My Next Big Adventure: First Look Media

February 4th, 2014

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve accepted a position at Pierre Omidyar’s new journalism venture, First Look Media. I’m joining an incredible group of journalists, including Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill and Dan Froomkin, among many others. It’s really a dream team of reporters, editors and technologists working together to build a news operation from the ground up, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

My role at First Look is still being fleshed out, but my initial goal is to help them craft a newsroom where engaging the public is a fundamental aspect of everything we do. From in-depth accountability journalism to building new reporting tools, there’s so much we can gain from working with the public, tapping into their wide range of experiences and expertise.

In addition to my social media work at First Look, I’m also hoping to spend more time practicing journalism on issues like human rights, Internet freedom and protest movements around the world. If you’ve enjoyed my work using social media to cover the Arab Spring, stay tuned – I’m just getting warmed up.

For the next few months, I’ll work part-time at First Look, as I’m also conducting a research project at Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center on breaking news and social media. Once that project winds down later this spring, I’ll devote all of my energies working with Pierre and the rest of the First Look team.

So here’s to a new venture – and a new adventure. Wish me luck! -andy

What’s Next For Me, Part One

January 29th, 2014
Hi everyone,
It’s been a month since I left NPR as part of a voluntary buyout. My goal at the time was to find a short-term project I could work on while finalizing my long-term plans. I’m very pleased to announce the first half of that goal: I’m joining the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Journalism School as a nonresident fellow.
Tow Center logoWhat exactly does that mean? For one thing I’ll get to spend time with some of the brightest journalism students and professors in the country, not to mention the amazing fellows who are already part of the program. More specifically, I’m going to work on a project examining the intersection of broadcast news and social media during breaking news events, focusing on three case studies: The Gabby Giffords shooting, Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing.
It’s going to be an exciting project; I’ve already begun pouring over thousands of tweets for each case study. My plan is to publish the results in late spring as part of an event at Columbia. I’ll post more details as they’re available.
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And as for my long-term plans? Stand by for news – at least for a few more days. :-) I promise I’ll have an update on that soon. -andy

Goodnight Newsroom

December 27th, 2013

Goodnight Newsroom

Goodnight Tom Moon
Good night Bob Boilen signing off with Tom Moon

Goodnight scripts
And that meeting at noon

Goodnight acts
Goodnight tracks

Goodnight Ms. Block
And goodnight clock

Goodnight mics
And goodnight “likes”

Goodnight little booth
And goodnight truth

Goodnight Scott
And goodnight mugs

Goodnight room tone
Goodnight plugs
And goodnight Science Desk
Covering drugs

Goodnight studio
Goodnight air
Goodnight listeners everywhere

This…Was NPR.

December 27th, 2013

It’s my last day at NPR.

I can’t believe how seven years have gone by so quickly. It feels like it was just yesterday that I first began chatting with then-VP for digital Maria Thomas about the possibility of joining NPR. It was a weird idea at the time: I was a blogger, a telecom policy wonk, an Internet activist. Apart from running a music magazine in college – mainly for the free concert tickets – I had almost no journalism experience. But I figured what the hell – the worst that could happen would be to quit and find another job, back doing what I was doing before.

Instead, I stayed for seven amazing years. I still can’t believe I got paid to spend my days working with some of the most talented people I’ll ever meet. NPR gave me the freedom to experiment, so that’s what I did: Working with Twitter users to fact-check candidates and collect reports of voting problems during the 2008 election. Helping pull together all the major public radio and TV organizations to partner on our online coverage of that election.  Mobilizing thousands of online volunteers during Hurricane Gustav and the Haiti earthquake, and hosting hackathons to build tools that helped first-responders in the field. Creating one of the first social media desks in a major newsroom. Serving as NPR’s public face on Twitter and Facebook. Covering the Arab Spring.

None of this would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the tremendous support I received at NPR. NPR management – including Maria Thomas, Kinsey Wilson, Vivian Schiller, Joel Sucherman and Mark Stencel – gave me the latitude to experiment and develop projects that might’ve gotten me fired at another news organization. My social media desk colleagues over the years – Wright Bryan, Eyder Peralta, Kate Myers, Ahmed Al Omran, Mel Kramer and countless hard-working interns -  created a collaborative, productive and fun environment where NPR could blaze new trails online. We developed a reputation for being forward-thinking and innovative – and that wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for all of my colleagues. For that, and so much more, I thank you.

