Here’s the fourth in a series of chapter drafts of the Mediactive book. (Here’s everything I’ve posted so far.) Remember, this is a draft, not the final version, though my editor and I believe we’re fairly close. Feel free to chime in with ideas about what I’ve missed and especially what I have gotten wrong, or send email. The chapter begins after the jump.
Becoming a Trusted Creator: Principles
This chapter addresses people who want to go beyond purely personal or speculative blogs or occasional appearances on YouTube and the like. It’s for those who have become mediactive consumers and now want to apply those principles to their own creative work online, especially if what they’re doing has a journalistic component in any way. I’m not aiming to turn you into a professional journalist, but I do hope you’ll understand what the principles of journalism are (or should be) and how they apply to a broader media-creation sphere. The more journalistic the writer (in the broadest sense) wants to be, the more important these principles become.
Like the consumer principles in Chapter 2 — the bedrock on which these new principles rest—they add up to being honorable. In brief, they involve:
Transparency is the new principle in the list, and will be most difficult for traditional media organizations even though it’s relatively common among bloggers. In the end, however, it may be the most important of all.
You’ll notice, meanwhile, that I don’t list “objectivity” as a principle for creators of journalism. It’s a fine ideal in theory, but impossible in practice because no human being is truly objective. We can get closer to it now than we ever have before, in part because the Internet’s built-in collaboration makes it easier to find counterpoints to our own views and for our critics to find us (and then for us to respond). Author and Net researcher David Weinberger calls transparency “the new objectivity,” but I believe all of the principles in my list contribute to approaching the ideal of objectivity.
Let’s look at the principles in more detail. You’ll see that the blur into each other at times; just as the principles for media consumers overlap. A major focus in this chapter will be on transparency, something I’m advocating more and more ardently in all kinds of communication. As with the sections on principles for consumers, I’ll flesh out some of the tactics to live up these principles in the next chapter.
Thoroughness: Do Your Homework, and Then Do Some More
You can’t know everything, but good reporters try to learn as much as they can about a topic. It’s better to know much more than you publish than to leave big holes in your story. The best reporters always want to make one more call, check with one more source.
I had a rule of thumb as a reporter. I tried to tell roughly 10 percent of what I knew in any story. That is, I was so overloaded with facts and information that I had to be extremely selective, not to hide things but to illuminate what really mattered.
In Chapter 2, I said you need to ask more questions. Whether you’re asking to be better informed, or to inform others, the digital world gives us nearly infinite tools for reporting, defined here as the gathering of information. None of them replace old-fashioned methods such as making phone callsand, of course, in-person interviews. You can do shoddy research online or off, but the learning opportunities provided today by online communications and resources remove almost any excuse for lack of background knowledge.
Let’s spend a minute on the in-person interview. Some of my journalism education colleagues worry that students aren’t getting enough real-world interview experience, or what we used to call “shoe leather” — getting out of the office and onto the street — journalism. It’s not easy to ask a stranger for information, at least not for most people. It’s even harder to ask probing questions. There are only two questions you should always ask, right at the end: 1) Is there anyone else should I talk to about this? 2) What didn’t I ask that I should have asked, and what’s the answer?
With so much online now, and with search engines increasingly able to locate what we’re looking for, the hunt has changed, generally for the better. But it’s important to remember that not everything is online, even now. Journalists and students seem to believe the world was created around 1983, when some of the first news media databases went online. A lot of what we need to understand the world still sits in libraries, county courthouses, and the like, and we should remember that those dusty paper stacks and files have plenty of value. Google can’t digitize everything. Not yet, anyway…
You can find all sorts of excellent material online about how to do research, moreover. I’ll list a bunch of them on the Mediactive website, but take a look, for starters, at the University of Washington Library’s “Research 101” site and the excellent News University collection at the Poynter Institute.
A publication or broadcast, in the online sphere, is only one stage in the development of a story. It should be part of a continuum that recognizes we never stop learning. Knowledge is not a static end-point but rather an ongoing process.
Online, we can take our research into amazing new directions, in particular by inviting our audience to be part of the discovery process. We can tell people what we’re working on, and ask them for help. As noted earlier, “crowdsourcing” has bolstered journalists’ research on many levels, but it’s only one of a number of ways to improve our reporting.
