In Barcelona this week for the Mobile World Congress, where the sun is out along with teeming crowds for mobile technology’s biggest annual event–and I’m trying not to let jet lag slow me down too much.

I’ve been here (to Barcelona, though not MWC, a number of times, and never tire of the city. (A transit worker slowdown this week will leave a lot of people tired of walking and fighting for taxis, no doubt.) It’s accessible, not daunting, and friendly.

The MWC, I’m told, has been evolving rapidly–from a totally carrier dominated event to something much more open, the way CES turned from a gadget show to an everything-digital show. In fact, based on the list of exhibitors, there’s clearly a lot of overlap now.

One of the digital arenas I’m looking forward to exploring is ubiquitous computing and its cousin, the so-called “Internet of Things.” There’s almost unlimited potential to add intelligence to everything we touch, and then connect it all–and use the knowledge we gain to make our lives better, individually and in our communities. There’s equally unlimited potential for that to turn into the ultimate surveillance system, and in the several years that I’ve paid close attention to the IoT I’ve seen almost no evidence that the industry is even slightly interested in protecting our privacy beyond making a few pleasant noises in that direction.

One of the companies moving fastest in the global technology scene Huawei, which covered my travel expenses here, joining a group of tech analysts. It’s an absolutely huge Chinese tech operation, based in Shenzen, home to vast amounts of that country’s digital-gear manufacturing. The Huawei events here include the launch of some new consumer devices (I just saw the new “MateBook” 2-in-one Windows tablet/notebook with a detachable keyboard has a clean design, and is getting solid early reviews), I’ll be learning more about the company and its raft of global competitors, and plan to ask questions about how it will build security into its products. In fact, I’m planning to ask these questions of all the companies I visit when I make the rounds of the exhibition floor later this week.

Huawei, which has been mostly a business-to-business company, has big ambitions for end-user technology. One recent “design win,” as tech folks call it, was its contract with Google to make Nexus 6P phablet. I reviewed it last fall for Medium Backchannel, and was so impressed that I bought one.

More to come…

(Cross-posted at Medium)

Is there anyone reading this who does not use Wikipedia routinely? Be honest.

The online encyclopedia (and more) is just 15 years old this week. Consider that for a second. When I do, I tend to think this global collaboration is close to miraculous.

Needless to say, Wikipedia and other projects of the site’s not-for-profit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, are far from perfect. Moreover, foundation and community are facing some internal struggles over key issues and decisions. Dig deep and you see an adolescent organization at a number of turning points.

But we should recognize, and celebrate, the achievements of the Wikimedia community. And we should all ask ourselves what we can do to help ensure that this unprecedented project not only survives but thrives in decades to come. In a word: Participate.

Before I go on, a disclosure: Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, is a friend, and I’m a small shareholder in his separate, privately held consumer-wiki service, Wikia.

I was amazed by Wikipedia from the minute I saw it. But I had no real idea how big, or important, it would be come. When I first wrote about it in my Silicon Valley newspaper column in 2004, I focused more on the wiki phenomenon — sites that anyone could edit? really? — and marveled that such a thing could possibly work. At the time, Wikipedia was nearing the then-stupendous number of 200,000 articles in English. Now it’s up to some 35 million articles in scores of languages, and still growing. English remains the top language, for all kinds of reasons.

Even if you rarely go to the Wikipedia site, you’re probably seeing its content, especially if you do a significant amount of searching on Google or other search engines. The results pages often include excerpts from Wikipedia, and those snippets can be enough to get a good sense of the topic at hand.

And if you’re like me, you go often to the site itself. It has become, for me, a first stop for all kinds of quick lookups. But as I tell students, with Jimmy Wales endorsement, while Wikipedia is often the best place to start, it is almost always the worst place to stop. At the bottom of any solid Wikipedia article is a long list of original sources from which site editors have drawn the information that appears in the article. Don’t quote Wikipedia, I tell students; quote from the source material.

The site’s most obvious drawback is, of course, its best feature: the ability of almost anyone to edit almost any article. Trolls, PR people and sock puppets abound. You can never, ever absolutely rely on the accuracy or neutrality — a core principle — of an article at any given moment. Inaccuracies, some deliberate, are usually fixed quickly. Sometimes they aren’t, however, and several high-profile cases of sustained inaccuracy have pointed to what looks to many (including me) like an nearly unsolvable problem: even if I, as the subject of an article, know that something is wrong, I can’t fix it without some kind of outside documentation (such as a news article) “proving” that what I know is right. The site’s rules, aimed at reinforcing a “neutral point of view,” make perfect sense in principle, but can lead to real problems for individuals.

