Tag Archives: journalism

Well, when I say “Earth-like”…

… I certainly don’t mean “capable of supporting life of the sort found on Earth, or even recognisably similar at a glance”. Yeah, it’s another (albeit milder) sexing-up-science-headlines post! The Kepler telescope has confirmed the discovery of the first “Earth-like” exoplanet, says COSMOS Magazine (who, in fairness, are a good science publication), while Wired picked the more honest “definitively rocky”. Basically, “Earth-like” in this context means “not a gas planet”; from the Wired piece:

… the starquake measurements make astronomers even more certain that Kepler-10b is a ball of rock. COROT-7b’s host star is magnetically active, Batalha says, making it difficult to tease the planet’s gravitational pull from the star’s own magnetic jitters. Some measurements of the planet’s mass leave room for other interpretations of the planet’s composition, like a planet that is more than half water.

Kepler-10b, on the other hand, is denser than the Earth, meaning it is probably made up of rock and iron.

Unfortunately, the new rocky world is hot enough to melt iron. It orbits its star once every 0.84 days, meaning the planet is 23 times closer to its star than Mercury is to the sun. At such a close orbiting distance, the planet shows the same face to the star at all times, the same way the moon always shows the same face to the Earth. Temperatures on the daytime side of the planet would reach 2780 degrees Fahrenheit, as hot as some red dwarf stars.

So: in a totally different orbital zone to Earth, with no day/night transition like Earth’s, no atmosphere like Earth’s, and a temperature that ensures there isn’t and probably never was any biosphere like Earth’s. But hey, it’s made of rocks – just like Earth!

Look, I’m pretty much a lifelong space geek, and I think this is an awesome discovery. But this journalistic upselling of new discoveries just cheapens them, y’know?

The Speakularity is Near

NPR’s Matt Thompson crops up at NiemanLab‘s “Predictions For Journalism 2011” with a suggestion that’ll make the volume of the Wikileaks cable-dump look like a drop in the ocean [via MetaFilter]. The nub of the theory is this: pretty soon, automatic speech transcription is going to be cheap and widespread… and that means absolute masses of journalistic material will become easily and cheaply available.

So much of the raw material of journalism consists of verbal exchanges — phone conversations, press conferences, meetings. One of journalism’s most significant production challenges, even for those who don’t work at a radio company, is translating these verbal exchanges into text to weave scripts and stories out of them.

After the Speakularity, much more of this raw material would become available. It would render audio recordings accessible to the blind and aid in translation of audio recordings into different languages. Obscure city meetings could be recorded and auto-transcribed; interviews could be published nearly instantly as Q&As; journalists covering events could focus their attention on analyzing rather than capturing the proceedings.

Because text is much more scannable than audio, recordings automatically indexed to a transcript would be much quicker to search through and edit. Jon Stewart’s crew for The Daily Show uses expensive technology to process and search through the hundreds of hours of video the various news programs air each week. Imagine if that capability were opened up to citizens — if every on-air utterance of every pundit, politician, or policy wonk were searchable on Google.

The very first thing I can imagine would be all the Googlephobes wailing about privacy and data monopolies… but Thompson makes a valid point here, which is the potential for a disconnection between the production of the raw materials of journalism – interviews, press conferences, Q&As, etc etc – from the analysis, comparison and synthesis of that material.

Obviously that’s going to mean further job losses in the journalism sector; that production work would be done by the folk at the bottom of the office hierarchy, or so I assume, so it’s not all kittens and roses. Heck, once the tech becomes cheap and ubiquitous enough, it’ll open up the field to independent journalists and small niche venues in a way that’s never been logistically or economically sustainable before (though whether there’ll be a good way to monetise those niche verticals is another question entirely); the privileged access and momentum of the big venues will be hard to maintain, and that may lead to a fall in quality… though that will depend on how one defines quality journalism, of course, which is another open question.

But the most important factor would be the widespread access to the raw materials – not just to journalists, but to the public. Storage is cheap, and text doesn’t eat much bandwidth; there’d be no reason not to upload the entire transcript of an interview for those who wanted to read it alongside the edited highlights and pull-quotes. Indeed, those venues that failed to make said materials available would start to look as if they had something to hide… after all, recent events suggest that transparency will become a big issue in the near future, wouldn’t you say?

