Articles about "Digital Journalism Ethics Symposium"


Journalism ethics are rooted in humanity, not technology

This month marks the eight year anniversary of “Regret the Error,” which means I’ve been reporting on and writing about ethical issues in journalism for close to a decade.

That anniversary and this week’s Poynter symposium on journalism ethics in the digital age led me to step back and think about the principles that underpin ethical behavior in the profession, and how journalism ethics can and should evolve.

Rather than focusing on the usual concepts of accuracy, transparency and accountability, I found myself thinking more about humility, honesty, fairness, empathy and vulnerability.

Professional ethics are most effective when they flow from human values, emotions and, of course, action. It’s a perhaps obvious point, but one that is easily lost or overlooked at a time when new technologies recurve bows for sale have sparked change and disruption in journalism.

This understanding helps us distinguish between principles and practices, as Tom Rosenstiel and Kelly McBride noted toward the end of this week’s ethics symposium.

Technology has an increasingly important impact on our practices. But our principles must be technology agnostic.

I’ve attended my share of events about ethics, and, setting aside my obvious bias toward Poynter, this week’s forum struck me as notable and effective for a few reasons.

One is that we discussed topics that almost never emerge at events of this nature: Gilad Lotan of SocialFlow talked about algorithms and ethics. danah boyd of Microsoft talked about the use of fear in the media and its impact on the publicDan Gillmor of Arizona State University talked about the ethical implications of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter emerging as major players in the distribution and dissemination of news and information.

These are important issues and not the usual fare.

Encoding humanity

But the thing that was most satisfying, and for me most important, is that the event was full of moments where human concerns and values rose to the forefront of the discussion. It’s easy to get bogged down in practices and miss the principles that matter. Or to focus on principles that are too wedded to a given technology or profession.

I’m guilty of this. Accuracy is not an inherently human value. Corrections are not an ethical principle. For me they flow from honesty, humility and vulnerability. Those are principles. Accuracy and corrections are practices.

It’s important to encode a core element of humanity in the work we do, and how we do it.

Our goal as journalists isn’t just to inform the public, but in fact to connect with them through stories, shared experiences, and the important developments in our world. In order to enable that, we must act with humanity and with the values and emotions that inspire human connection.

That is the cornerstone of ethics for me.

Early on in this week’s summit, Rosenstiel reminded the group that ultimately the public determines what journalism succeeds. They dictate our success and failure by offering or denying attention and support. Here are a couple of attempts to paraphrase what he said:

Advice: Stop living on Planet Journalism and start behaving like a human being.

I attempted to address the human aspect during my panel by using a word that rarely shows up in discussions about journalism: vulnerability.

To admit your errors is to show vulnerability. To show vulnerability is to enable yourself to be really seen. Our flaws are what connect us, not perfection. It’s true for humans, and that’s why it’s true for journalists and news organizations.

Other people echoed human-centered themes in their comments and presentations:

Empathy is a wonderfully human word and characteristic. Not surprisingly, it’s also core to storytelling and ethical storytelling.

At the end of the day, Rosenstiel and McBride encouraged participants to suggest the ethics and values that should inform a new draft of Poynter’s Guiding Principles for Journalism.

That led to perhaps my favorite tweet of the day:

Human values and connection all wrapped together in one tweet.

During that final session, I drafted a few guiding principles that came to mind.

Ethical journalism means being:

  • Responsive to feedback and new developments.
  • Transparent about our relationships and limitations.
  • Accountable for our mistakes and decisions.
  • Open about our processes and sources.
  • Committed to seeking truth through facts and credible information.

My original post with these principles included a disclaimer, “I want to emphasize that the above are not perfect. In fact, I feel as though they don’t address one really important point: the need for journalists to behave with empathy and common sense. But I don’t have a good formulation for that now.”

I struggled with articulating the most human of all the above principles.

Sometimes, it’s the things that seem most natural that are the hardest to express.

Related: Compassion is not journalism’s downfall, it’s journalism’s salvation Read more


Why ethics and diversity matter: The case of Trayvon Martin coverage

If anyone asks why ethnic, cultural and gender diversity is important in journalism, advocates have a ready answer: Greater diversity equals greater accuracy and fairness.

