Ethan Zuckerman and the Levers of Change

Liveblog of Ethan Zuckerman’s Future of News keynote, composed with Nathan Matias. Errors are likely ours.

The usual conversation about innovation in journalism held by people who work in journalism assumes that there’s one main problem in the space: if we could just work out the revenue issue, we’d be fine forever. But it’s also not the case that cross-subsidies from lighter matter will help us support the journalism we need for people to be effective civic actors.

What if we’ve got the problem wrong? Sometimes the stuff we think we’re good at–producing high quality journalism that helps people figure out what they might do in society–turns out to be stuff we’re not nearly as good at as we thought. This may well be one of the core problems of journalism.

Ethan offers two fairly easy arguments, and a fairly difficult one:

1) journalism matters (goes mostly unchallenged in this room)

2) civics is changing (particularly for younger people and for people who identify with the internet as their native medium)

3) journalism needs to change

Ethan invokes Michael Schudson, and his essay, “Six or Seven Things the News Can Do for Democracy” in the book Why Democracies need an Unlovable Press. Schudson wants us to focus journalism on the hardest problems in democracy, and to use journalism as a way to move forward.

Schudson establihes six or seven functions for news in a democracy:

The professionals are still play a critical role to inform us. We’re all interested in how we get informed by news, and figure out what has happened or not happened. There are reports of police raids of the opposition party’s headquarters during elections in Ghana, but we’re unable to verify if this has actually happened. We rely on journalists to verify, with trusted sources and interviews and eyewitnesses.

For investigations, journalists tend to lean on large organisations, often because it’s an enormous amount of work and requires a lot of legal protection. Hearst once said, “The news is the stuff they don’t want you to print, and the rest is advertising.” Investigations are one of the most difficult, precious things journalists bring to civic dialogue.

Analysis has shifted radically in online, but it actually shifted much earlier. We often decry partisan media, but it’s prevalent because it’s the cheapest television out there. It’s easy film people with a loud mouth, a lot of opinions, and a book to sell. There is no shortage of analysis, an area where citizens can do a great job; talented amateurs can do a much better job than professionals — Nate Silver’s humble origins are a great example of this.

Public Fora is an area where we’d think citizen media would really change things. We can let everyone share their opinion now, and as a result, we’ve stopped reading comments sections. The barrier to entry of sending a letter to the Editor may have served a basic, if minimal, filtering role for constructive thoughts.

Social Empathy is the idea that, in a representative democracy, not everyone is going to have a voice, and not everyone is able to use their voice. We often speak and act on behalf of people who cannot vote, whether because they’re children, or felons, or live other places and are affected by our foreign policy. Social empathy is the role journalism plays to get us to pay attention to people we might not otherwise pay attention to. Documentary film does a wonderful job in this role, but a lot of media has had a difficult time achieving social empathy. The organization Ethan co-founded, Global Voices, attempts to do this by sharing stories written by bloggers around the world.

Mobilization can drive people nuts. Is advocacy journalism journalism? Does solutions journalism undercut the mission of journalism? Schudson reminds us that we hope that every so often the news gets us sufficiently incensed that we decide to do something. That’s more than voting. It involves creating change in whatever form is needed.

If we take change seriously, we need to accept that participatory media is more than participating in making media. With ‘participatory media,’ Ethan’s looking for a term that’s richer than ‘social media.’ Participatory media, for Ethan, is media which supports us in having a voice. Media industry people thought that this was going to be the revolution — that the news would include a much wider set of participants.

The actual transformation has been much greater. Participatory media goes beyond media to involve people taking action, and the role media serves to enable that action. To understand why we might not have the problems with journalism fully worked out, we need to think about the kinds of action that journalism can support.

A potential seventh role for media is to promote representative democracy. The structures we already have at hand in our democracy can be seen as a path towards mobilization.

Civics is changing, Ethan argues. The latest presidential election involved some big changes in American politics. We elected our first lesbian senator, our first buddhist senator, and our first Hindu representative. The US is becoming more diverse, more multicultural, and we’re seeing more faces in politics. If 2008 was about Obama as president and America dealing with those historical wounds, then 2012 was about America dealing with what it means to be a rainbow nation.

Why did we miss that chance to reflect on this remarkable change? Almost imm after the election, we went straight to the fiscal cliff discussion. Why’s that? We have a very dysfunctional Congress that’s dragging its feet unable to get things done.

Ethan grew up with a different version of democracy, instilled by civic education like Schoolhouse Rock. This model of how a bill becomes a law is wildly outdated, and is probably better described by Senator Bob Graham’s America: The Owner’s Manual. But for this blueprint to work, Congress needs to be interested in passing law and capable of passing law.

