A Trustworthy Press is the Immune System of Democracy

I’m a news consumer. I’m not trying to tell anybody how to do their job, or how to fix the news. I’m not in the business, and will respect professional boundaries.

I just want news I can trust. I also want to help reward good, honest journalism.

Since I’m not an expert, I have to defer to those who are. I’ve spent about ten years talking to a lot of these folks, and have recently joined the boards of Poynter Institute and Columbia Journalism Review, in addition to the Center for Public Integrity and Sunlight Foundation.

I do feel that most journalists perform admirably, but it takes very little to compromise trust in a news publication.

There’re good reasons to hope for the restoration of “the immune system of democracy,” but here’s a little of what gives me bad nights:

  • Dean Starkman shows us that the press fully knew that the economy was a mess during the last decade, but never told the American public about it. (Have the problems really been fixed?)
  • There was a fake IRS scandal, where the press was alerted to the problem by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), but this received little or no coverage.
  • Six billion in cash was “lost” in Iraq, but the only real coverage was in Vanity Fair (I’ve asked, they tell me that article is fully fact checked).
  • There’s what Jon Stewart calls the “CNN leaves it there” problem, where a news outlet knowingly airs clear-cut lying and then repeats it.
  • It’s also not uncommon for the press to – deliberately or not – assist in the creation of propaganda or hoaxes – things like the so-called Obamacare “death panels” which had no basis in reality but were presented by the press as though they did. In fact, the press has never consistently and relentlessly set the record straight on Obamacare.
  • danah boyd succinctly reports of the most fundamental problem, in “First: Do No Harm” where she notes the journalistic tendency to accept survey results, even if a little looking would reveal them to be fake. The bottom line:

But since when did the practice of journalism allow for uncritically making shit up? ::shaking head:: Where’s the fine line between poor journalism and fabrication?

Old school, editors expected reporters to get stuff right, they prized their credibility, weren’t so concerned about selling ads. That message: “get it right.” Plausible fake news could get through the editors, but it was considered wrong.

New school, of recent years, seems to send the message: “don’t get caught.” Editors don’t seem to care as long as the fakeness is good enough, and sensationalist enough to sell ads.

Nowadays a lie gets everywhere before a good actor can even respond.

Please remember that I do feel that most journalists perform admirably, but it takes very little to compromise trust in a news publication.

That is, it looks to me like the vast majority of people in news try really hard, and perform admirably under intense pressure.

However, often the requirement is only that a story must be plausible, and under pressure, that replaces due diligence and accountability, except in black and white situations, like plagiarism.

So, we see a lot of “stenography,” particularly in politics, the acceptance of received or conventional wisdom, per the story subjects described earlier. Jon Stewart illustrated this when he showed the visible reaction of a reporter, responding to an obvious political lie, who had to “leave it there”…repeated every half hour.

Good news, everyone!

There are hardass press organizations insisting on stricter ethics and accountability, like the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Online News Association (ONA).

Me, I’m not looking to be a hardass. I know the news business is brutally tough. I’m not looking for perfection. As a news consumer, I’m happy with a good faith effort.

Do your best to get it right. If you do, great. If you don’t, admit you got it wrong, fix it, even if hard, and try harder next time.

And we should reward journalists and press outlets that are practicing good, honest journalism.

Recently, I heard about the Trust Project at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in cooperation with Richard Gingras, a longtime advocate of innovation in journalism, who happens to oversee Google News.

Jeff Jarvis built on this work. He suggested that Google News give higher rankings to news reports that are probably more trustworthy, rewarding ethical practice in maybe the best way possible.

(I don’t think I present Jeff’s ideas well here, but he seems to be the pointy end of the spear regarding news ethics, on the professional side.)

“More trustworthy” is a really difficult problem, it involves figuring out ways that articles propagate signals regarding their trustworthiness.

  • The publisher should have a code of ethics/trust comparable to that of the SPJ or ONA.
  • The publisher should hold itself accountable, not only prominently correcting errors, but propagating those corrections where they’ve flowed to other publishers.
  • Google News could uprank articles which have strong codes of ethics with accountability, and maybe downrank articles which don’t show corrections.
  • I’d like to think crowdsourcing could help, but disinformation professionals may be really too good to overcome.

That’s just the beginning of conversation, which is mission-critical for the survival of American democracy. How do we refine these signals into something useful? What other signals are useful? What can you add?

Remember, I’m just a news consumer like most people, unfortunately the pointy end of the spear from that perspective.

I just want news I can trust.

Note: After a reader called to our attention that the quote, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” was not said by Winston Churchill, we knew we had to do the same thing we think the media should do when someone calls out an error — admit it and fix it. Currently the author is unknown, and the quote was removed from the post.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated craignewmark’s story.