Fake news anyone?

Fake news is very much in the news recently – the keynote presentation on the topic by Professor Jeff Jarvis at the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at UTS last week got me thinking about the current erosion of ‘trust’, the shift from ‘siloed’ to ‘networked’ communications and media and how a viable business model for news media is actually essential to democracy, which in turn is essential to an innovative and adaptable economy and society.

Last week I went along to the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).   The Centre has the very useful goal of helping us to understand key areas of current media evolution and how new technologies and digital transition can be harnessed – to develop local media and to enhance the role of journalism in democratic, civil society.

As well as reconnection with various colleagues from the ACMA and other networks, I also very much enjoyed the keynote presentation by Professor Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He chose as his topic ‘Fake news’, which he then with a very sensible sense of irony denounced as a bogus topic.  The real topic he suggested was the current erosion, and urgent need for restoration of, ‘trust’: trust in ‘facts’ as a basis for policy action; our ability to conduct civil community discourse; political and other institutions; and news media.

20170725_175309-02One observation I would offer on the issue of so-called ‘fake news’ is that there has been a long established practice on public relations of ‘slanted’ if not ‘fake’ media stories – although it would seem that the velocity of less-than-reliable news has sped up with the rest of the news cycle.  Jarvis raised dramatic but not alarmist concerns about the ‘weaponisation’ of information manipulation and the ability of various actors to leverage the media tools now available to foster polarization and attack the ‘truth’ through scale and speed of communications.

When pondering the trustworthiness of news, I remembered the notion that traditionally journalism has not been rated as high as many other professions in terms of trustworthiness.  I hunted out the latest Roy Morgan survey on the image of various professions, conducted in May 2017.  This finds only 20% of Australians rate Newspaper Journalists ‘very high’ or ‘high’ for ethics and honesty with 17% so rating TV Reporters.  However, looking at the time series helpfully provided by Roy Morgan, it is worth noting this is actually an all-time high for newspaper journalists on a rising trend, and up from 12% in 1976. TV reporters are shown to be reasonably stable around the mid-teens since 1988 when first measured.

This suggests to me perhaps some support for the avowed optimism Jarvis offered, with strategies and counsel about using traditional and new journalistic practice to counter the attacks on trust, to build news literacy, resurrect civility and encourage responsible sharing. What particularly struck a chord with me was his stress on the need for journalism to develop as an audience-centric service.

In my own thinking about media and communications futures I have found the application of network thinking and analysis to be very useful.  The world of communications has moved over the last couple of decades from one of massive ‘silos’ such as TV stations and printing plants to one in which the functions of those silos have been spread out across wide and varied networks, from the electronic hardware of the Internet and to the software based landscape of social media. This has been, to use an often misunderstood and sometime overused term, a ‘paradigm shift’, which has shaken business models and re-arranged social structures.

Under the ‘silo’ paradigm, agents such as journalists and regulators could see themselves as standing ‘outside’ the silos, but they are now effectively participants, enmeshed in the networks of the new paradigm. And this is where, as I understand it, Jarvis is going with his thinking and teaching: forget about so-called ‘objective’ reporting and engage meaningfully with real communities and deliver them a service they find valuable. Makes sense to me.

One important and obvious dimension of the paradigm shift has been the commercial challenges to the business models of the incumbent media industry ‘silo-owners’.  That in turn has been an ever increasing threat to the business-as-usual activities and very livelihoods of people working in them – such as musicians, photographers and journalists. This was an ever-present motif in presentation and the Q&A that followed: how can the activities of journalists be made commercially viable?

I was reminded of the classic and prescient 2009 article by US digital analyst Clay Shirky, ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’.  His persuasive analysis was that print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting and the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers.  However, the marriage of this heavy-lifting journalism to the stream of advertising revenue was essentially coincidental.

Shirky notes “This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting … that the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.”   And if this relationship was under stress in 2009, things are reaching breaking point a decade or so on and Shirky’s wry observation “that ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model” is becoming very real indeed.

The persistence but ‘hollowing out’ of established masthead media, was chronicled by media and technology editor Nic Christensen in his final day at Mumbrella, writing about the “ … massive changes in the media, with more to come. We are living through a media revolution driven largely by the rise of digital, but with it comes the consequence for the journalism profession of multiple ongoing rounds of redundancies, as the media business model looks to reinvent itself within what is a seismic transition.”