If you believe the levers of democracy have basically rusted into place, it’s no longer believable that calling your senator will lead to any change. Ethan isn’t the only crazy person who thinks like this, showing a a slide of the Tea Party, Occupy, Anonymous, and WikiLeaks.

If you look at where politics is going over the last decade or so, many of these movements that have gained momentum were movements that expressed a lack of confidence in Congress’s ability to enact change. The Tea Party and Occupy sees legislative demands as beside the point. Anonymous says that real power is in corporate hands; maybe media power can create more change than political power. Wikileaks, meanwhile, posits that secrets legitimize government, and sharing them can provoke an allergic reaction.

Ethan isn’t convinced that any of these are the right way to create change. But for a lot of people, it’s not convincing to tell them that Congress is going to create change. If you can pass law, it’s probably the best way to get change in an open society because you have the full weight and force of government behind you. But if you’re not in an open society, this is a lousy way to seek change.

Stymied by an obstructed political pathway, people are looking for other pathways to produce change.

One approach is to appeal to authority, or to change that authority. But the human rights, democratisation, and anti-corruption communities in Egypt may have been missing the point. At the end of the day in Egypt, the only authentic change people were hoping for was a change in leadership– one that has been more harrowing and complicated than anyone anticipated.

Attention, and particularly, media attention, is another theory of change. This method is represented well by KONY 2012, for all its strenghts and flaws. Their video destroyed every viral video we’ve known in terms of how quickly it accelerated to a hundred million views. It was nine times the audience of the largest show that week in the Nielsen ratings.

What does 100 million views mean? For the KONY 2012 organizers, it got them exactly what they wanted: a huge amount of media attention, new Senate allies, and a reconfirmed commitment from the Obama Administration to keep advisors on the hunt for Kony. It succeed, although it was simplistic, and left many in Uganda feeling voiceless.

Culture change is another theory of change. Ethan shows us an image of the TV show Cheers. The people at Harvard’s Alcohol Project wanted to get people to start adopting the idea of designated drivers. Instead of making a single episode about designated drivers, they just started dropping it into Cheers. Ethan tells us about a collaboration with Nollywood, Nigerian’s film industry, to get bed nets into films and convince high class people to think that it’s fashionable to sleep under bed nets. The KuweniSerious project in Kenya goes after the culture of political apathy, and reminds Kenyans of their responsibilities.

DIY is another theory of change. Ethan shows us images from Occupy Sandy– people involved in Occupy Wall St who tried to organise relief efforts in Brooklyn and Queens to complement what FEMA was doing. Do-It-Yourself can range from complete lack of faith in government, to augmenting government efforts, to simply wanting to get one’s hands dirty and provide help directly. Ethan shows us a slide from a Russian Fires map, which offered a way to find people in need. It also offered a visual argument against the ineffectiveness of Putin’s policies.

The LowLine is an example of a growing Civic Crowdfunding movement to directly subsidize or fund public goods. One on hand, a lot of public funding should come out of government coffers, but we also don’t want to turn our back on innovative new platforms for citizen engagement around civic projects.

Ethan thinks that the older generation believe mostly in appeals to authority. We understand political change, even if we fail to produce it. But we’re pretty skeptical of these other approaches.

The Center for Civic Media recently hosted Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch. Carroll’s message was that Human Rights watch is looking for the small number of media outlets who can influence the 100 people who can actually create change. If Human Rights Watch can reach the people with sway through NPR, the Financial Times, and other media they read, then we can influence them. It makes terrific sense and it’s a great theory of change. It drove my students nuts; they asked her question after question, saying “we’d like to help, what can we do?” Her eventual response: “if you have a million dollars, we’d take it.”

We need a better answer than that. Journalists do an incredible amount of investigative reporting to expose corruption like that of Teodoro Nguema Obiang, son of Equatorial Guinea’s ruler, who was building a giant yacht with a shark tank feature. But no one was there to help Ethan or other outraged readers over the bridge from awareness of corruption to doing anything about it.

Susan Sontag says journalists know how to generate compassion, but compassion is a volatile emotion, and needs to be intelligently channeled. And if we don’t talk about solutions in our journalism, we’re generating strong feelings amongst our readers without helping them do anything about it.

