Fox viewers know less than those who get no news; NPR listeners know the most

People who get news only from Fox News know less about current events than those who get no news at all, according to a national survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind. Those who listen to National Public Radio know the most, especially on international affairs.

The study asked 1,185 respondents nationwide what news sources they had consumed in the past week, then asked a variety of questions about current political and economic events in the United States and abroad.

People who watched only Fox News did significantly worse on the questions than those who reported watching no media at all. “The largest effect is that of Fox News,” according to the university’s announcement.

At the other end of the scale, those who listened only to NPR and Sunday morning talk shows did best on the test. Those who get all their news from comedian Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) also did significantly better than average.

Those who watch CNN did slightly better than those getting no news. Those watching MSNBC did slightly better on domestic matters, but slightly worse on international affairs than those with no news exposure than those who had no news exposure.


‘Why not?’ is the wrong question for whether to share

As a rule, most New Year’s resolutions are shot to hell by now, but as I look over the ones I posted 12/30, I have to give myself a B-minus. More importantly, keeping these in the front of my mind has helped me realize that, in the push for more engagement, we’ve been asking the wrong question — “Why not?” — instead of “Why?”.

I started down this mental bunny trail a few months ago, when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s new timeline and, more to the point, emphasis on “frictionless sharing.” Sounds nice, but what it comes down to is removing filters. Initially, my concerns about this had to do with privacy — feeling it isn’t always a good idea to let the world know where you go and what you’re listening to or reading. That concern remains, but as I’ve implemented my resolutions, I’ve become more aware that there’s an equally good reason: Not to bore you to death.

I’m curious as to whether you’re sharing more or less, especially the pointless stuff (you know what that is, at least for you). I keep looking for some numbers on posting, but haven’t seen any.

I have seen a surprising number of folks shut down their Facebook pages lately, though they seem to keep their Twitter accounts, for which I’m glad. I’d miss them. But I don’t think it’s necessary — yet — to shut down an account, any more than it’s necessary to have our mouths sewn shut. It’s probably enough to ask ourselves why on earth we would inflict a particular brain dropping on our friends.

So here’s a rehash of the resolutions, and my own self-grading of them.

    • Random puppy pictures. – A
    • Photos or status updates involving anybody who hasn’t specifically asked me to post about them. – B+
    • Rants and snarky comments about rude drivers or retail store lines. C+. I’m grading myself easily on this one because it’s such a temptation. Just yesterday, I caught myself before I bored you with such tidbits as how crowded a store parking lot was, how much gasoline has gone up since Christmas and how much a bucket of black paint cost. But I had to take off points for whining about those blister packs that are hard to open.
    • Links to breaking news, scores and other stuff everybody else is posting at the same time. – C. I’m still posting news links, but focusing on the offbeat or useful stuff related to my own work and particular interests. But I’m sure I’ve slipped up some, especially on Twitter, where I post more links from Reader and Current.
    • My whereabouts, or yours. – A. My Gowalla and Foursquare accounts remain happily dormant.
    • What I’m eating or drinking, what music I’m listening to, and what I’m watching on TV. – A.
    • God or politics, except for occasional links to interesting articles. – C-. I slipped into some serious snarkery during coverage of the Iowa caucuses. I changed this from an “F” because there is some value to participating in an extended conversation during a national event.
    • Sports team battle cries, trash talk and opinions on coaches or officials. – A. If I can make it through the BCS Championship game without sinning, I’m going to apply for Social Sainthood. As above, I do reserve the right to participate in a Twitter conversation during the game.
    • Pep talks and inspirational quotes. – A+. Can’t think of any slips on that.
    • Anything that, to my knowledge, is protected by copyright. – B+. I used a graphic from the Pew Research Center on, but I embedded the URL from their site and linked back to their study. I think that’s within the boundaries of “fair use,” but I still dinged myself for it.