The same sentiments were reported for Canada by Nieman Lab: “To be clear, though, almost all daily publishers have found them themselves forced to cut, given the cascading losses of their broken print business.  … We’re not mourning the death of printed newspapers, but of all the reporting — pixels or paper — that’s been disappearing for a decade.”

Clearly a business model beyond click-bait is needed.  What that might be is a matter of urgent inquiry by many and anxious anticipation by others – despite what may be an emerging market failure, such a thing will be next to impossible to regulate into existence   News itself may be a commodity, but without a fountain-head of reliable reporting about things the great and the good might prefer we remain ignorant of, democracy has a profound challenge.

And without the great capacity of genuine democracy to renew and sustain an innovative and adaptable economy and society we all risk being significantly poorer, materially and in spirit.  Hopefully journalists find ways to be engaged, adaptive, entrepreneurial and commercially viable – all of which it must be said is much more easily advised than done – and the new UTS Centre for Media Transition can assist.

The Zone of Opportunity

Croquet is the first and only competitive game or sport I have ever played, and taking up such a pursuit later in life has presented a fascinating opportunity to observe myself learn and develop. I never really ‘got’ (or liked) the sporting analogies many people use in their business vocabulary. But coaching has emerged as an important common ground, since hitting the relevant ‘zone’ helps participants identify and realise opportunity, be it scoring croquet hoops or delivering career outcomes.

Playing croquet for the last six years or so has been an extremely interesting and instructive journey.    I slowly whittled down my handicap as the necessities and interruptions of full-time work allowed, and now a major re-invention project is to play more competition croquet.

As it happened, shortly after taking up croquet, I did an intensive leadership development course, which included a number of residential sessions at the Mt Eliza campus of University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School. That was a pretty special place – it was apparently sold in 2016 to a retirement village operator, which feels a bit like the end of an era. It boasted a vineyard, private beach access, 95-bedroom accommodation, conference and training facilities and four dining facilities.  The course was a memorable experience, engaged in intensive cohort learning with a number of my colleagues.

The thing is, croquet is the first and only competitive game or sport I have ever played, and taking up such a pursuit later in life has presented a fascinating opportunity to observe myself learn and develop.  The Mt Eliza experience and focus on complex adaptive systems thinking provided many tools and insights to inform and energise that observation.  Croquet provided a valuable additional case study over the nine month duration of the course, and in subsequent reflection and use of that training.

One such tool was the notion of ‘double loop learning’.  Essentially the concept is that as well as learning the simple linear skill, you also observe and think about how the learning itself is happening, and make adaptive changes to that process as is useful.  The idea is well explained in the classic article by Chris Argyris, ‘Teaching Smart People How to Learn’. I have found this useful and important both in management and in my chosen game; because as a manager often the challenge is guiding your best people to be even better, and because croquet tends to be a game that attracts smart people.

Until I actually played a competitive sport I never really ‘got’ the sporting analogies many people are fond of employing in their business vocabulary.  I observed that these analogies often created in- and out-groups, appeared to discouraged diversity and often favoured male values. One of the attractive things for me about croquet is that by and large it is gender-neutral, with men and women playing on equal terms.  It is also very age-inclusive.

Without abandoning those observations, I have found a greater ability to relate to appropriate sporting insights, properly delivered.  In particular coaching emerges as an important common ground.

A couple of months ago I completed a Croquet Australia coaching course and as a result was endorsed as a Foundation Coach (level 1) for the three codes of Association, Ricochet and Golf croquet – I even got a badge!

20170725_084101-01I found many points of resonance between the material we covered and my management practice and learning over many years, some of which may unpack into future blogs … I don’t pretend to be anything but a fledgling sporting coach, but I am an expert generalist manager.

One notion I picked up on in particular was the ‘Zone of Opportunity’, which forms the title for this blog.  In croquet it has a highly technical application, but it resonates much more widely for me. It fits snugly into the complex adaptive thinking body of thought, exemplified in the sapling that clings to its opportunistic niche in the feature image.

20170707_114147-01

To the technicality – if your croquet ball is much more than 30 degrees off the centre-line of the hoop you are attempting to run, it is simply not possible for it to be hit through.  Skill and practice can shade the edge of the zone, but clearly it materially improves your chances if your approach shot lands you comfortably within the zone.

Single-loop learning might focus on practicing how to run difficult angles, while double-loop thinking might suggest practicing approaches that consistently land well within the zone as more fruitful.

