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Miriam Meckel – Iran, Robert Mackey and information brokers

Dr. Miriam Meckel is a fellow at the Berkman Center this year, and is Director of the Institute for Media and Communication Management at University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Her lunch talk at Berkman Tuesday looked at the changing relationship between journalism and social media, through a case study of a journalist – Robert Mackey – and his use of Twitter during the Iran revolution. Her interest in the topic is personal as well as academic – as a journalist for fifteen years, she characterizes herself as “frustrated by the discussions around social media and journalism,” which often cover the same, familiar ground.

To contextualize this research, Meckel points to the ongoing interest in the relationship between journalism and social media, citing James Fallows’s “How to Save the News” in the Atlantic, which points out that Google might actually help to save journalism, at least in part because they rely on journalists’ efforts. She references a finding that 70% of journalists use social networks for reporting, and wonders whether journalism can survive a world in which the price for words – referencing a recent Sunday New York Times article – could be as low as $10 for an article.

Meckel’s literature review suggests that academics are hard at work on a discourse of “saving journalism” in a networked future. She quotes papers that assert that online journalists have “not yet received parity” with their traditional peers and that bloggers continue to be heavily reliant on offline reporting. Meckel questions this, arguing that bloggers are now setting the agenda in the online space. She wonders whether this pushback is a reflection of a widespread fear on the part of journalists (and some academics) about the weakening of journalist authority.

What could we empirically prove about journalism and social media, Meckel asks? She and her team decided to examine the use of Twitter by a professional journalist during the Iranian green revolution election protests. This was a period of especially high interest in Twitter, as international news organizations had been banned from covering protests directly. (See my recent article in Daedalus, which argues that this need to embrace citizen media was a turning point in the relationship between traditional journalism and citizen media.) Specifically, she and her team looked closely at Robert Mackey, a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times and the Guardian, and who maintains a blog for the Times called The Lede. She identifies Mackey as one of a small number of journalists celebrated for their work in “pulling information out of the social media ecosystem.”

Examining Mackey’s role in building links between Twitter and the world of professional journalism allow us to as certain quantifiably-answerable questions:
– How can we frame influence in a social media environment?
– What role do journalists take in a new media ecosystem?
– Is there evidence of an intermediary function of journalists?

The theoretical framework that informs Meckel’s work includes older – Katz and Lazarfeld’s work on the two-step model of influence and newer models from network science, including theories that center on “information brokerage”. Meckel’s work considers Mackey in these terms, asking:

– Which Twitter accounts refer to Iran, in general?
– How is Mackey linked to these accounts?
– How does he forward this information?
– Which readers are interested in Iran?
– How is Mackey connecting sources in Iran to his readership?

Between June 7-26th, 2009, her team collected 2 million Iran-focused tweets from 480,000 accounts. They selected the 200 most active users, and filtered that set down to the 100 most “relevant” users talking about the protests. Their analysis of The Lede suggests that Mackey chose 12 highly relevant Iran sources accessible on Twitter and relied heavily on them as sources. “Almost 60% of (51) iran related blog entries show mentions of Twitter users as sources.”

To determine whether Mackey’s readers were interested in this topic, she analyzed the Twitter streams of his followers, looking for Iran-specific keywords. His followers included a mix of users who were uninterested, interested and extremely interested. What was particularly striking is that the most interested readers didn’t really need Mackey – they were following the sources he cited, and prefered to retweet them directly. But Mackey served as a useful bridge for people with some interest in Iran, but not sufficient interest to find the best sources themselves.

Mackey also served as a broker connecting his fellow journalists at the New York Times to Iran voices on Twitter. Meckel found at least two other Times journalists who served similar roles. Essentially, journalists appeared to work on the assumption that Mackey and colleagues were able to collect the most relevant information from Twitter and package it for use in more traditional journalistic stories.

Meckel acknowledges limitations of the research she’s done. There’s not much software developed to document webs of relationships in Twitter, and her team ended up doing a good bit of original development. The single case of Robert Mackey might be an interesting exemplar, or could be an outlier – she’s hoping to repeat the work, looking at a wider set of “Twitter brokers”. And she acknowledges that this research might document a moment in time, not necessarily a longer trend.

Still, she hopes the work support some larger ideas:

– Journalists have a different audience and can link between a social media audience and a news audience, serve as intermediaries and connectors between these spaces. The size of their online audience might not be as relevant as we think, because they’re most powerful as connectors.

– Journalists need to be interactive and involved with their online sources, and their readers, on social networking platforms. Their value comes from linking and amplifying information – applying value judgements to what they analyze – and their influence can be traced by retweets.

– Journalists draw on the reputation of their media institution. But this may change in a social media network. Instead, they need to develop an independent, individual reputation aside from their publication – a personal brand.

I was fascinated by Meckel’s talk, in part because I’m interested in brokerage as a model for bridging information imbalances – Global Voices can be thought of as a brokerage, bringing knowledge about the Ghanaian blogosphere, for instance, to a wider media audience.

But I also remembered that Robert Mackey and I crossed swords over his decision to amplify a rumor emerging from some Iranian bloggers that imprisoned blogger and activist Hossein Derakshan was cooperating with Iranian authorities. I wrote an angry post on my blog, accusing Mackey of violating journalistic ethics in amplifying an unverified (and untrue) rumor. He was gracious about engaging with me, and though we disagreed about his actions, the exchange we had in the comment thread was one of the most honest, transparent and civil exchanges I’ve had in criticizing a journalist’s work, and I’m grateful to Mackey for his willingness to engage.

Meckel’s work suggests that figures like Mackey are extremely powerful, not just in linking less-engaged readers to online content, but in bridging between social media and the journalists within the New York Times. Her analysis suggests that Mackey may be working with a small set of sources – she suggests 12 key figures – and that his source selection is extremely important in determining what gets covered.

