CMU Journalists Who Behave Themselves Honestly Earn the Public Trust Essay

Tell me what you’ve learned in the class.

Please write 50 words on five different ways this class has made you more capable of contributing to the standards of ethics in a newsroom.

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These are lectures that the professor pasted

Lecture 1: Trust Fall

I think it’s important to start with a glaring fact: the media is not widely trusted. A recent Gallup poll showed only 36 percent of Americans trust the media. The last time the media had 50-percent trust level came nearly two decades ago, back in 2003. When I was born, in [redacted], roughly 70 percent of Americans trusted the media.

I don’t know all the reasons for this. Honestly, I think if more journalists admitted “I don’t know,” trust in the media would increase. So as a rule, I try to embrace “I don’t know.”

So … I don’t know.

You might be thinking, “Social media!” And you’re right. Facebook was invented in 2004. Twitter came a few years later. As the Internet grew, trust in the media fell. You can argue this is a good thing: more Americans have more choices now. When I was young, my news came from a few local newspapers, a few television stations, and a few radio stations. If I wanted to know, say, the number of robberies in my town, I had to call the local police station and hope someone would tell me. As Americans, we know a LOT more now. And that’s good!

What’s also good is if a politician makes a claim, and a news outlet reports a claim, I can go online and find data that either bolsters or undermines that claim. Lies — or exaggerations, or honest errors — unravel a lot faster than ever.

For example, here is a passage from the original police report on the death of George Floyd in 2020 in Minneapolis:

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car.  He was ordered to step from his car.  After he got out, he physically resisted officers.  Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.  Officers called for an ambulance.  He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

Obviously, some crucial details were not included here. And if not for a 17-year-old bystander with a cameraphone, we would never know George Floyd’s name. His death probably would have not made the local news, much less the national news. If it did make the local news, George Floyd would be remembered only as someone who resisted arrest after being under the influence. After all, that’s what the police report said, and as reporters, we often just go with that.

Part of the reason trust in the media has declined is because a lot of news used to go unquestioned. Now, our ability to fact-check on our own has empowered us to be our own media watchdogs. That makes the media as a whole look worse, but in my opinion, I’d rather be skeptical than gullible.

There is plenty of reason to be skeptical. Media has a long and unfortunate history of embellishing … and worse. Consider this passage from a recent article in Politico:

“Sensationalism always sold well. By the early 19th century, modern newspapers came on the scene, touting scoops and exposés, but also fake stories to increase circulation. TheNew York Sun’s “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835 claimed that there was an alien civilization on the moon, and established theSunas a leading, profitable newspaper. In 1844, anti-Catholic newspapers in Philadelphia falsely claimed that Irishmen were stealing bibles from public schools, leading to violent riots and attacks on Catholic churches. During the Gilded Age, yellow journalism flourished, using fake interviews, false experts and bogus stories to spark sympathy and rage as desired. Joseph Pulitzer’sNew York Worldpublished exaggerated crime dramas to sell papers. In the 1890s, plutocrats like William Randolph Hearst and hisMorning Journalused exaggeration to help spark the Spanish-American War. When Hearst’s correspondent in Havana wired that there would be no war, Hearst—the inspiration for Orson Welles’Citizen Kane—famously responded: ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women—and he got his war.”

So two of the names that have prestigious journalism awards attached to them — Pulitzer and Hearst — committed ethical lapses that would have flunked them out of my class. Super!

The tension between journalism-as-business and journalism-as-public-service has existed for a long, long time. We will certainly be discussing that this semester.

The takeaway: There are plenty of reasons for the media’s ethical challenges. Some are “good” reasons and some are definitely not. Some are new reasons and some are definitely older.

Two of our goals this semester are to be aware of why the media lacks trust, and to work to repair that trust wherever we can. In this week’s opening Discussion, we will focus on both of those goals.

Lecture 2: TJ and You

There is no quiz this week. Don’t forget to complete the Poynter Course in this module!

The assigned reading is the SPJ Code of Ethics, which is the basis for the Discussion:

(Links to an external site.)

Consider this quote from a famous American:

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Now consider this quote from an equally famous American:

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

These quotes were spoken by the same famous American — Thomas Jefferson. (Links to an external site.)

The first amendment comes first for a reason: it’s a bulwark against government overreach. And yet a lot of civic leaders — and their supporters — vocally decry the press and even try to weaponize it for their own ends. When the truth doesn’t serve their purposes, the easy (and effective) response is to blame the media. If you tell your followers to distrust or ignore the press, there’s a good chance they won’t come across some inconvenient truths. In fact, one of the ingredients for the American revolution was the British government’s censorship of writings in the 13 colonies.

As I write this, there’s a trending story about a controversial New York Times headline: “Opinion: Teachers Should Tolerate Bullying Towards Unvaccinated Children.”

You can imagine the flap that headline created. And yet … it’s a fake headline. The New York Times never published it.

So there are two problems, on parallel tracks: 1) Faking the news to dispense propaganda; 2) Using that fake news to undermine trust in the press. It can be a vicious circle, where Americans just aren’t sure what to believe … and so they don’t really believe anything they see in the papers. Then, if the citizenry doesn’t really believe anything in the press, it allows the powerful to say whatever they want without pushback.

Our north star as journalists is always the truth. But there will always be powerful forces that want to suppress the truth. In an age of social media, it’s much easier to distract and distort. After all, an enraging story about teachers allowing bullying will certainly get shared far more than a story about how teachers are opposed to any kind of bullying. Social media is often fueled by anger, and never by patience. It is easier than ever for anger to be shared, and it is harder than ever for patience to spread.

All this makes it more important than ever to not only tell a true story, but also to tell a powerful story that’s rooted firmly in the truth. If it’s true, it will stand up over time. If it’s powerful and true, it might just extend the liberty that Jefferson loved and bolster the reputation of the “polluted vehicle” he decried.

Lecture 3: The Pursuit of Truth

This week’s quiz is based on Chapter 1 of the textbook (as well as the following quote):

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” –Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1927-2003

So we know we want to find the truth … but how?

Recently I got a call from The New York Times. They wanted reporting on the local response to the omicron variant. I decided to go to Barnett Park, where people were getting tested. There was a three-hour lineup of cars, and so I decided to go up to drivers and try to interview them.

Was this a pursuit of truth? Sure. Was it effective? Well, that’s the issue. Every driver in that lineup his or her own personal reaction to Covid. So instead of getting “the truth,” I’m actually getting various personal truths. One person said she didn’t get the vaccine because she was pregnant. Lots of evidence said the vaccine was safe for women during pregnancy. But should I discard her opinion because it didn’t align with scientific truth? What if scientific truth changes — which is kind of the entire point of science?

I included her quote.

I tried to make my reporting as varied as I could. I went up to some expensive cars and some old cars. I went up to some cars with windows rolled down and some with tinted windows. After several interviews, I realized I had interviewed mostly women. I looked for a couple of men, but I still didn’t have an even sample. Beyond that, I had trouble interviewing Spanish-speakers because my Spanish is very poor. Did my own limitations — or random luck — keep me from finding the truth? You could say they did. Were there biases or blind spots in my reporting? The weather changed from pouring rain to sunshine as I stood there for more than an hour. Was I more patient, or less distracted, during the nice weather? Perhaps.

And did any of this matter? Interviewing 10 or 20 people doesn’t get to the real truth, right? For every person who is concerned enough to get a Covid test, there’s a person who didn’t. I didn’t interview any of them. How about people who can’t afford a car? I didn’t interview any of them.

My reporting was successful in one way: two of the people I interviewed made the front section of The New York Times. I did my job. And those quotes were accurate — recorded and attributed to real people with real, important viewpoints. That part was definitely true.

What I reported was true. It just wasn’t a complete capture of the truth. And so — in my opinion — it’s important to realize the difference. There’s a level of truth we must reach, and a level of truth we can never reach.

Lecture 4: On Transparency

This week’s quiz is based on Chapter 3: Storytelling in the Digital Age, pp. 39-60.

A couple of years ago, the Washington Post asked me to write a feature on Steve Spurrier, the legendary Florida Gators coach. He had taken a job with the new Orlando Apollos football team, so I got the chance to write for one of my favorite newspapers.

Except for one thing.

I was starting a job as an adjunct professor with the University of Florida. Was this a conflict of interest?

I’ll be honest: I really didn’t want to bring it up. I had just gotten laid off from Yahoo Sports. I really needed both the opportunity and the money. And I had never met Spurrier before. so part of me thought it wouldn’t matter anyway.

But what kind of journalism professor would I be if I just shoved ethics to the side when it was convenient?

I told my editor that I very much wanted to do the story, but I didn’t know if it was right if both the subject and I were taking a paycheck from the same institution. He appreciated my honesty and he told me to look into the exact nature of Spurrier’s role at Florida. I suggested a line at the end of the story, just so readers would know.

It turned out Spurrier only had a ceremonial role at UF. And I was only an adjunct — not a full-time employee. So my editor gave me the green light. I was glad I spoke up.

Just recently, a different situation came up. Another newspaper wanted me to write about three Florida professors who were kept from testifying about a state voting law. By this time, I was a full professor here at UCF. Was this a conflict?

This time, I didn’t want any input. I had a strong opinion about the matter, and I didn’t think I could be a professor in the state of Florida and write about this situation. I turned the assignment down.

In today’s media world, transparency is more important than ever for two reasons: 1) There aren’t as many full-time journalists anymore. Writers like myself have other jobs, and the possible conflict zone is expanded; 2) Readers can easily find out your background and your opinions and express their disapproval in a public forum. That doesn’t necessarily mean those readers are correct to call you out, but it does mean it’s safer to be “over-transparent” in order to address concerns before they arise.

It’s not enough to ignore possible conflicts just because you think you will be fair. It’s also crucial to share your possible conflicts with your audience, so at least they know. “Trust me, I’m a journalist” probably isn’t the best approach.

Lecture 5: Facts

This week’s Assignments:

  • Read Fact-Checking 2.0 in The New Ethics of Journalism, p. 61-75.
  • Take Quiz 5
  • Respond to

    Discussion 5


    My first dream job in journalism came when I was hired at ESPN Magazine. My first role was simple: fact-check.

    That meant staying up past midnight on Sunday nights — the night before publication — to make sure that stories in the magazine were accurate. I would be assigned to check every single fact in a feature story. If a writer said Michael Jordan scored 63 in a particular game, I had to make sure. If a writer said a certain coach loved Juicy Fruit bubble gum, I had to verify that. It led to some strange phone calls.

    At times, it was annoying. I was in my early 20s, living in New York City, and I was up until all hours calling around about whether someone drove a Mazda or a Nissan? I thought magazine life was glamorous!

    But as I grew as a writer, I realized how crucial this was. ESPN Magazine had an entire research department devoted to making sure everything was accurate. Everything. And eventually, when I started writing my own features, I was endlessly grateful for the people fact-checking my stories.

    After I left ESPN, I started freelancing at Newsweek. I will never forget when I asked how to submit my story to the research department. My editor said, “Here, you are your own fact-checker.” Gulp.

    But that is what’s changed in modern journalism. Subscriptions decline and management has to make cuts. Often, the cuts come in the copy editing or research areas. And so it’s increasingly on the writers themselves, or the editors, to make sure everything is right. And as you know, this comes during an era when readers can do their own fact-checking.

    Whenever I help a student get a story into a professional publication, I am very clear: Make sure every single thing is accurate. Your first shot at paid writing could be your last shot if you don’t get it right.

    Yes, I realize we live in an era where powerful people lie all the time, and people shrug it off. The Washington Post kept track of every “false or misleading” statement made by former President Trump since his inauguration. The paper found Trump averaged eight false or misleading statements every day. And he’s hardly the first president to lie brazenly to the American public.

    You’ll hear a lot of sighing about how the truth is blurry these days, or we live in a post-fact world. Personally, that only makes me believe we need to stay as accurate as ever. If journalists let the facts slide into “truthiness,” it’s time to find another job. Our job is to tell the truth, first and foremost, as best as we can.

