Category: journalism

complexityevaluationjournalismpsychologystrategic foresight

Unpossible

Yinka's Ship

‘Post-truth’ was named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. No fitting word reflects the strangeness of 2016 with the exception of unpossible, a word I made up and in a post-truth world might as well be as legitimate as many of the arguments being made about the most important things of the day, which is why we need to rethink how and what we pay attention to. 

When I was a little kid I was absolutely fascinated by ships in bottles (and still am). To me this was the embodiment of the impossible made possible. I’ve been shown how its done, read about it and still can’t really believe it despite seeing many ships in bottles over my lifetime. Gothic boxwood prayer beads are in the same category: they are both of the world and otherworldly at the same time. Brilliant stuff.

These are creations of human ingenuity, craft, patience and beauty.

What we have started to see in the social world are acts that are equally implausible to comprehend, yet lack all of these qualities but share one feature: creativity.

It may be time to examine what creativity means and what its impacts are because what might have been harmless chatter is now becoming big business and its transforming our world in ways we never could imagine and ways we might not really want.

In short: we are creating the unpossible.

Truthiness of fiction

Writing in Salon, Erin Keane reminds us that it was ten years ago that the concept of ‘truthiness’ was first floated out by Stephen Colbert and went on to become the 2006 Word of the Year by Mirriam-Webster. Keane reflects on the genesis of the word and how it articulated how a feeling of something being true could override the availability of evidence to support its existence without necessarily creating an entirely new reality.

With truthiness, though, we still recognized that truth exists, just that it could be overridden and bent to serve our own emotional purposes.

In a truthy world the absence of clear evidence didn’t mean that something didn’t exist if our feelings suggested that it might. Hence, we had an assault of Iraq and search for weapons of mass destruction based on a feeling that someone like Saddam Hussein would want to deploy them if he had them (which might have been true, but he didn’t have them and there was no evidence to suggest he did so it wasn’t true).

Now, those logical or hypothetical — if unproven — suppositions matter less. We’ve taken out ‘facts’ from the middle of the equation separating truth from fantasy.

In the US election, ‘fake news’ sites outperformed ‘not-fake news’ sites. In other words: those peddling fictions about the world drew more attention than those who sought to share what actually happened in the world. Except, what also actually happened was that people were reading, maybe believing, but certainly sharing and endorsing these made up stories, which were once referred to by names such as ‘lies’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘slander’. Now, it’s called reporting in a post-truth environment.

When the head of a news organization that promotes people who believe there ought to be a cap on women and girls in science and attacks citizen movements focused on social justice like Black Lives Matter is promoted to the role of chief strategist for the White House to serve as a representative of the people in strategy, that is post-truth at work. **

Tardigrade amnesia

The Tardigrade is perhaps the most remarkable animal on the planet. They can survive in temperatures close to absolute zero and over 150 degrees centigrade. If resilience had a mascot, it would be the tardigrade (pictured below — with credit to Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden).

waterbear

While the effect of an election on policies and practices from healthcare, environmental protection, human rights, and safety and security may be wide-reaching and last beyond the term of office for most politicians the response can’t simply be to ‘toughen up’ and accept what’s being done, even if it is done under the banner of electoral legitimacy. Resilience is not about just absorbing shocks, but also about adapting to prevent the shocks from coming, to lessen their intensity, and also about systems change wherever possible.

The tardigrade is an expert on resiliency. It is as if it decided that, rather than plan for the best-case scenario, it figured out what the worst case would be and developed itself for that context first. Even if the tardigrade doesn’t encounter absolute zero temperatures that much in the world, it is ready for it.

Resiliency in social systems requires the same thinking.

In the US election and Brexit vote we saw politicians, pollsters and the media all get it wrong: they didn’t assess the mood and mindset of voters accurately. More importantly, voters may not have voted for what they are getting, but against what they got. In that case, what they ‘got'(i.e., had) was a sense of falling behind, perceived unfairness, absence of connection between their social world and the one talked about on TV or in government, and isolation from the economy, society and a world they thought they knew and were promised — something that built up over decades.

The voters wanted something different than what they had, but they may not have understood what they might get from this difference.

Foresight, in hindsight

Strategic foresight is a discipline that combines creative thinking, data, and planning together. It’s a burgeoning field of practice-based inquiry that offers an opportunity to explore various hypotheses about possible futures. We cannot reliably predict the future, particularly in complex systems, however it is possible to anticipate events based on trends, forecasts and signals that emerge from the data we have about the past and present when applied to the planning for the future.

Strategic foresight is a relatively young discipline, yet it holds much promise in aiding our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity and guide our actions to prevent problems and amplify those factors that can generate solutions. The result are ‘evidence-informed imaginations’ like the one that my colleague Peg Lahn and I did on the future of the neighbourhood in a growing city like Toronto, Canada. Ahead of legislation curbing the way high-rise building were built, we anticipated massive problems for Toronto’s high-rise condominiums based on the data we gathered and scenarios we developed. Falling glass was largely an ‘isolated’ incident 5 years ago and soon became a massive problem across the city and will continue to plague these buildings that will likely need to be completely ‘re-skinned’ in less than 20 years due to their reliance on poor design choices based on the city’s climate.