And now as I pack my boxes full of NPR memories – a rug portrait of Muammar Gaddafi I found in the ruins of his Tripoli compound, the “Get My Vote” magic 8-ball we made for the 2008 election, the guitar-shaped analog radio made for me by students in South Africa – I can’t help but think of the amazing opportunities I had during my tenure here.

I got to experience NPR covering two presidential elections, including each election night. I was able to join two of my radio heroes, Daniel Schorr in the studio and Scott Simon, in the studio to talk about how journalism had evolved, from the first story Dan filed in 1929 to my use of Twitter 80 years later. I attended scores, if not hundreds, of Tiny Desk concerts, and worked with NPR Music while they broadcast live performances from SXSW. I got to know countless amazing people across North Africa and the Middle East – first online, and then many of them in person – as they fought against dictatorships. And I had the honor of representing NPR as an ambassador at countless events across six continents, sharing our vision of how public media, in the words of NPR’s mission statement, can truly create a more informed public.

I’ve had an incredible run at NPR, but now it’s time for that run to end. I’m still working on what I’ll do next. For one thing, I hope to chill for a bit, hang out with my family and our menagerie of pets, and enjoy some time off. I’m working on some short-term plans while I try to map out longer-term opportunities. I wish I could say more, but I promise you’ll be among the first to know.

It’s been an honor and a pleasure, everyone. Let’s keep in touch – I’m just an @-reply away. :-)

Rest In Peace, Dizzy

December 8th, 2013

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Earlier this morning, our beloved cat Dizzy passed away. He was the first pet Susanne and I adopted together.

Dizzy had been with us for nearly 13 years. We don’t know exactly how old he was, but he was probably close to 14. Dizzy was a wonderful companion and a dear member of our family. Before Susanne and I had kids of our own, Dizzy and our other cat Winston were like children to us. Our lives revolved around the two of them, and we were forever grateful to have them in our lives.

Dizzy and Winnie, Best Buddies

Winnie passed away almost five years ago. Dizzy remained in excellent health, and in his final years got to know our two children, as well as our dogs Brady and Penny. We also adopted another cat, Cubby, who was Dizzy’s companion until the end.

For a cat his age, Dizzy was in excellent health. Then in mid-October we noticed he was starting to lose weight. We brought him to the vet, and after a number of tests they concluded that he had large-cell feline lymphoma, which is invariably fatal. Without treatment, he would die in a month or two. Even with the most aggressive chemotherapy, he probably would only last a few more months past that.

Rather than putting Dizzy through week after week of vet visits, IVs and sedations, we decided to bring him home and keep him as comfortable as possible. Dizzy’s weight loss leveled off after we switched to another cat food. While he spent much of his time sleeping and was not very active, he was as loving as always, wanting to be in whatever room we were in, patiently waiting for the occasional cat treat. He also became cuddlier than he’d ever been, spending many a night curled up on our chests, or sleeping between our pillows at night. He continued to do that through the very end.

This morning, we found Dizzy, apparently sleeping under one of our chairs. Susanne picked him up and brought him to a bowl of water, but he collapsed like a rag doll, unable to stand up or lift his head. We cradled him as we gathered up the kids and got them dressed. As the first snow of the season came down, we brought him to our local animal hospital. It was over quickly; he died in my arms, staring into Susanne’s eyes.

We’re absolutely heartbroken at our loss, but we know we were blessed to have Dizzy in our lives. We were blessed the day we discovered him at the DC Humane Society, where he had been living for weeks, unable to find a family. We were blessed to have him become best friends with Winnie, who we also brought home from the animal shelter. We were blessed to have him by our side, our constant companion as we went through fertility treatments for several years – and waiting at home for us when we brought our daughter home from the hospital. We were blessed that he was healthy and happy, and lived long enough to get to know our daughter, and later our son. And we were blessed that when the end came, it was fast and relatively painless.

If you would like to join us in honoring Dizzy, please consider making a donation to a no-kill animal shelter near you. The No Kill Network is a good resource to find a local shelter that accepts donations. You can also use that directory if you wish to adopt a pet of your own – though if you truly want to make a difference, you should consider adopting from a shelter where you can save a life directly, either because it’s not a no-kill shelter, or because they rescue pets from high-kill shelters that euthanize pets. If you decide to help out in some way, please let us know in the comments, or feel free to tweet about it using the hashtag #Give4Dizzy.