    One of the lowest moments of my career came after I wrote a story about a boy with cancer and his relationship with the Detroit Red Wings. I spotted the boy during an open locker room and asked the team who he was. A member of media relations told me he had kind of been adopted by some of the players because of his condition. I thought it was a sweet story.

    A couple of weeks later, I was at a bar in San Diego and I got an email. According to a relative of the boy, he didn’t have cancer at all. I was shocked and concerned. I wrote that story for an audience of millions. I wanted the email to be wrong — maybe some angry in-law.

    But what choice did I have but to look into it? I re-reported the story, and I wrote a new one. It turned out the Red Wings had no idea either. It was a sad, elaborate hoax. I wrote a new feature — basically a full-length correction.

    Fortunately, my editors understood and supported me. And I’m glad I told them exactly what had happened. Looking back, I’m grateful I was the one who found the hoax, rather than another reporter. Remember: it’s a blessing to be able to correct your own errors — no matter how public or painful.

    These are some discussions written in the class and their topics

    Discussion one

    Research and write about an ethical lapse in journalism. What went wrong andwhat could have been done to prevent it?

    Keep your posts to roughly 150 words. You MUST refer to a *specific* incident. (Translation: Saying “CNN lies all the time” or “FOX is garbage” is going to get you a zero.) Proofread for grammar, punctuation, spelling, typos. Remember to reply to another student for full credit.

    Discussion 1: Problem Spottin


    Word Count: 150

    Following the conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell, the BBC reached out to lawyer Alan Dershowitz for a comment. His views were subsequently aired in a manner that depicted him as being an impartial observer. However, Dershowitz has actually been accused of sexual misconduct by Virginia Roberts Giuffre. Giuffre is one of the individuals believed to have been recruited by Maxwell for clients such as Dershowitz and Prince Andrew (Saad, 2021).

    Dershowitz had the motive to misrepresent facts during his interaction with the BBC reporters. Therefore, the BBC erred in leading its viewers to believe that the lawyer could be trusted. Moreover, there was a time when Dershowitz had strong connections to Maxwell and Jeffrey Edward Epstein, who was a convicted sex offender. Indeed, he was part of the Epstein defense team that negotiated a non-prosecution agreement in 2006 (Edwards, 2020). The BBC has since apologized for breaking its own editorial standards.


    Edwards, B. J. (2020). Relentless pursuit: My fight for the victims of Jeffrey Epstein. Simon and Schuster.

    Saad, N. (2021, December 30). BBC apologizes for Alan Dershowitz interview that didn’t mention Epstein connection. Los Angeles Times. (Links to an external site.)

    Discussion two

    Read through the SPJ Code of Ethics and write 150 words on *one* of the tenets: (Links to an external site.)

    Explain why you chose that one, why it speaks to you, and why it’s important in the age of social media.

    Remember, for full credit, you must 1) Cite the tenet you want to discuss and 2) Reply to one other student.

    Discussion 2: Code of Ethics

    Word count: 159

    Journalists have a responsibility to get the evidences right, thus finding and reporting the truth is essential. Journalists must be truthful because if they misreport the news or misrepresent facts, they are guilty of bad journalism. When sloppy journalism is exposed, the public loses faith in the reporter and, in certain cases, the newspaper or website for which they work, which can lead to more confusion and misinformation for their audience (Farley 2014). This will have a long-term effect on journalism in the long run. As a journalist, this principle resonates with me since I am obligated to ensure that what I write and present is accurate. It is also important for reporters to give the full picture and not just one viewpoint. After a story is printed, if the person involved wants to chance the story that they think is not reliable, the journalist must meet with the subject and record the respective changes that may arise.

    Discussion 3: Twitter Spaces

    167167 unread replies.193193 replies.

    Here is a real-life challenge from just a few weeks ago:

    The head coach of the Florida State football team, Mike Norvell, lost a prized recruit to Jackson State. The fans were beside themselves.

    One such fan created a Twitter Space — an online forum where like-minded fans could vent about the situation.

    He called it “Fire Mike Norvell.” In order to participate in the discussion, a user had to say “Fire Mike Norvell.”

    Very soon, reporters saw Florida State fans flooding into this Twitter Space. Now here is the dilemma:

    Is it ethical for a reporter to enter a Twitter Space devoted to rallying for the firing of a coach?

    If not, why not? If so, what should the rules of etiquette be for a reporter who is visiting such a space?

    Discussion 3: Twitter Spaces

    Based on provided information the head coach of Florida, state football team, Mike Norvell, lost prized recruit to Jackson state. In response, a fan made a group with the name Fire Mike Norvell. It is important to mention that reporters have ethical responsibilities towards reporting pattern and there should be always a right choice between covering media trends or to follow one’s instincts. I think it would be unethical to enter into such space because the fan may not like to have someone who is trying to report their activities so it may come under invading someone’s space without their consent. Moreover, I think it is also unethical to take personal agreements on social media website. By giving my attention to such hate group I would be endorsing what is being said and done in the group. So, I think it would be against work etiquettes to enter such space in the first place and later reporting on this hate content.

    Discussion 5

    Let’s say you are covering a press conference about an outbreak of lead poisoning in your area. The elected official behind the podium says the water is safe to drink if it is combined with a “plant-based medicine” you’ve never heard of. You aren’t quite sure if this is true or not, and almost immediately there is a social media argument over this treatment. Many insist it’s helped them, and others say it’s dangerous. You have to report on this press conference, and you have to do it right away. Your reader is relying on you for accurate information during a time of fear and uncertainty. What do you do?

    Please write a 150-word post and reply to one other student. Remember: up to seven points for the post, and up to three points for the reply.

    Discussion 5: Challenges of Fact-Checking

    I would report that the water is unsafe for drinking and that people should take the necessary precautions. Considering that the elected leader did not provide more detail about the “plant-based medicine, it would be unethical to report that the water is safe for human consumption. Therefore, to ensure that people are safe, they should be informed that plant medicine has not been proven effective. In addition, I would ensure that I gather detailed information about the safety of the water before reporting. By doing so, I will avoid passing the wrong information or endangering people’s lives. However, if there is proven data on how plant medicine works and its effectiveness, I would report that people should embrace it to avoid being poisoned. Reporting accurate information helps one maintain the integrity and pass the correct information to the people. When other people’s health is concerned, one should be cautious about the type of information that is reported.