Our work bucked the trend toward optimism in condo development toward evidence-informed pessimism. Neither optimism or pessimism are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather what’s key is creating the kind of storyline that fits evidence, emotion and provides a narrative for what might happen. In doing so, a strategic plan can develop the kind of performance measures and monitoring and evaluation plans that help detect whether a particular scenario is starting to play out in the world. If so, it’s possible to correct things before they get problematic.

Strategic foresight combined with resiliency and systems thinking can be a way to envision the impossible as possible to prevent what becomes unpossible.

Consider what systems you’re working in and ask yourself if you’re seeing all (or many of) the pertinent possibilities and how they might play out. This is where fiction can be an asset, not a symptom, related to a larger issue. If you want some initial foresight into the current state of affairs in Western politics — from Le Pen in France, Farage in the UK,  Hofer in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the United States, Kellie Leitch in Canada — dive into Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic “It Can’t Happen Here” .

It can.

The unpossible can only happen if we collectively create it.

Image credit: Yinka’s ship by Garry Knight used under Creative Commons License. Garry’s work is amazing and worth checking out. Thanks for sharing your art with the world!

** I struggled with the notion of even linking to this content, but also feel that I’m contributing to an echo chamber if those views aren’t seen and experienced, even if it’s just a small dose.

If we are to address truths — hard ones, complicated ones, ugly ones — we need to speak with truth and not pretend these voices aren’t there or comment on them if we are unwilling to expose ourselves to some of it in its original form and not solely filtered through other perspectives. One of the issues we face is that too often we (humans) speak about groups we know nothing about from any source that came from that perspective.

complexityjournalismscience & technologysocial systems

Our Paradoxical Age

pokemongodebut

If there was a word we could use to define the current times, paradox would certainly have to be a leading candidate. Can we learn to love this seemingly maddening force or are we doomed to accept this emergent complexity? This first in a series looks at some of the paradoxes of the day, what they might mean for our society and how we might live with them. 

paradox |ˈperəˌdäks|

noun

a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory: a potentially serious conflict between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity known as the information paradox.

• a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true: in a paradox, he has discovered that stepping back from his job has increased the rewards he gleans from it.

• a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities: the mingling of deciduous trees with elements of desert flora forms a fascinating ecological paradox.

If you think we’re living in strange times you’re not alone. Technology and its influence on our social world has produced things, ideas, encounters that only a few years ago would seem utterly preposterous if not impossible. Self-driving cars, drone delivery, digital social networks and video telephony, as remarkable as they are, have been somewhat pre-saged by science fiction and in a Jetsons-esque manner seem somewhat plausible to those who’s imaginations are sufficiently rich or their attenuation to popular culture sufficiently robust.

What I am talking about are the less dramatic or technologically sophisticated , but powerful shifts that have come from new products and services that are moving from the occasional ‘once-in-a-blue-moon’ kind of occurrence to something common and regular. This is producing paradoxes in droves, which is presenting conundrums for social scientists, policy makers and citizens alike.

Pokemon Go and the case of the walking dead-or-alive(?)

The above photo was taken July 11th in Toronto, Canada. I was walking upon a square when I noticed nearly everyone — dozens of people (with more coming every minute) congregating at the square to look at their phone. Unbeknownst to me at the time, five days earlier a game called Pokemon Go was released in Japan and the United States (a game that would not be released in Canada for another six days so these individuals were all using a version they’d obtained through some kind of digital work-around). These people were all chasing Pokemon characters who happened to “be” in that square.

The Pokemon Go craze had just ignited and the phenomena wouldn’t hit the mainstream news for another day or two so I was left wondering what was going on and thinking how sad it was that one of the nicest days of summer to date was being spent by so many standing looking at their phone. I took some pictures, made some inquiries and was left amazed, confused and slightly depressed all at the same time.

To call Pokemon Go a game seems misleading. So does calling it a community, a phenomenon, a technological marvel, a marketing coup, a social convener, a public health risk, a public health benefit or a waste of time. It’s something completely new and it brings with it a number of puzzling, odd and paradoxical qualities as noted in the piece below from The Pipe Dream Meme.

As one man reports: “I’m not the most physically fit person, obviously, but I have walked more since this game has come out than I have in my entire life” He goes on to talk about how he knows more about his city than ever did before thanks to Pokemon Go, a video game that involves a person being focused on their screen, not the actual city around them even though what is on the screen is based on the physical city (and country and cemeteries and…) that is the foil for the hundreds of Pokemon characters to live through a handset.

Whether you consider the thousands of people walking around your city staring at their handset the walking dead (as disconnected from the world) or the living (as engaging with the world, differently) is a matter of perspective.

Paradox thy name is Pokemon.

Extensions of humanity to what?

Marshall McLuhan wrote (PDF) that the medium is the message and that the tools and technologies embedded in that media initially extend our humanity then culturally envelopes humanity by making us an extension of it. A simple look at capitalism and the use of money as a means of negotiating our sense lives illustrates this as McLuhan points out.

“Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives. This change does not depend upon approval or disapproval of those living in the society.”

McLuhan cites the work of Carl Jung to support his thesis by drawing on a quote that illustrate the insidiousness of system of paradoxes and what they can have on a society:

Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence (Contributions to Analytical Psychology, London, 1928).

Thus by enslaving others we ourselves become enslaved.