New facts and nuances emerge after articles are published. One of Wikipedia’s best characteristics is its recognition that we can liberate ourselves from the publication or broadcast metaphors made familiar during the age of literally manufactured media, where the paper product or tape for broadcasting was the end of the process. We may not get it totally right collectively, and in fact humans almost never get anything entirely right, but we can get closer as we assemble new data and nuance. I’ll discuss this further in Chapter 7.
Accuracy: Nail It Every Time
Factual errors—especially those that are easily avoidable—do more to undermine trust than almost any other failing. Accuracy is the starting point for all solid journalism. While it’s understandable, given deadline pressures, that errors occur, it’s still disheartening even in long-form journalism — such as magazines with human fact-checkers — some major and silly mistakes make their way into articles. And it’s stunning that professionals get things wrong when a simple Google check could have prevented the goof.
But accuracy rests on a bedrock of thoroughness, which takes time. It means, simply put: Check your facts, then check them again. Know where to look to verify claims or to separate fact from fiction. And never, ever, spell someone’s name wrong.
In my first daily-newspaper job I spelled the name of a company wrong through an entire article, and didn’t discover this until after publication. My mistake was simple: I got it wrong on first use as I wrote the story, and then, with the misspelling ingrained in my head, repeated the mistake every subsequent time. I didn’t go back and check. The next morning, my editor called me into a small conference room, pointed out the error(s)—the company’s owner had called the paper—and told me, “You’re better than this.” I felt about one foot tall. I abjectly apologized to the owner of the company, who took it with amazingly good humor, but I learned a longstanding lesson.
Getting it right means asking questions until you think you may know too much. Smart journalists know, moreover, that there are no stupid questions. Sometimes there are lazy questions, such as asking someone for information that you could have easily looked up; of course, asking a lazy question will not endear you to the person you’re interviewing. But if you don’t understand something, you should just ask for an explanation. I used to enjoy being the person at press conference who’d ask an obvious question that other reporters were too embarrassed to ask, for fear they’d seem ill-informed. I’d rather have someone snicker at me for being a newbie than to get something wrong.
When I wrote about technology, I frequently called sources back after interviews to read them a sentence or paragraph of what I planned to write, so they could tell me whether I’d succeeded in explaining their technical work in plain English. Usually I had it right, but sometimes a source would correct me or offer a nuance. This made the journalism better, and made my sources trust me more.
Accuracy online extends past publication. When you do make a mistake, you should obviously correct it. How to make corrections online is a new genre in itself. Here are several, in my order of preference:
- For significant errors and updates, correct in context, with a note at the top or the bottom of the piece explaining what has been changed, and why.
- For minor errors, such as a misspelled word, use the “strikeout” HTML tag to visibly put a line through the errant material and then add the correct word or words.
- Correct in place and, in a note on the item, link to a corrections page that explains what happened.
The one kind of correction I never advise is the one too often used: an in-place fix with no indication that anything was ever wrong in the first place. Again, remember that mistakes happen, but doing things honorably should always be the first order of business.
Fairness: Be Fair to Everyone
Fairness is a broader concept than accuracy or thoroughness. It encompasses several related notions:
- Even if you are coming at something from a specific bias or world view, you can be fair to those who oppose you by incorporating their views into your own work, even if simply to explain why you’re right and they’re wrong.
- Recognize that you can’t be perfectly fair, and that people will hear what you’ve said through the prisms of their own world views. It’s still worth trying.
- You can extend the principle of fairness after publication by inviting others to join the conversation.
- You can stress civility as the guiding principle for the conversation.
Why bother, especially if you don’t feel others are likely to reciprocate? First, it’s just the honorable approach. You want other people to deal with you in a fairly, especially when someone is criticizing what you’ve said or done. Do the same for them, and maybe they will take a similar approach even if they haven’t before.
Second, it pays back tactically in audience trust. The people who read or hear your work will feel cheated if you slant the facts or present opposing opinions disingenuously. Your reporting will be suspect once they realize—and they eventually will—what you’ve done.
How to be fair? Beyond the Golden Rule notion of treating people as you’d want to be treated, you can ensure that you offer a place for people to reply to what you (and your commentators) have posted. You can insist on civility both in your work and in the comments posted.