    From Kelly
    To all the great teachers who have graced The Poynter Institute’s
    classrooms, especially the late Paul Pohlman
    From Tom
    To Andy Kohut, Amy Mitchell, and all of my colleagues, forever, at the
    Pew Research Center
    Copyright © 2014 by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc. CQ Press is
    a registered trademark of Congressional Quarterly Inc.
    All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form
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    Printed in the United States of America
    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
    The new ethics of journalism : principles for the 21st century /
    Kelly McBride, The Poynter Institute; Tom Rosenstiel
    pages cm
    Includes bibliographical references and index.
    ISBN 978-1-60426-561-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)
    ISBN 978-1-4833-0133-4 (web pdf)
    1. Journalistic ethics. 2. Journalism–History 21st century.
    I. McBride, Kelly, editor of compilation. II. Rosenstiel,
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    Foreword: Journalism Ethics Then and Now
    Bob Steele
    Introduction: New Guiding Principles for a New Era of
    Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
    The Complicated Pursuit of Truth
    Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
    1. Truth without Scarcity, Ethics without Force
    Clay Shirky
    2. Kicking the Stone: The Search for Reliable Evidence in
    Roy Peter Clark
    3. Storytelling in the Digital Age
    Tom Huang
    4. Fact-Checking 2.0
    Steve Myers
    5. Seeing Is Not Believing: Photojournalism in the 21st Century
    Kenny Irby
    Learning the Transparency Habit
    Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
    6. Do Private Platforms Threaten Public Journalism?
    Dan Gillmor
    Networked Audiences: Attention and Data-Informed Journalism
    Gilad Lotan
    Centers of Investigative Reporting: New Model, Old Conflicts
    Adam Hochberg
    A New Pathway toward Sourcing
    Ann Friedman
    Corrections and Ethics: Greater Accuracy through Honesty
    Craig Silverman
    The Community as a Goal
    Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
    11. The (Still) Evolving Relationship between News and Community
    Steven Waldman
    12. The Destabilizing Force of Fear
    danah boyd and Kelly McBride
    13. How Untold Stories Can Reflect Diversity
    Eric Deggans
    14. Community as an End
    Mónica Guzmán
    Epilogue: The Future of Journalism Ethics
    Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
    About the Editors and Contributors
    About The Poynter Institute
    Journalism Ethics Then And Now
    Bob Steele
    his is an essential book about a profoundly important subject
    published at a critical time. The New Ethics of Journalism:
    Principles for the 21st Century focuses intensely on the role that
    journalism plays in our society, a role that remains urgent and unique even
    as so much changes in the profession and in the business of journalism, as
    well as in our global society.
    It remains imperative that those who practice journalism strive for
    excellence and aspire to high ethical standards, regardless of systemic
    structural changes in media, increasingly fickle and cynical news
    consumers, and sharp scrutiny from a wide range of critics.
    The essays published here matter because the public must have
    confidence in the integrity of the journalistic process and the credibility of
    the product, even more as journalism is being redefined and recreated in
    real time.
    This book represents another chapter in the decades-long effort by The
    Poynter Institute to address important issues of journalism ethics. It was
    my great privilege to be part of Poynter for nearly 20 years as we taught,
    advised and guided thousands of journalists and hundreds of news
    organizations and wrote extensively about ethics and values. The New
    Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century continues that
    Poynter commitment.
    The book’s editors, Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, are two of the
    sharpest minds I know. With this project, they bring their considerable
    experience, expertise and intellectual energy together with a group of
    thoughtful, provocative essayists who explore and expound on what
    journalism can be and should be in the midst of this extreme
    transformation. The editors and the essayists in this collection generally
    write with optimism. That’s appropriate, although it would be unwise and
    unrealistic to minimize the chaos of the recent years and the profound
    consequences. We should recognize the continuing peril even as we see
    promise ahead.
    The traditional economic models for the business of journalism have
    been badly battered and often shattered. New models are emerging, but we
    are still years away from stability. Some approaches are financially
    promising and respect ethical, excellent journalism. However, other illconceived business decisions savage essential ethical and journalistic
    values and fail to serve the public good.
    At the same time, the technology for gathering, processing and
    delivering news keeps developing at seemingly warp speed, creating
    dynamic possibilities but too often producing distorted coverage and
    diminished quality. In this period of intense adaptation, journalists and
    news executives are employing digital tools and creating innovative
    content with varying degrees of exuberance and alarm, skill and stupidity.
    The information needs, desires and behaviors of the public are also
    shifting, sometimes dramatically. Those who practice and produce
    journalism must pay attention to what the marketplace dictates and to what
    consumers demand as they participate in the creation and distribution of
    journalism. Yet there is danger, too, as we rely increasingly on social
    networks and algorithms to deliver important information.
    Journalists must continue to cover unpopular topics and tell stories that
    don’t draw the most eyeballs. Despite the vagaries of a “most viewed
    stories” popularity contest, we must honor the fundamental duty to report
    accurate, fair, substantive and indispensable information while surviving in
    the marketplace. Journalism cannot be judged exclusively by the same
    bottom-line financial criteria as other commercial products. The old adage
    of reporting the news “without fear or favor” retains value, whether it’s
    vigorous coverage of contentious issues or courageous decisions that
    insulate against outside pressures that could compromise journalistic
    Journalism has a special role in society, serving the public good like no
    other business or profession. Journalism has an obligation to support the
    democratic process by informing and educating. Journalism has a
    responsibility to give citizens meaningful information so they can better
    understand the issues in their communities and beyond, make good
    decisions in their daily lives and effectively carry out their civic duty.
    This anthology spotlights the ethical challenges that constantly arise for
    those reporting and sharing the news. Some of these challenges have
    existed for decades. Some ethical issues are new, or at least have a new
    shape or different shade to them reflecting all that is changing in this era.
    At Poynter, we’ve written extensively about the core values of accuracy
    and fairness, often praising sound ethical decision-making and excellent
    journalism and many times spotlighting flaws and failures. In our
    seminars, we’ve used hundreds of case studies to examine ethics concerns
    with confidential sources, conflicts of interest, invasion of privacy,
    deception and fabrication. We’ve helped journalists recognize the ethical
    potholes and pitfalls that always emerge in covering politics, natural
    disasters and wars. Believing that guidelines are more meaningful than
    rigid rules, we’ve written protocols for covering suicide, school violence,
    racial tensions and much more.
    The emergence of digital technology and the evolution of the role of
    journalism—including much more active participation by the public—has
    intensified some of the traditional ethical challenges and created new ones.
    Think about the role social networks like Twitter and Facebook now
    play in the coverage of civil unrest in our communities and in countries
    around the globe. Recognize the challenges that exist for news
    organizations when facts, photos and audio of breaking news stories come
    from citizens rather than staff journalists, raising concerns about sourcing,
    authenticity and fairness. Consider the looser editing standards that often
    exist with a “digital first” philosophy that emphasizes speed over
    verification, with content that goes public and potentially viral without
    effective front-end checks and balances.
    The essays, the case studies and the accompanying questions explore the
    value and values of journalism and the complex relationship between
    journalists and those they serve. This book identifies and champions the
    guiding principles that can inspire and influence those who practice
    journalism. It offers reasoned reflection for individuals and news
    organizations to set strategy and to use in making sound ethical decisions
    built on the values of expertise, knowledge, commitment, courage,
    independence, transparency, and accountability.
    I don’t agree with every position or proposal in this book, nor will you.
    Journalism ethics inevitably creates contention. However, we gain insight
    from the probing essays even as we challenge some ideas they present. I’m
    confident you will sharpen your thinking as you work through the dynamic
    case studies and grapple with the analytical questions that follow each
    My hope is that this book will remind you how vital and valuable
    journalism is in our society, imperfect though it is. I also hope you will be
    inspired to take action to make journalism even better.
    his book has a thousand authors, and really more. Yes, there are
    two editors, 14 named authors, a case study writer and the man
    behind the foreword. You’ll find their biographies in the back of this
    volume. But many more have influenced these pages. All those who have
    worked to innovate—who have tested new technologies, who have
    experimented with new ways to tell stories and deliver journalism—have
    had a hand in shaping the ideas found here. If you’ve been to a seminar at
    The Poynter Institute or a Committee of Concerned Journalists workshop,
    if you’ve phoned in for advice, or shared your triumphs and failures on, then you too helped write this book. Especially if you were
    there in New York at our symposium in October 2012, you influenced this
    We want to specifically acknowledge a handful of people who help us
    out by keeping us informed, sharing their knowledge and experience with
    us, and taking our calls when we need advice. They include David
    Folkenflik of NPR; Brian Stelter, Sewell Chan and David Carr of The New
    York Times; Eric Wemple of The Washington Post; Amanda Michel of The
    Guardian; Vivian Schiller of NBC; Drew Curtis of Fark; Alexis Ohanian
    of Reddit; David Boardman of the Seattle Times; and Jennifer 8. Lee of
    This book is in part the collective work of The Poynter Institute, where
    almost everyone on staff had some role. Specifically, the support and
    encouragement of President Karen Dunlap and Dean Stephen Buckley
    were instrumental. Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of Times Publishing,
    opened some important doors. Other key players include Jessica Blais,
    Nafi Sallah, Ann Madsen, Butch Ward, Bobbi Alsina, David Shedden,
    Maria James, Jennette Smith and the amazing Foster Barnes.
    So, too, are we indebted to the staff of the Pew Research Center, whose
    intelligence and integrity sustained one of the editors of this book for many
    years and on whose data and insight we, like so many others, rely. In
    particular, Mark Jurkowitz, Scott Keeter, Michael Dimock, Carroll
    Doherty and Lee Rainie deserve special thanks. So, too, does our good
    friend, Paul Taylor. And, of course, two people above all with whom Tom
    worked most closely and for so long, Andy Kohut and Amy Mitchell.
    The ideas here are also influenced by the unerring friendship of Bill
    Kovach, who has always understood journalism more deeply than most,
    and by the late James Carey, who explored the idea of communications as
    culture and journalism as community and conversation decades before
    those phrases were ever typed by someone imagining the digital age.
    We owe a great deal, more than we could ever repay, to Julie Moos,
    who jumped into the churn to save us from ourselves, organizing the final
    editing efforts, serving as a our backstop and our unflinching critic. Her
    name should be on the cover. In turn, Mallary Tenore carried a tremendous
    load at Poynter Online so Julie could help with the editing of this book.
    Kelly would like to personally thank Charisse Kiino at CQ Press, for not
    letting this book die, the first, second or third time it was on life support.
    Matthew Byrnie at Sage Publishing inherited this book without complaint,
    and among those helping out were Gabrielle Piccininni, editorial intern;
    Stephanie Palermini, production editor; Jacqueline Tasch, copy editor; and
    Liz Thornton, marketing manager.
    Tom also thanks his family, who excused yet again his absences as he
    disappeared to work on this, and his new colleagues at the American Press
    Institute and the Newspaper Association of America. Thank you, Caroline.
    And Kelly thanks her children, Molly, Clarke and Maggie Jacobson, for
    stepping up and her boyfriend Kyle Parks for stepping in.
    None of this would have been possible without the support of several
    organizations. In addition to Poynter, Pew and the Committee for
    Concerned Journalists, we found support from the Ford Foundation, the
    Knight Foundation and The Paley Center for Media, who gave us an
    enthusiastic yes when we asked if they would host a symposium with us in
    October 2012. There we publicly tested the ideas you will find in this
    book, and videos of that day are online at Paley’s website. Specifically, we
    treasure the involvement of J. Max Robins, Joel Topcik and Marisa
    Vadim Lavrusik of Facebook, Andrew Heyward formerly of CBS
    News, Emily Bell of the Columbia Journalism School and John Paton of
    Digital First Media all played a significant role that day.
    Finally, we need to offer up a loud and clear thank you to Craig
    Newmark of Without his generosity, the New York
    gathering could not have happened. Along with his project director,
    Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management, Newmark turned out
    to be one of the best partners ever. His involvement allowed us to build
    upon a project that was already in progress, making it stronger and
    extending our reach. Thanks, Craig!
    New Guiding Principles for a New Era
    of Journalism
    Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
    ne of the fundamental challenges facing journalism in the 21st
    century is what ethics should guide the production of news.
    When people discuss ethics in journalism, the conversation tends to get
    stuck between two polar impulses: to cling to tradition so tightly we resist
    progress, on the one hand, and to throw away the most important values in
    journalism and charge blindly ahead thinking everything has changed on
    the other.
    We consider this a false choice.
    The digital age has transformed how journalism is created and
    delivered. Certainly, we must change the ethical decision-making that
    supports that. Just as certainly, however, some guiding stars remain.
    Journalists, for instance, cannot give up dedication to truth and accuracy
    on behalf of the public, but they must find new ways to fulfill that
    commitment. This book is not an attempt to predict the future or mourn
    what’s been lost. Nor does it try to deny what has changed or declare all
    that came before obsolete. Rather, it is an attempt to look at what is
    happening in journalism in the early part of the 21st century, to define and
    articulate new tensions that challenge journalism’s core principles, and to
    suggest practices that further truth and community in service of
    To do this, we asked different thinkers about contemporary journalism
