If you’ve been following the Jared Diamond/New Yorker controversy, or my ongoing posts on journalism vs. blogging (here, here, here, here, here), you might be intrigued by this conversation about the culture of fact-checking in journalism, between journalism professor Jay Rosen and programmer Dave Winer, in their podcast series Rebooting the News. Consider this riddle: how is fact-checking in journalism like (or unlike) debugging a computer program?
Here’s Rosen’s take on it:
One of the features of a rebooted news system would actually be borrowed from the tech world. And it’s the notion of bug catching, which is a very useful thing that programmers regard as normal. ‘If you help us catch a bug — if you point it out — that’s good, because it helps us make the program better.’ There’s no way to catch all the bugs before you release a piece of software. You need users to help you out. And for some reason, which we could talk about, that attitude has never been part of professional journalism.
Even though there are such things as corrections, and they do occasionally appear, it’s actually more of a problem when you point out a bug in journalism, than a good thing. And I regard this as a defect in the culture of the profession.
Rosen isn’t talking about the Jared Diamond case – he’s talking about Maureen Dowd lifting a line from a blogger at Talking Points Memo (see here for Slate’s summary). Winer notes that the tech community doesn’t take the discovery of bugs with perfect grace, but it is at least seen as a normal, necessary process. In contrast, when a mistake is caught in journalism – particularly when it is caught by a blogger, as happened in the Dowd case – the reaction is often extreme defensiveness. Here’s what Scott Rosenberg said about the New York Times‘ reaction to the Dowd situation:
As always, the problem here isn’t the actual incident, which is hardly earth-shattering; it’s the personal and institutional instinct to circle the wagons, which here has made it look like Dowd and the Times care more about preserving their reputations than leveling with their readers.
The “we stand by our story (or writer)” reflex is an old one that news organizations developed in a different era; it serves them poorly today. The reflex ought to change to a more cautious and open sequence of, first, “we’ll get back to you” and then “here’s exactly what happened.”
Back on Rebooting the News, Rosen expanded on the differences between traditional and online news:
When something happens that shows that there’s a rupture or a tear in the facade, the smooth facade of professional control, it’s a big problem, whereas in the culture of blogging, where people are actually a little less pretentious about what they are doing, or less persuaded of the authority of it. . . it’s easier to say “oh, I got that wrong” and fix it. So I really think that it’s related to ideas about how you present authority. And there is no doubt that the online world and journalism moving online presents a challenge because it forces journalists to kind of reconfigure their authority, because they’re not able to present that same facade.
Isn’t this precisely what traditional media are struggling with – that instead of seeing the participation and criticism of their readers as contributing toward a better, “truthier” outcome, they tend to see reader criticism as an uncontrolled threat to their authority, and thus, a threat to the valuable cachet/reputation/prestige held by venerable mainstream media outlets, with which blogs still can’t quite compete? Embracing a model in which public criticism is welcomed may not be the best financial move for mainstream media, when the boundaries between traditional outlets and the online free-for-all are already blurring. On the other hand, it may be the only way they can maintain their credibility. Who knows.
It’s also interesting to compare engineering and journalism with science: how do scientists react when “bugs” are found in their research? The culture of science (hopefully) values the accuracy of the information over the reputation of any individual researcher. While honest mistakes are forgiven – artifacts, etc. – deliberate fraud is usually not. But would you say that the scientific community welcomes debugging by outsiders to a given field? I’m not sure I’d go that far. . .
Meanwhile, I opened my May 18 New Yorker to find a humorous poem by Ian Frazier. From Canto VII:
Look, I am turning forty, all right?
Let’s just leave it at that.
Critics and people in the media who would ruin a celebration with this kind of “gotcha” behavior make me sick.
If you still doubt me,
Please be assured this magazine has a rigorous policy of fact checking,
And all the information in this poem has been checked,
And directly verified with me.
Enough said, really.
I first learned of Rebooting the News through the excellent Nieman Journalism Lab blog.