Boring old values and the New Media

October 13, 2008

Twice in recent weeks big news outfits embarrassed themselves when affiliated Internet operations ignored basic principles of journalistic practice. What’s apparent is that although legacy media may regard their Web sites as domesticated showcases for their traditional work, heeding the same rules, the Internet is no petting zoo. It’s a wilderness, and the wildlife has free-ranging ideas of their own about what they should be doing.

The first case involved CNN’s iReport.com, a citizen journalism site that encourages the public to offer information and commentary, unfiltered by pesky editors. A posting Oct. 3 from someone called “johntw” reported that Steve Jobs, chief executive of technology giant Apple Inc., had suffered “a major heart attack.” He hadn’t, but in a jittery market Apple’s share price dropped to its lowest point since May 2007 during the 12 minutes it took for another blogger to phone Apple and quash the report.

Plainly, false rumors have been moving markets since long before the Internet. The information was corrected quickly and the company’s shares bounced almost back.  But harm was done. One contributor to Silicon Valley Insider calculated that with 3 million shares traded at $7 under the closing price, buying at the bottom – if you knew the Jobs report was false – netted $21 million.

So is CNN on firm ethical ground nurturing, promoting and lending its immense prestige to a site whose content it does nothing to ensure conforms to even minimal standards of accuracy? Obviously, the Jobs tale got traction because it ran on a CNN branded site. And if nowhere else in CNN’s vast operations would staff pass along dramatic news of material consequence without lifting a finger to verify it, why is that acceptable in the name of “citizen journalism?”

In the second case, Alana Taylor, a journalism undergrad at New York University and an accomplished New Media practitioner, posted a column last month on MediaShift, a weblog run by PBS.org.  Her column, “Old Thinking Permeates Major Journalism School,” was a biting, first-person account of her NYU class on “Reporting Gen Y.” Taylor found the curriculum outdated, the students dismayed and the professor clueless.

The column stirred up a fuss, and Taylor became an Internet celebrity when she claimed she was ordered to stop blogging about the class; the right of anyone anywhere to post anything was fiercely debated.

Meanwhile, PBS.org had a problem. Taylor didn’t run her column on some obscure vanity site. MediaShift had engaged her as an “embedded” blogger, and as PBS’ Michael Getler, the dean of U.S. media ombudsmen, wrote: “Taylor’s post did not simply join millions of other postings in the blogosphere by individuals that may or may not have many readers. This one … had immediate access to the huge PBS.org audience.”

To Getler, a distinguished ex-Washington Post reporter and editor, she violated bedrock principles, among them “the notion that journalists must always, except in the most rare circumstances, announce themselves, go through the front door, say who you are, what you are doing and who you are working for.”

But that principle clashes with the freewheeling Internet ethos, as contributor Mark Olsen noted on MediaShift: “The generation moving into college right now has an expectation that they have the right … to journal, publicly, almost every moment of their lives.”

True. But they also have a duty to do it with care. Communicating ethically means respecting values that don’t depend on profession, age or technology.

You don’t pass along potentially harmful information without verifying it – not because you’re a journalist, but because you’re a moral person. You don’t relay someone’s unguarded comment to you to an enormous audience of strangers without telling that person – not out of respect for “journalism,” but because it robs that person of a basic right:  To determine whether to speak and what to say based on who’s listening.

(I suspect even Alana Taylor’s staunchest defenders would cringe if it had been her professor who posted a scathing account of her disappointment with the class, replete with details of student deficiencies, bone-headed remarks – and names.)

New media practitioners, including those who disdain the label of journalist, can’t wave off concerns about privacy, care and trust. Established media should help reaffirm and reinterpret those values instead of treating them either as matters of narrow professionalism, or as obstacles to their uninhibited new life where the wild things are.

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