Journalism, Professionalism, and the Turing Test

What’s the way forward for journalists? Doubling down on the traditional ideals of objectivity and impartiality? Embracing the subjective, personality-driven approach of social media? Or is there some uncertain, ill-defined middle way?

Turing Test By Bilby (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThose are some of the questions being raised recently by a number of new-media observers, most notably GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, who’s lately been rolling out one must-read blog post after another.

The problem with traditional news is that traditional journalists are increasingly unnecessary to produce it. Robot reporters are cornering the market on facts, as companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights perfect the science of teaching software to turn data into news stories.

If basic news becomes a fungible commodity, one obvious alternative for journalists is what Ben Huh says great reporters already do: convey not simply the facts, but their subjective emotions about those facts.  But this, he says, is a “very, very dangerous” approach.

That’s one lesson that could be drawn from reporter Anne Sutherland’s recent suspension from the Montreal Gazette for remarks she made on Twitter. Covering a “nearly naked” protest by university students, she tweeted a number of photos of the protestors accompanied by “snarky” comments about their physiques. Neither her Twitter followers nor her employers found it amusing.

Writing about Ben Huh, GigaOm’s Ingram says that “in order to be effective, journalism needs to be personal.” But doesn’t Sutherland’s seemingly personal reaction to the protestors prove the opposite, and that the dangers of being personal outweigh the benefits?

I think not. I don’t know her, of course, but I’d guess the problem isn’t that she was being human or that she was being too personal. Rather, she was responding to the wrong instincts and emotions.  She was there as a journalist, but reacting as an average, and thoughtless, bystander.

In a post written before Sutherland’s misstep, Steve Buttry addressed a similar issue in explaining “how to respond to staff members who were using crude language and behaving unprofessionally on Twitter.” On social media, he says, journalists must be personable, yes, but also professional:

“A professional journalist using Twitter should behave professionally. Your profile should identify you as a journalist with your news organization. You should behave accordingly.”

I don’t disagree. But I wonder if professionalism is sufficient. The problem for me is that professionalism is more shield than guiding light. Too often, it is just a way of doing what won’t get you fired.

To succeed in a personal medium, you ultimately need a personal standard. The preeminent question to ask yourself now may not be Is this a professional and objective statement of the facts? but rather Is this my best, most honest, and most personally true assessment of those facts?

This might not seem like the appropriate corrective to the all-too-personal Sutherland. But I suspect her reactions were not truly personal. They sound, rather, like received views, the trite and formulaic reactions not of a person, but of a type of person. It is a behavioral response that could be easily programmed into a Narrative Science algorithm: If see hairy body, then tweet “Ewww.”

In gauging how to handle social media, maybe what journalists need is not so much a standard of professionalism as a kind of Turing test. That is, could what you’re writing be produced by a computer imitating a human reporter?

The test is not whether the content is dryly factual or snarkily silly, superbly impartial or grossly biased. Those traits are easy to replicate. Instead, the test should be whether the prose is truly personal. Does it reflect a real consciousness struggling to find the truth, or an automaton juggling ones and zeroes?

Such a test can never be very precise. But journalism, whether conducted in traditional or social media, would be the better for it.

Transparent vs. Opaque: Six New-Media Principles, No. 5

Because one of its foundational ideas is openness, as I described in yesterday’s post, new media encourages and rewards transparency. Traditional media organizations have tended to be opaque, aiming not to reveal much about the people and processes behind their product. But the nature of new media is to reveal everything, to make everything public. If the organizations don’t reveal their own inner workings, the increasing likelihood is that someone else will.

One of the ways new media encourages transparency is ethical, as represented by the popular expression, “transparency is the new objectivity.” One of the more recent considerations of the phrase came from Mathew Ingram last month. Traditional news organizations have wanted individual journalists to hide their subjective feelings and inclinations behind a veil of objectivity. As Ingram argues, this is an increasingly untenable stance in the new-media era. The only ethical strategy for journalists now is to be open about their biases and conflicts of interest, and to let readers judge their reliability as reporters for themselves.

Another mode of transparency is operational. Transparency doesn’t stop with individuals. To be seen as reliable, organizations themselves must practice media transparency in many, if not all, aspects of their operations. By showing how their process works—through methods such as sharing internal policy documents with readers, explaining how news subjects are selected and prioritized, or live-streaming editorial meetings—media producers will give their audience reason to trust them.

To work, transparency must be a committed, conscious choice. But it’s something of a Hobson’s choice. In the new-media era, there’s no long-term alternative to transparency.

Wikipedia Is No Authority–By Design

MUD day 13:

In an interview in Foreign Policy, published on its website earlier this month, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was asked if he’s shocked to hear that people, including journalists, “use Wikipedia all the time.” His response is worth repeating to any journalist that either uses Wikipedia unthinkingly or unthinkingly refuses to use Wikipedia:

Journalists all use Wikipedia. The bad journalist gets in trouble because they use it incorrectly; the good journalist knows it’s a place to get oriented and to find out what questions to ask.

Wales goes on to say the Wikipedia is actually quite old-fashioned in its approach, looking for “reliable sources” rather than “something in a blog somewhere.”

What I find most interesting about Wikipedia, though, is the way it undercuts the old-fashioned notion of authority. Once you start thinking in any depth about why you should or shouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source, you start to realize how vulnerable to criticism the authority of any source is.

This, I take it, is the position of one of Wikipedia’s biggest fans in journalism, Dan Gillmor. In his book, Mediactive, he argues that the audience for news and other media must change from passive to active consumers, that they have a responsibility to be skeptical and exercise judgment.

