Journalism, 30 Years Later

Tim McGuire, who teaches journalism ethics and on the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, recently asked some journalists about today’s business, compared to 30 years ago. Some excerpts:

One big change, for sure, is that no newspaper editor could say as you did to me in the mid 1990’s, “The truth is, it’s not really news until we (the big, major newspaper) print it.” That, of course, was before the blogosphere.

…As a whole, newspapering is still about finding stuff out and telling everybody else, and doing it ethically and in ways that are engaging and meaningful. …Newspapering is, and let’s hope will always be, about bringing the truth to light.

–Pam Fine, University of Kansas journalism professor


We have a far shorter time period to deliberate. Quite frankly, we sometimes are rendered moot by twitter and blogs that move at hyperspeed written by reporters that might or might not be accurate.

–Arnie Robbins, St. Louis Post Dispatch editor


I look at the sizes of the staffs at the papers where I worked and in some newsrooms, maybe the majority, you can hear the echoes of what used to be coming from the empty desks where journalists used to sit. And you simply cannot do more with less, and the push to do so only diminishes the quality of what gets done

–Gregory Favre, Distinguished Fellow of the Poynter Institute


Increasingly, reporters rely too much on digital communication instead of one-on-one interviews and in the process miss the opportunities for follow-up or the emotional response that can be drawn from personal contact. Sources, especially the powerful ones who are advised by public relations consultants, have figured this out, along with the fact that shrinking staffs have left some reporters time-constrained. That’s allowed those sources more opportunities to try to shape the message. I’ve even spoken with some folks who have said their newspapers publish their press releases verbatim with no calls, no checking for accuracy.

The push to be first online  hasn’t been totally a good thing; too many errors have been made and some of today’s journalists just shrug and say that’s part of today’s deal, unconcerned, apparently that the false facts, once reported, may live on forever in the Internet world.  There has been a definite erosion in standards; accuracy, while still important, has given ground to immediacy. Journalists can tweet falsehoods and other will pick up the information, spreading it far and wide.

In 1982, the separation between advertisers and editorial was more defined, almost absolute. Now that invisible wall is gone and while editors are still the guardians of standards, the protectors of the public’s right to know, they also are now marketers and collaborators with the advertising and circulation departments.

–Rick Rodriguez, faculty of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


News organizations continue to perform the same fundamental functions — gathering, shaping and sharing news — but in increasingly and radically different ways. –—Len Downie, former editor, The Washington Post

[All emphases added]

Right Wing Blogger Post’s Assignment Editor

With all the problems we should be discussing, The Post allows a right wing blogger, the same one who started the NYC mosque controversy, to set the agenda.

The story is about an alleged boycott of Campbell Soups because its Canadian subsidiary is producing halal soup.  The claim is not opposition to halal foods, but to the organization that is certifying the designation.

ISNA has denied any ties to Hamas or to officials of a defunct charity called Holy Land Foundation, who were convicted in the conspiracy case. It has specifically condemned religious extremism and violence. In the wake of the conspiracy trial, Jewish and Protestant organizations issued statements in support of ISNA. A spokesperson for the group was unavailable for comment.

But still, The Post makes a story of it. 

News That Makes My Day

Jay Rosen is back.  At least his blog PressThink is again active after no posts for almost a year.  I’m not sure why. He’s one of the most thoughtful (if slightly long-winded) media commentators out there so I’m thrilled to see him posting again (since late February but I missed his return).  His latest is about the challenge—and his solution—for CNN, which is hemorrhaging viewers.

Anonymous Commenters, Pt. 2

Monday, I discussed a thoughtful column in the Miami Herald about anonymous commenters on blogs.  Another one is here today.

The columnist set up a personal Facebook account to exchange views on issues.  She required civility and the commenters’ real names and got them.  But one guy couldn’t help himself.  After starting out civil, he became more agitated and unhinged, and finally she “unfriended” him.

But she noticed similar language in comments on stories posted on her newspaper’s website (Cleveland Plain Dealer).  There he was always vitriolic and anonymous.  She confronted him online and he admitted he was the anonymous commenter.

What I find fascinating about this incident is that he behaved so differently when his picture and his name were attached to his opinions.

I have since added hundreds more "friends" to Facebook, and similar circumstances have unfolded only a handful of times. We get fired up, but we seldom lose sight of our mutual humanity.

