Transparency & believability for online news
(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."
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
(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.)
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
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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7/27/09; 3:57:21 AM.