1.4 Trust and Reliability

In this emergent global conversation, as we ride a tsunami of information, what can we trust?

Trust and credibility issues are not new to the Digital Age. Journalists of the past have faced these questions again and again, and the Industrial Age rise of what people called “objective journalism”—allegedly unbiased reporting—clearly did not solve the problem.

We don’t have to look back very far to note some egregious cases. The New York Times’s Jayson Blair saga, in which a young reporter spun interviews and other details from whole cloth, showed that even the best news organizations are vulnerable. The Washington press corps, with dismayingly few exceptions, served as a stenography pool for the government in the run-up to the Iraq War. And so on.

The credibility problem of traditional media goes much deeper. Almost everyone who has ever been the subject of a news story can point to small and sometimes large errors of fact or nuance, or to quotes that, while perhaps accurate, are presented out of their original context in ways that change their intended meaning. It’s rarely deliberate; shallowness is a more common media failing than malice.

Having said that, I greatly appreciate what traditional news people give us in many cases: their best efforts in a deadline-driven craft. Despite the minor errors, the better media organizations get things pretty much right (except, of course, when they go horribly awry, as in missing the financial bubble until it was too late). The small mistakes undermine any notion of absolute trust, but I tend to have some faith that there’s still something worthwhile about the overall effort.

Most traditional media organizations try to avoid the worst excesses of bad journalism through processes aimed both at preventing mistakes and, when they inevitably occur, setting the record straight. Yet too many practitioners are bizarrely reluctant to do so. As I write this, it has been more than a year since the Washington Post published an editorial based on an absolutely false premise, which I documented in my blog and passed along to the paper’s ombudsman, who passed it along to the editorial page editor. The editorial page has neither corrected nor acknowledged the error, an outrageous failure of its journalistic responsibility.

I still don’t know why the Post refuses to deal with this mistake, now compounded through inaction, but I do know that the silence betrays another major failing in the mass media: a lack of transparency from people who demand it of others. I’ll discuss this at much greater length later. (On the subject of transparency, I should note that I have relationships, financial and otherwise, with some of the institutions and people I discuss or quote in this book. My online disclosure page, dangillmor.com/about, lists many such relationships, and I’ll mention them in this book either directly or with appropriate links.)

One of the most serious failings of traditional journalism has been its reluctance to focus critical attention on a powerful player in our society: journalism itself. The Fourth Estate rarely gives itself the same scrutiny it sometimes applies to the other major institutions. (I say “sometimes” because, as we’ve seen in recent years, journalists’ most ardent scrutiny has been aimed at celebrities, not the governments, businesses and other entities that have the most influence, often malignant, on our lives.)

A few small publications, notably the Columbia Journalism Review, have provided valuable coverage of the news business over the years. But these publications circulate mostly within the field and can look at only a sliver of the pie. As we’ll see in upcoming chapters, the “Fifth Estate” of online media critics is helping to fill the gap.

The new media environment, however rich with potential for excellence, has more than a few reliability issues of its own. It’s at least equally open to error, honest or otherwise, and persuasion morphs into manipulation more readily than ever. There’s a difference between lack of transparency and deception, though. Some of the more worrisome examples of this fall in the political arena, but less-than-honorable media tactics span a wide spectrum of society’s activities.

Consider just a few examples:

  • Procter & Gamble and Walmart, among other major companies, have been caught compensating bloggers and social networkers for promoting the firms or their products without disclosing their corporate ties. This stealth marketing, a malignant form of what’s known as “buzz marketing,” caused mini-uproars in the blogging community, but a frequently asked question was whether these campaigns were, as most believe, just the tip of the iceberg of paid influence.
  • Meanwhile, new media companies have created the blogging and social networking equivalents of the “advertorials” we find in newspapers, compensating people for blogging, Tweeting and the like and not always providing or requiring adequate disclosure. Federal regulators have been sufficiently alarmed by these and other practices that they’ve enacted regulations aimed at halting abuses; unfortunately, as we’ll see later, the new rules could go too far if enforced too strictly.
  • President Barack Obama has been the target of mostly shadowy, though sometime overt, rumors and outright lies. They range from the laughable to the truly slimy. What they have in common is that during the election campaign they were plainly designed to poison voters’ attitudes in swing states. During Obama’s presidency, they have been designed to discredit his authority among a large swath of the American people. The people behind these campaigns have succeeded to a degree that should scare every honest citizen. A nontrivial percentage of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim and originally a citizen of Kenya. If the latter were true, which it is not, Obama would be disqualified from holding his office.
  • On blogs and many other sites where conversation among the audience is part of the mix, we often encounter sock puppets—people posting under pseudonyms instead of their real names, and either promoting their own work or denigrating their opponents, sometimes in the crudest ways. As with the buzz marketing, it’s widely believed that the ones getting caught are a small percentage of the ones misusing these online forums. Sock puppetry predates the Internet and has never gone out of style in traditional media, but it’s easier than ever to pull off online.

Craig Newmark, founder of the craigslist online advertising and community site, famously says that most people online are good and that a tiny percentage do the vast majority of the harm. This is undoubtedly correct. Yet as Craig, a friend, would be the first to say, knowing that doesn’t solve the problem; it takes individual and community effort, too.

In a world with seemingly infinite sources of information, trust is harder to establish. But we can make a start by becoming better informed about what we read, hear and watch.

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