My rule when hosting a community is that we will be civil with each other even if we disagree on the issues. This can break down when someone joins a conversation under false pretenses. These can include some obvious behaviors, and others that are more subtle:
- Someone who is paid by some industry group or has an interest in its success, but who chimes in with opinions about matters of direct concern to the industry without revealing the connection or bias.
- Someone with ideological beliefs that influence his or her position in ways that go beyond a consideration of the facts and issues directly relevant to the position, but who presents the opinion as just the result of intuitive reasoning.
- Someone who has a history of unethically (perhaps even illegally) abusing the system in which he or she is participating for personal gain.
It’s important to expose the connections, if you detect them, while distinguishing the exposé from routine ad hominem attacks. Online community is hard work. as I’ll discuss in the next chapter, but it’s essential.
Another essential way to be fair is to use links. Point to a variety of material other than your own, to support what you’ve said and to offer varying perspectives.
Most of all, fairness requires that you hear what people are saying. Journalism is evolving from a lecture to a conversation, and the first rule of good conversation is to listen.
Think Independently, Especially Where Potential Biases of Your Own Are Involved
This is similar to the principle of independent thinking in Chapter 1. It can cover many habits, but independence of thought may be most important. Creators of media, not just consumers, need to venture beyond their personal comfort zones.
Professional journalists claim independence. They are typically forbidden to have direct or indirect financial conflicts of interest. But conflicts of interest are not always so easy to define. Many prominent Washington journalists, for example, are so blatantly beholden to their sources, and to access to those sources, that they are not independent in any real way, and their journalism reflects it.
Independent thinking has many facets. Listening, of course, is the best way to start. But you can and should relentlessly question your own conclusions after listening. It’s not enough to incorporate the views of opponents into what you write; if what they tell you is persuasive you have to consider shifting your conclusion, too.
I don’t believe it’s fair to demand independence of one’s own employer. Loyalty has its limits; I’d hope to speak out if an employer acted in grossly unethical ways, though I’d probably quit first. In general, however, we should expect that criticism of this kind is best done in person, behind a closed door. An organization decides its own level of public disclosures, and some internal criticism—especially the kind that might be fodder for a plaintiff’s lawyer—is unlikely to see sunlight.
This brings us to the truly new principle for tomorrow’s journalists: embracing much more openness than they’ve ever tried in the past.
Transparency: Practice and Demand It
This is essential not just for citizen journalists and other new-media creators but also for those in traditional media. The kind and extent of transparency may differ. For example, bloggers should reveal biases. Meanwhile, Big Media employees may have pledged individually not to have conflicts of interest, but that doesn’t mean they work without bias. They should help their audiences understand what they do, and why.
Transparency in the traditional ranks has scarcely existed for most of the past century. While journalists are more publicly open than many other industries in at least some ways, there’s a notable hypocrisy quotient. As we demand answers from others, we should look in the mirror and ask some of the same questions.
Scandal, for the most part, has forced open the doors to a degree. The Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times led the newspaper to describe in lurid detail what had happened. It also led to the creation of a “public editor” post, analogous to the position of ombudsman.
But openness goes only so far in Big Media. The Washington Post, one of America’s best newspapers in the past quarter century, flunked a major transparency test in 2009, as I’ll describe in the next section of this chapter. Unfortunately, the Post is in good, or at least typical, company. The journalism craft has been almost entirely opaque during the monopoly/oligopoly era of media. Some of the reasons for this made sense, including the legal ones (though lawyers are always too cautious, because that’s their job). Apart from an ombudsman blog and column and the occasionally revealing remarks Post people make in the scheduled online chats, the newspaper, like so many others, is almost completely opaque when it comes to how it operates.
The transparency question for the Post—for everyone creating media—boils down to something that may sound counter-intuitive but is actually logical: so long as you do an honest job as well as you can, greater transparency will lead readers (viewers, listeners etc.) to trust you more even while he believe you less. That is, they’ll understand better why it’s impossible to get everything right all the time.
