You may have noticed — you could hardly miss it — the current blizzard of one-year anniversary stories about the fall of Lehman Brothers, an event that helped spark last fall’s financial meltdown. The coverage mainly reminds me that journalists failed to do their jobs before last fall’s crisis emerged, and have continued to fail since then.
It also reminds me of a few pet peeves about the way traditional journalists operate. So here’s a list of 11 things I’d insist on, just for starters, if I ran a news organization. Why 11? See the last item.
1. We would not run anniversary stories and commentary except in the rarest of circumstances. They are a refuge for lazy and unimaginative journalists.
2. We would invite our audience to participate in the journalism process, in a variety of ways that included crowdsourcing, audience blogging, wikis and many other techniques. We’d make it clear that we’re not looking for free labor — and will work to create a system that rewards contributors beyond a pat on the back — but want above all to promote a multi-directional flow of news and information in which the audience plays a vital role.
3. To that end, transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: Every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know” — a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organization’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.
4. We would create a service to notify online readers, should they choose to sign up for it, of errors we’ve learned about in our journalism. Users of this service could choose to be notified of major errors only (in our judgement) or all errors, however insignificant we may believe them to be.
5. We’d make conversation an essential element of our mission. Among other things:
- If we were a local newspaper, the editorial and op-ed pages would publish the best of, and be a guide to, the conversation the community was having with itself online and in other public forums, whether hosted by the news organization or someone else. Our website would link to a variety of commentary from the usual suspects, but syndicated columns would almost never appear in the print edition.
- Editorials would appear in blog format, as would letters to the editor.
- We would encourage comments and forums, but in moderated spaces that a) encouraged the use of real names and b) insisted on (and enforced) civility.
- Comments from people using verified real names would be listed first.
6. We would refuse to do stenography and call it journalism. If one faction or party to a dispute is lying, we would say so, with the accompanying evidence. If we learned that a significant number of people in our community believed a lie about an important person or issue, we would make it part of an ongoing mission to help them understand the truth.
7. We would replace certain Orwellian and PR-speakish words and expressions with more neutral, precise language. If someone we interview misused language, we would paraphrase instead of running direct quotes. Examples, among many others:
- So and so is not worth some amount of money. He has financial holdings of that amount, or his wealth is such and such.
- The activity that takes place in casinos is gambling, not gaming.
- There are no death taxes. There can be inheritance or estate taxes.
- Health care paid for by taxpayers is not free.
- Practices for which this nation and its allies have successfully prosecuted others on war-crimes charges are torture, not “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
- A person who pays to stay in a hotel is not a guest. She is a customer. A guest, by definition, is not billed for the privilege.
- Piracy is what people carrying guns on the high seas do: capturing ships, stealing cargo and turning crews and passengers into hostages, sometimes murdering them. Piracy does not describe what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing networks.
8. We would embrace the hyperlink in every possible way. Our website would include the most comprehensive possible listing of other media in our community, whether we were a community of geography or interest. We’d link to all relevant blogs, photo-streams, video channels, database services and other material we could find, and use our editorial judgement to highlight the ones we consider best for the members of the community. And we’d liberally link from our journalism to other work and source material relevant to what we’re discussing, recognizing that we are not oracles but guides.
9. Our archives would be freely available, with permalinks on every single thing we’ve published as far back as possible, with APIs to help other people use our journalism in ways we haven’t considered ourselves.
10. A core mission of our work would be to help people in the community become informed users of media, not passive consumers — to understand why and how they can do this. We would work with schools and other institutions that recognize the necessity of critical thinking.
11. We would never publish lists of 10. They’re a prop for lazy and unimaginative people.