become just as much of a self-assuring echo chamber as the right.

Indy Media & Policing the Police

Independent medias importance has come to the forefront of American life in the past couple decades in the past few decades. From covering political scandals to foreign protests, many of these stories have a central theme in common: exposing the powerful and empowering the disenfranchised. Another area of independent reporting that continues that theme is the citizen journalism on police brutality in America’s past several years.

Thanks to the mass proliferation of video-enabled phones and the popularity of video-friendly social media channels like Twitter, individuals unjustly detained or killed by police receive more than an official statement and an obituary. Instead, public documentation and online conversation has forced the issue, including recognition from mainstream media, professional athletes, and the president.

After organizing into the Black Lives Matter movement, the national conversation has been forced back to the issue of police brutality time and time again. While it has received vitriolic backlash, their efforts have not gone unrewarded: killings by law enforcement officers hit 344 in 2013, 630 in 2014, and 845 in 2015, but spiked down to 181 in 2016 – and 2017 seems to be continuing the trend.

The importance of independent journalism does not lie solely with the “celebrity” independent journalists like Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald, valuable as their contributions are. Just as important are the citizens who don’t fancy themselves journalists, but instead see something critical and capture it before those in power can distort the truth. It turns out mass surveillance can be a force for good – it all depends on who’s watching what.