Archive for February, 2010
[This piece was first published on Comment is Free on Wednesday 24th February]
And now the hard work of reform begins. The evidence of the need for radical change to the current system of press self-regulation continues to mount – particularly with publication of today’s damning Culture, Media and Sport select committee report. But the reaction of many of those within the press shows how much resistance there still is to change.
One of the most important things the select committee report has done is link reform of libel law with reform of press self-regulation. The two have to happen hand-in-hand, as Paul Farrelly made clear. The huge costs of libel law are, as the select committee found, threatening free speech – especially in important areas of public interest like scientific discussion. But if the law is reformed, as it needs to be, practical alternatives need to be found that will give the press pause before publishing stories that may be highly intrusive or inaccurate. And, if a newspaper does publish something that is intrusive or inaccurate, there need to be effective systems in place to make the paper accountable and help ensure it does not happen again.
Independent press self-regulation should be this alternative. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is a complaints mediator, not a self-regulator. As the select committee report says (and the Media Standards Trust stated in our report last month), this is a valuable service and one that the PCC works very hard at performing.
The public recognise the importance of independent self-regulation, as opposed to government regulation, but expect more than the current system delivers. A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI last month (commissioned by the Media Standards Trust) found that more than half the public (52%) want the press regulated by an independent self-regulatory body run by those independent of the newspaper industry. This contrasts with only 8% who want a newspaper industry complaints body set up and run by the newspaper industry, as at present (Ipsos MORI 980 person face-to-face survey in January 2010, commissioned by MST).
Regulation carries with it a wider remit than mediation. A self-regulatory body needs to monitor compliance with a code of practice, report regularly on breaches in the code and conduct investigations where there is significant public concern about wrongdoing. This is not a personal view, but reflects the attitude of the public. Of those interviewed, 73% thought that monitoring compliance with the code and conducting investigations should be the chief purpose of an independent regulatory body. Only 12% expected its main role should be to mediate complaints between newspapers and complainants, as at present.
There is now a real opportunity for reform. The current governance review, announced by the PCC last August, is looking at how to make the PCC more transparent and accountable, and at whether to increase its remit. Based on the written submissions it has received (including one from the Media Standards Trust), and on the strong criticism of the current system by the select committee report, it should feel empowered to make far reaching and radical recommendations.
There is no need to resort to statutory regulation to strengthen the current system. This is a myth promoted by defenders of the status quo which is misleading and unhelpful. The current system can be changed significantly yet remain entirely self-regulatory. The PCC could, for example, have a ladder of remedies that were gauged according to the gravity of the offence. For the most serious it could levy financial penalties, as suggested in today’s report.
Still, the hostile response of News International to the select committee report, and the skewed coverage in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun, indicates the lack of enthusiasm within the industry for change. News International accused the report of resorting to “innuendo, unwarranted interference and exaggeration” and of pursuing a “party political agenda”. This is a remarkably aggressive response to a cross party select committee. Though it also seems like a healthy endorsement of the select committee’s comment that News International’s behaviour “reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred”.
The opportunity for reform will not last long. Indeed, John Kampfner suggested that this may be “the last opportunity to show that self-regulation can work”. The freedom and tensions of the net are such that some publications will increasingly question the value of press self-regulation. Unless there are clear benefits to being part of the current system, such as the reduction of the cost burden of defamation to members, then outlets will leave and the system will become progressively irrelevant.
Could it be one of the ironies of the web that the more easily it enables us to link documents and data together, the less able we become to make lateral links in our brains?
In the Pew ‘Future of the Internet Survey’, published last week, a number of experts suggested that the net will shift our cognitive capabilities. Particularly in respect to memory. Thanks in part to Google and sites like Wikipedia our brains will, they say, become less good at information stockpiling and more adept at information retrieval – less like sponges soaking up water, more like dogs fetching balls.
“What Google does do” Alex Brun said, ”Is simply to enable us to shift certain tasks to the network ‐ we no longer need to rote‐learn certain seldomly‐used facts (the periodic table, the post code of Ballarat) if they’re only a search away, for example”.
“[C]ertain tasks will be “offloaded” to Google or other Internet services rather than performed in the mind, especially remembering minor details” another respondent, Dean Bubley suggested.
