Not many answers but lots and lots of questions!!!

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Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Rise of Rip n' Read - Web Competition Dumbs Down Web News? 

'Rip n' read' is a broadcast journalism term for when an announcer grabs a wire service story or press release and reads it without fact-checking, analysis or changes of any sort. While there may be situations where the news is so huge and the reporter has independent confirmation or prior knowledge of the event that justifies ripping and reading. Some of the more horrific events of the 20th century come to mind as examples but beyond that the practice is frowned upon as the ultimate in cheap, lazy journalism.

This press release dated 23/12/2004 from The University of Bristol's 'Children of the 90's' project Are household chemicals connected to the rise in asthma? spawned 41 stories on the Canadian version of Google News.

The story itself is not exactly earthshaking but important enough nonetheless. It reads in part;

"Frequent use of household cleaning products and other chemicals in the home could be linked to cases of asthma among Britain's children.
A new study of respiratory health among young children has shown a clear connection between breathing problems and their mothers use of a range of common products such as bleach, paint stripper and carpet cleaners."

The credibility of the university and the project, which is a long term study of a large number of families yielding solid results across a broad spectrum of medicine, support the story and the story has good value for readers. It tells them if they exercise greater care in reducing their children's exposure to household chemicals their children will be healthier. A simple, effective and inexpensive way to maintain or improve your child's well-being.

A half-hour flipping through most of the 41 stories shows that most of them simply chopped up the press release and put it out - pure rip n' read. Most of the stories follow the press release so precisely it's questionable how many bothered to dig up the actual data or make a phone call to check the facts with an independent authoritative source. The stories are one step up from the plethora of Web news services that simply copy press release wholesale.

All of the stories also lacking in analysis - the reporting that comes from asking simple questions like "So what?" In the case of the asthma from cleaning products story it's a simple matter to do some quick research, dig up an authoritative source and provide the reader with alternatives to chemical cleaning products. Most household cleaning can be accomplished with baking soda, vinegar and fresh water. There are many sources from environmental researchers to green movements who would be happy to provide the analysis.

The problem is economics. Newsroom staffs have been chopped to reduce costs forcing less journalists to produce more news quicker and the Web itself has multiplied the number of outlets by orders of magnitude and reduced the scoop window to minutes. If you want to be first to post the freshest headlines then there's little or no time to fact-check or analyse. This reduces journalists to content monkeys paving the way for them to be replaced by a server farm.

Google News is an incredible source of news from all over the world. It aggregates 4500 news sources and categorises them by topic (and locality if you want) and presents them in 22 languages (including three flavours of English) with out any human intervention. There are many other specialised web 'news' services that do nothing but collect press releases on a certain topic and post them wholesale.

The next logical step is to have computers write the story. Surely there's some programmer out there working on a software content monkey that rips apart press releases and makes news stories out of them following the 'inverted pyramid' style taught in j-school.

While the readership does have some responibility to read news critically it's unlikely to be a conscious process for most of them. Readers are trained to trust journalists to provide factual news and relevant analysis and commentary. Will they notice the lack of it? Will they notice when 'media machine' becomes more than a metaphor.


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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Iranian Judge Tries to Quell Internet Media Wave by Threatening Journalists 

The worst a lot of North-American journalists have to contend with is low pay (read: slow pay or even getting stiffed if you're a freelancer), office politics and having to fly economy class. What if, instead of having to defend covering a certain story in a meeting with traffic-stressed under-caffeinated coworkers, you were put in jail as a witness for the prosecution? What if Judge Crane, after charging Canadian Journalist Ken Peters with contempt for not revealing a confidential source, jailed Hamilton Spectator editor-in-chief Dana Robbins to 'prepare his testimony' against Peters?

RIGHTS: Iran Tries to Quell Internet Media Wave by Jim Lobe

"WASHINGTON, Dec 20 (IPS) - Iran's judiciary has threatened Internet journalists with torture and prison if they do not renounce accusations that authorities abused members of the electronic media and dissidents who were rounded up months ago.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the chief prosecutor of Tehran, Judge Saeed Mortazavi, threatened three recently released detainees with severe punishment if they did not cooperate with him in preparing a libel case against Ali Mazroi, the president of the Association of Iranian Journalists.


Conservatives, centered mainly in the judiciary have largely shut down most of Iran's independent mass media, particularly reformist newspapers and magazines, over the past year. As the more traditional outlets for activism and free expression disappeared, the Internet took on an increasingly important role for reformists.


In a public letter to President Mohammed Khatami on Dec. 10, Mazroi, who is a former reformist member of parliament, had himself implicated the judiciary in the torture and secret detention of more than 20 Internet journalists and civil society activists during a crackdown that began in early September. One of those detained was Mazroi's son.

The following day, Mortazavi filed charges against Mazroi and ordered that three Internet journalists -- Omid Memarian, Shahram Rafizadeh, and Ruzbeh Ebrahimi -- be detained as witnesses for the prosecution, according to HRW.

The three journalists and a fourth, Javed Ghlam Tamayomi, who had been in detention since Oct. 18, were brought to the prosecutor's office.

According to HRW's account, Mortazavi threatened the four with lengthy prison terms and torture if they did not publicly deny Mazroi's charges, and they were subsequently interrogated for the following three days.

On Dec. 14, the four were taken to a televised press conference to deny they had been subject to solitary confinement, torture or any ill treatment during their earlier confinement. Tapes from the conference were subsequently aired on government-controlled television in what HRW charged was a transparent effort to whitewash what had in fact taken place."

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