TOC Le choc des photos, the objectivity of the media Your Turn

September 20, 2011

A young woman in western clothes creeps under barbed wires. Four adolescents in military garb gaze at her. One helpfully pushes away the concertina, another has his automatic weapon at the ready. Welcome to the XXIst century rerun of the Caudine Forks (1), a theatrical scene intended more than two thousands years ago to bloodlessly project an abject subjection.

This picture, shot by Rina Castelnuovo for the New York Times (*), is a powerful example of the basic function of all media. Select the important messages to bring to our attention.

The media used to fill a void by giving its readers a way to access information beyond the rumors conveyed by people's personal conversations. Today the media is meant to protect their audience from an avalanche of news by filtering what deserves to be shared beyond their online "friends".

Despite this radical change of circumstances, the media continues to act as a recommender, the most important role of our Information Age.

As we raise our sights from the message to the process to the business model itself, recommendations beg three questions.

Are they truthful? Has for instance Rina Castelnuovo staged her photograph or doctored it digitally? We rely on her professional reputation and the fact checking department of the New York Times to take her message at face value.

Is message selection open to manipulation? The responsibility here lies entirely with the newspaper and, unless the recommendation process itself is open, the audience is entitled to doubt the selection is neutral. "Le choc des photos", to borrow from Paris-Match (2), is such a tempting weapon.

Is the recommender free from conflicts of interest? Let us today focus on this issue which, like deadly sins, merits an explanation. Just as murder is definitely worse than greed or pride, a fabricated story is more serious than to be in a position to publish features which may further one's profitability or one's power, political or otherwise. But fall for the lures of the latter and sooner or later the former will follow.

John Gapper came up with a vivid image to illustrate this capital notion. "The truth is that, no matter how loudly people protest that they [...] will not abuse their power, conflicts of interests lead to abuses as surely as rivers flow to the sea" (**).

Creator of the TechCrunch blog, which he sold to AOL, Michael Arrington followed up with the "founding of CrunchFund, a venture capital fund backed by AOL that invests in startups like those that TechCrunch covers", Claire Cain Miller reported (***). Read John Gapper's impeccable analysis to find how incestuous the situation had become between secretive startups eager for funding and rich venture funds eager for coverage of their own deals, with Michael Arrington in the middle of it all, able to satisfy both sides in an unwritten, yet lucrative quid pro quo.

Michael Arrington has been "ejected under pressure" from his blog. "He is [...] right that traditional news outlets have their own conflicts" but, according to John Gapper, their paid readerships absolve them. I appreciate the difference. I fail to see its importance for I strongly object to John Gapper's description of conflicts in traditional media as limited to reporters' "individual misbehavior", the defense of all rogue companies.

The high end traditional media gets a pass today not because its conflicts of interest are of a lesser kind, but because we have become so habituated to them, they have lost their visibility. With no more clothes than a beggar, an emperor will still be clad with the respectability granted by time.

What could this invisible conflict of interest be? Whether its audience pays them or not, high end traditional media claims to be objective, not only putting real news above pure entertainment but segregating editorials and opinions into separate pages. Unfortunately this is a mirage.

Later this week the Palestinian Authority is due to take its case for statehood to the United Nations. It is a fact, it is news. When Philip Stephens argues that "the pro-Israel position is Palestinian statehood", it is a personal, if expert, opinion (****). The Financial Times properly prints his column among its "comment" page. Rina Castelnuovo's photograph depicts an act of casual and petty discrimination. It is a fact but, by publishing it last week on the top half of its front page, the New York Times turned it into a symbol of oppression slyly mascarading as objective news.

As the weight of carefully crafted logic is no match for the emotional pull of a well selected subliminal message, the temptation was overwhelming.

Hidden, self-interested bias can be quantitative as well as qualitative. The scandal which has engulfed Rupert Murdoch's News Corp is quite real. But how can one assess what amount of ink does justice to the facts and what amount is due to the competitive enmity between the Financial Times and the New York Times on one side and the owner of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily on the other?

Such unacknowledged corporate motives undercut the public service of the press, to vet whistleblowers and protect them from retaliation.

Sarah Lyall alerts us that "the Metropolitan Police Service is seeking a court order to force the Guardian to disclose confidential information about its reporting on the phone hacking scandal" (*****). The UK Police is understandably lacking in British humor against those who called its nakedness and exposed its promiscuous relations with the News of the World. What guardians of the law like to be caught off-guard?

But can the Guardian itself stay above the law as secret sources fuelled its circulation, wounded its competition, embarrassed its political targets?

How can in fact systemic conflicts of interest within the media be accurately reported in the media? Unfortunately for my calls for better eprivacy, this dilemma applies to all activities by the media to gather and process as much information about their users as possible.

However difficult to build, sound business models for recommenders are just too vital for me to be content to call a pox on both media, old and new. My goal here is to break beyond self-satisfied complacency.

To help usher recommendation systems truly free from conflicts of interest, the traditional media must be more explicit on its own self-interests (3).

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Palestinians Ready for a Diplomatic Leap, picture by Rina Castelnuovo (New York Times) - Sept 15, 2011
  • (**) ....... The conflict of interest in free news, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - Sept 15, 2011
  • (***) ..... Tech Blogger Parts With AOL, by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - Sept 13, 2011
  • (****) ... Israel should back a Palestinian State, by Philip Stephens (Financial Times) - Sept 16, 2011
  • (*****) . Britain: Seeking a Paper's Sources, by Sarah Lyall (New York Times) - Sept 17, 2011
  • (1) see the Caudine Forks in the wikipedia. For a deeper understanding, please read both the English and French entries.
  • (2) "Le poids des mots, le choc des photos" (the weight of words, the shock of pictures) is the slogan of Paris-Match per the French wikipedia
  • (3) as before, the reader is reminded ePrio stands to benefit from any influence my fillips in defense of eprivacy can have.
September 2011
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