Farewell and rest in peace, sweet Dizzy – you changed our lives for the better in more ways you could ever know.

Confirmed: NPR has offered me a buyout.

October 31st, 2013

Earlier this fall, NPR announced it would offer buyouts for staff to help balance the company’s budget by reducing the workforce by about 10%. Surprising even myself, I must admit, I threw my hat into the ring. Last Friday, I learned NPR has accepted my buyout request.

Here’s how it works. I’ve got until early December to accept the buyout or change my mind. If I change my mind, I’ll stay as senior strategist at NPR’s social media desk. If I accept the buyout, my job at NPR is expected to wrap up at the end of December.

What will I do after that? That’s a question I can’t answer yet, because I haven’t made any decisions. I’ve had the honor of serving at NPR for seven years, and while it’ll be hard to top that, no doubt there many exciting opportunities out there worth exploring. Would love to hear all of your thoughts on what I should tackle next.

Colonials Debate: Should Essayists Also Master The Mechanisms Of The Printing Press?

October 24th, 2013

IT HAS COME TO THE ATTENTION OF THIS AUTHOR that Essayists across the Thirteen Colonies have been up in Arms, as it were, ever since the Boston-based broadsheet The Publick Salon published a commentary entitled “Nay: Thou Does Not Have To Learn How To Operate A Printing Press.” The commenter in Question, a Mr. Patrick Henry Hancock of Braintree, challenged the revolutionary notion that young men serving as apprentice essayists must master the mechanics of the press as well.

Wrote Mr. Hancock:

It is improbable – nay, preposterous – that an apprentice Essayist would ever need to learn how to run a Press. That is the domain of the Master Printer! It is the Master Printer who knows his Typesets. It is the Master Printer whose hands are permanently stain’d with the Ink that he himself mixes with utter Care and Precision. It is the Master Printer who places each key and plate in its proper location to ensure the spelling is Correcte. Let the Essayist do what he and he alone does best: write his Words, and if he chooses, have them Edited. That is what we have always taught our apprentices, and there is nary a reason to question it. The only reason, perhaps, an Essayist should ever stand by a press is if he wishes to peruse that which is the News before his compatriots do, as we have been known to do on certain Occasions.

As word of Mr. Hancock’s missive spread across the Colonies over the next several Months, his allies and critics began to craft their own retorts. George Revere, President of His Majesty’s Essayist’s Guild, Massachusetts Bay Colony Chapter, echoed Mr. Hancock in his own broadsheet, The Weekly Fens:

An essayist apprentice becomes an essayist apprentice because he wishes to become an Essayist. If he had wished to learn the arcane arts of printing, that is the path he should have taken. An apprentice essayist studies under master essayists for Year upon Year to improve his pen, his Wit, and if he are so fortunate enough, to develop his own oeuvre. Staining one’s hands with ink should be a legacy of one’s quills, not printer’s plates. I will grant you, the Essayist and the Print Master may work in relative proximity to each other – the same neighborhood would be Acceptable – but they are like oil and water when mixed. Nothing good can come of it.

While these guildsmen made their thoughts known to the Publick, it took not long for Rebuttals to be in the offing. Six months after Mr. Hancock’s initial provocation, New Jersey essayist Josiah Jarvis-Jefferson offered a Riposte, defending his own practice of introducing apprentices to the workings of a Press.

These are young men, aged perhaps no more than five and twenty. Do they know at such an age that they will wish to continue as essayists when they are, say, 30? 40? Or in their waning days at 50? Or might they parlay these skills into another Trade? We all know that not all essayist apprentices remain in the Profession in which they trained. There is much value for these young men to understand the mechanics of the Printing Press, just as there is much value in the mastery of the written word. Printing presses are machines of our Modern age – machines I have no doubt will be used in myriad ways our Fathers could nay have imagined. Think of the opportunities these young men will have! As the French would say, they will be the entrepreneurs of Tomorrow.

In New York, the highly regarded Academick and Professor of Letters, Mr. Clay, wrote of a possible Conciliation between both camps:

We expect our apprentices to think critically, do we not? Is it not fair, then, to expect them to appreciate something of the ink-laden Science that brings their words to a broader Publick? Saying that they should become Master Printers I do not suggest. Rather, I speak of what might be described as a Print Literacy: a healthy acquaintance with the matter that may inform an essayist as he pursues his endeavours. For example, If a printer determines they do not have the Column Inches to publish an essay, should not the essayist understand the reasoning, and come to a suitable compromise with him? Are there not times where one might presume an essayist and a printer to work together? And if I may add for future Discussion: perhaps a printer should learn something of what it means to be an essayist as well. Is it not unreasonable?

