This article is based on the keynote address delivered at a Symposium on "The Newsombudsman: Watchdog or Decoy?" organized by the Media-Ombudsman of The Netherlands. It was presented on March 17, 2010 in The Hague. Prof. Wasserman, in his introduction, cautioned his audience about two biases: first, that he was speaking from an American reference point, with a consequently limited understanding of, for instance, the role of journalism trade unions in enforcing rules of professionalism. Second, he admitted to a kind of "toxic nostalgia," partly a function of age, consisting of a conviction that people used to care more about right and wrong, and that journalism used to be "more honest, more honorable, more dedicated, and now the professional world is going to hell." This is combined with "a kind of twitchy hostility toward powerful and glittering technologies we never actually used as news professionals." This stimulating talk has been lightly edited for length and print publication.
My view is that journalism has always been a deeply troubled practice, given to arrogance, excessive deference to authority, reliance on formula, herding and a tendency either to snarl or to fawn. It is, moreover, subject to an industrial environment in which coverage is consistently guided by an imperative to be an effective vehicle for advertising.
So by criticizing the present (and raising concerns about the future), I do not intend to glorify the past. And I don't wish to suggest that the ancien regime was in some overall way morally superior to the pups and Twittering upstarts who've stormed the Winter Palace and made off with the imperial spoons.
Let me address the powerful wave of exuberance surrounding the digital revolution. That excitement is nothing new. Technological innovation in the communications field, more than in any other field I can think of, always gives rise to outsized expectations of social transformation and miracles.
The telegraph would knit the country together
wireless telegraphy would usher in a new era of maritime safety (sorry, Titanic)
radio broadcasting would bring high culture to the masses
film-makers would chronicle the lives of fellow humans too remote for us to experience firsthand
television would eliminate illiteracy and turn every living room into a classroom
wideband cable would lead to a wired nation and direct democracy
satellites would create the global village, and
the Internet would universalize knowledge and destroy the corrupt priesthoods built on informational monopolies.
I think millennialist rhetoric is deeply revealing of yearnings and ambitions, and is something to applaud, as long as we don't mistake it for a description of reality.
But more importantly, these examples of unfulfilled prophecies remind us that technologies by themselves do nothing but offer a range of possibilities. Just as people are wrong to mistake technology for magic, so we would be wrong to blame technology for some of the bad things I'm going to talk about.
The problem isn't with the tools, it's with the policies they're meant to serve.
On both sides of the ledger, you need to look at the institutional, economic, and professional interests technology is being asked to promote and protect.
Now then, to the topic at hand.
Let me tell you about a young woman named Alana Taylor. She was in her third year as a journalism and history major at New York University in September 2008 when she accepted an invitation from Media Shift, a Web site affiliated with the Public Broadcasting Service, the principal noncommercial TV network in the United States. She would work as an "embedded blogger" and share her experiences and observations on the new media scene as an online commentator. The mission of Media Shift is to "track how digital media technologies and techniques such as weblogs, RSS, podcasting, citizen journalism, wikis, news aggregators and video repositories are changing our world."
Taylor was a prize catch. She already had a personal blog, which included videos she produced and posted. She Twittered, blogged for the social media site Mashable, did marketing for yet another social media site. So off she went to her NYU seminar about her generation called "Marketing to Gen Y, a.k.a. Quarterlifers." Then she wrote a scathing post for Media Shift headlined, "Old Thinking Permeates Major Journalism School."
In her view, NYU was badly out of touch. Its teachings were stale and outmoded. Students were being misdirected, given training that was suited to old media. They were even required to read The New York Times in print!
All fair enough. But her post went beyond strong criticism strongly stated. It also included a liberal number of quotes from her fellow NYU students, who weren't identified by name, and her professor, who was. One student confided to Taylor in the ladies room during a break that she was worried the class was too "disorganized" or "confusing." Taylor castigated her teacher for ill-informed comments about Gen Y'ers spending too much time online, and for a general level of ignorance about new media.
So what do we have? This class session was being closely observed, conversation recorded in notes, and the entire proceeding captured and harvested for use in what could only be described, even though Alana Taylor wasn't being paid, as an exercise in online journalism. Plus, it was posted on a Web site affiliated with PBS, one of the country's premier journalism brands.
And nobody in the class knew.