I’ve observed – in my recent article and elsewhere – that the picture one takes of the Green Revolution protests can look very different depending on what languages you speak. The movement leaders communicate very well in English, and the diasporans who support the movement tend to be English speakers, while Ahmedinejad’s supporters tend to be more comfortable writing in Persian. Meckel confirmed that Mackey’s sources were writing in English. Was he getting a sufficiently diverse view of the opinions on the ground? Is it possible to get a diverse view without reading Persian? The source who accused Derakshan of collaborating the government was writing in English from Switzerland – some of Mackey’s sources were in the diaspora, removed from events on the ground by the need to avoid arrest in Tehran. Is the picture we’re getting through a broker like Mackey systematically biased?

I should note – this isn’t a question about Mackey personally. (While we haven’t met, I admire the man’s work and appreciate his willingness to engage online.) It’s a question about the biases that come from citizen media, from brokerage and from journalism as an enterprise. For instance – Global Voices is covering the Red Shirt protests in Thailand right now. While I think Mong Palatino is doing an excellent job, he’s constrained by the fact that the Reds tend to be poorer and more rural than the Yellows, and are less likely to use citizen media… much like the pro-Ahmedinejad forces in Iran.

The hope is that citizen media is complementing experienced correspondents on the ground who speak the language and understand the culture. The discussion at Berkman in the wake of Meckel’s talk centered on the role of the foreign correspondent – I offered my friend Solana Larsen’s contention that foreign correspondents are going to disappear, and we’re going to learn to rely on domestic correspondents writing for a global audience. I don’t know that this will happen quickly, and I worry that these voices may draw less attention than traditional foreign correspondents, but I think simple economics means Solana’s right in the mid to long term.

Mackey, essentially, is acting as a foreign correspondent with Twitter as his beat. He’s not deeply rooted in Iran – he’s deeply rooted in the new world of social media. I think this is a transitional phenomena – in a few years, whoever’s writing about Iran for the New York Times will simply use Twitter and blogs as another input into their work. In the meantime, this bridging function is likely quite useful. But it’s extremely powerful, and potentially distorting, and we need to look at all these brokers – including the one I’ve helped build and run – closely and carefully.

I just heard from Thomas Plotkowiak, the PhD student who’s been doing much of the work on analysing Twitter discussed in this post. He’s got an excellent blog focused on the challenges of data mining Twitter – very interesting reading for anyone interested in making sense out of the data available.

5 thoughts on “Miriam Meckel – Iran, Robert Mackey and information brokers”

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  2. Hi Ethan. I have tried listening to Dr. Meckel’s very vital speech but have so far been unable to successfully manage it from here in Thailand. Is there any reason why her speech could not be posted on youtube instead of the clumsy system used by the Berkman Center? Maybe you could ask somebody at Harvard? Please?

    That said, it is imperative for the functioning of our society to know the biases of news providers and the identity of the sources they use. Miriam Meckel knows that we are being manipulated and so should we all know this.

  3. Strange, in this interconnected time, to find that your work has been the subject of an academic study by someone who didn’t contact you to discuss it. Not that this is essential, but if Ms. Meckel had contacted me, she could have avoided making a few errors, based on your account of her study of my blogging on Iran. To clear up a few misunderstandings: I am a staff reporter for The Times, not a freelancer; most of the people who follow my work on Twitter are following the blog’s account, not my personal account; one of my main sources for covering the protests in Iran was a blogger who was writing in Persian from Tehran at the time; I found other online sources, especially reader comments and YouTube, to be a far more important sources of information than Twitter – the Twitter feeds I followed were less valuable as a source of raw information than as a way of finding out what Iranian bloggers found interesting; I mainly used Twitter comments, blog posts and video uploaded by participants in the demonstrations to supplement and flesh out reporting on those events by professional journalists from The Times and other news organizations.

  4. I’d add two points in reference to our difference of opinion about my decision to mention in one of the dozens of blog posts on the Iranian protests I wrote, the rumor passed on by one Iranian blogger about another.

    First, the person whose post I cited has since turned out to be someone who seems to have an issue with other Iranian bloggers getting credit he feels is his due and, had I known that at the time, I would not have mentioned his comment in that post.

    Second, I’d suggest that if any reader well-informed about Iran looks back at the very large number of long posts I wrote while live-blogging those protests, that poor decision on my part was not typical. As a former fact-checker, I tend to be very careful about what I draw attention to on our news blog and feel pretty certain that almost everything I pointed to that was posted on other Web sites by Iranian bloggers and video bloggers during that period was accurate and responsible.

    Finally I’d note that a key part of what I’m doing for The Times is discussing material posted on other Web sites – including blogs, Twitter and YouTube – that appears to be factually accurate, and may help to put first-hand reporting in the field by my colleagues into context, but that I am transparent about the fact that I often cannot independently verify information those bloggers of citizen journalists present. In that way my work is not really different from that of a reporter with an offline beat – all reporters depend on people telling us the truth and must gauge to the best of our abilities who of the people we speak with and quote may be lying or exaggerating or gossiping. In some ways the Web makes this more clear than other platforms, since blog posts contain direct links to sources which readers can then evaluate for themselves to an extent not possible in a newspaper article or television or radio report.

  5. Journalists are due as much credit to our freedom as are soldiers. Without the free word we would be at the mercy of those in power to dictate to us the news.

    I don’t doubt that there are Journalists who are more reputable than others… that’s the nature of any human relationship. Some can judge better than others who those reputable sources are. One thing remains, As long as there are two opposing voices then we know that everything is ok. It’s as soon as that voice becomes one without opposition that we know it is corrupted and manipulated for the the selfish betterment of whoever is in power.

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