Posts about journalism

Toward a journalistic ethic of citation


After The New York Times published its extensive report on the history of Haiti’s impoverishment at the hands of its overthrown colonial overlords, a robust debate broke out between academic and journalistic Twitter about inadequate citation and sourcing. Journalism must do better.

The gist of it: The Times did include a narrative bibliography in the project, which is unusual. But some academics — including Harvard’s Mary Lewis — said they had helped reporters but were neither quoted nor credited. This thread by Pittsburgh Prof. Keisha Blain brings together other threads; read them all. Many said The Times was derelict in not quoting and citing current research but also in ignoring the seminal work of Eric Williams in his 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery — columbusing in, of all subjects, Haiti. Joseph Rezek, a BU professor, said the real problem was that The Times acted as if it had discovered something new when much research on the topic came before:

After three days, The Times reported on the citation controversy but some said it still didn’t give credit where it is due. Some journalists — notably Adam Davidson — pleaded for citational slack in telling stories for general audiences, sparking more controversy. I entered in more than once to argue that journalists must practice better discipline of citation, sourcing, and transparency: showing our work.

There are so many lessons here for journalists and journalism students that I think it is important to try to catalog them, to examine the journalistic presumptions and problems at work, and to propose standards.

Don’t blame your tools. First, let me call bullshit on the usual excuses that journalists do not have the space, time, or appropriate CMS frippery to cite sources. We now have the internet, with unlimited space and time. And we have the best possible tool for citation — the link. If any news organization cared, it would take next to no effort to also update tools to accommodate footnotes, endnotes, or notes that are revealed at a user’s option; to compile bibliographies of sources; and to create open repositories for source material. What is standing in the way of responsible citation is not tools but ethical will.

Journalists must always cite their sources. I don’t just mean attributing quotes. Let’s be honest that too often, quotes in stories are a form of extraction: I (the reporter) got you (the expert) to fill in our (the news organization’s) preconceived narrative. Anyone who has ever been interviewed knows the experience of seeing a long conversation reduced to one out-of-context line included to exploit the expert’s reputation and to make the reporter’s point, not the speaker’s.

What’s more troubling in the case of the Haiti story is what Yasmin Nair calls soft plagiarism: not a direct quote lifted but instead the coopting of ideas, background, context, perspective, and most of all an academic’s research and expertise.

I have sometimes spent an hour or two on the phone with a reporter explaining concepts, context, or history: educating them, with nothing to show for it. Far worse is Siva Vaidhyanathan’s tale of being used and discarded by a PBS series. There are a million such tales.

So, journalists, in your story or in a supplemental bibliography — try it — find a way to cite your sources, all those who, through interviews or literature, gave you the gift of education. To do anything less is intellectual and reportorial theft.

Screw the scoop. The Haiti episode exposes a grave journalistic weakness: the addiction to the scoop, to the idea that everything we report must be new, thus news. That is presumed to be one reason The Times’ Haiti story did not acknowledge much prior research. Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted an explanation: “Simply pitching the story as ‘this happened but many people don’t know about it[’] would likely have meant the piece didn’t get done & certainly that it wouldn’t have gotten all the resources.” She is, as ever, correct. But that indicates something seriously wrong with news organizations’ priorities. Shouldn’t serving what “many people don’t know” be more important than bragging about being the first to know it?

Look, too, at how journalists treat each other, not just academics. Here, NBC reporter Mike Hixenbaugh laments that neither The Times nor The Washington Post credited local Texas reporters with the reporting that led to the devastating report on Southern Baptist evangelical sex abuse.

There is no shame in acknowledging that others came before and in giving them — academics or journalists — recognition for their contributions. The shame is in not doing so.

The story corrupts. The story is not everything. The story is merely one form, one tool to inform the public. Failing to credit sources and experts because doing so would get in the way of the flow of one’s persuasive narrative is no excuse. I have long warned of the seduction of the story, as it grants too much power to the storyteller over the story’s subject. Keeping a narrative going while imparting information and crediting sources is simply our job.