Video games as journalism

Just a quick mention for another of those New Scientist CultureLab “Storytelling2.0” pieces; how about video games as a future venue for journalism?

Take, for example, Burger Tycoon. It’s what we call an editorial game: short-form, quickly produced and easily accessed online. These games critique current events and issues – in this case global fast food. In Burger Tycoon, players take charge of every aspect of a fast food giant: they raise soy and cattle in South America, curtail contamination in a meat-packing plant, scold frustrated fry cooks in a restaurant and devise ad campaigns at corporate headquarters.

Despite its cutesy graphics and simple mouse-click play, Burger Tycoon paints a striking portrait of how the business models of multinational food conglomerates can compel corruption. As costs begin to outstrip revenues, players look for new ways to make a profit: tearing down rainforests, stuffing cattle with antibiotics, bribing health officials. Like a political cartoon, the game is highly opinionated, but it presents its opinion through the rules of the game rather than through images and words.


Video games do not offer a panacea for news organisations. But they offer a truly new way for journalism to contribute to civic life by amplifying the how instead of the who. Video games offer models of how the world works and how it might be improved, rather than skin-deep stories about what ails it. That’s why the best journalism of the future might not be read, but played.

Interesting idea… Jonathan, I think we have a theme for your next column!

Citizen Denton: New Yorker profiles Gawker founder

Offered without comment, and via sources too numerous to link, is this profile of Gawker Media blog-mogul Nick Denton at The New Yorker. It’s simply a fascinating character study in its own right, though you could read it as an insight to the sort of attitudes and drives you need to make a blog network a paying proposition in the flux-plagued churn of The New Media.

Through Gawker, Denton wages war on self-regard—or presumed self-regard, as his cast of mind is both abstract and deeply tribal, inclining him to sort nearly all people into one or another category that could be judged full of itself. There is a well-travelled image of Denton on the Web, in which he is wearing a tuxedo and tilting a wineglass to his lips. The image bothers him, because it suggests a level of comfort and formality in his presentation that doesn’t accord with his self-image. Denton is tall and rangy, and has a famously large head that sits precariously on a thin neck and narrow shoulders, leaving the impression of an evolved brain that is perhaps a little too conscious of its pedestrian context. He looks perpetually unshaven, with gray stubble complementing his close-cropped, receding hair, which he teases casually forward. He is someone who likes and knows how to have fun—“Nick has a fairly strong hedonic streak,” his friend Matt Wells, of the BBC, says—but who doesn’t wish to be seen enjoying himself overly. “Hypocrisy is the only modern sin,” he likes to say.

Intriguing, and full of storyable ideas and character traits. Go read.

What’s wrong with science journalism (and how, perhaps, to fix it)

You went and read this satirical skewering of science journalism clichés when I flagged it up, didn’t you? If not, go read it now… and then read this follow-up by Martin Robbins, the chap who wrote it, who makes a good stab at analysing the root causes of bad science journalism (somewhat biased for the UK market, but I expect the issues are similar elsewhere) and attempts to present some solutions.

My point was really about predictability and stagnation. The formula I outlined – using a few randomly picked BBC science articles as a guide – isn’t necessarily an example of bad journalism; but science reporting is predictable enough that you can write a formula for it that everyone recognises, and once the formula has been seen it’s very hard to un-see, like a faint watermark at the edge of your vision.

[It’s like the fnords, man! Just like the fnords!]

… you can see ‘the pattern’. They’re called ‘Scare quotes’ and they are used by writers to distance themselves from the words inside, or to indicate paraphrasing – unless you’re a cynic, in which case scare quotes are a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows journalists to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the words mentioned.

This habit is so deeply ingrained at the BBC that even the question of whether ‘effects’ are ‘interesting’ is deemed too thorny an issue for the headline writer to give an opinion on. God forbid that in calling a piece of research ‘interesting’ the BBC should sully its reputation for robotic impartiality.

Lots more interesting analysis and commentary, well worth a read. Go look.