The event is a tyrant

Charles Seife on journalism, news pegs and polls in Proofiness: The dark arts of mathematical deception:

Most journalists are primarily event-gatherers, picking and packing the choicest and freshest events to present to their audiences. Every time there is a sufficiently interesting or important event of some sort—a plane crash, say, or an earthquake—journalists rush in to relay the story. However, without an event to report, journalists are almost helpless. When there’s no event, almost by definition, there’s no news for them to report. As journalist Walter Lippmann put it in the 1920s:

It may be the act of going into bankruptcy, it may be a fire, a collision, an assault, a riot, an arrest, a denunciation, the introduction of a bill, a speech, a vote, a meeting, the expressed opinion of a well known citizen, an editorial in a newspaper, a sale, a wage-schedule, a price change, the proposal to build a bridge. There must be a manifestation. The course of events must assume a certain definable shape, and until it is in a phase where some aspect is an accomplished fact, news does not separate itself from the ocean of possible truth. To a journalist, the event is a tyrant. It is the authority that grants him liberty to speak. And this liberty is typically only given for a short amount of time. Unless the event is extraordinarily salacious or deadly or important, the journalist must move on to other topics quickly, as his powers to attract an audience rapidly wane as the event ages. He has a day or two or three to talk about an explosion or child abductions before he must once more hold his tongue, at least until the next event.

To a reporter who’s bubbling with ideas to write about, this can be terribly frustrating. Lots of interesting and important developments happen as a gradual trickle, rather than in a series of discrete, reportable events. However, journalists generally can’t write about broad trends or abstract ideas until they find what is called a “news peg”—a timely event that the reporter can tie, no matter how tenuously, to the subject that he really wants to talk about. For example, a journalist who has a vague hankering to write about his suspicions that airline safety has been getting worse would keep an eye out for a news peg of some sort—any event that might provide a convenient excuse for publishing the story. A high-profile plane crash would be an ideal peg, but other lesser events—perhaps not newsworthy on their own—would also suffice. A near miss would do. So would an incident where a pilot gets fired for showing up on the job drunk. Reports are also good news pegs; the journalist probably wouldn’t have to wait long before the FAA or some other government agency publishes a report or generates a new statistic about transportation that might imbue the piece with timeliness. Failing that, there’s always an anniversary of some disaster or another; if desperate, the reporter can dust off TWA 8OO or the Andes plane crash or even the R101 airship disaster to write a piece at the appropriate time. For a news peg need not even be a real event; it can be a fake one.

A real event tends to be spontaneous rather than planned; news happens on its own timetable. Even if the event isn’t a complete surprise (everybody knows that an election is coming, for example), its outcome is at least somewhat unpredictable. A real event can be complex; it might take months or years to tease out its significance and it might never be understood fully. A fake event—what historian Daniel Boorstin dubbed epseudoevent—tends to be just the opposite. Where real news is organic, pseudoevents are synthetic. A pseudoevent is planned rather than spontaneous. It occurs at a convenient time and at an accessible location. Any unpredictability is kept to a minimum. A good pseudoevent is simple and easy to understand. And it has a purpose. A pseudoevent like the presentation of a political speech or the orchestrated “leak” of a governmental memo is meant, at least in part, specifically for the consumption of the press—and once given an airing by the press, it is meant to get attention, to be talked about, and to shape public opinion. Though a pseudoevent might have information, that information has been massaged and molded with a purpose in mind. A plane crash has no hidden agenda; a speech from the president of Airbus certainly does.

Reporters make little distinction, if any, between events and pseudoevents. Both are useful; pseudoevents can serve as perfectly serviceable news pegs when an event is not readily available. A speech from the Airbus president can unshackle a reporter, allowing him to riff on the safety of airlines. Reporters are grateful for the freedom that the pseudoevents buy them, even though that freedom comes at the price of being manipulated by the creator of the pseudoevent. As a result, many corporations and government organizations have become adept at manufacturing pseudoevents that quickly get turned into pseudonews.