It’s the business model, stupid. So much of this current kerfuffle revolves around the media economy requiring that news organizations to be destinations, to sell subscriptions, or (less and less) to sell attention to advertisers. As Jordan Taylor put it:

In the end, this is not about ethics or credibility but about the fight we’ve been having since the internet entered newsrooms: Journalists and publishers don’t want to link out; they don’t want to give credit; they want to convince themselves and the people they still consider an audience that they are selling a unique, exclusive, valuable commodity called content.

Wrong. Journalism is a service. When we credit our sources and show our work, we enhance our credibility and value. When we exploit and extract the work of academics — particularly academics of color — we extend inequity and injustice. When we value our own journalistic egos over the reputations of our sources and the education of the public, we do harm.

So stop. Find every way you can to cite and credit the sources who make your stories — your articles, your reporting, your informational service — possible. If you do not, you are thieves.

Another thing. I hate it when journalists say academics cannot write well. Yes, it is easy to find academic papers intended for small audiences inside a discipline that use baffling jargon. This writing is not intended for a broad audience. But behind me I have bookshelves filled with wonderfully written books by academics filled with not only engaging narrative but also responsible citation of rich sets of sources. So let’s cut out our intramural sniping about who’s a better writer.

To the contrary, it is vital — urgent — that we bring academics and journalists closer together so that news organizations are exposed to, use, and cite academic research relevant to their reporting. This is one of the reasons why I started an Initiative in Internet Studies at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School — in full disclosure, funded by Google — to highlight research on internet impact for journalists and policymakers. (The Initiative is also bringing researchers together to discuss their agendas and I’m working to develop an educational program; my colleague Douglas Rushkoff and I just completed teaching a course in (re)Designing the Internet).

Diara J. Townes, who has worked with First Draft and the Aspen Institute and is a graduate of our school, is leading the effort to find, highlight, summarize, and share relevant research on internet impact. Here is the Twitter account where she is sharing research — and please send her more. Here is her Medium site and here you can sign up for her newsletter.

We in journalism mustn’t build walls to exclude academics by ignoring their prior research, by extracting their work without credit, and by mocking their writing (there is plenty to mock in news writing, folks). Instead, in a time when debate is devoid of fact and data, we must come closer together.


Just as I hit “publish” on this post, a colleague sent me a very good piece by Jonathan Katz, a “Haiti-head” — alongside his wife, Claire Payton, who holds a Ph.D. in Haitian history. Katz examines what is new in The Times project. He concludes:

My journalism-school superego says that a more honest thing for them to do would have been to package the story as what it was — a significant but incremental advance in the understanding of a historical event that scholars and Haitians know about and that much of the rest of the world does not.

But would a single front-page story with a headline like France Stole Over $500 Million from Haiti In 19th Century, Times Analysis Shows — or maybe In an Impoverished County, a Legacy of Theft — have gotten the magnitude of attention that this reporting has so far? Probably not.

Attention from The Times’ editors? I agree; probably not. But attention from the audience? That’s up to The Times’ editors. Nothing would have stopped The Times from doing just what Katz does here, saying: Here’s a story you probably don’t know; let us tell it to you and then let us tell you some new facts we uncovered in our research. Journalism is never the first-draft of history; that is our worst and most inexcusable hubris. Journalism is always another chapter in history.

Concede defeat to bad speech

What if we concede that the battle against “bad speech” is lost? Disinformation and lies will exist no matter what we do. Those who want such speech will always be able to say it and find it. Murdoch and Musk win. That is just realism. 

Then what? Then we turn our attention to finding, amplifying, and supporting quality speech.

A big problem with concentrating so much attention and resource on “bad speech,” especially these last five years, is that it allows — no, encourages — the bad speakers to set the public agenda, which is precisely what they want. They feed on attention. They win. Even when they lose — when they get moderated, or in their terms “censored” and “canceled,” allowing them to play victim — they win. Haven’t we yet learned that?

