Nupinion wants to burst your filter bubble

Everyone’s worried about how we’re all cocooned in our own comfortable social media filter bubbles hearing unchallenging opinions from people we already agree with.

But how many of us actually do something about it?

Here’s a tool to help you burst that bubble. It is a neat start-up called Nupinion and it launched a Kickstarter this week (£2209 in the bag already when I looked on Thursday).

The overall goal – to help create informed and critical citizens through more sophisticated media literacy – is admirable. I admire the ambition and wish them all power to their smart elbows.

Here’s how they intend to do it:

“Take the hassle out of staying informed and get a well-rounded view with Nupinion. See different news sources on any topic side by side. Filter news by outlet, country or political slant. Find out who is involved. Get opposing perspectives, avoid fake news and pop your news bubble.”

So what is Nupinion?

You can play with a beta version of the site here which at present has a limited number of news sources mainly from the UK and US. To get started, just search for the news story of your choice and set a time-frame. The software will give you a dashboard of the media coverage that’s out there.

Near the top is a sample of the stories in left-leaning, right-leaning and centre (I guess you can’t lean to the centre) publications. Then there’s a sample of different themes that are being covered within your news story. There’s a map showing which countries are mentioned in coverage; a list of the main actors in your story; a breakdown of how many articles each publication ran; a sample of videos; a sample of tweets and so on.

I found it a potentially useful tool for flagging up different perspectives on an issue at a glance and giving an overview of media coverage. It was also interesting to see which publications are writing most about different stories or topics. Although I’m not sure I always believed the answer. When I put “climate change” into the search box the top two publications were Huffington Post and Daily Mail on 37 and 33 articles respectively, but the Guardian did not make the list at all. The algorithm must be missing a significant number of Guardian articles I suspect.

Likewise, on a search for “French elections” the Daily Express, Daily Mail and Reuters has 53, 51 and 23 articles respectively but the Guardian and BBC were down at 8 and 7. In a month with various new revelations about the leading candidates and an enduring media fascination with Marine Le Pen that seems unlikely.

One issue that may need some work is that the software doesn’t seem very good at working out the significance of an article. For example, the “climate change” search brings up an “Insider” article in the New York Times about how the paper has revamped its climate coverage. Interesting to other journalists or fans of the NYT but probably not what you are looking for if you want to know what’s happening on the climate beat.

To be fair, this is of course a work in progress. As the team write:

“Our news ninjas are busy fine-tuning how we identify different topics and their representative articles.”

A more fundamental issue though is which news sources to have in the mix. Currently the list includes Breitbart and the Daily Express for example. If one of the Nupinion’s aims is to tackle fake news, that will raise some eyebrows.

Here’s how scientists hope to avoid another global warming “pause” row

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The controversy over the fifteen-year so-called global warming “pause”, has left climate scientists bruised and somewhat baffled. They never said that global temperatures would rise steadily with human-induced emissions without any ups and downs along the way. So why was anyone surprised when they didn’t? Now that 2016 is near certain to be a stonking record hot year, they plan to get their retaliation in first.

Give it a few weeks and there will be a flurry of end-of-year column inches and social media pixels proclaiming the hottest year on record. That might give extra impetus to efforts to mitigate carbon emissions. But the climate science community have realised they need to be out there explaining proactively that human influence is just part of the picture.

“We’ve got a golden opportunity right now to explain to people the difference between total warming and human-induced warming,” says Prof Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics Group at Oxford University’s Department of Physics. It is important to do it now, he says, because, “nobody can turn around and say, ‘ah you’re just making excuses for the fact that it’s cooler than you expected’.”

Part of the reason 2014, 2015 and 2016 are so hot is because of a powerful El Niño event which came to an end earlier this year. But let’s be clear, these would have been record hot years even without El Niño. The underlying warming attributable to human activities stands at around 1C compared to pre-industrial levels. El Niño has added 0.2C on top at most.

But what the climate scientists are hoping to avoid in future, is the unnecessary confusion (some of it deliberately sown) that came with the so-called “pause” – the period between 1998 and 2013 when there was relatively little change in global average surface temperatures. That prompted headlines like the Daily Mail’s “Global warming stopped 16 years ago, reveals Met Office report” and comment pieces like this from Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal asking “Whatever happened to global warming?” The answer is it hadn’t gone anywhere.