From the journalist’s point of view, the poll is the ultimate pseudoevent—it is entirely under his control. Any time a news organization wishes, it can conduct or commission a poll, whose results it then duly reports. A poll frees journalists from having to wait for news to happen or for others to manufacture pseudoevents for them. Polls allow a news organization to manufacture its own news. It’s incredibly liberating.*

What’s more, polls allow reporters to bend real events to a convenient timetable, completely freeing them from the less than ideal timing of bona fide news events. During the doldrums of an election season, in the boring stretch when a vote might be weeks or months away, it might seem that news organizations wouldn’t be able to talk about the election for lack of any events to report on. Not so. News organizations need only commission polls to give their reporters and talking heads something to pontificate about. Journalists chatter continuously throughout election season as if they were calling a horse race. Pundits spend countless hours rooting through the entrails of whatever national or local polls they can get their hands on, turning each little insignificant result into an important portent of future events. These polls allow the news media to keep their audiences tense and entertained even while crossing the vast, lonely electoral desert in between the results of the primaries—which usually aren’t that interesting to begin with—and the general election in November. And as election day comes nigh, the polling gets even more intense. In days of yore, reporters had to wait until the returns were in before announcing the winner of an election. No longer! Exit polls allow the networks to declare a winner before bedtime. Polls are an incredibly powerful tool, and they’ve become a staple of modern journalism—and not just during election season.

* Polls aren’t the only way for news organizations to synthesize news. Time’s annual Person of the Year issue is a long-running exercise in pseudo-newsy attention grabbing. Top-ten and top-hundred lists are also very effective—and they seem to be proliferating rapidly.

Planning is timeless

From the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum:


Explanation and Instruction Sheet




RECORDS of the Official Campaign Song HIGH HOPES and ALL THE WAY (sample enclosed)

PT BOAT PINS - the Campaign Emblem in 3 different styles

Lapel Pins for Men   )

Tie Clasps for Men   )    Samples enclosed

Pins for Ladies      )


In return for giving $1 to the Kennedy Campaign Fund, a supporter is to receive, as a token of appreciation, EITHER a RECORD containing HIGH HOPES and ALL THE WAY OR a PT PIN in the style of his choice.

In return for giving $2 to the Kennedy Campaign Fund, a supporter is to receive BOTH a RECORD and a PT PIN.


  1. Appoint a Chairman for RECORDS and PT PINS.

  2. Decide on the number of RECORDS and PT PINS (minimum order of 25 of each) you think club members can distribute.

  3. Return enclosed ORDER BLANK to National Headquarters. Do not collect money until you receive RECORDS and PINS from this office.

  4. You will receive CONTRIBUTION ORDER PADS (samples enclosed) with your order. When a person gives $1 the appropirate slip is to be filled out in duplicate. One copy is to go to the contributor; other is to be sent here.

  5. At the end of ever two week period, slips must be sent back to OEPRATON HIGH HOPES, National Headquarters, 261 Constitution Avenue, N. W., Washington, D. C.

  6. Slips must be accompanied with a check or money order (no cash) covering correct amount (50 slips and $50). Checks should be made out to Washington D. C. KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT COMMITTEE.

  7. If a supporter wants to give more than $1 or $2 have him make out a check to Washington D. C. KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT COMMITTEE, and send it to this address.

Print & Share: not everyone is a social media ninja (nor need they be)

Today is the deadline for DonorsChoose’s Hacking Education Contest, and fortunately I have completed and submitted  Print and Share (with no small effort by Billy on the design). I previously wrote about the details.

Billy wrote my favorite part of the front-page copy: “Not everyone is a social media ninja.”

There is also a awkward screencast by yours truly. “This is a great” indeed.

