Newsdesk.org teams with Spot.Us

Newsdesk.org, The San Francisco Public Press and the Knight Foundation-supported SPOT.US “crowdfunding” project are teaming up to raise $2,500 to support investigative coverage and fact-checking of San Francisco-focused election advertisements. Your micro-donation will make a difference!

Pledge for SF Election Ad Fact-Checking

* THE NEED
Help shine a light on the murky world of election advertising! The ads, mailers, and phone calls are already trickling in, but soon you’ll be deluged by a flood of innuendo, deceptive messaging and dubious facts from a variety of special-interest front organizations, pumped at you via snail-mail, e-mail, the phone, TV and radio.

Can you trust what you’re being told? Can you count on local media to make sense of it all? Sadly, no. Far more money is being spent to influence your behavior than to help you make informed decisions at the voting booth.

In fact, GradeTheNews.org found in 2004 that Bay Area TV news averaged just 1 minute 24 seconds nightly covering ballot initiatives, but ran 2 minutes 41 seconds of paid advertising for those initiatives. We can do better than that!

Pledge Your Support for SF Election Ad Fact-Checking

* THE PROJECT
To help cut through the hype, Newsdesk.org is teaming up with SPOT.US to publish a weekly investigative report on San Francisco-focused campaign advertisements, running from Labor Day through Election Day.

Pledge Your Support for SF Election Ad Fact-Checking

If you are a San Francisco voter, your pledge of $25 will help us meet our funding goal, and hire a professional reporter to provide weekly investigative coverage and fact-checking of election ads, running from Labor Day through Election Day. These reports will run for free on Newsdesk.org, and will be made available for free to any media partners who wish to use them.

Our goal is to help SF residents sort out the barrage of influence advertising, and make truly informed decisions at the voting booth — from the candidates to the ballot initiatives and propositions.

* HOW IT WORKS *
Spot.Us is raising the funds, Newsdesk.org will be producing the coverage. Microphilanthropy uses social networks to aggregate a large amount of small donations to achieve a particular funding goal. Once the funding has been raised — we’re at 10% of our target — the money will be released to the reporter tapped for the job.

* ABOUT NEWSDESK.org *
Since 2000, Newsdesk.org has led commercial mass media with groundbreaking, nonpoliticized coverage of veterans’ health care and PTSD; the 2004 presidential election and the 2003 San Francisco mayoral runoff; the energy industry in the developing world; genetically engineered agriculture, and much more. Newsdesk also is the producer of News You Might Have Missed, a unique source for important but overlooked news from around the world, published every Wednesday since February 2002.

* ABOUT THE PUBLIC PRESS *
The San Francisco Public Press is a new nonprofit local news organization whose aim is to increase the coverage of important but under-covered news topics through a daily print newspaper and the Web. The paper will stress government and private-sector accountability, consumer protection and issues of social inequality. We are developing a business model unique in the newspaper world, balancing subscription revenue with public-broadcasting-style pledges and philanthropy.

Critical Mass & the SF Press

[Guest commentary, GradeTheNews.org, April 16, 2007]

“The Critical Press / Inflamatory coverage of mishap at a bicycle protest boosts paper’s readership”
By Josh Wilson

SFGate.com, the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle, last week provided a fascinating look at how both initial newspaper coverage and Web 2.0 technologies can help shape perception of a story.

At issue is a confrontation between cyclists riding in San Francisco’s monthly Critical Mass, and a mother from the suburbs and her family in a minivan who got caught behind the bike traffic. There was panic, there was a bicyclist hit (how hard is in question), and then someone broke the back window of her car.

The issue is particularly intriguing because there appears to have been bad behavior on both sides, and the style of the initial coverage appears to have been red meat for only the inflammatory aspects of the story.

As a result, SFGate had a banner day for traffic, but mostly, it seems, because its initial coverage served brilliantly as flame- and troll-bait in the Web 2.0 arena.

As the story played out and the coverage evolved, the issue got a lot more nuanced, raising a lot of questions about the incident and how it was covered.

It’s obvious the incident touched a nerve over here. The Critical Mass community (of which I am a member) has been galvanized into a lot of important discussion of self-regulation. Amid all the outrage about bicyclists behaving badly, there is also renewed outrage about police dismissal of hit-and-run incidents against bicyclists. There are also the usual concerns about source and witness grandstanding, which both bicyclists and drivers involved in the incident have been accused of.

