Monday, October 12, 2009

Whatever Happened to Journalism?

For the past few weeks I have been in the throws moving from NJ to NH. Three years ago, the only qualification for getting a mortgage was a pulse and the ability to sign a document. Today, you have to give your first born and five forms of proof that he/she belongs to you. As a result, writing hasn't been high on my agenda, and it still isn't, but I do want to point you to two posts. The first is reprinted below and the second is a more comprehensive follow up to the first. If you are short on time, read this. If you want the full list of 22,jump right to this version.

Eleven More Things I’d Do if I Ran a News Organization Posted by Dan Gillmor in Techniques

Well, that was interesting. When I posted those “Eleven Things I’d Do if I Ran a News Organization,” I confess I wasn’t expecting the great response, which ranged from compliments to potshots to refinements to suggestions (and more).

The list of 11 wasn’t meant to be comprehensive. Still, I’ve been asked if those items represented everything on my hypothetical plate. Of course not. (Contrary to what some folks said about the previous list, these aren’t just aimed at newspapers; they apply to any media organization that purports to do journalism.)

Anyway, here are 11 more things, not in any particular order, that I’d insist on if I ran a news organization.

1. Nix on anonymous sources: Except in the most dire of circumstances — such as a threat to a whistleblower’s life, liberty or livelihood — we would not quote or paraphrase unnamed sources in any of our journalism. If we did, we would need persuasive evidence from the source as to why we should break this rule, and we’d explain why in our coverage. Moreover, when we did grant anonymity, we’d offer our audience the following guidance: We believe this is one of the rare times when anonymity is justified, but we urge you to exercise appropriate skepticism.

2. Blow the whistle on liars: If we granted anonmyity and learned that the source had lied to us, we would consider the confidentially agreement to have been breached by that person, and would expose his or her duplicity, and identity. Sources would know of this policy before we published. We’d further look for examples where our competitors have been tricked by sources they didn’t name, and then do our best to expose them, too.

3. Mustn’t do this: The word “must” — as in “The president must do this or that” — would be banned from editorials or other commentary from our own journalists, and we’d strongly discourage it from contributors. It is a hollow verb and only emphasizes powerlessness. If we wanted someone to do something, we’d try persuasion instead, explaining why it’s a good idea (though almost not certainly an original one with us) and what the consequences will be if the advice is ignored.

4. Point to competitors: We’d routinely point to our competitors’ work, including (and maybe especially) the best of the new entrants, e.g. bloggers who cover specific niches. When we’d covered the same topic, we’d link to them so our audience can gain more perspectives. We’d also talk about and point to competitors when they covered things we missed or ignored.

5. Pile on big stories: Beyond routinely pointing to competitors, we would make a special effort to cover and follow up on their most important work, instead of the common practice today of pretending it didn’t exist. Basic rule: The more we wish we’d done the journalism ourselves, the more prominent the exposure we’d give the other folks’ work. This would have at least two beneficial effects. First, we’d help persuade our community of an issue’s importance. Second, we’d help people understand the value of solid journalism, no matter who did it.

6. Be relentless: The more we believed an issue was of importance to our community, the more relentlessly we’d stay on top of it ourselves. If we concluded that continuing down a current policy path was a danger, we’d actively campaign to persuade people to change course. This would have meant, for example, loud and persistent warnings about the danger of the blatantly obvious housing/financial bubble that inflated during this decade.

7. Start Here”: For any person or topic we covered regularly, we would provide a “baseline” — an article (or video, etc.) where people could start if they were new to the topic, and point prominently to that “start here” piece from any new coverage. We might use a modified Wikipedia approach to keep the article current with the most important updates. The point would be context, giving some people a way to get quickly up to speed and others a way to recall the context of the issue.

8. Do Something About It: For any coverage where this made sense, we’d tell our audience members how they could act on the information we’d just given them. This would typically take the form of a “What You Can Do” box or pointer.

9. No sock puppets: We’d work in every possible way to help our audience know who’s behind the words and actions. People and institutions frequently try to influence the rest of us in ways that hide their participation in the debate, and we’d do our best to reveal who’s spending money and pulling strings. When our competitors declined to reveal such things, or failed to ask obvious questions of their sources, we’d talk about their journalistic failures in our own coverage of the issues.

10. Assess risks honestly: Journalists constantly use anecdotal evidence in ways that frighten the public into believing this or that problem is larger than it actually is. As a result, people have almost no idea what are statistically more risky behaviors or situations. And lawmakers, responding to media-fed public fears, often pass laws that do much more aggregate harm than good. We would make it a habit a) not to extrapolate a wider threat from weird or tragic anecdotes; b) to frequently discuss the major risks we face and compare them statistically to the minor ones; and c) debunk the most egregious examples of horrible stories that spark unnecessary fear or even panic.

11. No op-eds from major politicians or executives. OK, this is a minor item. But these folks almost never actually write what appears under their bylines. We’re being just as dishonest as they are by using this stuff. If they want to pitch a policy, they should post it on their own web pages, and we’ll be happy to point to it.