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Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

And they use pretty words to do it.

Take this, for example:

The whole point of the “soundbite used to be to mine one nugget of gold from a longer point, to boil it down to its essence. But we’ve boiled over as a culture, and there’s nothing left in the pot. We’re not just going for the choicest cut anymore. We’ve devolved to a media culture where that nugget is zapped and worked over and processed to the point of irrelevance. There is nothing behind the nugget anymore.

That’s Denis McGrath, mixing metaphors about the lost art of conversation, and getting there by way of an obituary. Brilliant.

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Am I press?

Having been a journalist in a former life, I try to keep my nose in the game by subscribing to press release services. It’s an interesting way to see the news cycle and journalists’ judgement in action, since reportage from many media outlets can be recycled or augmented press releases.

For the science beat, that means EurekAlert, which is how I got hold of this little gem:

It is about a study to be released in PLoS Medicine which argues we just don’t know if circumcision will hinder HIV transmission rates in the United States. Boiled down, Africa and America are two very different places with very different disease vectors, which means public health data from the former won’t yield predictions about the later.

I got all that from the press release. I haven’t read the paper, which has the following citation:

The reason I haven’t read the paper, and can’t give you juicy quotes (theirs) followed up with bloated analysis (mine)? The press release links to:

PRESS-ONLY PREVIEW OF THE ARTICLE

The all-caps aren’t mine, but they have sufficient emphasis that I gather a hands-off approach is encouraged if you aren’t a journalist.

This brings me to ask the big question which crosses the mind of a serious blogger at least once: Do I count as press?

I could put on my freelancing hat and say, ‘Yes, I am.’ I could even send off an email and ask permission. But that’s just avoiding the bigger question of when a blogger counts as a journalist and is entitled to the same treatment.

My intuition is that anyone who picks up a pen can be a journalist for the purposes of any given story. Amateur or professional, it matters not a whit as long as you behave responsibly. That’s why excluding bloggers from press galleries should rankle everyone – even graduates of journalism school.

I suspect Canadian courts would see it the same way, since they don’t elevate the rights of journalists over those of citizens. Here are two statements to that effect:

Journalists have no more right to information, or to disclosure or even to access to information than the ordinary citizen. Freedom of the press as a concept does not confer any special status on media people. MacLeod v. de Chastelain, [1991] 1 F.C. 114 (F.C.T.D.).

Canadian courts have stated emphatically that the press enjoys no privilege of free speech greater than enjoyed by a private individual and that the liberty of the press is no greater than the liberty of every subject. Coates v. The Citizen (1988), 44 C.C.L.T. 286 (N.S.S.C.). [ed: the irony of the newspaper’s name should not escape us]

Even so, I’ll wait to read the article. Unless the story merits confrontation, a journalist should be polite and err on the side of caution.

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With the arrival of open access, publishers are understandably worried they might be cut out of the process. To demonstrate their contribution, they’ve compared papers before and after copy-editing.

Given that Robert Campbell is President and Publisher of Blackwell, and Edward Wates is Blackwell’s UK Journal Production Director, it should be no surprise the study give a rosy picture of the contributions by their own publishing company.

It may also be no surprise that overwhelming number of errors involve citations – a category of error which might be caused in part by publishers’ insistence upon in-house style guides. (Even so, when that many people with advanced degrees can’t figure out how to format a footnote, citation formats need rethinking.)

The Wates and Campbell paper follows other data-laden but interest-driven attacks that amount to, “Open access: it’s not as good as you think”. See, for example, reports by the Publishing Research Consortium (Do Open Access Articles Have Greater Citation Impact?) and the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (The Facts About Open Access).

These should be taken with a grain of salt – if publishers didn’t think open access posed a big threat, they wouldn’t be hiring PR strategists. A more balanced study can be found over at the open access Digital Library of Information Science and Technology (DLIST):

It observes:

…there was no question that the work of the copy-editors improved the readability of most papers…

It’s remarkable that studies have been conducted on this topic. The value of copy-editing should be obvious. However, I am reminded of a Supreme Court of Canada copyright decision that bugged me because of the way the court characterized copy editing. Their reasoning was that fixes to spelling and grammar didn’t warrant copyright protection because this editing was a “mere mechanical exercise” undertaken “without any skill or judgement”.

This seems off the mark. If good writing didn’t take skill and judgement, we wouldn’t have copy-editors, would we? It would have been better for the court to say some types of skill and judgement attract copyright protection, whereas others do not.

Here’s the court’s final draft, absent my ‘mechanical exercise’:

Even though copy-editing is incidental to authorship, at least inasmuch as copyright is concerned, publishers who say that authors’ manuscripts are made better by editing are right. Author’s drafts are filled with errors and confusions in numbers enough to make a careful reader weep.

They are wrong though, that a world without publishers’ editors necessarily diminishes the quality of scholarly literature, and mistakenly assume open access must take place without copy-editing.