    to draft essays on what we identified as key issues. Then, we gathered in
    New York and worldwide via the Web a larger group of journalism
    observers to help contemplate the ideas presented by our essayists. We
    distilled all of this into organizing principles, and we went back to work
    along with the writers to refine those ideas. This book of essays, and the
    organizing principles outlined in this first chapter, is the fruit of that labor.
    This is not the first time The Poynter Institute has tried to help distill
    core principles of journalism into a book on ethics. In the early 1990s, the
    institute developed Guiding Principles for Journalists. Those principles
    were simple by design, organized under three concepts: Truthfulness,
    Independence and Minimize Harm.
    That work was led by Bob Steele, the author of the foreword to this
    book. This book builds on the shoulders of that work. All of those
    principles remain vital and are resident here.
    The new list of ethical principles mainly elevates two concepts that have
    been expanded by the digital age. Transparency, which was always a part
    of truth seeking, is now its own principle because it is so essential a part of
    how modern journalism attains credibility. Community, which may have
    been taken for granted in an age when the press had a monopoly on the
    audience, is the new third principle. It was always the final purpose of
    journalism, even if it seemed somewhat remote when the audience was a
    more silent partner in the transaction of news. Now journalism is enriched,
    and made more relevant, by the range of voices and expertise of the
    community—even if its production has been made more complex.
    It may be years before journalism settles into economic stability and we
    know what shape that will take. Yet as the invention and adoption of new
    technologies continues to accelerate, it is clear journalism will come from
    varied sources—from many smaller and a few large for-profit
    organizations (although maybe not as large as they used to be), small
    nonprofits, citizen initiatives and the work of lone individuals and
    passionate advocates. Journalism may come from think tanks, even
    corporate sources. Journalism in the United States may eventually come to
    rely more on government subsidy. The concept of journalists as clearly
    independent of those they cover will be more complex because the
    opening of the information system to all means those who make the news
    will also cover it. When anyone can make journalism, it becomes even
    more important that its production be ethical and that the community be
    able to recognize and identify when it is and isn’t.
    In whatever form, we all have a stake in the survival of reliable
    journalism. Without it, democracy fails. The powerful will be less
    accountable and more likely to abuse their influence. The public will be
    more at risk. Social problems will go unspotted and unaddressed.
    Information that a few want hidden will remain in the shadows longer.
    Journalists and those who value journalism are in the midst of a great
    diaspora. They are packing up the remnants of a belief system and carrying
    it forward to new places, where those pieces will evolve into a new
    foundation. This is not an easy or painless journey. At the same time, it is
    impossible to deny the exciting possibilities presented by the changes that
    have already occurred.
    This book was conceived more than four years ago at the dawn of the
    worst of the economic upheaval that unmoored so many professional
    newsrooms. You are finally seeing it now because it was only recently that
    we in the profession have been able to see a few years into the future and
    accept that journalism will never return to its past economic state.
    We begin this book then by looking ahead, with a new set of Guiding
    Principles for Journalists, which meld the core values of journalism with
    the democratic values of the digital era.
    1. Seek truth and report it as fully as possible.
    • Be vigorous in your pursuit of accuracy.
    • Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and
    interpreting information.
    • Give voice to the voiceless; document the unseen.
    • Hold the powerful accountable, especially those who hold power
    over free speech and expression.
    • Be accountable.
    2. Be transparent.
    • Show how the reporting was done and why people should believe
    it. Explain your sources, evidence and the choices you made.
    Reveal what you cannot know. Make intellectual honesty your
    guide and humility (rather than false omniscience) your asset.
    • Clearly articulate your journalistic approach, whether you strive
    for independence or approach information from a political or
    philosophical point of view. Describe how your point of view
    impacts the information you report, including how you select the
    topics you cover and the sources that inform your work.
    • Acknowledge mistakes and errors, correct them quickly and in a
    way that encourages people who consumed the faulty information
    to know the truth.
    3. Engage community as an end, rather than as a means.
    • Make an ongoing effort to understand the needs of the community
    you seek to serve and create robust mechanisms to allow
    members of your community to communicate with you and one
    • Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being
    unduly influenced by those who would use their power or
    position counter to the public interest.
    • Recognize that good ethical decisions require individual
    responsibility enriched by collaboration.
    • Seek publishing alternatives that minimize the harm that results
    from your actions and be compassionate and empathetic toward
    those affected by your work.
    • Allow and encourage members of the community to self-inform.
    Make journalism a continuing dialogue in which everyone can
    responsibly take part and be informed.
    If you compare these principles to those that were originally drafted at
    Poynter in the 1990s and subsequently adopted by numerous newsrooms
    and professional organizations, including the Society of Professional
    Journalists, you will notice many similarities and some significant
    differences. But nothing has vanished.
    That original list looked like this:
    1. Seek truth and report it as fully as possible
    • Inform yourself continuously so you in turn can inform, engage
    and educate the public in a clear and compelling way on
    significant issues.
    • Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and
    interpreting accurate information.
    • Give voice to the voiceless.
    • Hold the powerful accountable.
    2. Act independently.
    • Guard vigorously the essential stewardship role a free press plays
    in an open society.
    • Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being
    unduly influenced by those who would use their power or
    position counter to the public interest.
    • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise
    your integrity or damage your credibility.
    • Recognize that good ethical decisions require individual
    responsibility enriched by collaborative efforts.
    3. Minimize harm.
    • Be compassionate for those affected by your actions.
    • Treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving
    of respect, not merely as means to your journalistic ends.
    • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause
    harm or discomfort, but balance those negatives by choosing
    alternatives that maximize your goal of truth telling.
    Truth is still the greatest value, the first among equals. Seeking and
    reporting truth is the primary function of journalism. And yet, so much has
    changed, including how one would identify truth and disseminate it with
    authority. The first section of this book focuses on our ability to discern
    the truth (essays by Clay Shirky and Roy Peter Clark), identify truth in
    political speech (Steve Myers), and tell the truth in stories (Tom Huang)
    and images (Kenneth Irby).
    Where we once argued for independence, we now advocate
    transparency. Independence is a part of that principle, and we still believe
    in its essential value. But we recognize that journalism in the future will
    take many more forms and will intertwine with the proliferation of opinion
    in the digital marketplace—the two no longer so easy to distinguish.
    Journalism with a point of view can be just as powerful as work that starts
    from a position of neutrality. Both can and do move people to democratic
    action. Both can seek truth. The test is in how the journalism is produced
    —not necessarily who produces it.
    The transparency that we urge in these guiding principles demands that
    the public see how the journalism of the future is produced and calls for an
    openness that encourages constant conversation between journalist and
    citizen, newsroom and community.
    As a principle, transparency will drive journalists to actions and
    accountability that independence did not. A transparent news organization
    will approach its work with greater self-awareness, recognizing how its
    business model impacts the topics and types of stories it considers news.
    Transparent journalists will strive for intellectual honesty and integrity in
    every step of their work, acknowledging where they get their ideas and
    how they sort the relevant from the irrelevant. Transparent journalists and
    news organizations will embrace the practice of corrections across
    In the second section of the book, we move from the outside in as we
    look at this issue of transparency. We start with an exploration of the
    competing values between journalism and the private platforms that
    increasingly deliver journalism (Dan Gillmor). Sticking with private
    platforms, we look at the revelatory value of the data that grows out of
    those platforms (Gilad Lotan). Finally, we move inside newsrooms,
    looking at evolving funding models (Adam Hochberg), the intellectual
    habits of reporters (Ann Friedman) and the methods journalists use to
    correct their mistakes (Craig Silverman).
    The principle of transparency informs not just how we judge our
    conflicts of interest, but how we tell the story of journalism itself. The
    stories created by journalists rely heavily on systems like social media
    platforms, outside of our control, yet suddenly crucial to the marketplace
    of ideas. Journalists must be dedicated enough to the notion of
    transparency to examine these systems and help communities hold them
    accountable for their incredible power.
    We have enlarged the principle of minimizing harm into a principle of
    engaging community. Journalists still have a moral obligation to seek
    alternatives that minimize the harm they cause. But that duty is not an
    abstract notion. Instead, minimizing harm is part of a greater contract with
    the members of a community that journalists serve and the sources they tap
    into to tell stories. It is a promise to act in the interests of informing a
    community and upholding democracy, acknowledging that the community
    itself has a substantial ability to contribute to the conversation. By
    elevating respect for the community, we note that journalistic decisions
    cannot be made in a vacuum. Instead, these values guide us toward an
    ethic of diversity (Eric Deggans). They help us resist the temptation to
    manipulate through fear and sensationalism (Kelly McBride and danah
    boyd). Together, the values of truth and transparency are interpreted in
    relation to a specific community and the common good (Steven Waldman
    and Mónica Guzmán.)
    These essays are written by individuals who were invited into the
    process because of their different perspectives and experiences. Each
    speaks with a distinct voice and tone. At the end of each chapter is a
    workshop meant to root the ideas of the essay in a contemporary
    application. These can be used in a newsroom, classroom, or discussion
    group to make clear the new trends and ethical challenges, which evolve as
    quickly as journalism itself.
    Poynter’s efforts in the 1980s were hardly the first to imagine the ethics
    or responsibilities of the press or the last. If one were to look at other work
    from the 1940s on—from the Hutchins Commission or the Society of
    Professional Journalists or Committee of Concerned Journalists—one
    would be struck by the similarities of the efforts. Each has informed the
    Nor do we pretend to have all of today’s answers, so when you’ve
    completed this short book, we don’t expect you will have all the answers
    either. We hope instead that you will be a more informed, active
    participant in shaping the critical conversation about how to produce
    journalism and consume it in the 21st century. For the principles that guide
    ethical decision-making in the production of news to have meaning, they
    need to be thought through anew by each generation in its new
    circumstances. That is the process of renewal and the point of rigorous
    self-reflection. Only then is journalism a vibrant and a living exercise on
    behalf of the public.
    PART 1
    The Complicated Pursuit of Truth
    Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
    Telling the truth has always been the simplest and most complicated
    function of journalism. That critical but elusive task starts with describing
    what happened, sometimes based on a reporter’s own eyewitness account
    (the first of the Twin Towers collapsed into a cloud of smoke and debris at
    9:59 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001), more often based on the accounts of others
    (when the tsunami hit East Asia in 2004, few if any journalists were
    present), and, in the case of investigative work, after the journalist has
    assembled enough accounts, documents and other evidence to declare
    something of significance with authority (the U.S. government deceived
    the American people about its early involvement in Vietnam and
    miscalculated and mismanaged the war, according to the Pentagon
    When asked to consider the question philosophically, journalists
    sometimes struggle to articulate what they do. Are they capable of more
    than accuracy? We can point to exposés and analyses and answer: yes.
    Truth emerges not only in a single story but also in the sorting out that
    occurs over time as different accounts probe an event and its implications.
    This form of journalistic or practical truth is a living, continuing process,
    as co-editor Tom Rosenstiel and his colleague, Bill Kovach, have
    described it.
    Journalism also may lend itself to some kinds of truths more easily than
    others. The media are on firmer footing, for instance, identifying what
    words the president said or how many people died in a fire than they are in
    describing the motivations that drive the people in the news.
    Nonetheless, while acknowledging that getting the facts right remains
    journalism’s core function—and that includes trying to get at “the truth
    about the fact,” as the Hutchins Commission put it in 1947—much of how
    we discern and articulate the truth is changing.
    This section’s first two authors, Clay Shirky and Roy Peter Clark,
    explore two dimensions of a long-standing debate: the degree to which
    truth is ascertainable. They propose somewhat differing answers to the
    questions of how society knows what the truth is, how we designate truthtellers and how technology and new forms of communication have
    impacted our ability to arrive at consensus. Together, they describe the
    spectrum of truth that journalism covers and how the process of fixing on
    truth on that spectrum is made both more challenging and richer today.
    The demands on journalists are higher. So is the need for journalism that
    goes beyond the stenographic task of simply describing the public
    Tom Huang then analyzes the principal means by which journalists have
    tried to describe truth: the story, which is being transformed by digital
    technology. Huang’s essay offers a disciplined tour through the virtues and
    challenges of the main new storytelling forms possible today.
    In the essays that follow, Steve Myers and Kenny Irby look at two even
    more precise developments in journalism’s pursuit of truth: the growth of
    the fact-checking movement and the changing role that photographic
    storytelling plays in our understanding of the world.