Perhaps no better example of this paradox is in the way we’ve created tools to learn, exchange information and automate activity — making our work much more efficient — and finding ourselves either overworked or out of a job entirely. We’ve created a capitalist consumption system that relishes in efficiency in order to provide us with more of what we want and need to survive, thrive and be happy and we seem to put ourselves out of work; create stressed over-work for many of those who have jobs; destroy the planet (which is the only place to live), disconnect us from society and ourselves; and in a manner that contributes to mental health disorders along the way.

Things ought to be amazing — and in many ways they are — but the horrors created along with this are as notable and significant not only for our life today, but the future of the planet. This is the paradox of plenty.

Creating stupidity through knowledge

The problems we’ve created from consumption would be manageable if it was simply an issue of lack of knowledge. Solving knowledge-based problems is pretty straightforward: you find the right information, package it appropriately to the right audience, and ensure you deliver that message at the right time and place. This is the basis behind the knowledge transfer model and second generation of knowledge-to-action theories. Ask any marketer and they’ll tell you that while there’s no one way to do this and it does take work and experimentation, the mechanics are pretty straightforward.

Yet, knowledge (and truth, which is linked to this knowledge), is losing its power to sway people in the information society, which is based largely on the production / consumption / use of knowledge. As we have more access to more knowledge about something we are often less informed and more likely to discount the very thing we are using to make decisions. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

The ascendency of Donald Trump from real estate developer/reality TV show host/beauty pageant promoter to Republican candidate for the President of the United States is as good of an example as you’ll ever find. Irrespective of whatever policy positions you might hold, it’s impossible to deny that his track record of outright lies is beyond the pale. Or maybe it’s not impossible and that’s the problem.

Clay Johnson wrote about this phenomenon and drew parallels between our obesogenic culture and that of information consumption. He was inspired by an encounter with a protester in the early days of what would become the ‘Obamacare’ movement who had a sign saying “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” and recalls the circumstance in his book The Information Diet:

I spoke to this protestor about his sign. He seemed rather well educated — sure, he was angry, but he was not dumb, just concerned about the amount of money being spent by the current administration…This man did not suffer from a lack of information. Yet he had failed to consider the irony of holding a sign above his head asking government to keep its hands off a government-run program. To him, it made perfect sense.

 

So what’s to be done? Anything? That’s what I’ll explore in the next post.

complexityjournalismscience & technologysocial media

The more we get together

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As we forge ever-greater connections online to each other and the world of ideas the thinking was that we would be far better off, more tolerant, educated and wise and yet there is much evidence to suggest this isn’t the case. What does it mean to come together and how can we do this that brings us closer rather than driving us further apart? 

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be – lyric from popular song for children

Like many, I’ve grown up thinking this very thing and, for the most part, my experience has shown this to be true. However upon reflection, I’m realizing that most of this experience is related to two things that could reveal a potential flaw in my thinking: 1) I’m thinking of face-to-face encounters with others more than any other type and also 2) most of the relationships I’ve formed without aid of or post use-of the Internet.

Face-to-face interactions of any real quality are limited in nature. We only have so many hours in a day and, unless your job is extremely social or you live in a highly communal household complex, we’re unlikely to have much interaction with more than a few dozen people per day that extends beyond “hello” or something like that. This was explored in greater detail by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who determined that our social networks are usually capped at 100 – 250 individuals. Dunbar’s number (the commonly held mean number of people in these networks) is commonly considered to be 150.

Why does this matter? When we engage others online, the type of interactions and the number of ideas we engage can be far larger, or at least is certainly different in how those relationships are managed. We see comments on discussion boards, social media posts, videos and pictures shared online, and are exposed to media messages of all types and through myriad news (official, professional and otherwise) sources. Ethan Zuckerman, who I’ve written about before, has written extensively about the paradox of having such incredible access to diversity in the world and yet we often find ourselves increasingly insular in our communication patterns, choosing like-minded opinions over alternative ones.

Looking ahead by looking back at Marshall McLuhan

Journalist Nicholas Carr, who’s written extensively on the social context of technology, recently posted an interview with Marshall McLuhan from 1977 speaking on his views about where media was going and his idea of “the global village”. His piece, the global village of violence, was enlightening to say the least. In it, Carr points to the violence we are committing in this global village and how it doesn’t square with what many thought were the logical outcomes of us connecting — and does so by pointing back to McLuhan’s own thoughts.

McLuhan’s work is often a complicated mess, partly because there is a large, diverse and scattered academic culture developed around his work and thus, often the original points he raised can get lost in what came afterwards. The cautions he had around hyper-connection through media are one of those things. McLuhan didn’t consider the global village to be an inherently good thing, indeed he spoke about how technology at first serves and then partly controls us as it becomes normalized part of everyday life — the extension becomes a part of us.

As is often the case with McLuhan, looking back on what he said, when he said it and what it might mean for the present day is instructive for helping us do, just as his seminal work sought to help us do, understand media and society. Citing McLuhan, Nicholas Carr remarked that:

Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends

Electronic media, physical realities

These ‘little groups’ are not always so little and they certainly aren’t weak. As we are seeing with Donald Trump‘s ability to rally a small, but not insignificant population in the United States to join him despite his litany of abusive, sexist, inflammatory, racist, discriminatory and outwardly false statements has been constantly underestimated. Last week’s horrible mass shooting in Orlando brought a confluence of groups into the spotlight ranging from anti-Muslim, both anti-gay and gay rights, pro-gun, along with Republican and Democratic supporters of different issues within this matter, each arguing with intensity and too often speaking past each other. Later this week we saw British MP Jo Cox murdered by someone who saw her as a traitor to Britain, presumably on account of her position on the pending ‘Brexit’ vote (although we don’t yet know the motivation of the killer).

