The thing about being a billionaire real estate mogul (real or perceptual) is that there really aren’t any consequences to pissing people off. There are no consequences when you antagonize the media; there are no consequences when you join the WWE and shear someone’s hair off; there are no consequences to a walk-on role in porn. In the end, it’s just one guy signing a deal with another guy. Over and over again. The media and the public play absolutely no role.

Presidents don’t have such luxuries. Presidents make decisions every day, all of which have consequences. Sometimes for the entire world. Presidents need to communicate with their constituents and they need a robust media – even one that thinks of them as an asshole – to do it. Perhaps most critically, presidents have already entered a contract with a population that turns on their perception of you. That perception can turn on a dime, and it’ll never come back.

I’m not foolish enough to believe a 70 year old man who hasn’t figured these things out yet, ever will. In fact, I fully expect this presidency will be an exercise in head-bashing stupidity. More lawsuits, more insults and more sneering on Twitter. More affronts to our civil liberties, our culture and our values. More cogs in the Federal machine on lock-down while they await the coming Tangerine Rapture.

But I hope the rest of us know what we’re heading into, for the next four years. No more excuses about “pivots” or aides who will reign him in. What we have seen for the last week is what we can expect from here on out. You ready?

Now that they’ve skewered Brian Williams over telling war stories, the professional journalism community has decided that, better late than never, they’ll go ahead and give Bill O’Reilly a ration of shit over his decades-old claims of “war correspondent” status with CBS News:

Calling O’Reilly description of Buenos Aires as a “war zone” “absurd,” Krause, who lived in the city for three years prior to the Falklands war said, “It was just like it always was, there was very little evidence of the war in Buenos Aires. The war was being fought thousands of miles away.” “We were in no danger whatsoever,” he added, disputing claims made by O’Reilly. “Except for people who had never been there before and didn’t speak Spanish and might have felt a little bit odd.”

Oh, dizzamn! O’Reilly’s not just a liar, he’s a wussie-ass little xenophobe. Take that, puta!

Only it seems a bit sad and cowardly for CBS News correspondents – any of whom could have spoken up at any time between 1982 and now – to suddenly decide that the blood in the water means it’s cool to pile on. Ten years ago, now-Senator Al Franken was making constant hay over O’Reilly’s resume embellishments. It was practically a regular segment. Yet in all that time, there was no serious discussion of O’Reilly’s fitness to deliver the news.

What has changed, in the wake of Brian Williams’ transgressions? What, besides popular opinion and the latest rhetorical fashion, has changed about what it means to be a journalist? In fact, just a few weeks ago, a panel of seasoned veterans of the local news business chimed in on Connections with Evan Dawson to universally declare that he aught not to deliver the news. That is a shocking unanimity.

Are all lies equal?

It’s a fair question: is honesty truly the benchmark of journalism? Or is it fidelity to the facts? The two phrases are not necessarily the same thing. One speaks to the person, the other to the profession. It may shock some to learn that it is entirely possible to be a vain, primping dickhole and still work in journalism. Sometimes, even on TV, because the world is full of such ironies.

Brian Williams is a celebrity. He may have been a journalist at some time in the past, but not really any longer. He looks pretty and masticates the news on camera. He chums it up with Jon Stewart because it makes him look cool. I don’t hold any of that against him at all: in fact, I thought it made for some pretty decent television. But Not only that, but under the circumstances, I’m with Jim Carey on this one. If I’m in the chopper behind the one that got shot, I’m saying I took fire.

Bill O’Reilly’s BMI is a bit short to qualify as a BFRD. Otherwise, his transgressions against anything approaching “truth” neither begin nor end with his “war corespondent” puffery. In this case, there is only one documented case of this man ever having to be a journalist in the first place, and that’s the part even he feels the need to embellish. Other than that, it’s been a short, ignoble career at Inside Edition and onto Fox News where puffery is all the rage. He’s a celebrity and in fact, just as eager to get chummy with a fake news man as Brian Williams.

It’s not as if Brian Williams declared “I got krunk with Saddam.” For all his selective fact-gathering and creative retelling, Bill O’Reilly doesn’t claim to have the ear of the Pope. Jesus, sure. But not the Pope.

Such fabrications would materially change the facts that either man is reporting on television. Either lie would raise questions about our nation’s foreign policy, or it’s military procedure or even public statements made by either of the two public figures and those of their subordinates. They would, in fact, alter the entire dialog in our country.