Allen argues that the timing of the ill-fated Copenhagen climate summit which fell when global surface temperatures were marginally lower than when the Kyoto protocol was signed 12 years earlier was a contributory factor in its failure to live up to billing. Well perhaps. But Allen is undoubtedly correct that the bogus argument over the “pause” has diverted the attention of policy-makers from the really important question: how do we go about getting emissions down at a reasonable cost.

“It does raise the question of what’s going to happen at the next [big UN climate meeting]…when temperatures are likely to be no warmer than they were at the time of the Paris COP [Conference of the Parties],” says Allen.
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Let’s hope that world governments will take a more sophisticated view than simply looking at that year’s thermometer as the basis for action, but Allen argues that is why it is so important to prepare the ground now. He says that organisations like the Met Office and the World Meteorological Organisation should routinely release figures for the warming that can be attributed to human activity at the same time as they release global temperature figures.

This is all part of the climate science community realising that things that are obvious to them are not necessarily obvious to everyone else. “We have talked about variability for a long time,” says Prof Peter Stott who leads the climate science and attribution team at the Met Office. He cites scientific discussions of climate variability going back to the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990, although it is debatable how much of that hit the public’s radar. “Maybe it came as a surprise to us – it was so, sort of obvious if you like – that people were not aware that there was variability.”

And it is not just temperature. The numbers for Arctic ice extent are subject to similar variability and hence are vulnerable to cherry-picking. Like a ball bouncing down a hill, the general trend is downwards, but year to year, Arctic sea ice area sometimes goes up too.

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“We we need to communicate this ahead of time and not be distracted by temporary fluctuations in the other direction which will eventually reverse,” said Dr Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology.

Prof Richard Betts, head of climate impacts at the Met Office Hadley Centre, argues that climate scientists need to do more to prepare the ground for these temperature and sea ice fluctuations. “I would say that, arguably, we as a community…should have done a better job of communicating the fact that this could have happened. It seemed to take people by surprise but it shouldn’t have done.”

We can’t afford any more surprises.

Image credits: NASA Scientific Visualization StudioProf Myles Allen and Dr Ed Hawkins.

Why don’t journalists lighten up?

“Turn it off. It’s too depressing.”

If that is sometimes your reaction to the evening TV news bulletin then you are probably not alone. Us journalists in the broadcast, print and digital media, the criticism goes, are obsessed with doom and gloom and by concentrating on all the bad stuff in the world we’re bringing everyone else down with us.

At first glance, it is not hard to see why journalists do it. Natural disasters, wars, shouting matches between politicians, injustice, wrong-doing – these are what the media thrives on. They are extraordinary events that elicit a strong emotional response in readers/viewers – and they often provide the best TV images too. As the American commentator Armstrong Williams put it: “if it bleeds, it leads”.

But could all this relentless negativity actually be driving the audience away? A growing movement behind so-called constructive news (not to be confused with this) believes that it is.
Last week I was invited to a meeting to discuss the idea of actively turning the editorial dial away from the bad stuff. The meeting was organised by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Constructive Voices project and was attended by the UN Director General Michael Møller (more on what he had to say later) and chaired by the broadcaster Sir Martyn Lewis. Also present were some high level editors from major newspapers, TV networks and online news platforms as well as representatives from the voluntary sector. We were under Chatham House rules so I can’t quote who said but these are my reflections on an interesting and sometimes frank discussion.

So what is it? Giselle Green, an advocate for constructive news at the NCVO puts it like this:

it involves taking a more constructive approach to news coverage, not only analysing problems but also exploring potential solutions. It’s about trying to examine what’s going right in the world – and why – rather than focusing purely on what’s going wrong.

There’s even a magazine for it – Positive News, edited by Seán Dagan Wood – which promises to “look at society’s challenges through a lens of progress and possibility.” And Huffington Post is doing it too.

Møller is supportive, I think, because he sees a way to educate people around the world more effectively about complex world problems. “The responsibility of the media, to me, is to inform, educate and to hold power to account. I think that on the educational part, a lot of media around the world has abdicated its responsibility. It needs to find its responsibility again,” he told Positive News.