Less belief but more trust
Transparency takes several forms. I strongly believe that news organizations have a duty to explain to their audiences how they do their journalism, and why. Even the organizations that claim to have no world view should be telling people much more about the “how” of what they do, because they’d help readers/viewers/listeners understand what it takes to do good journalism (assuming they actually do good journalism). It baffles me that an industry that wants to be perceived as better than the newcomers to the craft doesn’t grasp this, but it clearly doesn’t.
The “why” is more nuanced, especially for big organizations (at least in America). They could take a page from the newcomers, such as bloggers, the best of whom are much more open on this; their world views and motivations are typically crystal clear. And their audiences, even people who disagree with those world views, can refract their own understanding of the topics through those lenses.
The response I get when I say these things is typically along these lines: if journalists say what they think, they’ll call their objectivity into question. Well, I don’t believe in objectivity in the first place. And the public already perceives journalists to be biased, which of course they are—though I don’t believe this is the same as being unethical.
Bloggers, through their own relentless critiques, have also helped foster transparency in traditional media. However unfair bloggers’ criticism may often be, it has been a valuable addition to the media-criticism sphere.
Bloggers, too, need to adopt more transparency. Some, to be sure, do reveal their biases. That gives readers a way to consider the writers’ world views when evaluating their postings, and then make decisions about credibility. But a distinctly disturbing trend in some blog circles is the undisclosed or poorly disclosed conflict of interest. Pay-per-post schemes are high on the list of activities that deserve readers’ condemnation; they also deserve a smaller audience. As I write this, the Federal Trade Commission is about to enact strict (yet all too vague) new rules attacking marketers’ use of social media. The sentiment is fine, but the danger to speech is enormous. Yet the rules give traditional journalists much more leeway than the FTC extends to bloggers, is a poor message to send to media creators and the public alike. More on that later in this chapter.
Case Study: A Big Media Transparency Debacle
In late September 2009, an editor at the Washington Post “tweeted” the following on Twitter, the microblogging service that lets people post messages of 140 characters or less: “We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.”
That tweet, along with another by Raju Narisetti, a Post managing editor, set off an internal row that has yet to be settled. The editors had joined the emerging conversation among journalists and audiences, but got slapped down for it. Higher-up Post editors banned Narisetti and others in the newsroom from online posts that could in any way reveal how they felt about the issues of the day. In so doing, the newspaper announced to the world that it was not going to participate in any meaningful way in the conversational future of news—a ludicrous and ultimately damaging move.
The newspaper’s action was intended to reassure readers of the organization’s desire to be perceived as objective, which the publisher defined in the traditional sense as not taking sides on the big issues of the day. It was laudable, in a way, but the move failed a larger and more important test. It undermined a brief ray of light into the newsroom’s mostly opaque activities. Rather than being transparent, a key principle for media creators in this new era, the Post chose pretense.
The Washington Post’s handling of its social-media policy didn’t concern just whether or not to tweet and blog. It brought up far deeper questions of how the newspaper wanted to present itself to the world. I exchanged calls and emails with the paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, who quoted me briefly in the paper and at lenth in his column, though he ultimately disagreed with my conclusions.
An American conceit
I wish that U.S. news organizations, the Post among them, would drop the pretense of being impartial and of having no world view. There’s no conflict between having a world view and doing great journalism.
When I go to London I buy the Guardian and the Telegraph. Both do excellent journalism. The Guardian covers the world from a slightly left-of-center standpoint, and the Telegraph from a slightly right-of-center stance. I read both and figure I’m triangulating on the essence of (British establishment) reality. Even if I read just one, the paper’s overt frame of reference gives me a better way to understand what’s happening than if it pretended to be impartial. And—crucially—both newspapers run articles (and lots of op-eds) that either directly challenge their world views or, more routinely, include facts and context that run contrary to what the editors and proprietors might wish was true. Relentless journalism’s independence of thought means, in particular, being willing or even eager to learn why your core assumptions could be wrong.
The Post had a profoundly obvious world view during the run-up to the Iraq War: pro-administration and pro-war. The view was reflected principally in the fact that the little journalism it did questioning the war rarely if ever made the front page, as opposed to relentless parroting of war-mongering from Bush administration insiders. The evidence is overwhelming, and even Post journalists have admitted as much, though not in those precise words. I’m guessing that the newspaper’s editors, who can be as good as (or better than) anyone else in the field, would have done a better job of covering the opposing facts and views if the paper’s world view had been stated as a matter of policy, partly because the best journalists enjoy challenging conventional wisdom even when it’s from their own bosses.