The lies currently under the public microscope make two men look like a couple of tits on the same chest. Useful on a rare occasion, but otherwise, they’re just decorative lumps that mostly get in the way.

Both lies deserve open, merciless ridicule. YouTube videos galore. Meme all the journos! But Brian Williams does not by any means deserve to lose his job, and if you’re waiting for Fox News to show such fidelity to truth or public opinion with it’s number one star, you can take a breath now. So, what the hell are we even talking about?

And now, to play us out, here’s a little Bill O’Reilly classic:

If you’re going to be funny, you’re going to offend someone. It’s as simple as that, especially for those of us trying hard to be funny consistently day in and day out. I take it as an article of faith that, sooner or later, I’m going to piss off a large segment of my audience. I’m just hoping that, when that day comes, I can handle it with a little more class and grace than this:

https://twitter.com/Kimberly989buzz/status/469171149482758144

Edit: Since Kimberly deleted her Twitter account, the above-linked Tweet text doesn’t appear here. It originally read, “Freedom of Speech includes the freedom to offend others. You aren’t granted a right to not be offended in this life #getoverit  #ROC “

Kimberly has been a friendly voice on social for quite a while, so I’m disappointed in having to write any of this. But whether or not someone is offended is not about rights or about your legal position to hold a specific job. She acknowledges that she’s offended people in the worst possible way, by shoving it right back in their faces and telling them to go to hell. A little contrition would have been nice.

To back up a pace, the City of Rochester just announced that, going forward, their health care plan will cover medical procedures and drugs related to transgender people’s transition to an opposite gender. This move has been largely applauded by LGBT activists, but apparently on the Kimberly and Beck show, there is a colossal, Medieval disconnect between the reality of transgender existence and the hosts’ personal gripes. You can listen to the whole 12-minute laugh-a-thon here, but to summarize:

“So, if you’re a guy and you wanna..”

“You want a va-jay…”

“The city will pay for it.”

Over and over again, through out the segment, Kimberly and Beck both refer to transgender as a choice. Over and over again, they say “if you want.” Transgender is not a choice and efforts to either change sex or otherwise find a healthy way to live with the dichotomy are neither entitled hand-outs nor whims. They are valid medical treatments for a very real situation.

All of this might have been fine – even when they cracked that people who are transgender must be “nut jobs” – had not a listener chosen to call in and try to patiently explain to them that they were offending a lot of people. This, Kimberly and Beck took as an excuse to lay into it harder, ultimately choosing to pick on the example of a local transgender boy who is playing softball on a girls team.

In this, Kimberly is quick to point out that she never mentioned where the kid goes to school. One of many CYA statements she makes through the whole thing, proof enough that she knows she’s over the line:

CALLER: “This girl – she’s a girl, she chose to be a girl, you keep referring to her as a boy and that’s incredibly disrespectful..”

KIMBERLY: “Wasn’t she born a boy?”

CALLER: “Um. Biologically.”

KIMBERLY: “You’re talking about the varsity player on the girl’s softball team, right? Here in the area – we didn’t mention what school.”

It takes about eleven out of the twelve minutes of this segment for Kimberly to get around to “there’s not enough love in this world,” and other platitudes. One imagines someone in the booth vigorously flapping their arms for them to STFU, already, but maybe not.

What starts as a pretty work-a-day bit of selfish Conservative whining – “everybody’s getting something for my tax dollars but me” – ends up as an ugly demonstration of brutish shaming. Is that a fire-able offence? I don’t know and I’m just as happy not to have to decide. Lons got fired for comparable offenses, albeit with a grown-up and a politician. But rightly or wrongly, that ship has sailed. We’ll just have to wait to see what happens next.

UPDATE (pre-publish, can you believe it?):  Facebook and Twitter profiles are starting to disappear. James Battaglia reports that Kimberly’s Twitter account is gone. I now see that Beck’s Facebook profile is down. Well, that doesn’t look good.

Here we go again. Another study comes out and another round of sloppy journalism puts out crap content that scares everybody and informs no one.

Researchers studied 64,000 pregnant women, over half of whom took acetaminophen during their pregnancies. The researchers then followed up with the children those women gave birth too, looking for signs of ADHD. The results?

They found that children of women who had taken acetaminophen were 13 percent more likely to have ADHD-like behaviors by age 7, including issues with attention span and temper. Those same children had a 30 percent greater chance of requiring the use of an ADHD medication. Additionally, the further into pregnancy and the longer the duration for which the woman took acetaminophen, the greater the risk.