Another problem is that all speech becomes tarred with the bad speakers’ brush. The internet and its freedoms for all are being tainted, regulated, and rejected in a grandly futile game of Whac-A-Mole against the few, the loud, the stupid. Media’s moral panic against its new competitor, the net, is blaming all our ills on technology (so media accept none of the responsibility for where we are). I hear journalists, regulators, and even academics begin to ask whether there is “too much speech.” What an abhorrent question in an enlightened society. 

But the real problem with concentrating on “bad speech” is that no resource is going to good speech: supporting speech that is informed, authoritative, expert, constructive, relevant, useful, creative, artful. Good speech is being ignored, even starved. Then the bad speakers win once more.

What does it mean to concentrate on good speech? At the dawn of print and its new abundance of speech, new institutions were needed to nurture it. In my upcoming book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis (out early next year from Bloomsbury Academic), I tell the story of the first recorded attempt to impose censorship on print, coming only 15 years after Gutenberg’s Bible.

In 1470, Latin grammarian Niccolò Perotti begged Pope Paul II to impose Vatican control on the printing of books. It was a new translation of Pliny that set him off. In his litany of complaint to the pope, he pointed to 22 grammatical errors, which much offended him. Mind you, Perotti had been an optimist about printing. He “hoped that there would soon be such an abundance of books that everyone, however poor and wretched, would have whatever was desired,” wrote John Monfasani. But the first tech backlash was not long in coming, for Perotti’s “hopes have been thoroughly dashed. The printers are turning out so much dross.” 

Perotti had a solution. He called upon Pope Paul to appoint a censor. “The easiest arrangement is to have someone or other charged by papal authority to oversee the work, who would both prescribe to the printers regulations governing the printing of books and would appoint some moderately learned man to examine and emend individual formes before printing,” Perotti wrote. “The task calls for intelligence, singular erudition, incredible zeal, and the highest vigilance.”

Note well that what Perotti was asking for was not a censor at all. Instead, he was envisioning the roles of the editor and the publishing house as means to assure and support quality in print. Indeed, the institutions of editor, publisher, critic, and journal were born to do just that. It worked pretty well for a half a millennium. 

Come the mechanization and industrialization of print with steam-powered pressed and typesetting machines — the subject of future books I’m working on — the problem arose again. There was plenty of proper complaint about the penny press and yellow press and just crappy press. But at that same time, early in this transformation in 1850, a new institution was born: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. See its mission in the first page of its first issue:

Rather than trying to eradicate all the new and bad speech suddenly appearing, Harper’s saw the need to support the good, “to place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.”

Magazines — which Ben Franklin and Noah Webster had tried and failed to publish — flourished with new technology, new audiences, and new economics as good speech begat more good speech. 

I am not suggesting for a second that we stop moderating content on platforms. Platforms have the right and responsibility to create positive, safe, pleasing, productive — and, yes, profitable — environments for their users. 

But it is futile to stay up at night because — in the example of the legendary XKCD cartoon — someone is wrong, stupid, or mean on the internet. People who want to say stupid shit will find their place to do it. Acknowledge that. Stop paying heed to them. Attention is their feed, their fuel, their currency. Starve them of it.

I also am not suggesting that supporting good speech means supporting the incumbent institutions that have failed us. Most are simply not built to purpose for the new abundance of speech; there aren’t enough editors, publishers, and printing presses to cope. 

Some of these legacy institutions are outright abrogating their responsibility: See The New York Times believing that the defense of democracy is partisan advocacy. Says the new editor of The Times: “I honestly think that if we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.” No one is suggesting this as either/or. I give up. 

Instead, supporting good speech means finding the speech that has always been there but unheard and unrepresented in the incumbent institutions of mass media. Until and unless Musk actually buys and ruins Twitter, it is a wealth of communities and creativity, of lived perspectives, of expertise, of deliberative dialogue — you just have to be willing to see it. Read André Brock, Jr.’s Distributed Blackness to see what is possible and worth fighting for. 