Mr. Samuel Owens of North Carolina Colony, iconoclastic Publisher of The Durham Beast, did not mince words in a Commentery in his own tabloid.

Did we not settle this debate in 1705? Why must we waste our precious Resources on these dreadfully unproductive disputes? I expect all apprentice essayists who wish to write for my concern to understand Basick Printing. I ask them not to become master Ink Men, but I do ask that they parley – engage, if you will – with our Print Masters so the final Result of each edition is without Parallel.

And gentlemen, let us not ignore the Elephante in the room. Our industry is not yet a secure one; our future is in doubt. Who knows what tyrannical Regulations His Majesty may wish upon us next? Should we not have young men in our employ whose capacities extend beyond a single competence?

Example gratia: What if an essayist wishes to produce an engraving for his next report? I have many a talented Artist among my essayists, even if it is not his specifick bailiwick. Do we not waste his Talent by not allowing him to express himself through such creative means? If he displays such Enthusiasm, I would expect him to comprehend engravature as to assist the printer, even if he does not become a printer Himself, so his Work may excel to its fullest potential.

If we wish our industry to survive, nay, thrive, in these Colonies, we much embrace the possibility of multiple media, if you will: both text and engravature. And does that not require a modicum of Knowledge about the Printing Press?

In other News, a Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia announced with great Fanfare to his neighbours that he would serve as essayist, printer and Proprietor of his own Press. It is reported he is now seeking both essayist and print apprentices, who despite the usual Practice will be paid while under his tutelage and stationed in the same Office, working in union with one another. The name of Mr. Franklin’s Publication is forthcoming and expected to be known before the end of the year. A representative from His Majesty’s Essayist’s Guild, Pennsylvania Colony Chapter, could not be reached for Comment; another attempt to reach them will be made once the weather improves, hopefully next Month.

When Reporting Breaking News, Words Matter – And Sometimes Languages, Too

October 11th, 2013

Have you ever paid close attention to the words used by journalists during breaking news?

You should. There’s actually a whole spectrum of words used to convey what they know or don’t know – and ideally, how they know it. Sometimes, the language is pretty obvious:

“We have confirmed that the cat was rescued from the tree.”

There’s that word: confirmed. It’s clear, direct. It tells us that a journo has enough evidence to say to us: this statement is true.

But there are other words and phrases that pepper the journalistic lexicon that may not seem so obvious to us, but in fact have a pretty clear meaning to the reporters saying them. Take the following example:

“We’re getting reports that the cat was rescued from the tree.”

When you hear that phrase, “We’re getting reports,” or some variant of it, it should tell you that the information being conveyed to you is very preliminary – so much so that you probably should take it with a grain of salt until further details are available.

Even the same word, used in a grammatically different way, can suggest further nuance. Let’s change that sentence just a little bit to this:

“The cat has reportedly been rescued from the tree.”

In this example, they’re still using a form of the word report, but by changing it from a plural noun to an adverb, it conveys that the journalist has more confidence that the story is in fact true. If you remove that one word, the sentence would be a statement of fact. Insert reportedly back into the sentence, and it shows that you’re still hedging your bets, just in case.

A little further along the news confirmation spectrum, you’ve got other options like this:

“It appears the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

By prefacing the claim with the phrase it appears, the journalist is still hedging their bets, but on the whole they want to convey it’s very likely to be true. Alternatively, you could use the phrase it seems and probably get away with conveying a similar level of confidence, though perhaps a little less so.

If you want to convey even more confidence, but still cover your ass somewhat, you can always modify the sentence by deflecting responsibility to someone else: a source.

“Sources tell us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

Sources are a big deal, because they help journalists triangulate information to get to the facts. They even have their own sub-spectrum of confidence level. Compare how different these sentences sound:

“An anonymous source tells us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

“Multiple independent sources in law enforcement, the fire department and the intelligence community tell us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

In the first example, you have a sole source that clearly doesn’t want to be identified in any fashion. That’s an okay starting point to begin your reporting, but it’s pretty weak if that’s what you decide to run with when going public with the story. For anything of particular importance, one source is rarely enough. In the second example, by making it clear that you’ve talked to multiple sources who are okay with qualifying what type of source they are and how they got their info, you’ll inspire more confidence than relying on just a single anonymous source.

