This is something of a brain dump post, as I am working on some ideas. I’ve been having conversations with some folks about a new journalism startup we’re hoping to launch sometime in the next year and am running into culture issues. One of them is the problem of how we classify the journalist.
We’ve been having this “are bloggers journalists?” argument for a few years now, and frankly I am sick of it. It doesn’t matter other than in the bounds of legality, and to be honest I don’t care. I don’t need a label to succeed. But that’s an industry-side fight that I’m all too willing to ignore, because the people who naysay the loudest often are the ones with turf to protect. If I was interested in protecting turf, I would have gone into landscaping.
There’s a flip side that does matter, though, because it affects how we remake this whole enterprise. It’s coming from average folks, those “people formerly known as the audience” who have a hard time revising their own definition. They’re people who see the problems with big corporate media and are more than happy for a new era where journalism comes from within rather than from the top down, which is great. But their conception of “journalist” and “journalism” is just as rooted in the old ways, which means they’re judging the new journalist with standards made for the days of top-down media flow. I find this unfair, and actually something of a threat to journalists seeking to do things a new way because it’s only going to encourage them to retrench into hierarchy – a bad deal for everyone.
Generally speaking, their notion of these terms is rooted in the sham myths by which journalists have operated for decades: objectivity, detachment, perpetual accuracy. They don’t account for the fact we’ve evolved, that we now know that objectivity and complete suppression of bias are a pipe dream more than a reality, and that it’s impossible for journalists to get it right all the time. To be fair, journalism as an industry has shilled these myths as a way of trying to control the conversation about why journalism matters, so it’s not like these user views come from nowhere.
Still, it’s a problem. I spend my time trying to educate the new journalist about why these myths need to go away, and why technology is helping us make it so. But at some point the audience’s view has to change too. The beauty of the Web is we can help each other out, shape things to be better and more accurate, to tell a more complete story. The kind of journalism I teach is based on networks, that we work with audience to shape stories and make them better. Accuracy is a process in this mix; we pursue it as journalists, but it’s not the only standard. Was the reporting fair, was the sourcing transparent? The record can be corrected, but was the approach sound?
The new journalist, then, is a lifelong learner. Their reporting methods are transparent and constantly evolving. They don’t sell themselves as being 100% accurate all the time and completely detached. It’s the difference between reporting truth and being a truthful person; one is a rigid standard with a wide gulf between success and failure regardless of the error’s weight, whereas the second is a state of mind. While I aspire to the first, I’d much rather be the second.
Why is this on my mind? I got into it with someone in the community the other day for harshing on one of my students publicly for a typo in an online profile. The mistake was what it was; a typo that happened in a rush. And it’s great that people in the community are helping make students better. That’s why I have them in these spaces to begin with. But the tone was tougher than I would like, ripping a student for a mistake of a few keystrokes on something that, honestly, was less important than the big picture – I have students studying journalism at Lehigh who are looking to get off our campus and get to know what the community is talking about.
If the community wants reporters to be out there and working with them rather than for personal interests, it has to engage them in a way that encourages them to stay.
I feel bad about the exchange, in some way, because I don’t mean it to be personal. But on reflection a lot of their harsh words seem rooted in old notions: journalists are always accurate, so someone who doesn’t have every fact in place is a bad journalist. Me, I tend to look for patterns. Typos can be corrected, but recklessness takes a lot more work.
So I think our journalism evolution needs some movement and redefining on the part of our audience. To that end, I propose a few principles that I’ve been mulling. Tell me where I’m right and where I am wrong.
1. A journalist is someone who prizes facts and pursues the truth, but they are not always accurate.
Truth is the pursuit and the goal, but we don’t measure our entire worth by 100% accuracy rates but rather make the pledge that we go to press with what we can verify or know as of publication. This frees us from our self-made prison of objectively accurate storytelling. Not all totally accurate reporting says something important or interesting. Sometimes the larger story is more important than a few squibbed details. The story I think about is the NYT v. Sullivan case, where some things were inaccurate but the bigger whole was the important thing. Again, this is not to diminish the importance of facts or fact-checking, but the Web has given us the ability to correct the record in conversation with the audience. A story’s truthfulness will evolve in light of this. Sometimes what we know tomorrow is better and more complete than what we know today.
2. A journalist is someone who roots their work in community
The journalist doesn’t belong to the Church Of The Savvy, as Jay Rosen well puts it, sublimely above the fray and giving us the inside baseball rather than the story itself. Journalism is constructed as part of a constant conversation with those in our community, whether we define that as local community or online community. I can teach a journalist the importance of accuracy, but I have found it’s much harder to make them give a damn about others. The new journalism says that this notion of independent gathering of facts is over. We are constantly doing it with our audience, asking them to suggest new ways of looking at a story or fact-checking what we have. We miss stuff as the function of our limited human minds, so thank God we don’t have to be omniscient. In some ways, this process is more rigorous than what we once had, because it has to survive peer review in real time. Our audience is our editor, not just the crusty old slot guy who checks your copy. And if we get it wrong and are brazen about sticking to our guns? A damaged reputation in our community is way worse than being a bad journalist. Community is everything.
3. A journalist’s method is transparent
This is one that I love from The Elements of Journalism. We show our work, always. Put your notes or raw video feed online. Show the sausage being made, and let the audience see your choices. Listen to the critiques, let it shape your work. You don’t always have to agree with the critique, but a journalist should always be able to defend their method with more than, “Well, that’s what they said.”
4. When we’re doing it right, bias is a trivial charge and inaccuracy becomes a suggested fix
When the process is honest, when you are working with the audience to shape the story and are transparent about the process, then the reporter’s approach becomes immaterial in my view. Of course they have an approach. The question is whether it is true, and if not why not? And when we see mistakes, it’s not because the reporter is an idiot so long as we see the approach is honest; it’s because their human, and because the audience plays a role we can suggest they correct the record. This is why we have the blogosphere. We have talkback. Charges of bias are a smokescreen at times when they come from talking heads. With users, I find they often are an excuse to not listen, or to discount something you don’t like.
Some of this sounds more idealistic than I perhaps mean it. The online realm can be a tough place at times and I don’t harbor illusions that people will be nice just because we have these new tools and ways. But I’d like us to have ways to distinguish between when the audience is criticizing based on unrealistic, old notions of the way journalism ought to be and when they have a complaint that actually can be addressed.
So again, what have I missed?