You don't have to be Dr. Strange to figure out where Impeachment talk is going

What the heck is the Journalism Trust Initiative? And why should I care?

If you are reading this, you may have heard something about the Journalism Trust Initiative, maybe because you saw it on the agenda of the SPJ’s Excellence in Journalism conference or some other event. 

It’s hard keeping all the misinformation-fighting efforts straight, and the ground keeps shifting.

But if you are at all interested in the world of misinformation (you won’t catch me using “fake news” because I don’t want the inimitable Claire Wardle to bollox up my knickers, or whatever it is the Brits do when they are unhappy with you) then you will want to know about the JTI, as you will be hearing a lot more about it in the months and years to come.

The short version is this: It’s a standards effort, a real one. There are lots of things called “standards” in journalism. But they aren’t really standards in the way that every other industry in the world understands them. Those aren’t ISO-compliant. They weren’t developed by a cross-section of industry. They’re great, sure, but they aren’t really standards.

Real standards are the kind of thing that makes it so you can use wifi at any hotspot around the world. Did you ever stop to think how all the hundreds of different manufacturers agreed to one system of making wifi work?

The answer is standards. 

If you wake up, have a glass of water, brush your teeth, have breakfast and then go somewhere in a car, bus, train or airplane, you’ve had hundreds of standards that have been a part of your life without even thinking about it. 

And if you are saying, “I just woke up and went for a walk, so no standards touched my life.” Well, if you walked on a sidewalk, there were standards involved. If you locked the door when you left… heck, even if you stayed in bed and looked out a window, standards touched your life. 

As the New York Times points out, life is a lot easier if you can plug in any socket. This is something I learned up close at CableLabs, which is involved in dozens of standards that make the internet safer and faster. (It was the team there that helped me to see that misinformation could be battled with the time-tested tool of standards.)

But somehow all of the gathering and reporting the news, editing it, and publishing over the internet… all of it somehow gets done every day without an independent standards group having any part of the process.

How did that happen?

There’s an easy answer there, especially in America: Thomas Jefferson.

There were others, of course, but Jefferson is the one who said that if he had to choose between a government with no press or a press with no government, he would surely choose the latter.

Of course, that was before he was president and tried to crack down on coverage he didn’t like. But by then, the free press was free, and they weren’t going back. And properly so. 

So, what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is 2016. 

During the Brexit election and during the presidential election in the U.S., foreign governments were able to undermine democracy. They did that because they were able to take advantage of new technologies and newish social networks. It’s not just me saying this, it’s the law enforcement and national security experts who studied it closely and said that’s exactly what happened. They said that in January of 2017.

My question today, here in 2019, is this: What’s changed? What’s really actually changed?

It’s hard to point to any one thing that is actually different in the actual structure of the way that news is delivered, other than the fact that a lot of local news providers have gone out of business, which of course makes it even easier for misinformation to fester and grow.

Enter standards.

I pay a lot of attention to a lot of the efforts to fight misinformation, and most of them are great.

But after studying it really closely, I’ve come to be convinced that there’s one thing that will make more difference than anything else, and it’s standards.

And there’s someone who agrees with me, a guy by the name of Sergey Lavrov.

He’s the Russian Foreign Minister. 

To understand how he agrees, first you’ll need some background on the Journalism Trust Initiative.

You see, like me, people at the group Reporters Without Borders agreed that we need to bring real standards to journalism for two main reasons:

  1. To keep misinformation out of the system, and,
  2. To help improve the economic situation for actual journalists. 

The way this will work is by having real standards, so the people of RSF has been doing the heavy lifting of making real, ISO-compliant, standards. First they applied, successfully, for an official standard setting process with CEN, the European subset of ISO and contracted Afnor and DIN, the two independent French and German standardization bodies, to run it. 

They’ve hosted a long series of meetings where journalists and others have gathered to craft the actual standards.

The people working on those standards have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours hammering out exactly what should go into the standards. It has been a lot of hard work, and nearly all in the background. The way the process works is that the proposed standards, in general, stay private as a way encouraging full participation. Then at an agreed-on time, the standard becomes public, and anyone can comment on it.

We have now reached that time, and you can now read the whole thing, and comment. And you should.

Now this is the point where a part of you is going to want to stop reading. It’s similar to how you feel when you go to an event at a school, and someone starts talking about “the mission” or whatever and you know that you are going to get cornered into donating or, even worse, volunteering.

But keep reading, just for a moment please, so that you can understand exactly what is being asked of you, and what it might mean.

If these journalism standards get wide acceptance and use, then the original goals of the JTI will start to happen. First it will be harder for misinformation to infiltrate the newsfeeds of the world.