Wikipedia, I think, operates on this principle. In telling its users, “don’t trust us; decide for yourself,” it is passing responsibility for judgment back to the individual reader. By handing any user who wants it the key to authorship, Wikipedia is enacting a radical idea: that authority is a shared responsibility.

Do your readers want the truth?

In a compelling but slightly unnerving blog post today, Amy Gahran argues that journalists should accept the fact that people are, in many ways, psychologically wired to resist the truth. Fighting it is pointless, she says. Instead,  “to help people understand how things really are,” journalists must find ways to “to accommodate—not deny—these psychological tendencies.” But where, I worry, does that approach lead?

Gahran’s post was sparked by her reading of Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus, in particular its discussion of the various cognitive quirks that lead people to cling to misguided beliefs in spite of demonstrable facts to the contrary. There’s nothing new about these psychological phenomena, but as Farhad Manjoo argued in True Enough, the Internet can serve to reinforce them. Through the fragmentation of media, it’s easy for believers to find plenty of sources that confirm rather than challenge their ideas. While a few might relish challenging themselves intellectually, most don’t.

So for journalists, Gahran argues, facts are no longer sufficient in themselves. Somehow, in presenting those facts, you have to take into account the predilection of readers to disbelieve or ignore them. Gahran says it isn’t clear how to do that, but feels certain—and I think she’s right—that posing as a detached, uninvolved observer doesn’t work.

To put it another way, it’s not enough to be a presenter of the truth. You must be an advocate for it. You must want to make people accept it.

But I wonder: when you’re dealing with anosognosics—people who can’t recognize their own cognitive failings—is there any way to get them to accept reality without wrapping it in deception? Can you give such readers what they need without, perhaps impossibly, also giving them what they want? Does your goal of truth telling somehow imperceptibly slip into propaganda?

Faced with such questions, I tend to throw up my hands in despair and fall back on a selfish impulse: “This is my search for truth here. You can take it or leave it.”

That’s fine for me, but not for journalism. Truth-telling is transactional. As Gahran suggests, if journalists can’t find ways to get people to listen, they will have failed. The trick will be to do so without bending the truth in the process.

Is B2B Ready for Corporate Journalism?

Over the weekend, one of my blog posts from several months ago provoked a comment that was simply too good to let pass unnoticed. It spelled out the feelings of many journalists when faced with the prospect of going over to the dark side, as David Meerman Scott has put it, by writing directly for a sponsor. The commenter’s position was that by doing so, you are inevitably compromising the journalistic goal of telling the truth.

What adds heft to this view is its basis in experience. The commenter, Marylyn Donahue, is a former journalist who now makes a living writing for businesses. As Donahue sees it, there is a clear dichotomy between journalism and sponsored content. In journalism at its best, she asserts, the deliverable is truth. In sponsored content, the deliverable is the promotion of the sponsor’s point of view. Anything that might throw that point of view in doubt has to be left out, “even if it is true and even if it might help the reader understand something better.”

Though content marketing may try to mimic the balance of journalism, it’s an appearance, she says, not a reality:

“The real (ethical, if you will) problem with content-solution, custom publishing writing is that it is deeply dishonest to the reader. The reader is left not knowing what they don’t know. And the writer is complicit in making that happen. Why then does the writer do it? Because he or she is quite simply getting paid to tell it the way the client wants it to be told—no matter how “unbiased” it may come off sounding. (Good content solution writers are adept at balanced-sounding, but in fact one-sided pieces).”

It’s hard to argue against a position based on experience. But even if Donahue’s experience represents that of most or all crossover journalists, I wonder if it has to be that way. Does content marketing inherently compromise journalistic ideals ? Or does the problem lie with clients like Donahue’s, who don’t understand the point of brand journalism?

It’s clear, I think, that content marketing proponents would argue that this is a problem of implementation.  Take, for instance, Ike Pigott’s open letter to journalists on his blog earlier this month. He argues that journalists can in fact find “comfort in the belly of the beast” as what he calls “embedded” corporate journalists. Their purpose is emphatically not PR, he says: “People can smell marketing and propaganda coming around the corner, and they know when the pitches and puff pieces are missing that edge of neutrality.”

Helping to keep content marketing honest, says Pigott, will be the remaining independent journalists serving as editors and curators. “They will be the line of defense that says ‘This story from ACME stinks to high heaven, and I will blast them for their inaccuracy.’”

One embedded journalist, ex-IDG writer David Churbuck, agrees that corporate journalism is both possible and desirable. In a blog post several years ago, he described a corporate imperative to honor journalism’s passion for truth: “Organizations need to report upon themselves with the objective eye of a journalist, holding any statement or action up to the same skeptical, unconflicted scrutiny that an outsider would hold.”

This makes sense. But in practice, are businesses ready to adopt the practice of journalism so rigorously?

Rob Leavitt’s answer is a firm “maybe.” Reflecting on Pigott’s blog post, he thinks some companies will make the effort. But he’s not sure they’ll succeed:

“For now, B2B companies are mostly still struggling with how much to allow their own employees to go beyond strictures of message control and engage freely in social media and networks. If they can’t even do this, it’s hard to believe they’ll turn trained professional journalists loose in an even more ambitious effort to provide “accurate and fair” reporting with all the risks this may entail to their own reputation.”

Leavitt’s analysis speaks directly to Donahue’s objection that she must tell her story “the way the client wants it to be told.” The reality is, companies that want to control the message simply cannot produce authentic journalism.

I would like to think that as more companies get on the Cluetrain and realize that the new-media world is no longer about control, they’ll have a genuine interest in sponsoring legitimate journalism. But my optimism is theoretical. For now, at least, I will defer to Donahue’s dolorous voice of experience.