Are America’s youth so addicted to their own sense of power so that newsrooms have to change so the audience has something to do? Ethan argues that this is something enormously old, going back to the Greek notion of civics. Ethan tells us about Isocrates, a “rhetor,” the guy who’s trying to persuade. We are suspicious of him because most of what we hear from him is from Plato, the guy running the rival school at the time. Plato believed that if he had enough time with you, you could become incredibly wise in the true ordering of things, become a philosopher king, and earn the power to run Athens. Isocrates, on the other hand, wanted to train people to be civic actors. At that time, civic action involved the ability to use your voice in the public sphere of the Athenian democracy. He’s viewed as a teacher of speech, when at that time, he was a teacher of participation.

This seems antiquated because the idea of someone standing up in a town meeting seems like it can only happen in a Norman Rockwell painting. Examples of radically participatory democracy are often edge cases, such as Iceland’s crowdsourcing of its new constitution. Whether it’s commenting, organizing, or protesting, the challenge to all of us is to produce effective citizens using media.

Ethan points us to shining examples like Harry Potter Alliance, PolicyMic, OpenIDEO, and Matt Stempeck’s forthcoming Master’s thesis on enabling pro bono skills donations in times of crisis.

Ethan sums up. If journalism matters and civics is changing, what do we need to do? Firstly, we need to find better ways for people to participate. It’s scary and it can go wrong, and we need to figure out how to make it reasonable. Media is an amplifier, and thus a target for manipulation. We need to get smart about how media and influence interact, and how people look to use media as amplifiers, especially in an environment where content is plentiful and attention is scarce.

When we look at a project like the Trayvon Martin case, we’re interested in how the massive amount of attention generated allows activists to latch onto the story for their own purposes. Today’s USA Today is still asking the question, was Trayvon a teen or a troublemaker? Why do we keep falling for these agendas injected by activists?

Secondly, we need to stop thinking that solutions journalism is a descent into rancorous partisanship. At least two things are happening when people pick brands. Sure, people are looking for confirmation of their beliefs. But they’re also excited about taking action. Journalism does this sometimes. When the New York Times reports on Hurricane Sandy, they include things that people can do to help. Where else can we take this model to find ways to mobilise, advocate, and put solutions on the table.

Ultimately, we need to help a next generation, which may not be convinced that social change happens the way we grew up thinking it happens. We need to help them figure out how to do civics in this new space. And I hope you’ll work with us on this.


If the system’s broken, and with Citizens United, corporations own the process, what can we do to fix it? And organizations like MoveOn and Sum of Us are rallying citizens to act as consumers to organize against companies that are still responsive to this pressure?

Ethan: I believe the levers are stuck in place, but not necessarily that we need to go around Congress. Take regulations of corporations. The government has said nope, not going to regulate there. Then you go to the next theory of change, and approach Wal-Mart directly. And organizations like MoveOn are definitely moving into this space, with buycotts and boycotts and the like. But if we’re going to teach people civics now, we have to teach all of the toolkits: how to influence the political process, how to harness attention when you can’t, and how to affect culture or take direct action. A lot of the new interest and new talent happens further down the chain from political legislative change.

Q: If you report, and encourage people to take action after publishing it, aren’t you biased?
Ethan: I don’t buy unbiased. It can be an aspiration to grow towards, but I think when we sit down to watch the news, we’ve already shown our hand in terms of prioritizing which stories are important. That choice, to put Trayvon on the front page today instead of Mali, is bias. I certainly agree that we don’t start with the most divisive, rancorous issues and only talk about one solution, but there is a disconnect between talking about problems and letting people know that there are solutions. I understand this is a controversial thing to say, but I think we need to put that provocation out there if we want readers to be active citizens.

Q: There’s uneven access to media, and people with money, power, and influence.
Ethan: The same analytical rigor a journalists puts into writing a story and framing a problem could be applied to identifying and vetting potential solutions.

Christopher Stone, Open Society Foundation: Are you worried that it’s a very atomized vision of civic engagement that you’re proposing? So many of the examples you like are very Americanized individualistic, and not helping people find the power of the organized collective?
Ethan: We’re seeing a lot more new work around an individual rallying people behind solutions than we are creative work bringing groups and civil society together. Projects like Iceland writing internet constitutions are easy to posit, and hard to carry out. The dream of putting everything on a wiki has proven to be a poor theory of change. I’d like to help organizations and coalitions of organizations work together to manipulate all five levers, not just the traditional lever of legislative political change that’s usually pursued by social change movements.

Q: How does this affect people taking local action?
Ethan: There’s enormously exciting stuff going around on the DIY front, and the person who’s probably most knowledgeable on that front is Christina Xu of the Awesome Foundation. They don’t just make philanthropy more participatory, but also build up an entire network of people working to help build and scale very creative local models. Can a coffeeshop sell special privileges to finance its next patio?