In which we pull together different voices talking about the relationship between reporter and sources, and discover there’s a grudging admiration for the oft-maligned TMZ.
Brian Stelter: Any time the NFL is the story, the networks’ coverage of the story is very closely watched, because ESPN, CBS, NBC, and FOX all have multi-billion-dollar contracts to carry NFL games. Their news divisions have to cover the news, but their parent companies have to protect their investments in football.
Stefan Fatsis: [I]t’s no surprise that NFL-owned media would tiptoe around stories questioning the integrity and credibility of the NFL. The [Ray] Rice case is a reminder of how the nearly $10 billion-a-year NFL’s rise to cultural prominence has allowed it to shape the message transmitted to fans, both through its quasi-journalistic arms and through multibillion-dollar deals with other media.
Kelly McBride: [But] this is a much different story than if the Super Dome was ready for the Super Bowl or even if the NFL is ignoring the data on concussions… This is a story about the culture of the NFL. It’s hard for journalists because they are a part of the NFL culture.
Margaret Sullivan: In some ways, this is the eternal problem of the beat reporter (or specialized writer or critic): When you cover a subject for many years, familiarity can turn into friendship.
Michael Hiltzik: To a certain extent, journalists have always been at risk of becoming “captured” by their sources, or their subjects; it takes a high degree of professional discipline to fight the magnetic tug, and the best journalists make their careers that way. But the closer one is to the center of power, the less inclined one might be to write a report that will get one bounced from the inner circle.
Stefan Fatsis: [B]y hiring veteran reporters at their proprietary websites and cable networks — at higher salaries than those paid by the newspapers and magazines where the reporters formerly worked — the NFL and other pro sports leagues have managed to reduce the amount of critical daily reporting and commentary. That might not be the direct intention, but it’s the result.
Dave McKenna: The chosen few disseminators of football intelligence are multimedia stars today, with gigs in print and online and on TV and radio, and with huge Twitter presences… The NFL need only filter the message of a very few folks to shape the entire national discussion.
Stefan Fatsis: Like Wall Street and other big institutions, the NFL prefers and… facilitates access reporting. It’s good business. The steady flow of information on the ESPN ticker keeps NFL fans engaged with the product and wanting more of it. As far as accountability journalism is concerned, it seems like no coincidence that the Rice story broke thanks to the gatecrashers at TMZ — a bunch of outsiders who have much to gain from knocking pro football down a peg, and are willing to write checks to buy up the sort of photos and videos that tarnish the NFL’s vaunted shield.
Michael Hiltzik: The sports leagues and companies that set up their own news outlets pretend that their only goal is to provide useful information to fans, customers or members of the public who can no longer get it from a fragmented news industry. That’s a scam; powerful entities have always resented having their public statements filtered by skeptical intermediaries in the press — or worse, having their secrets exposed.
David Zurawik: TMZ did the job the mainstream sports media failed to do in showing us the ugliness of this incident.
Amanda Hess: What makes TMZ so effective? Unlike prosecutors (who hedge their bets to ensure they only prosecute people who juries will convict) and league officials (who are invested in selling athletes as heroes), TMZ has an economic imperative to administer uncompromising takedowns. And unlike traditional journalistic outlets, it’s willing to pay for tips, tapes, and documents to back them up.
Mark Mravic: [TMZ] is applying to sports the hardcore tabloid-type approach that has worked so well for them when they are covering celebrities. And there really hasn’t been an outlet that’s been doing that in sports. It shows what can be done when you can actually start digging around and you’re willing to pay a lot of money for things — if that’s exactly how TMZ is getting these clips.
Michael Hiltzik: That’s why outsiders are often responsible for the biggest news breaks. Watergate was initially exposed not by members of the White House press corps, but by a couple of police reporters named Woodward and Bernstein. The Ray Rice video wasn’t acquired and aired by members of the NFL press corps, but by the scandal-mongering upstart TMZ.
Stefan Fatsis: It’s also fair to say, though, that the Rice video has changed how Roger Goodell’s NFL will be covered going forward. The league’s media lapdogs have started barking, and they might not stop until the commissioner is gone.
Modern computers and computer networks enable human judgment to be automated, to be exercised on a vast scale and at a breathtaking pace. But it’s still human judgment. Algorithms are constructed by people, and they reflect the interests, biases, and flaws of their makers. As Google’s founders themselves pointed out many years ago, an information aggregator operated for commercial gain will inevitably be compromised and should always be treated with suspicion. That is certainly true of a search engine that mediates our intellectual explorations; it is even more true of a social network that mediates our personal associations and conversations.
Because algorithms impose on us the interests and biases of others, we have not only a right, but also an obligation to carefully examine and, when appropriate, judiciously regulate those algorithms. We have a right and an obligation to understand how we, and our information, are being manipulated. To ignore that responsibility, or to shirk it because it raises hard problems, is to grant a small group of people — the kind of people who carried out the Facebook and OKCupid experiments — the power to play with us at their whim.
Nicholas Carr, Los Angeles Review of Books. The Manipulators: Facebook’s Social Engineering Project.
FJP: For more on tech, media and algorithms, check our Algorithms Tag.
Natasha Singer (writing in the Times) about Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid and the guy who wrote this, whose new book: Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) just came out.
Mr. Rudder says he carefully considers the potential risks of OkCupid’s observational and product research on its members. But his dual role as the approver of company research and its chief interpreter is complicated.
“The people who are making the minimal risk decisions are the same people conducting the experiments,” he acknowledges. “It is a conflict of interest.”
Now Mr. Rudder is weighing the possibility of even greater research transparency. His book certainly urges companies to share more of their behavioral research findings with the public. But the outcry over his recent blog post suggests that many consumers are not aware of the extent to which companies already scrutinize and manipulate their online activities.
FJP: While the issues around social manipulation and the need for transparency make themselves pretty apparent, Rudder’s comment, quoted above, points to something perplexing. Maybe greater transparency about both data-gathering practices and interpretations of it (especially on networks where people have social and emotional investments) would increase our anxiety about what the data says about us. It echoes (in sentiment) something Kate Crawford wrote in The New Inquiry in May called The Anxieties of Big Data that’s also really worth reading. In it, she deconstructs the myth that more data means greater accuracy and also points this out:
If we take these twinned anxieties — those of the surveillers and the surveilled — and push them to their natural extension, we reach an epistemological end point: on one hand, the fear that there can never be enough data, and on the other, the fear that one is standing out in the data.
More Reading: A pretty interesting long-form profile on Rudder. A fantastic essay from danah boyd on ethics and oversight in data manipulation. And, from the FJP archives, a reading list on the social, cultural and political issues/possibilities surrounding big data.