Posts about transparency

Guardian column: Making mistakes

Here’s my Guardian column this week — about making mistakes and corrections online — in full:

The internet speeds up the dissemination of not only information but also misinformation. So what are we to do about this? Regulate? Legislate? Complain? Ignore? Or respond?

Consider the experience of Tim Toulmin, director of the Press Complaints Commission, when the BBC reported online that he thought bloggers should subscribe to a voluntary code of conduct, or else there is no redress for errors. I was one of many bloggers who responded tartly. On my site and on the MediaGuardian podcast, I called Toulmin – with apologies, dear readers – a “Brit twit” for thinking that one could regulate this vast conversation, which is what blogs really are.

Only problem is, Toulmin didn’t say that. He told me by email that if he had, he might have understood my moniker for him. But instead, he complained to the BBC and to me, making reference to damage and lawyers. Both of us clarified what we wrote. And Toulmin told his tale in last week’s MediaGuardian.

The internet can be better at corrections than old media. A fix can be attached to an error where it occurs, and many online denizens pride themselves on confessing missteps faster than their print and broadcast counterparts. But the internet can also be worse – online, errors can spread wider faster and take on a longer half-life. I wish we had a technical solution – that everyone who linked to an incorrect article could receive an alert and correction.

The internet brings a fundamental change to the relationship of publisher and subject: now the subject can publish, too. So Susan Crawford, a professor at New York’s Cardozo Law School and a member of Icann, the board that oversees internet structure, has blogged that in this era, “libel law seems much less relevant – rather than sue, you can just write back”. A commenter on my blog responded that some bloggers boast larger audiences than others, so this playing field isn’t as level as it seems: “On occasion, a weak target can become a cause célèbre.” True. But I still argue that libel law was built for an era when few owned the press and the doctrine must be updated to account for the democratised and accelerated means of response today.

Should blogs subscribe to a code of conduct? I don’t think so (and neither does Toulmin). Again, blogs are mostly just people in conversation and I don’t wave a code when I talk to my neighbours and friends; I know that my integrity rests on my credibility. On the other hand, when I argue that bloggers who commit acts of journalism should enjoy the rights and privileges of professional journalists, how can I say that they should not suffer the same regulation? Well, for me, that’s easy, because as an American first amendment absolutist, I bristle at any attempt to regulate speech.

And I do fear that in their efforts to protect truth, legislatures, courts and self-appointed industry watchdogs could chill speech in new ways. If the people fear retribution without the legal resources that the owners of presses have, they will either shut up or hide behind the anonymity the internet allows. That would be a tragedy.

We need to recognise that the internet alters how media operate. Blogs – whether written by professionals or amateurs – tend to publish first and edit later, which can work because the audience will edit you. In this medium, stories are never done; rather than turning into fish-wrap, they can grow and become more factual and gather new perspectives, thanks to the power of the link and, yes, the correction.

We all make mistakes. We’re human. And the internet makes our humanity more apparent than polished print and broadcast do. So we need to modify our expectations of media, tune our scepticism, update our laws, restrain our regulation and enhance our technology. We are left, though, with the same ethic of the error we have always had: it’s wrong to make them and right to correct them, and you get a bonus for apology. So, Mr Toulmin, I’m sorry.

What makes Sammy report?

Another in a series of clueless columns from NY Times Public Editor Byron Calame: He wonders what motivates reporters to report and so he asks some Times scribes and accepts what they say to him — anonymously, as if this would be a topic of the slightest controversy — as the truth. He starts by rejecting out of hand the notion that reporters could carry any bias or agenda. What a silly thought.

Some readers are convinced that certain reporters at The New York Times are motivated solely by partisan politics. A New Jersey reader’s March e-mail, for example, described one reporter as a “GOP operative/hack-writer” who “uncritically sounds his party’s theme today in a piece about the 2008 campaign.” But a Florida reader contended in a September e-mail that the anti-Bush political bias of the same Times staffer and a colleague “is in their DNA.”

