Defining quality in journalism

Some Norwegian journalists who visited CUNY on Friday emailed me to ask about definitions of quality in journalism today for a white paper they are writing. Here’s what I said. I’d like to hear what you say:

The first criteria for quality are obvious and timeless: accuracy, fairness, a compelling and efficient presentation, timeliness, relevance.

But I think it is also becoming important to be inventive and flexible. Too often, we defined quality according to the precepts of a priesthood: TV people, for example, who insisted that we had to do stand-ups and b-roll (is that an Americanism? it’s the extra footage gathered to make editing easier but it’s almost always faked: watch the person walk down the hall to nowhere) and noddies (that’s a Britishism, I believe: the cutaway reaction shots). That’s all silliness; worse, it’s fiction. But TV people defined quality by these elements.

I think it is vital for journalists today to reexamine all definitions of quality. For TV, isn’t it more important to tell the story well and efficiently and not bore us with visual cliches? We have learned in online video that the public often cares more about substance than style. For online journalism, fairness may be achieved not in quoting one person from column a and and one from column b in a simplistic exercise in balance but instead by having an open discussion.

We also add new definitions and ethics of quality: Transparency is overtaking objectivity as a standard in some quarters of journalism now. That could be defined by what we reporters reveal of our own perspectives and opinions. It could be achieved by revealing our sources and influences (every story should come with links to the materials we read and used). It could come from opening up the process of news judgment in an organization. Similarly, the ethic of the correction I have learned in blogs is more rigorous than in some old media; we do not erase our mistakes but cross them out to fess up to them; that, too, is a form of transparency.

I would add responsiveness as a mark of quality: Are we delivering to the public what it wants — and are we listening to find out what it wants? Do we open the means for our stories to be corrected and expanded? Do we have a way to hear the public’s definition of quality? Collaboration, I’d say, is the highest form of responsiveness.

Are these different in one medium vs. another? Not really. Yes, online opens new possibilities, such as links and interaction, but these really only become tools to learn new behaviors and ethics that can be carried to any medium, often with the help of online.