    These five chapters, arranged from the more abstract (Shirky and Clark)
    to the more specific (Huang, Myers and Irby), remind us that truth, at least
    as it relates to journalism, is not the same as meaning. We might, for
    instance, know who won the election, or even what occurred in a tragic
    school shooting. What it means to us is something more individual. On
    some level, journalism commands our attention because it tells us what to
    think about: what is new, what is changing, even perhaps what is
    important. But it does not, nor has it ever, tell us what to think.
    As you read these essays, you will undoubtedly draw connections of
    your own to other phenomena occurring in journalism and the wider world
    of communications. Just as surely, the rapid pace of change will continue
    to alter the way we seek truths and tell stories.
    chapter 1
    Truth without Scarcity, Ethics without
    Clay Shirky
    he first item in the Society for Professional Journalist’s Ethics
    Guide is “Seek truth and report it.” This seems simple enough, yet
    the contemporary media environment has seen a dramatic increase in
    spurious claims about everything from hydraulic fracturing to the funding
    of Medicare to the president’s birthplace and religious affiliation. With the
    Internet opening the floodgates to ideological actors of all persuasions, the
    exhortation to seek truth and report it seems less widely practiced than
    The Internet’s effect on our respect for the truth has been frequently
    discussed in the last decade, in books such as and True
    Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society and in any number of
    essays over the years. As an exemplar, The Atlantic ran a piece just before
    the last elections called “Truth Lies Here,” which suggested that the
    Internet, by allowing us to pick and choose what we listen to, is corroding
    our shared commitment to facts.1
    “Truth Lies Here” included the usual high points: the Daniel Patrick
    Moynihan quote (“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his
    own facts”), the observation that news consumers are replacing
    professional editors with our friends as arbiters of news, and frustrated
    wonderment that so many Americans have been willing to make, and so
    many media outlets willing to report, basic errors of fact, like the notion
    that President Obama is a Muslim.
    This “post-fact” literature is certainly on to something; the Internet is
    changing the conditions under which ordinary citizens are willing to
    regard any given statement as true. There comes a moment, however,
    when anyone making this case has to employ what journalist William
    Safire used to call a “but of course” paragraph, a brief nod to a possible
    counterargument before setting it aside.
    In the Atlantic, the “but of course . . . ” was this:
    None of this is to argue that we should—or could—return to the old order,
    wherein The Times or Walter Cronkite issued proclamations on the credibility
    and import of news from around the world.
    This yearning for mainstream concurrence without cultural dominance
    is what gives that lament for lost consensus its poignant feel since these
    two desires are mutually exclusive. It’s not as if, in the mid-20th century,
    we Americans had a small group of white men who could speak to and for
    the public without fear of contradiction or amendment, and we also
    happened to have mainstream consensus about the news of the day. The
    latter state is impossible without the former; the former is how we got to
    the latter.
    We have never all agreed with each other. What looks like a post-truth
    journalistic environment is actually a post-professional environment and a
    post-scarcity environment. Truth isn’t a stable “thing,” it’s a judgment
    about what persuades us to believe a particular assertion. And for anything
    outside our direct personal experience, what persuades us is evidence of
    operative consensus among relevant actors. This journalistic formula for
    truth is far more difficult to attain in this new environment.
    Of course, many truths are knowable, verifiable and undeniable, like the
    number of children (20) killed in the Newtown, Conn., shooting, or the
    amount of revenue your local city council collected last year in parking
    fines. These truths are the bulk of the substance in journalism.
    What the Internet changes is how many different opinions are now in
    circulation when we try to determine the meaning of a truth, a change that
    in turn alters our idea of whose opinion is relevant and where consensus
    actually lies. People no longer have to shut up while Walter Cronkite tells
    them “that’s the way it is,” no longer have to sit alone, shouting at their
    televisions, wondering if they are the only ones who think that something
    has gone wrong with the country they live in.
    It’s tempting to want to make the shouters admit they are the ones who
    are wrong, to insist that facts are facts. The history of life in democratic
    societies, though, suggests our inability to shut the shouters up is fairly
    Homosexuality is a mental illness; that assertion was just as factual as a
    fact could be, circa 1969. A group of professionals, the American
    Psychiatric Association, arrived together at a list of the conditions and
    behaviors that were evidence of mental imbalance. The APA’s
    professional judgment was then published in the canonical psychological
    work, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Homosexuality was in the
    Being gay is no longer an illness. Concern over same-sex attraction was
    progressively downgraded and finally removed altogether over several
    successive revisions of the DSM, starting in 1970. How did that happen?
    It happened because people attracted to members of the same sex
    insisted, persistently and publicly, that the DSM diagnosis, almost
    universally reported as fact, was nothing but prejudice dressed up in
    clinical language. As the APA argued over the issue, its members came to
    This process of removing the sense of homosexuality as pathology is not
    over, of course; there are still people ready to say that it would be better if
    gay teens killed themselves than try to make a public place for themselves
    in society. But in the decades since the first person stood up to the cops at
    the Stonewall Inn, the ability of gay-hating members of American society
    to speak or act as if their views represented an obvious truth has weakened
    with each passing year. This was in part because our sense of who the
    relevant actors are has changed, as with psychologists being increasingly
    willing to listen to the accounts of gay citizens themselves.
    People fighting for the inclusion of gays in society have had to fight
    against many things. Some of the things they had to fight against were the
    facts, as constituted by society and regularly reported in the press.
    We could try to rescue the virtue of mainstream consensus from our
    historically benighted views about homosexuality by insisting that its
    existence as an illness was never really a fact, that it was merely
    something people wrongly believed.
    Unfortunately, the stray flick of that observation is enough to cause the
    whole majestic zeppelin of Truth to burst into flame. If some facts are not
    in fact facts, we need a way of separating these seemingly true but secretly
    false facts from real actually true facts. But, since we kick beliefs like
    homosexuality-as-illness out to the curb retroactively, any such
    mechanism is pretty clearly not going to be universal or fast-acting.
    Journalism, that famous first draft of history, is especially vulnerable to the
    damage to mainstream consensus.
    The philosopher Richard Rorty described truth as whatever everybody
    declines to be arguing about at the moment. This is less nihilistic than it
    sounds, since it describes the progress of both social and scientific beliefs.
    People used to argue about whether photons had mass and about whether
    women should vote. Now those are settled questions. We used to have
    consensus on whether gay couples could marry and how many dimensions
    the universe has. Now people argue about those things all the time.
    Scientists and politicians have different rules for fighting, of course, and
    different standards for what constitutes a worthwhile argument, but in both
    cases, the process is one of competing claims adjudicated by argument and
    settled by consensus.
    We could thus describe public expression without using the label truth
    at all by simply locating any given statement on a spectrum of agreement,
    running from “The sky is blue” through “Inflation is always and
    everywhere a monetary phenomenon” to “The Earth is flat.” The
    statements we describe as true are the ones that enjoy operative consensus
    among relevant actors. As a consequence, any statement presented as true
    can also be described as an assertion; that the people who believe the
    statement are the people whose opinions on the subject matter, and those
    who don’t, aren’t.
    The last decade of public conversation on climate change has turned on
    this axle. Because journalists often aspire to report from a position of
    dispassionate arbitration, evidence of consensus is taken as evidence of
    truth, and lack of consensus signals an unsettled issue. This was a
    workable strategy only when people with views outside mainstream
    consensus were locked out of the mainstream media and thus had no way
    to make their opposing view known.
    That strategy is now broken. The Internet broadens the range of publicly
    expressed opinions, to put the matter mildly, making it simple to find
    people who will vigorously contest any consensus view, no matter how
    widely held or carefully tested. This has, in turn, allowed climate change
    deniers to exploit the press’s discomfort with adjudicating disputes, a
    journalistic trope my colleague Jay Rosen calls “we have no idea who’s
    There is no neutral position from which to stand; every assertion the
    press publishes is backstopped by the relevance of the community making
    that assertion, whether that means scientists, politicians, the Chamber of
    Commerce, or the vox populi. Even for something as tied to physical
    reality as climate change, the press is perforce in the business of refereeing
    community disputes, not merely ascertaining and then recording facts.
    With the Internet’s expansion of public speech, journalistic attempts to
    publish the truth must shift from reporting consensus to telling the public
    whose opinions are relevant and whose aren’t. This shift in focus to
    describing who is and isn’t a relevant actor is a return to an older pattern,
    more common in the days of the partisan press.
    As Walter Lippmann put it nearly a century ago,2
    There is no defense, no extenuation, no excuse whatsoever, for stating six
    times that Lenin is dead when the only information the paper possesses is a
    report that he is dead from a source repeatedly shown to be unreliable. . . . If
    there is one subject on which editors are most responsible it is in their
    judgment of the reliability of the source.
    Yet reporters and editors working on climate change have often been
    unwilling to say, “These scientists are more credible than those scientists”
    or “This set of data was more relevant than that set of data.” The
    perception that the press itself is an actor in the public conversation, not
    just a conduit for that conversation, can still produce discomfort in the
    nation’s newsrooms (even though that perception is obviously correct).
    We are accustomed to the idea that certain beliefs are contained in
    particular communities, such as “Jesus is Lord” or “Tennessee barbecue is
    superior to Texas barbecue,” but this is also the case for sentiments like
    “The world is round” or “Al Qaeda attacked the Cairo Embassy.” As it is,
    of course, for sentiments like “Obama is a Muslim.”
    There is a story in my family of my father-in-law taking his fiancé (my
    future mother-in-law) home to Ethiopia to meet his family. His mother was
    charmed by my mother-in-law, who, even though she was white, seemed
    perfectly well behaved. She was, exclaimed his mother, “very nice—just
    like a Christian!”
    Now my mother-in-law was a Christian by any American standard—a
    good Scots/German Protestant. But my grandmother-in-law, Ethiopian
    Orthodox, used “Just like a Christian” to mean “Just like us.”
    Depending on who’s asking and how, up to one-fifth of U.S. citizens
    have been willing to say that Barack Obama is a Muslim. This despite the
    fact that Obama was raised a Christian, calls himself Christian and
    worships in a Christian church. But as with my mother-in-law, the
    question isn’t so straightforward. When conservatives say things like this,
    it’s often as a form of protest, just as, during the Bush administration,
    liberals circulated obviously faked images of a gun-toting Sarah Palin in
    an American flag bikini as if they were real.
    Furthermore, liberals generally think of religion as a personal choice—
    you are the religion you say you are and no other. Many of our fellow
    citizens, however, think we’re wrong, and that religion is tied to family
    identity. In this view, the fact that Obama’s father was Muslim and that he
    is named after a grandson of the Prophet counts for something. Reckoned
    this way, Obama is clearly the most Muslim president in history.
    When liberals want those conservatives to admit that Obama is not a
    Muslim, we are not asking them to accept simple facts. We are asking
    them to replace their conception of religion with ours, a conception that
    says having a Muslim parent or an Arabic name says nothing whatsoever
    about religious identity. In presenting our sense of religious identity as
    factual and the conservative one as obviously false, we are asking them to
    agree that, in the ways that matter on the issue, Obama is just like them.
    And they don’t agree.
    In 2010, Newsweek ran an article, based on Pew Research, on the
    subject of the president’s religious identity.3 A comment on that piece, by
    someone going by the nickname Bigfoot, highlights the issue: “I do not
    know what ‘religion’ he professes to be, but he definitely is NOT
    christian! I know that he is a ‘Wolf’ in sheeps clothing and do not buy any
    of his garbage for one second!” (sic)
    Bigfoot doesn’t deny the president is a Christian because he thinks
    Obama says the Shahada every day. He denies the president is Christian
    because he doesn’t buy any of Obama’s garbage for one second. As a
    consequence, he is unwilling to admit to any important similarities
    between the president and himself.
    It’s easy to characterize our contempt for Bigfoot and his ilk as highminded concern for their grasp of the facts, but that’s fairly obviously not
    the case. If we really cared that much about people’s grasp of the facts,
    we’d have lain awake for decades fretting about the alien abduction
    people. We don’t, though, because we’re perfectly willing to regard them
    as harmless morons, alongside the flat earthers and that time cube guy.
    The alien abduction people don’t upset us because we simply refuse to
    account for their beliefs in our beliefs. The way people talk about their
    abduction by aliens doesn’t strike us as legitimate, so we simply ignore
    their claims. With people like Bigfoot, however, we can’t ignore them as
    easily because, in an inexplicable turn of events, Newsweek has handed
    Bigfoot a megaphone.
    The thing that alarms us about people like Bigfoot isn’t their beliefs, it’s
    their right to assert those beliefs in our newly expanded public sphere and
    their ability to act on those beliefs in ways that affect us. When people
    disagree with us about things like the president’s religion, we say we wish
    they wouldn’t deny the facts, but really, we just wish they were more
    liberal or that their definition of religion was the same as ours. Failing that,
    we sometimes wish that public speech was still restricted to the pros.
    In a technical sense, journalism is a trade, not a profession. Its core skills
    are not arcane, and there are no requirements for either formal studies or
    certification. (Indeed, in the United States, any certification that barred
    amateurs and novices from competing with incumbents would be not just