My reviews of these two stories turned up no bias. More important, however, my stint as The Times’s public editor and my 39 years at a competitor lead me to conclude generally that reporters and editors in the newsrooms of major newspapers are not motivated by a devotion to any political party or cause. It just isn’t in their DNA.

Well, that’s that. Glad Calame has erased that. He then goes on to enumerate seven motives:

1. Being first with new facts or fresh insights. He separates factual scoops from the “intellectual scoops” that Times Executive Editor Bill Keller praises in memos. So he makes the scoop even haughtier than it is: not just ‘I know this before you do’ but now ‘I understand this before you do.’ Says Calame: “As one editor told me in an interview, ‘When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way, that’s something.’ ” That’s a whole new level of journalistic hubris, I’d say.

2. Pursuing stories that can have impact. In other words: Stories that have an agenda from reporters that have an agenda. That is partisanship of the sort that Calame rejects. I don’t. I just want it made transparent.

3. Winning prizes. I say that reporters and especially editors are all too motivated by prizes, to the sacrifice of simple service to their communities.

4. Impressing sources. Calame acknowledges: ” ‘This, of course, can become dangerous, if it leads reporters to write for their sources rather than for the broader public,’ one editor said to me, but ‘that sometimes happens.’ ” Yes, it’s just the sort of clubby, inside-the-Beltway and inside-City-Hall and inside-the-PR-firm reporting that makes reporters closer to their sources than their public.

5. Figuring out what’s really happening. See above.

6. Telling stories in a compelling way. Says Calame: “Many reporters find themselves motivated to search for the right words. One spoke of finding ‘an unseemly delight’ in simply producing what he felt was ‘a good phrase.’ ” This is the sort of show-off writing that makes us read through five paragraphs, past the jump, to figure out what the hell the reporter is really writing about. It is about ego over service.

7. Getting on the front page. Calame: “While it’s no longer a dominant motivation, the hope of turning up a really big story that will make it to the front page never seems that far from the minds of many reporters.” Bullshit. There is no greater ego gratification — aside from prizes — than the Page 1 scoop, as meaningless as that is becoming.

Mind you, I am not saying that reporters are motivated soley by politics or ego, though both clearly play a role. Reporters report to change the world and have an impact. What’s missing is their clear transparency about that.

Disclose unto us

Micah Sifry is pissed about today’s NY Times op-ed feature on bloggers paid by campaigns. I’m not. I think the more disclosure we have, the better. As I said at the Museum of Television & Radio panel I moderated, on which Micah served, and as I said in this post after the Kos convention, I do think we need to discuss the lines between journalism — that is, the imparting of reliable information, which bloggers do — and advocacy — that is, taking on a cause — and paid consultancy, which more and more bloggers are doing. We, of all people, must be very transparent about our roles and relationships, especially as we demand such transparency of media and politicians. It’s not just about appearances. It’s also about loyalties: Bloggers, I said at the MT&R event, are taking on roles of leadership and those who choose to follow deserve to know whether the bloggers to whom they link are more loyal to a cause or to a candidate and whether their loyalty stems from payment. So the Times charting these paid relationships is doing to us as we would do unto others. Golden Rule, I’d say.

: In the comments, Gray says I should repeat my disclosure that I consult for a Times Company division, About.com. Right, you are.

And nothing but

Edelman PR is throwing water on its own PR fire following the fakey Wal-Mart blog. Richard Edelman outlines a series of steps they’re taking. I’d say it’s really quite simple and can be boiled down to this: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Lie, hide, fake, fool, or buy people and you lose. And I’m not being smart-assed. It really is that simple. And the more complicated you make the rules, the more loopholes you end up building in. It’s just like Mom used to say: Tell the truth and everything will be fine.

Corrupting blogs

The insidious effort to buy bloggers’ voice and credibility in the name of buzz just won’t stop. So I want to make my own blogger’s pledge to you:

1. No one can buy my editorial voice or opinion.
2. No one can buy my editorial space; if it’s an ad it will clearly be an ad.
3. No one should be confused about the source of anything on my pages.
4. I will disclose my business relationships whenever it is relevant and possible.

