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Linking news and action

Swiss author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli recently published a provocative essay titled “News is Bad for You” in The Guardian. The essay describes news – particularly fast-breaking, rapidly updated news – as an addictive drug, inhibiting our thinking, damaging our bodies and wasting our time. Dobelli is so concerned with the negative effects of news that he’s cut himself off from consuming news for the past four years and urges that you do the same.

His arguments attracted angry responses within The Guardian‘s newsroom. Madeleine Bunting writes, “As Dobelli described his four-year news purdah to a group of Guardian journalists last week, there was a sharp intake of collective breath, nervous laughter and complete astonishment. How could someone suggest such a thing to a journalist?”

I had a different reaction to Dobelli’s provocation. I found it pretty persuasive. I shared the article with students in a class I teach called “News and Participatory Media”, and asked the students for their reactions. Many found Dobelli’s case compelling, especially those students who were mid-career journalists. Much of what frustrated them about their profession was bluntly identified in Dobelli’s piece: too often, news is a set of disconnected snippets that promises to inform and empower, but merely entertains, distracts and ultimately misleads.

While Dobelli offers a persuasive set of problems, his proposed solution – stop reading news – strikes me as unhelpful and selfish. You personally may benefit from the time you reclaim in kicking the news habit, but there is likely a societal cost in encouraging people to opt out of consuming the news. A democratic form of government presumes an informed populace that can select appropriate representatives and identify issues that merit public debate. As Bunting notes in her response, a happy, docile and ill-informed citizenry is the precursor to a Huxleian vision of totalitarianism.

Dobelli might accept the accusations of selfishness. His essay is adapted from his new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, which is an odd example of a self-help book. Deeply inspired by Naseem Taleb’s work linking cognitive science and economics, Dobelli outlines 99 cognitive shortcomings, errors and fallacies in an attempt either to steer us towards smarter decisionmaking or, more likely, to bludgeon us into a realization that human beings are pretty lousy at making rational decisions. By the end of the book, Dobelli admits that he rarely considers all these errors and fallacies in making decisions and simply goes with his gut – however, he wants us to have these tools handy for the really important decisions. Those decisions, his examples suggest, generally have to do with making investments as wisely as Warren Buffet or getting good deals on expensive cars. His is not a book about civics – it’s a book about maximizing your personal gains.

If we take Dobelli’s criticism seriously but reject his proposed solution, one next step is to look for ways to address the shortcomings of contemporary journalism. If we don’t like the sort of repetitive, click-seeking, shallow journalism that Pablo Boczkowski identifies in his book “News at Work“, we need to find ways to support “slow news” that focuses on investigation and contextualization of breaking news. If we are dismayed by how both new and old media got many details of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for the bombers wrong, we need either to slow newsrooms down, or to build better tools to help both newsrooms and readers cross-check and verify breaking news reports.

I can (and frequently do) point to people and projects focused on solving the problems Dobelli poses , but I’m left with two of his challenges that I can’t ignore or solve. They are related points: “News is irrelevant” and “News makes us passive.” These intertwined problems strike me as uncomfortably hard to address.

Dobelli asks, “Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.” Most stories, he argues, “are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic.”

I can quibble with these generalizations. A news story may convince us to vote to oust a politician, to donate money to a relief effort or work on a cause locally or globally. But I take his overall point seriously: if news isn’t helping us make decisions or take actions, why would we pay attention to it, or bother paying for it?

There’s another way to interpret Dobelli’s complaint, not as an indictment of news, but of the limited tools we have for civic engagement. When we read a horrifying story like the explosion of a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, what options do we have as outraged citizens? We could raise funds to help affected families rebuild their homes and bury their dead, but that hardly addresses the core issues of America’s half-assed and underfunded approach to regulating workplace safety. We can promise ourselves that we’ll vote out the politicians responsible, but we probably can’t – Texas prides itself on being one of America’s least regulated states – and there are very few pro-regulation voices like that of Elizabeth Warren on either side of the political aisle these days. Surely there’s an action we can take that falls somewhere between making a donation to victim’s families and mounting a campaign to overhaul America’s approach to business regulation?

