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Digital Stories Dramatize Information’s Role in the Lives of People and Communities

Posted by Peter M. Shane on March 1, 2011

Today marks the formal debut of Information Stories, a series of twelve three-to-five-minute video narratives (plus an introduction and conclusion) that respond to two questions:  What’s at stake when local news and information flow doesn’t serve all members of a community equally well? How can people respond? 

Some are stories of journalism.  Examples include the struggle of a labor union secretary/mother of five to get media coverage for asbestos-related disease in Libby, Montana, and the creation of an online newspaper for the “news desert” of southeast New Hampshire.

 Others are stories of activism.  The executive director of Native Public Media describes the drive to bring broadband to Indian Country.  A faith-based community organizer discusses a campaign to help poor people overcome the powerlessness caused by living “in an information vacuum.”

 Inclusiveness is a major theme to Information Stories.  For example, an undocumented immigrant tells how he pursues art and community organizing to make visible the immigrant experience.  A young radio reporter and producer from Chicago reveals how he learned to listen to, not just speak to his community.  A high school student relates why she thought it important to make transgender people a more visible presence at San Francisco Pride.  A “hard-of-hearing” English professor talks about making the voices of deaf students heard. 

 Other storytellers include a small town mayor, the manager of an online dialogue space, a community television board member, and a convener of community conversations about public health.

 Information Stories reveals the loss when local information flows leave stories uncovered, concerns unaddressed, or voices left out – and the gain when these exclusions don’t happen.

 I came up with the idea for Information Stories in collaboration with Liv Gjestvang, a Columbus, Ohio filmmaker who is also the coordinator of the Digital Union at Ohio State.

 I wanted to produce the videos as a follow-up to my work in 2008 and 2009 as executive director to the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.  The Knight Commission was a diverse, bipartisan group of 17 leaders in media, public policy, and community, who were organized to articulate the democratic information needs of America’s 21st century local communities. 

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and organized through the Aspen Institute, they were asked to recommend remedial measures where the Commission perceived that community news and information needs were not being met. 

As the Knight Commission was preparing to issue its October, 2009 report, I asked Liv for help in making the Knight Commission issues more compelling and concrete for the everyday public.  The Commission explained why “second-class information citizenship is looming” for many Americans, but commission reports tend not to be powerful tools for organizing grass-roots organizing.

My hope is that the online stories will help motivate activists around the country to pay attention to their local information ecologies.  Everyone should be asking themselves whether they and their neighbors get the information they require to meet both their personal and civic needs – and, if not, what they can do about it.

My aim with Liv with also to come as close as we could with just a dozen storytellers to assemble a kind of American tapestry.  The last line of the Knight Commission report is, “The ‘information issue’ is everyone’s issue,” and we wanted to drive that home.

The Information Stories storytellers learned how to produce their narratives through a July, 2010 Digital Storytelling Workshop, co-sponsored by the Ohio State University Digital Union, the University Libraries, and the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. The series was produced with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight Brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950, the foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression.

The Information Stories web site provides links to both captioned and non-captioned versions of the individual stories.  The site links also to resources that explain how anyone can produce his or her own “information story” and a feedback form to enable viewers to explain how they used Information Stories in their local communities.  A low-cost DVD containing both the individual stories and a “full reel” version that shows them as a continuous documentary is also available

 Ohio State University is releasing the Information Stories series subject to a Creative Commons non-commercial license.  That license allows the stories to be freely copied, distributed, transmitted or adapted for noncommercial purposes, provided appropriate credit is given.  We hope this means the stories will be downloaded, shared, and discussed in classrooms, libraries, community centers, church basements, and living rooms everywhere.

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Anatomy of a Canard: “The Condescending Liberal”

Posted by Peter M. Shane on March 5, 2010

I once read that the smartest smear tactic in politics is to accuse someone else of your worst fault. Hence, among the canards thrown at liberals, one I have especially hated is how the left is so elitist and condescending towards people who disagree with them.