Second, the platforms and the advertisers will have a new tool to encourage legitimate journalism. They will be able to see who has gone to the trouble of applying for and getting certification under a set of voluntary standards. People from Google and Facebook have been a part of the JTI process at various stages. We’ll have to wait and see if they use the tools provided to them to make things better, but I am hopeful.

Look, nobody’s a bigger critic of the platforms than me, but in some ways I do feel sorry for them. They just have gotten so big so fast they don’t know how to fix the messes they’ve created. And while it’s easy to say that they should be able to, in some areas they really just can’t, and we wouldn’t want them to. I mean, in the same way that we don’t want government saying who is — and who isn’t — a journalist, well, do we want Facebook doing that?

I say the only one who should get to decide who’s a journalist is other journalists. The way that works practically is if they come together and declare themselves some kind of group as diverse as The Associated Press or as niche as a group of publishers in one city or state, well, then they get to do that.

And then those groups can, if they themselves want to, go on to be a part of a legitimate standards operation. That’s why we need real standards, so that the groups have something following an accepted process that they can use.

That’s why the standards themselves are so important. And that’s why we need you, especially here in the U.S.

I’ve been involved with the JTI since it’s earliest days. I’ve been to, I think, every meeting there was to go to. I was one of only two guys from North America in the first meeting in Paris in a stuffy room at Agency France Presse. I think for the most part the people involved have been very well meaning, but there’s no question that the document in its current form has a European sensibility. That may never change completely.

But it doesn’t mean that we can’t make sure that it will at least work for us here in America.

To do that, however, we have to show up. We have to be involved in the process. We have to do the admittedly hard hard hard hard work of reading a proposed standards document, all of it, and then making some comments.

If you want to comment in writing, you certainly can, or if you want to participate in a workshop we’ll be putting on in Austin, Denver, Washington or New York, you can do that. If you are attending the EIJ, the APME, or the ONA conventions coming up in September, that will work, too.

I’m asking you to do this because I’m convinced that standards are the thing that can do more than anything else to fight misinformation. I’m asking you to do this because with your participation the standards will get stronger, will work for more diverse journalists, and they will be a great new tool to finally do something to improve the economic reality for publishers.

And I’m asking you to do it to let the Russian foreign minister know that you are not going to play his game.

What is his game?

The Russian government has been pretty much absent in the battle over misinformation. Putin jokes with Trump about “Fake News” but other than, you know, killing and jailing journalists, the Kremlin has not tried to fight or even comment on any of the international efforts to fight misinfo.

With one exception: the JTI.

This is Sergey Lavrov, who went to Paris last year and made a big speech, and in that speech in front of the French Foreign Minister and the press and in the hometown of the JTI, criticized the JTI, by name. He then went on to say this:

“Такие подходы наводит на очень неприятные мысли о том что мы имеем дело с разновидностью политической цензуры.”

Which translates, according to his own website, to say:

“This approach leads to very unpleasant thoughts that we are dealing with a kind of political censorship.”

Now, this is laughable in an awkward way. We’re talking about a very high ranking Kremlin official saying that the government shouldn’t be involved in news content. It’s as if Weird Al Yankovic announced that singers should not be involved in parody.

But to me it’s instructive. No less than the Russian foreign minister is preemptively fighting an otherwise obscure standards effort. Why? I can only think that this is the one thing that the Kremlin is worried about, the only thing that might stop their massive and sophisticated misinformation effort. (If you haven’t seen the NY Times video series, featuring the aforementioned Claire Wardle, it’s really worth a watch. The Russian efforts are massive. And the only thing that’s changed since then is that now China, Iran and other countries are doing the same thing.) 

So, what is Lavrov worried about?

I think he’s worried that standards could actually work. I think he’s worried that the things he’s been able to do in the past would be a lot harder with standards in place. Maybe he’s worried about what the Kremlin wants to do next, the thing that nobody even knows about, and that standards would create a roadblock.

So, taking some time to work though the language of the JTI standards may not feel like fun, but it may just help. It might help keep some of the crap out of the newsfeeds. It may help strengthen the economic situation of legitimate publishers. And it may just be the one way you — personally — can stick it to the foreign governments that think they can get away with undermining democracy, and spammers who want to cloak themselves with an aura of legitimate journalism.

Pew recently did a survey showing that people don’t really blame journalists for the current misinformation crisis, but they do think journalists need to fix it. I say they are right on both counts. We didn’t make this mess, but we are the ones who need to clean it up. 

If you believe that, too, but have been trying to figure out what you, personally, can do, well… now you know. You can come to one of our workshops, or try taking a beta version of the approved, official questionnaire once it’s available.

Standards are boring, but they work. If you participate now, when your non-journalist friends and family ask you what you are doing to fix things, you can tell them about this. Not sexy, just hard work, but it’s the only thing that we have any proof might actually work.

Here’s that link. Check it out. And thank you.

If you have questions, feel free to contact me using the form at the bottom of this page.