behind the news

Journalism ethics in a digital age

A Poynter conference this week provoked good discussion but presupposed an old definition of journalism
October 26, 2012

On Tuesday, in the midst of wonky Poynter conference dialogue about how to reimagine journalism ethics for a digital age, Seattle Times columnist Monica Guzman told an anecdote that nailed the angst of a changing industry.

Shortly after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer dropped its print edition, a bear got loose in Seattle, Guzman said. She and her P-I colleagues continually updated their coverage with links and sightings. The next morning, she picked up a print copy of The Seattle Times, where she read an engrossing comprehensive narrative about the bear. “The Seattle P-I never wrote that story, because we felt we never had to,” Guzman said. “For the first time in a long time I thought, ‘Oh man, there’s a reason the print product’s kind of nice.’”

There’s nothing stopping a news site from publishing a longer-form story online. But Guzman is right that, when it comes to the digital space, slow journalism is usually an afterthought. Rather, we continue trying to break news as fast as possible. Too often, online coverage becomes an absurd dash for clicks on incremental scoops.

This sped-up cycle has been rehashed ad nauseam, but digital platforms continue to evolve with new and different standards than those of print. The Poynter symposium, which met at the Paley Center for Media in New York, was an attempt to gather thinkers and theorists to recast journalism ethics—and therefore practices—for the digital age. To that end, discussions ranged from the shortcomings of “most-read” algorithms to the Western bias inherent in the very idea that journalism as a whole needs lofty unifying ethics.

“The idea that there is something called the press that has a reputation among something called the public is going away,” NYU media theorist Clay Shirky said, so “the comfortably centrist model of mainstream national news is also going away.” Throughout the day, the theme recurred: Journalists need to rethink the idea that they report and publish stories and then push them out to a waiting readership. Rather, perhaps journalism should become a more inclusive sort of storytelling that empowers communities to contribute. The role of the journalist, then, becomes more that of a clearinghouse, pointing out the “relevant actors” and context of a given story. Guzman said that journalists should model high reporting standards for their communities.

Among the other trenchant points made by Guzman and Shirky’s fellow high-powered thinkers, both on the program panels and in the audience: Digital First Media’s John Paton noted that one difficulty shifting traditional-length print stories to digital is fitting nuance and context onto a smartphone screen. In discussing funding issues, Adam Hochberg of the University of North Carolina’s j-school pointed out that moving from a for-profit to a nonprofit funding model doesn’t always take pressure off journalistic outlets, because foundations often want more input than advertisers simply seeking eyeballs. The Tampa Bay Times’s Eric Deggans addressed the lack of newsroom diversity by likening current race coverage to that of disasters. “When something explosive involves race, that’s when we talk about it,” he said. And Gilad Lotan of SocialFlow spoke about the formulas that sites like Twitter use to decide what topics merit prominent play. These algorithms, he said, look for spikes in discussion about a given topic rather than longevity. This is why, Lotan said, Occupy Wall Street never became a trending topic on Twitter—the movement grew slowly over time rather than instantly going viral. Back in the reporting realm, Digital First Media’s Steve Buttry questioned whether journalists should even pretend to strive for objectivity in describing what’s best for a community.

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It was a fascinating conversation, but one with an inherent contradiction—the whole event belied Shirky’s point about news’s decentralization. These were still journalists speaking from a dais, assuming that they led the way toward standards and precedents in the digital space. For example, while of course newsrooms need to diversify, there are many writers covering race and diversity online with sizable followings.

As Lotan noted, the most effective way to give voice to a broader population is to make sure it’s possible to find them, since everything published online is equally accessible but not equally findable; Steve Waldman noted that there are many community-related blogs in affluent Park Slope, Brooklyn, but few in poorer East New York. Thus the low-income bloggers likely get lost in Brooklyn’s search results.

To me, the future of good journalism depends more on visibility, or “find-ability,” of smart content. We need to help engineers counter biases inadvertently programmed into search engines and algorithms. And journalists must recognize, to paraphrase researcher danah boyd, that we are only using tiny portions of social networks and that relevant sources exist beyond them. We journalists may lose relevance unless we learn to work within rules we don’t always get to make.

Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg.