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November 14, 2011

What’s wrong with journalism today, part 1

Filed under: journalism, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:27 pm

One of the great innovators in online journalism, Jim Romenesko, resigned from his position at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank of sorts. Among journalists, Romenesko practically invented blogging. Some reporters who claimed to never had read a blog read Romenesko religiously. He aggregated links to some of the successes and excesses of journalists, while regularly driving traffic to original news sources. What tech blogs consider the slashdot effect, Romenesko provided to journalists.

Romenesko resigned after Poynter called out attribution errors in his work. He sometimes lifted passages from the original source without putting them in quotation marks. Although his intention was clearly not to plagiarize (he linked to original sources), the Poynter blog post on the subject left a bad odor.

I’m not going to rehash what happened here; many journalists have already done that.

I’m going to focus on what’s wrong with the state of journalism today.

A little background on me, for context: I majored in journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I did a number of reporting internships in college. I launched some of the first online newspapers. I also attended a leadership seminar at the Poynter Institute early in my career. (Which I thoroughly enjoyed and learned from.)

For the past five months, I’ve engaged my own form of journalism while covering Groupon and the lead up to its IPO. My own role doesn’t fit into conventional notions of journalism. I’ve done a lot more analysis than most reporters do and I’ve done a lot more original reporting than most analysts. When I’ve done media interviews, I’ve been variously labeled a blogger, business journalist, analyst, author, gadfly and artist.

Here are some of the things that I think are wrong with journalism, and especially financial journalism, today. I make no claims to knowing all the answers. I made my own mistakes in recent months and I will call those out too.

Focus on petty details over the big picture

Too many people in journalism focus on minor details instead of the big picture. This was the case with Romenesko. Would I do what Romenesko did? Probably not. I try to be very careful in my attribution and identify other people’s quotes. But Poynter’s reaction was way more aggressive than it needed to be. The fact that it was essentially a cover-your-ass move on Poynter’s part made its actions even worse.

The purpose of attribution is to ensure that the original author gets credit for their work. Romenesko certainly did that.

I see an emphasis on petty details in journalism all the time. Part of this is because that’s something that’s relatively easy to do. This correction from The New York Times is my favorite correction found while reading Groupon stories:

An article last Sunday about Groupon, the e-mail marketer, misidentified the heritage of Zeus, whose name the company’s writers invoke rather than mentioning God. He is part of Greek mythology, not Roman.

That correction, published on June 5, after the details of Groupon’s financials were made public, didn’t correct this statement: “Groupon is raking in more than a billion dollars a year from these featured businesses and is already profitable.

The trivial detail of which mythology Zeus belonged to is something that editors can easily check. The big picture of a massive IPO by a company losing hundreds of millions was a bit harder to nail down. To be fair, Groupon went to great lengths to obfuscate its financials — but that’s all the more reason for diligence among journalists.

Objectivity is a lie

For a profession that presents itself as among the most honest, one of its core tenets — objectivity — is a lie. The Associated Press, NPR and others would like you to believe that their reporters and the stories they present are entirely objective and dispassionate. That’s bullshit.

Although they try hard to be objective, humans will innately give into bias. Source selection and story selection alone can cause bias. It doesn’t matter if you prohibit your reporters from attending the Rally to Restore Sanity as NPR and other outlets did; the fact that they wanted to go is the point. By prohibiting their participation, all you’re doing is hiding their biases.

This comes up all the time as news organizations struggle to adapt to social media. News outlets create social media policies to preserve the appearance of objectivity. These social media policies are fundamentally dishonest — they don’t eliminate the biases, they just keep the public from knowing about them. In its policy, The Associated Press says, “A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying.” One journalist suggested that reporters modify the way they retweet to indicate that they didn’t endorse the item they retweeted. But merely the selection of what someone retweets can reflect bias.

My view is that it’s better to have that information out in the open. If a reporter has a bias, let’s get it out there.

There’s a big difference between being objective and fair. My coverage of Groupon hasn’t been objective in the sense that journalists tout. Heck, one of my earlier pieces was titled “Why I Want Google Offers And The Entire Daily Deals Business To Die”. Everyone who has followed my work knows exactly where I stand.

But I also believe I’ve been fair. When I see positive uses of Groupon, I write about them or tweet them. When others smack down Groupon for reasons I think are unwarranted, I call it out.

Traditional journalism rewards a fake balance in the name of objectivity that in reality often distorts the truth. If 95% of the businesses I talk to had bad experiences, is it really right to quote one business who had a good experience and one that had a bad experience as traditional journalism would have you do? I don’t think so.

Objectivity also does a disservice to readers in another way: it robs readers of the expert opinion of those who are among the closest people to a story. A reporter who is on the same beat for years should gain enough knowledge to recognize bullshit when they hear it. And news outlets should allow them to do so.

Next up: Illnumeracy and lack of time.

The Poynter Institute is given express permission to republish this series, with or without attribution.

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