The Wikimedia Foundation operates other ventures, including the Wikimedia Commons, a collection of (as of this week) more than 30 million media files that anyone can use. Probably the most important new initiative is Wikidata, an astoundingly useful linked database from a host of different sources of publicly available data. This is worth a separate column in its own right; watch this space.

For all their amazing qualities, Wikipedia and the foundation have more than a few problems. The finances appear to be in relatively good shape, but the foundation has been shaken by internal changes and dissension, and the legions of volunteers who make Wikipedia what is is are in what looks like a constant state of angst. Little of this has reached the wider public, but arecent blog post on “The Wikipedian,” a site that obsessively keeps track of what’s happening inside the project and the foundation, suggests the latest turmoil — with major leadership changes — is more than the usual stuff in any organization of this kind.

Andrew Lih, a professor at American University in Washington and author of what I consider the best book on Wikipedia (disclosure: he’s also a friend), tells me he hasn’t “seen this kind of (internal) tension in a long time.” “The overall health of Wikipedia is still strong,” he says, but the project and its parent are at what he calls a “pivotal point” in their evolution.

Among the pivots Wikipedia has to navigate is the shift from desktop to mobile computing. Wikipedia has a great mobile web version, for looking things up and browsing. But the mobile site’s editing mode is crude and the opposite of user-friendly, which strikes me as a major drawback since community editing is part of the point. The rise of video has also left Wikipedians somewhat uncertain; thanks largely to Hollywood’s insistence on locking down everything it can, open video formats remain somewhat stalled.

One of the longstanding issues, meanwhile, has been a lack of diversity in the community, especially among editors. The foundation has made this a priority, as it should.

For all the problems, the promise — and achievements — remain awesome. I find it difficult today to imagine a web without Wikipedia. The criticism, often justified, has led to improvements in the service and to competition from traditional and new entrants in the research arenas. But many places, Andrew Lih notes, Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia in a local language. On a recent trip to Armenia, for example, I discovered a vibrant Wikimedia community, which is working hard, with an explicit endorsement from senior public officials, to expand the localized Wikipedia.

But those of us who just use Wikipedia should do more than donate money. By a key measure, participation on the site has flattened. The community is in what Andrew Lih calls a “steady state,” but that’s not enough.

More people should become editors, and encourage others to do the same. I require students in a media-literacy course I teach to edit an article and participate in the online conversation (every article has a Talk page) about it. I ask that they pick a topic they know a lot about already — when they’re at a loss for what that might be, I usually suggest they add or fix something in the article about their home town — and that they understand the rules before they start editing. The exercise is illuminating, for them and for me.

About a decade ago, I was giving a talk about journalism at a midwestern university, and mentioned Wikipedia. This was still in the relatively early days of the project, remember. A professor jumped to his feet and, almost shouting, denounced Wikipedia as a pox on scholarship, and went on a sustained rant about a specific article that had, he said, a glaring error.

I asked him, “Did you fix it?”

I took a lot of pictures in Japan last month, but my camera stayed in my pocket when we visited the atomic bomb sites and museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These monuments to the use of nuclear weapons against human beings–so far the only such use, may it remain so–are firmly in my memory, and will always be there as long as my mind is working.

UPDATED

A suggestion for the New York Times: Stop using anonymous sources except in the most rare of circumstances. If you can’t bring yourself to doing that, the next time you get burned by these people, burn them back.

The promiscuous use — make that abuse — of unnamed sources by our top news organizations is an ongoing, sick joke in journalism circles, and I believe one of the key reasons that journalism audiences have less and less trust of the craft. The Times is the most notable offender, because it’s the supposed Newspaper of Record.

Despite a history of promising to reform its ways, and despite the staggering damage that lying anonymous sources do its reputation, the Times is shameless and incorrigible in giving them a platform to deceive us. So why should we be surprised when they apparently did it again, in a story that ran last Sunday. I say “apparently” because, as usual, we have to trust the Times is telling the truth about the latest internal scandal where anonymous sources played a key role.

Let’s assume the top editors told the truth about this situation to Margaret Sullivan, the organization’s public editor. Her scathing critique of the latest Times scandal, which she headlined, “Systemic Change Needed After Faulty Times Article,” catalogued series of errors and failings.

The errors went far beyond allowing anonymous sources to poison the public well in the ongoing investigation of the recent killings in San Bernardino. Sullivan’s examination showed astonishingly lax newsroom practices. She quoted the paper’s top editors as saying they intend to create new procedures to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes again.

That would be great, but don’t hold your breath — especially when it comes to the granting of anonymity to people who repeatedly demonstrate they don’t deserve it.

