Guardian column: Lessons of West Virginia

My Guardian column for Jan. 16, 2006:

Reporting the truth is a collaborative process

Jeff Jarvis
Monday January 16, 2006
The Guardian

News is not a product, it’s a process. There is no better illustration of this than the tragic mistake made by most American media this month when they shouted jubilantly on front pages and in broadcasts that 12 of 13 men trapped in a West Virginia coal mine explosion had survived. In fact, 12 had died.

Hours after the terrible truth emerged, network executives and newspaper editors fell over themselves issuing justifications and excuses: they listed their sources and said they did the best they could with what they were given. I asked CNN correspondent Randi Kaye on the air what they could have done better and she couldn’t think of a thing. “I don’t think we got it wrong,” she protested. “I think we got it right.” Well, yes. Eventually. Boston Globe editor Martin Baron told a US press review, “It seemed we handled it just fine all along the way … wrong information was given out.”

The journalists were invoking what I’ll call the Judith Miller WMD Defence: when the former New York Times reporter finally admitted that her prewar reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had not panned out, she argued that “if your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could.” Blame the message, not the messenger.

But they all miss the point. Their stories were wrong. The public was misinformed. They also miss the lesson: it is not about trying to pin blame or issue a louder caveat or yet another ass-covering attribution. No, the real lesson is this: you can’t trust the news. Now before you have me drummed out of the hack corps, know that I’m not saying you can’t trust journalists (well, in most cases). Instead, I’m saying that in this age of instant communication, ubiquitous connectivity, and constant coverage, the public is put in the position of having to judge the news and its reliability for themselves. Like a good reporter, the public must be sceptical and must learn that sometimes it takes time for the facts to catch up with a story. So the public has to decide whether to trust the news they hear. The public is the editor.

In West Virginia, the CNN crews had little choice but to impart misinformation. Their microphones broadcast the church bells pealing in celebration, thanks to erroneous reports of a miracle. Perhaps they should have reminded their viewer-editors about New Orleans, where they also reported exaggerations about death and mayhem from the mayor, which proved to be wrong.

It is time for journalists to tell the audience not just what they know but also what they do not know. And it is time for journalists to admit that, in the end, they don’t decide what is true. The public makes that judgment. So journalists must arm the public to do that job. We get to the truth together.

Another, smaller example: recently, the Associated Press and the Guardian reported that the US National Security Agency was putting cookies on the computers of users who visited its website, in an apparent violation of federal policy. This looked like a tantalising story after the New York Times reported that the Bush administration had the NSA monitor communications without warrants. But cookies are hardly spycraft; they are used to count traffic to websites and target ads. I rolled my eyes at the story on my blog and other bloggers went to the Guardian’s own site to catalogue all the cookies it uses.

So imagine if that AP reporter had a blog and asked for advice from cookie experts before writing the story; it would have been written more accurately, if it had been written at all. And also imagine if Guardian Unlimited linked to all the blogs that were discussing the story, then readers would have gained the perspective of those experts. They also would have seen how the story was being used by the left (who cried about Bush conspiracies) and the right (who cried about media conspiracies). By acknowledging that we may not have the complete story and by including the public in the hunt for facts and perspective we’ll get closer to the truth together. News is a collaborative process.