News & Perspectives

Superintending Media Awareness

Superintending Media Awareness

UC Berkeley J-School Dean Ed Wasserman on Journalism in the age of Technology
Perspective// Posted by: Jeff Greenwald / 17 Apr 2018
Ed Wasserman on Journalism in the Technological Age

During his 46-year career, Dr. Ed Wasserman has focused on issues of ethics, technology, and the ever-evolving questions of how news and information are distributed and consumed. His PhD thesis at the London School of Economics—written long before smart phones or the Internet—was a study of the politics and economics of technological innovation, focused on the communications satellite systems that were revolutionizing global news coverage. A professor of journalism and Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley since 2013, Wasserman spoke with Enter’s Jeff Greenwald about how current technologies are reshaping our relationship with the news media.

Enter: What are entry level journalists being taught about the technological threats to journalism?

Wasserman: I think they’re being given a stronger sense of mission, in that the professionalism we build our curriculum around is even more indispensable. If anything, there’s perhaps a fear that we are not adequately equipping them to preside over a larger informational ecosystem, rather than simply being participants in it. In other words, part of what they should know how to do is to superintend the process of social awareness—which is what journalism really is at its best. They should not only be the people who are unearthing and presenting information, but they should be able to enlist and incorporate other people who have the same communicative capabilities that they have. And incorporate them in a way that doesn’t relinquish the responsibilities of professionalism, but uses this larger availability of information to enrich and widen and deepen the kind of reporting that’s done. It’s a challenge that remains to be seized. There was a fairly naive idea of citizen journalism 10 years ago. The idea that “Oh boy, we’ve entered this informational utopia where we have this profound democratization of journalism; now the people are empowered.” That has turned out to be highly problematic; you realize that people don’t have the same evidentiary standards. They don’t have the same fear of making information available that’s untrue, or misleading, or framed badly. The journalists we’re training ought to be carrying that message to a larger population. I don’t think we’re doing that yet.

Enter: What, moving forward, will determine how and where people get their news?

Wasserman: What we’re seeing now is that people go to the media to be part of a community. They’re interested in hearing what that community is buzzing about, what that community is talking about, and what priorities that community is implicitly attaching to certain levels of awareness. The fact that that outlet may be disreputable, of that their information might be fabricated or fallacious or misleading, is less important. The information is, in a sense, a vehicle of entertainment, of distraction. But it’s also participation in a community, and they want to be part of that. Later on you might say, “Well, I don’t think that’s really true,” or “that’s exaggerated.” You process it through other, secondary digestion mechanisms. But you’re not going to the media to get informed. You’re going to the media because that is how your community reproduces and recreates itself.

Enter: Is there any mechanism to watermark or otherwise authenticate the news, so that consumers can know that what they’re seeing, reading or hearing hasn’t been faked?

Wasserman: Yes, there are a few things going on. Remember, what we’re trying to do is restore branding. The way we used to know whether information was reliable was the brand that came with it—the flag on the front of the newspaper [ex-“All the News that’s Fit to Print,”]. Over time you’d grow to trust that newspaper, or at least to understand its political orientation, and you would take the news that it offered accordingly. But now branding has been suppressed in the Internet. Stories are whizzing around with only meagre identification as to their sources, and most people read past that. Then these stories get repurposed on aggregated sites, so that sometimes the origin of the story, its branding, is completely opaque. So we’ve lost branding as a reliable guide to the credibility of news sources. The question is, what can be done to replace that? There are some efforts underway.

There was the Trust Project at Santa Clara University, which was an attempt to operationalize the main things you would want to know about a news site in order to understand whether or not it’s credible. Do they do their own reporting? Do they fact check? Do they have journalists? Do they have a code of ethics? Do they run corrections? The idea was to do an assessment, a rating based on those things, and display that rating alongside the story. Now there’s a news organization called NewsGuard, which is is attempting to do just that. They’re going to look at the 7,500 news platforms that are the source of 90% of the news on the Internet, and a red light, green light, or yellow light to the source. Like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Now, NewsGuard is not going to be judging the accuracy of each news story. What they are going to be doing is looking at the entity out of which the news originates and saying, “These are the practices which characterize that organization, and this is why we think that it’s a credible, trustworthy news source.” Now the question is: How are they gonna make money from that? Their plan is to license these ratings to the news platforms, which will then pay them in order to display these ratings. I think the idea is that advertisers will see that highly rated sites are worth paying a premium to display on. Back in the print era, that was the way higher end news organizations were able to recover the money it cost them to pay for reporters and editors. Advertisers would pay to be alongside news that they thought was credible—news that would attract a higher end clientele, a higher end audience.

Enter: One version of that is the paywall. You pay for the New York Times, you pay for the Washington Post, you pay for The Nation. That’s one way of sort of assuring that your journalists are getting paid.

Wasserman: Right.

Enter: But can’t paywells be a barrier to lower-income people, who are forced to rely on free news?