Let’s break that down, shall we?

64,000 women took part in the study. About half of them – let’s guestimate 34,000 to be generous – actually took acetaminophen. Out of the resulting children, 13 percent had ADHD-like symptoms, which is different than saying they have ADHD. Out of these, as many as 30 percent of those children might require medication later in life.

In other words, out of 64,000 births, there might be 1326 kids in need of ADHD medication. Maybe, or maybe not. Based on a single study.

To be clear, it isn’t that the study’s findings aren’t significant. They are, from a scientific point of view. They make the case for further study. UCLA’s press room released a more detailed explanation of the study here, which is worth a read.

But to say acetaminophen is “tied” to ADHD presumes a level of certainty that is entirely absent from the facts of the case. Neither are these two things “linked,” as the L.A. Times chose to express it.

There are still people out there refusing to give their kids immunizations based on thoroughly discredited science from the 90’s. Please, let’s not start another ugly rumor for the sake of headlines.

Data is everything in our modern world, and statistical comparisons are a regular part of journalism. The problem is that juxtaposing two numbers doesn’t necessarily tell us anything useful.

Such is the case with the new data point making the rounds on social right now, comparing the rate of acceptance of Harvard students and of applicants to a particular Pennsylvanian Wegmans:

Some 10,000 people applied for 500 positions at a Wegmans slated to open next month.

About 500 new employees were hired from the applicant pool — a 5 percent acceptance rate.

By comparison, Harvard had an undergraduate acceptance rate of 5.8 percent in the most recent year.

This is no doubt true. But on the other hand, you have a .00004% chance of getting struck by lightning, so there’s that.

How do these numbers compare? Harvard is a higher education institution with international prestige, to which a small handful of high-functioning rich kids get to apply. People spend their entire childhoods preparing for the enrollment contest. Parents spend countless riches paving their children’s way.

Wegmans… is a grocery store.

Perhaps the story aught properly to have been about why 10k people in Montgomery, PA needed jobs. Why 1% of the population of an entire county felt the need to seek out work at a grocery store. But that wouldn’t have had the flash of comparing two otherwise-unrelated numbers.

It smacks, to some extent, of elitism. Everybody knows that Harvard is where the successful business people go, but Wegmans? That’s just a Joe job. Who ever heard of poor people having to struggle?

If a local journalist were to write an article about a local pol, using phrases like “this suggests that,” or “may indicate,” or even “potentially,” they would rightly be lambasted for speculation. In conventional journalism, you aren’t supposed to fill in the gaps with too much of your own analysis.

In covering science, you also cannot fill in gaps too readily. For accuracy’s sake, you probably shouldn’t attempt to fill in the gaps at all. But counter-intuitively, if you do not use speculative phrases like those above, you’re likely guilty of as serious a sin as if you had used them in another context.

A recent Poytner article collates some of statistical guru Nate Silver’s admonitions to the rest of journalism about statistics. For the most part, those same rules apply to science journalism:

4. Take the average, stupid. Recent stories that reported Oreos are as addictive as cocaine failed to reflect the subtleties of the research that prompted the articles, Silver said. Doing the work isn’t necessarily difficult: Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight, uses a simple count of polls and averages in some of its analyses.

One real problem is that, even more than political coverage, audiences and journalists alike tend to take science news as “news x prejudice.” If the new data supports a held belief, it is an amazing new study. But if it challenges that belief, then it must be dubious science, no matter the methodology.

The trouble is: studies rarely if ever “prove” anything. All studies are on some levels flawed, and if that study is in any way psychological or requires the honest participation of humans who know they’re being watched, it is necessarily riddled with pitfalls. The only thing one study can do is to add to or subtract from the body of evidence supporting a theory.

It is also worth noting that university press releases serve the purpose of advertising that school’s work and helping them secure more grant money. Even if the science is sound, the resulting press release may itself be a bit over-blown.

In particular, the recent University of Rochester news about a sleep study, suggesting that sleep is when the brain does the lion’s share of its cleanup, has received a huge amount of press, both locally and nationally. Most of it has gushed effusive enthusiasm, because of course, we all love sleep.

But while the findings of the report are significant, they are probably more significant in the context of the work the University has been doing on the glial gridwork of maintenance systems in the brain. That work is ongoing, very significant, but ultimately inconclusive. On it’s own, this one study just confirms a long-standing assumption of the nature of our circadian rhythm: that our down time is spent patching up our bodies for the next day.

