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Does Journalism Need New Ethics?

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Folks, here's an excerpt of a blog post I wrote for Poynter. Please click here to read the whole story.

When I saw a story recently in the New Republic asserting that Silicon Valley has become one of “the most ageist places in America,” I was taken aback.

As far as I can tell, there is discrimination against older people in the business world, but it’s no different from what I’ve seen through a 38-year career. It doesn’t surprise me, since I’ve faced what might be ageism (I’m 61), but maybe I have been discriminated because I’m balding, short, and pudgy.

Still, I have concerns that readers might take this particular story about ageism as proven fact — even though the reporting seems to be mostly anecdotal.

The story characterizes a group of maybe a million people based on a small sample size and, to me, a handful of the anecdotes seemed not so good, not so trustworthy. As a very literal guy (nerd) I assume that the headline and the body of the article are telling me that the vast majority of folks in Silicon Valley are guilty of a form of bigotry.

In the middle of my reflection, I read an interview with Aron Pilhofer from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Pilhofer runs a newsroom team at The New York Times that combines journalism, social media, technology and analytics. Some of his comments about data journalism, culture and going digital, seemed to echo my criticism of the New Republic’s piece on ageism.

“Journalism is one of the few professions that not only tolerates general innumeracy but celebrates it,” said Pilhofer in the interview.

“It’s a cultural problem. There is still far too much tolerance for anecdotal evidence as the foundation for news stories.”

Pilhofer’s comments confirmed what I was already thinking, that anecdotes are great clues as to what might be going on, but sometimes they are cherry-picked to confirm what a writer already believes. That’s to say that they can reinforce truthiness and preconceived notions.

I view hard data as complementary to anecdotal evidence. We need to balance both. If somebody asserts something factual, I want them to back it up with more than anecdotes, so that readers can trust it.

I turned to friends I’ve made in the journalism world for their opinions. Since I’m just a news consumer, not a professional journalist, I wanted their expert opinions. I asked them each to respond to this question:

When is anecdotal reporting enough to support broad conclusions without concrete data? This recent article on ageism in Silicon Valley seemed to paint an entire group of people based a handful of examples. Is that fair?

You can read folks' responses over on Poynter. And, I'd like to hear what you think, too. Please share your opinions in the comments below. And be sure and check out the Harvard Business Review article How Old Are Silicon Valley’s Top Founders? Here’s the Data.

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8 Responses to Does Journalism Need New Ethics?

Karen Faretta says:

I think higher standards and ethics would only improve journalism. I, myself will only believe information if it is backed up with facts.

Scott says:

I enjoy watching the news, but the last 6-8 years has been terrible! No Truth, nothing but lies from our leadership, and nothing is said from the media. It hasn't been this bad since Perestroika in the Soviet Union was their lead Newspaper!
The country is a wreck and we have the Main Stream Media to thank!

    Julia says:

    Although I agree with much of your opinion, I believe we are the enemy. We were handed a beautifully designed republic, but permitted greedy men to stage a coup of all three branches of government. The state controlled media are but a side effect of our apathy.

Mayank says:

This has become a standard phenomena everywhere ,even in proving something scientific, only a handful of samples are taken and sweeping generalizations are made. That has even made a lot of scientific reporting unreliable. I doubt if all the reporting is done to create a hype or does they really need to be trusted?

Julia says:

Journalism needs to pay writers and investigators higher salaries, so it can attract and retain talented, dedicated professionals. I'm afraid that the catalyst for better reporting will be demand for well constructed leads supported by confirmed research (not regurgitated press releases). I think we all know the chances of that happening! Anchors make big bucks, but most are pretty faces, or big mouths in agreement with the corporation that owns them. I mean why is Steve Doocey reporting news on Fox? He looks mildly brain damaged. Why is the nepotism so blatantly displayed-though Doocey's son seems, well, less of a doofuss. When I was a stringer for a local daily outside oh Philadelphia, I made $25 for the first 8 inches of the story (no joke), which included hours of research (stringers don't have beats and a steeper learning curve) and attendance at zoning meetings (usually), which could lull crack heads to sleep. I earned an additional $0.20 for every inch of text after the first 8". I loved writing for a small weekly paper too, but it was a labor of love. When I discovered my skills were transferrable to a much more lucrative path in business, I jumped at the chance. As a graduate of one of the better Journalism schools in the US, I never wrote another 8"-12" newspaper or magazine story again. However, I do shudder at the typos, errors, lack of validation and regurgitation that are now status quo.

Julia says:

Two more points-sorry. Commitment to objectivity is tantamount to the journalist's creed. A truly objective professional would carefully select quotes that demonstrate the truth, not an outlier. To allege "ageism" without the support of a wide variety of anecdotes from non-associated parties, or quantitative data, is irresponsible, and may even rise to the level of libel. And, by the way, for all self-proclaimed data experts: data ARE always plural. Datum is singular. Rarely will I read an article about data after the author commits this error. If data are your thing, then speak about it as best you can :-)

James J Fenton III says:

Mr Newmark,
I am truly a believer that everything I submit should be validated independently, and if not than I lose my integrity. And those who write for the purpose of promoting false concepts are doing damage to the entire World. Claims made in the Scientific Community, must have some factual basis and it must be cited in the written work. I wished that all of the writers, no matter what they write about should be held to the same standards. If it is opinion, than they aught to admit that right up front, instead of "Cherry Picking supportive statements" as you had put it. My integrity is my "stock in trade" and when I write something it must be the irrefutable truth, anything less and we are just spreading Rumor, and this can and does do damage to someone or something. As for "Anecdotal Evidence" it may as well be rumor, since everyone is different and individuals tend to have their own opinion. As writers we have to rise above rumor, and dig for truth. Just because it is written, doesn't make it true. I would like to live in a World that actually did that, and fact checked everything before putting it to paper. But that is not something that will happen in my lifetime.
Ethics are important, and if we want to be believed, we should have some self respect and write what we know to be the truth. How to make that happen? I have no idea what to say to that question. I wished that I had a workable solution.
Those who have money will have their say, and our Country, and the World are subject to those that have the money, or the Guns. I wished it were different.
James Fenton III