This belief is based, in part, on bitter experience. From turn-of-the-century lynchings in the American South to the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights protests in the 1950s and ‘60s, U.S. history is filled with stories journalists got wrong because they excluded the perspectives of anyone who wasn’t a white male.

Coverage was so distorted during the civil rights era, newspapers such as the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky and the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi all apologized for their misguided work decades after the initial mistakes were made.

Beyond hurt feelings or appearances, a diverse newsroom better reflects the population, which enables fairer, more accurate or incisive reporting. But what if that idea isn’t entirely true?

Over the course of 2012, journalists faced a number of blockbuster news stories with race and culture difference at their core. And reporters stumbled over a host of pitfalls as their work was affected by the perspectives of those reporting the story and their audiences.
The shape of modern media has only multiplied these problems. With a range of politically partisan, specifically-targeted cable newschannels, social media platforms and websites adding to the noise, ethical journalists face even more complicated questions.

What separates an opinion journalist from a news reporter and a straight-up pundit? And what are the ethical requirements for each of these figures, especially in covering a race-based controversy?

In the age of Fox News Channel, the Huffington Post and, is there such a thing as a completely honest broker in today’s news media?

This chapter will look at several race-centered news stories, examining the ethical flashpoints in each, suggesting better techniques going forward and exploring how these problems connect to larger issues at the intersection of race and journalism in the modern media age.

The biggest lesson at hand: leveraging diversity in newsrooms without ethical decision making, is a risky, partial solution.

Real success in covering race comes when perspectives are tempered by a clear strategy for preserving fairness and accuracy.

And the first story under examination, unsurprisingly, involves the fate of an unarmed 17-year-old male shot dead while walking back from a convenience store in a small, central Florida town.

Case Study: Dissecting Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

What stands out about Trayvon Martin is how easily his name might not have become a household word.

Martin, 17, was shot dead by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012 while walking to an apartment he was visiting at a subdivision in Sanford, Fla.

Later, after his case became a worldwide cause, people around the world learned the youth was unarmed, holding a bag of Skittles and a container of iced tea after a trip to a nearby convenience store.

Zimmerman was a volunteer neighborhood watch captain who killed the youth with a gun he was legally licensed to carry after they got in a fight; the state’s Stand Your Ground law provided possible justification for using lethal force if he felt his life was in jeopardy.

But one of the first reports on the shooting, an 86-word piece printed in the Orlando Sentinel Feb. 27, noted simply that “two men were arguing before shots were fired.” The next day, the newspaper published another, 152-word story naming Martin, citing his age and noting his Facebook page listed Miami as his hometown, quoting a local TV station’s report that there had been a fistfight before the shooting. But the newspaper didn’t name Zimmerman, it wrote, “because he has not been charged.”

By March 2, the Miami Herald had published a report noting erroneously that Martin was shot dead at a convenience store, quoting the teen’s uncle. It did name Zimmerman, but understated the 28 year old’s age by three years.

None of these stories, however, had the detail which would turn Martin’s case into an international media tsunami:

Martin was black and the shooter who killed him was not.

Race was the engine which turned Trayvon Martin’s death into the first story to briefly eclipse the presidential race in coverage during 2012; sparking “million hoodie” marches across the country (emulating the hooded jacket the teen was wearing when he was killed) and eventually costing Sanford police chief Bill Lee his job.

With the race difference, police reticence to arrest Zimmerman took on a new light, raising fears of a Southern town’s good ol’ boy network in action.

And journalists had an angle which could elevate the unfortunate shooting of a young boy into a story with implications about racial profiling, small town justice and the struggle for a working class, black family to get fair treatment from a mostly white police force and criminal justice system. …

Early Problems

Because people want race issues to be simple, often news stories centered on race are crafted simply, as well. They feature shocking tales complete with heroes, villains and injustice, often with people of color presented as the noble victims.

But the drive to fit real-life circumstances into these molds can be the enemy of ethical journalism, unless reporters are careful.

In the Trayvon Martin case, journalists quickly found themselves balancing conflicts between several different journalism values.

