January 11, 2010

How News Happens

Listening Devices on Buses?

Looking for ways to deter crime, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) considered adding listening devices to the video recorders already installed on its buses.  

As a first step, the agency wrote the state Attorney General’s office asking for a legal opinion about the idea. The Attorney General’s office posted the MTA request on its website. In time, an enterprising blogger saw it and set off a chain of events that led the transit agency to suddenly drop the whole thing.

The story provides a case study of the evolving relationship between new and traditional media.

Lessons from the coverage

  • New media served as an alert but didn’t make any inquiries. The story was broken by a new-media outlet, but it didn’t gain traction until being relayed by the Sun, which provided a larger audience and follow-up reporting.  
  • More outlets didn’t mean more information. Other than the blog that broke the story and the Sun, none of the other 22 media outlets reviewed provided any significant new information to this story.

A lack of updating or crediting was a factor here. Most outlets, especially from new media, demonstrated a willingness to copy material from other outlets without proper credit and a failure to update material.

Scoop: Maryland Politics Watch breaks the story

On July 10 the MTA wrote the state Attorney General about adding listening devices on buses, asking whether recording the conversations of passengers and drivers would run afoul of the Maryland law against surreptitious recording.

Within days, the Maryland Attorney General’s office posted the MTA request on its website, a method often used to get input from citizens.[1]

One who saw it was Paul Gordon, a contributor to a weblog called Maryland Politics Watch, which was founded in 2006 by a political science professor at American University who felt that too much of the coverage of state government in Maryland was focused on Baltimore at the expense of the Washington suburb in which he lives. The site is now chiefly edited by Adam Pagnucco, a Democratic activist and researcher for a labor union who keeps the site updated in his spare time.

On July 17, roughly a month after the Attorney General posted the notice, Gordon posted a 474-word item on the site.[2] His account contained no indication that he had contacted the MTA or other sources for comment or reaction. He did, however, add commentary:

Personally, I find the idea of the state recording people’s conversations on public transportation creepy, something I would expect from the old Soviet Union.[3]

The following Monday—three days later—Baltimore Sun transportation writer Michael Dresser posted a link to Gordon’s item and the Attorney General’s website on his own blog, “Getting There,” which is hosted by baltimoresun.com. Dresser summarized the request for public comment and gave credit to Maryland Politics Watch for noticing it.

A few hours later, a third blog, Inside Charm City, spotted Dresser’s item and posted a link to both it and Maryland Politics Watch. [4]

Dresser also took an important reportorial step: he called the state for comment. Within a few hours, word came down that the acting director of the Transportation Department, which oversees the MTA, had scuttled the idea. She claimed she had not been aware the policy was under consideration or that a query had been sent by her agency to the Attorney General. Upon learning about it, she had withdrawn the idea for further consideration.[5] Dresser announced this news with a paragraph on top of his blog posting. Then, at 8:39 p.m., he posted a new version of the story on his Sun blog with quotes from agency officials, lawmakers, nearby transit agencies, the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

Dresser then posted a link to his new story as a comment on Maryland Politics Watch saying the site “can share the credit” for the state changing course. The politics blog then posted its own item taking note of Dresser’s story, linking to it and offering a comment that might strike some as sounding more like advocacy than reporting:

The Maryland Transit Administration has told the Baltimore Sun that it has pulled back its audio surveillance proposal. Sun reporter Michael Dresser credits MPW guest blogger Paul Gordon for helping to generate this decision. Thanks, Paul and Mike!

By the time the story finally appeared on the front page of the Baltimore Sun the next day, Tuesday, the effort to add listening devices was already dead. Yet it was about to get its broadest distribution.

Of the 14 stories captured during the week on the subject, 10 were disseminated on or the day after the story appeared in the print edition of the Sun. (The exceptions were the Maryland Politics Watch item, two stories from Baltimoresun.com and an item on Inside Charm City.) [6]

In addition, 12 other non-Baltimore websites and blogs reported on the case around the country—all of them after it had been reported by Baltimoresun.com.[7] The Associated Press moved a short version to its clients the day after the Sun’s printed version. Two local TV stations posted brief items online. None of these outlets added new information.

The first broadcast reports came Tuesday after the Sun story appeared in print when a pair of local radio stations, WBAL and WCBM, included the story in their morning news roundups.

Sometimes there was a confusing chain of reportorial custody to these accounts. Greatergreaterwashington.org, a site founded by a former Google employee that describes itself as devoted to “improving the vitality” of Washington area communities, posted a short item at 9:14 a.m. noting the state had backed off on plans to add the listening devices. The website credited the news to Inside Charm City, which, in turn, had linked its account to the Sun story.

WJZ.com, the local CBS affiliate, posted a 379-word item at 9:21 a.m. that did reflect original reporting—interviews with passengers and a local law professor—but no significant new details. The story erroneously said the state was still awaiting an opinion from the Attorney General on the matter.[8]

The story also spread through social networks. A link showed up on the FARK.com on Tuesday and attracted a large number of comments from users. The ACLU of Maryland posted a link to the story on its Facebook page under the heading of “ACLU speaks out against proposed MTA surveillance.”

As the day progressed, the story of the aborted idea spread further and further on the internet, finding its way to various virtual communities of people with a potential interest in the story, from security firms to civil libertarians.

