Trustworthy journalism in a fact-checking-free world

Getting real about trustworthy journalism

Okay, I really just want news I can trust.

Couple years ago, I blurted out that “the press should be the immune system of democracy.”

Personally, I really don’t like being lied to, but my deal here is that our social contract with the news business is that they hold the powerful to account.

In return, we buy the products of news outlets, and give news professionals certain protections, like the US First Amendment and shield laws.

That gives the press a lot of power, which means that the news industry itself needs to be accountable. That’s a lot easier said than done, and it’s only getting harder to do.

However, if a journalist or news outlet isn’t trustworthy, is it worth buying? Is it good for the country?

factcheck
Well, I’m not in the news business, I’m an outsider, but over years I’ve spent a lot of time with people in the business, and I’ve gotten glimpses as to how the sausage is made. That means I gotta respect boundaries, and not tell people how to do their job.

That job gets more and more challenging, and even good news orgs can have lapses. I’m good with that, if they fix those lapses and hold themselves otherwise accountable, in good faith. Sure, there’re legal consequences, but the bottom line is driven by trustworthy actions.

The solution involves:

Turns out that what we have now are a lot of ethics codes and policies, but very little accountability.

To make sense of this, here’s the kind of lapse I’m talking about, none of which seems to have been addressed.

1. NBC selectively edited a video and badly misrepresented a guy in a real ugly case. Not clear if they’ve come clean about it yet.

Suggestion: news outlets should make the full recording available, perhaps via a discreet rapid-response accountability team.

2. Sometimes a news outlet might broadcast a public figure lying, even when they know it’s a lie. This is what Jon Stewart calls the “CNN leaves it there” problem.

Suggestion: Reporters are smart, if they know they’re being lied to, don’t broadcast it. If they smell a lie but not sure, do a good faith fact-check.

3. Sometimes a news outlet does fact-checking and “forgets” to follow through. This has happened to me, but more importantly, happened to Jimmy Wales very recently, in the NY Times:

“It is very odd and filled with a lot of basic factual errors. For example, it says that Wikipedia was run out of a strip mall at one point – that’s just completely false and a very weird thing to have said, particularly since I explained to the fact checker that it was wrong!”

Suggestion: do fact-checking, and then, correct any falsehoods.

4. Sometimes multiple news outlets will report first, without fact-checking, doing a lot of damage. This was particularly true in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attack.

Suggestion: confirm facts before publication.

5. Sometimes, news outlets don’t do their research, get a story badly wrong, and really hurts the country. This is very true regarding the recent IRS scandal, the real story is more about Congressional failure and that the IRS isn’t targeting enough possibly bogus charities.

Suggestion: use actual fact-checked research. Using other news reports as sources is not reliable. Reporting should be transparent about the political motivations of the people pushing the story. Specifically, journalists need to make sure they spend as much “good faith” time in exploring agendas as they do in seeking sources and exploring “the facts” they are made privy to.If so, the story would be perceived differently, perhaps accurately.

The news business is under considerable pressure, competing for a shrinking audience, often having to come up with many new stories per day. Sometimes the facts just can’t be checked, which is a big reason I keep talking about “good faith.”

My personal bias is that the news industry should create their own accountability tools. I don’t think they’ll be perfect, just looking for good faith action.

However, right now people are stirring the pot, constructively, suggesting that the government intervene.

Specifically, people are suggesting that “journalists” should have US First Amendment and shield law protections. Non-professionals, specifically “bloggers,” might be denied those protections.

I think that way of doing it is wrong, and that the issue isn’t “journalist vs. blogger” but whether or not the reporter and news outlet are accountable. Here, “accountable” means “acting in good faith to be trustworthy” which means having an ethics code and honestly trying hard to follow that code.

Does a journalist or news outlet without accountability have legal protections?

You can find a great summary by Mathew Ingram, which incorporates a lot of good work from Jillian York, Jeff Jarvis, David Weinberger, and others.

However, any news outlet that wants to succeed must be trustworthy, that is, accountable. I feel that’s required for their survival, and for national survival.

