Jul 10

God and the census

How questions are phrased in a survey is important, as any market researcher or social scientist will tell you. And appearing early on a list matters too. One Irish TD even went to court a few years ago to argue that when arranging names in alphabetical order, the returning officer should ignore the Ó at the start of his name.

So consider the following: the number of people who answers “No religion” in reply to a census question in the UK is 14.1 million, one in four of the population (25% in England, 37% in Scotland, 32% in Wales, 7% in Northern Ireland).

Meanwhile in the Republic of Ireland, the number answering “No Religion” to the census question is 4%. (And that figure is also a matter of debate).

Now take a look at the two forms below.

Notice anything?

Cenus Form IrelandAbove: Religious question in the Irish census. Below, the religion question on the UK census form.

Census Form UK

Jun 23

More terms, more conditions

I had a look at the Irish Times android app terms and conditions a few days ago when it prompted me for an upgrade. For completeness, below are the access requests for some other Irish news apps.

Short version: RTE and the Irish Independent look for the same call information as the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner is the only one not to ask for call information, and RTE is the only one which doesn’t look for location information.

Irish Examiner


Irish Independent




Jun 21

Back to the future

From the New York Times and Washington Post comes news of yet another attempt to Fix Comments. Everyone wants to engage with audience, trouble is the results end up costing as many readers as they attract.

But why are the comments so horrible? I’d argue a large part of the problem is it’s because every content management system built to handle comments is built to serve the publishers needs. Its all about registering users, collecting all that valuable demographic data, and selling advertising space.

Remember Usenet?

Usenet allowed you to use the client of your choice, and the most valuable thing about my Usenet client was the filter. If a commenter was an idiot, I could ignore him. If a commenter was insightful and worth reading, automatically highlight her posts.

When Boards.ie first started, it looked to me like a clunky web implementation of something that already worked far better on Usenet. The trouble is, ten years later, most commenting systems haven’t moved on from that first clunky design.

Where are my threads? My kill file? My watch lists? Sorted lists? Offline reading? Nowhere. Commenting has spent a decade getting better at one thing only: making sure I see advertising.


Jun 17

Terms and conditions apply

Update: Irish Times communities editor David Cochrane has pointed out that, while the main @IrishTimes twitter account does not engage with followers, many of the staff who have twitter accounts do engage. I’m happy to clarify that point.

Data protection is boring. Obscure activist groups in Austria suing Facebook over their cookie policy, or yet another Guardian powerpoint from Edward Snowden about the NSA, or yet another heavily written European Court judgement.

Then, sometimes, there’s a moment when data protection and privacy issues come to the forefront.
This morning, the Irish Times app on my phone asked for permission to update. I clicked yes, and before updating, the app told me what systems and information it needed access to.

For some reason the Irish Times wants access to Device ID and Call Information, which “allows the app to determine the phone number and device IDs, whether a call is active, and the remote number connected by a call.”

I’m not an expert, but that looks like the Irish Times wants to know my phone number, and every number I call. I uninstalled.

Why would the Irish Times need that information?

I asked that question of the Irish Times twitter account earlier today, but so far I’ve received no answer.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised by that. A quick look at the Irish Times twitter feed shows it broadcasts headlines and story links, but doesn’t engage with its readers or followers.


Jun 05

Pressure Points

I posted this graph in yesterday’s 200 Words.

Scandal timelineI created it as a clearer version of Simon McGarr’s “Scandal Timeline”, below.


Journalists have criticised the graph, pointing out the story in response to which it was created — Tuam mass — was broken by the Daily Mail (and earlier, the Connacht Tribune).


They have a point. The Tribune, Mail and Journal covered it. Philip Boucher Hayes did an excellent Liveline. That’s the news process. A story breaks. Others move it on.

And yet, there’s a kernel of truth to the graph. It wasn’t until international media reported the story that the Irish Times ran with it. Why, social media asks, didn’t the Paper of Record do its part to move the story on?

McGarr points to other stories fitting the Scandal Timeline template. Gutting Freedom of Information. The McAleese Report. Brian Cowen’s portrait. Pantigate.

Yes, some were broken by the mainstream press. Yes, the Timeline is a blunt instrument. But yes, there are stories that bubble under until social pressure pushes them outwards.

Too often, a story isn’t reported until there’s an official reaction, Too often, it’s not until a foreign outlet reports that an Irish story gets an official reaction.

