Wednesday, March 23, 2011

'Bearing Witness' From a Comfortable Chair: New Platforms Belie Old Dangers

"In a world where most people consume their news safely, perhaps in a comfortable chair on some electronic device, it is worth remembering how dangerous news-gathering has become. . . .

"News flows so freely and easily these days -- on Web sites, on cellphone apps, on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube -- that it seems almost effortless.

"Getting it still requires old-fashioned courage and perseverance."

-- a New York Times editorial following the safe return of four of that newspaper's journalists from Libya.

In a related news story, the journalists -- Anthony Shadid, Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks -- recount their nearly six-day ordeal. they also wonder about the fate of their driver:

"If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for. No article is, but we were too blind to admit that."
Another example of courage and perseverance is the story of Mohammed "Mo" Nabbous, 28, "the face of Libyan citizen journalism." Last month, Nabbous started an Internet TV station in Benghazi called Libya al Hurra, or Free Libya. On Saturday, Nabbous was shot and killed.

NPR's Melissa Block and Andy Carvin remembered Nabbous on Tuesday evening's All Things Considered. Listen to their story to hear Nabbous's final report during an intense firefight.

Andy is NPR's social media strategist and our primary voice on Twitter, where he has become a discerning conduit for first-hand reporting by emerging online voices speaking from difficult places around the globe. The Guardian called Andy "the man who tweeted the revolution," but Andy would give more credit to others -- including Nabbous.

As someone who had "worked in the tech industry," Nabbous was able to cobble together "a live stream, using freely available tools and a satellite Internet access," Andy said. He added:

"Mohammed was a pioneer, but he wasn't alone. I think he helped show Libyans that they should feel free enough and safe enough to record their stories so the rest of us could bear witness."

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Truth About Science and the Press

The memorial to Albert Einstein near the National Mall in Washington is an off-beat tourist attraction. Where else can you have your picture taken sitting in the lap of a 12-foot high bronze statue of the physicist?

The statue by sculptor Robert Berks stands on the grounds of the main building of the National Academy of Sciences, where my wife Christine works in the media relations office. A particular Einstein quote engraved in the memorial, as well as in the front of the Academy's newer building on 5th Street NW, often catches my eye:

"The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true."

As a journalist, "truth" is not a word I'm comfortable with. It's a bit unattainable to me. My editorial aims are impartiality and fairness and thoroughness. Yet that Einstein line about "truth" was on my mind again last week, as Christine and I prepared for a presentation that we did together for a regular forum on science, reason and religion hosted by the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Oakton, Va.

Our topic was "explaining science in the media." Here was the key slide:

Christine and I organized the first part of our presentation in the form of a marriage counseling session between the worlds of science and journalism. Our main points: Scientists and journalists share a common interest in uncovering facts that we hope explain larger truths -- lowercase "T," not necessarily the truth Einstein spoke of. And the scientific method and the journalistic method both are based on an incremental accumulation of facts and data.

But the methods of science and journalism are also often at odds, especially when it comes to conveying nuance and explaining the significance of anecdote and narrative. One old newsroom adage: "Two's a pattern. Three's a trend." Not exactly the makings of a peer-reviewed article in an academic journal -- but those journal articles sometimes aren't what they're cracked up to be either.

Christine and I also talked about the ways the scientific and journalism worlds depend on each other -- as demonstrated by the parade of experts consulted to help explain this past week's news from Fukushima, Japan. Likewise those experts often depend on media attention to help call attention to and, frankly, fund their work (the "no bucks, no Buck Rogers" rule referenced in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff).

Scientific truth is often a moving target. And sometimes, science misses the mark -- and takes the media along for the ride. My friend and creative partner Eric MacDicken and I tried to make that point in an "Office Opossums" cartoon we posted last year.

My own faith in the infallibility of science is no greater than my faith in the infallibility of journalism. That said, my faith and skepticism in both institutions are mostly in balance -- and I am a long way from cynical.

But based on the questions Christine and I heard after our talk today, I suspect many scientifically oriented people are more skeptical of the work of my journalism colleagues than they are of the research we might cover. I saw that in some of the immediate responses to an item posted this evening on NPR's health blog, "Shots."

Our correspondent -- one of the most knowledgable and experienced in the business -- consulted at length with a health physicist at Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute for help assessing the relative risk of drinking milk or eating food contaminated by radiation emitted by the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. Their conclusion, based on the data released so far:

"To reach the radiation dose limit for a power plant worker, you'd need to drink 2,922 eight-ounce glasses of milk. To raise your lifetime cancer risk by 4 percent, you'd have to drain more than 58,000 glasses of milk."

The article quickly set off an active discussion among online commenters. Some appreciated the in-depth explanation ("The math doesn't lie"). Others strongly took issue with it ("If you believe the opposite of what they tell you on the news, you are, in all likelihood, closer to the truth").

Einstein also seemed to have held a pretty dim view of my chosen profession -- at least based on what he said in a 1921 interview about his first impressions of the United States:

"The public house is a place which gives people the opportunity to exchange views and ideas on public affairs. As far as I can see, such an opportunity is lacking in this country, the result being that the Press, which is mostly controlled by vested interests, has an excessive influence on public opinion."

Einstein's remark better describes the U.S. media of 90 years ago than it does any of the news organizations I happen to have worked in. But unfortunately, for many viewers, listeners and readers, the grand physicist's observation still has a ring of truth.

(Photo of the Einstein memorial above used with permission of photographer Christine Brennan Schmidt.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

David Broder: The 'Interactive' Journalist?