 

There are many reasons for these events and only some that we will truly know, but each matter points to an inability to live with, understand and tolerate others’ viewpoints and extreme reactions to them. The vitriol of debate on matters in the public sphere is being blamed for some of these reactions, galvanizing some to do horrible things. Could it be that our diversity, the abundance of interactions we have and the opportunities to engage or disengage selectively

If this hypothesis holds, what then? Should we start walling off ourselves? No. But nor should we expect to bring everyone together to share the tent and expect it to go well without very deliberate, persistent, cultivation and management of relationships, collectively. Much like a gardener does with her garden, there’s a need to keep certain things growing, certain things mixing, certain things out and others in and these elements might be different depending on the time of year, season, and plants being tended to. Just as there is no ‘one garden’ style that fits everywhere, there is no one way to do ‘culture’, but some key principles and a commitment to ongoing attention and care that feed healthy cultures (that include diversity).

As odd as this may sound, perhaps we need to consider doing the kind of civic development work that can yield healthy communities online as well as off. We certainly need better research to help us understand what it means to engage in different spaces, what types of diversity work well and under what conditions, and to help us determine what those ‘simple rules’ might be for bring us closer together so, like the childrens song above, we can be happier rather than what we’ve been becoming.

Complexity isn’t going away and is only increasing and unless we are actively involved in cultivating and nurturing those emergent properties that are positive and healthy and doing it by design, and viewing our overlapping cultures as complex adaptive systems (and creating the policies and programs that fit those systems), we put ourselves at greater risk for letting those things emerge that drive us further apart than bring us together.

 

Photo credit: Connections by deargdoom57 used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks deargdoom57 for sharing your work!

 

food systemsjournalismpublic healthsocial mediasystems science

Frogs, Pots, Blogs and Social Media

Frog_and_saucepan

Our information landscape has been compared with our diets providing an ample opportunity to compare what we ‘consume’ with how we prepare food and perhaps draw on the analogy of the frog and the boiling point of water. Are we slowly killing our ability to produce independent thought through vehicles like blogs as we draw our gaze to and focus on the social media stream?

Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was one of the few who opposed the state-imposed media messaging about what was (and has been) happening in Iran. For that, he was jailed. Writing in the Guardian news service, Darakshan, once referred to as Iran’s ‘Blogfather’, discusses how blogging enabled him to be this voice and how he’s become increasingly concerned with how that option is getting slowly silenced not necessarily by governments but by social media.

Darakhshan’s perspective on social media is made all the more interesting because of his role as a prominent blogger before his arrest and the 6-year prison term that disrupted that role, offering something of a time-travel experiment in social media that he illustrates with a story from the Qur’an (known as the tale of the Seven Sleepers).

Upon his return online, Darakhshan noticed that the patchwork quilt of perspectives that were present in the blogosphere was being replaced by ‘The Stream’ that social media provides.

This stream is no longer about a diversity of perspectives, but rather something custom-tailored to meet our preferences, desires, and the needs of corporations seeking to sell advertising, products and services that align with their perception of what we want or require. This stream also allows us to shield ourselves from perspectives that might clash with our own. Groups like ISIS, he suggests, are enabled and emboldened by this kind of information vacuum:

Minority views are radicalised when they can’t be heard or engaged with. That’s how Isis is recruiting and growing. The stream suppresses other types of unconventional ideas too, with its reliance on our habits.

The Stream & our information diet

What’s interesting about The Stream is that it is about bits and bites (or bytes) and not about meals. Yet, if we consider the analogy of information and food a little further we might find ourselves hard-pressed to recall the snacks we had, but (hopefully) can recall many memorable meals. Snacking isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable and too much of it isn’t particularly healthy unless it’s of very high-quality food. With no offence to my ‘friends’ and ‘follows’ on social media, but most of what they produce is highly refined, saccharine-laden comfort food in their posts and retweets, with a few tasty morsels interspersed between rants, cat videos, selfies, and kid pictures. To be fair, my ‘offerings’ aren’t much better when I look across many of my recent Tweets and posts as I am no more than a box of sugar-topped Shreddies to others’ Frosted Flakes. (Note to self when composing New Years Resolutions, even if they are likely to fail, that I need to add less sugar to my stream).

Yet, we are living an age of information abundance and, like food abundance (and the calories that come with it), we are prone to getting obese and lethargic from too much of it. This was the argument that political communicator Clay Johnston makes in his book The Information Diet. Obesity in its various forms makes us slower, less attuned, more disengaged and often far less mindful (and critical) of what we take in whether it’s food or information. And like obesity, the problem is not just one of personal choice and willpower, it’s also about obesogenic systems that include: workplaces, restaurants, communities, markets and policies. This requires systems thinking and ensuring that we are making good personal choices and supporting healthy, critical information systems to support those choices.