A lack of updating or credit

The rapid spread of the story online illustrated the potential of the internet to disseminate local news to people near and far who might have an interest. But some online versions weren’t updated consistently, resulting in stories that were days behind the news – rendering them inaccurate.

And while some online outlets offered links to the Sun’s story, and a few to the blog that broke the story, others appeared to repeat the reporting without credit.

On Monday at 9:07 p.m., for instance, Inside Charm City updated its posting, noting that the Sun reporter Dresser had reached a state senator who opposes the idea of bugging buses. But it missed the fact, as Dresser had reported, that the idea had already been withdrawn by the transit agency.

Delusionalduck.com, which specializes in news from Charles County in Southern Maryland, was still referring to Dresser’s original item until Tuesday morning, well after the state had backtracked on the initiative.

A website operated by a New York-based security firm, BrickHouse Security, wrote on Wednesday that the MTA “may install audio surveillance” on its buses. The item borrowed liberally from the Sun’s reporting on Monday and included a link to the paper’s story at the bottom. It wasn’t until Thursday that it alerted its readers that the state had already dropped consideration of the plan.

Another element of much of the blog coverage was a disregard for the convention of crediting original reporting. Instead, some represented others work as their own. Boing Boing, a self-decribed “group blog” edited in California, for instance, on Monday reproduced several paragraphs of Dresser’s earliest posting without any mention of him or the Sun. Later that day it updated the story, reproducing without credit more of Dresser’s writing, and thanked a reader for pointing out the state had dropped the effort. Homeland Security Newswire, a New York-based news site devoted to matters related to homeland security, credited Dresser, but its story was often identical to his word for word without quotation marks. A libertarian blog, To The People, reproduced part of Dresser’s story without any credit. And there were numerous other cases.
In the end, the aborted idea of putting listening devices on buses received widespread coverage in a variety of media. But the added coverage added little new information. The technology enhanced dissemination but did not add reporting.

One reason may have been the fact that once the Sun reported the story, the state withdrew the idea of bugging its buses. However, there was still fertile ground for follow ups, especially by niche new media outlets with a focused interest. A security-oriented site, for example, might do some reporting on whether listening devices were in use in other mass transit systems and whether they had reduced crime. A political blog might pursue whether the state official who came up with the idea suffered any ramifications.

Other than the discovery of the document by the state political blogger and the digging by the Sun, none of the other media outlets that carried the story added any significant new information at all, our analysis found.

Of the 14 stories captured during our coverage week, nine were online, seven of those on websites associated with legacy media outlets such as newspapers and television stations. [9]

A spokeswoman for the MTA said the Sun was the first media organization to call about the issue. Three television stations called to request on-camera interviews after the Sun’s story appeared in the paper. No other media called the agency on the topic. [10]

Only three of these 14 stories added significant new information or details to the storyline: the original MPW blog item that broke the story and two articles by the Sun. Nor did any of the additional news outlets that reported on the story—the ones that fell outside our formal sample of local news related outlets.

Then there is the question of who initiated the news. Of the 14 news items that ran during the week locally, nearly 80% of them were reporting on the decision by the agency’s acting director to scuttle the listening device idea. But all of that flowed from the independent blogger who first noticed the letter and the Sun blogger who picked up on it.


Footnotes
1. In a letter to another agency seeking an opinion from Gansler’s office unrelated to the MTA and its buses, a Gansler deputy explained that “It is the policy of this office to accept and consider any information and views submitted by interested parties or other members of the public concerning pending opinion requests.”  Gansler’s spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, did not respond to a request for the date the MTA letter was posted on the site.

2. Gordon is described on the blog as a former attorney now working at the progressive advocacy organization People for the American Way. He is listed as a development writer on that organization’s site.

3. Maryland Politics Watch has a limited audience. According to the
counter on its site, the blog had 19,696 visitors in July 2009.

4.  Charm City is a nickname for Baltimore.

5. The query letter to the Attorney General was signed by Paul J. Wiedenfeld, administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration. Acting transportation secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley told the Sun “It certainly should have been vetted at the department level and it was not. We have not weighed the issues we should weigh before making a decision like this.”

6. Monday postings for Inside Charm City were retrieved from the internet but not included in our grid of stories during the week because of our capture schedule.

7. Additional websites that carried the story that were not part of the study sample but were discovered through internet searches: Inside Tech, Delusionalduck, DailyMe, Boing Boing, BrickHouse Security, Treehugger, UTU.org, ACLU of Maryland’s Facebook page, Fark.com, Greatergreaterwashington.org, To the People, and Homeland Security Newswire. In addition, the Associated Press moved a five-paragraph version of the story on a regional wire at 10:05 a.m. on July 21, crediting the Sun for its information.

8. No story was aired on the evening news that night, suggesting the story may have been bumped by other news or limited to another newscast, such as the morning show, which was not part of the PEJ sample.

9. The outlets we captured that reported on the story included several affiliated with the same organization: Baltimore Sun/Baltimoresun.com, Washington Post/washingtonpost.com, WBAL radio/WBAL.com. The others: WCBM, wjz.com, foxbaltimore.com, Inside Charm City, Maryland Politics Watch, exhibitAnews. The analysis that follows is limited to the stories in this sample, details of which can be found in our methodology section.

10. September, 17 2009, interview with Jawauna Greene, MTA spokeswoman.