Supporting good speech means helping speakers with education, not to aspire to what came before but to use the tools of language, technology, collaboration, and art to express themselves and create in new ways, to invent new forms and genres. 

Supporting good speech means bringing attention to their work. This is why I keep pointing to Jack Dorsey’s Blue Sky as a framework to acknowledge that the speech layer of the net is already commodified and that the opportunity lies in building services to discover and share good speech: a new Harper’s for a new age built to scale and purpose. I hope for editors and entrepreneurs who will build services to find for me the people worth hearing. 

Supporting good speech means investing in it. Millions have been poured into tamping down disinformation and good. I helped redirect some of those funds. We needed to learn. I don’t regret or criticize those efforts. But now we need to shift resources to nurturing quality and invention. As one small example, see how Reddit is going to fund experiments by its users. 

We need to understand “bad speech” as the new spam and treat it with similar disdain, tools, and dismissal. There’ll always be spam and I’m grateful that Google, et al, invest in trying to stay no more than one foot behind them. We need to do likewise with those who would manipulate the public conversation for more than greedy ends: to spread their hate and bile and authoritarian racism and bigotry. Yes, stay vigilant. Yes, moderate their shit. Yes, thwart them at every turn. But also take them off the stage. Turn off the spotlight on them. 

Turn the spotlight onto the countless smart, informed, creative people dying to be seen and heard. Support good speech. 

Who’s breaking the news?

This will not make some people happy. Here is a statement I submitted to my senator, Cory Booker, as a member of a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, which is holding a hearing called “Breaking the News—Journalism, Competition, and the Effects of Market Power on a Free Press.” The title reveals much.

The gist of my statement is that I worry about news organizations lobbying the institutions they are meant to watch; it is a gross violation of journalistic independence and integrity.

It so happens that the day before, The Intercept dropped a report about media companies lobbying against regulation of advertising targeting. Now I happen to think that both advertising and targeting — in some form, likely with regulation — will be necessary for news media’s survival. I think positioning targeting as “surveillance advertising” is moral panic. But my argument against lobbying is the same.

In both instances, news organizations are portraying themselves as victims of big, bad tech — the companies media cover without ever acknowledging the conflict of interest in their coverage. They paint themselves as virtuous and necessary agents of democracy. It’s bad enough that news organizations seek access from the powerful; now they seek favors. Here is my statement:


I write to the Subcommittee as a journalist, editor, journalism entrepreneur, and journalism educator concerned about continuing efforts by legacy mass-media news companies to lobby for protectionist legislation and regulation. I worry that in doing so they compromise the independence and integrity of my field. Their efforts might affect freedom of expression online. And they could disadvantage the new, more diverse, and innovative competitors so needed in both the media and technology industries.

My credentials: I am the Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation and Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Prior to this, I was president and creative director of Advance Publications’ online arm, where I started Newhouse Newspapers’ local news sites. I was also creator and founding editor of Entertainment Weekly magazine at Time Inc.; media columnist for The Guardian; Sunday editor and associate publisher of the New York Daily News; TV critic and editor in magazine development at TV Guide and People; and an editor and columnist on the San Francisco Examiner and Chicago Tribune. I have consulted for many news media companies and sat on the board of media startups. At CUNY, I started initiatives and raised funds — in disclosure, including from internet companies — to support efforts to combat disinformation online. I also helped build and now advise Montclair State University’s New Jersey News Commons.

All that is to say that I have considerable experience in media, having spent almost thirty years since the advent of online news trying to get media companies to change. Sadly, this means I have also been witness to many of their failures to adapt to the new reality of a connected world.

These companies have insisted on pursuing the only business strategies they have known: advertising and subscription. In the heydays of print, many of them ran local monopolies, which enabled them to overcharge advertisers for generations, and so it should come as no surprise that their customers fled to more effective and efficient marketing outlets when the internet arrived.