    illegal, but unconstitutional.)
    Curiously, much of the 20th century was marked by impulses toward
    professionalization—from trade associations to journalism schools, and the
    second half of the century created a situation in the news ecosystem that
    looked very like professionalization. Federal Communications
    Commission decisions favoring large broadcast areas and national
    networks created a television cartel. The death of the evening newspaper at
    the hands of the evening news strengthened the remaining metro dailies,
    which achieved something like a monopoly on local display ads. The
    postwar economic boom turned these scarcities into persistent and sizable
    income growth.
    Newspaper chains standardized hiring and training practices across huge
    swaths of the country, and their hiring preferences increasingly turned to
    college-educated members of the middle class. In symbiotic adaptation,
    the country’s journalism schools began training their students in the
    current professional practices of existing businesses, turning out graduates
    ready to plug into increasingly complex production processes.
    The roots of nonpartisan centrism as a press ideology go back to the
    19th century and grew with the spread of advertising as a means of
    financing journalism in the 20th. But the twin postwar forces of large scale
    and lack of competition helped push the national press even further away
    from partisan argumentation. Moderate centrism became the house
    ideology of The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS News.
    On the national stage, truth was whatever educated, straight, white men
    declined to be arguing about at the moment, a consensus view of reality
    that included the views of Walter Cronkite but excluded those of a large
    number of his viewers.
    In an environment like this, industry self-regulation proved a powerful
    force for censuring journalists who didn’t adhere to shared standards.
    Reporters couldn’t have their licenses revoked, as doctors or lawyers can,
    but in an industry whose senior leadership could fit in a hotel ballroom, an
    informal blackballing, as in “Don’t hire Janet Cooke,” was enough.4
    The Internet does not alter this model. It destroys it. No matter how
    many news outlets continue to hew to moderate centrism, there is no
    longer any way to keep partisans and fabulists out of the public sphere, nor
    is there any way to revoke access after heinous affronts to truth-telling.
    Even the challenge presented by the openly partisan Fox News is nothing
    like the explosion of reporting and opinion from across the political
    spectrum the Internet is ushering in.
    It’s tempting to conclude that this stuff doesn’t count, precisely because
    the people publishing it don’t abide by the methods or norms favored by
    mainstream journalists, but the people in the news industry no longer get
    to decide what the public counts as news. In this environment, the
    definition of news has much more to do with demand than supply. When
    the New York Police Department raided Zuccotti Park in November of
    2011 to oust the Occupy Wall Street protesters who had been living there
    to draw attention to their cause, the event was better documented by the
    occupiers themselves than by the press, since the police went out of their
    way to block traditional reporters. In contrast to reporting from people
    with press passes, largely operating behind police barricades, first-hand
    accounts from people like Tim Pool, who streamed the police activity and
    the occupier’s reactions live from his phone, constituted the news as many
    observers experienced it.
    Similarly, the passionate and knowledgeable cyclists at NYVelocity did
    more to unmask Lance Armstrong’s years-long doping regime, though
    they were journalistic amateurs, than all the professional sports journalists
    covering Armstrong combined.
    We are now watching the quasi-professionalization of journalism in the
    20th century run in reverse. It is certainly possible to tell the difference
    between Tim Pool and Scott Pelley or NYVelocity and The New York
    Times; it is no longer possible to find a sharp discontinuity at some
    midpoint between them, where amateur stops and professional starts.
    The old gap separating journalists from the public, producers from
    consumers, has turned into a gradient. At the same time, public consensus
    has shrunk dramatically, and the ability of mainstream outlets to limit
    public voices to mainstream values has collapsed altogether. We are
    entering a world where the consensus view of truth no longer rests on
    scarcity of public speech and one where ethical norms can’t be backed up
    by force.
    Here’s what the “post-fact” literature has right: The Internet allows us to
    see what other people actually think. This has turned out to be a huge
    disappointment. When anyone can say anything, we can’t even pretend
    most of us agree on the truth of most assertions any more.
    The post-fact literature is built in part on nostalgia for the world before
    people like Bigfoot showed up in the public sphere, for the days when
    Newsweek reflected moderately liberal consensus without also providing a
    platform for orthographically challenged wingnuts to rant about the
    president. People who want those days back tell themselves (and anyone
    else who will listen) that they don’t want to impose their views on
    anybody. They just want agreement on the facts.
    But what would that look like, an America where there was broad
    agreement on the facts? It would look like public discussion was limited to
    the beliefs held by straight, white, Christian men. If the views of the public
    at large didn’t hew to the views of that group, the result wouldn’t be
    agreement. It would be argument.
    Argument, of course, is the human condition, but public argument is
    not. Indeed, in most places for most of history, publicly available
    statements have been either made or vetted by the ruling class, with the
    right of reply rendered impractical, illegal or both. Expansion of public
    speech, for both participants and topics, is generally won only after
    considerable struggle, and of course, any such victory pollutes the sense of
    what constitutes truth from the previous era, a story that runs from Martin
    Luther through Ida Tarbell to Mario Savio, the drag queens outside
    Stonewall, and Julian Assange.
    There’s no way to get Cronkite-like consensus without someone like
    Cronkite, and there’s no way to get someone like Cronkite in a world with
    an Internet; there will be no more men like him because there will be no
    more jobs like his. To assume that this situation can be reversed, that
    everyone else will voluntarily sign on to the beliefs of some culturally
    dominant group, is a fantasy. To assume that they should sign on, or at
    least that they should hold their tongue when they don’t, is Napoleonic in
    its self-regard. Yet, this is what the people who long for the clarity of the
    old days are longing for.
    Seeing claims that the CIA staged the 9/11 attacks or that oil is an
    unlimited by-product of volcanism is enough to make the dear dead days
    of limited public speech seem like a paradise, but there are compensating
    virtues in our bumptious public sphere.
    Consider three acts of mainstream media malfeasance unmasked by
    outsiders: Philip Elmer-DeWitt’s 1995 Time Magazine cover story5 on the
    prevalence of Internet porn, which relied on faked data; CBS News’6 2004
    accusations that President George W. Bush dodged military service, which
    was based on forged National Guard memos; and Jonah Lehrer’s7
    recycling and plagiarism in work he did for the New Yorker and Wired, as
    well as the fabrication of material in his books. In all three cases, the
    ethical lapses were committed by mainstream journalists and unmasked by
    others working on the Internet, but with very different responses by the
    institutions that initially published the erroneous material.
    In Elmer-DeWitt’s case, he was given what seemed to be an explosive
    study that claimed, among other things, that 85 percent of the images on
    the Internet were pornographic. This was the basis for a Time cover story,
    his first. But the conclusions he drew seemed fishy, and a distributed factchecking effort formed in response, largely organized on the digital
    bulletin board system called Usenet. It quickly became apparent that the
    research was junk; that the researcher who had given the report to ElmerDeWitt was an undergraduate who faked the data; that the professors listed
    as sponsors had had little to do with it, and so on. The study was in fact
    largely faked, and Elmer-DeWitt and the Time staff did not vet it carefully.
    Elmer-DeWitt apologized forthrightly:
    I don’t know how else to say it, so I’ll just repeat what I’ve said before. I
    screwed up. The cover story was my idea, I pushed for it, and it ran pretty
    much the way I wrote it. It was my mistake, and my mistake alone. I do hope
    other reporters will learn from it. I know I have.
    Almost no one saw this apology, however, because he said it only
    online; the correction run by Time sought to downplay, rather than
    apologize for, misleading their readers, even though the core facts reported
    in the story were faked: “It would be a shame, however, if the damaging
    flaws in [the] study obscured the larger and more important debate about
    hard-core porn on the Internet.”
    In 1995, Time could count on very little overlap between its readership
    and the country’s Internet users, so Elmer-DeWitt’s ethical lapse and
    subsequent apology could be waved away with little fear that anyone else
    could dramatize the seriousness of the article’s failings.
    Contrast the situation a decade later, in 2004, when CBS News aired a
    “60 Minutes Wednesday” story about President Bush’s time in the
    National Guard. Like the Elmer-DeWitt story, the CBS story was based on
    faked documents; as with that story, the forgery was discovered not by
    CBS itself or another professional media outlet, but by media outsiders
    working on the Internet; like Time in the Elmer-DeWitt case, CBS spent
    most of its energy trying to minimize its lapse.
    Unlike the Elmer-DeWitt story, however, the strategy didn’t work.
    Charles Johnson, blogging at Little Green Footballs, produced an animated
    graphic8 demonstrating that the nominally typewritten documents from the
    early 1970s were actually produced using the default font in Microsoft
    Word. By 2004, Internet use had become so widespread that the Time
    Magazine tactic of writing off Internet users as a cranky niche was
    ineffective; Johnson’s work was so widely discussed that CBS couldn’t
    ignore it. When the network finally did respond, CBS spokesmen admitted
    that the documents were questionable, that members of the news staff did
    not check their authenticity carefully enough, that their defense of the
    reporters involved compounded the error, and that the lapse was serious
    enough to constitute a firing offense for the senior people involved,
    including producer Mary Mapes; Dan Rather resigned after some delay.9
    A more recent example of this pattern, almost a decade after the
    National Guard memos, was the science writer Jonah Lehrer’s use of
    recycled, plagiarized and fabricated material, including, most famously,
    invented quotes from Bob Dylan.10 Again journalistic ethics were
    breached in mainstream publications—in Lehrer’s case, in writings for
    Wired and the New Yorker, and in his book, Imagine. His lapses were
    uncovered not by anyone at publisher Conde Nast, however. His most
    serious lapse was uncovered by Michael Moynihan, a writer and editor at
    Reason and Vice, who published his discovery of the Dylan fabrication in
    Tablet,11 an online-only magazine of Jewish life and culture. Moynihan’s
    revelations, the most damning of the criticisms Lehrer was then facing,
    precipitated his resignation from the New Yorker.
    The Lehrer example demonstrates the completion of a pattern that we
    might call “after-the-fact checking,” visible public scrutiny of journalistic
    work after it is published. After-the-fact checking is not just
    knowledgeable insiders identifying journalistic lapses; that has always
    happened. Instead, the new pattern involves those insiders being able to
    identify one another and collaborate on public complaint. Group action,
    even loosely coordinated, has always been more visible and powerful than
    disaggregated instances of individual action; the rise of loose, yet
    collaborative networks of fact-checking creates a concomitant weakening
    of strategies by traditional media for minimizing the effects of such lapses.
    The difference between Elmer-DeWitt and Lehrer isn’t that the latter’s
    lapses were worse, it’s that the ability to hide the lapses has shrunk. The
    nominal ethics of journalism remain as they were, but the mechanisms of
    observation and accountability have been transformed as the public’s role
    in the landscape has moved from passive to active, and the kind of selfscrutiny the press is accustomed to gives way to considerably more
    persistent and withering after-the-fact checking.
    The truth is not dead. Those who issue such laments have correctly
    identified the changes in the landscape of public speech but often
    misdiagnose their causes. We are indeed less willing to agree on what
    constitutes truth, but not because we have recently become pigheaded,
    naysaying zealots. We were always like that. It’s just that we didn’t know
    how many other people were like that as well. And, as Ben McConnell and
    Jackie Huba put it long ago, the Internet is a truth serum.
    The current loss of consensus is a better reflection of the real beliefs of
    the American polity than the older centrism. Several names can be applied
    to what constitutes acceptable argument in a society—the Overton
    window, the sphere of legitimate controversy—but whatever label you use,
    the range of things people are willing to argue about has grown.
    There seems to be less respect for consensus today because there is
    indeed less respect for consensus. This change is not good or bad per se; it
    has simply made agreement a scarcer commodity across all issues of
    public interest. The erosion of controls on public speech have enabled
    birthers to make their accusations against the president public; it also
    allows newly emboldened groups—feminists, atheists, Muslims, Mormons
    —to press their issues in public, in opposition to traditional public beliefs,
    a process similar to gay rights post-Stonewall, but now on a faster and
    more national scale. There’s no going back.
    One of the common ways journalists identify truth is by looking for
    operative consensus among relevant actors. For the last two generations of
    journalism, the emphasis has been on the question of consensus; the
    question of who constituted a relevant actor was largely solved by scarcity.
    It was easy to find mainstream voices and hard to find marginal or
    heterodox ones. With that scarcity undone, all such consensus will be
    destroyed unless journalists start telling the audience which voices aren’t
    worth listening to.
    A world where all utterances are putatively available makes “he said,
    she said” journalism an increasingly irresponsible form, less a way of
    balancing reasonable debate and more a way of evading the responsibility
    for informing the public. “Seeking truth and reporting it” is becoming less
    about finding consensus, which has become rarer, and more about publicly
    sorting the relevant actors from the irrelevant ones. The shrinking
    professional class of journalists can no longer fall back on experts, as if
    every professor or researcher is equally trustworthy.
    Journalists now have to operate in a world where no statement, however
    trivial, will be completely secured from public gainsaying. At the same
    time, public production of speech, not just consumption, means that the
    policing of ethical failures has passed out of the hands of the quasiprofessional group of journalists employed in those outlets and has become
    another form of public argument. This alters the public sphere in important
    The old days, where marginal opinions meant marginal availability,
    have given way to a world where all utterances, true or false, are a click