How one spam tool decides if you’re a spammer (this caught a bunch of my folks, BTW)

Hey, Twitter buds … a lot of you are apparently doing something that makes the Twitter anti-spam tool, Twit Cleaner, think you’re spammers.

This includes folks I know in real life, like reporters, public relations colleagues, erstwhile co-workers, auctioneers, and clients.

To be fair, Twit Cleaner doesn’t label all of you as dirty rotten spammers, per se. It says some are just guilty of occasional “dodgy behavior” that makes you sub-ideal tweeps.

Keep in mind, this is only one site, using an automated algorithm to determine how worthwhile you are. Heaven knows, those of us whose Klout scores have zoomed up and down like a Republican president candidate can appreciate the weakness of automated assessments.

All the same, it was at the top of one recent list of tools, so it wouldn’t hurt to look at what your offenses were. (Note that in his comment to this post, developer Si Dawson points out that he seeks to ensure that normal behavior doesn’t get penalized. FourSquare, games and other apps shouldn’t hurt you unless you’re relying on them for most of your posts. As Si puts it, the best advice is to make sure you’re being a real person and not letting third-party apps do all your posting.)

So here goes, without naming names:

  1. Posting too many @’s. Actually, there was only one of these, and it was indeed a spammer that I thought I’d already blocked and reported. I’m pretty good about that, though we all miss one now and then.
  2. Nothing but links. Apparently, it didn’t like the fact that about 5% of you never post anything without a link. Picked up a lot of real people here, especially bloggers, journalists and agriculture sources. Don’t worry, guys. I’m keeping you.
  3. Repeating the same URLs. I can see this. It gets annoying when you put up a blog post and tweet it under six or seven different headlines. Might want to dial it back a bit. Got several very good reporters on this one.
  4. Posting identical tweets. Twit Cleaner dinged several of you, including a local restaurant and the Alabama PRSA chapter. Oops.
  5. App spam. For those of you using PaperLi and Foursquare, make a note that this particular tool really, really hates it when more than half your posts come from these apps.
  6. Not much activity. They don’t like it if you go a month without posting, or if you established an account and have posted fewer than 10 times. They don’t really call those guys spammers — just folks worth culling, and that makes sense. It’s mostly folks who got on Twitter and found it didn’t appeal to them. (Note to former Congressman Artur Davis – they got you on this one.)
  7. Don’t interact with anyone or hardly follow anyone. This the biggest category. It picked up a lot of folks I can live without, but there were also a lot of accounts set up just for specific types of links, like newspapers and TV stations. But it’s a good reminder that it’s a good idea to put the “social” in social media now and then.
  8. Too much tweeting. This only picked up one, but he averages 47 tweets a day. Make a note that if you’re using Twitterfeed to keep up a constant flow, you should stop it, right now. Cold turkey. Cut it off. Just say no.
  9. Self-obsessed. These are tweeters who talk about themselves more than 50% of the time.
  10. Relatively unpopular. Having fewer than 30% follow you back seems to trigger this. Have you checked your breath?

By the way, if you’re feeling either paranoid or careful, you can check to see how Twit Cleaner views you. Here’s what they said about me: “You’re awesome! Keep being your wonderful self – you don’t appear on anyone’s reports.”

Obviously, it can’t be all bad!


How to win an election in Alabama: Just arrest your opponent … and everybody else

You have to love Alabama. It’s the only state I know of where a crooked sheriff can throw his opponent, the local probate judge, and two reporters in jail a few days before the election — and still win.

I still remember the day I picked up a Birmingham News to see the photo of my friend Ron Casey and his co-worker John I. Jones beneath a headline about the arrest. Ron and I had become friends in the fall of 1972, when Ron was editor of The Crimson-White at the University of Alabama and I was a freshman journalism student.

Ron graduated and joined the staff of The Birmingham News, which hired me three years later. He and Jones were assigned to cover the election of Shelby County Sheriff Red Walker, possibly one of the most corrupt officials in Alabama history (which is saying quite a bit).