Since that thirty second segment on the morning news may be the only science news a lot of people ever see in a day, it is important not to over sell it. And if a significant part of journalism is trying to convince an audience that the news you’re reporting on is worth reading (it is), then the temptation to amp it up is a pretty natural outcropping.

But science “facts” have a curious way of boomeranging in our culture, disappearing into the echo chamber and coming out as something bizarre. It is worth slowing down when discussing science publicly to at least acknowledge what we do not know.

So, it appears that 13WHAM has a new website. Cool! Layout’s a bit more modern (though not responsive), the top navigation is a bit more direct way of navigating the site. All good.

But if you Google News search “Boyum” on 13wham, you get nothing more than a few days old. If you do a straight Google search, you get a bunch of dead links.

Neither is this restricted to current events. By my count, I have made reference to 13WHAM stories on this blog no less than 100 times in the last few years. None of those links seems to work (I’m not trawling through all 100 posts. But a random search is convincing).

It would be unfortunate if this media was permanently lost. A news media org is a lot of things, but it is also – or should also be – a repository of historical record. Past news articles capture the understanding of events as they unfolded, including quotes from relevant players and contextual information that can often get lost in the debates. That is especially true in an always-on, socially networked culture.

And speaking of networked, historical media ought also to be kept exactly where it was placed. Many online media pubs, including this one, link to stories found in mainstream media outlets such as 13WHAM. This blog maintains “permalinks,” meaning that the link to this article you see in your browser’s URL bar will not change over time. It includes the date and title of the post right in the URL. Regardless of structure, however, when a media outlet chooses to move (or, let’s hope not delete) its content, the links to their content break on this one.

Poof! Paragraphs of highly relevant historical content, gone in a whim. Lest you think this unimportant, I will point out that nearly 60% of my monthly traffic comes from Google searches, as I suspect is the case for most alternative online media. People go searching for a topic, find my article, and link to content I used as source material. Except now they cannot do that with 13WHAM links.

This data can’t really be gone, can it? If not, then where is it and why did 13WHAM chose to break all my contextual information?

A company or website’s media is, ultimately, theirs. They can do what they like with it. I’m hopeful that this is an oversight that the company plans on correcting soon. And anyway, it is certainly true that other media outlets ( @DandC ahem ) have a bad habit of hiding their old content in archives that break links and lose meaning. But if I were a journalist working for 13WHAM, I would be pretty disappointed that, starting now, I’ll no longer be able to reference any of my hard work and effort in upcoming news articles. Because it is all gone?

Please. Tell me this is not the case.

Late Update: Gotta love Twitter:

It is nearly impossible to stop paying attention to scary things, once they’re revealed. And in a click-hungry Internet media landscape (hey: guilty as charged), it is even harder not to want to write articles that you know are going to get clicks, even if they aren’t the most reputable or useful content.

So now that we’ve had our meteor visit in Russia and lots of “near misses” by other space debris – including one that came closer to us than our own satellites – it is easy to spend a lot of time and energy on these types of things. Why not? It is both scary and awe-inspiring to think of things unknown to us floating in space on a collision course with our Earth:

Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, thinks we can do something about that. Hubbard, a former director of NASA Ames Research Center, is also the program architect for the B612 Foundation, which aims to track down the hundreds of thousands of unknown asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.

But the uncomfortable truth is that the Big Bang never stopped and the placid, gently floating galaxy you saw in Discovery Channel documentaries simply doesn’t exist. The universe is a dynamic, ongoing explosion, filled with lots of gas, lots of planets, lots of stars and yes, lots and lots of debris. The Earth itself is orbiting the Sun at a rate of approximately 67k miles an hour, which is itself rotating around the Milky Way at an estimated 8,700 miles per hour.

Basically, you’ve got a lot of crap spinning at a super-high rate of speed around a lot of other crap. And with more than a little regularity, some crap collides with other crap and you get a giant, intergalactic crap explosion. Bigger the crap, bigger the explosion.

And as pitifully expendable sacs of protoplasm stuck on Earth, we worry that even a small bit of debris could end us.