When it comes to individual views and specifics about individual reporters and editors, I grant that questions of balance and independence get a bit more tricky. I’m not suggesting that the Post or anyone else put reporters’ tax returns online. But I would suggest that when their life circumstances or beliefs might be relevant to a reader, it’s acceptable and sometimes important to let the reader know. As one example, a religion reporters’ faith, as in what religion or sect he follows (or absence of faith, for that matter) seems relevant to me.
And I’d strongly suggest that while a random opinion or quip might be bothersome, letting journalists be human beings would have a better outcome in the end. Telling the staff to hide all opinions doesn’t cause readers to trust an organization more. It tells them the organizing is hiding something, because the audience isn’t stupid.
Opaque, and Scandalous
Media criticism can help expose transgression, of course. In March 2008, the New York Times ran an article, “Behind Analysts, the Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” that blew the proverbial lid off one of the worst media scandals since the Times’ own Jayson Blair debacle years earlier. The paper’s David Barstow reported:
Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.
Analysts have been wooed in hundreds of private briefings with senior military leaders, including officials with significant influence over contracting and budget matters, records show. They have been taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. They have been briefed by officials from the White House, State Department and Justice Department, including Mr. Cheney, Alberto R. Gonzales and Stephen J. Hadley.
In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.
The news programs, sadly, stonewalled the entire scandal. They didn’t respond, for the most part, to the Times report or even do much to change their own use of these conflicted experts. Stonewalling is what we should expect from the government, not supposedly responsible news organizations. As Glenn Greenwald, author and commentator on Salon, said later: “The outright refusal of any of these ‘news organizations’ even to mention what Barstow uncovered about the Pentagon’s propaganda program and the way it infected their coverage is one of the most illuminating events revealing how they operate.”
Nearly a year after Barstow reported this outrageous behavior, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his journalism, one of five awarded to the New York Times in 2009. Unsurprisingly, the organizations Barstow fingered for their unethical conduct somehow neglected to mention his prize when they reported on the Times’ prizes, even while naming several of the categories in which the paper won. There’s always a shortage of shame in the news business.
Sidebar: Consumer Reports’ Integrity in Action
Consumer Reports is a publication that works hard to get things right. But its February 2007 issue ran a dramatically wrong review of children’s car seats—flawed due to poor testing methods—and seriously jeopardized the trust it had won from its readers.
The organization’s recognition of the problem was the best demonstration I’ve seen of a) owning up to one’s mistakes; b) figuring out what went wrong; c) explaining what happened; and d) putting into place policies to prevent future such messes.
And it was all done in a public way, with a systematic transparency that’s exceedingly rare in journalism.
Soon after the article—reporting that many car seats failed the magazine’s tests—came under challenge, it became clear that the tests themselves were flawed. The response from the magazine to its readers and the world was quick. It issued a retraction.
I subscribe to the CR online site. I got an e-mail, and a friend who gets the paper version got the same letter via mail, from Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, the title’s parent. He apologized, sincerely. He explained what he knew so far about the error, apparently caused by an outside lab’s tests. He announced a further investigation. And he promised extraordinary efforts not to let it occur again.
In March 2007, the very next issue, CR posted a detailed online report titled “How our car seat tests went wrong.” The “series of misjudgments” described in the piece is remarkable. It was especially worrisome given the publication’s record. I don’t rely on CR for everything I buy, but I’ve learned to trust its overall judgment on uncomplicated consumer goods such as kitchen appliances, where I’m unlikely to spend much time on my own extra research. Were I the parent of small children, I might well have included car seats in that category.
The report explained everything about the tests in clear and unsparing language. It included justifiably angry comments from a car-seat maker and outside critics. It was self-criticism of the sort one almost never sees from a journalistic organization, blogger, or other media creator of any kind.
CR also posted a story called “Learning from our mistake,” a description of what it would do in the future. Among other things, the publication plans to bring outside experts into the process when creating complicated testing procedures (and already does that to a degree), to fix the way it works with outside labs, and to look much harder “when our findings are unusual.”