The story of how Ron and John landed in the Shelby County jail hasn’t been told in a while, and it’s too good to let it die. I learned a lot of bits and pieces of it over time, in hours of conversations with Ron and City Editor Clarke Stallworth.

Ron and John had the goods on Walker, and they wanted to meet with him face to face to give him chance to deny everything. Walker told them to meet him at the Triple J Ranch House restaurant in Alabaster.

When the reporters walked in, there were deputies waiting to cuff them and haul them off to the pokey. Walker said, “You boys are under arrest for conspiracy to kill or maim the sheriff.”

At the same time, deputies elsewhere were also busy arresting Walker’s opponent in the race (County Commissioner Bill Thompson) and his longtime political opponent Conrad “Bulley” Fowler. (As a side note and disclosure, Fowler was a lifelong friend of my father. Bulley, then a little kid, walked across the street and introduced himself the day Dad moved to Columbiana from Tallapoosa, Ga.)

Ron’s “one phone call” from the jail went to the city desk, and Ron had reason to worry. Stallworth had this running gag in which he would pretend not to know who Ron was and hang up on him. When Stallworth answered, Ron pleaded, “Clarke, please don’t hang up. John and I are in jail.”

It worked, and soon Stallworth was in touch with the newspaper’s attorney, Jim Barton, who got the reporters bailed out.

The charge of conspiring to kill the sheriff was bogus, of course. Walker just wanted everybody out of the way until after the election. The amazing thing, though, is that the voters re-elected Walker despite the extensive coverage of the arrests.

The inevitable lawsuits went well for the reporters, and the party they threw with the $21,000 in winnings became a legend in the newsroom. Ron bought himself the mother of all stereos.

Ron went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his editorial writing, and died of a heart attack at age 48, much too soon.


Why the ACLU & American Library Assn have asked the FTC to investigate Facebook

A lot of people have a vague sense of uneasiness about how how much privacy they’re giving up on Facebook, but few of us really understand the big picture. That’s because the information (like the things we share on Facebook) gets doled out in little pieces.

But 10 consumer organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association — have pulled together the most common concerns in a request that the Federal Trade Commission investigate their concerns, including Facebook’s new “frictionless sharing” and its tracking of your web activity even when you log out of Facebook.

As someone who has had two identity thefts (trust me, these are no fun), I strongly recommend you read this. I’m not advocating any particular course of action (I’m not even sure what I’m going to do yet), it is too important a decision to be made on autopilot.

Why Facebook may be topping out in the US

There are all kinds of social movements, including bull markets, political movements, entertainment obsessions, and many others. And they all come and go — sometimes leaving people and things changed permanently, sometimes not. But one trait they all share is that they all tend to blow themselves out just at the point when it appears that they have become the new reality.

Just a week before Black Friday ushered in the Great Depression, respected economist Irving Fisher said, “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

By 1971 (which is when the Sixties actually arrived for most of us), it appeared the Age of Aquarius really had dawned. Pot was everywhere, everybody had long hair, and people were signing up for meditation classes. Sure, we Nixon for a president, but the groundswell seemed irreversible — at least for Baby Boomers. Then, about 1974, it simply vaporized. Most of it, anyway. The demise of Nixon and the end of the Viet Nam war took all the wind out of the sails. Like all movements, it left us changed, but by 1975 or so, college students had quit going to TM classes and returned to traditional beer busts. Today, the Baby Boomers who made up the peace movement can be found at Tea Party rallies.

In the early 2000s, speculation was running rampant in real estate — especially condos and homes in Florida, Nevada and California. A developer would announce a new condo tower and people would come running. The flippers (speculators who would buy a condo and sell to a “greater fool” for a quick profit) would move in, and a unit would have three or four owners before the foundation was even finished. Everybody was convinced that the party would last forever. Then, in the fall of 2005, it all ended. The lucky flippers took their profits and went home, and the unlucky ones were left without a chair when the music stopped.

