Protest photography, platforms’ labeling decisions, and ‘the best obtainable version of the truth’

Our personal weekly selection about journalism and innovation.

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Edited by Marco Nurra


Have we normalized the COVID-19 death toll? The pandemic as a whole is still a big news story, including on cable. Still, too often, the COVID coverage we’re now seeing feels tired, as if it’s going through the motions. That’s understandable. After years of whiplash news and months of this particular cycle, journalists are exhausted—not to mention furloughed, underpaid, unemployed, arrested, assaulted, and so on. The pandemic story has been especially demanding to cover—for logistical, scientific, and emotional reasons—and also to consume. And fatigue isn’t limited to the press.

Professor Anthony Feinstein explains his research on the mental health of war correspondents and reporters in Mexico, Kenya and Iran. “What you can see from the studies that I’ve outlined so far is that there’s a common theme. Expose people to trauma, hit them hard with violence, and you will find a percentage of individuals developing incapacitating emotional difficulties, be it PTSD, depression or anxiety. If there’s any good news in this story, it’s this – news organisations are starting to change their tune. They’re becoming much more receptive to looking after journalists, to helping them with their emotional well-being. Another key point is this – PTSD and depression and anxiety and substance abuse can be well treated. There are effective psychological therapies for these disorders, and so you don’t want to have these symptoms go untreated and suffer because of that. If someone has PTSD, it doesn’t just affect them. It affects their family, their children, their spouse. The knock-on effects of emotional trauma are considerable.”

Photos can show protests’ complexity—or they can perpetuate old lies. Pictures from demonstrations around the U.S. can become powerful symbols, but some only tell one side of the story. “A photograph by Julio Cortez of the Associated Press is more complex than most. It evokes the tension between the American promise of freedom and democracy and the grim reality of American racism and white supremacy. Cortez made the photo in Minneapolis during the third night of protests. In it a man of indeterminate age and ethnicity walks down a street holding an American flag head-high. Beyond the man, a liquor store burns, its flames outlining the man’s silhouette and illuminating the flag in an eerie orange glow. Photographers and artists, such as Faith Ringgold, have long incorporated the flag in their work, making it emblematic of the contradiction between American freedom and American racism.”

Inside the revolts erupting in America’s big newsrooms. Staff members’ demands helped end the tenure of James Bennet as Opinion editor of The New York Times. And they are generating tension at The Washington Post.

Many, many journalists speak out about racism in newsrooms across the country. Over the last week, journalists of color have been talking about the racism and discrimination they’ve faced while working in newsrooms. Nieman Lab is amplifying these stories in this thread, which we’ll continue to update indefinitely.

Police have been spying on black reporters and activists for years. “I know because I’m one of them,” writes Wendi C. Thomas. “But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.”

The strange notion of ‘arbiter of truth’. “Truth is a broader concept and certainly not an absolute one,” writes Frederic Filloux. “Facts refer to a narrower idea that involves the notion of tangible, multiple proofs. Even that carries its own fragility: an in-situ observation can be made in good faith and prove misleading (hence, the essential notion of multiplicity and convergence). In the same token, fact-checkers can be biased (many of them lean to the left). A fact can be admitted to by a reasonable consensus at a particular moment and questioned later. The controversy around hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19 offers the perfect example: medical studies were convergent until The Lancet retracted a major ‘proof’… then another major research settled the issue, probably for good. Unfortunately, now the issue is loaded with ideology, the ultra-right (in France or in the United States), remaining blindly supportive of the treatment. That’s why I prefer the definition of reporting once given by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as The best obtainable version of the truth.”

Twitter wants to know if you read that article before you retweet it. Twitter seems like it’s trying to make its platform a better place. In the last few weeks, it’s rolled out some new features, including the ability to see quote tweets under the retweets section, Fleets (like Instagram Stories), and warning labels for tweets with possible misinformation. On Wednesday, Twitter announced its latest experiment: it will start asking (just Android, for now) users to open the link to an article they’re about to retweet if they haven’t read it already.

It matters how platforms label manipulated media. Here are 12 principles designers should follow. With every labeling decision, the ‘fourth wall’ of platform neutrality is breaking down. Behind it, we can see that every label — whether for text, images, video, or a combination — comes with a set of assumptions that must be independently tested against clear goals and transparently communicated to users. Each platform uses its own terminology, visual language, and interaction design for labels, with application informed respectively by their own detection technologies, internal testing, and theories of harm (sometimes explicit, sometimes ad hoc). The end result is a largely incoherent landscape of labels leading to unknown societal effects.

How not to cover science: Bild’s campaign against German virologist Christian Drosten. Sarah Kohler, an expert in science communication, argues that Bild’s campaign revealed a total ignorance of the way in which scientific research works and underlines how important it is for journalists who cover scientific topics to grasp the basics.

The world has changed much faster than the BBC. The coronavirus crisis has provided a powerful reminder of the role that the BBC plays in British public life. In mid-April, we found that 60% of the public felt it was doing a good job responding to the crisis, and it has seen its reach grow considerably. Offline, the BBC is still a giant. Online, it is not. The BBC’s ability to deliver on its mission “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain” is premised on its ability to reach people where they actually are, which is increasingly on digital media, on mobile, and on platforms. Reaching people is the only way to serve them, and serving them in ways they recognize as valuable is the only way to earn and maintain the kind of broad-based public support that is the only real bulwark against political attacks. The BBC is in practice still primarily a broadcaster, even though we live in a post-broadcast world.

One America News, the network that spreads conspiracies to the West Wing. The conservative cable network One America News (OAN or OANN) has a minuscule audience, attracts few readers on the web and has struggled to break into the television mainstream. But thanks to one powerful viewer in the White House, the network’s influence — and its conspiracy theories — are echoing in the highest reaches of American politics. President Trump, responding to a One America News segment, floated a baseless theory on Tuesday that a 75-year-old man in Buffalo who was knocked to the ground by the police — and hospitalized after bleeding from his head — was “an ANTIFA provocateur” who had tried to interfere with law enforcement. There is no evidence to support the claims about the man, Martin Gugino, a longtime peace activist who has been affiliated with human-rights groups and the Catholic Worker movement. But One America News aired a segment that presented the false theory as reported news, as opposed to a baseless conspiracy. The segment would probably have faded into obscurity had Mr. Trump not chosen to amplify it to his nearly 82 million Twitter followers.

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(Image via Julio Cortez, Associated Press)