1) The social justice imperative: Journalists often seek to pursue social justice in their work, living up to Fourth Estate ideals of speaking up for those who lack power in society, opposing unfair treatment in government systems and holding big institutions accountable. In the Martin case, early reports suggested a white man might have gunned down a black teenager and received no prosecution or punishment, allowing journalists to feel free to even the score by bringing attention to the situation, amplifying the family’s calls for more information and prosecution of Zimmerman.

2) Accuracy and fuller context through diversity: In the early days of the case, as calls grew for Zimmerman’s arrest and prosecution, journalists of color added insights and urgency to the case by sharing their own experiences.

Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart wrote “one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions,” recounting the instruction he got as a teen on how to deal with police to stay safe.

Referencing Ralph Ellison’s classic novel The Invisible Man, the Miami Herald’s Pitts wrote “That’s one of the great frustrations of African-American life, those times when you are standing right there, minding your business, tending your house, coming home from the store, and other people are looking right at you, yet do not see you.”

What’s obvious, is that some media figures of color felt a personal stake in the Martin case that those unaffected by race prejudice or racial profiling may not have felt. And it led to some compelling pieces.

But was it fair for non-columnists and journalists who don’t express opinions to assume the case centered on racial profiling, when the man at the center of the case, shooter George Zimmerman, wasn’t telling his side of the story publicly, yet?

3) The need for accurate, yet impactful coverage: Forget political bias; most journalism outlets are biased toward being first to break news, dominating the story everyone is talking about and influencing the direction of the story by continuing to reveal information no one else has.

As interest in the story began to explode, news outlets crossed a number of lines in trying to find new information, from CNN using audio analysis of a 911 call to mistakenly conclude Zimmerman used a racial slur, to ABC examining blurry video of Zimmerman’s arrival at police headquarters in Sanford the night of the shooting to mistakenly theorize he might not have been injured in a fight with Martin as he claimed.

These three values, already in conflict as interest in the case began to heat up, collided with each other in earnest when the story took another turn:
The 911 tapes from the shooting were made public.

Lessons learned

The most maddening part of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a question which may never be fully answered: Was this killing motivated at all by race?

Absent direct evidence, the struggle for answers often pushed media into a fight over the images of both victim and killer.

If Zimmerman could be shown to have racial bias in his past, perhaps he acted on those biases when he saw a 17-year-old black kid he didn’t recognize in his housing development. If Martin could be shown as a “thug” – which increasingly seems a nice way of saying “violent, criminally inclined person of color” – then perhaps he was the one who began the confrontation which ended in his death.

This leads to one of biggest problems in covering race for journalists: the temptation to try and “prove” the person at the center of a controversial story is racist.

The impulse isn’t just misguided because it is often impossible to judge someone’s thinking on race by outside factors; such notions also assume that only bigots can act on unfair prejudices.

It is entirely possible that a person who doesn’t usually prejudge people of color might do so in a special circumstance – say, encountering that type of person at night on the street in a neighborhood where burglaries have been a problem. One of the early statements Zimmerman made in his 911 call was to tell the police dispatcher the area had a problem with break-ins.

Still, if trying to read minds is one of the biggest pitfalls of race coverage, the next biggest problem is equally troublesome: We only talk about race issues on a national level in a crisis.

I’ve written about this issue in the Tampa Bay Times and my own book, 2012’s “Race-Baiter”; too often, the impulse in race-tinged controversies is to hang lots of ancillary discussions on the event, because this is the only time the world is really paying attention.

A local TV news director once told me about the “myth of life” pitfall journalists can fall into while discerning what is newsworthy. He noted, too many journalists assumed that news was defined as events which violate the myths of how we think life should work – white suburbanites rarely are shot to death or black teens from poor neighborhoods never get into Ivy League colleges.

But such attitudes can keep journalists from seeing news in what happens every day – even when what happens daily is so horrific it would make the front pages of newspapers in most every other city instantly.

Given the “myth of life” issues with mainstream press, it’s no wonder so many commentators addressing the Martin case tried to talk about racial profiling, the stereotyping of young black males, the history of law enforcements role in enabling profiling and more.

It’s a dynamic which only gets worse as online and social media speeds up the news cycle. With so few nuggets of news connected to the real questions the audience wants answered, a default for some media outlets can involve talking about ancillary issues which can distract and complicate.

