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Fact Checking in the Internet World

Photo credit: Adam Crowe

Like many other industries, journalism has undergone a vast paradigm shift in the last decade. Like advertising, the music and film industries, marketing, public relations and virtually all other professional fields, journalism has had to adjust to a new “immediacy” brought about by the Internet.

Now, by all reports, most people get their news from online sources and, while “online sources” are often venerable traditional media sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post, more often than not, blogs have become major sources of breaking news, and exclusive reports.

In fact, it was Pakistani IT specialist Sohaib Athar, now more famously known by his Twitter handle @reallyvirtual, who unwittingly live-tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid while Libyan rebels send on the ground status updates where traditional journalists have limited or no access. (Andy Carvin of NPR, known as @acarvin on Twitter,  has become somewhat notorious for his months-long curation of such tweets out of Libya, Egypt, Yemen and other Middle East hotspots).

There is no denying that the social tools available today have changed the face of journalism. Yet, despite these boons, it troubles me that basic principles of journalism seem to be consistently ignored.

At the end of the day, the practice of journalism (as with any industry) will evolve (and always have) with the tools and technology of the day. However, though practices may change, principles should never change.

One such principle is fact-checking. No matter who you are, or what era you’re in, fact-checking is rule number one in journalism. Don’t report until you have three independent sources is a good rule of thumb that is often ignored.

Case in point. The Wall Street Journal‘s All things D[igital] posted an article the other day titled, “Confirmed: Twitter Plans to Announce Photo-sharing Service This Week“. By all accounts, and history bearing witness, All Things D has been a reliable source of technology news since it’s inception. Founded by media moguls Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, it later became part of the WSJ family and has maintained a high level of journalistic integrity and excellence for years.

But something troubles me about this article. With a headline like this, it seems strange that this paragraph would then be included in the article:

I am indeed aware that D9 is the conference put on by this very site, but was not able to get sources to confirm the image-hosting announcement on the record. Twitter spokespeople did not reply for a request for comment on the matter.

Of course, the news did in fact turn out to be a true story and Twitter did announce on their official blog that they would be partnering with Photobucket to offer an image hosting service.

Notwithstanding, everyone seems to agree that this play has been a foregone conclusion for a long time. And TechCrunch did write a story speculating on the service. But even in that news announcement, there was no real substance with Alexis Tsotsis concluding the article with:

I’ve got no details on what exactly the photosharing URL shortener will be if any (Twitter has owned Twimg.com for a long time) or what the Twitter for Photos product will look like. Just that it’s coming, soon. And if they’re smart they’ll put ads on it.

No sourcing. No fact checking. No confirmation.

While the need for speed is certainly required in today’s immediate, persistent news cycles, it bothers me that articles are being written claiming confirmation when no confirmation exists and that articles are being written from a speculative perspective (no issues there, just call it that!) and being held up as fact.

Though the Twitter news ended up being accurate, I plead with All Things D and all other internet publications to do yourselves and the public a service and stay the main tenets of journalism. Respect is at stake.

Convergence of technology, journalism and sports

Sheer erudition — and erudition of a very specific type — throws up large barriers to entry. Too often, newer, younger, and more casual sports fans “can sort of get to a certain point of enthusiasm before they hit the ‘stat wall’ where discussion of sports becomes pedantic and quantitative for no discernible reason other than as a social indicator of investment/knowlegeability,” says Grantland’s Katie Baker. “In particular, I constantly see women driven away from sports because they are fed it as a zero-sum game: either you know everything about everyone or you don’t.” [via Tim Carmody]

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Even Though You Don’t Want My Feedback, Ms. Newspaper Editor…

Jay Rosen, Columbia University Journalism Professor, posted a picture of a print-editorial piece in The Valley Press, a small local newspaper in Connecticut. It was an intriguing read into the minds of many in traditional media.

For the hard of eyesight (it’s small), let me transcribe this fascinating editorial from editor Abigail Albair:

As a reporter I try to keep my opinions to myself, but as an editor who has in recent weeks observed a disturbing trend in journalism, I feel compelled to come out from behind my computer screen and speak out.

Some of our fellow Connecticut newspapers and news websites have developed a tendency toward an over-involvement of the public in their work. You, our readers are of incredible importance to us and we welcome your story suggestions and your thoughts and opinions on our work and the subject matter which we present to you. Just as we respect your suggestions and comments, we hope you equally respect our ability to do our jobs.