Then there’s the phrase that’s probably most coveted by journalists:

“We have learned that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

While the sentence doesn’t use that most absolute of journalistic terms – confirmed – it conveys that not only something has been confirmed, but that news org is the first to report it. In other words, it’s a scoop.

This spectrum of words and phrases constitute an area of linguistics known as evidentiality, which explores how evidence is conveyed in a language, including the nature of that evidence. In English, journalists use those words and phrases to convey what they know and how they know it, but because we don’t always think about their meaning, we often miss their intended nuance. And nuance is a big deal when you’re trying to say whether or not something is indeed true, especially if you plan to retweet it or share it in some fashion.

English could actually stand to learn from other languages that have evidentiality baked into the essence of their grammar. A number of indigenous languages are actually really good at doing this. Take, for example, Makah, spoken as a second language by a tribe on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. (Alas, the last fluent native speaker of Makah passed away in 2002.)  They actually have suffixes you can add to a verb to change the word and convey how you know something may be true.

If you use the Makah suffix -wa·t, for example, it tells you that something is hearsay, like “I hear the cat has been rescued from the tree.” Another suffix, -x̌a·-š, is used to infer probability, as in, “It’s probable that the cat has been rescued from the tree. Other suffixes convey visual evidence, including whether it’s unclear (“It looks like the cat has been rescued from the tree”) or if there’s enough physical evidence to infer that it’s true (“I see that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”) There’s even a suffix that conveys auditory evidence: “I heard the cat has been rescued from the tree” – perhaps, let’s say, because the speaker heard the owner of the cat express thanks to the rescuers.

Other languages also convey some form of evidentiality. In Eastern Pomo, a Native American language spoken in Lake County, CA, you can add a suffix to a verb to say that you actually felt something. For example, perhaps the speaker knows the cat was rescued because he or she got scratched by it afterwards. In the Yukaghir languages of the Russian Far East, they can modify their verbs to convey whether or not they witnessed something with their own eyes. In Brazil and Peru, the Shipibo people are able to put a modifier into the middle of a verb to demonstrate that the statement they’re making is a direct quote from someone (“The fireman said, ‘The cat has been rescued from the tree.’”)

The more you dig, the more examples of evidentiality you find in many indigenous languages. By baking evidence and verification directly into their grammar, they can convey information in a much more direct, confident way – something that English otherwise handles relatively clumsily. Alas, many of the languages that are best at this are also among the most threatened languages in the world, which is a real shame – and not just because entire cultures are lost when languages die. It’s also because they demonstrate that some cultures consider the conveyance of facts so important, their languages have evolved to allow for an incredible range of ways to qualify the evidence as specifically as possible. Imagine if we had common verb endings in English that were so clear in meaning and intent that anyone hearing them would know exactly what level of confidence you have when reporting something?

We probably shouldn’t hold our breath, of course. The next best thing we can do, perhaps, is to become better listeners to the words used by journalists and understand their nuance. Unless we can get journalists to provide more context about what they know or don’t know, we’ll have to live with the fact that breaking news reporting embraces high levels of nuance – and that it’s up to us to sort out what it all means.

Special thanks to my NPR colleague Jeremy Bowers for introducing me to the Makah language.

#ISOJ Keynote: Can Social Media Help Us Create A More Informed Public?

April 19th, 2013

Here’s the transcript of a talk I gave at the International Symposium for Online Journalists in Austin, TX. I’ll add the video if they post it later.

—-

Now as many of you know, I’m usually I’m not at a loss for words. But I really struggled to decide what to talk about today, especially in the wake of the attack this week on my hometown of Boston. Some of my fondest memories of the city are of that magical Monday, once a year each April, when everyone would line the streets and cheer on one stranger after another – encouraging them to succeed in accomplishing a little magic of their own.

I had originally planned to the role of social media in our coverage of Newtown today. But the course the events in Boston have led me – and perhaps many of us here, I suppose – to broaden what we truly need to talk about here at ISOJ.

So I’d like to discuss something that both Newton and Boston have in common, beyond the obvious horror and needless loss:

We messed up. We didn’t always get the story right. We didn’t serve the public as well as we could have.

Now, a dynamic similar to the fog of war certainly rears its head during catastrophic breaking news, and mistakes get made. It is perhaps rare indeed for a major breaking news story to be told from start to finish without some confusion getting in the way of informing the public.

