Archive for ‘Media’ Category

I do believe it's not butterA few weeks ago, Gordon Campbell wrote an excellent fisk of the Media Biz 09 conference advertising bumpf. This morning on Mediawatch (from 06:30) Colin Peacock covered the issue in characteristic depth, interviewing the conference organiser and two of its luminary speakers, the ones who would “share the secrets of getting your message across positively”, help delegates “get inside the minds of the men whose leadership shapes what the viewing audiences see” and enable them to “get your story to the top of the pile”. Three wise and grizzled industry heads, when questioned by Peacock, emphasised two things; first, that the marketing material was breathless over-hyped bullshit, and second, there were in fact no secrets to impart:

Mark Jennings, TV3 Head of News and Current Affairs:

“I think the marketing for this event has been over-egged […] I can tell you right now that if anybody coming to this conference thinks they’re going to learn any super-secrets on how to handle the media, they’re mistaken. There aren’t any great big secrets, and if there was, we wouldn’t be divulging them.”

Mark Sainsbury, TV One Close Up Host:

“I paid no attention to the marketing of this thing. I had quite a simple inquiry from Rob Harley saying they were doing this conference, that it was mainly for voluntary groups, community organisations in terms of how to understand the media […] This is the conference as it was sold to me, and the marketing, of course, as you well know, is something totally different. You don’t go along to, almost a semi-public conference, and people are somehow going to be handing over the secrets. […] I mean, there is no great sort of secret to hide or anything to impart.”

Rob Harley, Media Biz 09 Organiser:

“I’m wondering what they [journalists not involved in the conference who have expressed concerns] think those secrets are. […] we could argue the toss all morning about how we worded the brochure, or whether if we’d spent a bit more time workshopping it we could have got it right, fair point.”

I have a few questions in response to this rather remarkable set of statements.

1. Given that there are in fact no great secrets, why would anyone attend such a conference, at a cost of $2k per delegate?
2. If the conference is in fact pitched at the voluntary sector, community groups, educators and the like, variations of which were affirmed by all three speakers including Harley, why is it billed as “the ultimate conference for business people seeking more effective use of the media”, and why does it cost $2k per delegate (a cost far beyond the budgets of most such groups)? Come on, the word `biz’ is even in the conference title!
3. Why would anyone take communications advice from a bunch of people who have so abjectly failed to: a. communicate the purpose of their conference; b. correctly identify its target audience; c. market their conference material in such a way that it actually has some relationship with reality; d. avoid negative publicity for all of the above; and e. make any sort of justification to combat negative publicity stemming from the above failures, other than `well, yeah, the marketing is bollocks and there are no secrets anyhow’?

It’s possible to view this either as sinister or incompetent: either the conference organisers and the news agencies involved are just utterly incompetent and are now making excuses, or there is a co-ordinated post-hoc damage control programme underway, as those same people try to spin the story away from Gordon Campbell’s argument that this was a sinister meeting of the news and PR industries and an assault on media independence.

According to all three interviewees, the real purpose of the conference was to allow news professionals to try to help people understand how the media works at an operational level so as to help them make it easy for the media to run their story: essentially, promoting media literacy among sectors who are traditionally not media literate. This ostensibly to combat cases like the example Rob Harley gave, where “everybody lost because the requisite information was not included in the news, stuff that had been said overseas which really needed to be commented on in New Zealand went begging for an explanation.” He’s absolutely right – there is a strong public good in having all sectors of the community meet a minimal standard of communications expertise. This sort of training can be a hugely important service, imparting skills (not `great secrets’) which are already widely exercised in business circles to groups without the capacity to employ trained comms staff or PR firms.

