When it launched in public beta earlier this year, MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg‘s Knight News Challenge-winning fact-checking project, was focused on correcting errors found in publications in the Bay Area. Today, though, Mediabugs.org has undergone a redesign — not just in its interface (“just the usual iterative improvements,” Rosenberg notes), but in its scope. Overnight, MediaBugs has gone national.
Part of the site’s initial keep-it-local logic was that, as a Knight winner, the project had to be small in scope. (The News Challenge stipulates that projects focus on “geographically defined communities,” although this year they’ve loosened up that rule a bit.) But part of it was also an assumption that community is about more than geography. “My original thesis was that, first of all, it would be valuable to work on a small scale in a specific metropolitan area,” Rosenberg told me — valuable not only in terms of developing personal relationships with editors who oversee their publications’ correction efforts, but also as a way to avoid becoming “this faceless entity: yet another thing on the web that was criticizing people in the newsrooms.”
And while the community aspect has paid off when it comes to newsroom dealings — Rosenberg and his associate director, Mark Follman, have indeed developed relationships that have helped them grow the project and the cause — MediaBugs has faced challenges when it comes to “community” in the broader sense. “It’s been an uphill battle just getting people to participate,” Rosenberg notes. Part of that is just a matter of people being busy, and MediaBugs being new, and all that. But another part of it is that so much of the stuff typical users consume each day is regional or national, rather than local, in scope. When he describes MediaBugs to people, Rosenberg notes, a typical response will be: “Great idea. Just the other day, I saw this story in the paper, or I heard this broadcast, where they got X or Y wrong.” And “invariably,” he says, “the X or Y in question is on a national political story or an international story” — not, that is, a local one.
Hence, MediaBugs’ new focus on national news outlets. “I thought, if that’s what people are more worked up about, and if that’s what they want to file errors for,” Rosenberg says, “we shouldn’t stand in their way.”
The newly broadened project will work pretty much like the local version did: The site is pre-seeded (with regional and national papers, magazines, and even the websites of cable news channels), and it will rely on users to report errors found in those outlets and others — expanding, in the process, the MediaBugs database. (Its current data set includes not only a list of media organizations, their errors, and those errors’ correction status, but also, helpfully, information about outlets’ error-correction practices and processes.)
For now, Rosenberg says, the feedback loop informing news organizations of users’ bug reports, which currently involves Rosenberg or Follman contacting be-bugged organizations directly, will remain intact. But it could — and, Rosenberg hopes, it will — evolve to become a more self-automated system, via an RSS feed, email feed, or the like. “There isn’t really that much of a reason for us to be in the loop personally — except that, at the moment, we’re introducing this strange new concept to people,” Rosenberg notes. “But ultimately, what this platform should really be is a direct feedback loop where the editors and the people who are filing bug reports can just resolve them themselves.” One of the inspirations for MediaBugs is the consumer-community site Get Satisfaction, which acts as a meeting mechanism for businesses and the customers they serve. The site provides a forum, and it moderates conversations; ultimately, though, its role is to be a shared space for dialogue. And the companies themselves — which have a vested interest in maintaining their consumers’ trust — do the monitoring. For MediaBugs, Rosenberg says, “that’s the model that we would ultimately like.”
To get to that point — a point, Rosenberg emphasizes, that at the moment is a distant goal — the MediaBugs infrastructure will need to evolve beyond MediaBugs.org. “As long as we’re functioning as this website that people have to go to, that’s a limiting factor,” Rosenberg notes. “We definitely want to be more distributed out at the point where the content is.” For that, the project’s widget — check it out in action on Rosenberg’s Wordyard and on (fellow Knight grantee site) Spot.us — will be key. Rosenberg is in talks with some additional media outlets about integrating the widget into their sites (along the lines of, for example, of the Connecticut Register-Citizen‘s incorporation of a fact-checking mechanism into its stories); but the discussions have been slow-going. “I’m still pretty confident that, sooner or later, we’ll start to see the MediaBugs widget planted on more of these sites,” Rosenberg says. “But it’s not anything that’s happening at any great speed.”
For now, though, Rosenberg will have his hands full with expanding the site’s scope — and with finding new ways to realize the old idea that, as he notes, “shining any kind of light on a subject creates its own kind of accountability.” And it’ll be fascinating to see what happens when that light shifts its gaze to the national media landscape. “That dynamic alone, I think, will help some of the publications whose sites are doing a less thorough job with this stuff to get their act together.”