Saturday, August 11, 2007

Blogging ethics

Every week I get an email update from Media Matters discussing some aspect of the journalistic landscape. The one that arrived yesterday covered two areas of journalistic practice and malpractice: the use of anecdotes and media outlets' willingness to correct errors promptly.

Human interest anecdotes, true stories of people, can serve as an enticing lead to many stories. But Jamison Foser did a great job of explaining how journalists can misuse illustrative anecdotes to create lasting negative impressions about people toward whom they harbor hostility. For example, Democratic politicians, who for whatever reason, rub them the wrong way:

These "illustrative anecdotes," ... John Kerry windsurfing or ordering cheesesteak, John Edwards' big house and expensive haircuts, etc., etc. -- aren't inherently illustrative. Journalists use them to illustrate not only things they know about the candidates, but things they think about the candidates as well; to dress up their guesses and hunches as factual observations.

President Bush has been widely mocked for saying upon his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. ... I was able to get a sense of his soul."

But that's essentially what journalists do when they claim these "telling anecdotes" illustrate something completely subjective about the candidates. They don't really know Al Gore is a phony; they're guessing at what is in his soul, then finding anecdotes that can seem to support their guess.

Moreover, because a good story is a good story, these things tend to hang around -- even if they turn out to be false. It's been shown many times that Al Gore didn't say he'd "invented the internet," but the phony story just keeps coming back around, even in publications that have debunked it.

Foser proposes four criteria for using anecdotes in reporting political campaigns:

1) Is the anecdote verifiably true?
2) Is the anecdote illustrative rather than anomalous?
3) Does the anecdote illustrate something that is verifiably true, or is it merely a convenient vehicle for suggesting something the reporter believes but cannot prove?
4) Does the anecdote illustrate something that is not only verifiably true, but is also important to understanding how the candidate would govern or how the issue would affect people? Or is it just pointless snark?

These seem like good questions to me.

And Foser's further insists that news organizations need to promptly admit and, where possible, fix their errors:

Nobody expects reporters to be perfect. Nobody demands that news organizations never get anything wrong. But until news organizations adopt as one of their core values the notion that errors must be promptly and thoroughly corrected, they will continue to lose the trust of the American people.

And they will deserve to lose it.

Again, well said.

So okay, I read this missive and concurred heartily -- and then I thought about the last two posts on this blog. Can I apply Foser's standard to my own work?

In my post Talk about blood sucking.... pretty much the whole text is an anecdote, the linked story of a Mexican woman who made more from selling blood plasma to a company in the U.S. than she made in a week's work at a factory on her side of the border. It gives a human face to the fact that blood products, the stuff of life, are extracted from the poor for the rich -- my real point. The article from which it is drawn is a more complicated (and in some ways even more condemnatory) discussion of the practice of blood sales, so there is more there for anyone who follows the link -- but I just wanted to highlight the shocking reality. In reaction to Foser's criteria: I believe the story is true; I am certain it is not anomalous; I think the truth it illustrates is important.

What using the anecdote the way I did leaves out is why I think it is both true and important. There is a back story of my familiarity with blood collection practices that I could have written: about supporting a picket line by homeless plasma vendors on Los Angeles skid row in 1973; living through the revolution in blood screening in the 1980s here are at the West Coast epicenter of the AIDS epidemic; and recently learning that only 37 percent of people in the U.S. are eligible to donate blood. But all that information detracts from the clarity of the point I wanted to make. I think, for a blogger, it probably ethical to use a simple, gripping anecdote to spot light a larger point, so long as you are convinced of its truth through some, not necessarily stated, knowledge of the context. It might well be unethical, if I had merely grabbed that little story out of thin air, without knowing anything of the back story.

Then there is the issue of corrections. In Nancy Pelosi: "Peter Principle" at Work? I spun a long story of how Pelosi came to be San Francisco's congressperson, going back to the time of the legendary Phil Burton (d. 1983). Right away I heard from a friend that I had gotten one detail factually wrong: Phil did not actively bequeath this seat to his widow, because he wasn't the sort of person who planned for his own death. I added a correction line at the end of the narrative quoting this information.

Yet from my point of view, and, I think, from the point of view of the voters, this is a distinction that doesn't make much difference to the overall narrative. The congressional seat was a Burton fiefdom; it was passed on within "the machine" (eventually to Pelosi.) So I didn't make the correction in the main text, but appended it. In doing so, I made a decision that may skirt an ethical edge. I'm happy with it -- but should I have corrected in the body? I'm still not sure.

What I am sure of this that political blogging is the better for our holding ourselves to the kind of ethical standards we want from the mainstream media, within the constraints of our miniscule comparative resources.


sfmike said...

I think it's weird when bloggers use the "cross-out" feature to show that they are not trying to rewrite their original stories, but merely correcting them. Why not just correct them instead, and if it's a major correction, reflect that in the text.

That's the coolest part about the internet vis a vis print. Once a lie or mistake or boo-boo or typo or error is printed with ink, it's there forever. With the internet, you can actually correct the record. Plus, there ARE commenters who sometimes know on an intimate level the truth of the matter in a way that the original writer isn't aware of, which just makes the whole communal reporting aspect that much stronger.

And there endeth the sermon.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Jan, I congratulate you on your self examination. Sometimes I wonder what in the hell I'm doing on my blog. What is it's purpose? Perhaps it's more for me than anyone else, a vehicle for sounding off. Maybe it's a place where I can work out my thinking and post in a semi-public medium, where I'll feel more accountable to get things right. I say semi-public, because I know how many visitors I have.

I try hard to distinguish material from other sources from my own opinion.

SFMike, you make a point about the strike-outs, which I have on occasion used. However, if I catch a spelling mistake, or a grammatical mistake, or a minor instance of unclear writing, I usually make the correction without giving notice.

Kay Dennison said...

I try to be accurate and like to think that others do, too. And if I get bad info I correct it. I don't think we can do more than that. You can only check so many sources.

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