As an editor who used to work at SFGate, and who is also a bicyclist with personal interest in how the story is covered, the compelling question for me is:

How does a news outlet handle a story with hugely sensational (and also culturally and politically significant) elements in a volatile Web 2.0 environment? How do they harvest the abundant traffic of such a story (769 blog comments as of this writing!) and still do justice as a responsible news outlet to the complexity of the story?

Following is an overview of the media coverage over time. What do you think?

1| The Gate’s Nwzchk blogger has a brief summary of the news-media coverage. There are some sharply differing perspectives on the story:

“Critics on all sides when it comes to Critical Mass”
SFGate.com, April 5, 2007

2| The Chron‘s political reporters, Matier & Ross, led with the first roundup of the incident. They’re columnists with lots of pith and POV, and their coverage reads in that spirit:

“Minivan’s rude introduction to Critical Smash”
SF Chronicle, April 4, 2007

3| Their coverage ignited a huge flame war on the Gate’s blog, most of it quite bilious:

“Critical Mass — out of control?”
SFGate.com, April 5, 2007

4| Matier & Ross’s initial column brought lots of criticism from the left and pro-bike community, which SF Bay Guardian editor Steven Jones encapsulates in his blog:

“Did Critical Mass really go crazy?”
SFBG.com, April 2007

5| SFGate harvested mucho traffic (no pun intended) from their teaser blurbs on the front page yesterday, which were quite breathless … “terrorized family” was the most common usage. (I wish I had thought to archive one of those blurbs, they were truly great examples of certain style of headline.) In the heat of the moment, when the window of their van was broken, I’m quite sure they were terrorized. Nevertheless, their front page today is much more sober:

Last Friday’s confrontation in SF between Critical Mass bicyclists and Redwood City driver Susan Ferrando — with daughters Shannon and Lauren — that damaged her minivan, has spurred has spurred another round of angry debate about the rights of bicyclists and drivers.

6| The Chronicle noticed all the traffic to their blog, and sent some reporters to an unrelated mayoral press conference to press the issue with Gavin Newsom for their late-edition story on April 4:

“Mayor vows ‘a good look’ at Critical Mass Redwood City family’s van damaged after being caught up in ride”
SF Chronicle, April 4, 2007

7| The Chronicle‘s story on the 5th works a lot more detail and perspective on the incident, which appears to be much more nuanced than the original Matier & Ross column suggested:

“Clash reignites road wars”
SF Chronicle, April 5, 2007

“Skirmish between driver, Critical Mass participants triggers another round of debate about monthly ride”
SF Chronicle, April 5, 2007

8| By Friday the 6th, the Chronicle‘s reportage had acquired an even more aloof, distant and analytical perspective, as the complexity of the case revealed itself fully:

“Two views of mass confusion”
SF Chronicle, April 6, 2007

Friday’s edition also included an strongly condemnatory editorial aimed at the ride as a whole — and revealing, perhaps, why their coverage led with Matier & Ross’s POV-rich column in the first place, rather than Friday’s more nuanced look at the issue. The editorial also failed to note that the “flood of responses top an SFGate blog,” numbering in excess of 750 comments, consisted mostly of a flame war between a few dozen habitual posters, rather than “plenty of residents and visitors.”

“Cool it, Critical Mass”
SF Chronicle, April 6, 2007

  • Keep in mind that for every letter to the editor, there are a hundred silent people out there with similar sentiments, or so the conventional wisdom suggests. But, it’s worth noting that much of the reader furor about the incident did not emerge in formal letters to the editor, but on the blogosphere — on that initial SFGate blog post, in fact. And, as with most troll-heavy blog topics, the bulk of the outraged 700+ postings appear to be the same dozen or so bloggers yelling at each other, full of the usual ad hominem attacks and such.
  • All this provokes some interesting journalism-ethics questions of how a “breaking” story should be played in a live medium such as the Internet, which is where the real frenzy of the story was whipped up.
  • There are also some interesting lessons one can learn about the Web 2.0 medium, which seems to balance, not always evenly, between “wisdom of the crowd” and “seething mob of pro and con flamers.”

What does all this say for not only citizen journalism, but also how professional news media makes use of their online communities?