The Stream is actually antithetical to that in many regards as Darakhshan points out. The Stream is about passing content through something else, like Facebook, that may or may not choose to pass it on to someone at any given time and place. I’ve noticed this firsthand over the holiday season by finding “Getting ready for Christmas” messages in my Facebook feed on Boxing Day and beyond.

The problem with The Stream is that everything is the same, by design, as Darakhshan notes in an earlier post on his concerns with his new post-imprisonment Web.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

An information food web

Diversity of perspective and content is critical for healthy decision-making in complex systems. Our great problems, the wicked ones from terrorism to chronic disease to mass migration to climate change, will not be solved in The Stream. Yet, if we push too much toward creating content in social networks that are no longer controlled by users (even if the content is produced by users) and designed to facilitate new thinking, not just same thinking, our collective capacity for addressing complex problems is diminished.

Wicked problems will not be solved by Big Data alone. We cannot expect to simply mine our streams looking for tags and expect to find the diversity of perspective or new idea that will change the game. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, we need to rewire our feeds consciously to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of our problems and world, not just accept that we’ll choose diversity when our information systems are designed to minimize them.

Much like a food web, consideration of our information ecosystems in systems terms can be useful in helping us understand the role of blogging and other forms of journalism and expression in nurturing not only differences of opinion, but supporting the democratic foundation in which the Web was originally based. Systems thinking about what we consume as well as produce might be a reason to consider blogging as well as adding to your social media stream and why more ‘traditional’ media like newspapers and related news sites have a role.

Otherwise, we may just be the frog in the boiling pot who isn’t aware that it’s about to be cooked until it’s too late.

Postscript

It is interesting that Darakhshan’s piece caught my attention the day after WordPress delivered my ‘Year in Blogging’ review to my inbox. It pointed out that there were just 4 posts on Censemaking in 2015. This is down from more than 90 per year in past calendar years. Clearly, I’ve been drawn into the stream with my content sharing and perhaps it’s time to swim back against the current. This blog was partly a response. Stay tuned for more and thanks for reading.

Image: Frog & Saucepan used under Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Foundation.

journalismknowledge translationpublic healthscience & technology

The Power, Peril and Promise of Health Journalism

Online Prescription Concept

The Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely read newspaper known for its investigative reporting gifted anti-vaccination audiences armament by using poor science to point to a spurious connection between an HPV vaccine and illness. The issue points to journalism’s power to shape the discourse of health issues and it points to the power, promise and peril associated with good (and not so good) science reporting. 

With great power comes great responsibility – Uncle Ben, Spiderman

It started with a story

On Thursday February 5th, 2015 the Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely read newspaper that has a reputation for solid investigative journalism, published an story that connected the experience of young girls and negative health effects with the receiving the Gardasil HPV vaccine. The story was immediately and widely criticized by experienced science journalists and health professionals alike, who argued that it was based on terribly flawed science.

The Toronto Star’s reaction was to defend itself, arguing in many different fora that they indeed mentioned that there was little scientific evidence that supported the link between the vaccine and the negative health effects being discussed in the article. The problem is that these links are buried deep in the article and certainly are not its focus: the hypothesized harms are.

Two days later, the Star published a follow-up op-ed letter which was authored by two health professionals and co-signed / supported by dozens of Toronto’s leading physicians condemning the original article. However, by that time the damage is likely to have been done and one more bit contribution to the fictitious ‘evidence’ for vaccine harms had been added to the anti-vaccine movement’s war chest.

Perpetuating harm

This matter of poor reporting is not a trivial issue. The fraudulent science performed by Andrew Wakefield linking autism to vaccines helped spur an evidence-thin anti-vaccination movement. Today, we are seeing the resurgence of diseases once thought to be eliminated in North America (like measles) because so many people are not having their children vaccinated. Jenny McCarthy is among the celebrities who have taken up the cause of anti-vaccination and has written about and spoken at length about what she sees as the connection between autism and vaccines, using her son’s experience as an ‘example’. Oprah Winfrey, perhaps unwittingly, gave McCarthy a platform to speak about her beliefs on her show offering wider possible credibility to something that has been thoroughly discredited in the scientific literature (PDF).

For the Toronto Star, it was bad enough that the story was published — and is now online, likely for all time in various forms thanks to the Web — but what made it worse was that the Star was so vigorous in its defence of it, unwilling or unable to recognize their role in public health. Medical evidence champion, author, physician and columnist Ben Goldacre was among the many who counter-attacked, pointing to what he called The Star’s ‘smear campaign‘ against the story’s critics.

For an interesting discussion of the issue of just how the Star got it wrong, listen to Vox health reporter Julia Belluz, interviewed on the CBC’s radio show The Current. Belluz, a past MIT Knight Journalism Fellow, is one of a dwindling number of journalists who understand the practice of reporting, science, and medicine and wrote a stellar critique of the Toronto Star article, but as importantly makes the case for why there is a need for specialized, trained, supported journalists out there doing this kind of work.

…and health

I’ve argued in the past that journalism is very much a pillar of public health. When it fails, so does public health. Journalism is not and should not be an arm of public health for the very independence that good, professional journalism strives to maintain is a reason it’s often called the fourth estate, keeping governments and other forces in check to ensure they are not abusive. Yet, that distance is also what makes it a part of public health. Public health is better for journalism and journalism certainly can benefit from health stories as they continue to be popular and sought after by readers.

