16 December 2009

Our New Media Rules, Part 1

We need a new media. Our media lacks intelligence, vision, integrity and is thus powerless to do anything for Us except entertain Us, like watching a retarded incontinent monkey dancing on a drunken midget's head. Loudly.

So, based heavily on Dan Gillmor's excellent "New rules for news" article, here's My take on Our New Media Rules, covering what We should have in Our newspapers and news websites as well as Our radio and TV newscasts:

Transparency is the core element of our journalism. Every print article would have an accompanying box called "Things We Don't Know," a list of questions our journalists couldn't answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organization's website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.

We help people in the community become informed users of media, not passive consumers – to understand why and how they can do this. We will work with schools and other institutions that recognize the necessity of critical thinking.

We work in every possible way to help our audience know who's behind the words and actions. People and institutions frequently try to influence the rest of us in ways that hide their participation in the debate, and we do our best to reveal who's spending money and pulling strings. When our competitors decline to reveal such things, or fail to ask obvious questions of their sources, we talk about their journalistic failures in our own coverage of the issues.

The more we believe an issue is of importance to our community, the more relentlessly we stay on top of it ourselves. If we conclude that continuing down a current policy path was a danger, we actively campaign to persuade people to change course. This would have meant, for example, loud and persistent warnings about the danger of the blatantly obvious housing/financial bubble that inflated during this decade.

We will assess risks honestly. Journalists constantly use anecdotal evidence in ways that frighten the public into believing this or that problem is larger than it actually is. As a result, people have almost no idea what are statistically more risky behaviours or situations. And lawmakers, responding to media-fed public fears, often pass laws that do much more aggregate harm than good. We will make it a habit to not extrapolate a wider threat from weird or tragic anecdotes; frequently discuss the major risks we face and compare them statistically to the minor ones; and debunk the most egregious examples of horror stories that spark unnecessary fear or even panic.

For any person or topic we cover regularly, we will provide a "baseline": an article or video where people can start if they are new to the topic, and point prominently to that "start here" piece from any new coverage. We might use a modified Wikipedia approach to keep the article current with the most important updates. The point will be context, giving some people a way to get quickly up to speed and others a way to recall the context of the issue.

For any coverage where it makes sense, we tell our audience members how they could act on the information we've just given them. This will typically take the form of a "What You Can Do" box or pointer.

Except in the most dire of circumstances – such as a threat to a whistleblower's life, liberty or livelihood – we will not quote or paraphrase unnamed sources in any of our journalism. If we do, we will need persuasive evidence from the source as to why we should break this rule, and we'd explain why in our coverage. Moreover, when we do grant anonymity, we offer our audience the following guidance: We believe this is one of the rare times when anonymity is justified, but we urge you to exercise appropriate skepticism.

If we grant anonymity and learn that the unnamed source had lied to us, we will consider the confidentially agreement to have been breached by that person, and will expose his or her duplicity and identity. Sources will know of this policy before we published. We'd further look for examples where our competitors have been tricked by sources they didn't name, and then do our best to expose them, too.

We will absolutely refuse to do stenography and call it journalism. If one faction or party to a dispute is lying, we will say so, with the accompanying evidence. If we learn that a significant number of people in our community believe a lie about an important person or issue, we will make it part of an ongoing mission to help them understand the truth.

Replace PR-speak and certain Orwellian words and expressions with more neutral, precise language. If someone we interview misuses language, we will paraphrase instead of using direct quotations. (Examples, among many others: The activity that takes place in casinos is gambling, not gaming. There is no death tax, there can be inheritance or estate tax. Piracy does not describe what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing networks.)

There, that'll keep you thinking until tomorrow, when Part 2 shows up.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

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