Editorial objectivity is under constant attack. So what?

This BuzzFeed headline is a bit much: “Every Tech Journalist’s Worst Nightmare

The article, written by John Herrman, tells the “nightmare” of CNET bestowing a “Best of CES” honor on DISH Network’s Hopper device, but that award was soon revoked when CNET’s parent company — CBS — cried foul. CBS is suing DISH because it doesn’t like the Hopper’s ad-skipping technology.

So, yes, having your editorial autonomy undermined is unfortunate. But “nightmare”? No. That’s not an apt description of what happened here.

A tech writer’s real nightmare would involve an Apple exclusive that’s scooped by a competitor. This CNET thing? That’s a challenge to editorial objectivity, and those challenges happen all the time. Sometimes you win those battles. Sometimes you lose. There’s no immutable objectivity law.

Herrman also makes this point:

This is a constant fear for many tech writers — their jobs, more than many other in media, require them to cover companies they either work for, or which their employers interact with.

“Constant fear.” My God, being a tech journalist sounds awful.

I also take issue with the “more than many other in media” bit. News organizations that still adhere to the church/state division of edit and advertising might shield writers from this situation, but how many of those organizations are left? (And I question whether that line is even necessary — but that’s a topic for another day.)

Tiptoeing along editorial integrity is hard no matter the circumstance. It’s even harder when your content and your sources and your stories are tied to business partners or advertisers or sponsors or a mothership corporate entity. Anyone who’s worked in B2B publishing knows exactly how this feels.

This isn’t a “nightmare.” It’s the nature of the beast, and you have to accept that it’s part of the job.

Journalists, grief and acts that cannot be justified

This is why I never got into “real” journalism.

I interned at a newspaper one summer during college. Most of it was typical intern crap work — town meetings, graduations, the annual fair, that sort of thing.

One day we got word in the newsroom that two fisherman were caught in the undertow at a nearby beach and swept out. I don’t remember how many reporters and photographers rushed off — more than was necessary, I’m sure — but I was part of the group.

The specifics are fuzzy all these years later, but we get to the beach and the paramedics are treating one guy. The other guy isn’t around. We hear he didn’t make it. His waders filled with water, his friend tried to grab him, but the man was gone too fast.

Photos are snapped. Details are recorded. The mass of journalists heads back to the newsroom.

I’m assigned the task of calling the deceased fisherman’s relatives to get a response. I don’t challenge this because real reporters always ask the tough questions. Or some such nonsense.

So I call, expecting an answering machine. These poor people are surely occupied with all the emotions and to-dos of those horrible first hours.

But someone answers.

And they don’t know.

That was the moment my reporting career ended.

I told the person on the other end of the line that an accident occurred and they should get in touch with the police. I left it at that because that’s the only reasonable thing I could do. It wasn’t my place to break this “news.” I didn’t have the information they’d need.

And if this was reversed and I was the one getting word that someone I loved died, I better not hear it from a newspaper intern. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

It comes down to this: You either can do this kind of work or you can’t. I can’t.

I went to school with people who got into that side of journalism. I worked with a bunch of those folks, too. I admire them in many ways.

But there’s no excuse for barging into someone’s grief. I cannot accept that, even if I otherwise like the person doing the barging.

A comment from the crying mother or the photo of a grief-stricken new widower is not necessary. But there you are, prying it out of them during one of the worst moments of their lives.

If you choose this line of work and you do these kinds of things, so be it. But don’t hide behind the job or journalism or public good.

There is no explanation. There is no justification.

Notable things: How do you give ethics to a robot? Let’s keep political pundits honest with batting averages, ad-banner honesty from The Onion

Self-driving cars. Drones. Robot armies. All of these things are stepping from science fiction into our daily lives, yet we haven’t addressed a fundamental question:

How do we teach our machines to be ethical?

Gary Marcus explores the repercussions of machine ethics in this fascinating essay. Of particular note is the following excerpt, which contrasts machine ethics with humanity’s still-under-construction ethical methods:

The thought that haunts me the most is that that human ethics themselves are only a work-in-progress. We still confront situations for which we don’t have well-developed codes (e.g., in the case of assisted suicide) and need not look far into the past to find cases where our own codes were dubious, or worse (e.g., laws that permitted slavery and segregation). What we really want are machines that can go a step further, endowed not only with the soundest codes of ethics that our best contemporary philosophers can devise, but also with the possibility of machines making their own moral progress, bringing them past our own limited early-twenty-first century idea of morality.

In many ways what we’re searching for is a way to make machine ethics better than our own. How do you even begin to do that?


Proposed: A batting average for political pundits and pollsters.