Over the years, Times public editors have complained bitterly about the practice. Newsroom bosses have nodded wisely and said they take the problem very seriously and will change their ways. They never do. As former newspaper editor Howard Weaver posted on Twitter, “Like a hungover drunk who swears ‘Never again,’ the Times promises vigilance on anonymous sources whenever it gets burned, but drinks again.”

If the Times is serious about this, at long last, it could try to demonstrate its commitment to re-earning readers’ trust.

It could just stop — say “No,” and mean it, to everyone who demands anonymity. Say so publicly, and tell readers it won’t cite other news organizations’ stories that are based on anonymous sources unless and until there’s documentary evidence or confirmation from people who stand behind their words.

Try that for six months. See what happens. Yes, the Times would miss some stories, or get them later (and maybe get them right). Some readers, like me, would have more trust in what we were reading, too.

This doesn’t solve the problem of being lied to by on-the-record sources, of course. But at least then you have some accountability.

I’d make an exception to this rule, for the very, very, very rare cases — such as revealing the government’s illegal surveillance on the American people, or telling the world about human-rights abuses — where the use of anonymity is unavoidable. If someone’s life or freedom is at stake, and the story is important enough, readers will understand. They’ll still have a good reason to be skeptical of the story, however, as they always should when they encounter anonymous sourcing.

Another approach would be to disallow the use of unnamed sources in the publication without specific approval from three top editors — including the executive editor — who are biased toward saying “No,” and any one of whom could veto their use. Given the recent history at the Times, this probably wouldn’t change much of what emerges in print, but it would create a speed bump or two.

Finally, I’d urge the Times, and all who use unnamed sources, to do something else that would go a long way toward creating accountability under the current crappy system. Put a condition on granting anonymity: If the source for anything that the newspaper ultimately published turned out to have been lying, or even misinformed, he or she would be outed. Period.

Yes, this means that a source who’s been lied to would also be outed. Too bad. Maybe sources would be more careful in what they pass along in that case.

I’m not suggesting that any journalists violate any promises they’ve made in the past. A deal is a deal, even if we’ve been suckered. I am hoping some journalists will change the traditional terms in the future — for their own protection as well as the public’s.

What would happen if a policy like this were widely adopted? Journalists wedded to the current system will insist that we’ll have much poorer understanding of what’s going on. We can’t know for sure.

But I do know this. A policy like the one I’m proposing would a) dramatically reduce the amount of anonymous sourcing; and b) greatly improve the believability of the ones do show up in publications or broadcasts.

The Times is still America’s finest and most important journalism organization. I still pay for it, because I don’t want to see it disappear.

But until the Times and other news organizations clean up their acts, it’s up to you and me — that is, the audience— to solve this for ourselves. So I recommend you take my approach. I automatically disbelieve what anonymous sources say. Lately, it saves time.

(Cross-posted at Medium)

Mediactive_amArmenia-based “Journalists For The Future” has led a project to translate my book Mediactive into Armenian, and I visited there last week to help launch the new edition. I met some extraordinary people and learned a lot about the media scene there.

As with the original, the book is freely available online, in an interactive edition. You can find it at this link.

Special thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan for funding the project, and for covering the costs of my trip there.

 

medialitSome news: We’re launching a MOOC — a massive open online course — on news and media literacy. The course (here’s the registration page) will be based on an online course I currently teach at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and will be open to all who are interested, at no charge.

The  MOOC, which has received funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, will be hosted at edX, one of the major–and rapidly growing–course platforms. ASU has become a member of the edX university consortium, and this is the first offering from the school. The course launches July 6, and registration is open now.

(Note: The media-literacy MOOC is not part of the ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy, which will be offering a battery of for-credit courses.)

We’re well aware that the jury is out, to put it mildly, on the ultimate value of MOOCs. Clearly they’ve been oversold in some ways. To think that courselogothey’ll take over education is absurd. Equally clearly, they have enormous potential. This course is experimental by definition, but we have two major goals: to make it a super-useful learning experience, and to learn from what happens in order to improve the next time.

One of the best parts of this project is the people involved. In the past several months we’ve recorded conversations with some of the smartest folks I know in the news and media-literacy communities. They include Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales; New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan; CNN’s Brian Stelter; media-literacy guru Renee Hobbs; and many others. We’ll be featuring these conversations in the course.

This is a team effort in every possible way. I’m incredibly fortunate to be working with the ASU Online folks, who’ve been helping me sweat the details and who know lots of things I don’t. A team of students at the Cronkite School’s Public Relations Lab has put together some great marketing ideas. PhD candidate Kristy Roschke, whose focus is media literacy, is playing a key role in the course development and will be the lead teaching assistant when the course goes live.