This shift is generally presented in a positive light. People will move away from unthinking learning, the argument goes, and towards a higher level of interpretation and analysis (though Brun worries about our future reliance on Google et al).
‘[W]ith this capacity [rote memory] freed, we may (and probably will) be capable of more advanced integration and evaluation of information’ says Stephen Downes of the Canadian National Research Council.
But is this right? Is rote learning necessarily dumb learning, and therefore devoid much cognitive benefit? Or does learning things by heart enable our brains to make connections they would otherwise miss?
In his introduction to a 2002 collection of poetry, By Heart, Ted Hughes explained why he thought it was so important to commit poems to memory. Partly, Hughes argued, because it made the poems much richer. Once learnt they play over in our minds and different meanings seap out over time.
Even more importantly, once learnt by heart fragments of poems can occur to you spontaneously in other situations. You’ll glance at a scene and find it is perfectly captured, say, by a line from Wordsworth. Or one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales will let you to put a difficult situation in perspective.
Translate that to journalism. Imagine you’re reporting on a court case involving a particularly complex property fraud. You could, of course, research similar cases on the net – and almost certainly find many more cases a lot more easily than you could have done in the past. But if you remembered those cases – either through having attended them or learnt about them in the past, then questions would occur to you as the case unfolded and your understanding would have that much more context.
Will we, when we stop learning by heart, find ourselves less capable of making lateral connections?
Following my previous blog (‘What are the universal principles that guide journalism‘) John Hamer, Executive Director of the Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org), got in touch.
He has been developing a voluntary, self-affixed seal that individual journalists – bloggers included – and media organizations could put on their sites. It has the natty title, the ‘TAO of Journalism‘, since its three tenets are Transparency, Accountability, and Openness.
Hamer explains how these are defined on his blog:
“TRANSPARENT – We will fully disclose who we are, our journalistic mission and our guiding principles. We will post information on our background and expertise, including education and experience. We will list advertisers, donors, grants, and any other payments that support our work. If affiliated with a political party or special-interest group, we will disclose that. If lobbying for any particular legislation or regulation, we will disclose that. If we are being paid to promote a product or cause, we will disclose that. If other factors could be seen as potential conflicts of interest, we will disclose them.
“ACCOUNTABLE – If we get any facts wrong, we will admit that promptly and publicly. We will post/publish/print/podcast/broadcast a correction or at least a clarification. We will fully explain what happened to cause the error or mistake. We will do a follow-up story if that is appropriate, putting the original material in better context. We will apologize and promise to be more careful next time. We will show a little humility.
“OPEN – If there are credible challenges to our point of view or simply differences of opinion, we will be open to contrary positions. We will give the other side(s) opportunity and space to express their views and engage in open public dialogue through comments or other means. If we are primarily engaged in opinion and commentary, rather than news reporting, we will make that clear – while inviting others to express their opinions through comment and feedback means.”
Some of the other principles of journalism are deliberately excluded since the seal is supposed to be inclusive rather than exclusive. That is not say the seal is not compatible with these, just that the “TAO of Journalism Seal” (a registered trademark) does not require journalists to follow any particular principles. Just to be transparent about what ethics codes or standards they follow, plus accountable for errors and open to other views.
The idea got a good reception, Hamer says, at the University of Washington ‘Journalism That Matters‘ event where it was launched. The News Council has funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to pursue this project along with others, in addition to other donations.
There is a website in development at www.taoofjournalism.org. I’ll keep a track of developments on this blog.
This blog was first published on the PBS MediaShift Idea Lab.
Defining principles of journalism is difficult. Rewarding, but difficult.
Back in 2005 it took the Los Angeles Times a year of internal discussions to settle on its ethical guidelines for journalists. The Committee for Concerned Journalists took four years, did oodles of research and held 20 public forums, in order to come up with a Statement of Shared Purpose with nine principles (which was subsequently fleshed out in the excellent “The Elements of Journalism” by Kovach and Rosenstiel).
Time spent thinking can then translate into a lot of principles. The BBC’s editorial guidelines — which include guidance about more than just journalism — run to 228 pages. The New York Times’ policy on ethics in journalism has more than 10,000 words. Principles needn’t be so wordy. The National Union of Journalists (U.K.) code of conduct, first drafted in 1936, has 12 principles adding up to barely more than 200 words.
