Lost in the Weeds

May 13 2012

The indefatigable Alex Howard posted a link today about a draft academic paper on open source and journalism by Nikki Usher of George Washington University and Seth Lewis of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Alex’s tweets are worth a look, so I pulled up the paper and began reading.

Although I didn’t finish graduate school, I have written my fair share of academic papers, so I’m not a complete novice in the area. And despite the fact that it is a draft, as Usher points out, the idea that you would post even a draft on the web and then profess surprise when someone links to it or reads it is a little off, particularly for someone writing about a) journalism and b) open source. If you weren’t expecting critics, maybe it’s a good idea not to let them see the material. Update: in fairness, Nikki Usher was not aware that the paper was online at all. (I should also note that criticism is my full-time non-job; I probably should have sought work in the field, not due to any real talent on my part but based purely on personal enthusiasm.)

There is a good bit to like in the paper, which will be presented this month at the International Communication Association’s annual convention. There is a tendency for those working at the intersection of technology and journalism to focus on the tools – the stuff that actually exists now – rather than systemic changes to journalism itself (there are ahem, some exceptions to this tendency). In part that’s because systemic changes are a hard problem too easily pushed to the background by the demands of doing journalism today. But it’s also in part because incremental changes, as the authors note, can be valuable in changing the whole. But, ok, I get it, and in many ways agree (except for the utopian one-open-source-CMS-to-rule-them-all idea – can we just kill that fantasy and focus on making information portable?).

Then I read the part about Fech. As a contributor to the project, I am admittedly biased in its favor, but I do not think my reaction is solely or even mainly based on that fact. Here’s what they wrote about the project:

The New York Times developed Fech, a tool that helps journalists crawl financial disclosures by political candidates just by knowing a filing number (Strickland, 2011). Just as the discourse around open source tools emphasizes their pro-social benefits, Fech’s creators note that more access to these filings will lead to better journalism. But Fech also gives one more tool to journalists eager for the horse-race style journalism that is divisive and counterproductive for democracy (Patterson, 1993; Cappella & Jamieson, 1997). There is another problem with what could be a strength of Fech: While the source code is posted on Github for other developers, the tool has been built to help people in the newsroom, not to encourage participation by ordinary people.

Where to begin? First, and perhaps least important, it vastly understates what Fech enables journalists and developers to do, particularly in regards to what can be done programmatically with disclosure data. I do not think that it is a stretch to say that the easier it is to examine and search campaign finance disclosures, the easier it will be for reporters and the public to discover interesting and useful pieces of information. Indeed, the use of Fech by news organizations like ProPublica, Reuters and The Associated Press – to say nothing of our use at The Times – has borne that out.

But here’s the line that got my back up: “But Fech also gives one more tool to journalists eager for the horse-race style journalism that is divisive and counterproductive for democracy.” The evidence for that? There isn’t any. This is pure speculation; I would argue that it is refuted by the examples I just cited. Can the authors — or anyone — cite an example of where Fech has been used to enable more horse-race style journalism (in its pejorative sense, which is what I assume the authors meant)? I’m 17 years out of graduate journalism school, but I’m pretty sure that assertions like that need a bit more than a citation to work that says horse-race journalism is bad for democracy. In theory, Fech could be used to run nuclear reactors, I guess, but since there is no evidence of that actually happening, I’m going to discount that as a possibility.

And finally, the authors write: “While the source code is posted on Github for other developers, the tool has been built to help people in the newsroom, not to encourage participation by ordinary people.” Well, yes and no. I would be hard-pressed to describe those people interested in campaign finance data as “ordinary,” but we open sourced Fech so that it could be used in newsrooms and in any other situation. I don’t understand how exactly the authors presume that we built it only to help people in the newsroom, or to discourage participation by non-newsroom folks. The fact that the contributors to Fech come mainly (but not exclusively) from newsrooms who cover campaigns is understandable to me (and to Jeff Larson). I’m not entirely clear how what we’ve done makes it harder for non-newsroom people to participate. I’d love to read about that, but there are no examples or further discussion in the paper (nor was any user of Fech contacted by the authors, from what I can tell. I wonder if they installed it and tried it themselves).

Usher, to her credit, offered several explanations as to why this passage was in the draft. They include the fact that this paper, like many, undergoes blind review. Fair enough, but it’s worth asking whether the reviewers are able to evaluate these claims, since most of them could be debunked by reading posts on Open. It also, like many of my own projects, seemed to have been a bit of a rush job. I know all about that, but was it really so difficult to talk to anyone involved in Fech? Finally, my objections, however valid, don’t damage the overall point of the paper, but reflect the possibility that I “may be getting lost in the weeds.”

That’s the tricky thing about journalism, data and even open source. Weeds matter. If you get the weeds wrong, the eventual result usually suffers. If I’m lost in the weeds, maybe the garden needs some attention.