In an especially pristine version of this thesis, University of Virginia Professor Gerard Alexander recently took to The Washington Post to assert — based largely on his tendentious readings of books with which he disagrees: “American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration.”

Professor Alexander was kind enough to concede, “Every political community includes some members who insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots.” I will make the same concession for my camp.

But, for two reasons, I still hate his argument. First, in terms of demonizing those who disagree with them, the left can hardly compete with the vitriolic right. Liz Cheney’s current campaign to disparage the patriotism of Justice Department lawyers who offered volunteer legal services to Guantanamo detainees is but the most vile current example. To put the point another way, are there days of the week when Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and their acolytes are not encouraging their audiences — through name-calling, ridicule, innuendo and paranoia — to dismiss liberal positions as “illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration?”

But, even worse, it has always struck me that that no one is more condescending to conservatives than the demagogues actually hoping to lead their parade. It has always seemed to me that their customary appeals to fear, animosity, and reactionary instinct were an implicit insult to the collective intelligence of their intended audience. Otherwise, why not appeal to reason? Why not open yourself to actual debate? (William Buckley anyone?)

But, I have despaired, how might I ever persuade anyone on the right that their demagogues really were hoping to prey on their fears, animosities, and reactionary instincts? And so, I want to thank the Republican National Committee for its recent presentation on GOP fundraising. Right there in the presentation, Slide 29 to be exact, the RNC Fund-Raising Committee identifies the precise triggers to pull in order to motivate GOP donations through direct marketing. They are “Fear, ” “Extreme Negative Feelings Toward Existing Administration,” “Issue/Circumstantially Oriented,” and “Reactionary.” What I suspected to be true is now official GOP fund-raising doctrine!

So, Professor Alexander, let me say two things. First, I doubt that liberals are any more likely than conservatives to think that those who disagree with them are idiots. But second, I am certain that liberals do not regard as idiots those who are actually in their camp. That distinction apparently belongs to your “political community.”

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FCC Examination of the Future of Media and Information Needs of Communities in a Digital Age

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 21, 2010

The FCC just released a public notice, FCC LAUNCHES EXAMINATION OF THE FUTURE OF MEDIA AND INFORMATION NEEDS OF COMMUNITIES IN A DIGITAL AGE. It quotes the conclusion of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy that “[t]he digital age is creating an information and communications renaissance. But it is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. It is not yet serving democracy fully.” The notice goes on to state forty-two questions on which the project is conducting research and seeking public input through March 8, 2010. More information and opportunities to comment are available at the project web site.

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WH Releases Open Government Directive: Transparency (Plus) Engagement (Equals) More Democracy

Posted by Peter M. Shane on December 8, 2009

The White House this morning released a long-awaited Open Government Directive that follows up on the President’s promise – memorialized on his first full day of office – to usher in a new era of transparent, participatory governance.

The Directive, issued over the signature of OMB Director Peter Orszag, explains: “Transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the Government is doing. Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that their government can make policies with the benefit of information that is widely dispersed in society. Collaboration improves the effectiveness of Government by encouraging partnerships and cooperation within the Federal Government, across levels of government, and between the Government and private institutions.”

What is arguably most impressive about the Directive, as highlighted in a public briefing by CIO Vivek Kundra and and CTO Aneesh Chopra, is its specificity and focus on execution.

Some examples:

Agencies get 45 days to “identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets.”

Agencies get 60 days to “create an Open Government Webpage . . . to serve as the gateway for agency activities related to the Open Government Directive and shall maintain and update that webpage in a timely fashion.”

Agencies have 45 days to “designate a high-level senior official to be accountable for the quality and objectivity of, and internal controls over” publicly disseminated Federal spending information.

Each agency has 120 days to “develop and publish on its Open Government Webpage an Open Government Plan that will describe how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities.”

This is exciting stuff, but it only heightens the need for what communication scholars call “trusted intermediaries” to help everyday citizens make the maximum use of new information resources.