The students didn't know they were being observed by a classmate. The teacher didn't know that her comments would be part of a polemic about the deficiencies of journalism education and that she would be a prime exhibit in the case for her own pathetic irrelevance. (Naturally, she had no chance to respond to any of the criticisms in which her own words figured so prominently.)
Was there anything wrong with that? Was Taylor playing fair with the other people in her classroom? Was she being honest in her reporting or was she relying on deceit, on the presumption of her classmates and teacher that they could speak in an unguarded way and not have their words relayed to people they were not talking to and had no reason to suspect were listening in?
I think the Alana Taylor case exemplifies some of the broad challenges to conventional ethical doctrine in the digital age.
First, an aggressive push by an established news organization for "relevance" to the digital generation. The desire for a robust new role in this emerging market is a common thread behind a number of the ethical problems we're going to discuss.
Here, PBS wanted to enlist generationally acceptable correspondents as part of its effort to stake its institutional flag online.
Second, an eagerness by existing media to view common online practices as constituting an ethical standard. In other words, if it's widely done, it's OK, it has normative sanction.
Blogging, in this case, typically involves casual, undisclosed, incorporation of observed actions and overheard quotes.
What Alana did was consistent with that practice. So therefore, what was the problem? (Actually, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler criticized the lack of disclosure-reporters should always go in through the front door, he wrote-but there was no policy to that effect, either before or since.)
Notice, the ethical rationale derived not from the technology, but from the market strategy-the wish by a media organization to accommodate itself to current practices on the Internet.
Third, a consistent refusal to think about one of the things ethics people worry most about: The problem of harm. Who's hurt, is the harm necessary, can it be avoided, can it be minimized?
The embarrassment of the teacher in this case, the invasion of a private space for classmates, the possible destruction of the kind of trust and intimacy successful education requires- all of that was assigned very little weight.
I think that these three themes- (1) an aggressive desire to be relevant online, to be "a player"; (2) an uncritical acceptance of online norms as constituting an ethically appropriate revision of journalistic standards; and (3) a cavalier unwillingness to consider harms- characterize a number of the ethical problems I see online.
Let me go quickly through four of these problems:
(1)standards of veracity
(2)accountability & anonymity
(3)rise of amateur and part-time journalists
(4)behavioral targeting & calibrated news.
The question is whether journalistic truth means something different online from what it previously meant, and whether it's appropriate to essentially discard traditional standards of verification.
In October 2008 CNN's iReport.com, a citizen journalism site that encourages the public to offer information and commentary, ran a posting from someone called "johntw" reporting that Steve Jobs, chief executive of technology giant Apple Inc., had suffered "a major heart attack." It wasn't true.
But the stock market was already jittery. Apple's share price dropped to its lowest point in a year and a half during the 12 minutes it took for another blogger to phone Apple, find out Jobs was fine, and quash the report.
Why was CNN, a powerful and respected news organization, letting anybody on an affiliated Web site publish information that didn't meet its most elemental standards of veracity?
Last year a New York Times tech writer, Damon Darlin, raised concerns about instances when online tech news sites-notably TechCrunch-had passed along rumors that their editors either hadn't checked out or actually disbelieved.
What was illuminating here was the counterattack from Web news fans. Notably, Jeff Jarvis, an influential Web commentator and columnist for the Guardian, reiterated his contention that online news represents a new species of journalism, both more widely participatory and more frankly tentative.
Jarvis said online news is inevitably a "beta version." That's the term that computer engineers apply to unfinished software that's released only to solicit improvements.
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.
Hence, we have the extraordinary suggestion that publishing falsehoods is actually progressive. (More to the point, it's also cheap, since you don't have to pay anybody for the laborious work of verification, which used to be integral to journalism.)
As for the harms? The unstated premise is that falsity is wiped out by the truth, and any damage that's done is undone, wounds healed, once the corrected version is run.
(I think cognitive research has found this is almost completely wrong: Corrections don't catch up with errors, they aren't believed, errors have a half-life of forever. Most people figure if there's smoke there's fire. Once slimed, always slimey.)
Although my examples concern postings by outsiders on news sites, the mandate to get news online first, and the acceptability of posting unverified, incomplete versions, has become widely standard practice, even among full-time news staffs.
And let's remember, and this point is extremely important: These lapses are not in any way dictated by the nature of the medium. The new technology simply makes them possible. What makes them industry practice are deliberate, totally discretionary, policy decisions.