As a group, scientists and many clinicians are not great at communicating what they do, why their research is important to others outside their field, and what the implications of their findings are for the public and science as a whole. Some are, most are not. It’s for this reason that the entire sub-field of health sciences focused on knowledge translation, exchange and mobilization has emerged. Just as we value the ability of a graphic designer to make visuals come alive, so too have we learned to value those with the skills to communicate information well and that is what journalists are trained and paid to do. They are a big part of this process, or at least should be.

Healthy journalism, healthy science, healthy people

Science journalism is too important to be ignored. There is much skepticism of journalists by scientists and clinicians and indeed, as the Toronto Star shows, journalists sometimes get things wrong. But its one thing to get it wrong through errors of judgement or interpretation it’s quite another to get things wrong by design. The Toronto Star has some good health reporters, but they weren’t the ones on this story. Nor did they bring in the health reporters to consult on this or other health professionals prior to publication– at least as far as one can tell.

The importance to the public’s health of good reporting requires that health and science journalists have more than a rudimentary knowledge of the topics they are covering. What’s strange is how we understand this with our sports reporting, weather forecasts and foreign correspondents. You wouldn’t watch someone who has little understanding of a sport covering it in depth, would you? It’s one thing to read scores, it’s another to provide investigative and deep coverage of a game if you don’t know the players, the rules, the criteria for quality and success and so forth.

Why do we do this with health journalism and science?

Yet, journalism is under pressure and no doubt the Toronto Star, for whatever genuine contrition they experience from what happened, have to like that they are being talked about. The reason is that journalism is under threat for market reasons, the Internet and the changing ways we get our news. It is, as Jürgen Krönig wrote way back in 2004, “A crisis of the Fourth Estate”. That crisis is only getting worse.

As anyone interested in public health, we need to take actions to ensure that the fourth estate is protected, supported and not ignored. Our health might just depend on it.

Image: iStockphoto, used under licence.

journalismknowledge translationpublic healthsocial media

Sane truths in Crazy Town: What Rob Ford’s story offers politics, science and journalism

Crazy Town

Crazy Town

A new book about Toronto’s (in)famous mayor reveals a great deal more than just a story of man known more for what he smokes and says than his governance, to what kind of world we want to live in. Robyn Doolittle’s ‘Crazy Town’ goes well beyond documenting one man’s troubling behaviour and its place in the city he governs to a broader understanding of politics, science and journalism in a day when all three are under threat. 

Toronto has been my adopted home for most of last 15 years. It’s dynamic, clean, safe and North America’s 4th largest city. Toronto is a place of tremendous ethno-cultural diversity (near 1/2 of the population is foreign-born), spectacular food, a thriving arts and culture scene, great universities, home to sports fans with a near pathological faith in their hockey team, and — even with all of that — it’s sometimes a bit dull (and that’s OK).

That last bit about being dull changed dramatically after 2010 and that has to do with one man: Rob Ford, our mayor. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

The narrative arc

Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle was literally at the front line of journalists covering Toronto’s Chief Magistrate and recently published a book on that experience and the story behind the story called Crazy Town. It’s a terrific book that documents the almost surreal events and people behind Rob Ford’s rise to power and current reign as one of the world’s most well-known mayors. It’s a rare work that manages to marry true crime, history, political intrigue, suspense, biography, and a journalism textbook together. I devoured it.

Yet, as a resident and politics fan I was amazed by what I read. I already knew most of the general details of what came out in the book (although chapter 12 is a complete shocker) because I lived through this news. Yet, it was only seeing all of this painted in one long narrative piece that it took a new life and in doing so brought me to a deeper understanding of many issues I’d thought I knew. The reason is largely the narrative arc that only a book (or long-form journalism) can offer.

On the surface, one could argue that what Doolittle did was piece together hundreds of stories she and others had written and compile them with a few additional quips to produce a compendium of Rob Ford’s life in the public’s eye. That in itself is a lot of work, but it doesn’t tell those who were paying attention to the story anything new. Yet, with each story that came out the backstory shows how what was reported — and picked up by others, reacted to, or ignored — was as important as what was learned about the subject and his environment. We read about how — not unlike with police work — the public is exposed to the “facts” but not how the authors chose to disclose (or not) those details and why.

When one considers what these ‘facts’ and the stories behind them entail, it is hard not to see some parallels between the world of political reporting at city hall and the world of science, social innovation, health promotion and policy that I live (and have lived) in. Crazy Town has many lessons for those not interested in Toronto, Rob Ford, politics, journalism or science, yet it is through all of those topics that such lessons are learned. The latter three stand out.

Politics

Rob Ford has defied nearly any explanation of how he has managed to maintain some form of support above 30% (as in, 3/10 polled would vote for him if the election was today). The best I’ve read is from former Canadian hockey legend, educator and parliamentarian Ken Dryden who wrote in the Globe and Mail newspaper about how Rob Ford has found a way to be visible and get the simple things done when other politicians get mired in complexity. He channels people’s frustrations and he makes his constituents feel listened to.