As the person at NPR who sent out the tweet mistakenly reporting the death of Gabrielle Giffords, I know we are all capable of making these mistakes, and understand the reporting failures that cause them to happen. Whether we’re on-air reporters, Web producers or just members of the public with large Twitter followings, we all have the potential of getting it wrong and making matters worse.

So that’s why I’d like to talk today about some of the factors that lead to these mistakes, how they’re amplified by social media, and perhaps, how we can mitigate them better by rethinking how we engage the public.

—–

Whether it’s Boston, or Newtown, or some other breaking story, we all kick into high gear. At every newsroom, it’s all hands on deck – battle stations. These are the moments where the public expects us to do our jobs, and do them well. These are the moments we pride ourselves in our roles as professionals. And thankfully, many of us rise to the occasion.

But in recent decades, we’ve put ourselves in a bind by creating news cycles that are faster and faster and faster. And speed is often the scurge of accuracy.

First there’s 24-hour broadcast news, where in some quarters there is a sin much greater than getting the story wrong, as you can always make a correction later. And that sin is allowing for dead air.

Dead air is unacceptable, of course, yet we can’t exactly take over everyone’s TVs or radios, hit a pause button and force them go get a cup of coffee while we sort out the facts. Apart from throwing in extra commercials, we have to fill that air time one way or another. And that creates a scenario where even the best journalists are more likely to make mistakes. In a bid to keep the coverage going, they may find themselves talking about a second gunman, or reporting on the shooter’s Facebook page that actually turns out to be his innocent brother’s. They may report breaking news of arrests in Boston, then dig deeper holes for themselves trying to explain how they were led astray by their sources. And all awhile, the broadcast rolls on. No. Dead. Air.

Now, I don’t stand here today to point fingers and throw broadcast news under the bus. Online news isn’t immune from these mistakes either. How many of us have struggled to keep our live-blogs fresh with one new update after another? How often do we post reports without a third source, or even a second one, to back it up?

And then there’s social media, where we feel even more pressure to keep the public updated as quickly as possible. As we saw this week with the supposed arrests in Boston, news organizations’ social media platforms aren’t immune from the same mistakes that occur in our broadcasts or in our websites. How many of us have typed up a tweet for a major news Twitter account and hesitated before hitting the send button, wondering, what if we’ve screwed this up? And how many of us have hit the button anyway?

Errors have always been a part of journalism. Corrections are perhaps a more recent phenomenon, but thankfully someone thought they were a good idea and came up with them. Yet lately it seems whenever there’s a public discussion of major errors we’ve made covering breaking news, they’re often eclipsed by discussions of how these mistakes wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for social media.

Social media makes for an easy target, and understandably so. Never before have we had the capacity to spread misinformation from one grapevine to the next, so broadly and so quickly. Whether it’s a mistaken tweet or Facebook post, inaccuracies take on a life of their own. But all too often I’ve heard people in our industry redirect the blame specifically to the public’s use of social media. Yes, we may have reported something wrong, but they compounded it. Or perhaps we did our jobs by not reporting a rumor, yet somehow it got out there, and now it’s everywhere because of those damn Twitter users.

Let’s face it: it’s never been easier to spread rumors. Yet it wasn’t all too long ago that these things would rarely see the light of day. We’d hear rumors while we covered a breaking story, but we could nip them in the bud. They’d be discussed in the newsroom and hopefully end up dying on the cutting room floor. We had the luxury of scrutinizing information privately. The public never need worry about a potentially damaging rumor, because we’d take care of it for them. That’s what it was all about – to report as accurately as possible and not allow the public to become misinformed. Besides, the public lacked the power to compound the problem, beyond sharing it with their immediate friends and family.

But that era is over. It no longer exists. Today, almost everyone has a device in their pocket that can capture footage or circulate information to a broader public. We no longer control the flow of information. We are no longer the media, in the most literal sense of the word, in which news happens over here, the public is over there, and we stand in the middle, sole arbiters of what gets passed across the transom and what doesn’t.

While we go about our business on air or online, the public is having its own conversations, passing along a variety of rumors. They can take on a life of their own. Some rumors that historically would’ve died on the vine now thrive online. And given the deterioration of the public’s trust of media, we should no longer be surprised when they choose to believe their friends before they believe us, even on those many occasions we’re doing a damn good job getting the story right.