This is what I learned working in the newspapers and magazines. A wise editor at Time Inc. boiled down all the church-v-state company and industry rules and policies into those first three tenets above; the fourth, I added. This is how we assure our independence from advertisers and financial interests. This is how we earn our credibility.

It is fine for a blogger or newspaper or vlogger or TV show to take advertising, clearly labeled. It is wonderful for a blogger to get paid to write, editorially. But when you write what a commercial interest tells you and pays you to write, then you are no longer speaking as yourself but in the service of that marketer. That’s fine, too, but it isn’t content. It is advertising (or advertorial, same difference). See Rules 2 and 3.

This all seems simple and obvious to me. But it’s not obvious to others, who think they can buy bloggers’ opinions and with it that buzz. They don’t understand that buzz, too, is earned. And they don’t understand that once a blogger — or journalist or publication or friend, for that matter — is bought and paid for, the credibility and value of their voice is reduced or ruined.

Credibility is the cake you can’t have and eat, too.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t affect just one blogger. Bloggers’ detractors love to measure us by our lowest common denominator: if one snarks, all snark; if one sells out, all sell out. This is why Jason Calicanis calls it a cancer.

Calacanis has been tilting at this windmill, calling out PayPerPost very effectively. He is optimistic that they have seen the error of their ways but I’m not so sure. PayPerPost brags about this blogger earning $1,000. And so I read her blog and have no idea whether to trust that her opinions are her own or those of her paymaster: Does she really like these flip-flops, this security system, Disney, or FTD flowers, or Bath & Bodyworks? I have no way of knowing because she doesn’t say who’s paying her. Not that I’m in the market for a motorcycle, but I wouldn’t trust her opinion if I were.

And then there is the shameful lapse of Edelman, who said they were blog-savvy and transparent but turned out to be paying for a trip by a blogger and a Washington Post photographer, ferchrissakes, across America and extolling Wal-Mart’s big heart. Richard Edelman finally apologized. But now they make me wonder what else they’re quietly engineering. I find it cold comfort that the signed the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s ethics policy; I find it discomfiting that there is such an association. That’s word of our mouths they’re talking about.

And I have recently received at least two request from advertisers, via sales agents, to have me and other bloggers write things about their products. Each one came with a think layer of lipstick on the pig — for example, the writing may appear on another site. But they’re still trying to pay me to write about their product. I passed up $5,000 for the latest offer, which is a good deal more than what I’ve been getting lately for other ads you see here. But turning it down was easy. See Rule No. 1.

Now understand well that I end up doing business with marketers, directly and indirectly via ads and employers. Edelman paid me to come speak at a corporate meeting and that has been on my disclosures page. I got six months’ use of a Sprint phone; they didn’t ask me to write about it but I told you about the campaign and then gave the phone away. I’ve just advised an advertiser and its agency on buying ads on blogs and I made it clear to them that I will disclose that when they come out with it. I ended up accidentally giving another advertiser free advice — and passed up revenue again — when I told them they should not try to market by spamming Wikipedia; since I didn’t end up doing business with them, I’ll spare them embarrassment of saying who they were. None of these people will buy my opinions. See Rule No. 1. And I will be transparent about my dealings with them. See Rule No. 4.

But this isn’t about ethics pledges and industry policies. It’s about personal integrity, about honesty, about having a direct and open relationship of trust and credibility. You may disagree with my opinions — and, oh, you do — but you should at least be assured that they are mine.

: LATER: Via a link to this post, I just saw a data base allowing bloggers to get things free for review. I don’t object to that. Journalists get free books, screenings, food, and at least use of devices for review. And bloggers can’t afford to do what Consumer Reports does and buy everything it tests. The opportunity for corruption still exists: ‘If I give bad reviews, I won’t get the stuff anymore.’ But if you give nothing but good reviews as a result, your credibility and value with, again, suffer. So I believe in revealing the source review material.

: Meanwhile note that CBS just paid $2 million to settle accusations of pay-per-play.