Truth Vigilantes and Online Reputation

Posted: January 18th, 2012 under Denial of Reality, Digital Migration, new media, New Media and Politics, New Media Strategery, Webscams.

This was originally a comment to Robert Niles’ excellent piece on the Online Journalism Review, on whether or not the New York Times should be a “Truth Vigilante”. I’m republishing it here, because it looks like the commenting feature on OJR (always a little hinky) is b0rked again, and this issue is one that touches a really raw nerve in me.

First, the background:

On Friday, Arthur Brisbane, the public editor (I guess it’s another way of saying “Ombudsman” or “Sacrificial Flak-Catcher”) of the New York Times published a now-famous piece, asking, Should the Times be a Truth Vigitlante?

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news
reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they
write about.

(snip)

This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with
the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The
Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters
imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.

Is that
the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way
that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when
the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there
other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

The reaction has been pretty heated. MetaFilter pithily said “Duh.”  Jay Rosen wrote a post name-checking his longstanding criticism of the whole “View from Nowhere” approach adopted by the press. And Gawker snarked that the NYT should instead just make stuff up.

Here was my reaction, republished here:

It’s interesting to see this issue break out into the open like this. In retrospect, the only thing that’s surprising is that it’s taken this long. Consider: internet sites like Snopes & PolitiFact owe their very existence to the breakdown of trust in our existing news institutions on the part of the audience. We read stuff (often sent via e-mail from the semi-mythical disgruntled conspiracy theorist uncle). Checking our newspaper/TV/radio/whatever, there’s a he-said/she-said story. So we go elsewhere to figure out if what we were originally sent is true or not.

Steve Yelvington long ago identified this as the most crucial (but neglected) part of the media in a societal ecosystem: being the “Town Expert.” (The other two roles are of “Town Crier” and “Town Square” – which media orgs more or less have a handle on.)

Can’t tell you the number of proposed startups that came through the Knight News Challenge in the last two years aimed at resolving this basic issue – how can we trust what we read? Many of them are seeking to assign some kind of a numeric “reliability score” to the source of the information. Which is interesting in theory – a published climate scientist getting a 99 score, for example, while a Big Oil-funded hack gets a 12.

But in practice, systems like this would probably fall prey to the same phenomenon that plagues Digg or other sites that rely on crowdsourcing to determine importance/credibility — the efforts of a committed radical few to rig the results in their favor. Still, it would be interesting to see a major media outlet start to offer little links in superscript next to attribution, that lead back to a page describing where that quote came from, who the person is, and what their history/agenda is.

We’re all struggling with the effects of the disintermediation taking place because of web technology – that much is evident to just about anybody working in media, advertising or marketing. The problem is that this is taking place at the end of a long, slow movement toward the utter blandification of content. The reasons for that are complex – some of them have to do with the influence of “risk management” thinking at media organizations, where the litigiousness of modern American society has driven deep-pocketed news organizations to water down stories out of fear, in order to evade expensive libel suits. The rest do have to do with the drumbeat these past 40 years of accusations of “liberal bias” in the press, and the attempts to defuse such accusations by applying the aforementioned “he-said/she-said” construction to stories, so that we can say, “Well, at least we gave them a chance to reply.”

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