"The future fascinates us, because we hope to live in it. But the press has a responsibility to bring the discussion back to the concerns that really matter in people's lives."

-- Washington Post columnist David S. Broder, in a 1999 online chat, answering a reader's question about why the the public and the press "is so obsessed with predictions as opposed to issues."

David, who was my first boss in Washington, died Wednesday. He was 81. As the Post's Dan Balz wrote, David was "the best political reporter of his or any other generation."

Generationally, David was more of a typewriter guy than a laptop guy. My own remembrance for NPR ("Broder's Shift Key") focused on how David's commitment to "lowercase-'I' interactivity" gave him a prominent -- albeit unlikely -- role in the early stages of the Post's transformation into a multimedia publishing company. That online chat from 1999 quoted above was just one example.

Alan Shearer, the editorial director of The Washington Post Writers Group -- which syndicated David's twice-weekly newspaper column -- remembered first hearing David speak about journalism in 1979, when Alan was still a wire service reporter. The striking, almost prophetic passage that Alan recalled was a version of language I heard David use many times:

"I would like to see us say -- over and over, until the point has been made -- that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours -- distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias, by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it from your doorstep and read it in about an hour. If we labeled the product accurately, then we could immediately add: But it's the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected and updated version.

"If we did that, I suspect, not only would we feel less inhibited about correcting and updating our own stories, we might even encourage the readers to contribute their own information and understanding to the process. We might even find ourselves acknowledging something most of us find hard to accept: that they have something to tell us, as well as to hear from us. And if those readers felt that they were part of a communications process in which they were participants and not just passive consumers, then they might more easily understand that their freedoms -- and not just ours -- are endangered when the search warrants and subpoenas are visited on the press."

NOTE (11-28-2012): The remarks Alan quoted came from a speech David gave at the National Press Club in 1979. When I first posted this I'd forgotten that David included a longer excerpt in his 1987 book Behind the Front Page. I tweaked a couple of introductory sentences above accordingly -- if only to underscore David's point about "corrected and updated versions."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sailing Home: An Astronaut on His Ship's Final Journey

"I think about this space shuttle fleet like the clipper ships that were strong and fast and powerful -- they did their jobs but they were also graceful and beautiful. They conjured up imagination -- of foreign travel, exotic places, of exploration. And Discovery is just an elite member of this elite fleet. The clippers faded, and it was because there was an alternative, there was another ship that was coming in, steam power, that was stronger, faster perhaps, but not quite as beautiful. . . . We don't have that yet. . . . [W]e don't have that follow on."

-- Discovery astronaut Michael Barratt, in a CBS News interview on Tuesday.

Space shuttle Discovery's 39-mission career ended today when the NASA orbiter landed a the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Discovery was the third and oldest surviving vehicle in NASA's shuttle fleet. Since its maiden voyage in 1984, Discovery circled the globe 5,750 times, traveling a total of 148 million miles -- more than one-and-a-half times the mean distance between the earth and the sun.

As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reported this morning, Discovery's next stop is one of 21 museums "vying for the chance to become a retirement home for one of the iconic space shuttles."

The stunning photograph above shows Discovery backing away from the International Space Station after an April 2010 visit to the orbital outpost. The picture was taken by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, whose space photography I wrote about last year.

Monday, March 7, 2011

No Parking: Data-Driven City Life Rolls Along Slowly

"We will look back at this time and the flowering of technology as one that transformed parking. The closest comparison would be the invention of the cash register in the 19th century, which totally transformed commerce."

-- Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planner who studies parking, transportation and land use.

Shoup was quoted in a recent USA Today story on how new mobile apps and in-car technologies are changing the way people look for parking spaces. A related story focused on one particular mobile app: "Parker" from a company called Streetline. But what the app-maker calls "smart parking" is just a stepping stone in the company's vision for building "smart cities" -- using "live data from the real world to support sustainable development and transform the way people live and work."

More from the company's website:

"Imagine if cities could speak to us -- if they could give us live status updates on traffic patterns, pollution, parking spaces, water, power and light. Imagine how that kind of information could improve the economic and environmental health of the city, for residents, merchants, and visitors. Imagine how it could improve working conditions and productivity for the people who maintain the city."

Imagining these data-driven cities of the future turns out to be the easy part.

Tech-minded urban planners and entrepreneurs have been noodling about wired "info cities" for ages and ages. One far-sighted friend of mine, Geoff Halstead, even launched a business along the same lines as Streetline -- but Geoff's focus back then was traffic rather than parking.

Mobile carriers were beginning to integrate location information with every cell call -- mostly to help emergency responders with 911 calls. But the commercial potential of this location information looked like it would sprawl out faster and farther than a suburban strip mall. "This whole infrastructure will be built," Geoff told Business Week at the time. "And behind it will be a huge opportunity to offer position-based traffic services."

That was more than a decade ago -- when those of us who were tinkering with early version of mobile online services thought we'd have iPhone-like devices in hand within a couple of years. Alas, the mobile Web evolved far slower in the United States than a lot of us expected.

These days I frequently refer to an online traffic service very much like what Geoff had in mind in the late 1990s: It's my Google Maps app.

Mainstream mobile technology and services are now accessible, affordable and robust enough that companies as big as Google and as small as Streetline once again seem to be hearing the virtual "cha-chings" of those 19th-century cash registers that Professor Shoup mentioned above. This time I just hope the idea has enough change to park.

(Picture above: iStockPhoto)