If we believe news is important to a democracy, we need mechanisms by which news turns its readers towards engagement and action. If hearing about the shoddy safety practices in West, Texas doesn’t lead to some sort of change, then Dobelli is right: the news is irrelevant and likely to render us passive.

This February, the Knight Foundation gave a $985,000 grant to TED, organizers of a popular and highly visible series of conferences that feature “ideas worth sharing”. The purpose of the grant was to let TED take a close look at whether TED talks were inspiring people to take action, and to help link TED talks more closely to action. The grant attracted some criticism from commentators who wondered whether it made sense to fund TED to study its own effectiveness, but not much conversation about the idea of linking TED’s content with participation.

(Disclosure: I have long associations with both Knight and TED, and Knight is the primary fiscal sponsor of my research center.)

The day before the announcement of the grant, I attended a brainstorming session hosted by Knight and TED. June Cohen, TED’s executive producer for media, asked the attendees: When TED.com relaunches later this year, what if some talks included a set of actions a viewer could take if he or she found a talk compelling?

TED plans to invite a subset of their speakers to connect actions with their talks, likely starting with talks from this February’s conference. Speakers would be asked to suggest three actions a viewer could take. TED would work with speakers to craft the suggestions, but they would ultimately be the speaker’s suggestions, not TED’s, to ensure independence between the speaker and TED. As for which actions might make sense to promote, how to structure those actions for maximum effectiveness, and how to measure that impact? These remain open questions.

The questions TED is asking itself are related to the questions Dobelli asks about the news. Some of the ideas that TED sees as “ideas worth spreading” are ideas that could lead to transformative change if implemented at scale. By giving attention to scientists who are engineering bacteria to produce ethanol, or scholars who want to rebuild schools with a renewed focus on creativity, TED promotes ideas as solutions they believe can solve longstanding problems.

But it’s also possible that these ideas are distractions, pat solutions to complex problems, offered more as entertainment than as a meaningful path towards change. We might judge the utility of TED’s ideas by whether they empower us to take action and make change, or whether they leave us sitting on the sidelines, either through hope that smart technologists will solve our problems or despair about the scale of the problems we face. As with news, we might evaluate TED’s talks, in part, on whether they empower us, as members of the audience, to make change in the world, or whether they leave us as passive observers.

Some of these ideas might become actual solutions through the influential and powerful people who attend the TED conference and decide to support the ideas they find compelling. With an audience that routinely includes Google’s founders and some of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest venture capitalists, a scientist with a novel fuel source might give a great talk and find backing to commercialize her work. (There’s a long history of collaboration between TED presenters and attendees – see Google’s purchase of Hans Rosling’s remarkable Gapminder visualization tool.)

But another path towards solution is through reaching TED’s global audience online. Popular TED talks are seen by millions of viewers, many of whom react to talk wondering what they can do as individuals to bring about change.Through linking inspiration to action, TED has the potential to mobilize millions to take action around the causes TED features. And TED may strengthen its brand as a space for new ideas and inspiration, because viewers who can find a path to action are more likely to feel empowered and less likely to be frustrated by high-minded ideas that don’t and won’t come to life.

So I was surprised to hear June raising the issue of editorial integrity: the concern that TED might sacrifice some sort of neutrality in promoting one course of action over another. After all, TED has already made a major editorial judgment in selecting some speakers and not others. Because appearing on the TED stage is a major boost to a speaker’s visibility, far more people want to speak at TED than are able to, and TED’s curators have enormous gatekeeping power, both in deciding who gets on stage and who is kept off.

June argued that there’s a distinction between featuring compelling and innovative ideas and proposing specific paths of action to bring those ideas to fruition. TED could make an editorial judgment about whether a speaker had an idea worth spreading, she felt, but wasn’t in a good position to propose steps a viewer of a TED video could take to bring that vision to life.

TED is not a newspaper, but questions of connecting information with inspiration and activation are being raised in newsrooms around the world. Should organizations dedicated to the spread of news, ideas, and analysis limit themselves to sharing information with their audiences, or should they help the people they reach engage and take action?