There is a local and arguably national trend developing of publications giving readers the chance to roam newsroom floors and offer tips and guidance on not just what we write, but how it is written. As your local newspaper, we will always welcome suggestions from our readers to allow us to grow and transform. If you have a suggestion to offer, we welcome it, though there is a time and place for it.

In most cases, no one committed to a craft is comfortable with an outsider, with none of the training they’ve had, to successfully do their job, sitting over their shoulder critiquing every move. Everyone needs some perspective and guidance at times, but the fact that other organizations are inviting this into their newsroom on a daily basis suggests to me that they have lost all faith in themselves to adequately fulfill their obligations to the public.

In too many cases, readers are being told at the conclusion of each story printed that what you may have just spent three minutes of your life reading could have contained factual inaccuracies because “everyone makes mistakes.” It is our goal for you to never need to submit “corrections” to this publication, and we find it troubling that other publications would call on the editing skills of their readers.

We hope you will choose us as your newspaper and trust our employees to do their job for you, not the other way around. Truth in journalism is a core principle for those of us who have chosen this profession. It is our objective to offer that to you every day.

It will always be a part of our mission to be approachable. We do welcome feedback from readers, as well as suggestions. We do welcome feedback from readers, as well as suggestions. You can be the source of some of our best topics, but there always come a point where we can “take it from here.” Our staff is dedicated to producing quality journalism whenever a story reaches print.

It is upsetting that some news sources are eager to turn to gimmicks rather than solid, old-fashioned reporting and hard work to sell their product. We are eager, as well, to make you part of our product by reporting on the events in your lives. To that end we pledge to stay plugged into happenings of our communities.

We believe in what we do. We hope we have proven to you that you can believe in us too.

-Abigail Albair, Editor

First of all, apologies to the Valley News for the entire reprint. I could not find it in your online archives so please feel free to link me in comments and I will excerpt for Fair Use.

Now to the heart of the matter… I can see that Ms. Albair is clearly an intelligent woman. According to LinkedIn, she is Co-Editor in Chief at a newspaper less than two years after she graduated Wagner College. Her credentials are strong for being so young and inexperienced. And I mean that kindly.

It’s no secret that I don’t have a degree, much less a journalism degree. I’ve made it to the point of my success through hard work, ambition and going after what I want. However, I don’t think of my self as less-competent than others in my industry who have graduated with Engineering degrees from MIT or Carnegie Mellon.

Ms. Albair’s denigrating look at the public is less than becoming. While I respect anyone with a craft and their ability to do it, we do not live in a vacuum and, in fact, attempting to live in one lacks accountability. The Third Estate has every right to critique the Fourth Estate and absolution of that right, not only empowers an irresponsible press, but abdicates our responsibility to give and receive meaningful input.

The timeline for that abdication of responsibility by the public follows a path like this:

  • Newspaper prints inaccurate story
  • Public accepts story without question
  • Fallout from inaccurate public perception ensues

This is never more appalling than when self-proclaimed news agency, Fox News, implants biased stories with no real objectivity, into the minds of a significant portion of American culture. Because the public questions, there is a “check” in place to cause doubt. But so many others take their “reporting” at face value.

But I don’t want to descend into politics.

Input from the public is very important in 2011. Would we know anything about the coup in Tunisia if it wasn’t for “citizen journalists”? Would we have eyes on the ground in New York City when US Airways 1549 crashed in the Hudson River?

No, Ms Albair. We wouldn’t. While the angst you portray is proper in many respects, the problem is not as you describe. The problem is not public input into your precious protectorate. The problem is editorial oversight. There needs to be more editorial oversight to prevent CNN iReporters from inaccurately reporting Steve Jobs having a heart attack and causing Apple stocks to sell off like wild.

Your job, Ms. Albair, is of utmost importance, because you hold the power to appropriately filter information to the general public. We need more of you. Not less of us. You need more of us because, with your budget shortfalls and attrition in the ranks of fine journalists due to the economy and woo of the internet, you need boots on the ground. You need the general public being your eyes and ears and feeding information into your newsroom. Not the other way around.

But I can see how you see more editorial need being a threat to your job. Not everyone can have an Editor-in-Chief title having graduated Wagner College in 2009. Not everyone. Only the elite.