The last of those should have been second nature to the journalists and scientists at CR. After all, it’s famous for telling readers that when something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t. In this case—observing- all those car seats fail the test—perhaps it was too bad to be true.
The magazine might consider opening its testing procedures in other ways. For example, it could create videos of the tests as they’re being conducted and post them online. Bring in the designated experts, by all means, but maybe some readers who are experts in their own way might spot something useful, such as an omission in the testing procedure or a valuable idea on how to improve it.
Bloggers, Come Clean
One of the most entertaining blogs in the tech field has been the “Fake Steve Jobs” commentary by author and magazine writer Daniel Lyons. His identity wasn’t known publicly during the blog’s early days. When it was finally revealed, a number of people recalled something else Lyons had written. As Anil Dash wrote on his blog in a posting called “Hypocrite or New Believer?”:
Daniel Lyons, author of the heretofore-anonymous Fake Steve Jobs blog, which comments extensively on companies in the technology industry, was also the author of Forbes’ November 2005 cover story “Attack of the Blogs”, a 3000-word screed vilifying anonymous bloggers who comment on companies in the technology industry. In 2005, I spoke to Lyons for the article, though the comments I made about both the efforts that have been made to encourage accountability in the blogopshere, as well as the many positive benefits that businesses have accrued from blogging, were omitted from the story. My initial temptation was to mark Lyons as a hypocrite. Upon reflection, it seems there’s a more profound lesson: The benefits of blogging for one’s career or business are so profound that they were even able to persuade a dedicated detractor.
I’m going with hypocrisy. (Though Lyons’ Fake Steve Jobs remains terrific, better in my view than his work at Forbes and, as of this writing, Newsweek.)
Lyons’ decision to admit who he was—after he was outed by a reporter who did sufficient legwork—was a victory for transparency in a sphere that is often more transparent than traditional media, but not always.
The online world is rife with conflicts of interest stemming from non-transparency. On blogs and many other sites where conversation among the audience is part of the mix, we often encounter so-called 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 an often odious practice called “buzz marketing”—paying or otherwise rewarding people to talk up products without revealing that they’re being compensated—it’s widely believed that the ones getting caught are a small percentage of the ones misusing these online forums.
The Federal Trade Commission, with laudable goals, issued a document in late 2009 aimed at better disclosure, with penalties of up to $11,000 in fines for violations. Basically, the FTC is saying that if you have a “material connection” to a product or service you’re praising, you are an endorser who must disclose that connection.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But when you read the FTC’s ruling you get the sense of a government-gone-wild travesty. The system is unworkable in practice, which is bad enough. Worse, the rules are worryingly vague and wide-ranging. Worse yet, they give traditional print and broadcast journalists a pass while applying harsh regulations to bloggers (and others using conversational media of various kinds). Worst and most important, they are, in the end, an attack on markets and free speech, based on a 20th-century notion of media and advertising that simply doesn’t map to the new era.
The advertising of the past was a one-to-many system. Call it broadcasting. The Internet is a many-to-many system. Call that conversation. They are not the same.
The commission took pains in the uproar that followed the guidelines’ release to insist that no one planned to go after individual bloggers. Rather, the targets would be slippery marketers who were trying to pull wool over the eyes of consumers. This clarification was only modestly reassuring. Plans change, and the rules were written with such deliberate vagueness that I predict it’s only a matter of time before the FTC does chase after individuals it deems problematic.
Again, let’s be clear that the motives behind the FTC’s rules seem to be well-intentioned. I also loathe the odious practice of using bloggers and other online conversationalists as commercial sock puppets in a sleazy online word-of-mouth operation. Let’s also agree that disclosures are always better than hiding one’s affiliation with a company.
We already have laws against fraud. Let’s enforce those—first against the serious fraudsters, who keep getting away with it—before we even consider harsh regulations on speech.
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 our citizen journalists to operate according to the best principles of journalism in their posts and participation. 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. It faded all too quickly, and I’m sorry to say that when I let the domain name expire, it was grabbed by someone who put up a placeholder site with somewhat unsavory overtones.
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 at the 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 happily 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.
I’m convinced the key will be community values, not the mushy, mass-media kind that settle with the lowest common denominator but rather with the norms we still say we crave, even if our media habits call that into question.
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.