This question points out a conflict between two values many journalists hold. Journalists are often taught that their job is to inform their readers, but not to promote a particular course of action. To do so would be to commit “advocacy journalism”, the promotion of an agenda masquerading as the sharing of facts. At the same time, many journalists enter the profession with a hope that their actions will lead to change in the world. Inspired by investigative journalists, muckrakers, and those who’ve championed whistleblowers, their hope is to uncover and expose malfeasance and see the corrupt ousted and punished.

These values aren’t in conflict so long as you accept a particular theory of change: give people information they need to see what’s wrong in the world, and they will take action to right wrongs. When this works, the results can be profound. When the Boston Globe, building on work done by the Boston Phoenix, exposed Cardinal Bernard Law’s attempts to protect and reassign pedophile priests, it led to Law’s resignation, charges brought against over 100 priests and a crisis in the Catholic church that may help spare future parishioners from clergy sexual abuse.

But addressing the “information deficit” doesn’t always lead to change. Much thoughtful analysis of climate change has been published, but we are still far from widespread, aggressive action to slow carbon emissions, and we’ve globally passed the 350 parts per million threshold scientists have long warned is a maximum safe level for atmospheric carbon dioxide. Hard as it has been for the Catholic Church to wrestle with sexual predators in the clergy, it’s been far harder for the US, India and China to come to a common understanding of a balance between development, growth and emissions.

Reading about Arctic ice collapse is informative, but hard to translate into a course of action. As warming accelerates, swapping your SUV for a hybrid remains a fine idea, but seems unlikely to prevent trapped methane from escaping from melting permafrost. These stories may inspire some readers to become climate researchers or activists, but it’s likely that for many they reinforce a sense of powerlessness and disengagement. If reading a story makes you more informed about a problem, but less likely to act in response to that problem, is that a net positive or negative?

There’s a trap in the other direction, of course. Fox News heavily promoted Tea Party rallies as a way viewers could get involved with campaigns to reform tax policy. They were accused of both artificially creating a political movement, and of sacrificing any claims they might make towards journalistic neutrality. It’s undeniably possible to find yourself prioritizing ideology over objective reporting, and in doing so, sacrifice informing people broadly and fairly on the road to becoming a more effective advocate.

There is a small set of journalistic organizations looking for a middle ground, a way of connecting journalism to engagement in a way that avoids sacrificing reporting for advocacy. In that sense, they may be fellow travelers to June and TED, as they look for ways to advocate for ideas, but seek specific solutions more broadly.

David Bornstein has been writing a series of columns called “Fixes” for a New York Times blog, profiling people and organizations with novel solutions to challenging problems. Bornstein calls this work “solutions journalism”, suggesting that the next step for journalists after exposing a social problem is to feature sound reporting on different approaches to problem-solving.

Other projects try to connect stories directly to actions an interested reader might take. Shoutabout, a start-up news portal, invites readers themselves to share actions a reader can take and information sources where readers can learn more. A Washington Post story about marriage equality is paired with an invitation to donate to the Human Rights Campaign as well as a link to read a set of contextual background stories.

Because readers themselves submit the links to learning and action materials, ShoutAbout offers news publishers a way to invite participation without crossing the advocacy line. The platform works for the right as well as for the left: a news story about Ted Nugent’s brother writing an Op-Ed in support of background checks offers readers a link to donate to the NRA as well as a link to contact their elected officials in support of background check legislation.

Participant Media’s Take Part site combines news stories with petitions and pledges readers can sign, and an “impact dashboard” that tracks the campaigns they’ve joined. By tracking engagement through the dashboard, Take Part encourages readers to think of themselves taking part not just in a single campaign, but as a part of their online lives.