Years ago, you might have space in a news event where the focus would first fall on fact-gathering and reporting the story, with follow-up pieces devoted to the implications of the news and connected issues.

But these days, that process runs together. In the Zimmerman case – when news consumers needed as many facts about the case as journalists could provide – they instead got commentary, fact-based reporting and prognostication all wrapped up in one, often-toxic ball.

Other problems with covering issues of race often fall into four categories:

  • Reflex – We cover issues a certain way because we’ve always done it that way. Trusting police reports too much or failing to see the news in a teenager killed could be a result.
  • Fear – We fear being criticized for injecting race into a story, particularly if it isn’t the central issue.
  • Lack of history – We don’t understand the community we’re covering and their specific issues. Black resident in Sanford had specific gripes about how police treated them that many national media outlets didn’t discuss.
  • Avoidance – When a newsroom is diverse, sometimes staffers of color are expected to provide the bulk of coverage on issues relating to race. That’s not fair to the staffers or to the community, which deserves news outlets where every journalist is attentive to such stories and issues.

In this situation, the toughest task a journalist may face is ignoring the perceptions and judgments of the outside world to focus on telling the most accurate, incisive story possible.

This paper is being presented at a Poynter journalism ethics symposium in New York today at the Paley Center for Media, in partnership with craigconnnects, the Web-based initiative created by Craig Newmark. The event — which features John Paton, Clay Shirky, Eric Deggans, Ann Friedman, Gilad Lotan, Vadim Lavrusik, danah boyd, David Folkenflik and more — is being live streamed here. You can also follow and participate at #poynterethics, and catch up on the highlights in the Storify. || Related papers to be presented: Clay Shirky, “We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth” | danah boyd: Fear undermines an informed citizenry | These essays and symposium are part of a book on digital ethics to be published by Poynter and CQ Press. Read more


Video & highlights: Poynter symposium on journalism ethics in the digital age

Poynter convened a symposium in New York Tuesday at the Paley Center for Media, in partnership with craigconnnects, the Web-based initiative created by Craig Newmark. The event — which featured John Paton, Clay Shirky, Eric Deggans, Ann Friedman, Gilad Lotan, Vadim Lavrusik, danah boyd and more — was live streamed; you can now view the videos below. You can also follow the follow-up at #poynterethics, and catch up on the highlights in the Storify below. || Related papers presented: Clay Shirky, “We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth” | danah boyd: Fear undermines an informed citizenry | Eric Deggans on lessons from the Trayvon Martin coverage | These essays and symposium are part of a book on digital ethics to be published by Poynter and CQ Press. Read more

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The ethics of fear and how it undermines an informed citizenry

Fear is a powerful emotion. When people are afraid, they react. It can also be put to use. When people have a vested interest in motivating other people to react, they may try to capture their attention through fear.

Thanks to the Internet, people have more access to more information at their fingertips than ever before in human history. Yet, this creates a new challenge for those who are trying to produce and disseminate information. What has emerged is an “attention economy,” where capturing people’s attention can often be challenging. Organizations that depend on people’s attention – including news media – go to great lengths to seize their focus by any means possible.

In a fast-moving information landscape, fear can sell almost as well as sex. Fearful headlines draw people in by capitalizing on their concerns and anxieties. Politicians, pundits, and journalists use fear mongering to draw attention to issues, often justified as informing the public. The more limited the channel – or the more likely that someone will walk on by – the more tempting it is to use exaggerated and fear-producing frames.

From soundbytes to headlines to tweets, quick and dirty messages are designed to provoke reaction. TV news and radio talk show programming use auditory queues, linguistic patterns, and segment cliffhangers in order to entice people to stay attentive. Fear is regularly employed because it works. Fear generates attention and helps draw in an audience.

As our society grows increasingly networked, our attention faces a critical crossroads. On one hand, we are presented with increasing volumes of information and our access to available sources of information continues to grow. Meanwhile, our time and attention is still severely limited and, increasingly, commoditized. Given these conflicting trends, the battle for people’s attention is likely to grow. But at what costs? And with what implications?