20170725_085117So the more general use of the term is the coaching necessity to help anybody you are helping to develop, in whatever field of endeavour, to best apply their abilities to solve the skill-related problem, as it is relevant to them.  Finding and exploiting their zone will help them identify and realise opportunity, be it scoring croquet hoops or delivering career outcomes. Obviously this should not simply be a matter finding a ‘comfort zone’ and sensible coaching sets a path of achievable development to levels of greater performance.

This references another use of the word ‘zone’, where players often referred to ‘being in the zone’.  A psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the word Flow to describe this feeling.  In essence, flow is characterized by achieving complete absorption in what you are doing and thereby of losing all track of time and sense of your surroundings.  Flow is broadly defined by a balance between ability and challenge, when your abilities match the specific challenge you can enter the flow state: croquet players as they build their break, craftsmen when they employ their skills, artists when they paint, writers when they craft their words.

In fact, in a double-loop style observation, this is essentially why I write this blog – as I write, time flies, my skills develop and I have fun: what more reward can anyone sensibly seek in life?

 

The narrative necessity

We are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …
However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  

One thread of commentary about the recently concluded G20 Summit Meeting has been a loss of coherent narrative flowing from the leaders at the event.  There is a deep seated need in humans for explanatory narratives, and ‘sense-making’ in terms of crafting and articulating such narratives is a critical role for leadership.  We seem to need a narrative flow to give a sense of momentum and coherence to our lives, as we transition from moment to moment; without that sense of temporal structure we just have a collection of moments.

In data-driven world of today, discerning and creating narratives to make sense of the myriad data points is more essential than ever.  We are surrounded by more and more dots and the effort of joining them can be exhausting and at times overwhelming. While ‘being in the moment’ is great counsel and a source of comfort in the face of life’s pressures, the narrative ‘engine’ is the key to joining the dots, establishing direction and getting stuff done.

But here’s the thing – people just want a narrative that helps make sense, preferably one that helps simplify and streamline their world.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be true, but it needs to be believable and consistent with the facts on the ground as we perceive them.  And in a circular twist, our preferred narrative then guides our perception and selection of ‘facts’.

This is the stuff of cognitive biases, about which we are becoming more and more aware of through studies such as behavioural economics. A recent blog in the Economist reported an interesting reflection on the persistent of beliefs in the face of contrary facts, especially noting  “motivated reasoning, [which] is a cognitive bias to which better-educated people are especially prone.”

NoDummy

Being smart is no get of jail free card!

If we are not careful, we can simply (or very cleverly) project what we want to see onto the essentially blank world of noisy and jumbled data.  This human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data has been termed ‘apophenia’.  In the world of data, for example, this manifests itself in ‘overfitting’, where a statistical model emerges to fit noise rather than signal and/or ‘confirmation bias’, where information is sought or interpreted in ways that seek to prove ideas rather than test them.

That’s the down side and I think we are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …

 

 

 

 

However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  This was beautifully enunciated by Viktor Frankel in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946. An Austrian psychiatrist before (and after) WW2, he drew on his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate to document how, in even the most extreme circumstances, the human urge to seek and create meaning is crucial.

He shows that we have amazing powers of endurance, so long as it somehow makes sense to us to go on living: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”.  On this broad basis he worked out what he called ‘logotherapy’, a technique oriented to enable men and women to see meaning in their suffering, aiming to set them free from despair and find new courage to face circumstances which seem beyond them.

20170709_084329Frankel suggests “that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”  That tension is narrative tension as we work on the story arc of our lives, and Frankel observed in the extreme circumstances of his heinous captivity that “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future [lost that narrative tension] was doomed.”

Beyond the personal, sensible evidence-backed policy is more important than ever and policy makers need to acknowledge and resist various cognitive bases in their decision making. Those in leadership positions have a necessity and obligation to help people to develop and sustain unifying and sustaining stories about what they are doing and why.

Authentic narrative is essential to meaningful existence.  I attended the NSW U3A Network 2017 annual conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the sessions was about Big History – unsurprisingly, space here does not permit a full exposition of the history of the entire universe.  However the speaker, Prof David Christian of Macquarie Uni, did a fine job which is replicated in his TED talk on the subject: “The history of our world in 18 minutes” – can I strongly suggest taking a look?

Suffice it to say that his narrative arc from the big bang to the present ‘anthropocene’ provides a very interesting story and perspective – if anyone has the ear of a G20 attendee they might send them the link!