Do these efforts cross a line between reporting and advocacy? A new report from award-winning non-profit newsroom ProPublica offers suggestions for how we might think about the question. A whitepaper commissioned by the Gates Foundation and prepared by ProPublica examined how the newsroom measures the impact of their work. Before discussing impact, the ProPublica authors examine the question of whether journalists should be seeking impact from their work. They conclude that they should, and offer a distinction between journalism and advocacy. Journalism, they argue, begins with questions and progresses to answers, while “Advocacy begins with answers, with the facts already assumed to be established.” As a result, “when a problem is identified by reporting, and when a solution is revealed as well… it is appropriate for journalists to call attention to the problem and the remedy until the remedy is put in place.”

ProPublica understands that they will be accused of “crusading journalism”, but argues that it’s okay to crusade if journalists are led to propose solutions they have found in course of their investigations, rather than through preconceptions or partisanship. This seems like good advice for anyone working for social change: before taking on the task of advocating for a particular solution, do the work to determine whether this is the best solution you can find, or simply the one you’ve heard the most about. But ProPublica rejects the idea that a journalist’s responsibility is to document a problem and hope that readers find an appropriate solution.

What does this mean for TED and the idea of linking paths of engagement to TED talks? TED is already exercising editorial judgment over what constitutes “ideas worth spreading” and who benefits from the attention associated with appearing on the TED stage and website. Much as a newspaper engages in a form of advocacy by reporting a story on the front page rather than burying it deep inside a paper (or excluding it entirely), TED is already engaged in promoting some ideas at the expense of others, amplifying some, though not all, ideas presented on TED stages on the TED.com website.

(The controversy over Nick Hanauer’s talk at TED, a 3-minute talk about income inequality as part of the 2012 Long Beach conference, centered on TED’s decision not to feature the talk on the TED.com site. Hanauer went to the press, and some supporters of Hanauer argued the failure to post the talk was a form of censorship. Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, argues that it’s more analogous to sending an op-ed to the New York Times and having them decline to publish it, as TED and TEDx events generate thousands of talks a year, and only one is featured on the site per day.)

David Bornstein might suggest that TED feature speakers that offer compelling solutions to our most pressing problems. ProPublica might encourage TED’s curators to thoroughly examine complex problems and promote solutions and speakers that emerge from the research. But it is unclear whether TED should offer a platform for a speaker to propose ways audience members can help to solve problems, or whether TED should be engaged in designing or refining those solutions. While TED is comfortable auditioning speakers and selecting the best talks, endorsing plans of action feels uncomfortably like political activism to some, or simply dangerous, in that TED isn’t able to evaluate whether the actions proposed are appropriate or helpful.

The problem is this: great TED speeches are inspiring, but they don’t always include a call to action. Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on schools and creativity is perhaps the most watched talk the organization has ever published. It’s an engaging and funny exploration of different forms of intelligence and the poor job our schools do accommodating these different ways of learning. There are very few concrete, actionable takeaways from the talk – Sir Ken’s work in the talk is to persuade us the importance of creativity in education and inspire us to work on bringing creativity into education.

It’s possible Sir Ken has three concrete next steps he’d like the 15 million people who’ve viewed his talk to take. But that’s not necessarily the case. Had TED asked me for three actions I wanted viewers to take in reaction to my (much less popular) TED talk, I would have asked them to join the Global Voices mailing list, then desperately fumbled for two more ideas. Much as speakers need – and receive – coaching on their stagecraft and their slides, it’s likely many of them need help figuring out what they’d like an audience to help them do.

In a talk I gave at the 2013 Digital Media and Learning Conference, I suggested that one way to consider civic engagement was in terms of engagements that are “thin” or “thick”. Thin engagement requires little thought on your part: you can sign a petition, take a pledge, give a contribution. Campaigns that use thin engagement are often launched by organizers who have chosen a solution to a problem, and see the challenge as lining up support behind their solution. Thin activism relies on scale for impact – actions are easy to undertake in the hopes that thousands will take part and that their collective small actions will lead to significant impact. Some of my students at Center for Civic Media recently made the case that 2 million Facebook users changing their profile pictures to a variant of the Human Rights Campaign’s red and pink equality symbol was a form of engagement that was thin but effective, demonstrating how many friends and allies gay people had.