Galactically speaking, not an unreasonable concern. But what happened in Russia – and the media frenzy that ensued – is evidence not of our vulnerability, but of the extraordinary rareness of such events on a human scale. Debris hits our planet with perhaps disconcerting regularity, but does so completely unnoticed most of the time. That’s because not all space debris is measured in bus or football field lengths. And those large objects that do occasionally hit our planet happen on a regular albeit slow schedule, without wiping out life on Earth, let alone the Earth herself.

Sure. A city the size of San Francisco could suddenly cease to be. But hey! As long as you’re not there, you can say you “remember them when.”

The truth is that as dynamic and violent as our universe is, it is also quite big. And collisions with our Earth of the type we worry about are extremely rare. So I would hold off on that shooting spree you’ve been contemplating: there’s every reason to believe you’ll still be here to pay the piper.

Pew Internet Research put out an analysis of Twitter conversation and compared that to its own public opinion polling. The results of their analysis? From the headline, “Twitter Reaction to Events Often at Odds with Overall Public Opinion.”

Pew’s search and analysis parter, Crimson Hexagon, took a three-day sample of tweets which contained words or phrases relevant to a given hot-button news item and analyzed them for positive or negative terms as described in their methodology:

The data on Twitter comes from an analysis of all publicly available Tweets. The time period for each event varied, but none included more than three days worth of reaction. For each subject, multiple search terms were used to identify appropriate tweets. For example, to find messages commenting on President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Speech, Tweets were included if they appeared in the four hours following the start of his speech and used the words “state” and “union,” or “Obama,” or “SOTU.”

Unlike most human coding, CH does not measure each post as a unit, but examines the entire discussion in the aggregate. To do that, the algorithm breaks up all relevant texts into subsections. Rather than dividing each Tweet, paragraph, sentence or word, CH treats the “assertion” as the unit of measurement. If 40% of a story fits into one category, and 60% fits into another, the software will divide the text accordingly. Consequently, the results are not expressed in percent of Tweets, but rather the percent of assertions out of the entire body of stories identified by the original Boolean search terms.

But while we can argue about the efficacy of their methods (more on that later), the media seems to be willfully getting the results wrong. Check out a quick sample of the headlines:

Sample of conservative reactions by Twitterverse, at odds with the Daily Caller’s miopic understanding of reality. Source: Pew

This list even includes a majority of tech-savvy websites. The Daily Caller (ever the picture of reliable reportage) even took to interpreting the report as calling Twitter “a liberal, miopic, negative place.” This, despite the fact that the report clearly says that the Twitterverse occasionally breaks Conservative when public sentiment is Liberal. But there is a big difference between opinion on Twitter being “at odds” with general public opinion and not being a “reliable” indicator.

For a start, when 16% of Americans all share a common demographic bond – our affinity for Twitter – it should not be at all surprising that we share a common set of opinions. Neither should it be surprising that those opinions differ from a wider sample of the public.

Moreover, public opinion changes. It changes as people learn more about things and as facts present themselves. That very often takes more than three days for a lot of people. Twitter being heavily weighted to breaking news, tweeps have a tendency to be ahead of the curve.

We tweeps tend to “watch” the news unfold more or less together in real-time, so social reaction must also play its part. Twitter users have also been shown to be “influencers,” meaning we tend to voice our opinions to our friends more often than the average bear, you might say. It would be interesting to do the same sample, three days after a news break and then the following three days, to see if there is any change in the dichotomy between popular and Twitter sentiment.

But all of this presumes that Pew’s research is accurate. This is a very dicey affair, as indeed all public opinion polling is. But in this case, instead of speaking directly with tweeps, they’re using aggregation and analysis software to decide what is “positive” vs. “negative” or “conservative” vs. “liberal.” We are nowhere near a level of confidence in “Big Data” analysis of this type to consider this analysis anything other than hugely questionable.

The algorithms Crimson Hexagon uses would need to interpret tweets according to whether or not they’re really relevant to a given topic, whether the tweet was being sarcastic or some other form of humor, and whether the “negative” words are a function of genuine negativity or simple a reflection of language. Buffalo alone would be enough to give coders cold sweats, trying to interpret all that negativity.

And of course, it needs to be pointed out: Pew’s opinion polls do not reflect public sentiment any more accurately than Twitter, simply because Pew says they do. I am a big fan of Pew’s work – I cite it a lot, especially on (irony alert) Twitter. But by no means does this study reflect any kind of scientific fidelity.