So, in my view, Rob Harley and the others involved in Media Biz 09 have a great opportunity to match their actions to their fine words about media literacy and the community and voluntary sector, by inviting a few delegates from key community or voluntary organisations to attend on a pro-bono or subsidised-fee basis. The conference is (presumably) too close to deadline to cancel, according to Harley it probably won’t break even anyhow, and I can’t see this epic PR fail helping to lift enrolment among the monied businessfolks at whom it’s targeted. But there’s no doubting the credentials of the speakers, and it’ll probably be a cracking two days. An opportunity for those involved to do some good, restore a bit of goodwill in the media, and wipe some egg off their well-known faces.

Edit: Gordon has emailed me to point out the seemingly-obvious, that they’re not so much knaves or fools, but apparently knaves then fools.

Edit, 20090217: Event director Richard Nauck told bFM’s Jose Barbosa a few interesting facts. First, he says half the registrations are non-profit organisations, while most of the remainder are small-business and schools; second, all the non-profits got in for half-price, and only about 20% of attendees have paid full-price; third, he “truly regrets” the use of the word `secrets’ in the advertising bumpf. In the same session, Jose also interviewed Brian Edwards, who does this sort of thing himself, but retains grave concerns about the conflicts of interest for the media people involved.

L

On blog conduct

datePosted on 10:48, February 13th, 2009 by Lew

Or, this is not a democracy, it’s a private residence, get used to it. But we need you, and you apparently need us, so let’s do what we can to get along.

Weblogs and online discussion forums are a type of feedback media, where the published content forms the opening chapter, not the entire story. In feedback media, there are broadly two groups of participants, who I’ll term proprietors and contributors; the former being those who operate the medium and provide its `official’ content, the latter those who participate in the medium by adding their own content. The nature of the relationship between these two groups is critical in determining how the medium functions. This post is a quick examination of how feedback media operate at a theoretical level, a survey of examples, and a rationale for dual-mode gatekeeping, with a view to creating an environment conducive to quality discourse which is largely free of personal feuds and partisan point-scoring.

The Dump Button
Though there are others, the canonical mainstream feedback media are the letters-to-the-editor page and talk radio. In either of those media, a proprietor has the unilateral ability to prevent or limit contributors’ participation – in the case of the newspaper editor, the mechanism is `points noted’; radio hosts have a button with which they can drop a caller between when she starts speaking and when she goes to air – traditionally, this timeframe is seven seconds. Blog proprietors have a range of similar devices at their disposal.

This has important implications when viewed in the light of one of the fundamental pieces of media theory – Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model, which argues that a given text is encoded with meaning by its creator, and that meaning is decoded by the person reading it, who can accept, partially accept or wholly reject the encoder’s frame of reference (not the content; that’s a different matter with which Hall was not largely concerned). In principle, the presence of gatekeeping mechanisms such as those described above means it’s virtually impossible to have a statement published which the proprietor doesn’t want to be there. The logical flipside of this is: if your comment gets published, it’s because the proprietor wants it to be published, and for their own reasons.

Symbiosis
Proprietors of feedback media generally have plenty of reasons for wanting to allow content to be published, the primary one of which is the symbiotic relationship they have with contributors. The nature of the content and the nature of the gatekeeping are the two primary factors which determine the tone of a medium; the former largely because of the contributors it attracts and the latter largely because of the contributors it drives away. When Lindsay Perigo took over from John Banks on his Radio Pacific talk show, many regular callers kept calling because the political content Perigo aired was quite similar. Banks was extremely tolerant of callers who took a while to get to the point – he rarely, if ever, cut people off, and he had a great deal of time for listening to peoples’ stories. Perigo was the opposite; he guided the show much more firmly and did not generally tolerate callers chatting about trivial or mundane matters, and that changed his audience and his contributors. Banks’ loyal callers became quite displeased when Perigo, for instance, dedicated an entire hour of his show to the songs of Mario Lanza, of whom they’d never heard, and became irate when he lost his temper with some of the more elderly callers and began to cut them off for not sticking to the programme or saying anything he considered meaningful. Gradually, the old callers stopped calling and were replaced by a new set: younger, less religious, sharper of tongue, etc.

