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Disclosure: the rules are in flux for all


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November 02, 2006

Disclosure: the rules are in flux for all

Stephen Baker

Michael Arrington writes:

We don’t fit into a neat little box like traditional media, who refrain from financial conflicts of interest with their readers and feel that they are therefore above reproach. They aren’t, but they really, really feel that they are, and look down on blogs and other media as the unwashed masses.

Heather and lots of others responded to his post. Nick Carr previously wrote a treatise on the subject. But there's an assumption that runs from Arrington to Carr that while traditional media have set standards on disclosure and conflicts of interest, blogs still have to figure things out. I think all of us, blogs and mainstream outfits alike, are all facing tough questions. This is because all of us are embarking into new businesses and business models where the old rules don't necessarily work.

Arrington's right that we used to be in neat little boxes. As I wrote the other day, traditionally the editor in chief handled the relationships with the rest of the world. That included readers and, to a certain degree, advertisers. Working down below, we never came into contact with advertisers or the business side of the magazine. We were production workers. I never once heard if an advertiser was unhappy with a story. If there was unhappiness from that side, or financial pressure, the top editors buffered us from it.

They still do at the magazine. But the magazine business, like most media, is in flux. The challenge for all of us is to be more entrepreneurial, establish new media products and services, new businesses and franchises, and yes, generate revenue. True, church and state still respect boundaries. We journalists don't cut deals. But we're much closer to the businesses than we used to be. In a sense, we're more like bloggers (even those of us who aren't yet blogging). As this trend continues, I have no doubt that more and more of us are going to get paid from these side businesses. They could be sponsored podcasts, TV series, speaking engagements. Business 2.0 has already announced plans to pay bonuses to in-house bloggers who generate good traffic. In a sense, they're running their own businesses. The lines between inside and outside will continue to blur. And as that blurring occurs, big media will be grappling with many of the same disclosure and conflict of interest issues now debated in the blogs.

09:06 AM

BusinessWeek, mainstream media

Oh, please. You first have to convince us that the old journalism is broke before you try to start selling us this tired bill of goods.

The first time BusinessWeek or any other professional news organization gets caught biting on a fraudulent story promoted by some Jeff Gannon type, the rules won't be in flux anymore: We'll be right back to the First Commandment from your first day in J-school: Consider thy source, then consider thy source yet again. Then have someone else consider thy source.

Or, more pithily, "if your mother says she loves you, check it out."

Why should I believe that the rules of basic information quality assurance must change just because information is now distributed electronically rather than on paper?

Due diligence is due diligence. If you fail to do it and end up misinforming your readers, you lose their trust and the value of your work goes down.

The speed of electronic publishing and the resulting pressure to publish fast only makes it that much more important to insist that journalists CONSIDER THE SOURCE -- the structure of their incentives, their institutional relationships, their history and background -- and present that information in a concise manner to the reader so that she can make an informed judgment.

If you tell me, for example, that the source of your story, as in the Judy-Scootergate case, is "a former Hill staffer" rather than "a senior adviser to the Vice President," you have withheld from me information about your source. You have essentially lied to me. I don't ever want to read another word under your byline again. There's the door. Goodbye and have a pleasant tomorrow.

Posted by: Colin Brayton at November 3, 2006 05:55 AM

Colin -

You're getting close, I think - but the thing to keep in mind is that we're moving (whether we want to or not, really) towards more "open source" journalism. Our research, our raw notes, the assumptions we used to formulate the questions that elicited the answers - these are all going to be available in the future. They better be.

Because here's the nut: the more the MSM tries to pretend that it's a referee with no real interest in what happens in The Game, the more it opens itself up to criticism and suspicion when it makes a judgment in its coverage.

So here's the advice I got from a Pulitzer Prizewinner, one of the most rock-bottom honest and decent men I've ever known - Own up to your opinion. Goddammit, if you're doing your job you should have an opinion. State it, get it out there and be prepared to defend it. And if you get it wrong, you take your shots and make your corrections.

But you don't let capering dingbats lead you around by the nose and attempt to mitigate that by doing the old "He said-she said" shuffle - which, by the way, is how we wound up quagmired in Mesopotamia.

I've had to advise a lot of friends moving into the New Media - and the advice boils down to having to do what this article is touching on - you have to start thinking outside your box. Not just journalist - but part circulation manager, part ad salesman, part marketing director, etc. etc.

With greater freedom comes greater responsibility.

Posted by: Dave LaFontaine at November 5, 2006 06:31 PM

with all due respect to a pulitzer prizewinner. i, for one, am tired of hearing journalist's opinons. i know you've got them. keep them to yourself. give me the news as objectively as you can, and move on. if you are a good journalist, i don't need you to fully disclose everything you've ever done in your life. it seems like an excuse for bad journalists to say "well i was just telling you how I felt about it." i don't care about your feelings.

Posted by: schadenfreudisch at November 6, 2006 12:35 PM


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