Safeguarding News in the Era of Disruptive Sources

Published in Journal of Media Ethics, Vol. 2, Issue 2, April-June 2017. Expanded version appeared in After Snowden, Privacy, Secrecy and Security in the Information Age, Ronald Goldfarb, ed. (NY: St. Martin’s, 2015.)  ABSTRACT Obligations and loyalties that develop between reporter and source both enable and enrich—and impede and corrupt—the flow of publicly significant information to […]

The media’s helping hand in enabling the Trump electoral win

Published in The San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 14, 2016

The news media have assigned themselves a generous role in getting Donald J. Trump elected, which by my count would be the third time this century that press failure produced what many people, myself included, regard as a civic calamity. This isn’t like the first time, the 2003 Iraq war, where few journalists had the sources to challenge the false claim of national peril. And it’s not like the second, the 2008 financial collapse, where the extent of the system’s rickety dependency on reckless lending was hard to discern beforehand.

This time, there was nothing hidden about the realties. They couldn’t have been more public. Trump was thoroughly out there, brazen, outspoken, in your face. And the press—not just the legacy press, but tough-minded internet natives too—did their due diligence. They rummaged his flaky business past, exposed his frat-house squalor and his spectacular mendacity, put his cruelties on daily display, left his policy ignorance and lack of qualification for high office unmistakable.

And he did lose the electorate by a non-trivial 2.9 million votes. So a substantial audience was paying attention.

Still, the conclusion that the election represents a historic moment of press failure is warranted, and this is the right moment to reflect on the nature of that failure before the media lurch into covering Trump’s presidency in the same flawed ways that they covered his candidacy.

Lessons learned?

First, exposure trumps substance. Donald Trump was the most charismatic and telegenic of the GOP primary candidates, and his on-air presence was a crowd-pleaser—for the debates, for cable news, for network news talk shows. Bookers may have thought of him as a clownish longshot, but he drew audiences, and the saturation exposure of his rallies conferred stature and credibility on him. Trump essentially applied his business model to the campaign: Instead of licensing his brand in return for cash royalties, with TV news, he offered his presence and collected his royalties in votes.

Second, evenhandedness has its limits. It became apparent, as the general campaign heated up, that the style of Trump’s electioneering—the sheer velocity of insults, falsehoods, fabrications and squirrelly accusations—demanded skeptical treatment and even real-time refutation. But the conventional standards of journalistic professionalism also required some measure of balance. That meant paying equivalent attention to Hillary Clinton’s wrongdoing, and giving outlandish play to partisan drama over an internet server she used during her tenure as secretary of state four years before, and which apparently caused no discernible harm to national security. Likewise, petty sniping among Democratic campaign workers exposed in hacked emails drew extravagant coverage—not because it mattered, but because it was unfavorable to Clinton and could be cited as evidence of balance.

Finally, covering politics isn’t just covering politicians. It’s reporting on the electorate and what voters see, fear, demand and long for. The most spectacular evidence of press failure was the universal astonishment over the outcome among the organizations that purport to be the best informed. Some of that cluelessness was attributable to the destruction of the regional press, the traditional conduits of authoritative reporting on the sentiments of the provinces. Even the best reporters from out-of-town news organizations cannot match the authority with which local reporters can speak. The extent of disgust with national political elites, with marginalization of the heartland, with trade and immigration policies, fueled a cultural insurgency of which Trump became the flag-bearer, and which was simmering, largely unnoticed, by elite media.

So what now? Trump’s enthusiastic use of Twitter to share hunches, thoughts, Continue reading “The media’s helping hand in enabling the Trump electoral win”

Why plagiarism matters

Published on, July 19, 2016 I hail from the world of journalism, which has seen its fair share of plagiarism scandals in the past decade or so, starting with the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times in 2003. But plagiarism in the news business is a different animal from what’s being alleged […]

Online news undergoes a reprofessionalization. Amen.

For more than a decade now, a steady refrain in the online media has been that the traditional practice of journalism was dying, the victim of technological advance and cultural insurgency.

It wasn’t just the economic collapse of the legacy press. The most widely followed online news sites were increasingly populated by articles, pictures, and audio tracks selected not by living editors but by continuous, automated samplings of user behavior and mathematically ingenious hunches about reader interest.

News itself was being reimagined as no longer mainly the job of salaried reporters. It was more and more the work of impassioned civilians equipped with handheld devices and driven by curiosity and a commitment to public illumination.

As a political matter, that meant the day when a newsroom elite superintended civic awareness was over. News consumers would now rely on their social media pals for guidance on what to pay attention to, and the power to create and sustain networks of attention was now in the hands of ordinary people.

This was all thought to be a very good thing, since it not only universalized a hugely expanded population of people as news sources. It also spread the net much wider so that realities that might have escaped notice became news. “Journalism gets better the more people who do it,” as one writer put it, paraphrasing New York University media theorist Jay Rosen.

The outlook was buoyant, even euphoric, and it was tempting to overlook what might be lost in the rush to the online news millennium—accuracy and taste, for starters. More troubling, where was the quality? Even with a decade of citizen mobilization behind us, it’s hard to point to genuinely good journalism that was truly attributable to this turbo-fed democratization, no matter how lavishly admired it has been.

Now, that’s not to say that great news tips and evocative videos haven’t come from civilians with the right tools, in the right place, at the right time. We’ve seen that in the past year in the awareness of police killings of young black men in this country. Nor is that to ignore instances of exuberantly successful mass mobilization – such as when some 20,000 Britons scoured the personal spending of their parliamentarians in 2009 under the auspices of the Guardian newspaper.

But by and large, the most dramatic impact of the digital explosion on journalism has been to widen the world of sources, not to transform the rituals of newsgathering. Quality journalism has remained, defiantly, a professional practice. The value of meticulous attention to accuracy, of careful confirmation, of sifting competing claims about truth and significance, of respect for privacy, of concern to avoid harm where possible—these cornerstone principles of traditional journalism (however often they’re violated) have not been replaced in the millennial rush to a digital populism.

So it comes as welcome news that some of the most successful web-based news operations are surrendering the algorithms that they’ve been using to make editorial decisions, and will now, as Wired magazine reports, “use real, live humans to curate the news, entertainment, and content they’ll deliver via their platforms.” Continue reading “Online news undergoes a reprofessionalization. Amen.”

A Robust Future for Conflict of Interest

This was first published in: Christopher Meyers, ed., Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach. NY: Oxford University Press, 2010. Conflict of interest has become a centerpiece in the claim by Internet-based commentators to moral superiority over their legacy news media counterparts. The insistence of so-called mainstream journalists that they are free not just of private material […]