Also, it would be wrong to say that in-house copy-editors are saving scholarship from bad writing. A quick survey of the existing literature in any discipline will turn up a lot of excruciating prose. You can’t blame copy-editors for this – they aren’t supposed to make stylistic changes or re-write swaths of text to make them comprehensible. It is authors’ own fault when their papers are unreadable.

So, here’s a twist: Perhaps readers should be aware of the frailties of an author’s writing. If authors didn’t have publishers’ editing as a safety net, public ridicule in a free market of words might inspire them to learn how to use commas and format footnotes for themselves.

A more realistic suggestion is that authors pick up the tab for fixing their bad writing. There’s no reason for publishers to shift the cost of editing to readers and libraries.

Either way, open access gives authors incentives to be better writers.

How’s that for framing the debate?

(Hat-tip to OptimalScholarship via Peter Suber, for mention of the OA copy editing studies)

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Responding to my post, How to hack the new CBC website, Netvibes sent me an email indicating they’ve created a page full of CBC feed content. Subscribers can personalize it as they wish.

You can do much the same thing with iGoogle.

Reaction to the redesign in the blogosphere has been tepid but illuminating. So far, there is broad consensus about getting rid of promotional blocks on the site. Here’s the roundup:

It hurts, but I’ll mention another failure of CBC.ca that is particularly wounding:

Even though the CBC today launched its new web portal, CBC Aboriginal, it has failed to link to it from either its main page or the news page. You have to drill down via into an In Depth feature on Aboriginal Canadians to find a link to it buried in a sidebar, or discover it (as I did) though an independent media advisory.

Why is this important? Today is National Aboriginal Day in Canada. It’s an obscure official holiday, and most Canadians are probably unaware of it. CBC.ca isn’t helping to change that, and appears to be unaware of its own initiatives.

Bravo.

To end on a happier note, I’ll direct you to the CBC Blogwatch, which links news items to blogger reactions.

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This week CBC unveiled its newly designed website, which looks prettier but falls short of the mark of being CBC 2.0.

It’s easy to see the drivers for this redesign. The website is first and foremost a way to promote the broadcaster’s offline content (radio and TV), but they are also wrestling with the need to serve up the ton of online content they can make available to readers across Canada.

It’s a dangerous balance which seems to have already alienated many visitors, but they are moving in the right direction. More white space, bigger headlines, and prominent graphics make it a much snappier site. Better yet, they have finally begun integrating their site with the blogosphere, with links to Technorati and blog posts which connect to the news items.

They’ve adopted a portal approach, which is at the same time perfectly sensible and unfortunate. While it helps organize the information, it also turns the front page into a soup of information, most of which any given user will not use. It also stratifies the webpage, which is a bad thing when it involves scrolling three screens to browse for what might interest you:

  1. At the top is the local weather – a great idea.
  2. Under it, there’s a set of simple, easy-to-find navigation tabs – also good.
  3. A large, splashy promotional banner, advertising a rotating selection of 5 CBC TV and radio programs, fills the rest of the screen ‘above the fold’ – they should get rid of it, as people hate scrolling to get to the real content. Beside this is a useless list of top searches which should also go, or be placed on a dedicated search & site-map page if for some reason one forgets that people are always looking for weather and sodoku.
  4. Under that, large graphics linking to the top story in each of the news, sports, and arts & entertainment portals. These define 3 columns for the top 3 headlines in each category – they should consider starting the page with this, although I’d recommend reducing the prominence given to the sports, which is now front and center.
  5. Then there’s the ‘mystery meat’, a selection of miscellaneous items belonging to no real category. They are really just clutter – they had them on the old site too, and should have axed them for this one. Hint – if you can’t give a section of a webpage a decent title, it should go. (At best, they deserve a small box with rotating content which collects them together)
  6. To anchor the bottom of the page, there are two large boxes telling you what’s on CBC radio and TV, and offer links to schedules – a good idea, but the titles don’t let you click through to the radio and TV portals, even though you can click on the news, sports and A&E portal titles in layer 4, above.
  7. After that, there’s localization: a set of 3 local headlines and geographical categories for regional content – since these are very important to most people, these should be given a higher placement on the page.
  8. Last comes two column lists of headlines: most blogged and most viewed – an excellent idea, and with good placement.
  9. The footer contains the usual corporate stuff, although you’d think a simple link to ‘About the CBC’ would be enough for the front page.

Gosh, nine strata over three screens of content. How much of it is useful to you?

If the CBC really wanted to make the audience drive the content of the main page, they would do something similar to other Web 2.0 portals like Netvibes. These allow users to construct their own page using modules of information. If that is too adventurous for a broadcaster hobbled by bureaucracy, then I offer this simple solution…

Treat the front page like a page that has content and is an end-destination, instead of a page promoting offline material. Most people go to CBC.ca for news – local and otherwise. If they want something else, they are willing to click about as long as you don’t make it hard for them. So, put the news up front and make it pretty. Everything else should follow in slide-show graphics smaller than that now occupying the bulk of the main page, and linking to portals instead of individual stories.

