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.
These are lectures that the professor pasted
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.
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.
https://www.loc.gov/collections/thomas-jefferson-papers/articles-and-essays/selected-quotations-from-the-thomas-jefferson-papers/ (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.
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.
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.
This week’s Assignments:
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
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.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2021-12-30/bbc-statement-alan-dershowitz-ghislaine-maxwell-interview (Links to an external site.)
Read through the SPJ Code of Ethics and write 150 words on *one* of the tenets:
https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp (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 et.al 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.
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.
To all the great teachers who have graced The Poynter Institute’s
classrooms, especially the late Paul Pohlman
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
or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or
by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing
from the publisher.
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
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,
Tom, editor of compilation.
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Foreword: Journalism Ethics Then and Now
Introduction: New Guiding Principles for a New Era of
Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
PART ONE: TRUTH
The Complicated Pursuit of Truth
Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
1. Truth without Scarcity, Ethics without Force
2. Kicking the Stone: The Search for Reliable Evidence in
Roy Peter Clark
3. Storytelling in the Digital Age
4. Fact-Checking 2.0
5. Seeing Is Not Believing: Photojournalism in the 21st Century
PART TWO: TRANSPARENCY
Learning the Transparency Habit
Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
6. Do Private Platforms Threaten Public Journalism?
Networked Audiences: Attention and Data-Informed Journalism
Centers of Investigative Reporting: New Model, Old Conflicts
A New Pathway toward Sourcing
Corrections and Ethics: Greater Accuracy through Honesty
PART THREE: COMMUNITY
The Community as a Goal
Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel
11. The (Still) Evolving Relationship between News and Community
12. The Destabilizing Force of Fear
danah boyd and Kelly McBride
13. How Untold Stories Can Reflect Diversity
14. Community as an End
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
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
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
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
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
Poynter.org, 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 craigconnects.org. 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
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
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
• 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
• 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.
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
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.
Truth without Scarcity, Ethics without
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 Republic.com 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
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
DISTINGUISHING CONSENSUS FROM TRUTH
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).
WHEN BELIEFS AND FACTS COLLIDE
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.
THE PROFESSIONALIZATION OF NEWS
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
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
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 INTERNET IS A TRUTH SERUM”
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
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,
http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/galleries/2010/08/24/dumbthings-americans-believe.html; “Growing Number of Americans Say
Obama Is a Muslim,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press,”
August 19, 2010, http://www.people-press.org/2010/08/19/growingnumber-of-americans-say-obama-is-a-muslim/.
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,
6. Jarrett Murphy, “CBS Ousts 4 for Bush Guard Story,” CBS, February 11,
7. Articles about “Jonah Lehrer,” Poynter.org, 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,” Poynter.org, January 10, 2005,
10. Steve Myers, “Jonah Lehrer Resigns from New Yorker after Fabricating
Bob Dylan Quotes in ‘Imagine’,” Poynter.org, 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’,”
Poynter.org, January 23, 2012, http://www.poynter.org/latestnews/mediawire/160444/brisbane-i-ended-up-as-a-pinata-on-this-one/.
13. Andrew Beaujon, “Gallup: Americans Mistrust Media More Than Ever,”
Poynter.org, September 21, 2012, http://www.poynter.org/latestnews/mediawire/189225/gallup-americans-mistrust-media-more-than-
Case Study 1: Covering Fluoride
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
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
• 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,
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.
HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT WE KNOW?
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
“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
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
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
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?
NEW IDEAS ABOUT TRUTH—OR “TRUTHINESS”
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?
AN ETHIC FOR THE DIGITAL AGE
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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