Since the earliest days of journalism, our mission has been to inform the public as best we can.  But despite the incredible changes we’ve seen in media and technology, we still treat the news it as a one-way street. We try to sort out the facts, then tell everyone else what we know. I inform you, and you listen. It’s almost as if all this social media stuff didn’t exist.

But we all know that’s not true. Twitter and Facebook are as real as any community that exists offline. So what should we do, now that the public can inform each other, while simultaneously ignoring us? Should we continue to treat journalism as a one-way street, when everyone else thinks they’re chatting at a block party?

I think we need to get back to a core part of journalism, and rethink what it means to inform the public. In fact, I think one good starting point can be found within NPR’s mission statement: To create a more informed public.

Now this may sound like I’m just parsing words, and to a certain extent I probably am. But there is a difference, and it’s worth discussing. To inform the public is to tell them what we think they should know. To create a more informed public is to help them become better consumers and producers of information – and hopefully achieve their full potential as active participants in civil society.

If this is indeed a worthy goal, then why aren’t we engaging the public more directly? I don’t mean engagement like encouraging them to “like” us on Facebook or click the retweet button. That is not engagement. By engagement I mean, why don’t we use these incredibly powerful tools to talk with them, listen to them, and help us all understand the world a little better? Perhaps we can even use social media to do the exact opposite of its reputation – to slow down the news cycle, help us catch our collective breaths and scrutinize what’s happening with greater mindfulness.

When a big story breaks, we shouldn’t just be using social media to send out the latest headlines or ask people for their feedback after the fact. We shouldn’t even stop at asking for their help when trying to cover a big story. We should be more transparent about what we know and don’t know. We should actively address rumors being circulated online. Rather than pretending they’re not circulating, or that they’re not our concern, we should tackle them head-on, challenging the public to question them, scrutinize them, understand where they might have come from, and why.

When we see members of the public making claims that might be questionable or flat-out wrong, we should address them directly, asking them where they got that information and why they believe it to be true. We should help them understand what it means to confirm something, and that it’s not just sharing something you heard over Facebook from a friend of your brother-in-law.  Similarly, we should challenge the public when we see them parroting certain journalistic tropes such as “confirmed,” or “breaking” or “reports,” when in truth they may not understand the nuances that make these terms very, very different?

We now report in a networked world, where information spread by members of the public can be as consequential as information spread by the media. Just as we cannot afford to underplay our own mistakes, we can no longer afford to underplay the public’s role in propagating information. If we are going to embrace the notion of creating a more informed public, reporting is no longer enough. We must work harder to engage them, listen to them, teach them, learn from them. We must help them better producers, as well as consumers, of information.

If we wish to remain relevant in this networked world of ours, this must become a core part of our mission. It’s no longer enough to just inform people. We must do whatever we can to create this more informed public. And we can’t afford to wait until the next Newtown or Boston to begin anew.

Thank you.

A Eulogy For My Mom

February 15th, 2013

The cars lined up for the funeral procession at half past noon, a chill in the air made worse by a steady breeze. The entire cemetery was covered in a thick blanket of Massachusetts snow – acres and acres of it. As we slowly drove to the burial site, I could see a patch of green in the distance sheltered by an open-sided tent.

My mom’s casket was waiting just off the road, a group of grave diggers waiting for us to arrive.

We got out of our cars, around 25 of us total. All of our immediate family was there – my wife and kids, my brother’s family, my dad, my aunt and her family. A number of cousins on my dad’s side also joined us; they had graciously made arrangements for all the catering after the funeral. My mom originally had 50 first cousins, and over the years we’d seen the number in attendance at family events whittle down due to the inexorable passage of time and the tyranny of distance. One cousin and her husband joined us.

I had never met the rabbi before, but she was very kind, offering us condolences individually then discussing with us the order in which we planned to talk. The funeral director pinned a black ribbon on my overcoat, just over my heart. As is custom in some branches of Judaism, I immediately rended it, ripping it down the middle.

There was one row of chairs in front of the casket. I sat down with my dad, brother, aunt and uncle. Wasting little time, the rabbi began the ceremony by asking us to repeat the traditional blessing for the newly departed:

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, dayan ha-emet.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, the true judge.

After saying a few more words and acknowledging the immediate family that was present, I was invited to give the first eulogy. I had struggled to come up with the right words – in our family, eulogies have always been a delicate balance of humility and humor, and I knew this was the only chance I’d ever get to eulogize Mom. So I decided to focus on something she said to me not long ago:

When Mom and I first talked last month about her reaching the final stages of ovarian cancer, I commented on how she had beaten the odds of what was initially a very grave diagnosis, and had survived for 19 more years, well beyond any length of time we could have dreamed of.