The race is on for online news supremacy, and it's being fought on the familiar terrain of getting "the story" first.
I don't know why "being first" is so important, when readers again and again claim that they want news sources that have credibility, which they can believe and trust. But regardless, we see a feverish emphasis on breaking news, updated frantically and frequently throughout the news day. Reporters come back from a news event, file immediately for the Web site, then provide new versions before filing a version for the print editions.
This degrades the journalists' working environment. It also leads us to ask what standards govern this work. When is a story complete enough, true enough, to publish? And if the answer is that the Internet allows work to be corrected later, are we now in the business of publishing before we edit? Is that morally acceptable, once you consider the harm that half-truths and untruths can cause?
And does this emphasis on speed also mean that decision-making is pushed downward in the organizational hierarchy-something we might applaud as a sign of democratization, but in this instance means individual reporters will take the blame for bad decisions they never would have made if they had been given enough time to reflect and to report adequately.
The rush to embrace these new, Internet-based multi-media technologies is coming from business people who are eager to extend market dominance to these new media. It is not, for the most part, coming from journalists because they are eager to find better ways to gather information and more compelling ways to tell stories, and creative ways to enlist non-journalists as collaborators in a new journalism that is more richly informed, more engaged, and more compassionate than what we have had until now.
Here I want to talk about the rise of anonymous comment. In the bad old days, when public comment was sparse, letters to the editor were rare and were carefully edited. Few responsible papers ran unsigned letters, pains were taken to make sure the authors were who they claimed to be.
Somehow, when news organizations went online, that scrupulous insistence on authentication fell away. Papers bought into the idea that robust discourse required anonymity, that people were entitled, indeed had the right, to make whatever comment they liked without having to identify themselves.
Indeed, the latest wrinkle in this is that some news organizations in the U.S. are claiming that anonymous posters deserve the same protection as confidential sources-that people who comment online on a news report are deserving of the same consideration as vulnerable sources who might have been relied on in compiling that report.
Obviously, there's a world of difference between a source whose identity the reporter knows and has agreed to conceal, and a source whose identity is known to nobody.
To be sure, there are times when anonymity is powerfully beneficial. But signing on to a culture of discourse in which nameless and reckless denunciation is normalized is a deeply troubling development.
Here again, the push to do this is coming from managements that want to re-establish on the Internet the centrality their news organizations had traditionally held offline, and want to be "the big tent" into which all community discourse is drawn. They fear that enforcing archaic standards-such as insisting that people actually stand by their own words, heaven forbid-will frustrate that marketing objective.
And here again, you see the blithe acceptance of online practice as having normative significance. When in Rome. This is how things are done online, so I guess it's OK.
And finally, you again see a real failure to consider harms. Not only, in this case, defamation. But, in my view, unrestrained, anonymous speech, leads to a bruising, painful style of discourse that actually discourages participation and leads people who might honestly have things to say to sit down and shut up.
CHANGING EMPLOYMENT MODELS
News media, especially on the Internet, are developing greater reliance on producers of content who are not full-time employees. This poses a huge challenge to traditional ways to ensure independence and guard against conflicts of interest.
Professional codes almost universally discourage or prohibit "moonlighting"-the practice of journalists' taking second jobs. For good reason: The temptation is almost irresistible to allow loyalties and obligations the journalist incurs by accepting employment and money from elsewhere to influence his or her work.
But what if the entire business is changing, because news organizations find it beneficial (and less expensive) to get more and more of their content from people who aren't on their staffs?
The professional journalist may also be a teacher, a writer of copy for public relations firms, a fiction writer, a poet-a person, in short, who is entangled in any number of knowledge-related practices.
How can you forbid moonlighting if the people you depend on have careers that consist entirely of moonlighting?
The notion that journalists have some obligation to be "independent" arose at a time when that independence was assured, paradoxically, by a dependency that was clear and unambiguous. The reporter could rely on his or her employer for principal support.
Remember, the reader is still entitled to honest, independent
reportage from people who aren't secretly being paid to tilt their work one way or the other, or whose judgment is impaired by the influence of invisible constituencies that are both important to him and unknown to his or her readers.
Plainly the rules governing conflict of interest need to be re-examined.
When they are enforced, the results are puzzling. Last fall, The New York Times fired a Harvard business school professor as columnist because she wrote a column based in part on a trip to a corporate innovation center in St. Paul, Minnesota, paid for by the company, 3M.