But, once defined, these principles serve multiple functions. They act as a spur to good journalism, as well as a constraint on bad. They provide protection for freedom of speech and of the press — particularly from threats or intimidation by the government or commercial organizations. And they protect the public by preventing undue intrusion and providing a means of response or redress.
Principles in the Online World
In an online world, principles can serve another function. They can help to differentiate journalism from other content published on the web, whether that be government information, advertising, promotion, or institutional or personal information.
One of the key elements of hNews — the draft microformat the Media Standards Trust developed with the AP to make news more transparent — is rel-principles. This is a line of code that embeds a link within each article to the news principles to which it adheres. It doesn’t specify what those principles should be, just that the article should link to some.
Now that lots of news sites are implementing hNews (over 200 sites implemented the microformat in January), we’re getting some pushback on this. News sites, and bloggers, generally recognize that transparent principles are a good idea but, having not previously made them explicit online, many of them aren’t entirely sure what they should be.
When we started working with OpenDemocracy, for example, they realized they had not made their principles explicit. As a result of integrating hNews, they now have. Similarly, the information architect and blogger Martin Belam, who blogs at currybet.net and integrated hNews in January 2010, wrote: “it turned out that what I thought would be a technical implementation task actually generated a lot of questions addressing the fundamentals of what the site is about… It meant that for the first time I had to articulate my blogging principles.”
So, in an effort to help those who haven’t yet defined their principles, we’re in the process of gathering together as many as we can find, and pulling out the key themes.
This is where you can help.
Asking for Feedback
We’ve identified 10 themes that we think characterize many journalism statements of principle. This is a result of reviewing dozens of different (English language) principles statements available on the web. The statements were accessed via the very useful journalism ethics page on Wikipedia; via links provided by the Project for Excellence in Journalism; and from the Media Accountability Systems listed on the website of Donald W. Reynolds Institute of Journalism.
These themes are by no means comprehensive — nor are they intended to be. They are a starting point for those, be they news organizations or bloggers, who are drawing up their own principles and need a place to start.
We’d really like some feedback on whether these are right, if ten is too many, if there are any big themes missing, and which ones have most relevance to the web.
Our 10 themes are:
- Public interest Example: “… to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time” (American Society of Newspaper Editors)
- Truth and accuracy Example: “[The journalist] strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (National Union of Journalists, UK)
- Verification Example: “Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment… [The] discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment” (Principles of Journalism, from Project for Excellence in Journalism)
- Fairness Example: “… our goal is to cover the news impartially and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and all parts of our society fairly and openly, and to be seen as doing so” (New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism)
- Distinguishing fact and comment Example: “… whilst free to be partisan, [the press] must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact” (Editors Code of Practice, PCC, U.K.)
- Accountability Example: “The journalist shall do the utmost to rectify any published information which is found to be harmfully inaccurate” (International Federation of Journalists, Principles on the Conduct of Journalists)
- Independence Example: “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know… [and] Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” (Society of Professional Journalists)
- Transparency (regarding sources) Example: “Aim to attribute all information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative, attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances” (Australian Journalists Code)
- Restraint (around harassment and intrusion) Example: “The public has a right to know about its institutions and the people who are elected
or hired to serve its interests. People also have a right to privacy and those accused of crimes have a right to a fair trial. There are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy, the public good and the public’s right to be informed. Each situation should be judged in the light of common sense, humanity and the public’s rights to know” (Canadian Association of Journalists)
- Originality (i.e. not plagiarizing) Example: “An AP staffer who reports and writes a story must use original content, language and phrasing. We do not plagiarise, meaning that we do not take the work of others and pass it off as our own” (Associated Press Statement of news values and principles)
There are, of course, many excluded from here. We could, for example, have gone into much more depth in the area of “limitation from harm,” which is only briefly referred to in number nine. Principles to inform newsgathering could form another whole section in itself.
There is also the growing area of commercial influence. In the U.S., the FTC has become pretty animated about bloggers taking money to promote goods while appearing to be impartial. In the online world, the line between editorial and commercial content can get pretty blurred. Right now this is just covered by number five, independence. Should there be a separate principle around independence from commercial influence?
Any and all responses are much appreciated, so please leave them in the comments. Also feel free to get in touch directly if you’d like to continue the discussion (I’m at martin DOT moore AT mediastandardstrust DOT org).