+1


Every ad-driven website should be required, by law, to include this on their terms of service page:

… we can go through a whole dog-and-pony show here where I pretend that this column exists as a forum for ideas, and that I act as an independent voice who isn’t beholden to advertisers, and the power of the First Amendment, and blah blah, etc. etc. But let’s get real for a second here, okay? This column — nay, this entire website, this entire industry we call journalism — exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell ads. Lots of ads. Big, stupid ads. Ads with loud videos that play when you run your mouse cursor over them. Ads with pictures of supermodels and bacon cheeseburgers and beer bottles dripping with condensation. Ads with huge fricking graphics of SUVs that “drive” across your screen as though you were living in some sort of damned nightmare world. In short, ads that will make poor, honest working saps like you — yes, you, reader — click on them so that The Onion can continue stocking the coffers and I can continue to send my kid through four years of Cornell’s hotel management school.

Via The Onion

What do you do with a writer’s work if they screw up?

TechCrunch terminated an intern who accepted compensation from an outside company in exchange for coverage. The announcement strikes an appropriate tone, but it also includes a passage that ties into a much bigger issue: when a writer goes rogue, what…

TechCrunch terminated an intern who accepted compensation from an outside company in exchange for coverage. The announcement strikes an appropriate tone, but it also includes a passage that ties into a much bigger issue: when a writer goes rogue, what do you do with their published work? Here’s how TechCrunch responded:

This was not one of our full time writers, and so the frequency of posts was light. Nevertheless, we’ve also deleted all content created by this person on our blogs. We are fairly certain that most of the posts weren’t tainted in any way, but to be sure we’ve removed every word written by this person on the TechCrunch network.

One big caveat: the intern in question is a minor, so that certainly takes precedence in any reaction. But the intern posted his own follow up. Privacy implications are moot at this point.

And that brings me back to the bigger issue …

In situations like these, if we assume the wayward writer is an adult, and we assume there are no broader legal issues at play, should the writer’s past work be stricken from the record? Is that the right response?

I don’t think so. An enterprising snoop could mine caches and old RSS feeds for past copies, so deletion isn’t really the Draconian measure it’s intended to be. Beyond that, the cat’s already out of the bag. The writer screwed up. The publishing outlet looks bad. And any move to wipe the slate clean will leave lasting residue. So why wipe it clean at all?

In situations where the wrongdoing is already public — whether announced by the publisher or dug up by someone else — what I’d prefer to see is a prominent editor’s note placed at the very top of every piece the writer ever posted on the publisher’s site. It could be a simple link to the termination announcement. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. The New York Times used a similar tactic with Jayson Blair’s articles.

Advertising should be stripped from these pages and comments closed. That’s appropriate — this isn’t a revenue or publicity opportunity. But it’s important to keep the original material in place. The mistake happened in the public sphere. You can’t take that back, but you can be up front about it both in the near-term and down the road.

My line between edit and sales blurred years ago. It’s not that big a deal

I was fortunate to have my ill-conceived notions about editorial/advertising segregation blown to bits early in my career. It hurt. No doubt about that. I came out of journalism school with all the requisite ethical boundaries and red flags intact….

I was fortunate to have my ill-conceived notions about editorial/advertising segregation blown to bits early in my career. It hurt. No doubt about that. I came out of journalism school with all the requisite ethical boundaries and red flags intact. So it was tough to let that go.

But it was so useful to let that go. It made me see that most journalism organizations are businesses. That’s it. All that stuff about objectivity and watchdog roles and the Fourth Estate sounds good, and it feels good, but news companies must ultimately adhere to the same criteria as every other business: does it make money or does it lose money?

That’s why it’s interesting for me to watch others go through the same gyrations now that the Dallas Morning News is moving editorial and sales closer together. I get it. This is hard to swallow. It goes against everything journalists know, everything we’re taught in the vacuum of j-school. It seems dangerous.

But having lived through my own transition, and having traversed some tricky edit/ad terrain along the way, I can tell you the danger is minimal. Perhaps even non-existent.

First off, consumers don’t care. If the content is informative and entertaining and useful, if readers can justify the time and money spent, they’re good. Second, a smart news business understands that it cannot undermine the trust it’s established with the community. This has nothing to do with public interest or greater good. It’s about money. Trustworthy content builds an audience, and audience attracts advertisers. Kill the trust and you kill the audience; advertisers will take their business elsewhere. That’s all there is to it.

Blurring the edit/ad line within a newsroom isn’t a big deal. It’s what happens after the blurring that matters. If the Dallas Morning News cranks out great stuff and serves/educates/helps people, this can work for everyone involved. If they do something stupid — like violating trust by kowtowing to clients — they’re screwed. That’s just business, and bad businesses die.