Doolittle’s treatment of Ford – despite the despicable treatment he’s given her, the Toronto Star and journalists overall — is fair and, in many cases, almost flattering when it comes to politics. Ford and his team have, despite appearances on the personal side of things, been very consistent and kept things simple. While Einstein might have challenged that Ford’s simple is too much so, there are lessons for all of us in this.

For those who deal in complexity, which is most human systems, it is easy to get mired in the details and interactions. Ford was steadfast in his over-arching narrative of “the gravy train” and that resonated with people. There is no reason why any other politician couldn’t have picked something similar to drive as their narrative and done much more good than Ford has, but they didn’t.

Ford made himself visible to those who mattered most: his constituents. And they have rewarded him with support.

How often do health care officials, educators, or policy leaders spend time with their key ‘constituents’ in settings that are natural to that audience? Politicos might challenge Ford’s proclivity for door-knocking and BBQ’s in an age of big data analytics, but that resonates with people. Why don’t more leaders get away from staid events in hotel ballrooms, well-crafted PR events, or their own offices to meet with their audiences where they live, work and play?

Good designers know that the design is only good if it gets used in the environment it was intended for and the only way to know that is to go into those environments. Ford knows this.

Science

To be fair, science is my term not Doolittles, but the term ‘evidence’ is one that links my term and her experience as a reporter. By science, I am talking capital ‘S’ science — the enterprise of scientific work as well as the activity.

What follows from the narrative arc that Ford delivered was the ability to frame the evidence held against him. He is masterful at reframing the arguments and keeping people focused on the messages that fit his ongoing  construction of a narrative. For a while, he was able to keep people talking about whether or not he smoked crack or drank alcohol excessively — two very serious issues — in a speculative way and away from the evidence he associated with drug dealers, violent criminals, and lied repeatedly to the press. He still does this.

In 2012 and 2013 the city spent time debating the minutiae of the law around whether or not he was in violation of conflict of interest. Lost in much of this debate was the larger pattern of Rob Ford consistently getting into trouble over all kinds of issues, big and small and how that wasn’t appropriate for any leader, political or not. Recently, Ford was in the news for being drunk in public and speaking in some faux Jamaican patois to customers at a local restaurant.

The issue as discussed in the media was the alcohol and the patois, not the fact that this is a man who, when under the public’s eye, has the judgement to: 1) get drunk in a public place 2) with the person who is accused of extortion related to the infamous crack video, 3) and then get up in front of everyone at the front of the restaurant to make a big, public proclamation.

Two weeks later, at a funeral for his friend’s mother in Vancouver, Ford decides to go to a crowded bar on a weekend night where nearly every young person there has a mobile phone and many proceed to take pictures of him or with him .

This is exactly how scientists and policy makers often behave. The intense focus on the small details leaves out the questions of relevancy and the bigger picture of what the point of the science is. Too often we get sidetracked with specifics and lose sight of a much larger set of issues.

For example, we’ll spend forever arguing the hypothetical possibility that someone might hack into an eHealth record as an argument for not allowing for easy portability and accessibility to that information (despite the fact that it can save lives, engage people, and that banks have been doing it with our life savings and credit for 20 years). (* Note that the details in science can matter a great deal, but just like walking and chewing gum, we can fret details in science and think of the big picture at the same time)

So far, people are willing to pay attention to Ford’s bigger message. Perhaps we need to consider what the bigger message is in our other enterprises and then worry about the details.

Journalism

I love ‘behind the scenes’ looks and this book provides lot to consider when thinking about how journalism is done, particularly that of the investigative kind. Doolittle has been steadfast that Crazy Town might have her name on the cover, but the investigative work that contributed to it was part of a huge team of journalists from the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and other outlets. Indeed, it takes a team and the kind of institutional support that the Star has put behind Doolittle.

Alas, this may be an exception. Many journalistic outlets are imploding due to poor management, change of readership habits, shifting business models, and also the public’s unwillingness to pay for things they value online. This last point is the one that we often let skate by in our discussions about media and one that Jaron Lanier has exposed as a major flaw in the modern Internet age.

Just this past week, web pioneer Mark Andreessen speculated on the future of media and — as many who have a stake in a faster, less in depth form of media often do — completely overlooked the role of the media as the a key role in communicating and uncovering key stories for society. To him, the model is dying. Maybe the business model is problematic, but unlike Andreessen I see a big need for journalism for society and as a model for science and health.

In health and science reporting, we are at great risk of losing voices like Andre Picard, Julia Belluz, Carly Weeks and Helen Branswell who have all brought to light many key issues that public health, healthcare and policy seem to forget, hide, complicate, or deny from emergent infectious disease patterns to drug regulation policy and practice.

Would we know about Rob Ford’s fitness for mayoralty if we didn’t have the Star? Would we be talking about the perversion of science and pharmaceuticals were it not for people like Ben Goldacre in the UK? What kind of knowledge would the world have about the NSA if Edward Snowden was a lone blogger and didn’t have The Guardian or New York Times to advance his disclosure? Crazy Town makes you realize what a debt we are owed to modern investigative journalism, journalists and those that support them (and are willing to pay for their products).

A bigger story

Crazy Town ends with the acknowledgement that there is much more of this story yet to be written. This is an election year and Rob Ford is one of the few who have already filed their papers to run for office again.