Democracy depends on an informed citizenry and, ideally, the role of the journalist is to inform the public. But, in a capitalist-oriented society, the product of a journalist’s efforts must be valued in commercial terms. Thus, journalists and editors are not simply pursuing stories to inform the public; they are selecting for narratives that will entice desirable viewers in order to appease advertisers. Given these very real pressures, how should we understand the ethics of using fear to increase attention? …

Capturing attention, at whatever cost

The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear. In the 1970s, the scholar Herbert Simon argued that “in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

His arguments give rise both to the notion of “information overload” but also to the “attention economy.” In the attention economy, people’s willingness to distribute their attention to various information stimuli create value for said stimuli. Indeed, the economic importance of advertisements is predicated on the notion that getting people to pay attention to something has value.

News media is tightly entwined with the attention economy. Newspapers try to capture people’s attentions through headlines. TV and radio stations try to entice people to not change the channel. And, indeed, there is a long history of news media leveraging fear to grab attention, often with a reputational cost. Yellow journalism tarnished newspapers’ credibility with scary headlines intended to generate sales. The history of radio and television is sullied with propaganda as political ideologues leveraged social psychology to shape the public’s opinion.

Now, along comes social media. Social media brings with it massive quantities of information – unscripted, unedited, and uncurated. Going online is like swimming in an ocean of information. The very notion of being able to consume everything is laughable, even as many people are still struggling to come to terms with “information overload.” Some respond by avoiding environments where they’ll be exposed to too much information. Others try to develop complicated tactics to achieve balance. Still others are failing miserably to find a comfortable relationship with the information onslaught.

Given the increase of information and media, those who want people to consume their material are fighting an uphill battle to get their attention. Anyone who does social media marketing knows how hard it is to capture people’s attention in this new ecosystem.

The more stimuli there are competing for your consideration, the more that attention seekers must fight to incentivize you to look their way. More often than not, this results in psychological warfare as attention-seekers leverage any and all emotions to draw people in. …

When I was a child, the size of the paper and the length of the news hour limited the amount of information that a news media outlet could disseminate. When CNN took news to a 24-7 format and talk radio emerged, more news was needed to fill the time. Rather than using that time to unpack complex geopolitical news, most news channels took to increasing their coverage of juicy stories – gossip about celebrities, biopics on everyday people, and stories about the grotesque, bizarre, or esoteric.

The local news mantra “If it bleeds, it leads” went to another level such that people heard about horrible things happening outside of their local world. The shift to the Internet has only increased this trend, as news media outlets report on man-eating snakes and meth-addicted parents letting their kids starve to death. Are these stories enticing? Definitely. But are they typical? Definitely not. Yet, when people hear stories of people, they imagine these people to be close to them.

News media is leveraging the Internet to broadcast stories and attract attention from viewers. To enable this, they often make it easy for viewers to spread stories via email, Facebook, or Twitter. What circulates is often the content with the least geopolitical consequence. Fearful messages spread, particularly stories that play into parental anxieties. When journalists are rewarded for viewership, there’s a perverse motivation to play into people’s attraction to freak shows and horror, regardless of the broader social consequences.

Journalists and news media are responding to existing incentives. They’re incentivized to generate audiences that they can then sell to advertisers. They’re incentivized to capture attention by any means possible. The underlying incentive to inform and educate is still there, but it’s muddied by the corporatized incentives to increase eyeballs. Left unchecked and incentivized to increase viewership at whatever costs, news media will continue to capitalize on fear and increase the culture of fear in the process. …

Combatting fear in an attention economy

In an attention economy, the brokerage of attention is a form of power. What news media covers and how it covers it matter. There’s a fine line between creating an informed citizenry and creating a fearful citizenry.

Just as journalists think through the consequences of covering suicides in their reporting, so too must they be thoughtful about how they choose to cover issues that induce, promote, or spread fear. Capturing people’s attention is critical, but increasing societal fear in order to capture attention has significant consequences that must be considered. Journalists and news agencies have an ethical responsibility to account for the externalities of their reporting.

