5.10 Can Honor Prevail?

A few years ago, when I was working on my Bayosphere local media startup, my co-founder, Michael Goff, and I wondered how we could do more than simply encourage Bayosphere’s citizen journalists to operate according to the best principles of journalism in their posts and comments. We came up with an idea that failed, like the overall site, but I still believe it had some merit.

The notion, which we called “Honor Tags,” was meant to be a system by which site participants could label themselves as “journalists,” “advocates,” or “neither,” with clear definitions for the first two roles. We hoped to persuade people to assess themselves and their own work, and we had in mind a second-level system by which others in the community could judge whether the tags were accurate. The idea was modestly praised by some as a potentially valuable system, and mercilessly ridiculed by others as utopian nuttiness.

The key value we hoped to instill, however, has not faded at all. If honor isn’t a part of how we do our work, we’ll forfeit any reason to be trusted.

This is why I sometimes despair about professional journalists’ rampant violations of their own standards at the media organizations I respect the most, such as the New York Times, where anonymous sources still get too-free reign. Yet it’s also why I nod with satisfaction when I see a news operation work harder to explain itself and its work, and why I grin at the many experiments aimed at adding transparency and accountability—elements of honor—to journalism at all levels.

News providers of all stripes can announce their standards. If you’re one of them, you should do so and live up to them, admitting publicly when you fail. In the end, community members, doing commerce in the fabled marketplace of ideas, will enforce them.

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