    away. Journalists have always had to make a call about what constitutes
    legitimate consensus and who constitutes relevant actors. They just didn’t
    used to have to work so hard to do so. An environment where public
    speech was scarce, and where access was generally limited to people with
    mainstream views, was an environment where the visible actors were the
    relevant ones and vice versa. It was also an environment where the
    absence of dissent was a rough and ready metric for measuring consensus.
    Now, public speech is accessible to brilliant people and crazy people
    and cantankerous people and iconoclastic people. No assertion more
    complex than “the cat is on the mat” generates universal assent. In this
    environment, journalists have to get practiced at sorting relevant from
    irrelevant actors and legitimate from illegitimate objections.
    In an even more significant rupture with the past, they have to get
    practiced at explaining to their readers why they are making the choices
    they are making. Prior to now, when a news outlet didn’t publish the
    opinion of someone whose views it considered irrelevant, there was almost
    no way that person could reach those readers on his or her own. Also prior
    to now, only the people creating the weather page had to admit to the
    readers that there was a specific probability connected to their assertions.
    Now, though, both of those traits have broken down. Views not covered
    in mainstream outlets can nevertheless find large audiences. The public
    thus operates with increased awareness that some voices are being
    intentionally ignored by some media outlets. (Indeed, all media outlets
    ignore at least some voices.) This means not just including some voices
    and excluding others but explaining why you are doing so.
    This is destroying the nominally neutral position of many mainstream
    outlets. Consider, as an example, Arthur Brisbane’s constitutional
    inability, as public editor of The New York Times, to process universal
    public disdain for his proposed methods of fact-checking politicians.12 His
    firm commitment to avoiding accusations of partisanship, even at the
    expense of rigorous checks on putative facts, helped raise the visibility of
    the fact-checking movement in the 2012 presidential campaign, as
    pioneered by PolitiFact and its peers. These fact-checking services have
    now become a new nexus of media power in the realm of political speech.
    Yet Brisbane is onto something, though it may have more to do with
    self-preservation than with commitment to truth: A world where even
    mainstream news outlets tell their readers when politicians lie, or publicly
    assess various speakers’ relevance on any given issue, is a world where
    neither powerful public actors nor advertisers will be automatically willing
    to trust or even cooperate with the press.
    Even as the erosion of consensus makes for an unavoidable increase in
    oppositional reporting, it also makes the scrutiny journalists face from
    their audience far greater than the scrutiny they face from their employers
    or peers. Trust in the press has fallen precipitously13 in the last generation,
    even as the press itself increasingly took on the trappings of a profession.
    One possible explanation is that what pollsters and respondents
    characterized as trust was really scarcity—like the man with one watch, a
    public that got its news from a politically narrow range might have been
    more willing to regard those reinforced views as accurate. Since
    Watergate, however, along with increasingly partisan campaigning and
    governance, the lack of shared outlook among existing newsmakers,
    coupled with the spread of new, still more partisan newsmakers, makes
    this sort of trust impossible.
    There’s no going back here either. The era when there was something
    called “the press,” and it had a reputation among something called “the
    public,” is over. Each organization will have to try to convince each
    member of its audience that it is trustworthy. Any commitment to ethics
    will involve not just being more reactive to outsiders’ post-hoc review, but
    also being more willing to attack other outlets for ethical lapses in public,
    more ready to publicly defend their own internal policies, rather than
    simply regarding ethical lapses as a matter for internal policing.
    The philosophy of journalism ethics—tell the truth to the degree that
    you can, ’fess up when you get it wrong—doesn’t change in the switch
    from analog to digital. What does change, enormously, is the individual
    and organizational adaptations required to tell the truth without relying on
    scarcity and while hewing to ethical norms without reliance on a small
    group of similar institutions that can all coordinate around those norms.
    This will make for a far more divisive public sphere, a process that is
    already under way. It’s tempting to divide these changes into win-loss
    columns to see whether this is a change for the better or the worse—
    birthers bad, new atheists good (relabel to taste)—but this sort of
    bookkeeping is a dead end. The effects of digital abundance are not
    trivially separable—the birthers and the new atheists used similar tools and
    techniques to enter the public sphere, as did the Tea Party and Occupy
    Wall Street. More important, the effects are not reversible. Even if we
    conclude that the collapse of moderate centrism is bad for the United
    States, there’s no way to stop or reverse the exploded range of publicly
    available opinion.
    Now, and from now on, journalists are going to be participants in a far
    more argumentative sphere than anything anyone alive has ever seen. The
    question for us is not whether we want this increase in argumentation—no
    one is asking us, and there’s no one who could—but rather how we should
    adapt ourselves to it as it unfolds.
    1. Michael Hirschorn, “Truth Lies Here,” The Atlantic, November 2010,
    2. Walter Lippmann, “News, Truth, and a Conclusion,” in Public Opinion
    (New York: MacMillan Co. 1922),
    3. David A. Graham, “Silly Things We Believe about Witches, Obama and
    More,” The Daily Beast,; “Growing Number of Americans Say
    Obama Is a Muslim,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press,”
    August 19, 2010,
    4. Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1980
    story, “Jimmy’s World,” about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The Pulitzer
    Board subsequently stripped her of the prize when it was revealed that
    Jimmy was a fabrication. For more information, see Elaine Dutka, “Janet
    Cooke’s Life: The Picture-Perfect Tale,” Los Angeles Times, May 28,
    5. Philip Elmer-Dewitt, “Online Erotica: On a Screen Near You,” Time
    Magazine, July 03, 1995,,9171,983116,00.html.
    6. Jarrett Murphy, “CBS Ousts 4 for Bush Guard Story,” CBS, February 11,
    7. Articles about “Jonah Lehrer,”, last modified March 4, 2013,
    8. Charles Johnson, “NPR Rewrites Rathergate History to Cover Up Fraud,”
    Little Green Footballs, December 23, 2008,
    9. Al Tompkins, “Mapes: Decision to Air National Guard Story Was Made
    by CBS Superiors, Including Heyward,”, January 10, 2005,
    10. Steve Myers, “Jonah Lehrer Resigns from New Yorker after Fabricating
    Bob Dylan Quotes in ‘Imagine’,”, July 30, 2012,
    11. Michael Moynihan, “Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions: The Celebrated
    JournalistFabricated Bob Dylan Quotes in His New Book,Imagine:How
    Creativity Works,” Tablet, July 30, 2012,
    12. Steve Myers, “Brisbane: ‘I Ended Up as a Pinata on This One’,”, January 23, 2012,
    13. Andrew Beaujon, “Gallup: Americans Mistrust Media More Than Ever,”, September 21, 2012,
    Case Study 1: Covering Fluoride
    Caitlin Johnston
    In his essay, Clay Shirky suggests that it has become more difficult to
    determine “operative consensus among relevant actors” and, therefore,
    more difficult to discern the truth. This case study illustrates how
    professional newsrooms might shift their approach to covering a story in
    response to that new reality.
    Pinellas County (Fla.) Commissioner Norm Roche led an effort in 2011 to
    eliminate fluoride from the county water supply. The county government
    had been adding fluoride since 2004, a common practice throughout the
    United States that had been lauded as one of the greatest public health
    achievements of the 20th century.
    The treatment, which cost the county roughly 30 cents per person per
    year, was widely reported by dentists and medical professionals to help
    prevent tooth decay. But critics used research showing that too much
    fluoride could have side effects on young children, such as causing white
    spots on their teeth, as a foothold to argue that the government should not
    force its citizens to consume the supplement. Members of the Tea Party
    compared the government-backed fluoride treatment to Soviet and Nazi
    “Fluoride is a toxic substance,” said Tea Party activist Tony Caso in a
    Tampa Bay Times article about the commission’s decision. “This is all part
    of an agenda that’s being pushed forth by the so-called globalists in our
    government and the world government to keep the people stupid so they
    don’t realize what’s going on . . . This is the U.S. of A., not the Soviet
    Socialist Republic.”1
    In a 4-3 vote in October 2011, the county commission passed the law
    eliminating the treatment from county water. The backlash was immediate.
    Commissioner Ken Welch, who voted to keep the fluoride in the water,
    voiced his outrage over a minority group’s ability to override the majority
    of public opinion.
    “We are going to the backwoods of urban counties with this move,”
    Welch said in a Tampa Bay Times article.2
    The four commissioners had ignored the voices of most of the county’s
    dentists, pediatricians, medical groups, health officials and the public in
    order to pass legislation supporting a minority-held belief. Welch told the
    Tampa Bay Times that professionals supporting the use of fluoride
    outnumbered critical ones before the commission 20-1. But that didn’t faze
    his fellow commissioners.
    In the year that followed, the Tampa Bay Times ran more than a dozen
    editorials and columns about the fluoride battle, excoriating the county
    commission for failing to protect public health. The news side of the staff
    covered the debate vigorously throughout the year as residents struggled
    with how to compensate for the now fluoride-free water. Apart from
    writing articles before and after commission meetings, they also included
    the issue in articles surrounding the 2012 re-election campaign of two
    commissioners who had voted to remove fluoride from the water supply.
    In their news stories, Times reporters characterized the opinions and
    studies supporting fluoride supplements in water as solid, well-accepted
    science. They questioned or ignored the few studies that contradicted the
    belief that fluoride should be added to public water supplies. In the run-up
    to the 2012 election, the Times editorial staff advocated strongly for
    citizens to vote out of office two of the commissioners who were up for reelection.
    “Two of the Fluoride Four are on the ballot Tuesday seeking re-election
    to their countywide seats: Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield,” the
    editorial board wrote. “Their challengers, Charlie Justice and Janet Long,
    support restoring fluoride to the county’s drinking water. It only takes one
    new commissioner to reverse the backward decision—and save Pinellas
    County families time, money and frustration.”3
    Both Bostock and Brickfield were voted out of office, by significant
    Their successors brought the fluoride issue back on the commission
    agenda. During the subsequent hearing the chamber was once again
    packed with vocal opponents to fluoride. The law restoring fluoride to the
    water passed 6-1, with Roche again voting against fluoride.
    The paper’s strong coverage seemed to influence the election and the
    fluoride vote. The Times would go on to win the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for
    editorial writing.
    • How should journalists determine if a group’s arguments should be
    characterized as legitimate or illegitimate? In this case, what evidence
    would you use to counter the claims that fluoride is potentially harmful?
    • Journalists are frequently criticized for quoting opposing sides as if
    they had equal standing. Assume that you have determined that those who
    oppose fluoride in public water supplies do not have equal or substantial
    scientific evidence for their arguments compared with those who support
    the addition of fluoride. Identify three strategies you could use in your
    news coverage to ensure that opposition voices are heard by the audience
    in context. Would you quote them directly? Would you openly challenge
    the accuracy of their claims on the air or in text? Would you ignore them
    altogether? What are the advantages and disadvantages to each of your
    • Name another topic on which there is significant opposition to
    mainstream beliefs. Find an example of a story where the two sides are
    presented equally. And find an example of a story where the reporter gives
    more weight to one side or the other. What techniques does each reporter
    use? Can you identify the audience for each story? Why might news
    organizations opt for one approach or the other?
    Editors’ Note: The Tampa Bay Times is owned by The Poynter Institute, which
    employs this book’s co-editor and several contributors.
    1. David DeCamp, “Pinellas County Commission Votes to Stop Putting
    Fluoride in Water Supply,” Tampa Bay Times, October 5, 2011,
    2. David DeCamp, “Pinellas County Commission Stands Firm in Decision
    to End Fluoridation,” Tampa Bay Times, October 12, 2011,
    3. “The Real Cost of the Fluoride Fiasco,” Tampa Bay Times, November 1,
    chapter 2
    Kicking the Stone: The Search for
    Reliable Evidence in Journalism
    Roy Peter Clark
    ike many English majors, I have been fascinated by the stories of
    the great British man-of-letters Samuel Johnson, who towered
    over the 18th century like a lighthouse. One story still makes me laugh. It
    concerns how Johnson refuted the philosophy of Bishop George Berkeley,
    who argued, in essence, that all experience was subjective.
    In The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), James Boswell, Johnson’s friend
    and biographer, describes how the good doctor came to the rescue:
    After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of
    Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter,
    and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we
    are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall
    forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty
    force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it—“I refute it thus.”
    Journalists are, by training and disposition, stone kickers. In general,
    they are skeptics who prefer a world of things to a world of ideas and
    theories, or at least they act as if they do. At their best, they engage the
    world as it is, rather than as they wish it would be. They go out. They find
    things out. They judge those things to be either important or interesting —
    or both. They report things back to the rest of us. Their purpose is to enrich
    our experience, individually and collectively. Reading Boswell’s Life, we
    benefit from the knowledge that it takes a big kick to move a big stone.
    But how do journalists come to know things? And how do they know what
    they know? If we believe that seeking truth is an essential purpose of
    journalism, even as it expands into the digital age, answering these
    questions becomes essential.
    One man who offered an answer was Melvin Mencher, an influential
    professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the
    author of a best-selling journalism textbook. In a curmudgeonly style,
    Mencher passed along to his students a reliable and responsible method of
    reporting. By reporting, I think he meant a democratic craft of learning,
    knowing and sharing knowledge.
    Mencher understood that journalism was not science, but the process of
    working a story could still begin with a hypothesis, a preconception of
    what the reporter might discover. It is important to note here that