MOOCs are open in ways that most university courses are not. Openness is core to my work–my Mediactive book, on which the course is largely based, is free to read online and/or download, and is available under a Creative Commons copyright license (“Some Rights Reserved”). I want to apply the principle of openness, as much as possible, to the new project. So I’ll be blogging regularly about how we’re doing this between now and the July 6 launch.

You may find this interesting to watch. If so, and if you think we can improve on what we’re doing, let me know. I’m looking for the best ideas, not just my own.

At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, this week, I gave a talk entitled “Why Journalists Should be Activists,” and apart from a few departures from the text below, here’s what I said:

Two months ago, a New York Times journalist, investigative reporter James Risen, went on Twitter to denounce the Obama administration’s attitude toward the press. The administration, he said, was the “greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

Risen’s tirade became a topic of conversation in the community of people who watch and comment on journalism. Some said a reporter shouldn’t be expressing such thoughts publicly, because it might cause readers to question his – and his newspaper’s – commitment to objective reporting. But the newspaper’s editor in charge of of journalism standards told Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor,  that Risen had done the right thing.

“In general,” this editor said, “our reporters understand that they don’t and shouldn’t editorialize on issues we cover….I would put this in a different category.”

What category? Freedom of the press, of course. And he was right.

This was an important moment in the history of the New York Times. It was officially admitting that it is not neutral – isn’t pretending to be neutral – on this topic. The Times, as an organization, was taking an activist stance—far from its traditional role of observer and reporter.

I’m here to suggest to you today that all journalists need to think of themselves as activists in the world we now live in.

Before I explain this further, let me first explain what I mean by journalism and activism. Journalism can include so many things, ranging from deep investigative work to fluffy entertainment, but for our purposes I think of it as helping people understand they world they live in, so they can make better decisions about how they live. This often involves telling truth to the rich and powerful, and uncovering things that the rich and powerful would prefer to keep secret. It also involves being thorough, accurate, fair, independent and – this is not done enough – transparent. Journalism is vital to liberty, because it is a cornerstone of free speech.

For activism, I’ll simply use the dictionary definition: “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” I’d add to that – sometimes activism is campaigning to stop things from happening.

In many parts of this world, doing real journalism is activism—because truth telling in some societies is an act designed to bring about change. I’m humbled by the people who risk their freedom, and sometimes their lives, to tell their fellow citizens and the rest of the world what is happening where they live. You will be hearing from one of them in the next talk.

In the western democracies with a more robust tradition of free speech and a free press, the idea of journalists as activists is often seen as taking sides in contravention of journalistic norms. But there’s a long and honorable history of what we call “advocacy journalism” – we could easily call it “activist journalism” – exposing injustices with the absolute goal of stirring public anger, and then public action to bring about change. In America, the people we called muckrakers in the early 20th century did brilliant journalism of this kind. Today filmmaker Laura Poitras, who’ll be speaking here by video this evening, and her colleagues are among many others who are carrying on that tradition. (Do see CitizenFour, by the way; it’s brilliant.)

Also today, we have a new category of journalism in this realm – journalism being done by people who are advocates first, and media producers second. I’m talking about Human Rights Watch, which consistently brilliant reporting on human rights issues around the world.

I’m talking about the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization in my own country that consistently does some of the best journalism – in several senses of the word – about threats to our fundamental liberties. In the interest of transparency, I should mention that my fantastically talented nephew, Daniel Kahn Gillmor, works with the ACLU.

In the past, these organizations and NGOs like them around the world were doing the journalism. But to get it seen they had to persuade traditional media organizations to care about, and then to publish or broadcast, reports based on the information the NGOs had collected. Now, in the digital age, every organization of any kind is also a media enterprise, and can go more directly to the public. Collaborations with traditional journalists are still helpful, but no longer as absolutely necessary as they were. We journalists should be welcoming the advocates to the journalism ecosystem – and recognizing them for their work. By the way, the American Civil Liberties Union probably litigates more open-records cases on issues related to liberty, using the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, than all traditional news organizations put together.

Now, I’m not saying all advocates are doing journalism – far from it. In many cases we’re getting untrue, unfair propaganda. We need know the difference, as journalists and as members of the public – that’s another talk entirely.

So we have a baseline of journalistic activism – all around us and often incredibly valuable – on a variety of topics. It makes many traditional journalists, especially in my country, uncomfortable. Why? Because we’re told, again and again, that one of journalism’s core values is objectivity and/or neutrality.

