What a depressing day to be an online journalist.
First, yesterday we lost access to Jim Romenesko (at least temporarily), thanks to a ham-handed and misguided “investigation” by his bosses at the Poynter Institute.
Poynter Online Director Julie Moos gently scolded Romenesko for “incomplete attribution” in his blog posts on Poynter.org. Which is ridiculous within the context of his blog, which links and excerpts media news stories from around the Web. Moos wrote that Romenesko should have placed quotation marks around the words he was excerpting from the articles he linked, and that would now be Poynter policy for the his and other blogs on Poynter.org.
So Jim quit.
The reason for using quotation marks and attributions on information from sources to clearly identify to readers what information in a story is coming from which sources. Neither I nor hundreds of the readers who took to Twitter, Facebook and blogs to support Romenesko found that a problem with his work. Romenesko helped invent a new format for news reporting online, one that aggregated information from multiple sources and delivered in a way that deviated from traditional journalism formats, but that communicated that information more effectively and efficiently than those old forms could have.
Trying to impose those old forms on Romenesko’s blog not only ignores its purpose, it helps to defeat it, by cluttering it with pointless keystrokes.
As Topix CEO Chris Tolles tweeted, “CJR & Poynter represent neither reader nor journalist. Just voices from inside coffin of the institution of ‘editor’.” [Moos credited an editor at Columbia Journalism Review for tipping her to the quotation mark issue.]
Let’s not forget that ethics stand as means to an end. When ethical rules become an end to themselves, we open the door to actions that are right by the letter of the law but completely wrong by its spirit. Sometimes, the rules have to change to preserve their spirit. You want an everlasting code of ethics for journalism? Try this: Tell the truth, and by doing so, inspire people to read it, to share it and to act upon it.
Everything else is just technique.
Romenesko found a new way of communicating attribution that renders old “rules” about attribution irrelevant. Journalism leadership that focuses on the ends our ethics are supposed to guide us toward would have recognized that. Leadership that focuses on rules for rules’ sake, wouldn’t have. And didn’t.
It’s clear from this episode that something does need to change at Poynter. But it wasn’t Jim Romenesko.
(Romenesko is launching his personal website next month. I suspect that it will be taking away quite a bit of traffic from Poynter.org.)
Second, yesterday I also received a depressing survey from the Online News Association. Here are a few of the 15 questions asked:
1. Do you ever find it difficult to draw a line between advocacy and objectivity in your own work?
5. Do you believe that the use of social media as a a (sic) reporting or news aggregation tool carries a risk creating demographic and informational silos?
6. Are you conflicted about creating your own “brand” or identity on your social media channels?
7. Do you believe your ties with your social media community(ies) influence your ability to maintain fairness and objectivity?
Oh, for goodness’ sake.
I’m hoping that these are clumsily-worded questions, and not reflective of ONA’s institutional attitude. (Though even that wouldn’t speak well of a professional organization dedicated to better communication online.)
On 1: Advocacy and objectivity are not mutually exclusive. Advocacy is part of every journalist’s duty. We should advocate for our reporting, for our communities and for the rights of all to express themselves in public forums. (Though we are allowed to advocate against what some people use those forums to say, especially when they try to deny rights to others.)
We achieve objectivity when our reporting can be duplicated and not contradicted by others who are reporting independently of us. Eliminating advocacy in the name of achieving objectivity does not necessarily bring us any closer to the point where our work can be verified by others. But it does isolate us from the communities and causes we should be helping by illuminating the truth.
On 5: The mass market was a myth. As soon as publishing technology allowed them the choice, they were going to choose to read and watch information that fit their interests and traditions. Ignoring social media won’t bring the audience back together, as they were when technology limited readers to getting news from a local paper. It simply will render journalists irrelevant to modern publishing and communication.
On 6: Please tell me that this question gets a 100% “No” response. What, you don’t like having a byline?
On 7: I actually screamed when I read this one. Establishing ties with your community are essential in maintaining fairness in your reporting. You need to know the people in your community, and be willing to meet them and interact with them where they are – whether than be in schools, community meetings, churches, parks and, yes, on social media networks.
But the previous questions framed social media as a “risk” and “conflicted,” which leads the survey-taker to think of social media as a negative influence on good things such as, presumably, fairness and objectivity. I reject that framing, but I feared that a “yes” answer would be interpreted by the ONA as affirming that framing. So how the heck I am supposed to answer if I want to defend the use of social media in reporting?
It’s enough to make you scream.