As a science blogger, I am of course always happy to see more science news making it into the mainstream reports on a daily basis. But there are downsides for those of us who have taken up the task of reporting on scientific discovery, which are the over interpretation and rash judgement that come with a poor understanding of either the material before us or the basics of science. Rather than sticking to what a given study or announcement means, it is easy – even desirable – to take that information to what we believe is its logical next step.

The trouble is: science is inherently esoteric. You’ve never heard what you’re about to read in my blog about Science Topic A because Science Topic A may not have even existed before the study concluded. It makes sense to make science news accessible to the audience by tying it to our daily lives, otherwise much of your audience may have not frame of reference. To do that sometimes requires a bit of imagination. And a few liberties.

After two years or more of science blogging, I have continually discovered that threading the needle between good, imaginative writing and fidelity to the truth is an ongoing process. You don’t win them all, either. So it is easy both for me to criticize other media outlets for failing to meet the benchmark, and for anyone else to find a good example of me failing as badly. But if there is one thing any writer with any interest in factual reporting must absolutely, positively and unequivocally follow, it is this:

Studies have findings, but those findings are not automatically facts.

One recent example of good science reported poorly is the recent University of Illinois study that came to the conclusion that talking to your kids about your own past drug use might actually encourage a view of drugs as being more socially acceptable . But let me not put words in the researchers’ mouths:

“Parents may want to reconsider whether they should talk to their kids about times when they used substances in the past and not volunteer such information, Kam said. “Of course, it is important to remember this study is one of the first to examine the associations between parents’ references to their own past substance use and their adolescent children’s subsequent perceptions and behaviors.”

Its that second sentence that’s the killer, here. Because most of the mainstream media seems to have completely discounted it.

After thirty plus years and billions of dollars spent encouraging parents to talk to their kids about drugs, this new study seems to completely smack an axiom across the face. And it does. But these are findings from a single study, not facts to be reported as such and acted upon by your audience. The study cries out for further investigation, and it is sure to prompt a lot of debate and future research. It just isn’t quite as reliable as, say, our understanding of the boiling point of water.

Digging into the study itself is difficult – once again, this particular wing of the scientific community opts to publish its reports on paywalled scientific journals, rather than publicly – but the scope of the study seems to have been intentionally very limited. They sought to answer a simple question: does the fact that a parent has discussed their past drug use with their children automatically mean that those children will not support the use of drugs? The finding was “no.”

But what does “talking” mean, exactly? What else do the parents discuss besides drugs? With whom are they discussing drugs, besides their children? And if parents do not discuss drug use with their kids, how does this study determine whether those parents ever did drugs in the first place?

It is neither helpful to simply discount the findings nor report them as fact. But using language a bit more clearly, for example saying “new study suggests..” rather than “researchers discover..” would be a good first step. Headlines that tag “study finds” at the end of the sentence, as in “Don’t talk to your kids about drugs, study finds,” are also rather weak on the veracity. And it is hard not to imagine that our current climate of report-first cable news is incapable of such subtlety.

The differences have consequences. Take for example a recent TED talk by neuroscientist Molly Crockett on the crazy reinterpretation of her work that she has experienced, as a good conclusion to this article:

By now, most of you may be aware that Channel 13 was recently bought by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair is one of the juggernauts of media consolidation, from their own “About” page:

Sinclair owns and operates, programs or provides sales services to 87 television stations in 47 markets. Sinclair’s television group reaches approximately 27.1% of US television households and includes FOX, ABC, MyTV, CW, CBS, NBC, MTN and Azteca affiliates.

What you may not know is that, because of the change in ownership at WHAM, new policy changes regarding social media are going to potentially have a big impact on your relationship with the social media journalists, of which 13WHAM’s media team are among the best in our market. Because it is apparently the policy of Sinclair Broadcast to take ownership of social media accounts of on-air talent. This means that a social media account of your local broadcast journalist would now include full administrative rights given to the company: Lois Lane’s boss is now looking over her shoulder, whether you know it or not.

You may already have noticed that a few of the on-air talents at 13WHAM have already changed their Twitter accounts, adding new ones that are marked as 13WHAM. Rachel Barnhart, Evan Dawson and Norma Holland have all done this, more may follow suit. They’re doing this because the company is asking for separate accounts, rather than attempting to take ownership of these journalists’ personal accounts.

Romenesko broke the story of Rachel Barnhart posting the news to her extremely large and active social media following:

Barnhart points out in the comments on her post: “The big benefit for stations is owning a reporter’s relationship with followers. The reporter can’t take the following with her if she leaves for a competitor or anywhere else.” She adds: “I don’t consider this a muzzle, as I can continue to use my own accounts, primarily as I have been. I just have to maintain additional work-only accounts.”

