How to improve credibility: The Times report

How to improve credibility: The Times report

: Today The Times is issuing a report from a committee charged by Executive Editor Bill Keller with finding ways to improve the credibility of the paper — and the industry, really. The report and Keller’s response will be online here later today but from the story about it in today’s paper by Kit Seelye, the recommendations look to be spot on.

What I like most about it is that the committee recommends moves that will bring the paper and its readers into more of a conversation. I said yesterday that journalists blathering on at ethereal heights about journalistic ethics can be too self-centered. But journalists talking with citizens about the news and how it is covered in present tense can be useful and compelling. It’s not just about defending the paper — though I agree that’s proper and necessary. And it’s not just about journalistic standards. It’s about bringing out different perspectives and more information about the news we cover and care about.

The summary that appears on the paper (but not online) lists these steps:

1. Encourage the executive editor and two managing editors to share responsibility for writing a regular column that deals with matters concerning the paper.

I’d be eager to see them deal with matters concerning news and its coverage as well.

2. Make reporters and editors more easily available through email.

That’s not a bad idea at all. But I would say that those reporters and editors cannot be expected to answer all that email (hell, I don’t and all I have is a blog). I was going to suggest that they could reply to the ideas and issues raised in email in a public forum such as a blog… but hold on a minute…

3. Use the Web to provide readers with complete documents used in stories as well as transcripts of interviews.

Exactly right. It’s not that people want more but when they do, we make our process transparent. And I believe that will only bolster the quality of that work. If some disagree with a reporter’s decisions, then they now get the tools to decide for themselves.

4. Consider creating a Times blog that promotes interaction with readers.

Stop the unpresses! A Times blog! Can’t wait! (See Keller’s earlier musings on the notion here.)

5. Further curtail the use of anonymous sources.

Dan Okrent wrote about this at length and well yesterday.

6. Encourage reporters to confirm the accuracy of articles with sources before publication and to solicit feedback from sources after publication.

I’ll admit that as a reporter, that wasn’t always easy but it is good. The favorite class session I included in the new-media curriclulum for CUNY’s new Graduate School of Journalism is inviting the sources and subjects of the students’ stories to come to class and get their perspective on what had been written.

7. Set up an error-tracking system to detect patterns and trends.

Good idea. I wonder whether that could be a distributed system… I wonder whether it could be used to track errors (or allegations of errors) in blogs and wikis and other news sources.

8. Encourage the development of software to detect plagiarism when accusations arise. 9. Increase coverage of middle America, rural areas and religion.

I know that one will be a straightline to wags aplenty. But it’s a good suggestion. When I started EW, I put a piece of paper in a frame in my office reminding me and the staff how many Americans do not live in New York. The New York Times is the national newspaper and so covering the nation better is without doubt a good goal.

10. Establish a system for evaluating public attacks on The Times’ work and determining whether and how to respond.

In some ways, this is the most surprising and best suggestion of the committee. And it’s not because The Times is a victim and needs to defend itself, though I’m sure reporters often feel that way (and I’ll say I felt bad going after the reporter who wrote this very story). But what’s important here is that when the paper or other news institutions (read: Dan Rather) do not respond to such attacks, they seem to be above, apart, and separate from the public they serve. By responding, they enter into a conversation. And when The Times responds, I have confidence they’ll do so with civility and facts and that will not only mean joining the converation but also raising the level of it. And that’s good. When attacked, the response won’t always be, ‘oops, we were wrong,’ or even ‘you were wrong and here are the facts that back us up’ but also ‘thanks, we’ll look into that.’

I’m going to be offline when the report goes online today but I’ll read it with eager interest. I’ll also be eager to read your comments and posts.

: LATER: Matt Duffy comments.

: UPDATE: The full report is up now.

: UPDATE: Here is Bill Keller’s announcement of the report, with well-justified praise for the committee’s head, Al Siegel.