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Hypergene MediaBlog » When sources strike back: Why blogs will continue to force greater transparency in reporting

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Monday, 29 Aug 2005

When sources strike back: Why blogs will continue to force greater transparency in reporting

When we were working in the newsrooms of some of the country’s best newspapers, the prevailing wisdom was that trust was not simply a by-product of good reporting but something earned over many years with vigilant stewardship.

Like a delicate heirloom, it was cherished and passed along to future generations in the newsroom. Each generation understood that the paper’s reputation and trust of its readers could be destroyed easily by a careless act.

We worked in a Mass Media world — a pre-Internet world. Of course, our newspapers made mistakes. But whether serious or benign, these errors usually began to fade in public’s mind by the next day. They became old news.

Dutifully, we printed a handful of corrections each week and sprinkled them somewhere inside later editions. The real mea culpas, those requiring a retraction, were rarely needed.

Nowadays, retractions seem to becoming more commonplace. Are media outlets suddenly more sloppy in their reporting? More likely, it’s because the sources and readers are able to respond more fully than they could in the past through phone calls and letters to the editor. Mass Media is dead. Stories are now free to live long after the press has been turned off.

And when sources respond today, it’s with the full power of the Internet behind them.

The nature of this fluid and flexible publishing environment has also changed the nature of trust as we understood it. It has morphed from something that had to be summoned from deep within the oak-paneled editorial offices to a more elusive entity that can be gained quickly and lost in a nanosecond.

This is making reporters and editors nervous. Their power has shifted and the discourse is no longer only theirs to set. But for bloggers, it’s the world they live in everyday. A world were they know no post is ever finished, and their readers are equally ready to praise or punish.

The latest evidence in this shift comes to our attention from Steve Outing. It’s perfect example of the remarkable consequences from the rise of a more democratic media and its ability to bring about small but unrelenting change.

Last Tuesday The New York Times published a story by reporter Andrew Revkin detailing the resignation of an atmospheric science professor researching a report for the Bush administration on the causes of climate change.

Professor Roger Pielke Sr of Colorado State University left the committee over a disagreement and saw The New York Times account as misleading. He did something that is becoming more commonplace these days. He took his case to the Internet.

"I was very disappointed that the New York Times so badly mischaracterized my perspective, but fortunately we now have blogs so that errors can be corrected, and I’ve posted my response there.”
Roger Pielke Sr quoted from the Fort Collins Coloradoan
Soon after, a remarkable and public conversation between reporter and source ensued:

August 23, 2005: Open Comment to Andy Revkin with Respect to your 23 August 2005 Article in the New York Times Regarding my Resignation from the CCSP Committee
August 25, 2005: Summary for the Media of the resons for the resignation of Roger A. Pielke Sr. from the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) Committee
August 26, 2005: Response From Andy Revkin, New York Times Reporter
August 26, 2005: Response to Andy Revkin

In the end, Pielke and Revkin were able to resolve their misunderstanding. The public exchange worked, and most of us came away with a better understanding of how complex it is to report on climate change.

NYT Pielke Snap
Caption: The New York Times issued a correction and a link to the source’s blog. Perhaps this will be something done more often.

"The way we practice journalism has changed significantly when what in the past would have been a private exchange between an annoyed source and a reporter is part of the public record. This is the ‘transparency’ that we so often talk about as being a hallmark of journalism in the Internet era.”
Steve Outing
With credibility continuing to slide (newspapers leading the way), news organizations need to understand how they might leverage this new trust born of transparency.

There are pitfalls. Transparency can show reporting flaws in all their glory and fuel the biases of people only intereseted in controversy not resolution.

But today the decision to become more open with the reporting process is nearly moot.

If your news organization is not willing to be transparent, it is inevitable that someone else will.

Posted on Aug 29, 2005 | 9:23 am EST
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