A couple of weeks ago, I was briefing a Columbus city employee who is working on social networking innovations for the city on transparency initiatives at the Federal Communications Commission. She said, “Great! I now have another mountain of information I cannot possibly digest myself.”

If Americans are to take advantage of newly available data sets, community institutions need to alert them to the ways in which they can do so.

If citizens are to contribute their ideas in ways that truly affect policy, then organizers need to mobilize public interest around those opportunities and help people to elaborate their ideas in ways most likely to affect policy thinking.

If transparency is truly to promote accountability, then the public needs journalists to help discover, gather, compare, contextualize, and share the new information becoming available. These journalists may be citizen journalists. They may work for community foundations. They may be graduate students. They may work for HuffingtonPost or any of our local, regional, or national media outlets.

But if more information is coming, we need more people who engage with information not only for their personal benefit, but for the benefit of the public as a whole. It is skillful engagement with information that turns greater transparency into deeper democracy.

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Putting Local Journalism at the Core of Higher Education

Posted by Peter M. Shane on November 23, 2009

Last Friday, about 35 of us got together at Ohio State for an informal symposium about the local implications of Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, which was the final report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.  As the Commission’s former executive director, I had the privilege of starting the day with a brief history of the Commission’s work and a summary of some of its key themes.  (Full remarks here.) 

 In addition, however, I posed the following question to those present:  What would it be like to organize an entire college or university education around the idea of journalism?  Here is the portion of my talk that addressed this idea:

 “I am not talking here about what we think of as vocational journalism education.  The idea is not to make everyone a professional editor or reporter.  I am talking, instead, about conceiving an entire program of liberal education that takes as its central theme the idea that the new media phenomenon is potentially making everyone a journalist.  Thus, for both students and faculty, it is critical to be able to analyze media products and to have the skills to help meet the challenge of arriving at ‘truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account[s]’ of a day’s local community events ‘in a context which gives them meaning.’  (I am borrowing here the definition of news from the 1947 Hutchins Commission.)    What would such an educational program look like?

 “We could imagine freshman writing courses devoted to some combination of news literacy and training in reportage.  Students would have to learn something about who makes what decisions for the local community and what rights and capacities everyday citizens have to obtain information.  They would have to learn about how to make technical matters accessible for a general audience.  They would have to learn to evaluate information sources.  Some might go on to be the campus equivalent of professional journalists, working for a student paper, radio station, or television outlet.  Others might become bloggers or just better online commenters on the blogs of others.  Perhaps some would form expert networks that would check on the accuracy of stories in mainstream media or offer their services in vetting professionally produced stories within their areas of expertise.  Is something like this imaginable?  Maybe even in, say, a state capital, where there would be lots and lots of government stories to tell at local, state and regional levels of decision making?  . . .

 “[A key insight of the Knight Commission] is that we need not just to preserve journalism where it exists; we need to create it where it does not.  . . .[Moreover,] the production of local news has always depended on some form of subsidy, and markets without subsidies will not produce enough journalism to keep people informed on public issues.  We will certainly not have enough investigating and exposing corruption and neglect by the powerful.

 “Of course, this is not to deny the flowering of many local experiments that are doing good work based on combining support from advertising, individual philanthropists, foundations, corporate sponsorships, and citizen “members,” but I wonder both about their staying power (especially in smaller communities) and their scope.  I am thus especially interested in the prospects for other anchor institutions in local communities to provide ongoing social support for the gathering and dissemination of local news.  I am looking for the kind of resource stability that will support what two noted authors have described as not just ‘information, but . . .news judgment oriented to a public agenda and a general audience.’ 

 “And that brings me back to the question with which I started.  What would it mean to build the theory and practice of journalism into the very DNA of American higher education?  How would it affect communities to see a flowering of news outlets grounded in local universities, colleges, and community colleges?

 “For starters, it seems to me that journalism-centered liberal arts education would respond simultaneously to three major social problems.  One is the shortfall in local news production around the country.  The second is the well-documented deficiency in college student writing.  The third is the low level of Americans’ civic literacy, their knowledge about how social institutions work and who makes the policy decisions that affect their lives.