But even those journalists who worship at the altar of objectivity should recognize that on at least some issues, they cannot possibly be objective. Or at least, they should not be. On some issues we have to take stands, even though those stands may put us at policy odds with the people and institutions we cover.

What are these issues? The New York Times has picked one: freedom of the press. I hope no one here would dispute the need to take a stand for press freedom.

But I’d suggest this is only one of several policy issues where journalists who do not take activists stands are unfit to call themselves journalists. They all come under larger topics that are at the core of liberty, among them: freedom of expression, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate.

We can’t be neutral here. We should be openly biased toward openness and freedom. Period.

Powerful governments and corporations are leading the attack against these core values, usually in the name of protecting us or giving us more convenience. In the process, these powerful entities are creating a host of choke points. They’re doing their best to lock down a lot of our computing and communications, and creating a system of control by others over what we say and do online.

This is a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise, where speech and innovation and collaboration would often start at the edges of this network of networks, where no one needed permission to do those things. Choke points mean we have to ask permission.

What are these choke points? The most obvious is what’s happening to the Internet itself. Start with direct censorship, a growing trend in far too many parts of the world. I can’t imagine anyone here would object to journalistic activism on this front.

Surveillance, too, has become a method for government — often working with big companies — to keep track of what journalists and activists are doing—going way beyond the mission of stopping terrorism and solving major crimes. Surveillance is having a measurable chilling effect on freedom of expression, and no society that exists under pervasive surveillance can claim to enjoy basic liberty. We know from history that it deadens innovation and culture. If we don’t actively oppose mass surveillance, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

Another choke point is the telecommunications industry. In America and many other countries– and often in concert with governments– big telecoms say they should have the right to decide what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all. This is what the network neutrality debate is all about in the U.S.: whether we, at the edges of the networks, or the telecom companies that provide the access to the Internet, get to make those decisions. If we don’t campaign for open and truly competitive networks, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

“Intellectual property” is a valuable concept, but it’s also a choke point. Hollywood and its allies try to lock down or control innovative technologies that threaten incumbent companies’ business models. They’re abusing the patent and copyright systems, among other tactics. And they never, ever quit. The latest sneak attack from this crowd comes in a secretly negotiated treaty called the Trans Pacific Partnership is the latest attempt by the intellectual property cartel to prevent innovation, and speech, that it can’t control—among many other bad effects. (We know about some of this because Wikileaks has published drafts of several chapters of this immense treaty.) If we don’t explain to the public what is happening, and then campaign for a more open process and for the right to innovate, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

Speaking of Wikileaks, let’s mention another choke point: the major payment systems  like Mastercard, Visa and PayPal. They almost shut down Wikileaks with a funding blackout. Only a few news organizations noticed, much less complained. Yet if you can’t get paid for your work, how do you plan to put food on your table? The centralized payment industry holds enormous power, by proxy, over journalists’ ability to make a living. If we don’t campaign against its arbitrary decisions, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

Now let’s be honest about something: We’ve helped create some of the choke points — by choosing convenience over liberty in relying centralized Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Google. I have to note that these companies do provide useful services. And they are often trying to be advocates for free speech, though not consistently.

But do journalists understand that the Internet is getting new editors, namely the people who work for some of those companies? Do journalists understand that by feeding Facebook they are feeding a company that will be their biggest financial competitor? If this was only a business issue I wouldn’t raise it. But it’s much more than that. This is about whether the terms of service at a tiny number of giant companies, as opposed to the First Amendment and other laws like it, will effectively determine our free speech rights. If we aren’t activists for open, decentralized technology and communications, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

The corporate online powers are also spying on us. It’s their business model. Journalists are waking up to this, more so in Europe than in the U.S., but we all need to be thinking harder about how companies can use and abuse big data. If we aren’t campaigning for privacy from corporations, not just governments, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

I’m not asking journalists to ignore nuances in any of this; life and business and policy truly are complicated. But when it comes to things that directly threaten perhaps our the most fundamental liberties—without which journalism is vastly more difficult if not impossible—there’s no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake. Nor is there any excuse for failing to take more direct action.

Core freedoms – of expression, association, and more – should be everyone’s right. Journalists have a duty to be their defenders.

So I ask this of my journalism friends: Take stands, loudly and proudly. Be activists. Unless you prefer a world of choke points and control by others, this is part of your job.

(Note: Portions of this talk are from a piece I wrote for Medium last year.)

Lawrence Krauss is a brilliant theoretical physicist and author of many popular books on science, and teaches at Arizona State University. I stopped by his office the other day to record a video conversation for a project I’m working on, and grabbed a quick video of the surroundings. Wish I had an office like this!