Software, hardware, wetware

Honesty, Journalism and the Crowd

As I was nodding off last night, thinking about an article I’d read in the paper earlier in the day which irritated me  - because it wasn’t good journalism. The exact article and its source aren’t relevant to this discussion - lets just take it for granted that in a world of media outlets like Fox News (“it’s Infotainment!”) there’s a certain question hovering over the idea of journalistic integrity.

The status quo makes it very easy for the media to get away with publishing whatever the hell they want to. Most media outlets are in the hands of a small number of companies; they have vested corporate interests in being loud, controversial and highly debated. There is very limited incentive - other than altruism on behalf of editors and journalists - to report factually and honestly.

It happens. Many articles are written with every intention of telling the truth, as it’s known to the reporter. Journalists aren’t all evil bastards, and not every reporting mistake belies a conspiracy. It just doesn’t happen enough, and provably consistently.

The Problem of Old Media

Facts and honesty don’t usually sell. Most events, if reported factually, boil down to a lot of “x said y, which we cannot corroborate” and “we don’t really know if this was true, but here’s what eyewitness Z said”. If journalists were being really altruistic, they’d publish their sources, notes and records of interview to put their distillation of these materials into greater context for those of us who are interested in that context - and the greater truth behind their interpretation (I take it for granted, dear reader, that you accept that any reporting of news is an interpretation of events from an inherently and sometimes blamelessly, sometimes shamelessly, biased source).

The average reader doesn’t seem to want to know facts and the probability of their correctness; doesn’t care if a comment has been taken out of context and blown up to make a huge fuss. They want to be wowed by gee-whizz new breakthroughs in science that are going to change their lives. Average readers want Paris Hilton’s latest sexual escapades. We are emotional creatures, and we crave the stimulation of outrage and shock, gossip and hearsay.

An example of this behaviour in the media can be seen on this very blog - my communications with the Right Reverend Professor Tom Frame earlier this year were inspired by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. This article was concocted by an overzealous University of News South Wales news release and what I consider to be obvious lack of fact checking and corroboration by an Opinion Editor to generate controversy.

Profits, under the current system, are made by selling advertising. More eyeballs means more sales; more sales means more advertising revenue; higher shock value draws more eyeballs. Taking a balanced approach to reporting, whilst informative and ethically laudable is financially laughable.

The Quandry of New Media

The pill for this ailment, I keep hearing, is blogging. The crowd will take up the reins and report on news. Surely, they can’t do a worse job of it! Sprinkle some social media on it and gee-golly, we’ve got factual reporting again!

There’s all sorts of problems there though. Bloggers are, by and large, unaccountable for their deeds. Existing news corporations at least have a hypothetical mandate to tell the truth, and there are certain laws which can compel them to do so. Bloggers are much freer to say exactly what they want to - whether it be truth or not.

Good journalism (as opposed to lazy newspaper article writing) is a full time job - you go out, travel the world, talk to people. You check what they say with other sources. You flat-foot it around sometimes dangerous places, searching for this elusive thing called The Truth. You find the story, write your angle. You write. You edit. You re-check facts. You fight with your editor, who wants to put a slightly different spin on things. Eventually, something gets published which may or may not resemble what you set out to write.

Being a blogger is not easy. Usually, a blogger has a ‘real job’. Brave Blogger may aspire to be free of the requirements of money, but it’s a hard slog to get there. That means less time for fact-checking, editing, spellchecking, corroboration with parties mentioned in the article.

It’s not their real job, unless they’re one of the lucky few who can build up enough of a rep and a viewership. That’s hard. So our new online journalist/blogger types tend to aggregate together, with many talented writers working together on a site (like the Huffington Post!). More eyeballs get drawn to the pages. Costs go up - more viewers require more server power, more power needs more money. It becomes viable and maybe attractive to sell advertising to … earn … your …

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. We’re back to selling advertising. I don’t doubt for a moment that the same mechanics will play out. Advertisers will begin to demand more exposure - more involvement. To make money, our intrepid online journalists will have to spice up their articles a little, promote some debate, get more eyeballs on their site. Maybe they’ll be altruistic. Just maybe they’ll succeed where old-media journos failed, and manage to keep the dollars rolling without having to sacrifice an iota of journalistic integrity.

All of a sudden, we’re back to selling advertising by drawing eyeballs. The incentive to be controversial returns; and there’s still no incentive or driving force to be honest and critical, open and factual.

We’re back to square one.

Aren’t you just perpetuating stereotypes of the incumbent model there?

To a certain extent, you could argue with what I’ve said above. There’s a base assumption I’m making, which is that ‘good journalism’ requires commitment, passion, intensity and skill. I see bloggers regularly calling this into question, claiming that they can be just as good or better, without the pay, training and 100% focus on journalism.

I do believe that it is possible for bloggers to report on events, check their facts, and provide a higher quality of journalism to their readership than current newspaper article writers do.

I would hesitate to call this ‘good journalism’ in and of itself, however - some of the most shocking and amazing stories published have been the result of long and convoluted hunts for the truth that few lone bloggers could maintain. I suspect it will be a long time before we see a blogger win, say, a Pulitzer prize (or some equivalent thereof) for world-shattering reporting.

It’s possible. As time goes on, the probability will approach 100%. I doubt very much that ‘citizen journalism’ will get us reliable, factual and informative journalism on any consistent basis any time soon, however.

Applying Pressure

To my mind, the biggest problem our society has is a lack of pressure to be honest and informative over making money. The age of television has bred a population who are, in general, more responsive to fast motion, emotional impact and small, bite-sized chunks of information. Sex, crime and scandals sell, because that’s what most people want.

Some of us want some honesty, though. We want more openness in our journalism. I strongly suspect that we can get what we want, too, if we’re determined enough - and I suspect that the idea could catch on pretty quickly.

We need to apply some pressure. Create a force that, implacable as gravity, draws people to telling the truth - journalists and poilticians foremost among them.

We can see things like this happening already in the political sphere. There’s some really cool movement occurring in the Open Government and Open Data spheres. One such example:

What we need is a way to track journalists - be they employed by a newspaper, TV station, or unemployed as a blogger - and give them an incentives to be honest; and disincentives for being dishonest.

I’m envisioning a system - a protocol, an open framework - for moderating the veracity of articles published anywhere on the Internet. Concerned moderators - the public - can pull apart articles in one easy location, debate them, publish and link to additional materials. Their contributions are, in turn, meta-moderated to keep even the moderators honest. Nobody gets the power to tip the scales unfairly against anyone else.

There’s flaws with a model like this - throwing a crowd at something doesn’t solve the problems of truth and honesty, it just provides a platform to let the masses tear things apart for fun and profit. At least we’d have a venue for it, as opposed to now, where - well, we don’t.

I don’t think this is The Answer. I don’t think there is An Answer. You can’t solve a social problem with purely technological devices (but you can get part of the way).

I think honesty and truth will be arrived at - if we ever get there - by a variety of means. I just hope they’re easy to use, easily accessible, and hard for any particular majority to dominate.