Top Ten Reasons To Rank Reporters

It’s hard to resist the lure of a list. That doesn’t surprise anyone who has been unable to ignore a clickbait headline like, “Top Ten Reasons Beyonce will be Our Next UN Ambassador.”

A list makes a promise to the reader, a promise that time will be put to productive use, because an editor has distilled an ocean of information into a drop of clarity that can be easily consumed. It promises drama and unexpected delights. After all, why compose a list if it doesn’t contain new information for those who choose to peruse it?

Lists speak to our need for context in an ocean of facts, figures, rumors and reportage. They rank items based on a set of criteria — a judgment that provides insight into what is truly important. Often those judgments are made by people promoting a point of view and the ordering of items supports that perspective. There are, however, lists intended to be fact-based and objective.

I spent five years as a Google marketing guy, making the argument that our search results — essentially a list of websites ordered by relevance — were completely unbiased and therefore completely trustworthy. It was all about the algorithm, which took no sides and had no hidden agenda.

Google is an example of how useful ranking can be. While you might quibble with whether result twelve should be higher than result eleven, the first result is clearly more relevant than the fiftieth. The repeated experience of seeing reputable results reinforces the idea that Google’s ranking is reasonable and leads users to trust not only Google, but the websites listed at the top of its results. Demonstrably useful ranking creates credibility.

Objective ranking has potential beyond web search results. Consider the much tarnished reputation of journalists. Because of partisan bias, an emphasis on infotainment, and general cynicism regarding the media, the Fourth Estate has slid from its position atop the moral high ground. Ranking could help re-establish its reputation. It’s not a question of polishing the names of the top-level organizations of the news industry, but rather one of building believability from the bottom up. News organizations are composed of reporters, each of whom can be evaluated on accuracy. Note that I did not say fairness, which is a highly value laden term, but accuracy, which can be objectively determined by fact-checking and tracking of clarifications and retractions.

Imagine that every story you read online came with an objective assessment of its accuracy, a truth score based on the history of the reporter who wrote it. All those disaggregated bits flying through mobile phones as tweeted links and reposted stories would carry with them a context clue to tell you how much credence to give them. Those who own the presses and broadcast towers would become merely amplifiers for those individuals who have done the most to earn their readers’ trust. Walter Cronkite was once America’s “most trusted man.” Ranking journalists on their accuracy could put one of their number in that position once again.

Of course there are obstacles to overcome. How to determine accuracy? An independent panel? Reader sentiment? Number of facts correctly relayed or sources correctly quoted? Does accuracy transfer if a journalist changes beats? Would rankings encourage reporters to be risk-averse? To fight retractions? Is an obit writer with a thousand “correct” stories truly better than an investigative reporter whose ground-breaking report contains a typo in a place name?

It wouldn’t be easy to implement, but a system that allows people to confidently place their faith in the information they absorb would go a long way toward enabling conversations based on facts rather than opinions and would reward those journalists who make the effort to ensure their stories are thoroughly researched. And that could change the nature of our national discourse from angry jabs and counterpunches to one of rational debate and evaluation. There are at least a dozen reasons that would make America stronger. Feel free to make your own list of them.