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Mainstream Media as Part of the Solution

BY Nick Judd | Monday, June 7 2010

At Personal Democracy Forum 2010, several thinkers on the subjects of media and government said media as we know it will have to change the way it relates to government in order to contribute in the 21st-century American city.

Perhaps it's fair to say this relationship will have to change in a similar way nationally, but for a variety of reasons, some of them obvious and many of which we discussed at length during PdF 2010, it's also more reasonable to expect change will come to cities first.

In a conversation after delivering a talk titled "Rethinking the Open City," Jen Pahlka of Code for America, Washington, D.C. CTO Bryan Sivak, and Gov 2.0 enthusiast Tim O'Reilly said that the at times adversarial relationship between media workers and government workers will have to change.

Separately, before moderating a panel that asked if government should "save" journalism — his answer was a flat "no" — Jeff Jarvis, the CUNY professor of journalism and as close to an establishment figure as one can get in the field of new media studies, agreed.

"We're at an inflection point"

"I think we're at an inflection point where we're moving away from this model of advocacy which is about making people wrong and catching people out and moving to a model of advocacy that's about what we want to build together," O'Reilly told me.

More and more, the worlds of investigative reporting and the data-centric open government movement are converging. Some of the best stories have always been built on the backs of public records requests, from mining caches of correspondence to doing deep dives into city budgets and procurement. Reporters and editors would call this exposing public waste and corruption; government types might call it "gotcha" journalism.

Either way, public records are no longer the province of the local gadfly and the journalist. For the open government types, data is a way to help people make their cities better — and to do it themselves, without the help (or hindrance) of their governments. And the way one group of people uses government data will influence how accessible that data is to the other group.

"If you know what your city is really doing, and especially when it's hyperlocal, in your neighborhood, [you can then ask] how can you take control of your neighborhood and push it in the direction that you want it to," Pahlka, of Code for America, explained. Here's another elaboration of what she meant, in her own words.

But in the quest for public data, the media and open government advocates may find themselves at loggerheads. Here at techPresident and elsewhere, writers and observers have called into question the decisions behind what data to release and what data to keep in-house. Government has data it won't make public — for example, the recently established database of federal contractors that isn't even open to the Senate except by special request.

This data could do tremendous good if it was released to the crowd to find waste and redundancy and to use as a basis for better ideas. But, like so much government data, it won't be released to the people who own it. (That's us. We're the people who own it.)

"People in the government ... are typically motivated more by fear than anything else," said Sivak, the CTO of Washington, D.C., and more of a software entrepreneur than a bureaucrat.

Sivak didn't frame his remarks in the context of government being willing to release data, specifically. But for open government in its current context, that is the first step.

"They're more afraid of getting called out for something than they are for trying something new," he continued. "And we all know that in order to innovate you have to be willing to fail."

"'Let's get the bastards'"

If the next step for governments in America will be to make a little room in the bureaucracy for entrepreneurial thought, innovation, and the fail-and-iterate methodology of technological advancement, maybe the next step for media in America will be to make room to report on the failures, but the iterations, too.

"The relationship with government has become too much 'let's get the bastards,'" said Jeff Jarvis, the CUNY professor, future-of-media provocateur, and "What Would Google Do" author, although he admitted that there were plenty of bastards left to get.

But if the only way for government to evolve past its dysfunctions is to try new small things until it finds the right things, the local newspaper — bastion of "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" big-J journalism — might wind up doing more harm than good by scaring government away from collaborating and operating in the open. Getting slammed on A1 might just push government back into the days of circle-the-wagons PR, a culture with no expectation of operating in the sunlight. In that culture, officials do things that, for example, has lead to half of New Jersey's government officials being indicted at the same time.

"I'm not suggesting that we pull punches," Jarvis said, "but if that's all we do —" punch, he meant — "it's going to be hard to be collaborative."

There is room for media to behave collaboratively with the government. See what the British are doing, for instance, in the case of The Guardian and Data.gov.uk.

Sivak says that D.C. is talking to the Washington Post about collaborating on data projects. And he offered an idea of what the traditional newspaper might be able to do, using D.C. as an example.

"In D.C. we require landlords to register rental properties with the city," Sivak explained. The city — well, district, right — then publishes that list online. Registration is, among other things, used for taxation purposes.

"On the other hand, you've got craigslist, you've got the Washington Post, you've got other stuff, right, that has a complete list of the rental properties that are available," he added.

Compare the two, and what do you have? A fairly comprehensive list of landlords that are offering rentals despite being unregistered with the city. That's fodder for a front-page story if ever there was one.

"These are things that I'd love the media to start thinking about," Sivak said, speaking of mainstream media in particular.

"I'm talking about helping to fix government processes and helping to fix government in general," he added.

Systemic failure

In a recent blog post, the Sunlight Foundation's John Wonderlich asked how it was that the cascading systemic failure of government regulation that contributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill went unnoticed until after the fact.

Everything, after all, was out there in the open, for reporters to find later.

Wonderlich:

... [T]hese “public” inspections, in turns out, were only public in a very limited sense, opening the door to neglect and abuse. The same holds for the plans companies need to submit before they drill — apparently public, but effectively out of reach, and, consequently, filled out thoughtlessly, failing to create accountability. (My initial research into those reports is attached at the the end of this post, and inspired me to write this.)

This is the same culture in which all those New Jersey politicians operated. They're doing the people's business, but they are not in direct contact with the people. And their intermediaries — us, the media — are generally looking for ways to make them look bad when we examine the people's business, so what's the point of them showing their work? It's like running a trend story past Jack Shafer: You just know all you're going to get is a tall pile of verbal abuse.

Figuring out how to change that dynamic, but retain credibility and usefulness as government watchdogs, may be the first step towards changing this system. Most people at Personal Democracy Forum could — and, in fact, did — make a strong case for mainstream media as part of the problem when it comes to politics in America.

But as O'Reilly, Sivak and Pahlka said, there is a case to be made for mainstream media as part of the solution, too.

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