 “Involving students in local journalism also wins what I like to think of as the educational trifecta.  The issues posed are intellectually challenging.  Students like dealing with them.  The skills students develop increase their marketability and enable them to function more effectively as citizens.

 “An excellent recent study prepared by famed journalist and editor (and OSU alum) Len Downie and the noted sociologist of journalism, Michael Schudson, reports on a variety of exciting models for connecting journalism to higher education.  As they report in, ‘The Reconstruction of American Journalism,’ KQED in San Francisco is partnering next year with the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley to launch an independent nonprofit Bay area news organization.  According to Downie and Schudson, ‘The new entity’s reporters, working with KQED journalists and Berkeley students, will cover local government, education, culture, the environment and neighborhoods for its own Web site, other digital media, and public radio and television.’

“Along similar lines, several newspapers in southern Florida have agreed to use reporting from journalism students at Florida International University. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University in Phoenix operates a service provides student reporting to about thirty client newspapers and television stations around Arizona.  Both Berkeley’s and Columbia’s journalism schools operate a range of online news sites that feature reporting by its students in city or outlying neighborhoods.

“Universities are even becoming homes for independent nonprofit investigative reporting projects started by former newspaper and television journalists, at such places as San Diego State, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northeastern, and Boston University.  As a law professor, I have especially admired Northwestern University, where journalism students are working with the Innocence Project to investigate death penalty convictions. They are obviously doing important work because the Cook County prosecutor has already subpoenaed the students.

“My point is not that universities are the single, exclusive, or even best answer to satisfying the daily news and information needs of local communities, but unless there are nonprofit social institutions of significant heft shouldering a lot of this burden, things will get worse.  And it’s not just student journalists who can help.  Business schools can help teach marketing to online entrepreneurs.  Law schools can help local media outlets to pursue Freedom of Information requests and defend against libel suits.  This is not just the business of big research universities either.  Although I may be giving in to stereotype, it may be that, in covering union news or news of relevance to new immigrant communities, our community colleges may have a strong comparative advantage.  Indeed, if you let your imagination roam here a bit, you can envision a consortium of higher education institutions in a local area combining talents and resources to provide a wide range of local information in the public interest.

“The Knight Commission was impressed, as am I, by the wondrous range of new technological tools that are enabling more and more people to be creators, shapers, and distributors of information than ever before.  We do live in a renaissance moment.  But tools are only tools.  They can be turned to democratic advantage only with skill and by design.  Right now, the technology-fueled information revolution is not serving all Americans equally well, and our local communities are in need of help.  The Knight Commission urges Americans to ‘embrace the quality of community information flow as an issue worthy of their concern and involvement.’  My plea is to universities to take this cause seriously.”

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Needed: Social Investment in an Informed Society

Posted by Peter M. Shane on November 2, 2009

You could keep yourself quite busy these days reading about and attending conferences on new models for journalism.  But the current moment of journalistic ferment is actually part of a larger and more alarming story.

The United States is dramatically underinvesting in the production and circulation of knowledge.

Three headlines reveal the larger landscape:  “America Falling: Longtime Dominance in Education Erodes.”  “Libraries Struggle with Tight Budgets.”  “US Statehouse Reporting in Decline.”

On the surface, these sound like separate issues.  Our colleges, libraries, and newspapers face distinct challenges.  To some extent, their problems have different causes, and they require different solutions.

But they share a common pathology:  The United States is relying excessively on free market forces to sustain the key institutions that produce an informed, knowledgeable society.  Those forces have fallen short.  Increased social investment has not followed.

From 1980 to 2004, state support for colleges and universities shrank from 46 to 27 percent.  Tuition as a source of support rose from 13 to 18 percent.  America faces unprecedented competition in the global knowledge economy.  But we are shifting the cost of creating competitors from the greater society to the shoulders of individual students.