As we fully embrace a networked society, we need to consider what guiding principles should influence decisions about the spread of information. I would argue that three principles should be at the center of contemporary journalistic practice:

  1. Journalists always make choices about what to cover and what not to cover. Maintain a commitment to creating an informed and healthy society and focus on stories that help the public better understand the complex world in which we live.
  2. Seek to avoid distortion and strive for nuance and accuracy, even when focused on soundbyte messaging.
  3. Never forget that journalism is a public good. All communication is impression management. Use language and messaging to combat fearful impressions and increase the public’s understanding.

Just as societies are dependent on information to enable citizenry, societies can be undermined and fragmented through fear. There is nothing neutral about the practice of reporting and it behooves journalists to draw from anthropologists and reflexively account for how their work affects the communities they serve. As our society gets increasingly networked, we need to hold onto the importance of creating a healthy citizenry. Key to that is a commitment to not allow fear to take over.

danah boyd is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research. This essay is part of a larger work on digital ethics to be published by Poynter and CQ Press. These ideas will be presented during a symposium in New York today at the Paley Center for Media, in partnership with craigconnnects, the Web-based initiative created by Craig Newmark. danah boyd will participate in a panel at 2:45 p.m. on “The Story: What Stories Do People Want and Need?” The event will be live streamed on, where there is also a complete schedule.

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Shirky: ‘We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth’

Here’s what the “post-fact” literature has right: the Internet allows us to see what other people actually think. This has turned out to be a huge disappointment. When anyone can say anything they like, we can’t even pretend most of us agree on the truth of most assertions any more.

The post-fact literature is built in part on nostalgia for the world before people like Bigfoot showed up in the public sphere, for the days when Newsweek reflected moderately liberal consensus without also providing a platform for orthographically-challenged wingnuts to rant about the President. People who want those days back tell themselves (and anyone else who will listen) that they don’t want to impose their views on anybody. They just want agreement on the facts.

But what would that look like, an America where there was broad agreement on the facts? It would look like public discussion was limited to the beliefs held by straight, white, Christian men. If the views of the public at large didn’t hew to the views of that group, the result wouldn’t be agreement. It would be argument.

Argument, of course, is the human condition, but public argument is not. Indeed, in most places for most of history, publicly available statements have been either made or vetted by the ruling class, with the right of reply rendered impractical or illegal or both. Expansion of public speech, for both participants and topics, is generally won only after considerable struggle, and of course any such victory pollutes the sense of what constitutes truth from the previous era, a story that runs from Martin Luther through Ida Tarbell to Mario Savio, the drag queens outside Stonewall, and Julian Assange.

* * *

There’s no way to get Cronkite-like consensus without someone like Cronkite, and there’s no way to get someone like Cronkite in a world with an Internet; there will be no more men like him, because there will be no more jobs like his. To assume that this situation can be reversed, and everyone else will voluntarily sign on to the beliefs of some culturally dominant group, is a fantasy. To assume that they should, or at least that they should hold their tongue when they don’t, is Napoleonic in its self-regard. Yet this is what the people who long for the clarity of the old days are longing for.

Seeing claims that the CIA staged the 9/11 attacks or that oil is an unlimited by-product of volcanism is enough to make the dear dead days of limited public speech seem like a paradise, but there are compensating virtues in our bumptious public sphere.

Consider three acts of mainstream media malfeasance unmasked by outsiders: Philip Elmer-DeWitt’s 1995 Time magazine cover story that relied on faked data; CBS News’s 2004 accusations against the President based on forged National Guard memos; and Jonah Lehrer’s 2011 recycling and plagiarism in work he did for the New Yorker and Wired. In all three cases, the ethical lapses were committed by mainstream journalists and unmasked by outsiders working on the Internet, but with very different responses by the institutions that initially published the erroneous material.

In Elmer-DeWitt’s case, he was given what seemed to be an explosive study on Internet pornography, but was in fact largely faked, and which he and the Time staff did not vet carefully. This was the basis for a Time cover story, his first. But the conclusions he drew seemed fishy, and a distributed fact-checking effort formed in response, largely organized on the digital bulletin board system called Usenet. It quickly became apparent that the research was junk; that the researcher that had given the report to Elmer-DeWitt was an undergraduate who faked the data; that the professors listed as sponsors had had little to do with it, and so on.

