Journalism’s failures and possible countermeasures
Dec 21, 2011
Journalism's Failure: Abandoning Fact-Checking and Afraid of Bias, Leading to a Crisis in the Industry.
An article published in The New Republic on Tuesday discusses a topic that is at the root of the failure of today's journalism to perform its intended function. It's rare for an article to address the point so directly and precisely because it's challenging for many to state the obvious. Alec McGillis, a former journalist for the Washington Post, rightly points the finger at newspapers and journalists for abandoning a fundamental function, fact-checking. It is one of the pillars of journalism that has been forgotten and needs to be revived.
One of the points addressed by McGillis is that journalists are so afraid of being seen as biased that they prefer not to pursue the truth. A practice considered healthy in today's journalism, such as hearing the other side and "letting the reader decide", is a mainstay of many newspapers. McGillis argues that the irrational fear of being seen as impartial has led journalism into a defensive position, where the goal is to shield reporters from accusations of poor journalism while maintaining a veneer of scientific objectivity. However, this approach leads journalism to avoid telling the reader what is really happening. The result is bland journalism that, if accused of bias, can easily defend itself.
McGillis criticizes the use of departments in newspapers or external institutions like FactCheck and PolitiFact for fact-checking. He finally states the obvious: journalists have to work in a way where they themselves can check the facts to gain a greater understanding of the whole subject.
This is when the reality check comes into play. With newspapers increasingly struggling due to their attachment to the traditional media business model and with ever smaller newsrooms forced to make do, how is it possible to free the journalist to spend time checking facts?
There is an indisputable scenario that includes some conditions: 1) newspapers and journalistic companies have a business model that is heading for disaster; 2) journalism in general increasingly fails to fulfill its function due to restrictions caused by the dysfunctional financial situation of companies; 3) journalists in general are increasingly afraid to tell the reader what they need to know because the reader is a customer and if a customer is always right, imagine in a crisis industry; 4) fact-checking has become chupapress or copypaste from somewhere else; real fact-checking consumes time and money, resources lacking in the current model.
This space persistently asserts that the advent of digital technologies does not mean the end of journalism, but requires a systemic reformulation where the pre-digital business model will become history, for better or for worse. As this is an inevitable rupture, the smartest way out at the moment is to look for alternatives. Sites like FactCheck are fantastic, but imagining that entities maintained by some type of philanthropy can be the answer is to believe in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They can be great hubs dedicated to the activity, but they need to be supported by foundations that do not depend on patronage.
A series of tasks related to the needs of journalism desperately need integration with crowdsource. Even though there are not yet specialized tools to respond to each of these needs, counting on the statistical endorsement of large numbers of people (even if non-journalists) seems one of the most viable possibilities, not only for large corporations but also for small organizations and individuals interested in doing journalism as it should be done.
There is the possibility of doing nothing. This will lead, as a friend I deeply admire said, to a time of chaos and darkness in journalism, because the current models are doomed to disappear. The chaos will not arrive suddenly. In fact, it is increasingly showing its face, with the production of a clumsy, cowardly, defensive journalism that is an end in itself, with no obligation to society. Journalism has arrived at today's crisis situation because of the dependence it created on its financiers (read: advertisers). It's time for the shrewder owners of journalistic companies to embrace the revolution before it runs over them.