    Mencher’s method does not presume that the reporter is a blank slate or an
    empty vessel. The reporter brings experience and learning to the task, but
    whatever she thinks she knows, she must in the end be guided by the
    available evidence.
    “Who are the homeless?” an editor may ask. Even before the search
    begins, the reporter is thinking: “If people sleep and keep their stuff in
    subway tunnels, does that make them homeless?” Or, “I wonder how many
    people begging on the streets and claiming to be homeless are really
    alcoholics or drug addicts?” Or, “If a person has every chance to have a
    home but chooses to live out on the street, should that person have the
    same homeless status as someone who is forced out of work and gets a
    foreclosure notice?”
    Based on the early evidence, one or more of these will pan out, leading
    the reporter to choose a focus for the story, a central governing idea that
    helps the reporter and editor select the most telling details from everything
    that has been gathered. Let me repeat Mencher’s key to responsible
    practice: If the evidence points the reporter in a different direction, the
    story must be reconceived. Many of us who serve as sources have had to
    deal with reporters who are determined to kick the stone, even after we
    point out to them that it’s the trunk of a tree.
    No reporters I know think of themselves as Truthtellers, with a capital
    T, not because they are humble but because they find themselves so often
    wallowing in a world of uncertainty, a world, as Clay Shirky points out in
    his essay in this volume, where a practical consensus on how things work
    is increasingly difficult to find. Who can hope to make sense of the global
    economy—or even a school board budget? This may be why accuracy
    becomes a fetish for journalists. At least we can spell the names right and
    copy the numbers right. Perhaps a higher or deeper level of understanding
    may come over time.
    Journalists are truth-seekers, with a lower-case t, pragmatists who
    follow their instincts and evolving routines designed to mark their work as
    trustworthy. Their reports will deliver information in the public interest:
    for example, that rear-end collisions have increased since the city placed
    video cameras at dangerous intersections. Now, instead of running red
    lights, drivers are slamming on the brakes and getting hit from behind.
    Their stories will transport us to places we cannot go and experiences we
    could not otherwise have, to the ruins of the Jersey Shore created by
    Hurricane Sandy or to the Atlanta gravestone of the great golfer Bobby
    Jones, where visitors leave golf balls as tokens of tribute. Don’t believe
    me? Go to the cemetery and kick the stone.
    Our ethic of small-t truth-telling follows a set of standards and practices
    that I’ve described in essays and articles since 1980, when Washington
    Post reporter Janet Cooke fabricated a story about an eight-year-old heroin
    addict. A fiction writer might have performed a public service with such a
    story, but the Post wound up returning its Pulitzer Prize.
    Until now, the cornerstone principles of responsible reporting have been
    these: Do not add. Do not deceive. A kind of distortion, argued the author
    John Hersey, is inevitable in journalism when you gather a hundred facts
    but only publish ten. It is distortion by subtraction, as can occur when a
    photograph is badly cropped or a quote is ripped from its larger context.
    Journalists work to avoid such problems, but even bad journalism by
    subtraction is recognizable as journalism.
    Something essential changes with addition. Responsible journalists do
    not add to an article facts they know not to be true, they do not add details
    to a story that didn’t exist, and they don’t add words in a quote that were
    never uttered.
    The strongest antidote to deceptive practices—such as composite
    characters, or improper manipulation of time and space, or even bias—is
    transparency. In a skeptical, some might say cynical age, authors can no
    longer count on the benefit of a willing suspension of disbelief. At best, we
    get a grudging suspension of disbelief, which can evolve into something
    stronger only if we journalists are willing to disclose to audiences—with
    more humility than we have done in the past—what we know, how we
    came to know it, what we don’t know, what we are still trying to learn and
    what we may never know.
    When I started practicing journalism as an amateur, I was unaware of
    these norms and in my ignorance violated some of them. In one freelance
    op-ed piece from the 1970s, I created an argument, in the form of angry
    dialogue, between two Catholic parishioners to dramatize the rifts between
    the liberal and conservative factions of the Church. Honest, I didn’t know
    any better. On another occasion, I created a composite Alabama
    automobile, one festooned with all the kinds of political and cultural
    bumper stickers that were common in the South in the 1970s. Ten cars
    became, in my story, one car.
    Speed ahead to the 21st century and two forces seem at work at the
    same time now, headed for a broad cultural collision. I would argue that
    the ethical norms of journalism have never been tougher—nor tougher to
    enforce. The more people work and play within the field of public
    communication, forming what has been called a Fifth Estate, the more
    difficult it will be to create standards and practices that most will adhere
    to. Can you practice forms of journalism without identifying yourself as a
    journalist? Yes, you can—as eyewitnesses to historical events have
    demonstrated over the centuries.
    Forms of journalism are not eternal. They are invented to solve certain
    sets of social and political problems and take advantage of emerging
    markets and new technologies. The human interest story, for example, was
    created for readers of the penny press as an intentional diversion from
    traditional politics and business news. The idea was to attract new
    immigrant readers by the hundreds of thousands, especially in the big
    Such forms can become exhausted from overuse, only to be reimagined
    or adapted to match an innovation, the way short forms of the inverted
    pyramid have been used to convey breaking news on the Internet. But I see
    nothing new under the sun—or in The Sun, for that matter—that would
    license bloggers or tweeters, or iPhone photographers and videographers to
    add stuff that never happened or to deceive audiences with tricks of
    Wanna be a journalist, kid? Go out there, find stuff out, check it out and
    deliver it straight. If you prefer taking some fancy steps, be sure to admit
    what you are doing to the community you want to reach. Adhere to a
    social contract.
    Truth (with a small t), transparency and community. These are values
    and virtues that will continue to define responsible journalism even as
    technologies, platforms and audiences evolve.
    In his useful and provocative essay, Professor Shirky argues that
    journalists must be ready to serve a world in which consensus is
    increasingly difficult to find and where truth will become a frustratingly
    fragmented and relative commodity. As an example, he cites the way that
    psychiatry decided homosexuality was a disease and then decided it was
    no longer a disease, another step in a social revolution toward the
    recognition of sexual orientation. As a journalist, I am already
    uncomfortable. I’m not sure expressions of human sexuality are stones that
    I can kick. They seem too big. And maybe they aren’t even stones at all.
    Maybe they are something much less solid. Maybe they are clouds of
    abstraction. Can you kick a cloud?
    If I understand correctly, this is Shirky’s larger point: In professional
    environments, new ideas about the nature of truth replace old ones through
    argument and consensus. While individuals may change their minds on an
    issue or, in the parlance of waffling politicians, “grow,” many amateurs or
    civilians—abetted by digital technology—define reliable evidence as that
    body of knowledge that confirms what I already know or think I believe,
    an ideology derided by comedian Stephen Colbert as “truthiness.”
    In late 2012, while I was beginning to think through the question of
    what constitutes reliable evidence in journalism, a young man, Adam
    Lanza, shot and killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders, at Sandy Hook
    Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. One of the questions that has
    emerged from the catastrophe is whether Lanza, who also killed his mother
    and himself, had Asperger’s syndrome and, if he did, whether that created
    in his mind an unempathetic worldview that could lead him to unthinkable
    Theories about truth just slammed into one of the most dramatic
    domestic news stories of the new millennium. In what sense was the mass
    murderer mentally ill? Had he been examined and diagnosed with
    Asperger’s? If so, to what extent does that shine any light on his
    motivations or actions? In the absence of consensus, such questions
    become more valuable than ever, and no public practitioners are more
    prepared to ask them than journalists.
    At least since the invention of the telegraph and the formation of the
    wire services, journalists have followed paths of understanding described
    collectively as the Five Ws and H—who, what, where, when, why and
    how—questions that govern the gathering, sorting and presentation of
    evidence. Acts of responsible journalism are designed, by tradition, to lead
    to public comprehension on issues of importance, knowledge that can turn
    into action (such as trying to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous
    people or improving the quality of mental health care).
    It’s been widely acknowledged, by practitioners and scholars, that the
    hardest of the Five Ws to solve is the fifth, the “why,” a category that the
    late professor James Carey once described as the “dark continent” of the
    practice of journalism. You may be able to kick a large stone, even a
    boulder, but can you kick a mountain?
    An epistemology of journalism—a phrase that reporters and editors are
    likely to piss on because of its academic pretentions—is mocked, more
    often, by the malpractice of professional journalists themselves. How can
    we make sense of what constitutes responsible evidence within
    professional or amateur practice when the day-to-day routines that attend
    public information so often fail the test of reliability? How can we begin to
    get to the why of a mass shooting—with all its multiple, complex and
    interconnected causes—when we find it so hard to render the who, what,
    where and when?
    In the case of the Newtown shootings, The Poynter Institute’s Andrew
    Beaujon described the surprising number of inaccuracies and distortions
    generated by the earliest reports. Let’s stipulate that what is sometimes
    called “the fog of breaking news” is difficult even for professionals to
    penetrate. We also recognize that time is the co-author of good judgment
    and that a news cycle measured by the minute (or less) provides a
    powerful force against getting things right.
    Even with those qualifiers, it is amazing how much of the early
    reporting out of Newtown was wrong, as Beaujon reported:
    Adam Lanza was not buzzed in to Sandy Hook Elementary School. His
    mother, Nancy, did not work at the school. He didn’t have an altercation with
    school officials the day before. He used a Bushmaster rifle, not the Glock and
    SIG Sauer pistols he was carrying, to carry out his massacre. The children he
    killed were first-graders, not mostly kindergartners.
    Adam Lanza’s name was not Ryan (which was his brother’s name).1
    These were just the first published inaccuracies. Others followed. To
    acknowledge such failures is not to suggest that the professional press is
    wholly responsible for them. In some cases, mistaken information, rumors
    and theories were delivered to journalists by sources usually considered
    official, such as someone representing the police. Sources, journalists and
    audiences were acting under the usual pressures, intensified by social
    media’s distribution of information (some of it right and some of it wrong)
    coupled with expectations that knowledge should be delivered as quickly
    and widely as possible. In such an environment, truth becomes a byproduct of this social energy, rather than its primary purpose.
    “Oh, what a world, what a world,” mourns the Wicked Witch of the
    West as she melts from the water in Dorothy’s pail. “O brave new world,”
    says Amanda in Shakespeare’s Tempest, “that has such people in’t.” So
    which is it?
    The purpose of this collection of essays is to find the shape of an ethic of
    journalism in the digital age, an age in which traditional norms are being
    challenged by technology, demography, economics and other cultural
    upheavals and surprises, such as the competition from amateurs. This last
    point is both a sign of the times and a cause of it. It took most of the 20th
    century to professionalize those who deliver public information. Joseph
    Pulitzer created the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
    and his much coveted prizes to cultivate and reward practitioners who
    were working at the highest levels. Walter Lippmann and John Dewey
    began scholarly arguments about the definition of news and the means to
    gather and transmit it. The Hutchins Commission in the 1940s and the
    Kerner Commission in the 1960s held journalism practice up for close
    inspection and offered ideas on how it could be improved. Occasional
    scandals led to codes of conduct, standards and practices espoused by
    professional organizations that represented various groups of journalists
    and media leaders.
    When Professor Shirky dismisses this movement as somehow
    antagonistic to First Amendment freedoms—where the licensing of speech
    would be deemed unconstitutional—he does not recognize that they were
    most often self-imposed, a process of internal (some might say tribal)
    direction, correction and self-protection designed to ward off government
    The most powerful of these norms, and the most often mischaracterized,
    is objectivity. In its original frame, this was not an argument for blank
    slate reporting. Of course, every person brings an autobiography to the
    experience of every act, and that includes such players as the reporter,
    editor or photographer. W. H. Auden argued that a poem was a
    “contraption” with a person inside of it: a poet. The products of journalism
    are contraptions, too: stories, articles, columns, photos, radio interviews—
    and now blog posts, tweets, status updates and slide shows. And the person
    inside, the governing intelligence, comes with them.
    As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (a co-editor of this book)
    emphasize in The Elements of Journalism, the routine practices that
    developed under the rubric of objectivity were built not to suggest
    reporters could be unbiased, but in recognition that they were indeed
    biased. The checks and balances that required being assigned by
    professional editors, acquiring expertise in important beats, avoiding
    conflicts of interest, getting to the other sides of arguments, the stuff now
    touted with little credibility as fair and balanced—all of these gave value
    to words and ideas such as nonpartisanship, independence,
    disinterestedness, not having a dog in the fight.
    As these norms evolved during the 20th century, they were never the
    only ways of knowing that existed for journalists. An ethic of pragmatic
    detachment that came to dominate beat reporting, say, held little sway in
    the world of investigative reporting. In their important work “On the
    Epistemology of Investigative Journalism,” Professors James S. Ettema
    and Theodore L. Glasser reveal a different set of norms developed from
    the early muckrakers and perfected through the days of Bob Woodward
    and Carl Bernstein.
    “Investigations into crime and corruption usually arise outside of the
    news net and may cite bureaucratically incredible sources. We find,
    however that this investigative reporter has worked out for himself an
    elaborate process which justifies to himself and his colleague…

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