I understand his motivation, but the average journalist’s first response to this agenda is sceptical at best. Most reporters get up in the morning motivated by seeking out injustice and exposing bad guys. Those are the stories that run, and that win awards and plaudits with their peers. They generally don’t see it as their job to document how to fix things. And by the time it comes to solving problems, journalism has generally moved on to the next story.

Another issue is that, let’s face it, journalists are in the showbiz game. To really grab the reader’s attention it helps if a story has an element of entertainment. A worthy you-really-ought-to-know-this approach is likely to be a huge turn off. In the Darwinian news marketplace these stories tend to die quickly so I fear that Møller’s appeal for journalists to act as educators will not get much traction.

There’s also resources. When I raised the constructive news agenda with one colleague his first reaction was, “when are we meant to do this and what should we stop doing to make space?” Journalists already feel overworked as it is.

Smart Thinking
So there are plenty of institutional and practical reasons against this catching on. And yet, I think there is something here of value for journalism and in the current crisis for the industry some smart thinking about what we do is required.
First though, let’s be clear about what we’re not talking about:

• “And finally” stories about tap-dancing dogs, water-skiing squirrels and the like.
• Puff pieces for NGOs and charities.
• Running “good news” or feel good stories for the sake of balance.
• Advocacy journalism.

All of those things sometimes get mixed up with constructive news. But leaving them aside, I think there is a class of high quality stories that are under-reported in the media at present but can still represent good journalism for which there is reader appetite. These are stories that look critically at where problems in the world are being fixed with innovative and fascinating solutions.

When the Guardian was deciding last year on which direction to take phase two of our climate change project Keep it in the Ground, we asked the hundreds of thousands of people who had signed up as supporters what they thought. The consistent answer was that they wanted to hear more about the projects around the world that are working – that provide some hope that the seemingly insurmountable problem can be overcome. They were asking for a more constructive approach and we changed editorial course to provide that in our reporting.

More Sharable
There’s also some evidence and anecdotes that suggest positive news is more shareable. That would of course be good for publications wanting to increase the reach and engagement of their content, although I don’t think it adds up to a cast iron case yet.

One study, from University of Pennsylvania researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman looked at New York Times’s list of most emailed stories (this was back in 2010) for six months. They discovered that articles with positive themes were more likely to be shared, as were those that inspired awe – particularly science articles.

Arianna Huffington says good news is more highly shared on Huffington Post:

“Increasingly our traffic online is driven by what people share. Content that is about good news, stories that reinforce our faith in human nature are shared 3 times more on Huffington Post than the combined average of all our other sections’ share rate.”

Her comments are from 9 minutes 50 seconds in.
And Chris Moody, Twitter’s Vice President of Data Strategy also says that positive news gets more reaction on that social platform. He talks about, “countless proof points on Twitter that positive messages have more engagement and obtain more reach on our global platform than negative content.”

Lastly, researchers at the University of Texas, Austin presented 755 adults with two versions of different news stories (one with solutions included and one without), and found that the strength of the subjects’ desire to share the news increased modestly when solutions were included. They also said they were more likely to read more from the same publication.

One last thought. I have heard suggestions that traditional journalism can be made more “constructive” by adding a few pars to a news story about, say, what voluntary organisations are doing to tackle the issue at hand. I have a feeling this is being proposed as a way around the resource issue – no need to do extra stories, just add some quotes into what the reporter is writing anyway.

That may be appropriate for some stories and could well give the news more context and depth in some cases. But I don’t think it is a blanket solution. It feels tokenistic and I think readers will notice that.

Doing this properly, I think, means making strategic editorial decisions to pursue journalistically interesting cases of people finding intelligent solutions to difficult problems. It means deploying good quality reporting, writing and editing. The end product should be stories that can compete on their own merits that people will want to read and share.

Geeks Bearing Gifts

I’m currently reading Jeff Jarvis’s Geeks Bearing Gifts which is really rather good. His main argument is that news organisations are measuring the wrong things with visits, page views and unique users. We should be measuring engagement.

“If news organisations are to serve communities, they often need to act as community organisers to marshal the forces of communities in very practical ways:listening to their needs, drawing their attention to an issue, convening them to gather together and discuss the issue, urging them to action, and helping them to reach their goals”

More on this in future posts.