Then why do newspapers allow comment anonymity, when they would never print an anonymous letter to the editor?

Some in the newspaper industry insist we have to allow anonymous comments to generate traffic on our Web sites, which in turn determines what we can charge for online ads. They worry that we’ll lose online readership if we require identities with comments. Discussion, they fear, will evaporate.

Reminds one of corporations that are only out for a buck.  You know, they kind of companies some editorial pages pontificate about, which of course are totally independent from the publisher’s side of the enterprise.

Anonymous comments also alienate many thoughtful readers, who are the majority of people who read newspapers. [NC Editor’s Note:  The minority, those not very thoughtful, read gossip columns while watching “Fox News”.] When readers complain to me about ugly comments, I urge them to weigh in, but most balk. It’s like trying to persuade your friends to visit a great tavern in a bad neighborhood: They want nothing to do with that side of town.

Others think anonymous abusive comments actually hurt the newspaper.

"You can’t monetize jerks," [a newspaper editor] said.

This editor apparently didn’t want to give his name because he was not authorized to talk about readers.

Most Americans believe civility matters.

They also believe it comes with a name.

Anonymous Blog Commenters

I have a problem with anonymous comments on a blog.  I think in the public square as our forefathers envisioned it, you could say whatever you want, but being in the square we would know who you are.  That said, many of the early pamphleteers were anonymous.  So the tradition is well established.  The right to hand out anonymous fliers was protected as recently as 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Vivian Paige  has a recent post about her new comment policy and there ensued a discussion that I was part of on the issue.

Now comes the issue of whether anonymous blog commenters can hide behind their anonymity to libel anyone with scurrilous charges.  Apparently, the Wausau Daily Herald revealed names of anonymous commenters who posted charges of malfeasance by a top administrator of a small Wisconsin town.  After the paper did so as the administrator demanded, its parent, Gannett, apologized for what it said was a mistake.  The newspaper conglomerate said it had a duty to conceal the names, claiming that such comments were due the same protection as anonymous sources in a newspaper story.

Courts have recently agreed that state shield laws apply to the anonymous commenters.

Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee university, thinks that’s wrong headed.  Comparing anonymous sources to anonymous bloggers doesn’t hold water.

Plainly, there are good reasons to seek anonymity: You might fear reprisal or embarrassment, or might simply want your ideas considered independently of who you are. And the court said those preferences should not affect your right to comment, especially on matters of public policy.

But suppose that leaflet isn’t taking a stand on a school tax. It’s a false and damaging denunciation of some school board member. And she wants to sue.

The authors are anonymous, but she knows where the leaflet was printed, so she persuades a judge to order the printer to disclose her tormentors. The printer is supposed to comply.

Unless it’s a news organization. Then, apparently, the printer is supposed to resist. And the board member who was slimed is out of luck.

That seems unfair, unless there’s some good, overriding public benefit at stake. That’s where the anonymous-source rationale is being invoked: Some news sources provide valuable information that they might never furnish unless they knew they’d be safe from reprisal. The writers of the anonymous posts are no different.

Except that anonymous posters are nothing like confidential sources.

First, a confidential source is not anonymous; the reporter knows who it is and is obligated to evaluate the source’s credibility. The identity of the anonymous poster, on the other hand, is truly unknown. He or she could be an ex-spouse, a delusional sociopath or both. Nobody knows.

Second, no one even tries to verify the information from the anonymous poster. Information from a confidential source should be, and normally is, evaluated and scrutinized before it’s published.

Reporter shield laws are an expression of trust. Lawmakers have said, in effect, that they have enough regard for the value of news, and for the capacity of the journalist to assess information from vulnerable sources, that they’ve carved out a huge area of discretion. To ensure the flow of publicly significant information, they allow the journalist to help people with valuable information to stay in the shadows when the journalist determines, in good faith, that they must.

That’s a huge grant of trust. And claiming for anonymous posters the protections that confidential sources deserve debases the currency, makes a whistleblower no different from a crank. As an ethical matter it’s indefensible. As a political reality, it’s a surefire way to guarantee the demise of source protections.

Can bloggers earn that “grant of trust”?  As many bloggers themselves are anonymous, I wouldn’t hold your breath.  I am certain there will be more challenges to the idea that anonymity should granted as a safeguard for malicious libel.