Perhaps people in news can suggest how they can get to actual accountability?

How about news we can trust?

Here’s the deal, folks – recently, the Poynter Institute held a conference regarding the restoration of journalistic ethics. They’re a real big deal in professional journalism, so I helped ’em, modestly, some funding, significant social media stuff.

Me, I just want news I can trust.

Sure, I’m not in the news industry, and have no idea how to fix the problem. However, maybe we can get a good start regarding what might be the worst of ethical abuses.

Right now, “objectivity” in news means that sometimes, to pretend objectivity, a news org will bring on two sides of a story. They’ll be fully aware that one participant will lie to the public. (I’m not talking about gray areas; there’re lots of black-and-white clear situations.)

Similarly, news orgs will present a speaker who will lie to the public, and the interviewer will say something about “leaving it there” instead of challenging the speaker. This is what Jon Stewart calls the “CNN leaves it there” problem.

Such efforts are clearly deceptive, but not (yet) called out in the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code as bad behavior.

One step toward trustworthy news would be to declare that kind of thing unethical.

Next step would be for people in the public, people who don’t want to be lied to any more, to bring light to such situations.

Might this help? Hard to say, it’s sure no fix, but maybe a good start?

Poynter conf on journalist ethics: let’s jump the gun

Okay, I’ve been saying that the “press is the immune system of democracy” for a coupla years now.

A lot of this is motivated by conversations with people in media; they’d like to restore trustworthy behavior to news media, not in just a few pockets of it. I remind ’em that I’m not in the business, but I can help, maybe just a little.

Well, the Poynter Institute is a really big deal regarding trustworthy journalism, and they’ll be running a conference on journalistic ethics in NYC this Autumn.  They haven’t announced the date, but I figure this is a big issue, and I’ll do what I can to make it really big, beyond merely funding it.


So, I’ll be posting some of the big issues in journalistic trust and ethics suggested in years of talking with people in the business, using hashtag #PoynterJournoEthics.

For example, I’ve wondered what’s the deal when you can see that a reporter knows when he’s being lied to, but says that he has to “leave it there” and throw it back to the anchor.  That reinforces the lie, not so good.  One of the country’s most trustworthy journalists, Jon Stewart, calls it the “CNN leaves it there” problem, and speaks way smarter about it than me.

more to come…

Reliable Factchecking is Key

Folks, I stumbled across a great editorial this past weekend in a North Carolina newspaper, Sun Journal. The article connects the survey we just conducted with factchecking remarkably well:

First they report on survey finds, but then use them to rightfully brag on their own strict policies regarding the accuracy of their coverage.

They say,

We’re not popping any buttons over the survey results — a Gallup poll last fall reported 55 percent of Americans distrust the media generally — but we do take them as an endorsement of some standard practices at this newspaper, all of which are designed to ensure accuracy, even at the cost of not being first.

We do not report information that we cannot confirm through reliable sources — for instance, from a police department spokesman or an official document, if not from an eyewitness — and we attribute that information by name, not to an unnamed source, in virtually all cases. We do not usually report second-hand news — that is, news that originates with a media outlet not associated with the Sun Journal — and if we do, we identify the source, a practice not always followed by our cousins in the electronic media.

The zooming popularity of social media and its potential for newspapers as a distribution platform put pressure on those practices only if reporters and editors subordinate our primary goal of getting it right. That won’t happen here. We’re excited about possibilities offered by social media for getting and distributing the news and plan to use those tools fully to make our reporting more timely, more accessible and, yes, to beat the competition to the punch. But when speed conflicts with accuracy, we’re not afraid to apply the brakes.

I appreciate when people can use both social media and factchecking effectively. It’s so important to verify your sources properly and it’s a topic I continue to explore. Recently I spoke at the NextGen: Charity event to explore this topic further. Reliable factchecking will go a long way in restoring readers’ trust in newspapers. With only 22% of respondents in our survey finding newspapers “very credible” I think improved factchecking is something newspapers and publishers should think about making a higher priority if they ever want to win back our wholehearted trust.

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