Elmer-DeWitt apologized forthrightly: “I don’t know how else to say it, so I’ll just repeat what I’ve said before. I screwed up. The cover story was my idea, I pushed for it, and it ran pretty much the way I wrote it. It was my mistake, and my mistake alone. I do hope other reporters will learn from it. I know I have.”

Almost no one saw this apology however, because he only said it online; the correction run by Time sought to downplay, rather than apologize for, misleading their readers, even though the core facts reported in the story were faked: “It would be a shame, however, if the damaging flaws in [the] study obscured the larger and more important debate about hard-core porn on the Internet.”

In 1995, Time could count on there being very little overlap between their readership and the country’s Internet users, so Elmer-DeWitt’s ethical lapse and subsequent apology could be waved away with little fear that anyone else could dramatize the seriousness of the article’s failings.

Contrast the situation a decade later. In 2004, when CBS News based a “60 Minutes Wednesday” story about President Bush’s time in the National Guard. Like the Elmer-DeWitt story, the CBS story was based on faked documents; like Elmer-DeWitt story, the forgery was discovered not by CBS itself or another professional media outlet, but by media outsiders working on the Internet; like the Elmer-DeWitt story, CBS spent most of its energy trying to minimize its lapse.

Unlike the Elmer-DeWitt story, however, the strategy didn’t work. Charles Johnson, blogging at Little Green Footballs, produced an animated graphic demonstrating that the nominally typewritten documents from the early 1970s were actually produced using the default font in Microsoft Word. By 2004, Internet use had become so widespread that the Time magazine tactic of writing off Internet users as a cranky niche was ineffective; Johnson’s work was so widely discussed that CBS couldn’t ignore it. When they finally did respond, CBS admitted that the documents were forged, that they did not check their authenticity carefully enough, that their defense of the reporters involved compounded the error, and that the lapse was serious enough to constitute a firing offense for the senior-most people involved, including Mary Mapes; Dan Rather resigned after some delay.

A more recent example of this pattern, almost a decade after the National Guard memos, was the science writer Jonah Lehrer’s use of recycled, plagiarized, or fabricated material, including, most famously, invented quotes from Bob Dylan. Again journalistic ethics were breached in mainstream publications — in Lehrer’s case, in writings for Wired and the New Yorker, and in his book “Imagine.” His lapses were uncovered not by anyone at Conde Nast, however. His most serious lapse was uncovered by Michael Moynihan, a writer and editor at Reason and Vice, who published his discovery of the Dylan fabrication in Tablet, an online-only magazine of Jewish life and culture. Moynihan’s revelations, the most damning of the criticisms Lehrer was then facing, precipitated his resignation from the New Yorker.

The Lehrer example demonstrates the completion of a pattern that we might call “after-the-fact checking,” visible public scrutiny of journalistic work after it is published. After-the-fact checking is not just knowledgeable insiders identifying journalistic lapses; that has always happened. Instead, the new pattern involves those insiders being able to identify one another, and collaborate on public complaint, and the concomitant weakening of strategies by traditional media for minimizing the effects of such lapses.

The difference between Elmer-DeWitt and Lehrer isn’t that the latter’s lapses were worse, it’s that the ability to hide the lapses has shrunk. The nominal ethics of journalism remain as they were, but the mechanisms of observation and enforcement have been transformed as the public’s role in the landscape has moved from passive to active, and the kind of self-scrutiny the press is accustomed to gives way to considerably more persistent and withering after-the-fact checking.

* * *

“Truth Lies Here” and related laments have correctly identified the changes in the landscape of public speech, but often misdiagnose their causes. We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth, but not because we have recently become pigheaded, naysaying zealots. We were always like that. It’s just that we didn’t know how many other people were like that as well. And, as Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba put it long ago, the Internet is a truth serum.

The current loss of consensus is a better reflection of the real beliefs of the American polity than the older centrism. There are several names for what constitutes acceptable argument in a society — the Overton Window, the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy — but whatever label you use, the range of things people are willing to argue with has grown.