By contrast, thick engagement is designed to call on a broader range of inputs from participants, including their creativity, strategic sensibilities, and ability to make media, research, deliberate or find solutions. Campaigners know there’s a problem they want to solve, but ask what you think they should do to address it. Thick engagement can be very difficult to scale, as it involves deliberation and debate between people who may disagree on the appropriate course of action, but it’s often very satisfying and engaging for those who participate in it, as they feel valued for their ideas and connections, not just for their nominal participation or donation. Critically, they see themselves as partners in bringing an idea to life, more deeply engaged than if they’d merely written a check or signed a petition.

TED has some experience asking its community for thick forms of engagement. From 2005 through 2009, TED awarded $100,000 and a wish to “change the world” to three individuals. In 2010, they narrowed the prize to one winner, and in 2013, raised the prize to $1 million. The money aside, TED has argued that the real value of the prize is that members of the TED community – the people who attend the TED conferences and the staff of the organization – work with prize winners to bring wishes to life. Street artist JR, winner of the 2011 TED prize, worked with members of TED’s community to post people’s portraits on buildings and walls around the world. In Tunisia, after Ben Ali’s government fell, JR worked with Tunisian activists he met through TED to cover the dictator’s pictures with photos of ordinary Tunisians, just one of the projects in over 100 countries involving 120,000 posters.

It’s likely that the experience of taking photographs, picking evocative sites – like Tunisia’s ministry of information – and wheatpasting these posters into place is an engaging and thick form of participation in JR’s project. It’s likely that people in the TED community helped with the printing and distribution of the posters as well, which surely involved its own sort of complex and engaging problemsolving. But it takes real thought and care – and, in this case, JR’s artistic vision – to design projects that tens of thousands of people can take engage with in such a rich way. Many of the projects with which Shoutabout and Take Part invite readers to engage demand no more than an online signature or donation. It’s not hard to understand why some of these campaigns are dismissed as “slacktivism”.

For journalists who want to connect their readers to meaningful engagement, or TED speakers who want to use their 18 minutes in the spotlight to start building a movement, identifying and designing opportunities for engagement is likely to be a new art form. Most journalists can’t start new organizations to implement solutions they’ve helped identify – at best, they can point readers to exemplary organizations they’ve reported on, as Bornstein does. Those organizations are then faced with a pleasant conundrum: can they harness the attention they receive beyond asking for money? When Larry Lessig’s compelling new TED talk drives viewers to his Rootstrikers anti-corruption project, will they be content to sign and share petitions, or can Rootstrikers help them become active, creative and engaged parts of Lessig’s movement?

Advocacy organizations use the idea of a “ladder of engagement” to design projects new recruits can undertake. After putting a bumper sticker on a car, a voter is asked to put up a lawn sign, then staff a phone bank, then canvas door to door, and so on. Not all volunteers make it up the ladder, but those that do are experienced and dedicated and, ideally, are invited to help develop the strategy of the campaign. I’ve suggested that to encourage thick engagement that has impact, we need to help people deepen their understanding of an issue as they climb a ladder of engagement.

ShoutAbout’s model, which expands a story into opportunities to learn as well as to act, is a step in the right direction. But an organization like TED could do a great deal more. Working with a compelling speaker like Lessig and with the Rootstrikers organization, TED might help design a set of opportunities for engagement that allow people with different interest and skill levels to get involved in different ways. They might also help people drawn to the issue of corruption by Lessig’s talk find a range of information on the topic so readers can explore whether the solutions Larry proposes are the ones they want to advocate for. Ultimately, TED might find itself hosting discussions not just about supporting Lessig and Rootstrikers, but in developing other complementary – or competitive – strategies to the engagements originally suggested.

There’s another possibility, which is that by focusing on thin forms of engagement, TED may alienate its core constituency, the community members who’ve been willing to make in-depth commitments to try to bring projects to life. Advocacy organizations work to turn thinly-engaged participants into thickly-engaged movement leaders. Moving in the other direction, expanding out from a core of engaged participants to be more inclusive may alienate those people who are already involved. (TED has already wrestled with this challenge in moving from a small, exclusive conference to becoming a global media brand with talks watched by millions.) At the very least, moving from facilitating cooperation between a small group of highly empowered individuals to a larger popular movement is likely to be a challenging process (and could alter the end results in ways positive or negative).