The Times had no intention of paying the cost of that trip, and was quite happy to publish a column that was plainly based on such a visit. And had the professor used Harvard money to go, the Times would have had no objection, even though it would, in effect, have been accepting subsidy from Harvard.
So this wasn't fair to the professor just as freelance writers are being squeezed out of existence by plummeting pay rates and the enforcement of conflict of interest rules that make it impossible for them to shift their own costs. And it raises the disturbing possibility that news organizations are persisting in offering coverage and commentary that they no longer can provide ethically.
On the other side of the conflict issue, it was revealed that in the waning years of the Bush administration some news organizations, mainly TV, relied on military "analysts" or "consultants" who, unknown to the news outfits, were financially dependent on the Pentagon.
I think that's almost an exemplar of the problem we'll face in the future, with a great many of the most talented journalists and commentators by necessity working for multiple masters.
Unlike some of the other problems I see emerging, this one is getting attention. The most popular online solution, however, isn't especially effective: It's disclosure.
I'm in favor of disclosure, but it isn't much of a remedy. What does the freelancer disclose? Current clients, former clients-or prospective clients? How do you neutralize the problem that you're constantly auditioning for your next job? Besides, disclosure doesn't clean up the journalism; it merely warns the reader that it might be dirty.
The problem is that we extol independence, but have entered in to a business structure of serial and unpredictable dependencies.
INTERNET ADVERTISING & CALIBRATED NEWS
The promise of a "free Internet" is based on expectations of advertising revenue, and the appeal of Internet advertising is based on a complex of technical features that allow the online activity of individuals to be tracked and recorded and used. The interests of potential customers can be identified and targeted with great precision.
What all that means is that information about what people do online-their browsing, their reading habits, even their e-mails-is being noted and monetized.
Is that an ethical problem for journalists?
The first question is whether secret information-gathering is consistent with the "public service" claims journalists make.
Journalists confront privacy issues all the time. Individuals condemn the news media for publishing information that is personal or proprietary or secret. Journalists respond by claiming they are acting in the name of an overriding public interest.
But with Internet advertising, there is no public service being served. The interest being served is private, that of the media-owning business. And that is a weak justification.
This raises transparency and disclosure issues. All Internet based businesses, it seems to me, face the question of whether they have a basic obligation to give customers a complete understanding of how private information is being used and allow them to decide whether that's acceptable.
But that obligation is especially acute with news organizations. Journalists are supposed to have special sensitivity to the value of information and the importance of using it ethically.
The second question is whether surveillance-based advertising leads to new incentives to put a monetary value on particular news content. It seems inevitable that some articles will have a greater ability than others to attract readers that specific advertisers want to reach.
In that sense, that coverage will be more valuable. Once the ability to monetize content is applied to newsroom decisions, we are introducing a precision of commercial corruption that is a quantum jump more sophisticated than the themed sections of newspapers.
I first started fretting about this a couple of years ago. I read this in an article by Douglas MacMillan in the Feb. 11, 2010 issue of BusinessWeek magazine about AOL, the former America On Line, which is bulking up its news operations:
Tacked to the newsroom walls in AOL's downtown Manhattan headquarters are pages and pages of Web traffic data. The numbers tell the growing number of journalists who work there how well their articles are performing and- thanks to the ads that appear alongside them-who's paying the bills.
Plainly, the temptation will be huge to favor coverage that has a proven ability to draw desirable audiences to please willing advertisers.
We are just about at a time when coverage choices will be made with profit-and-loss statements in hand: How much (number of readers and number of dollars are related) the story will bring in, versus how much the story will cost, these numbers will be knowable. Again, this represents the adoption of an Internet-based business model, which is seen as normatively acceptable, and which receives very little scrutiny as to its harms.
But a journalism that is deliberately used to nurture and harvest demographically desirable markets on behalf of advertisers-that, to me, is the latest frontier of corruption, and the one that we must be most vigilant about fighting.
If there is a bottom line, an irreducible bottom, to this speculation, it is that you and the organizations you serve, have an overriding obligation to do right by your viewers, your readers, those you communicate with and who rely on you.
They trust you. That means more than relying on you for accuracy. It means they trust you to tell them what they need to know, even if they'll hate you for it, because it's your job and it's your duty.