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.

  • Hi Jeff,

    Not intending to start up a trans-atlantic stramash here, but I have to say I sincerely hope that transparency never overtakes objectivity (for want of specificity, I’d prefer to use ‘even-handedness’) as a quality standard in the UK broadsheet press, whether hard-copy or online.

    Whether you agree that Gerri Peev was right to publish Samantha Power’s ‘off the record’ remarks about Hilary Clinton in the Scotsman, or find it monsterous (!) that she did so, this issue speaks to the vulnerability of transparency as a journalistic standard.

    Where journalists betray the public interest in publishing remarks made in the heat of the moment, even-handedness becomes even more important in terms of redressing the pursuit of truth.

    Especially given the ever-increasing sophistication and spread of methods used to control public discourse on key political issues.

    Like ‘terrorism’:

  • Those Norwegian journalists visited NYU too! (But they didn’t ask me this question, which is a good question.) I would say that one definition of “quality” for me has to do with aggregation. A “quality” story is aware of what else is on the Web that bears on that story, and does not pretend to be the first, last and only words on the subject. Collect in one place what’s out there, and then add something original to it: that’s quality. Or as you so have sometimes put it (quoting someone else, maybe?) “do what you do best and link to the rest.”

  • Melle Gloerich

    In my opinion, quality is expertise plus time. I regard all kinds of people as experts, if one has no formal education or can’t even read but has a lot of hands on experience with ducks, this person will probably be an duck-expert. Sure, it might take a while to understand this kind of expertise because it has taken a path wildly different from what most people in the media-profession have taken, namely schooling.

    That’s expertise, but it takes expertise of expression to publish this expertise and it will take time to reflect on ones opinion. If this is done properly, quality will be produced.

    Transparency should never replace objectivity, it’s a condition of objectivity. Transparency without objectivity is by itself not a bad thing but should only serve as a flag warning an opinion as biased or without expertise at best. Since objectivity is an ideal and something which can never be fully reached, every article that is published as objective should be transparent. That’s why scientific research references every building block of its argument.
    In most quality journalism, like for example the Wall Street Journal, we assume objectivity and I believe it’s what they strife for as well, but I would like to see their resources more prominent. More scientific if you like.

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