As they fail at advertising, publishers are retrenching behind ever-higher paywalls. The net result is the redlining of journalism. Quality, reliable news is ever more the province of the privileged few who can afford it, while disinformation will always be plentiful and free. That is a dangerous situation, especially at this perilous moment for American democracy. I fear that some of the legislation being proposed will only entrench news deeper inside walled gardens.

Now publishers and their trade-turned-lobbying associations resort to their last strategy: blaming new competitors for their own failures and trying to influence legislators and regulators for protectionist intervention designed to disadvantage not only those existing competitors but also others that might or not might not be able to start in the future. They seek nonmarket intervention to support primarily, though not entirely, legacy newsrooms and their paywall strategies. It should be noted that many legacy newsrooms have failed to adequately diversify their staffs to represent their communities (see: googletrends.github.io/asne2019/?filter=race). In various states, publishers also lobby legislatures to continue the practice of paying tax dollars to print legal ads; they claim this government subsidy as their right even though the internet now provides an efficient means to share public notices for free.

Call me old-fashioned, but I shudder at the sight of news organizations and their associations lobbying politicians. With all due respect, it is our role as journalists to remain reliably independent of you as the holders of power in the institution of government, so as to build trust at a time when trust is in short supply. Yet around the world, we see barons of news cashing in their political capital for the sake of protectionist advantage over new competitors: See the role of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in Australia’s media code and the Tory campaign against the BBC in Great Britain; see Axel Springer’s lobbying for so-called ancillary copyright in Germany and the EU; and now see news trade associations’ lobbying efforts in Washington.

All the while, these news media have turned to attack not only their online competitors but the internet as a whole. That is what gives me concern for the future of freedom of expression online, as voices too long not heard in mass media finally have their say, but some would restrict these newfound freedoms in, for example, the debate over Section 230. I do not mean to paint all journalists in all legacy newsrooms with this brush. But the pattern of lobbying among their publishers is clear.

I urge the Committee to read the work of Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt in her 2021 book, The Techlash, in which she analyzes data to track the moment when media coverage of the net flipped from utopian to dystopian. I, too, have been tracking this shift in coverage. Never do I see news outlets acknowledge their conflict of interest in reporting on companies with whom they compete for audience attention and advertising dollars.

I ask the Committee not to assume that journalism as it was is journalism as it should be, or that its past practitioners and proprietors are necessarily its best protectors in the future. According to the Reuters Institute at Oxford, two-thirds of news subscriptions in the U.S. go to just three brands: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. The other third is shared by the entirety of the rest of the news industry. Media remains a winner-takes-most industry.

The majority of American newspaper chains are now controlled by hedge funds. I was a member of an advisory board to a news company owned by one of them and I saw first-hand how that owner would not invest in innovation but instead sold hard assets and siphoned off cash. Beware that some of the subsidies contemplated by Congress will benefit not journalists and not the public but these funds’ limited partners.

I love journalism. I love newspapers and magazines. I train the new journalists who are our best hope. They often go to work for new outlets that are rebuilding our field — for example, Chicago’s City Bureau, Detroit’s Outlier Media, and New York’s The City and the Marshall Project. In my journalism school’s Center for Community Media and its Latino and Black Media Initiatives, I see much innovation aimed at serving communities that were too long underserved by mass media — see, for example, this week’s launch of Capital B. These are the reasons why I hold deep optimism for the future of my field.

This spring I am teaching a course at CUNY called Designing the Internet, to demonstrate to our students that they have the agency and the responsibility to design the future of the net and society on it. It is early days for the internet. After Gutenberg’s development of movable type, it took a century and a half before there came a tidal wave of innovation with print: the invention of the newspaper, the creation of the modern novel by Cervantes and the essay by Montaigne. It took another century to arrive at a sustainable business model for media with the creation of copyright. And it took yet another century for the development of changes in the technology of printing that would lead to the birth of mass media.

