Friday, May 30, 2003

we have met the fifth estate and it is us

Update below - please, please, please see end of post.

Much self examination of late on the part of the media, what with the exposure of plagiarist Jayson Blair and more recently his "dateline-toe-touching" colleague Rick Bragg.

A couple of quotes:
  • NY Times editor Raines: "Frankly, no newspaper in the world is set up to monitor for cheats and fabricators." (found here)
  • Perspective from the scene by a former NY Times stringer: (via Dave Winer?)
    The real problem with the Times' policy on stringers is that it's counter to what a newspaper is supposed to be all about: the truth. When the Times puts a national correspondent's byline on a story that includes string from others - whether staffers or freelancers - it's telling its readers that that story was reported only by that reporter. It's telling its readers a lie.

This trumpet-the-truth-except-re-self pattern is also found in the downside of Science as actually performed, namely that scientists - yes those dispassionate seekers of Truth - can be just as prone to attempt to conceal and distract from a weak argument as anyone else - they're advocating a view of reality based on necessarily incomplete data, and the norm is (or at least used to be) to make no effort to share with their audience just where and how the data were weak.

It's a fundamental problem with any institution whose job it is to find truth - human beings comprise it, and humans have their own social drives that are not necessarily congruent with the institution's ostensible goal. So there needs to be some fear of exposure, to help motivate people to toe the line.

In the case of science, the requirement that any discovery (in order to count as one) must be replicated by other researchers serves as a restraint, albeit an imperfect one (and it only enforces valid collection of data, not the subsequent interpretation).

In any other realm, the threat of exposure typically comes from the press. (although for the most part compared to the better weblogs they do a lazy job of it. the obvious: you are not currently reading one of "the better weblogs".)

And for the press - what forces act to keep it in line? self-policing does not come naturally, and I also suspect that "professional courtesy" may act to discourage one news team from reporting on another. This is natural - it's just not human to focus (in proper judgemental tell-all fashion) that closely - and as a consequence, even if they're doing their jobs everywhere else, if the media can get away with it, the standards will be different in-house. E.g. Joel Sax: "We must remember that journalism is a thing that lives not for the truth first, but for the bottom line..."

and Mark Twain -
Journalism is the one solitary respectable profession which honors theft (when committed in the pecuniary interest of a journal) & admires the thief... However, these same journals combat despicable crimes quite valiantly- when committed in other quarters.
Some newspapers address the need for oversight by having ombudsmen, although if they're not truly independent - for example, if the criticism would reflect ill on their boss - the position may tend to morph into that of Newspaper Apologist.

The NY Times needs an ombudsman ("it's impossible for a newspaper to police itself, and often unfair to expect it to even try"); smaller papers like ours may not be able to afford one (but a part-timer? maybe? on trial basis?).

If no ombudsman, that pretty much leaves us the readers, as Union editor Richard Somerville notes:
We [at the paper] are blessed (although we don't always think of it that way) that in a small community our shortcomings are apparent, and often commented upon. There are fewer hiding places for those who would bend or even break the rules...
So we have a job to do, and we gotta keep on it. Our tools are letters to the editor, which are transitory, and weblogs, which are not.

BTW here are NPR's Ethical guidelines on accuracy, fairness and balance, invoking the Sunshine Principle:
Could I go on the air and justify this decision to my listeners?
The ultimate test of your ethical decision is how you justify it to your listeners. As you are making the decision, consider how you would explain it during a broadcast. Would you be comfortable doing so? Why not also take calls on the air from listeners periodically to discuss particular situations, and journalism ethics in general? Your spirit of candor and openness will demonstrate that your station aspires to being ethical in its journalistic programming, as well as fair, accurate and balanced.


Feb 15 2008 Update, almost 5 years later - boy, was I naive. I'd said
"Scientists...can be just as prone to attempt to conceal and distract from a weak argument as anyone else"
...but I'd said it with, as it has transpired, very little understanding of just who else we science types share this planet with. It's been a fascinating and appalling half-decade blogospheric voyage of discovery, dropping into the Marianas Trenches of human nature. (and I really wish someone would flip the switch, to shed more light on what's out there...)

No, scientists aren't perfect - no human endeavor ever will be - but compared to what else is slithering around these is reusing an un-canceled postage stamp, while the other fellows are stealing Granny's social security check and tricking her into signing over her house.

So when they start in about the postage stamps...

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