Irrefutable gerunds

Gerunds were referenced in yesterday’s post. Below is from William Easterly’s “ Foreign Aid for Scoundrels”, published in the New York Review of Books:

The concept of development helps rationalize the position of autocrats by postulating an unstoppable transition toward a bright future. This is why donors call all poor countries “developing.” Once the donors started paying lip service to democracy, they could label undemocratic aid recipients as “democratizing.” Let’s call this the Gerund Defense for supporting dictators. Thomas Carothers, an expert on the connections between aid and democracy, described the Gerund Defense in a classic article [Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion (Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2004), p. 169]. He quoted a USAID description of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as a country in “transition to a democratic, free market society.” (Such “democratizing” is still notably weak in 2010.)

The World Bank’s response to Helen Epstein’s article in these pages accusing the bank of supporting Ethiopian tyranny is a classic Gerund Defense. The World Bank’s country director for Ethiopia and Sudan, Ken Ohashi, replied:

We start…with a belief that in every country people want…to develop a transparent, accountable…governance system. Ethiopia is no exception. Our task…is to support that innate tendency.

However, building institutions… takes a long time…. Changes are incremental, and at times they may suffer serious setbacks…. The Gerund Defense has the attraction of being irrefutable. We don’t know the future, so we don’t know whether a particular event is a “setback” to “building institutions,” or whether the “building” is a myth. We could of course observe the actual trend in “democratizing”—but this has been discouraging in Ethiopia, where parties and politicians that seriously challenge the government risk prison. Donors could conceivably overlook anything, even the 1994 Rwanda genocide, as a temporary “setback” to an “innate tendency.” Such a view is not as easily dismissed as you might think.

Developing intent

A comment by the author, Tony Roberts, on his Laptop Burns post “Why apps can’t transform society”:

The point I was trying to make is that people are the agents of change and not technology. Technology can play a role but it cannot instigate anything – only amplify existing momentum and direction. People without sophisticated technologies can transform their world (e.g the Haitian, Cuban & Zanzibar revolutions). On the other hand technology without people is just an inanimate ‘hunk of junk’.

Apps can’t transform society. Apps do not have volition; they cannot take purposeful action. That requires people. I strongly agree that people, in struggle, can make very productive use of technologies to change society, as happened in Egypt.

However it is important to note that the uprising in Egypt drew on ten years of community activism and trade union struggle to build the bonds of solidarity that made it possible to bring thousands of people into Tahrir Square by using Facebook as one technique among many. (See next post “ Development as Struggle” for more on this). Technology alone is impotent. Yet where people are already organised and intent on action then technology can definitely ‘amplify the existing intent and capacity’ to great effect.

The lessons here are that development should start – not with technology – but rather with people, and the development of the capacity and intent of people’s organisations. Building Apps should not be the starting point or primary sight of development engagement.

Tony Roberts also connects the dots in a previous post entitled “People’s Power: have we got an app for that?”:

  • providing market info to privileged individuals is not development
  • development requires solutions that serve the common good
  • resource distribution is currently grossly uneven
  • more equitable redistribution requires reversing power relationships
  • this will be resisted by powerful elites
  • reversing power-relationships will therefore require collective action
  • technology can not be a substitute for people’s collective action
  • people’s capacity and intent can be amplified with ICTs
  • equalising power & redistributing resources is a political project

So to be clear, this isn’t to argue that building apps is a waste of time, but that the capacity and intent needed to actually change the status quo first needs to be identified if not built—and building intent ultimately hinges on political questions that those in power (and those currently pushing public app development) may be loathe to address.

App contest submission boilerplate

This project represents a new way of democratizing access to [whatever, especially with a gerund; e.g. “the tools for understanding local educational outcomes”] which is needed by [whomever], and many others.  

Wisdom and discernment

Another excerpt from Gift Hub, “Conducting the Charitable Giving Conversation as a Rational Person Would”:

Little by little tax and legal professionals are coming to see that the wealthy very often want to have impact beyond self and family. How to have a conversation about aspiration and impact? Not easy for those whose training is limited to facts and figures. The skills needed are those of Socratic dialogue and thematic listening. Those who have such skills are generally found in public relations, advertising, proof reading, teaching, social work, fundrasing, or walking the streets looking for a job. We have, as a culture, subordinated wisdom to profit and now our best hope is to teach “discernment” to tax, legal, and financial professionals. The strategic part of philanthropy can be taught by MBAs, and often is. The wisdom part? We are still treating giving as a consumer preference or proclivity. Questions like, “What does the community need? To whom are you responsible? What must we do to be saved? If not now when?” are syptomatic of a mind gone mad. I know it and accept it.

