The L.A. Times responds

The LA Times just responded to my post about its excoriated editorial that reacted to the new GoogleNews feature enabling subjects in news stories to respond… at Google. Jon Healey writes:

Hey, thanks for the post. It’s a sign of bad writing when so many people miss the point, and aside from you, just about everybody seems to have missed the point of this editorial. I’ll take the rap for that. The comment about Osama was meant to be ridiculously over the top because, as the Times’ editorial board has said in the past, publishers have been quite wrong about Google. And that includes the guy soon to be my boss. Maybe it was confusing to readers to include a non-genuflecting reference to the new boss….

Anyway, some readers also seem to think we were criticizing Google by saying it’s not journalism. Umm, we’re not *that* hubristic. We were simply trying to remind people of the shortcomings inherent in its approach. For starters, unfiltered does not equate to true. And IMHO, it’s a really bad thing if people assumed that the comments are, in fact, screened for truth. They won’t be. That’s not to say newspaper stories are, but at least there’s often some critical thinking at work there.

Here’s the scenario that really troubles me. Investigative reporter digs up tons of documents showing that Company X lied to regulators. Reporter calls Company X, which curtly denies wrongdoing and stonewalls. Reporter writes story, including denial. Company officials then use Google to launch a lengthy and utterly bogus defense of their behavior. Is that a value add by Google? Sure, it’s just as easy to dream up the opposite — where a reporter writes something that’s just plain wrong and Google provides what amounts to a high-profile forum for a correction. And maybe that will end up being the predominant use. But there’s no telling, and in the face of conflicting assertions, Google won’t be giving readers any help figuring out who’s right. As the editorial says, that’s not its mission.

BTW, we do give people fora to respond to stories about them after they run. In addition to letters to the editor and op-eds in the newspaper, we have the Blowback section online. It would clearly be better if we enabled people to comment and discuss stories online on the same web page as the stories themselves, and we’re on our way there. So yes, what Google’s doing is a prod for us to come up with a better mechanism online. All criticism on that front is accepted.

One last point: the criticism of journalists’ listening skills (and those of the organizations they work for) is apt. But Google’s new feature isn’t just about that. It’s also about giving newsmakers a route around skeptical ears. We in this biz get it from both ends, remember; we’re stenographers *and* deaf. But sometimes, we’re also capable of recognizing when someone is lying, spinning, dodging or obfuscating.

I’m not arguing that less information is better than more information. I’m just saying it’s good for readers to understand what they’re looking at and how it got there.

All this is all the more reason why news organizations should enable comment and response at their own sites, on their own stories. And how will we deal with Healey’s fear about reporters not being there to provide facts, counterbalance, and perspective? That’s easy: The reporters should be part of that conversation. When challenged, they should come back with more facts. When wrong, of course, they should say so. And we ought to be able to subscribe to that ongoing discussion and the reporting around it. I do agree with the critics who say that newspapers without comments on stories should be ashamed that GoogleNews beat them to it.