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Transparency & believability for online news

Covering Politics and Making Stories More Accurate

(Sept. 4, 2003) The Project for Excellence in Journalism has added a couple of timely "tools" pages at the links above. "The rule of transparency" as described in an article on verification and reporting methods would be a good addition to Dave Winer's tips for candidate weblogs.

Here's an excerpt:

The only way in practice to level with people about what you know is to reveal as much as possible about sources and methods. How do you know what you know? Who are your sources? How direct is their knowledge? What biases might they have? Are there conflicting accounts? What don't we know? Call it the rule of transparency. We consider it the most important single element in creating a better discipline of verification.
Somewhat relevant weblogger story: I wandered into a blog discussion of a New York Times article last week that made an ambiguous reference to a Dean-campaign weblogger. A Times correction a few days later didn't manage to clear up the ambiguity. My comments on a Bloggercon discussion page may have made it even more confusing... Trying again may clarify things -- and make a connection to that "transparency" issue. Here goes...

The important thing to the Times reporter appears to have been to quote someone else's clever metaphor -- that the Dean campaign was drawing "protest-size crowds" and not "politics-size crowds" -- which gave the writer a nifty transition to talk about the campaign as a "movement."

Because the crowd-size metaphor was the point, the reporter (or a copy editor) was unconcerned about identifying the source of the quote -- doubly unconcerned, it turns out. "Doubly sloppy," my first draft, puts it too harshly.

First, the person being quoted was identified as "one of four people the Dean campaign invited to chronicle the trip on their Web logs." Did that mean she was a non-partisan observer, a biased Dean fan, or even that she was compensated in some way (free transportation, food, whatever) for saying positive things about the campaign? The answers might have been interesting, but they also could have gotten in the way of that quoted metaphor. (I don't mean "the truth" would have gotten in the way, just that taking time to explain those things might have messed up the flow of the story. It might have been worth a separate story, the short kind that newspapers call a sidebar.)

Unfortunately -- this is the actual sloppiness, the angle the Times caught and corrected -- the weblogger didn't come up with the "protest-size crowds" phrase herself. She was quoting yet another journalist -- a writer for a liberal political magazine. The Times, which put a "Correction appended" note atop the archived story, now gives the true source of the quote. It doesn't say anything more about the blogger's reason for being on the campaign tour, but as a second-hand source she's even less relevant to the corrected article.

(The unwritten sidebar remains unwritten. Its headline might be "Dean Campaign Blogs: Are They Grassroots or Astroturf?" Actually, maybe someone has written something like that already -- if you know of such an article, please add a comment at the end of this item.)

UPDATE (Sept. 5): In fact, Natasha, the weblogger in question says (by e-mail to me) that, quite rightly, we all should have asked her before speculating about her role. Natasha's answer: "I liked Dean but hadn't decided to fully support any candidate before I went on the tour... I am not now, nor have I ever been, a paid employee or consultant of the campaign. I was also not previously a campaign volunteer as were some of the other guests."
Here's her latest on the subject... And here's her original interview, which hasn't been linked to as much as it deserves. The Times, for one, should have connected to it by now!

Beyond examining the value of "transparency," there's another moral here for webloggers and journalists covering the campaign: Think outside the (press) bus. The candidates and the voters are the story -- it's dangerous when reporters spend too much time talking to (or about) each other; almost as dangerous as listening to public relations people, mistaking astroturf for grassroots, or reading hastily-written weblogs (or Times stories) by authors who aren't clear about their own sources of information.

When I have time, maybe I'll root around in my boxes of books for Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and Tim Crouse's The Boys on the Bus, which my memory tells me are full of great anecdotes on this subject. And a little Web search confirms that recollection, even uncovering a tale involving my Harvard weblog neighbor, Chris Lydon, an excellent journalist who was on one of those 1972 buses, searching for campaign metaphors like "like a rat in heat."

If students or other young readers stubbornly consider 1972 to be irrelevant ancient history, they're wrong... but they might find some similar insights into campaign press coverage from this century in Beth Harpaz's The Girls in the Van: A reporter's diary of the campaign trail, referring to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.

(Item archived as "story" rather than news item 09/09/03, without further editing)

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Last update: 7/27/09; 3:57:21 AM.