I’d like to comment on the sources and contacts of journalists.

I’m prompted to do so because of this:

Reporter Justin Gillis broke the “oil is gone” story for the New York Times on August 4, a day before the official NOAA report detailed in that story was released. While somewhat guarded, Gillis’ story was instrumental in promoting the government position that most of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico had been dealt with effectively.

Subsequently, many have questioned the implications and validity of the NOAA report. And, in testimony before Congress, NOAA spokesman Bill Lehr admitted that most of the BP oil spill in fact remained in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gillis and The New York Times benefited, it seems, from contacts at NOAA. They got a “scoop.” It is not at all clear, however, how the public benefited.

Newspapers of sufficiently high status – The NYT certainly places among these – are often given first access to information by those who wish that information widely distributed. (The recent selective release of the WikiLeaks Afghanistan files through The New York Times, Der Speigel, and The Guardian is a good example of this.)

And, even in more mundane circumstances, journalists commonly establish and maintain useful sets of personal contacts. These contacts are valued for their ability to provide insight and access to information otherwise unavailable – and, if that is what they provide, then rightfully so.

Likewise, broadcast news organizations groom and retain various contacts in the form of resident “experts.” While contacts are normally kept private and (hopefully) exclusive, experts tend to be used more on a public and revolving basis, with attention paid to make sure different experts are given equal opportunities to contextualize controversial issues: one expert from Column A and one from Column B.

In all cases, however, contacts and experts focus and narrow the news. They stand and intervene between the reporting of the news and the news that is being reported.

Increasingly in a new media environment, the news that is being reported — information in the raw — is available to the public without the necessity of professional filtering. For instance, we can now access the pressure readings of BP’s “ambient pressure test” directly from the Macondo well site. In this and other instances (e. g., live BP ROV feeds from the Gulf, the release of WikiLeaks data on its own website, and such), new technology has the potential to cut out the middleman between the public and the information in the news.

Of course, most news organizations don’t think the public is interested enough or intelligent enough to deal with information in the raw; therefore, despite new technology (and in order to sustain demand for their services), these organizations continue to filter and focus their reporting through, ostensibly, the “context” of a story. This contextual filtering includes couching information in summary and in personality: omnipresent talking heads. This filtering process is then much better for ratings and sales than is information in the raw, argue the news organizations; and, ultimately, it’s also better and more informative for an otherwise clueless public.

Contextualizing the story definitely seems better for the ratings. There have been, no doubt, lots more people watching Anderson Cooper’s nightly interviews with Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser on CNN than checking out Gulf of Mexico ship movements on the web. But I wonder what’s truly better for the public.

For instance, without those Deepwater Horizon pressure readings mentioned earlier – information in the raw – how could we determine which is right: the TP editorial that originally told us “pressure rose” during BP’s pressure tests (apparently based on an erroneous Washington Post article — since changed), or the Thad Allen transcript that clearly stated “pressure has not changed”?

And without public vetting – Wikipedia style — of the NOAA “oil is gone” report that appeared in The New York Times, how could we ever learn that the Gillis article was as much dictated by the motives of his NOAA contacts as the intentions of his newspaper?

Do contacts and experts filter and focus our attention on important information — or filter and obscure our ability to access that information on our own?

Shouldn’t contextualizing a story always include the full story of how and why that story has been contextualized?

Or are we always going to rely on a weatherman to tell us which way the wind blows?

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