Gatekeeping Models
Plenty of different gatekeeping models exist in practice. I’ll focus on four which are fairly archetypal. Each creates a different atmosphere.
1. Slashdot. The lunatic asylum model. Members control almost everything. This results in a community which is extremely tolerant of insults, memes, tomfoolery, and has an incredibly low signal to noise ratio.
2. Kiwiblog. The echo chamber model. Content is published by DPF, commented upon by members, who use a karma system and are subject to a demerit system (operated by DPF) which is more theoretical than anything. This results in a sort of groupthink; not because DPF enforces it, but because he allows his commentariat to do so, creating a recursive loop of abuse which deters dissenters from participating. There is an argument that DPF (who’s a thoroughly decent bloke, quite unlike his comment threads) keeps his blog this way in order to make himself look sensible and reasonable by comparison.
3. No Right Turn. The Holy Sepulchre model. Content is published by Idiot/Savant, and that’s what you get. Idiot/Savant took the opposite line to DPF and turned off comments altogether a good long while ago. The result is almost pure signal, very little noise. I/S is frequently referred to by and comments on other blogs to maintain the feedback aspect of his medium.
4. The Standard. The noisy tavern model. Content is posted and comments are moderated by a group of writers, and Lynn Prentice, who tolerates very little of the sort of abuse for which KB is known. In general this results in a more congenial atmosphere, with a wide range of dissenting voices who are usually treated with at least a modicum of respect. However, it still gets pretty heated because there is no clear delineation between content and conveyance.

The Living Room Model
Anita’s model for Kiwipolitico is of a living room in which robust and complex but civil and reasoned discussions take place. This implies rights and responsibilities, and although I’ve only recently moved in (as it were) I shall presume to list a few as I see them. These apply equally to proprietors and to contributors.

* You have a right to be treated as an honourable contributor and to be free from serious personal attacks, abuse or character assassination.
* You have a right to not have your personal or professional life dragged into a discussion unless you allow it, or it is somehow germane to a legitimate matter of debate.
* You have a responsibility to defend and substantiate your arguments and assertions, not to assume that because people here are civil you can get away with a weak argument or unproven claims.
* You have a responsibility to adhere to and enforce these standards of conduct to the extent you are able.

Sir Karl Popper (and others) argued that if a society is perfectly tolerant of any and all behaviour, it must tolerate behaviour which is destructive of toleration itself, eventually leading to a general absence of toleration. This is pretty clearly evident in the Slashdot and Kiwiblog examples above and to a lesser extent in The Standard example, where because of a greater or lesser lack of discipline, much worthwhile discussion is simply drowned out, and the signal to noise ratio drops. The problem is usually not with the arguments, which can be well-reasoned and supported; it is the attacks and epithets which accompany those arguments which deters dissent. Therefore, in order to privilege argument over attacks, the content to be argued and the means by which it is argued need to be treated separately. The living room model requires that there be little or no gatekeeping of argument itself, coupled with strict gatekeeping of the means by which that argument is conveyed – essentially: make what points you choose, but do so in good faith and in accordance with decent norms of conduct and reasoned debate.

The point and purpose of the model is to separate arguer and argument for the purpose of criticism. You should be vulnerable to critique only on the grounds of your arguments, your ideas, or your conduct. Good ideas and arguments, cleanly made and supported by evidence and logic, will thrive here regardless of their ideological bent, but arguments resorting to personal attacks, abuse, absurd hyperbole, rash generalisation or wilful misinterpretation to make a point will perish whether we agree with their premises or not, because these are the signs of a hollow argument which lacks a valid foundation. While you will be sheltered from personal attacks, don’t expect your argument to be sheltered or defended by the proprietors; indeed, we may take great glee in watching it be torn asunder, as long as the tearing is done in a civil, justified and reasoned fashion. Finally, toleration breeds toleration. If you consistently exhibit good character and careful arguments, occasional minor indiscretions may be overlooked. This is a privilege to be earned, and I hope everyone will earn it.

L

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