Wasserman: It’s a problem. On some sites you get a certain number of free stories every month, in order to make the paywall somewhat porous.

Enter: How is the paywall model working out?

Wasserman: It’s by and large worked well for the high-end publications. The best example is the Wall Street Journal, which had a paywall from the get-go. Apparently the New York Times is now getting more money from circulation revenue then it from advertising. You’ve had kind of a flight to quality: the paywall has rewarded those publications that are consistently providing quality. Everybody else, not so good. They’re hurting. And the biggest and most consequential example of that is the destruction of the regional newspapers, which had been the spine of the news business. They’re just not going anywhere.

Enter: Is anyone doing automated content introspection on upload, and flagging for human review?

Wasserman: I don’t know if it exists, but it’s premised on an interesting insight, which is the idea that transparency somehow provides an ethical sheen, an ethical burnish, on practices that would otherwise be viewed as irresponsible. For example. We’re not necessarily in the position to determine the veracity of information that we receive, but you know what we’re gonna do: We’re gonna tell you what we’re hearing. And we determine that it’s false, we’ll fix that later on. So we’re not going to make any claims to having independently verified this information, because that’s not our job. Our job is to tell you what we’re hearing. We’re not in a position to verify it, but as we get better information we’ll put it out there. This is a big deal now with respect to journalism, a big change in the ethics of evidence. Used to be, you didn’t do that. Used to be, you had to make an effort to do some confirmation before you put information out there. Now there’s a feeling of, ”Oh yeah, but that was when we lived in a world of objectivity and facticity, but we’re not in that world any more. We’re in the world of telling you what we’ve heard, making no claims beyond that, and then—when we get better information —we’ll fix the earlier information.” This is what’s called transparency, and it’s thought to be ethically superior to the old “Voice of God” idea: the old idea that we’re putting it out there and you can trust it, because we’ve determined it’s true. 

Enter: Won’t that increasingly contribute to the narrative about fake news, because stories will come out and they won’t necessarily be true? And people like the president can point to these stories, and use them as evidence of media corruption.

Wasserman: Right. I personally think that it’s a highly problematic practice, because you’re sometimes putting out information that’s false. It can be damaging. And you’re premising this on the idea that your correction will catch up with the mistake. The ones who saw the mistake will see the correction. Well, they may or may not.

Enter: And what about the fake news that Trump himself generates?

Wasserman: The problem there is the media have had a very hard time trying to figure out how to cover this guy. And he has really managed to make monkeys out of the media by controlling the news agenda. Because the more ridiculous his assertions, the more reliably they lay claim to the news cycle. And it’s and eclipsing whatever other coverage might be going on—of his government, for example.

Enter: Do you think that things are ever going to get back to “normal”?

Wasserman: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. I’ve likened it to Washington having a slow-motion stroke. And as with any stroke, the question is, how severe is the impairment, and how permanent is it? A lot will depend on how successful Trump is. And a lot is going to depend on the November elections. What we’ve seen is that the political culture has been paralyzed by all this. For the media, there is no response mechanism any more. They break stories, but there’s no investigations, no hearings. The usual ways in which resonance happens within the political culture has been neutralized, it’s been nullified. The surprising thing is the Republican party has fallen in step so thoroughly.

Enter: Is there, in your knowledge, any legal recourse against spreading false news on a large scale? Is “information terrorism” covered under any criminal statute? Is there any kind of injunction that consumers might invoke to protect themselves from false and damaging news?

Wasserman: I suspect there’s a tort that, if you are deliberately misinformed—and you act accordingly and you suffer damages—you could go to the person responsible for that misinforming. I suspect that exists. Not as a criminal matter, but as a civil matter. But I think the short answer is, no. I don’t think that putting out falsehoods is illegal.

Enter: Is there anything about the future of journalism, from a consumer standpoint, that you would like to add?

Wasserman: It’s extremely difficult to speculate on what things are going to look like 3 or 5 years hence. I think that we’re in a transitional period. First of all, we still have to resolve the terms of trade under which information producers are being disenfranchised and pillaged now. You can’t have Google and Facebook pocketing 85% of the revenue of online advertising, and giving nothing to the people who are producing the information. This is not sustainable. I don’t know what form the push back is going to take, but I see that it’s going to have to be renegotiated. I think also that the advantages of providing reliable, trustworthy information are going to become more apparent. You have more people, larger audiences than ever before, and an undiminished appetite for trustworthy information. This has not yet taken form as a market force, and I think it will. And I’m optimistic that some of the more egregious abuses that we are seeing now are going to be weeded out. The news platforms themselves are realizing they’ve done themselves tremendous reputational harm by not being sufficiently vigilant, and not taking on a public trust. So I’m kind of hopeful that we may be pushing off the bottom of the pool, and heading towards the surface. I think things will get better.

Jeff Greenwald
Jeff is a best-selling author, photographer, and monologist.