Libraries fare no better.  Americans visited libraries 1.4 billion times in 2005. Over two-thirds of adults have library cards.  Yet, in 2003, 2004, and 2005, U.S. communities cut library support.  Many are trimming services just as Americans are most desperate for them.

As for newspapers, individual subscribers have never paid the full freight for gathering and reporting local news.  We have relied, instead, on advertising. 

That model unraveled in the 1990s.  Major news organizations undertook debt that they cannot repay.  Internet advertising shrank their revenue streams.  Newspaper ad revenues fell nearly a third between 2000 and 2007.

Are public media likely to meet the local news shortfall?  Federal investment in public media is currently $1.35 per person.  Most local public radio stations in the U.S. have virtually no news staff at all.  At the same time, Canada invests $22.48 per capita and England spends $80.36. 

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought the United States was Number One in more or less everything.  More important, I thought we wanted to be.

No more.  Unless America decides to invest collectively in developing an informed, knowledgeable society, our decline is both frightening and inevitable.  “New models” for journalism, education, or the sharing of knowledge generally will fall short unless we take a hard look at our public policies on information.

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Knight Commission Recommends Universal Broadband, Urges National Dialogue to Improve “Information Health” of America’s Local Communities

Posted by Peter M. Shane on October 5, 2009

(I posted this originally on Huffington Post.)

Friday morning, October 2, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy debuted ts final report, Informing Communities:  Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.

The report marks the first time in the digital age that an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon  panel has sought to explain what exactly are the information needs of America’s communities and to determine if those needs are being well served.

The Commission, led by Co-Chairs Marissa Mayer and Theodore B. Olson, argues that effective information systems are as important to healthy communities as other fundamental infrastructures, such as roads and electric grids.

It warns that, for a variety of economic, social, and technological reasons, many Americans will fall into or remain in a kind of second-class citizenship if they lack access to or skills to use the new information and communication technologies that are now central to community information flow.

The Commission hopes its report will attract attention, in part, because of its identification of three key objectives that healthy community information systems must serve, and its articulation of 15 specific recommendations for improving the fulfillment of community information needs.  Perhaps paramount among them is the push for universal broadband access as a national imperative.

As executive director to the Commission, I also believe that the report is an exciting step forward because of three critical aspects of the Commission’s approach.

First, the Commission sought to look at information needs truly through the eyes of the individual citizen, not through the lens of any media or other institution.  Thus, although Informing Communities will be relevant to a variety of hot current debates on public policy and the future of media, it is not a report about “saving” the local newspaper.  It embeds its discussion of journalism in an analysis of what citizens and communities need – information – and makes recommendations with those needs taken as paramount.

Second, the report weaves together three discussions that currently occur often in largely siloed venues that take little account of one another.  These are discussions about maximizing the availability of reliable news and information, achieving universal access to significant information technologies and the skills necessary to use them effectively, and promoting public engagement among everyday citizens, both with information and with each other.  The Commission recognizes these as three strands of what ought to be a united, integrated approach to producing better informed communities.

Finally, the report focuses on geographically defined local communities.  Although the word “community” is properly used to describe any network of information and support with which people identify, such as “the community of science fiction fans” or “the African-American community,” our democracy is organized along geographic lines.  Where we live still determines much of our quality of life and the resources over which we share authority with our fellow citizens.  Inadequacies in information systems related to the communities in which we live, work and vote thus necessarily limit the quality of our democratic life, to the detriment also of our social and economic welfare.

The October 2 launch event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., featured prominent national leaders, including Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, Chief Technology Officer of the United States Aneesh Chopra, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Telecommunications and Information Lawrence E. Strickling, and Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Board of Directors Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III.   Videos of the event may be viewed  at the Commission’s web site.

The web site provides links also to copies of the report in either English or Spanish.  The Commission ultimately seeks to foster a nationwide dialogue on the issues it raises.  Anyone may join the discussion at the Commission web site, and twitter users can tweet at hash tag #knightcomm.  Informing Communities also is available free on Amazon’s Kindle through December 2009.

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