This precedent has many in local media both concerned for their own privacy and worried about the long-term effects this type of corporate control may have on free speech and the ability of a social media journalist to establish trust with their audiences. Calling it “silly and misguided,” journalists point out that the need for corporate control misses the point of social media entirely and as Rachel eludes to above, basically takes ownership of a professional’s ability to practice their profession.

Both legally and ethically, the corporate take-over presents a bit of a problem. Because it is already well established that your boss cannot ask for nor assume administrative access to your social network account profiles. They’re not allowed to ask for your password in pre-hire and they certainly cannot establish any level of ownership after hiring you. Journalists are many things, but they are employees of the companies they work for. The insistence on creating separate profiles is, to put it mildly, too cute by half.

There is absolutely no distinction to be made between owning one account and having administrative rights to the other. Because a social network account is a profile. It is a means of direct access to any person, but especially a journalist. Journalists at 13WHAM will be “encouraged” to use their corporate owned Twitter accounts when doing live tweeting or other “business” related to the news. Sooner rather than later, the audience will see the WHAM account as the authoritative one.

But beyond your local social journo and their boss, the title of this post did mention you, did it not? Oh, yes. It does. The reason is that, beyond merely 13WHAM, Sinclair also owns Fox 31 and rochesterhomepage.net, and presumably all the social media accounts you’ve been following related to Fox. And they’ve owned the local Fox affiliate for a long time. That means that all those things about you that Facebook already knows are also the purview of Sinclair Broadcasting Group already, if you’ve done any interacting with their Facebook presence. This would include:

  • Your comments on those posts and tweets.
  • Your posts to their Wall
  • Oh, yes. This absolutely does include the stuff you or they deleted in those times when you might have gotten a little carried away.
  • Semi-private messages such as DMs on Twitter.

Your privacy is a part of this. And any time you make contact with any of 13WHAM’s on-air personalities through their official accounts (and for those who haven’t already changed their accounts, who knows??) are now within a quick glance from any Program Director with the curiosity to look.

And if none of this strikes you as a problem because you have “nothing to hide,” what about those who do? Local media rarely works with Deep Throat and those that might would probably not opt for the barely-safe social media accounts they have. But people with tips about their companies? Victims of violence or scams who want someone to know but didn’t want to go public?

We can tut-tut about privacy all we like – who would use a social media account to pass private information? – but in this modern era, I am personally aware of many stories broken via first leads over social media accounts. And if those same leads could not trust to whom they spoke, would they be as willing?

Mitt Romney’s transition team website went live for a few embarrassing minutes. Of course, he had a transition website: you don’t just build one from scratch without a little advanced planning. But what that website looks like and what his plan might have been would have been interesting info to have been able to peek at. Unfortunately, the folks who caught on to the site at Politicalwire.com were only able to get screen captures of what was there. Basically, they took a picture of their screen while looking at the website.

Screen captures are better than nothing. But they suffer from a number of pesky problems. For a start, you can only see what was on the screen at the time: any content that might have required you to scroll down the page is not visible. Also, you’re limited to the number of pages they were able to screen cap. Additional information would have been lost. Finally as one nuts-and-bolts disadvantage, you can’t copy and paste text from an image. Who wants to transcribe? What is this, 1990? ( #LazyAsHell )

What would be really good would be to actually capture the documents themselves: all the individual pages, with links, text and images, reassembled for viewing elsewhere.

And you can do just that with software variously called “offline browsers,” or “web spiders.” The role of an offline reader is to basically harvest an entire website and recreate it on your desktop. Webreaper, SuperBot, HTTrack. There are a host of options and they all do more or less the same thing. In fact, there are even plugins for Chrome and FireFox as well as apps for iPhone and Android.

Most have nice, user-friendly user interfaces and require very little tech savvy to operate. Just tell your chosen tool the URL you’d like to start on and click “Go,” or whatever. They just crawl right though the site, capturing each individual page as they go, then following the links on the page to find more to capture.

So, enterprising information-seekers – be they bloggers, journalists or just the frequently-curious – would do well to have a suite of these tools on-hand for whenever they might need them. Users should be cautioned, however, that republishing the content of another site on your own might well run afoul of copyright laws. Still, fair use is a reasonable enough argument for keeping records of government and political websites at minimum.