Is TED willing to get engaged in helping design new engagements, or providing space for viewers to debate and design new forms of involvement? Are news publications? In either case, the most challenging aspect of linking compelling content to engagement is measuring impact.

ProPublica’s white paper offers both caution and hope for measuring the impact of investigative and explanatory reporting. Measures of impact need to go beyond counting stories written or pageviews received. If millions of people read a story but can do nothing, there will be less impact that a story where few read it, but one is in position to effect a change. As a result, ProPublica tracks how many people read its stories and how many publications they appear in, but they also maintain a tracking report that follows actions influenced by a story, opportunities to influence change and changes that have resulted.

In the case of a ProPublica story like Dollars for Docs, an exposé of doctors who accept large fees from drug companies for consulting and public speaking, it’s easy to understand these actions, opportunities and changes – ProPublica can track policy changes at hospitals and medical schools that restrict doctors’ ability to accept outside consulting fees. But it’s much harder to know how to track the success or failure of a project like JR’s, where the exciting outcomes may be in the joy or empowerment of seeing the faces of contemporary and historical Lakota figures against the backdrop of the Great Plains, or the faces of ordinary Haitians on the walls of a rebuilding Port au Prince.

Focus closely on measuring the impact of engagement tied to a story or a talk, and you’re likely to prefer engagements tightly tied to straightforward theories of change: we can fight corruption by getting politicians to commit to refusing money from lobbyists, and we can track our progress by seeing who’s taken the pledge and whether they honor it. If a handful of politicians took this pledge before Lessig’s talk and an accompanying TED campaign urging viewers to call their Congresspeople, and dozens took the pledge afterwards, TED might well claim impact from an engagement they helped design.

But we want metrics that are capable of recognizing the impacts of a project like JR’s Inside Out. And if we hope readers and viewers will suggest their own forms of engagement and build their own movements, we need not to track a single tactic, like calls to Congresspeople, but a whole set of metrics that track whether corruption is changing and whether our efforts are having an impact. If we don’t find ways to consider these impacts, it’s possible that an effort like TED and Knight’s could run the risk of launching dozens of Kony 2012s a year: high profile movements that gain lots of attention, but have a difficult time demonstrating their impact.

At the meeting hosted by TED and Knight, I told a story about giving my TED talk in 2010. TED speakers receive a wonderfully over-the-top stone tabled emblazoned with the “TED Commandments”. One orders speakers to “Prepare for impact”. What it should say is “Prepare for attention”.

Being able to reach a large audience, on the TED stage or through a newspaper, offers no guarantee that words will have an impact. Linking that attention to meaningful action is difficult to accomplish. Dobelli’s warning is a simple one: protect your attention, as it is a scarce commodity. But unless we invest our attention into ideas and events that matter, we miss the opportunity to make change at a scale larger than that of our own lives.

My colleague Sasha Costanza Chock offered five productive ways people outraged by revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program might respond, an excellent example of linking news to action.

5 thoughts on “Linking news and action”

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  4. I appreciate the perspective you outline with regard to newsbreaking newsie news as unhealthful, with complete disengagement being at the same time unhelpful to society in general.

    Since I was in close proximity to the manhunt you reference, following both new and old media was rather relevant to my wellbeing (my decision to skip sleeping altogether that night perhaps less good), so I appreciated the fast pace at which people shared what they knew. Of course, part of that came from the feeling of not being entirely alone, of having ways to communicate with people who could corroborate and start to clarify what I was hearing and seeing. In that sense, new media very much outperformed the old.

    For myself, I tried to be very careful in what I took in, checking my assumptions before posting anything, or even formulating a complete picture in my head. Yet I still made mistakes now and then, based on bad info, in relating certain details to those close to me, and even in what I told a reporter calling for a local perspective.

    It seems we need slow and fast elements in both the newshouses and locally sourced media: some combination of cool heads and better tools, on the corporate level and online.

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