Monday, August 7, 2006

Truth & (Citizen) Journalism, 101

The worst thing that can happen to a news organization happened to the one where I used to work over the weekend: Reuters published a doctored photo of Beirut, depicting damage from an Israeli air raid. They got 2,000 emails and also discovered, from another reader's observations, that the same photographer had altered at least one other image that they previously published.

So, on the most sensitive story in the most sensitive arena in the world – you hear the word ”tinderbox” a lot on TV these days -- Reuters is forced to defend itself against lots and lots of people who already think that it in particular and MSM in general is biased. When I was there the complaints from readers ran pretty even that Reuters was biased in favor of the Arab and Persian nations in the region and/or the Palestinian cause and biased in favor of Israel. Sometimes readers would look at the same image or read the same story and come to opposite conclusions. It comes with the territory, no pun intended.

But this is an actual offense – “proof” as it were – and, as important people at Reuters are saying now, a lot, I hear: reputations are hard to win and easy to ruin. I have no personal knowledge of the situation but know as best I can that suggestions of institutional bias against my old company are just absurd. Reuters endeavors to be so unbiased that this stance sometimes itself invites controversy. Anybody remember that line about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter? That was in the Reuters style guide, intended to beat into every journalist’s head that some words cannot be used without de facto taking sides.

Of course, it was last articulated in the context of the 9/11 attacks, so that subtle message, well, kinda got lost.

But the point is that credibility is the only value a news organization possesses to distinguish itself from people spreading stories. There is no reason to believe me when I say I saw something but when the New York Times quotes me saying I saw something that is an important endorsement which a reader believes only because the reader, in general, believes the New York Times.

It’s disturbing when a news organization allows a falsehood to be published but it is an aberration and almost certainly due to carelessness or some other departure from institutional rigor intended to prevent that sort of thing, and sometimes because of procedures whose consequences weren’t completely appreciated when devised. But no company in the trust game can hope to last one extra day when trust is questioned. Just ask Arthur Anderson.

What this all means to me is that the story is somewhere else. Reuters, along with many other MSM companies, has embraced the evolution of citizen journalism from what I consider an odd position: that since, for example, no journalists were where the Asian tsunami hit or where the Concorde crashed, and non-journalists were, with cameraphones and video cameras, then non-journalists with journalistic tools, and access to a printing press (blogs), must be accepted as legitimate competitors to journalists.

I regard empowered citizen journalists as forces to be reckoned with, but I do not believe these forces are necessarily good. The reason seems self-evident: there is zero expectation of truthfulness from Joe Blogger or Sarah Cameraphone and they have nothing to lose by lying or falsifying -– and possibly even a great deal to gain by spreading falsehoods. There is a 100% expectation of truthfulness from journalists working for news organizations, as there should be, and a journalist who violates that trust is fired and branded for life. Just ask Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair or, now, photographer Adnan Hajj, all of whose 920 images were expunged from the Reuters photo database within hours of his being fired.

This imbalance seems obvious, as does the trivialness of the truth that journalists tend never to be at the scene of a disaster or breaking story – OK, there was the Hindenburg -- and sometimes a non-journalist is. We used to call those people “sources” and tried to make sure they could actually vouch for what they said they saw before we put them in a story. Now they are competitors, with equal rights to my attention, as a consumer of news? Because they have the power to publish themselves, I, as a packager of news, should be in a rush to publish them?

Citizen journalism should be a big topic with Big Media, but not because it needs to get in on the action or risk being thought of as even more dowdy. Big Media should care because it potentially undermines journalism, which I believe is to accurately report things of interest without taking sides. The goal is to keep everyone honest by being an entity that everyone can trust when it says something, no matter what it says. There is a clear difference between believing someone because of what they say and believing what someone says because of who s/he is and it only benefits partisanship to blur the distinction.

A public which cannot distinguish between journalists who know they will be fired and never work in the business again for lying and news organization that know they will be sold for scrap for tolerating such things, and people who might lie to get 15 minutes of fame, or shade a story to advance a cause, is exactly what the schemers and evil-doers of the world want. The world has already seen "journalists" under contract from people with agendas and bloggers hired as bloggers by people with agendas.

The brisk pace of technological change may be advantageous to people with an agenda, and there may be nothing that anybody can do to stem that tide. But the people with the most to lose for themselves and, frankly, for the rest of us -- they are, by the way, the people whose obligation it is to defend the institution of honest broker of facts and information -- should not be laying down rose petals on the road to anarchy.

No comments: