Don't throw out all old-media values

The appetite for fact-based reporting and topical commentary is keener than ever

Posted: Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The toughest challenges facing the news business may have more to do with values than finances.

There's reason for optimism about its economic future. The appetite for fact-based reporting and topical commentary is keener than ever, and the number of people with the skill and desire to feed it is greater than ever. Demand is high, supply is high, the economic fundamentals are solid.

Even the business uncertainties causing so much heartache right now - how this new news industry will pay its bills - is solvable. It won't be tidy and it won't be tomorrow, but some layered blend will emerge of direct payment and subsidy via advertising, NPR-type fundraising, profit-making spinoffs, offline activities and sweat equity from pro-am journalists working on the cheap.

News will survive. Whether it'll be good and whether it'll do good - that's what the public should worry about.

Now, you hear a lot of wailing about the sunny age of journalistic excellence that is supposed to be rapidly setting. Some of that is the familiar, "The older we get, the better we were" nostalgia. True, the children of Watergate - and I was one - had their brave and brilliant moments, and as a result some things changed for the better.

But while post-'60s media venerated Watergate, they didn't really emulate it. The wide-angle view is less complimentary: a newspaper industry of chain-owned monopolies that flattered the powers-that-be, milked their advertisers dry and muscled the local competition into submission; conglomerate-run TV networks allowed to grossly underserve the world's most powerful democracy with 22 minutes of national news a day; unimaginably profitable local TV affiliates whose journalistic imagination was confined to shootings and car crashes; local radio that gave up news altogether.

By the end of the George W. Bush years, the country's best journalism wasn't in the news media, but in books.

So today's Internet upstarts are right to be skeptical of the generation that's now cleaning out its desk in newsrooms throughout the country. We didn't always uphold core precepts of honest journalism against the pressures of market, ambition and expediency. There was arrogance, deference to authority, reliance on formula, and over time, a craven wish to avoid offending.

But there are disquieting signs that the new newsfolks - including the online operations of legacy media - are falling victim to new pressures. For all their repudiation of the old mistakes, they may be succumbing to new ones Practitioners congratulate themselves on the medium's power, mindful that online scoops can indeed rattle the right cages, but they don't want to accept the truth that this power includes the capacity to do harm.

Take the idea that it's right to post information nobody's really tried to verify. Post what you have, fix it as better information comes to light - that's the new creed. The notion that some threshold of veracity needs to be met before you publish is some quaint relic, as one news blogger put it, "Journalism 101, not Journalism 2010."

But falsehoods hurt people, and while corrections can mitigate that, they don't undo it. Why should online news sites ignore the basic injunction to avoid doing unnecessary harm? Shouldn't there be a good reason to go public with unverified information, some imminent peril, a tornado possibly heading your way?

How about posting damaging allegations without seeking a response from the people being defamed? Why doesn't basic fairness still require giving the person a reasonable shot to be heard now, not later, when there is no assurance the denial will catch up to the accusation?

Online news has brought fresh concerns with such values as transparency and humility along with a vast new willingness to listen and allow others to speak. But in other respects, instead of righting the wrongs of the legacy news world, the 24/7 cycle risks deepening them and intensifying their potential to misinform and to harm.

No, don't blame the technology; there's nothing about digital media that prohibits care, respectfulness, scrupulous handling of information, fairness-basic principles of journalistic professionalism.

The damage isn't done by the new tools, but by the old villain of market calculation, the belief that haste pays, that racy and sensational disclosures drive traffic and now, if they're incorrect or one-sided, actually increase interactivity. Getting it first trumps getting it right.

Funny, that's something the corrupt old press barons believed too.

• Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132, or e-mail him at edward-wassermanhotmail.com.



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