The net is yet young. We cannot yet know what my students, your children, and their grandchildren will create with it. I urge the Committee to support their future, not their ancestors’ past. Please support innovation and experimentation, new competition, diversity of ownership, training in new skills, and research on the impact of the net to date to build a better internet and society rather than to protect outmoded, legacy media owners.


Here was my statement to an earlier House hearing. 

The journalism of expectations

Beside journalism’s addiction to prediction lies another comorbidity: its presumption to set expectations.

Of course, we are well familiar with this co-occuring condition in coverage of politics, where journalists think they bring value to public discourse — which they do not — when they predict who will win an election. In the process, they set expectations about what a candidate must do to meet the pundit’s definition of “winning.”

But we see these ailments strike other areas of coverage. Take the pandemic and the economy. There is much pearl-clutching right now about inflation. Journalists have set the expectation that prices should not rise in spite of the facts that: (1) we are in the midst of an earth-shattering pandemic, (2) this affects the availability of labor, which in turn affects both (3) wages and (4) the supply chain, which in turn results in (5) higher prices for now. Media says it is a political failure that prices are rising. This is what we call a media narrative.*

Yet the economy is otherwise miraculously healthy. Unemployment is at record lows. The stock market is at highs. Savings are up. In spite of the pandemic and thanks in great measure to the incredible gift that is the internet, industry continues with few issues while local schools and businesses are on the whole open. One might think that media’s narrative would be about how fucking lucky we are in this nation to be so well-equipped to meet this challenge. But no, that’s not media’s Weltanschauung. Media wear dung-colored glasses.

Imagine a different set of expectations. Over Christmas, our daughter gave us the wonderful gift of having all our families’ 8 mm film digitized and we went through many old photos and files, including those that accompanied my 95-year-old father when we rescued him from the petri dish of viruses and malign idiocy that is Florida and finally moved him to be up with us. In one of the boxes, we found my late mother’s World War II ration booklet.

And that made me think: If we are fighting a “war” against the virus — as another of media’s narratives would wish us to believe — then why did media not set expectations of war-like measures against it, including: (1) official rationing of scarce resources, (2) price-controls to tamp down inflation caused by the scarcity of certain commodities, (3) wage controls to hold back further inflation in a time of scarce labor, (4) easing of immigration restrictions to increase the labor pool, (5) government subsidies for employment and sick leave, (6) mobilization of industry to produce the scarce resources needed, (7) mobilization of federal and state forces to augment labor and enforce rules to protect us all in mandates to (8) get vaccinated and (9) wear masks and (10) in shutdowns to hamper the virus’ spread.

There are a few answers to that hypothetical. The first is that we did not need to resort to all those drastic measures because the economy is healthy, technology has enabled us to mostly continue work (indeed, becoming more productive), and science has given us the blessing of vaccinations that arrived with incredible speed and efficacy.

The second answer is that if media had set such drastic expectations then I believe the presidential election — focused on how little Trump did to protect us and how much he did to harm us — would not have been so “close” (another media narrative based on its own expectation). Then Biden would have had the political cover to more readily take the bold actions from the list above that we do need, such as mask and vaccination mandates and mobilization of industry to make vaccines, masks, and other vital products.

The third answer is that if expectations were so dire then the current administration would be judged against them and would look pretty damned good. Oh, but media hate that narrative. It would make them look biased. We don’t find solutions. We find failure. But that, of course, is the essence of media’s bias.

Instead, media set the expectation that Normal is a street just past the next corner and failing to drive us there in time for tomorrow’s news is failure.

One of my many heresies is that news- and media-literacy are bullshit. They are mediacentric skeins intended to protect media from their own failures and blame the public for them: You, the people we serve, are just too ignorant to understand what we tell you and let’s explain to you how we do what we do so as to avoid a discussion of why we should be doing something else.