I know I’m oversimplifying this, but these and other movements all seem to have several characteristics at their end of their lives. One is that (almost by definition) they’re bigger than ever. In fact, so many people have jumped on the bandwagon that there are few people left to feed the movement. Then several things begin to happen. Velocity slows. Think of it the way you would a ball thrown into the air. At its highest levels, it looks like it may go forever, but gravity is taking hold, and the object finally begins to fall. The analogy breaks down there. Social movements don’t always crash to the ground. Some just reach a maintenance level where they become part of the landscape, but not the whole thing. My guess is that this will be Facebook’s fate, but it’s nothing more than a guess. I can’t prove it with numbers, but my sense of things is that some people are getting bored. Some have reconnected with friends and established non-Facebook ways of communicating with them, and they find their enthusiasm for the experience dwindling.

As Facebook runs out of people to add, the company’s only path to growth in the US (there’s still plenty of room to grow internationally) is to get people to stay online more. That’s because its primary way of making money is by showing you ads. The more you’re online, the more ads you see, and the more money Facebook makes. So Facebook keeps adding features and overhauling the site — to give us more to do and keep us online. But there are other factors that may be distorting the “time online” numbers, including third-party applications that keep people plugged in for Facebook chat purposes but don’t necessarily mean they’re on the site. That’s bad for business, because when we’re not on the site, we’re not seeing the ads and Facebook isn’t making money.

We have to assume Facebook’s engineers can tell which users are actually on the site and which are using apps like Digsby, Pidgin and eBuddy, but they keep that data close to the vest. They carefully spoon out the numbers that suit their purposes — total users, growth, etc. But when a social craze begins to blow out, the early signs aren’t always visible. How many are still members, still online regularly, but posting less? How many are reading less of their feed? Are people actively seeking new friends, as they do when it’s new and fresh, or are they content to stay with what they have? How much time are they spending on their profiles and photo albums? If the answers to these are available publicly, I don’t know where to find them. And if I were Facebook, I wouldn’t release them.

Visit Pew Internet Research

One thing we can see is the dramatic success of third-party sites and resources (Tumblr, Posterous, Blogger, WordPress and scores of others) where people can post longer thoughts and simply put links on Facebook, Twitter and other microblogging services. When I finish this post and save it, a WordPress plugin will automatically post it. The Disqus comment utility will route Facebook and Twitter comments back to, and I may not even look at the Facebook page. Millions are doing the same.

Looking more broadly at the Social Media phenomenon, see the accompanying chart in which the Pew organization tracks use by age groups since 2005. It is interesting that Social Media use generally fell among the youngest group measured, and growth seems to be flattening for the groups over 50. On a year-to-year rate-of-change basis, some of these changes are dramatic. Among the all-important Baby Boomers (ages 50-64), use of social networks grew by a whopping 88% in 2009-2010, but in the past year it grew by less than 8%. The oldest group (and the last to jump on the social bandwagon) — those over 65 — doubled a year ago, but the growth rate fell to 26%. These numbers, of course, are not specific to Facebook, but given Facebook’s huge piece of the pie, they still provide some useful hints, because Facebook tends to be the “entry level” social media site. I see lots of people in their 80s and 90s on Facebook, but not on Twitter.

One question that’s obsessed those of us who pay attention to such things is, what will replace it? Google+? Twitter? Something else entirely? We forget that the answer may well be nothing at all.

Since I’ve been a critic of Facebook’s privacy policies and its new features, such as OpenGraph and the new timeline, let me add that I’m doing my best to keep my own dissatisfaction out of this. I’m not predicting the end of Facebook. It isn’t dying. It’s not even sick, on the whole. It’s just hitting that point in its life cycle where the cracks begin to appear.

The other question is whether this is just about Facebook or about social media generally. It’s just a guess, but I think we’ll see the entire phenomenon lose steam in the next year or two.