“Not 19,” she corrected me. “It’s been 18 years and change. So much for 18 supposedly being good luck.” In Hebrew, the number 18 also spells out the word chai, which means “life” – as in the traditional toast, l’chaim.

“But it was good luck,” I replied without hesitation. “18 good years that your doctors never expected you’d ever have.”

And she took full advantage of those 18 years, whenever and however she could.

First, if any of you have gone out to dinner with my mom, you’d probably experienced one family tradition: those innumerable plates of food she asked to have sent back to the kitchen. Too cold, too undercooked, too overcooked, not what she thought she ordered, not the way they used to make it before the new owner changed the menu. If it wasn’t what she had expected, she’d flat-out reject it.

Could it be embarrassing? Sure – though even I am known to do the same thing every now and then. But Mom knew she didn’t have that much time left on earth, so she wasted none of it. Why have a bad meal when you don’t know how many good meals you had in front of you? Besides, there were those innumerable glasses of white wine expecting to wash down something or another.

She lived her life to the fullest. There were the two dozen cruises she’d taken over the last 18 years with my dad, my aunt and my uncle. And countless countries visited, too: Panama, Columbia, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Sweden, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Japan and China. And those are just the ones that come to mind.

Over those 18 years, there were more than 35,000 sweepstakes entries she’d sent out – give or take – a few of which actually paid dividends.

There were the five final seasons of Seinfeld, some of which were pretty good. The 94 episodes and two god-awful movie versions of Sex and the City. And at last count, 224 episodes of NCIS, not including the LA spin-off.

And then there were the things that really counted:

Eric and I each getting married, bringing Kim and Susanne – the two daughters she’d never had, she often said of them – into her life.

The three grandchildren – Kayleigh, Sean and Sophie – three grandchildren she never thought she’d live long enough to meet.

The close friendship she developed with my mother-in-law, Mary.

The countless evenings she spent with her friends over a bottle of wine at home.

The three cats and the 130-pound dog who tried to sit in her lap whenever she visited my house.

The 15 more years she cherished with her mom, my grandmother Theresa, before she passed away six months shy of her 95th birthday.

The 18 more years with her sister Brenda and her family, including the birth of six grand nieces and nephews.

The 18 additional hours she and I had to visit one last time, after Delta abruptly canceled my flight home to DC due to mechanical difficulties two weeks ago.

The 18 precious, wonderful, additional years she spent with my dad.

18 good years. 18 years of good luck.

So Mom, as you sit down for your first of many heavenly meals with Grandma and Grandpa, I have no doubt you’ll still exercise your right to send the food back. After fighting the good fight for 18 years, you’ve earned it.

L’chaim, Mom.

——–

The obituary for my mom that ran in the Boston Globe, February 13, 2013:

Nancy Ellen Carvin, 69, of Indian Harbour Beach, FL, passed away at home on February 11, 2013 after a long battle with cancer.

Nancy was born in Cambridge, MA on December 21, 1943 and grew up in nearby Chelsea with her parents, Simon and Theresa Kaplan, and her sister Brenda. The family later moved to Worcester, MA, where she attended Classical High School. Nancy enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she studied art history and social work.

Returning to Boston after graduation, she married Robert Carvin of Brookline, MA. After having two sons, Andy and Eric, the family moved to Indialantic, FL, where she worked first as a travel agent for the Burdines department store and later as a configuration manager at Harris Corporation. In 1994, at the age of 50, Nancy was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer but was determined to fight the disease.

Over the next 18 years, she proudly saw both of her sons, Andy and Eric, marry and have children of their own: Kayleigh, Sean and Sophie. She also traveled the world with her husband, visiting places as diverse as Colombia, Croatia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and China. Nancy is survived by her sister, husband, sons, grandchildren and daughters-in-law Susanne Carvin and Kim Noble, along with countless nieces, nephews and friends.

Her funeral will take place on Friday, February 15 at 12:45 pm at Sharon Memorial Park, 120 Canton Street, Sharon, MA. Family and friends will gather nearby after the funeral at the home of Donald and Sandra Carvin; maps will be distributed at the service.

In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations in Nancy’s memory to The Women’s Center In Brevard County, FL, or a favorite cancer charity.