Keeping online news honest

June 22, 2o09

Should digital journalism be held to different standards of accuracy than other kinds of journalism? That’s a crude way of putting a knotty problem that confronts the widening ranks of people who do news and commentary online.

Not that anybody says they should get away with lying or misleading their readers just because their work is on a website instead of a front page.

The problem isn’t with deliberate falsehoods. It’s with how much care online journalists should take to verify what they report before they report it

The argument goes something like this:

Digital media are fast and remarkably forgiving, and reports can be modified quickly and continuously. So the lifespan of errors is mercifully short.

What’s more, online culture is hungry for wide-ranging input from the public, and eager to acknowledge gaps and correct mistakes. So online news is essentially self-correcting, and journalists no longer have the same obligation to nail stories down before publishing them.

The upshot is that a looser conception of veracity is emerging online than the one that journalists normally worked with. The public benefits from having a rich multiplicity of news sources and, because errors get caught and fixed, ends up better informed.

That’s the theory. Recently a New York Times tech writer, Damon Darlin, wrote a column that raised concerns about instances when online tech news sites—notably TechCrunch—had passed along rumors that they either hadn’t checked out or actually disbelieved.

Now, the cases Darlin cited were sparse, and in the main instance—acquisition talks involving Silicon Valley heavyweights Apple and Twitter—TechCrunch correctly labeled the rumors as unconfirmed and likely untrue. I thought TechCrunch did fine.

More illuminating was the counterattack on the Times’ Darlin from Web news fans. Notably, Jeff Jarvis, the leading drum major for all things hip and digital, reiterated his contention that online news represents a new species of journalism, both more widely participatory and more frankly tentative, a work-in-progress. Borrowing the term that computer engineers apply to unfinished software that’s released only to solicit improvements, Jarvis said online news is inevitably a “beta version.”

That acknowledgement gives online newshounds the moral high ground, Jarvis suggests : They’re honest enough to admit that what they post isn’t the last word, something that traditional journalists, wedded to a haughty “myth of perfection” about their own work, won’t acknowledge, he says.

To be sure, traditional news organizations have time and again been high-handed and pig-headed. Still, this “beta version,” work-in-progress formulation carries with it the disturbing implication that a willingness to right wrongs absolves the online wrongdoer from an obligation to keep from committing them in the first place.

I don’t buy that. Fact is, corrections often don’t catch up with errors, and bad information is notoriously sticky, hanging on to believers long after it’s debunked. Journalists owe the people who are affected by their work, either as subjects or as readers, real care when it comes to veracity—before, as well as after publishing.

So should the standards for online news be different from those of existing media?

It’s a tough question, in part because online news really mashes together two different kinds of information exchange: conversation and publication. Conversation is tentative, a mutual process of sharing and clarification where facts are elusive. Imagine a phone call about a neighborhood happening—“Here’s what I know, what have you heard?” The model of news-as-conversation is one that many online practitioners extol.

But the problem is that when this sifting process takes place in full public view, as a tool of verification, it’s indistinguishable from publication. In the very process of filtering out bad information you can’t help but launch it into the public domain.

Digital media enable every e-mail, every tweet, every blog entry, to go global; every conversation can become a publication, every phone call a radio broadcast. And I think that’s dangerous.

Candor, humility and vigorous inquiry are indispensable to journalism, but so are discretion and judgment. Posting sensational and unverified reports may indeed prime the informational pump. They also may inflame or terrify a public needlessly, and harm the reputations of innocent people.

The challenge is to develop channels that widen participation in the conversation over news—over what’s happening and why it matters—without becoming a sluice for raw and baseless allegations. Journalism needs both conversation and publication, and needs to uphold the distinction between them.

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