journalism standards don't die online

Longtime Reading Eagle reporter and columnist Dan Kelly is a great guy who helped me out a lot in my four years at that newspaper. I didn’t get to know him very well, but I have a lot of respect for his work and commitment to quality journalism.

That being said, I have a few issues with his latest column, which discusses journalistic standards for digging into rumors and deciding whether photos are too graphic to print — or display on a Web site, as it were.

Here’s part of the column I disagree with:

It goes without saying that bloggers and former journalists working for Web-only publications enjoy a wider latitude in what they can write. But when it comes to photography, many of the bloggers will put up anything – the raunchier, the better.

Anything to drive hits to their Web pages.

I won’t get far into the “Are bloggers journalists?” discussion. That question has been debated for years and still being argued in the courts. The truth is, some journalists blog as part of their staff jobs with print publications. Some bloggers are trained journalists by experience, education or both. Some untrained bloggers consider themselves journalists and some don’t. I’m a journalist who has a blog, but I don’t update it very often because writing for people who pay me takes up a lot of time already. The line between “journalists” and “bloggers” isn’t as clear as it once was and matters less and less as news reporters of all stripes experiment with new ways to present information.

In my view, what really matters is whether the material I read has been verified, fact-checked, contains all the relevant information and confers necessary respect on the people mentioned in the piece. As long as those journalistic standards are met I don’t care if I’m reading a blog post, an article printed on a dead tree or an article on a print publication’s Web site. And I don’t think most other readers care either.

That’s why I wanted to scream when I read in Dan’s column that ” former journalists working for Web-only publications enjoy a wider latitude in what they can write.”

I’ve written for two Web-only publications since I lost my job at the Reading Eagle, and that doesn’t make me a “former journalist.” I’m still a journalist, and that’s not because most of my writing still appears in print. I’m still a journalist because I’m still in the business of finding out the facts, presenting them to the public and letting the readers figure out what to do with them. I don’t adjust my standards based on whether my work will appear in print, online or both. Neither does any journalist worth the title.

The column has another quote that I disagree with:

At the risk of sounding high and mighty, newspaper editors hold themselves to a higher standard.

The paragraph before this sentence referred specifically to ethical quandaries over whether graphic photos should be printed. But this sentence alludes to the perception, common among old-school newspaper types, that information is more trustworthy if it’s printed in ink (or on the website of a publication that prints in ink). Not only does it sound pretty high and mighty, but it’s not true. Sure, all sorts of falsehoods are spread on the Internet. But print media, including newspapers, spread misinformation sometimes too.

And trained journalists who publish online are able to show their credibility in ways that paper publications can’t (although plenty of print publications take these measures on their websites). When bloggers/journalists/writers post something that turns out to be false, we can make the necessary edits and add a correction to the original piece. Since journalists are human we all screw up from time to time, and correcting the original story is far superior to the paper alternative of printing a correction somewhere in the next edition.

But what I really love about writing for the Internet is the ability to link readers to the content I’m talking about. Then they can see it for themselves instead of trusting that I’ve told them everything they want or need to know. Since this post is about Dan’s column I’ve posted a link to it (and here’s another) so you can read it yourself and decide if I’m right on or completely off. I do that in my stories too. Reporters often use documents while working on stories, and articles like this one come with links to PDF files of some of the documents I found useful.

Which medium allows for more transparency?

I love good newspapers. I subscribe to one local newspaper, and not because of the coupons. I subscribe, and urge others to, because newspaper reporters do good work and a subscription helps them maintain the financial resources to keep them working. But I don’t have a sentimental attachment to ink and dead trees. I have a sentimental attachment to quality reporting.

I recently talked to a community-newspaper editor who said he thought the Internet was “a passing fad.” I feel pretty safe saying that he’s wrong. A functioning society depends on journalists who are able to do their work, no matter what medium is used to present it. Journalists all over are trying experiments in doing their jobs and generating enough money to support themselves. I’m sure that eventually we’ll figure out how to do it sustainably.

But insisting that journalists who work in paper are more trustworthy than journalists who work with pixels won’t help us get there.

5 comments to journalism standards don’t die online

  • Mike Weekley

    Nice piece!

  • Rebecca, I agree completely with the first paragraph of your blog. After that you kind of lose me.
    But serioiusly, my comment about “former journalists” was wrong. Indeed journalists do work for online-only publications. I’m referring to Web sites, even popular ones like ProPublica, that publish blogs written by people who simply read the NYT or WST and regurgitate their spin. the reader would be better served if the blogger simply wrote: “I read a great story in the New York times. You shud go read it. Here’s the link.”
    that’s all …

  • Poncho

    Here I was expecting a good, ol’ fashioned pissin’ contest and Dan goes and agrees with Rebecca — sigh — or at least qualifies his statements.

    But seriously, the Web has made it so easy and cheap for people to ‘publish’ their material to a wider audience that much of what flows into the ‘information stream’ is misinformation or allegations based on allegations. When looking up materials on the Web, one must consider the online source, just as one would in print. The editor/publisher is the filter, and some filters remove questionable material. Others do quite the opposite, bent as they are on supporting their point of view or pushing ahead with their vendetta by reproducing anything they agree with, regardless of its veracity.

    You find this in print, of course, but it’s much more abundant on the Web. Sadly, many people do not know how to distinguish between good, responsible journalism and the rabble-rousing hatemongers who exploit people’s fears.

  • Dan – Sounds like we agree on more than we thought. If a blogger is talking about a story he or she read someplace, the blog post should definitely include a link. And all people posting on blogs, or anywhere else for that matter, should be completely transparent about who they are and where their information is coming from.

    Poncho – Um, sorry to disappoint you? 🙂 But yes, you’re right that many people who see information online either don’t know how or don’t care to check to see whether it’s correct. The Internet has a ton of information available but it does require checking the source. For example, when I use Wikipedia I always scroll to the bottom of the article first and click on citations that look legitimate.

    Putting something on the Web is a lot easier than printing it, but it’s important to remember that plenty of misinformation is spread in print, too. A lot of newspaper articles aren’t checked completely before being published (and layoffs certainly don’t help!). Anyone who feels like it can print a pamphlet or self-publish a book or paper a neighborhood with anonymous fliers.

    Sounds like we agree there too.

    But what I don’t like is some people who work in the news media, set in the old ways of doing things, that think information in print is more trustworthy than what’s online. I have heard quite a few in the field express this sentiment. And the philosophy that the old ways are better, even though they’re not going to last forever, isn’t going to keep me employed in journalism for the next 40 years.

  • Whoah.” *a lot* of newspaper articles aren’t checked completely” Really?

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>