Jun 04

Serious Stories

While following the Tuam mass graves scandal, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on some programme proposals for the Sound+Vision and Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. The former are the light entertainment features, the latter is a bit more serious.

And although both deadlines are approaching fast, I’ve been devoting more time and energy to the light stories, even though the latter stands to earn me more money.

I’ve been a journalist now for a dozen years. And for more than half of that time, I devoted myself to two stories, the Morris and Smithwick tribunals. The Morris tribunal documented gross abuses of Garda power in Donegal. For its first two years, as I was an occasional guest on Vincent Browne’s radio show, I’d make that point time and again, as Vincent treated Donegal as the “light relief” tribunal, in contrast to real tribunals looking at political corruption. Eventually, that changed.

There are days when I want to do more stories like that, when I can devote the time to filling out an application form for Mary Raftery funding. And there are too many days when I just want to do some lightweight stories and get paid.


Scandal timelinerecords

May 21

The Game of Thrones guide to Irish politics

Always pays his debts.
Even if it bankrupts the state.

Regarded by some as the real king in the North,
by others as a bastard.
Cool beard.

The king of even further North

Blonde. Lives overseas. The real queen.

Strong links to the old regime
Short of supporters now
No one really wants him

Pompous. Self-important
Hasn’t realised he’s someone else’s bitch.

Creepy weird religious fanatic

Politically neutered
No longer a player

Who knows whose side this one is on

You’ve forgotten about him, haven’t you?
Far as we know he’s still off fighting climate change

Mister Smug

If only…

May 07

Disrupting Comment

When I began this blog, most articles attracted comment or three. But what I always got, and what I still get, are social media discussions (sometimes on G+, mostly twitter).

Before Social Media was a thing, I hung out on Usenet. Any user could start a thread by posting a link to an article (or more often, the entire article). Comments followed: some good, some bad, some outright trolls.

When Boards.ie first came along, it looked like usenet on a website, without the benefits of a usenet client. Clients gave you the ability to mute threads and articles, or block posters. “Do not feed the troll” is a motto born on usenet, where the most efficient way to stop the attention-seekers was to block and ignore.

There’s no rule that news article comments have to be on the same page (or site) as the story itself. And there’s nothing to stop any newspaper setting up a comments only website. Think of it. You log on, see a list of headlines and lead paragraphs, and you can either click to read the article on the main news website, or add your tuppenceworth. Newspaper readers get their news, commenters get their forum.


The bottom half of the internet: It’s like a jungle down there

Postscript: Going back to the usenet client analogy: If a newsaper provides me with an app to use on my phone/table, then why can’t the app give me the ability to filter commenters I want to block/watch?

May 01

When are bloggers media?

I attended an event today to mark World Press Freedom day, as a result of which I’m posing the audio below.

The first speech is by Kevin Bakhurst, RTÉ Deputy Director-General and Managing Director of News & Current Affairs, on the particular challenges facing broadcasting. It is followed by a speech by John Horgan, Press Ombudsman, which makes some important points about press freedom not simply as freedom from state censorship, but also about freedom from market forces.

The final audio clip is a question I asked of both participants about how media is defined, and when a blogger – or a group of bloggers – become “media”.

“Press freedom is typically understood to mean with freedom from state control. So far, so good. But perhaps it is also time to discuss the elephant in the room. This is the inescapable fact that, where the press is concerned, the power – the unacknowledged power – of the market is, if anything, greater than the power of the state, and that it is a power which needs to be seriously considered in any discussion of the freedom and the responsibility of the press.” – John Horgan

Apr 17

Below the Line

Everyday, in every newspaper, editors go through correspondence from readers and pick the best for publication.

Done well, a letters page gives a feel for public opinion, for which stories are striking a chord, and which arguments are winning.

Put another way, user generated content is nothing new.

Yet online, its has become almost an iron law to Never Read The Comments. The bottom half of the internet, in public discourse, is where all the mean bullies and trolls live. And nowhere is this opinion more popular than among old-school journalists.

So why don’t journalists apply the same logic to the internet that they do to their own pages?

No editor would ever print every single letter received. Before anyone heard of trolls, journalists were taught to avoid the Green Ink contributors.

Editors pick the best letters for publication. Why not the same for comments? Why are we content to moderate letters, so that they only need pass a minimum standard (not defamatory, no obscenity, whatever).

Why not treat comments as we treat letters to the editor, selecting only the best.

And sure, it restricts the conversation. But if you don’t make the cut, go set up your own website.

Image via MorgueFile.com

Image via MorgueFile.com

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