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Some thoughts about anonymous sources

As a journalism professor, I teach my students about the standards and ethics of the journalism profession. One interesting place where law and ethics intersect is in the use of anonymous sources. It’s generally legal to use anonymous sources, but it is something journalists avoid if at all possible because it it highly subject to abuse

Clear agreement

Part of a journalist’s ethical obligation is make it clear with a source how information they provide will be attributed in a final product. There are a key phrases.

Off the record. Mashable has a useful article on off the record’s meaning, basically that when a reporter agrees to go off the record with you, they agree that they won’t publish what you tell them. As the article explains, this is frequently done so the source can give you a piece of context that, while not directly relevant to the issue, helps you as the reporter to understand the information you are getting.

On background. The Associated Press definition of this is that the information may be published, but the attribution will be negotiated between the journalist and the source. Typically, this means that the source won’t be named, but his or her relationship to the information will be clear (answering the “how do they know”?)

On deep background. This generally means that you might use the information, but there would be no mention of the source by name, position, etc., in the document.

Journalist practice

Professional journalism outlets will have a stated policy about using anonymous sources. For example, here is the one for National Public Radio. These vary a bit from place to place, but as a general rule, I tell my students that anonymous sources are best avoided. This is because they are extremely risky for journalists personally and for the larger matter of the truth. Journalists get used by people in power of all sorts, and being anonymous means those in power don’t have to own their actions. For example, when  government is considering a new policy or program, they will someone “leak” the information to a journalist in order to get it published and gauge public reaction. If the reaction is negative, they will blame the journalist for publishing “fake news.”

Typical newsroom policy is that more than one person needs to know the identity of the anonymous source (usually a journalist and an editor) and the information they provide must be verifiable in multiple ways, not just from one anonymous source. Sometimes, multiple anonymous sources will suffice for verification, but most outlets’s policies say this should be rare. It might happen in a whistleblower situation where a large number of people are at direct risk from the information.

I also tell my students that anonymous sources are a bad idea for a few serious reasons.

Your promise to allow anonymity should be a binding agreement that can have implications for you. Publishing an anonymous source puts a journalist in a controversial situation where they might have to choose whether to violate the source’s confidence or face imprisonment  if a court wants the identify.

You deny your readers the ability to assess the credibility of your information if you aren’t clear about the source, and that is a real problem.

Implications for sources

In 2018, there is a great deal of information being sought and reported about the U.S. Government. At the same time, some potential sources are anxious about loss of employment or the potential for online or even physical harassment if they share with the media.

On top of that, the trend of labeling unattractive information as fake news means that media professionals are walking a delicate tightrope between the need to Seek Truth and Report It and to retain access to newsmakers. This is aggravated by the now much smaller staffs most news organizations are working with. Extra verification is more challenging than ever.

As a source, you can

  • Make sure, if you talk with the media, that you are both very clear about information use and attribution.
  • Help provide that extra verification. If you can’t speak on the record, who can corroborate what you say? If you can’t provide that, can you provide data or other original source material for verification?
  • Understand that the definition of journalist is shifting. The American Press Institute notes that the professional practices of journalists separate them from other information sources. Anyone can publish something to the web, but that doesn’t mean they use those professional practices. You can find a list of them here. It is OK to ask someone who wants to interview you what their practices are before you decide if you want to talk to them.
  • An actual journalist probably won’t talk to you if they can’t know who you are. They may not publish it, but they (and their editors) will want to know.
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Clicks are great, but they aren’t everything

Talking about web analytics this week. There’s an increasing number of free and low-cost tools to give you all kinds of numbers about your site and your content. It can be a little addicting. Number go down (sad face) and up and it’s easy to think that you are learning important things about how to make your content more effective. Real-time data on subscriptions, visits, etc. is exciting. But here’s a little secret: your information is only as good as the questions you ask. Here’s how to get more from your analytics:

Match your data explorations to your business questions – What is your real goal in your business? Is it to sell things, get subscribers, improve your reputation, lower calls to customer service? Those are outcomes that you can measure. It’s easy to measure visits, but they don’t answer those questions.

Don’t just rely on clickstream data – Hits are easy to measure, but really don’t tell you all that much. Just because someone visited your page doesn’t mean they read anything. Even if they did, that visit alone may not explain why you made sales.