Data divides and umbrellafication

Jesse Lichtenstein in “Transparency for All”, writing for Wired:

The concern that open data may simply empower the empowered is not an argument against open data; it’s an argument against looking at open data as an end in itself. Massive data dumps and even friendly online government portals are insufficient. Ordinary people need to know what information is available, and they need the training to be conversant in it. And if people are to have more than theoretical access to the information, it needs to be easy and cheap to use. That means investing in the kinds of organizations doing outreach, advocacy, and education in the communities least familiar with the benefits of data transparency. If we want truly open government, we still have to do the hard work of addressing basic and stubborn inequalities. However freely it flows, the data alone isn’t enough.

Yes and yes. Most government data is policy-level, which means to understand and act on that data, you not only need to be data literate, but also civically literate to transform knowledge into power. Call me a constructionist, but community organizing creates a stronger sense of agency than statistics.

And “cheap” data inconsiderately presented can be harmful. The worst data abuses come from trying to use policy-level, non-contextualized or incomplete data to inform individual decision-making. For example, I had to add this caveat to the Boston Bike Crash Map after getting several anxiety-producing inquiries:

This data alone is not appropriate for making routing decisions. The presence or absence of incidents in a location should not be used to determine the relative safety of biking there as this data does not include ridership or traffic information; i.e. a location may contain less incidents because bikers know to avoid it.

For decision making, I’ve come to call this phenomenon the “umbrellafication” of data—after the service that boils the weather forecast down to a simple yes/no answer to “Do you need an umbrella today?” Unfortunately, like trying to portray crime as a spectrum of green to red, issues and datasets that can be easily synthesized and presented are the exception, not the rule.

Uncrime Mapping

I really don’t understand the appeal of crime maps. Trulia, a housing search tool, just launched a crime map, too (via FlowingData, whose commenters are full of criticism). Since Trulia doesn’t have data (now that’s something to map with transformative potential) for Boston, I had to look up my friends’ neighborhood in Chicago. Above is a heatmap I photoshopped showing the uncrime—the area is clearly rife with it.

Below is McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World. Think about it.

Minimal Mass

I was searching for something else in Google Reader, but it seemed timely to resurface this note:

A great example of why I’m skeptical of [app-centric RFPs]. Rather than focusing on critical mass, I’d rather see a requirement of “minimal mass” : Who do you need participating in order to demonstrate a proof of concept of the outcome/social effects? Fund it in Stages:

  1. Fund the outreach organizing of a minimal mass who will serve as focus groups during the development phase
  2. Then fund development of the app buildout

This would help with what I dislike about [app-centric RFPs]: not that they fund bad projects, but that the process is structured to encourage exactly these outcomes: a focus on a novel function/problem rather a novel audience (who then needs that function/solution).

This was inspired by Ryan Sholin announcing the closure of ReportOn:

…a few recommendations for developers of software “for journalists”:

  • Reporters don’t want to talk about unpublished stories in public.
  • Unless they’re looking for sources.
  • There are some great places on the Internet to find sources.
  • When they do talk about unpublished stories among themselves, they do it in familiar, well-lit places, like email or the telephone. Not in your application.
  • Actually, keep this in mind: Unless what you’re building meets  a very journalism-specific need, you’re probably grinding your gears to build something “ for journalists” when they just need  a great communication tool, independent of any particular niche or category of users.

And I recognize that “critical” mass and “minimal” mass should be equivalent, but somewhere along the way critical mass became related to sustaining the growth of the community, not the benefits membership accorded (probably cause you make weasely appeals to “network effects” just beyond the horizon… and ad impressions)