It’s a given no-one at CBC is going to do this, because they are driven by different priorities. This means it is up to the audience to control how they get their information. Here are my 3 very simple recommendations that will help you get what you want from the CBC website.

  1. Bypass the main page and just bookmark the CBC News portal, which is chock full of content.
  2. Use a browser with an ad blocker. Firefox has ad-ons which can help you cut down on the advertising clutter. Thanks to them, I haven’t seen a banner ad on my iBook in months.
  3. Avoid visiting the website entirely. No, really. If you are a no-nonsense news junkie, this is the way to go: just collect the RSS feeds that serve the content you want. Once you’re outfitted with a feed reader like Google Reader or Netvibes, you only need to go to the CBC website to check for scheduling information, streaming audio, and the weather.
  4. Get your weather elsewhere. Oddly, neither the CBC nor Environment Canada offer RSS feeds for the weather. An official with the latter told me they are working on getting an RSS feed, but that was months ago. For now, they only have a hurricane alert feed. Still, if you click across the pond and enter your city into the World 5 Day Forecast form at the BBC Weather website, it will generate a daily RSS feed for you.

How well do these strategies work? Enough that I didn’t know they’d changed their website until several days after they rolled it out, when a friend told me about it over the phone.

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Anna Maria Tremonti interviews the famous atheist today on The Current. A significant portion of the interview deals with Dawkins’ view that religion gets a ‘free ride’ in the sense that atheists are unwilling to be openly critical of religion. That sets the stage for a broad discussion of the theme: how should scientists respond to religion?

The segment also includes a panel discussion with Lawrence Krauss (astrophysicist) and Michael Ruse (historian and philosopher of science). They advance a form of ‘humble’ atheism, and make the interesting point that Dawkins in conversation is not as strident nor as full of vitriol as he is in the God Delusion.

All told, a more satisfying treatment than Michael Enright’s interview, although it would have been nice to have heard Dawkins respond to Ruse and Krauss. For that, refer to a Scientific American item referenced by the program. Kudos to Krauss for self-archiving it:

Unlike some other radio programs offered by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Current is made available online after it airs. Due to the wonders of time zones, this program is already archived now – although at the time of this post it has yet to be broadcast in British Columbia.

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Borders can’t contain persistent ignorance.

Yesterday, a creation museum opened in the US. In a few weeks, one will open in Canada. No, really.

The province of Alberta has the distinction of hosting both of the creation museums north of the 49th parallel. There’s the traveling museum of Creation Truth Ministries, and the Big Valley Creation Science Museum which will open this summer. Both of these awful websites pale in comparison to the Creationist 2.0 glory made available by their wealthier American cousin, Answers in Genesis.

This might remind you about the dismay in the scientific community when the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) denied Brian Alters a grant to study Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution’s ‘intelligent design theory’ on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers. The stated reasons:

The committee found that the candidates were qualified. However, it judged the proposal did not adequately substantiate the premise that the popularization of Intelligent Design Theory had detrimental effects on Canadian students, teachers, parents and policy makers. Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct. It was not convinced, therefore, that research based on these assumptions would yield objective results. In addition, the committee found that the research plans were insufficiently elaborated to allow for an informed evaluation of their merit. In view of its reservations the committee recommended that no award be made. [emphasis added]

When this hit the press, SSHRC’s Janet Halliwell characterized this as a “framing” problem, and later was compelled to say “The theory of evolution is not in doubt”. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it should be noted that the members of the SSHRC committee who reviewed the grant proposal were not biologists.

  1. Susan Bennett (Chairperson), English literature professor at the University of Calgary
  2. Lawrence Felt, sociology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland
  3. Ruby Heap, history professor at University of Ottawa
  4. Gilbert Larochelle, human sciences professor at the Universite du Quebec a Chicoutimi
  5. Ruth Rose, economics professor at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.

Coverage of the new Alberta museum is rare, and the timing suggests it is about providing a local angle to the news of last weekend’s creationist museum opening. Perhaps Canadians just aren’t interested in this, except as a commentary on how we might be different from Americans.

Given the political context – 3 Republican candidates for the presidential election do not believe in evolution! – the American museum has had more attention in the press. The New York Times treated it with kid gloves in its culture reportage, Adam and Eve in the Land of the Dinosaurs. The Washington Post does a little bit better in its story about A Monument To Creation, but the strongest words come from an LA Times editorial, Yabba-dabba science, which begins:

Note to would-be Creation Museum visitors: the Earth is round.

Thank you, LA Times.

Some of the best and most critical coverage of this comes from the blogosphere. At Pharyngula, PZ Myers has a good round-up at his Creation Museum carnival. See also the posts at the Panda’s Thumb and Boing Boing.

I ask again: Can neurophilosophers out there tell me why people are so susceptible to this sort of nonsense?

Postscript

After enjoying this comic about beliefs, consider a weekend exploring The Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller. Take more time if you’d like to see more of Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Canadian Badlands.

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