There is little doubt that we are living in a new age of journalism. The internet has clearly put pressure on traditional publications. Stories are published faster. There is less fact-checking and editorial oversight. Virtually anyone with even a hint of technical savvy can publish to the web. Many of the more traditional rules of journalism have gone by the wayside, and while much of this change is positive, that doesn’t mean all of the old rules don’t still apply. Some should remain guiding lights, regardless of the medium, but too often lately we have seen modern journalism steer off course.
Rule 1: Don’t take money from sources to write favorably about them. That’s the type of conflict of interest anyone can understand. Last August, as part of an ongoing patent trial, a federal judge issued an order to Google and Oracle to release a list of journalists whom they were paying to write favorably about the companies. At least one blogger was hired by Oracle to write positive articles. This goes beyond conflict of interest. It’s downright dishonest. You don’t pretend to be writing unbiased pieces while you’re taking money from one of the parties involved.
Rule 2: Sources don’t get to review your stories before publishing. To do so would provide an outlet for sources to alter the stories to show them in a more favorable light. If you’re a good journalist, you take notes and probably record the interview. You can certainly contact a source and ask follow-up questions after the initial interview to get clarification, but you must never let a source review and alter a story. When a source speaks on the record, she has to live with what she said (unless it’s for the purpose of correcting something she knows to be wrong).
Yet it was revealed in July that a Washington Post reporter (who clearly should have known better) working on an article involving a controversial standardized testing program on college campuses had run drafts of a story by his sources on multiple occasions-even going so far as to let them alter drafts. Journalists everywhere were justifiably aghast.
Rule 3: Check your facts! In the internet age, the echo chamber can spread false or misleading information so quickly-by a variety of sources-that it seems real, even when it’s patently false. To prove how easy it is to spread misinformation, in August a company called Day4 created what looked like an authentic 3D drawing of an unusual screw. Day4 then “leaked” the drawing on reddit and hinted that Apple was going to use the screw to prevent customers from opening Apple products in future iterations of its products. It would have been a great story if it were true.
By the next day, the story had been picked up by a number of Apple rumor blogs and eventually even by more mainstream technology press-all based on a silly drawing with absolutely no facts to back it up. While it was possible for stories to develop based on a number of bad sources in the pre-internet days, it tended to take many years. The Apple screw rumor took just 12 hours to hit a website, and then another 12 or so to spread far and wide. We know journalists should know better, but we also know the pressure to get a story live before the competition is intense.
When I was coming of age as a journalist, I learned the rules in a college journalism program from ex-pros who instilled in me standard operating guidelines. Today, the democratization of publishing allows anyone to publish. This is great in many ways, but it also means nonpros who were never taught the basics of journalism are operating without a playbook. Of course, even some who were taught the rules-such as that Washington Post reporter–still play fast and loose with them. It’s not just an internet problem.
Regardless, these rules were established over time to protect the credibility of the writer and the publication. In spite of dramatic changes in how we distribute the news-publishing on a website or using a printing press, writing as a lone blogger or as part of large media conglomerate–some rules should always still apply.