This morning, I had a long discussion in DM with two people I respect immensely about local news. It made me think about how too often the discussion in journalism these days refuses to question its presumptions (its narratives about itself):

  • That hiring more reporters in newsrooms is the goal. (But who is to say that news as it was is news as it should be?)
  • That local news is the highest virtue. (But how much do people associate themselves with geography versus affinity, interest, need, circumstance, and community now that the net allows them to connect in more ways?)
  • That people should be expected to pay a high price for news. (When over the century of mass media, news was always cheap.)
  • That news as it is is worth paying for. (So much is not.)

In the latest Reuters Institute survey of news leaders, I was heartened to see that 47 percent of respondents “worry that subscription models may be pushing journalism towards super-serving richer and more educated audiences and leaving others behind.” Amen.

Yet at the same time, 79 percent said getting audience revenue — behind paywalls — is a top priority. Almost a third expect to get “significant revenue from tech platforms for content licensing or innovation” — read, blackmail, obtained by journalism organizations cashing in their political capital through lobbying the politicians they are meant to cover so as to pressure new competitors to pay them baksheesh. That is pure protectionism. But that’s my narrative. Another 15 percent expect money from philanthropists and foundations. That is to say, they are confessing to a market failure — their failure to serve the market (not the market’s failure to serve them).

The survey reports that “publishers say the biggest barriers to innovation are the lack of money, due to wider economic challenges, and difficulty in attracting and retaining technical staff.” I’ve heard that for years — dare I call it another narrative? — and I disagree now more than ever. Innovation will not come from technology. It will come from realizing new ways to listen to and serve the public through the tools we already have. It will come from abandoning the journalistic prerogative of setting expectations for the public.

The future of journalism I wish for will come from divining means for the public to set their own expectations and judge journalism’s value based on how much we help meet them.†

* Please note that I use “narrative” throughout ironically and mockingly. See Jay Rosen:

 See also Jay on how to cover campaigns through the citizens’ agenda.

Disinformation is not *the* problem

Yes, disinformation is a problem. But by treating it as the problem, we can cause more: We give malign actors the attention that feeds them as we spread their messages. We defer facing society’s real ills. We ignore voices too long not heard. We present a distorted and dystopian view of reality. We delay building a better internet and society.

I’ve paid attention to disinformation myself. I’ve written about it and raised money to fight it. The war against disinformation is in good hands: see danah boyd’s Data & Society, Joan Donovan’s work at Harvard, the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, Alex Stamos and Renee DiResta et al at the Stanford Internet Observatory, Claire Wardle at First Draft, and many more. 

I’ve come to see that the time has come to turn our monomaniacal media gaze to additional, more positive and perhaps productive strategies. Consider:

Ignore the trolls

Recently, Morning Joe began the day mocking “Dr.” and Trump lackey Rep. Ronny Jackson for tweeting that the Omicron COVID variant was a worldwide political plot. Joe Scarborough dutifully ridiculed the idiocy of it, and later that day Anderson Cooper did likewise. Thereby they gave Jackson precisely what he wanted: media attention and glory among his cult of anti-institutional insurgents for pwning the libs. 

Have we learned nothing in the last five years? Fascists will make up shit for the sake of making shit up so they have shit to stir. As I argued here, I don’t think even they believe most of it; they want us to believe they believe it. Their outrageousness is not news; it is a strategy designed to exploit the weaknesses in journalism to report conflict and the unusual. So stop. Ask whether there is any point, any value in repeating their lies and sick fantasies. If not, say nothing. Starve them.

In this time of abundant speech — which I celebrate, as so many communities too long not heard in mass media finally have their press — the key skill we must develop is not to point out or even debunk the bad but instead we must to learn to ignore idiocy as we amplify authority and wisdom. 

In 1850, just as steam-powered presses were enabling a flourishing of new publications, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine announced its intention to “place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.” That is what we need now: not services that expose us to the worst of the web and humanity but instead services that find and share their unbounded treasures, which most certainly are there: talent, expertise, diverse lived experiences that deserve to be heard. Build that, please. 