Keep notes on outside events – One thing you learn in college stats class is that correlation is not the same thing as causation. Data from dashboards is awesome because it is easy to get, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. What lurking variables in real life could explain the effects you are seeing?

Take the long view, mostly – You can get reports on any time frame you like, but measuring and iterating too rapidly can lead to bad decisions. You want to monitor regularly for crises, but for bigger decisions and changes, match your analyses to the times when you need to make decisions.

Stop, look and listen: Cross domains to be creative in your content production

The advice that helped you get across the street as a kid can help you populate your blog. In my class today, we are talking about coming up with ideas for reader-friendly content, and for a lot of people, that is the hardest thing about writing.

I’ve written already about the types of content you produce, the things your audience needs to know and the things your audience wants to know and I’ll be talking today about using variations on a topic to come up with ideas.

Another technique you can try is bringing ideas across media. Here’s how it works:

Stop. Use your reading habit to find ideas in a lot of places. You know you can use an .rss reader to keep up with writing in your area of interest. But do more. What are popular podcasts in your area? Do your YouTube subscriptions bring in new ideas? Keep a list handy in the cloud so you can add to it when deliberately searching and on the go.

Look. Train yourself to attend to serendipity. You are surrounded by content pretty much all the time. Look intentionally at billboards, that TV channel that they plan in the grocery store, the back cover of the magazine that lady is reading on the bus. Snapping photos of things you want to remember and pinning them on a private Pinterest board is a good way to remember this kind of information.

Listen. There’s content that you are interested in, and there is content other people are interested in, too. People talk about media frequently, it is worth it to pay attention to the things they say, both for topics and smaller pieces of information that are interesting. For example, the Superbowl featured a bunch of new ads, like usual, and people have favorites. When they talk about the ones they like, ask questions – what did you like about it? Who was your favorite character? What surprised you? This can give you ideas for both topics and approaches in your own work.

Gamification and media: Thoughts from this week’s iMedia Sampler

A relative of mine is a protein folder. He’s not a scientist, but he does spend his own money on computer upgrades and electricity to donate space processing cycles to a protein folding initiative at Stanford. Aside from the intrinsic good feeling about helping research, participants are rewarded with points and rankings to help keep them engaged.

This week on our iMedia Sampler course, my colleague Derek Lackaff* did the lesson on issues in gamification. Course readings are here and here. Our alumni had various experiences with trying games and rewards in their media industries and here are some of their thoughts.

Gamification positives

  • Alumni have seen gamification used in a variety of ways from traditional contests to quizzes, and see it driving their own behavior, whether that is purchasing at a particular store to earn rewards eventually or participating in our course (which offers a badge at the end)
  • Gamification is also effectively used internally to encourage employee behaviors within organizations. This is one we use in higher education sometimes, as well.
  • Gamification is tricky ethically, but a good practice is being sure that you are forthright about what will happen with data you are collecting.
  • Gamification may work better for some generations than for other. Millennials and Plurals have shown a high need for public validation, which makes it a good technique for them.

Gamification cautions

  • Gamification isn’t a universally good idea. For example, if you are a charity using donor money to buy participation from others, that can be a bad strategic move, because it can upset your donors.
  • Gamification can create its own kind of content shock
  • You can train your users to expect rewards, which quickly becomes a losing proposition.
  • Gamification can lose its impact if you have a small number who avidly play the game and win all of the opportunities.

*Find Derek on Twitter at @lackaff

How to tell if you have a great idea – 2 must-haves

I spent the morning coming up with ideas for content marketing white papers for my students. No matter what you are doing, coming up with a solid idea is half the battle of getting it done. So what are the characteristics of a great idea?

Relevance – Unless you are keeping your own personal journal, you are always writing for an audience. And as Dale Carnegie told us

“Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: ‘Wouldn’t you like to have that?’ Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?”

A few things can help here:

Feasibility – A great work is, first and foremost, a completed one. Your idea is only valuable if you have the insight, talent and time to bring it to life. If you struggle with coding, a nifty app is a great idea. If running your business takes all of your time, it will be hard for you to keep a blog up consistently. Yes, you can and should learn new things, but unless you have the time and resources to do that before your deliverable is needed, you may need to be more realistic.

Once you have the great idea, your job is much easier – now you just have to do it!