Crazy Town could have been told in 10,000 tweets, videos and Instagram pics. But it would have missed the point. The book is an argument for why in-depth journalism is needed and why — journalism, science, and politics — all often require a longer narrative arc to understand the bigger picture. Bigger stories don’t fit into a social media world, even if that very social media is part of the story itself.

The book is a great read whether you’re in Toronto, Ontario; Calgary, Alberta;  Madison, Wisconsin; or Phnom Phen, Cambodia. It’s a story as much about a man and a city as it is about ourselves and the world we live in. Read that way, you’ll find that not only is there more to tell of Rob Ford, there is a much bigger story to tell all around us.

complexityemergencejournalismknowledge translationsocial media

Shaking the System of Knowledge Translation and Journalism

Media covering the media talking about the media #riptide #media #harvard #journalism

Leveraging systems change comes when you are willing to examine the system itself, not just the component parts. News media is struggling to remain financially viable in a time when readership / viewership is high and revenues low by considering ways to adapt to an online world and the way it thinks about the problem will go a long way to whether it can solve it.  

Last night The Joan Shorenstein Center  at Harvard University hosted an event launching the public face of an initiative called Riptide, which sought to create an oral history of journalism as it transmophizes from independent media like paper, television and radio into what I would say is transmedia and social mediaThe Riptide Project has already been criticized for its lack of diversity of its subject matter to the point of being called “The History of Internet News, as Told by Rich, White Men” , although for its many faults it does bring together individuals who have shaped the landscape of the English-language news. That story is still worth listening to and learning from.

The event was organized around a panel featuring AOL Chairman Tim Armstrong, Caroline Little – head of the Newspaper Association of America, and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. The one hour event featured some wide-ranging discussion on how mainstream media has responded to digital challenges and is seeking to promote quality journalism amidst all these threats (A summary of key points are summarized in a Storify  (click link)).  Among the points that stood out was one NOT discussed and that was around the news systems themselves. While AOL, local newspapers and international publishers like the NY Times were exploring different media vehicles for news — such as AOL’s Huffington Post and recently scaled back local news network Patch — the way journalism was to be done was basically the same, except for journalists this means more work.

There was much handwringing over the threats to the system of journalism and publishing without seeing it as a system that itself requires adaptation at a fundamental level.

Seeing the system

While the event was focused on news and journalism, it could have easily been a parallel lecture in the world of health and scientific publishing and knowledge translation or knowledge mobilization. The leaders were speaking about how they were adding video, using social media and pointed to the well-known (and critiqued) ‘Snowfall‘ journalistic endeavour tried at the New York Times as an example of doing things differently. Snowfall is a multi-media story that brings video, text, and audio together under a NY Times digital umbrella and was intended to show how old and new media could work together. Yet, there are many critics who point out that the apparent success of this new multi-media, long form journalism was really just window dressing and that the numbers — 3 million visits — actually obscured a harder truth that indicated that very few of those readers went through it all. Most skimmed. Few got the whole story

The parallels with academic publishing are startling. For all the talk of high-impact scientific publications, the truth is that getting an article included in a top-flight academic journal is — if it is very well received — is likely to garner less than a few dozen citations. Yet the amount of energy and resources that go into these publications is enormous.

Academic journals are seeking to respond to this challenge by using open-access and web-based publishing, but the same fundamental challenge exists: adapting to new media while keeping the old. The publishing model is not developing, it is adapting to threats and not necessarily in a way that is resilient.

A developmental challenge

Developmental evaluation and design is about transforming the system as you move it along. It means being willing to examine or re-examine commonly held assumptions and working with changing conditions as they change, not just upon past reflection as we saw last night. It also means considering what developing a program is all about, not just improving it. Slide number 17 of the presentation below illustrates how this might look in practice. Developmental evaluation is not about program improvements, it is about developing them further to adapt and respond to changing conditions. The resulting program response might be something that is more effective at achieving goals, but that is not the primary focus.

For journalism the risk is that they will add all these additional layers to their product without questioning the assumptions behind what it means to do good journalism. Are journalist going to be videographers, photographers and web coders as well? The point was raised that the Huffington Post has a climate where journalists sit next to engineers. While creative and useful for looking at innovation, it doesn’t help if journalists, editors and publishers are still also doing all of what they used to do and now need to add on additional activities. At some point it all suffers. Yet, the panelists also argued that strong brands like the NY Times will do well when quality markers fail in the sea of low-brow content. How can this be if the resources to do good reporting aren’t there? You can’t act like a budget outfit, but claim to be bespoke.

Academics and scientists are in the same situation. They are being pushed to deliver high quality science and teaching in an age of diminishing resources, with few good metrics to assess outcome,  TED-worthy presentations, Tweet, blog and get into the community to speak to end-users. It is a lot and might even be possible if the system changed to support it. Instead, fewer resources are given, less support for excellence provided and the expectations rise.

Without quality knowledge translation — whether it be great science journalists or outstanding health scientist or clinical communicators — our entire system will collapse. There is too much information to sift through, it is too complex of a system to operate in, and there are far too many actors to navigate it well. Journalists and their institutions can provide common touch points for many across the system and the woes, challenges and systems issues they face are ones we face in health sciences. Learning from what they did and didn’t do in the realm of communication is worthy as is watching where they go as we seek to question if other areas of health communication need to follow.

Audience seeking direction on the future of #journalism by hearing from leaders of the past #riptide