Focus on society’s real ills

Underlying the moral panic about the internet and its agues is the assumption that if we could just turn off Facebook or Twitter, everything would be OK. That is to assume that society was just fine before new technologies came along. That, of course, is delusional blindness — blindness to the racism, inequity, misogyny, lack of empathy and understanding, greed, and hatred that have plagued this nation for generations and centuries. 

We hide behind many excuses to place blame on others, concocting syndromes like filter bubbles and echo chambers as classic examples of third-person effect: the assumption that everyone else is vulnerable to lies and hate but not us; we’re fine. Listen, please, to Michael Bang Petersen’s research, which finds that we do maintain echo chambers in real life and the problem is that the internet busts them, exposing people who already hate to the objects of their hate. Read, too, Axel Bruns’ exhaustive compilation of research in his book, Are Filter Bubbles Real?, which points to the conclusion that they are not. Let us ground our discussion of what’s wrong with society and the interventions we create in empirical research, not assumptions.

Before you cancel me or accuse me of canceling—which is the same thing — I am, of course, not saying that all of us are in every moment racist; don’t try that excuse. I am saying that if the last half-decade of insurgency and pandemic have taught us nothing else, it is that our society is infected with structural racism and inequity as well as hostility to education and if we do not address those causes every day in our journalism, in our teaching, and in our public discussion, then we are putting off the real work to be done. And then we are all to blame.  

Disinformation is real, yes. It is a tool of malign actors, true. But it is also an excuse to put off painful self-examination. 

Listen to the voices of experience

And how do we embark on that work? We need to begin by listening to those voices too long not heard who can tell us all about their experience of inequity, yes, but more importantly so we may include and value their contributions to our learning and public discourse. 

Last year, The New York Times crowned the heroes of COVID-19: all white men. Just today, the other Times, Rupert’s, featured data-crunchers as the “smoking-hot heroes” of the pandemic: all white men again. Oh, for fuck’s sake. Spend just 10 minutes scrolling through my Twitter list of 675 COVID experts and you will find countless women and women of color in science and medicine who are leading the war on the disease. 

Right under our noses are history’s greatest tools for listening — the internet and social media — and by concentrating only on their ills and woes, we forfeit the opportunity to hear those who enrich the public conversation. I’ve harped on this before: that journalism is the conversation and when journalists turn their backs on the voices they had ignored, they only extend the harm that journalism has done to so many communities and delay the reparations deserved. 

Journalism fancies itself a reflection of society but its mass-media mirror is cracked: it leaves out huge swaths of society; it presents a dark and dystopian view of the world but especially of life in those communities it fails to represent; it makes it money — just as the internet does thus far — on the corruption of attention and that colors its reality. We can build something better. 

Build a better internet and society

By concentrating only on the internet’s problems, the best we can hope for is a slightly less-bad internet. Or, if we mess up by intervening based on unfounded assumptions and fears, we can end up with a worse internet and society, one where our new freedoms are impinged upon to protect old, threatened institutions, like mass media. 

Instead, I want to see us take responsibility to build the internet and society we want. I’ve harped on this, too: We have time. The net is yet young. We still see its future in the analog of our past. We don’t know what it is yet. We — or more likely our grandchildren or theirs— will invent what it can be. Still, we should start now.

That is why I am teaching a course in designing the internet this spring, to convince students (actually, to have them convince themselves) that they have the power to take the net and make it theirs. This is not a technology course; it is most definitely a course in the humanities. I hope the students come up with audacious proposals for what the net can be, including ethical, moral, and regulatory regimes for what it should be. To build what they propose, we will need to shift resources and attention from exclusive attention on the net’s bad actors. That is why I write this. That is why I find myself drawn to others who want to talk not just about what’s wrong with the net but what can be built with it, by us, for us, humans. 

I will continue to support efforts to battle disinformation. But we must not stop there for there is so much more to be accomplished.