This week’s essential reads: The key pieces this week are The New York Times’ Nick Bilton on the shortcomings of Twitter and livestreams in news about Ferguson, and The Awl’s John Herrman on Facebook’s changes and how we define clickbait.
Freelancing, foreign correspondence, and risk: The Islamic militant group ISIS’s video depicting the murder of American journalist James Foley, released last week, has prompted an examination of the little-discussed issue of journalist kidnappings. Foley’s family released a letter he sent them — by having a fellow hostage memorize it — during his captivity, and Philip Balboni, CEO of GlobalPost (the organization with which Foley was working) gave a tribute to Foley.
Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, in prison in Egypt on a dubious conviction earlier this year, expressed his anger at Foley’s death, and the Times of London (via Gawker) reported on experts who believe the video was staged and Foley was beheaded afterward. Meanwhile, the mother of the other journalist being held by ISIS, freelancer Steven Sotloff (whose life was threatened in last week’s video), issued a video plea to ISIS to spare her son’s life.
Another journalist kidnapping ended safely this week, with American freelance journalist Peter Theo Curtis being released by an al-Qaeda splinter group in Syria after being held for two years. The New York Times reported that no ransom was paid by the family, but his return was made possible through extensive negotiation on Curtis’ behalf by the government of Qatar. Both the Times and The Washington Post took a closer look at Qatar’s growing role in mediating kidnapping cases like this one.
As The Associated Press’ Jessica Gresko noted, Foley, Sotloff, and Curtis are all freelance journalists, who make up nearly half of all the journalists killed in Syria since 2011. Gresko highlighted the plight of freelance foreign correspondents, who have very little institutional support and safety training. In The New Yorker, Steve Coll defended the right of hostages’ employers and families to pay ransoms, even if the U.S. government won’t. Coll also defended foreign correspondents against charges of recklessness, arguing that theirs is a job with a significant public purpose. “For the foreseeable future, freelance journalism will be vital to public understanding. It requires resources, not second-guessing,” he wrote.
At The New Republic, Tom Peter, who was briefly kidnapped in Syria in 2012, questioned the value of that public purpose in an environment in which so much of the American public questions the validity and credibility of virtually all journalistic work. “Why risk it all to get the facts for people who increasingly seem only to seek out the information they want and brand the stories and facts that don’t conform to their opinions as biased or inaccurate?” he asked.
Regarding the images of Foley’s video itself, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Christopher Massie highlighted news organizations’ difficult decisions on how much to publish, while Dan Gillmor at The Atlantic and Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept lamented the editorial control that social media giants like Twitter and Facebook have gained over what we see online. Gillmor urged readers to work to decentralize the web, and Brian Fung of The Washington Post argued for consistent standards on posting sensitive content on social media. USC professor Philip Seib examined the influence of images like ISIS’s in the social media battleground over public opinion.
News consumption and loaded language in Ferguson: As the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, calmed down this week, there was some reflection on the way we consumed the story as it happened. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton cautioned that what many users got from Twitter and live streams was a narrow, one-sided, and unconfirmed picture of what was going on. Twitter, Circa’s Anthony De Rosa told Bilton, is “good for monitoring all the noise that is happening — and there are elements of truth in there — but you have to do a lot of work to authenticate what’s real and what’s not.” The Pew Research Center’s Jesse Holcomb used some survey data to examine the question of why Ferguson was missing from so many Facebook feeds, noting that a significant part of the news exposure on Facebook depends on whether users follow news organizations there. MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman explained how Facebook’s structure can lead to more of an echo chamber on stories like Ferguson than Twitter does.
The main media-related story from Ferguson this week was The New York Times’ publication of a profile of Michael Brown, the black teenager who was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. The piece described Brown as “no angel,” citing his dabbling in drugs and alcohol and his rapping with vulgar lyrics. That characterization was ripped throughout social media, and the Columbia Journalism Review contrasted the tone of the Times’ profiles of Brown and Wilson.
A Times editor initially defended the “no angel” phrase to The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple — it was intended to be a reference to the article’s lead, about an angelic vision Brown had — but the writer of the piece, John Eligon, expressed his regret about the phrase to Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. Like Eligon, Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley said that while the Times clearly erred with the “no angel” phrase, the piece was positive about Brown as a whole and didn’t imply that Brown deserved to be killed.
A few other pieces on Ferguson this week: The Lab’s Joseph Lichterman looked at the partnership between The Guardian and St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Ferguson coverage, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds looked at the sparse media coverage that Ferguson had gotten before Brown’s shooting. Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation noted the differing counts of arrested journalists during the protests and wrote about finding a better way to track journalist arrests in the U.S.
Facebook, clickbait, and attention: Facebook has become known over the past couple of years as the hub for clickbait content, and it took a step toward ridding itself of that distinction this week with a change to its News Feed algorithm that will take into account how long people spend away from Facebook once they click on a link. If people jump right back to Facebook, the algorithm will downgrade that content on the assumption that people found the content uninteresting. VentureBeat’s Kia Kokalitcheva said bounce rate is an imperfect measure for engagement but an improvement nonetheless.
Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram said that the change won’t necessarily hurt the reigning Facebook-sharing kings like Upworthy and BuzzFeed; they just have to improve their content to match the quality of their headlines. The Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan also said those sites should be fine by Facebook’s standards and noted that there might be a gap between what gets commonly referred to as clickbait and what Facebook considers clickbait.
At The Awl, John Herrman went further with that idea, pointing out that producers and consumers have vastly differing (and very malleable) definitions of clickbait: “For media consumers, it’s usually something along the lines of ‘things that I don’t think are important, or that I disagree with.’ For media producers, it’s usually something closer to ‘things that are not like the things I do.’” In addition, he pointed out that Facebook’s metric of time spent on site is pretty easy to game, and many of these sites are already doing just that.
Reading roundup: A few other things happening in the media and tech worlds this week:
— The Pew Research Internet Project released a fascinating study applying an old communication theory called the “spiral of silence” — the idea that people who hold a minority opinion are less likely to talk about it, thus furthering others’ perception that it’s a socially unacceptable minority opinion — to social media. They found that people were less willing to share their views on the NSA surveillance story on social media than in person, and less likely if they believed others in their social network didn’t agree with them. You can find good summaries and interpretations of the study at The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, and Techcrunch.
— Amazon bought the live-streaming gaming site Twitch, which had been courted by Google among others, for $970 million this week. Analysis of the deal centered on Twitch’s ability to capture the attention of some coveted demographics for long periods of time, giving Amazon some potentially lucrative new advertising opportunities. The best posts breaking down the deal came from Ben Thompson, Recode, ReadWrite, Wired, and The Guardian.
— Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN, TNT, and TBS, among other channels, announced it would offer buyouts to about 600 of its 9,000 employees as part of a broader cost-cutting program that will probably eventually include layoffs.
— Finally, a few pieces worth a read this weekend: A new report by the Knight Foundation evaluating what’s worked and what hasn’t for winners of the Knight News Challenge, a post by Ken Doctor examining Gannett’s strategy as well as newspapers’ situation more generally, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jihii Jolly on examining and giving more thought to your own media diet.