Dear Birmingham News, we don’t “feel affects”

Ok, technically, “affect” is allowed as a non in specialized psychological uses, but that’s not what the governor’s column was about. Gov. Bentley talks about the state’s two nuclear plants, the Port of Mobile, and the need to provide security for sporting events. Those are effects, not affects.

The faster news is breaking, the more we should avoid cable news

We really can’t help ourselves. We have to know everything the minute it happens.

Qaddafi’s sons are taken prisoner.

No, wait, one just showed up at the hotel. Seems his guys busted him out.

Hold that thought. Now we’re hearing that the other son is still in custody.

Oh wait, no he isn’t. Our bad. Seems Son #2 is the one who busted out. The first son may not have ever been arrested in the first place.

Remember, you heard it here first.

With 24 hours of air time to filll, CNN and Fox throw it all out there. And we keep lapping it up, as if we know something.

As I’ve said before, we could save ourselves a lot of time if we’d just read a mainstream news source once a day. I usually go to, but you can take your pick.

Not satisfied? OK, do it every few hours if you like.

But no more.

We don’t know more by staying glued to the tube. We know more that isn’t true. We take in “facts” that get discredited within minutes but stay in our minds — and often, on the air — for days.

Do yourself a favor. Quit watching the news and start reading it.



Nutrition for your brain: Where do you go for real info when cable networks let you down?

I find myself spending less time every day with the cable news networks, or at least trying to. In the same way I’m trying to eat less junk food and more stuff that’s actually good for me. 

Cable news was a great idea, but it has given up. The networks no longer even try to cover news. Reporters — the few they have — don’t even do stories any more. They do stand-ups in front of something that looks like a place where news might be happening and get interviewed by the anchors, most of whom are the lightest of weights. When I was a rookie at The Birmingham News, veteran Montgomery reporter Al Fox saw this coming. “Reporters interviewing reporters. That’s all they’re going,” he said. I can imagine what he’d say about the current state off TV news, but I probably wouldn’t repeat it in polite company. After a few seconds of interviewing reporters, they interview their regular “analysts,” who spout the talking points issued that afternoon by their party hacks. 

(Digression: In a Colin Powell biography I read, he got especially frustrated with a “retired” general commenting on war efforts. He said, “Somebody pull that guy’s file. I’m gonna reactivate his ass.” Not a bad idea, except that then we’d end up with them back in office. Um, no thanks.)

So is it hopeless? Not at all. There’s actually a lot of very good reporting being done. It’s just not being done on TV. (So what? It’s much faster to read a story on the web anyway, and you don’t have to wait for the stories that interest you to come on.) My personal favorites are, & For in-depth stories, don’t overlook Atlantic and New Yorker ($2.99 a month on your Kindle and worth five times that).

But don’t forget your local daily newspaper. We focus too much on Washington & let our local politicians run amok right under our noses. (See: Jefferson County, Ala.) If more people paid attention to the Birmingham News, 

Google+ may look more like Facebook, but it feels more like Twitter

While the whole Google+ conversation has revolved around whether people will switch over from Facebook, I’m starting to think it’s Twitter that might suffer. That notion grew out of a conversation with +John Schultz in Orlando a while ago. At least in my little corner of the universe, the people here seem to be coming from Twitter, which reflects Twitter’s base of younger, more sophisticated users. I suspect the Facebook users, many of whom are relative newcomers to Social Media, are too entrenched. 

Aaron Traffas made an interesting quip this morning that for some of us (me included), we don’t mind if somebody sees us checking Twitter on our smartphones, but we’re embarrassed if they see us checking Facebook. Maybe it’s the silly games and viruses on Facebook. I don’t know, but Twitter does seem cooler. 

MySpace got totally goofy, and people junked up their pages to the point you couldn’t even read their profiles. Facebook managed to keep the interface uniform but let the games, horoscopes and other apps take over. If G+ can keep a lid on that, I think it will attract the Twitter crowd, which could eventually migrate here.

So far, while G+ looks like Facebook, it feels more like Twitter.