There seems to be less respect for consensus because there is less respect for consensus. This change is not good or bad per se — it has simply made agreement a scarcer commodity across all issues of public interest. The erosion of controls on public speech have enabled Birthers to make their accusations against the President public; it also allows newly-emboldened groups — feminists, atheists, Muslims, Mormons — to press their issues in public, in opposition to traditional public beliefs, a process similar to gay rights post-Stonewall, but now on a faster and more national scale.

There’s no going back. Journalists now have to operate in a world where no statement, however trivial, will be completely secured from public gainsaying. At the same time, public production of speech, not just consumption, means that the policing of ethical failures has passed out of the hands of the quasi-professional group of journalists employed in those outlets, and has become another form of public argument.

This alters the public sphere in important ways.

The old days, where marginal opinions meant marginal availability, have given way to a world where all utterances, true or false, are a click away. Judgement about legitimate consensus is becoming a critical journalistic skill, one that traditional training and mores don’t prepare most practitioners for.

Journalists identify truth by looking for consensus among relevant actors. For the last two generations of journalism, the emphasis has been on the question of consensus; the question of who constituted a relevant actor was largely solved by scarcity. It was easy to find mainstream voices, and hard to find marginal or heterodox ones. With that scarcity undone, all such consensus would be destroyed, unless journalists start telling the audience which voices aren’t worth listening to as well.

A world where all utterances are putatively available makes “he said, she said” journalism an increasingly irresponsible form, less a way of balancing reasonable debate and more a way of evading the responsibility for informing the public. Seeking truth and reporting it is becoming less about finding consensus, which there is simply less of in the world, and more about publicly sorting the relevant actors from the irrelevant ones. They can no longer fall back on “experts,” as if every professor or researcher is equally trustworthy.

This is destroying the nominally neutral position of many mainstream outlets. Consider, as an example, Arthur Brisbane’s constitutional inability, as public editor of The New York Times, to process universal public disdain for his arguments against fact-checking politicians. His firm commitment to avoiding accusations of partisanship, even at the expense of accuracy, helped raise the visibility of the fact-checking movement in the 2012 Presidential campaign, as pioneered by PolitiFact and its peers. These fact-checking services have now become a new nexus of media power in the realm of political speech.

Yet Brisbane is onto something, though it may have more to do with self-preservation than with commitment to truth: a world where even mainstream news outlets tell their readers when politicians lie, or publicly assess various speakers’ relevance on any given issue, is a world where neither powerful public actors not advertisers will be automatically willing to trust, or or even cooperate with, the press.

Even as the erosion of consensus makes for an unavoidable increase in oppositional reporting, it also makes the scrutiny journalists face from their audience far more considerable than the scrutiny they face from their employers or peers. Trust in the press has fallen precipitously in the last generation, even as the press itself increasingly took on the trappings of a profession.

One possible explanation is that what pollsters and respondents characterized as “trust” was really scarcity — like the man with one watch, a public that got its news from a politically narrow range might have been more willing to regard those reinforced views as being an accurate picture of the world. Since Watergate, however, followed by increasingly partisan campaigning and governance, the lack of shared outlook among existing news producers, coupled with the spread of new, still more partisan producers, may have made this sort of trust impossible.

There’s no going back here either. Each organization will have to try to convince its audience that it is trustworthy, without being able to rely on residual respect for any such entity as “the press.” Any commitment to ethics will involve not just being more reactive to outsiders’ post-hoc review, but being more willing to attack other outlets for ethical lapses in public, more ready to publicly defend their own internal policies, rather than simply regarding ethical lapses as a matter for internal policing.

The philosophy of news ethics — tell the truth to the degree that you can, fess up when you get it wrong — doesn’t change in the switch from analog to digital. What does change, enormously, is the individual and organizational adaptations required to tell the truth without relying on scarcity, and hewing to ethical norms without the ability to use force.

This will make for a far more divisive public sphere, a process that is already under way. It’s tempting to divide these changes into Win-Loss columns to see whether this is a change for the better or the worse — Birthers bad, New Atheists good (re-label to taste) — but this sort of bookkeeping is a dead end. The effects of digital abundance are not trivially separable — the Birthers and the New Atheists used similar tools and techniques to enter the public sphere, as did the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. More importantly, the effects are not reversible. Even if we concluded that the collapse of moderate centrism as a neutral position was bad for the U.S., there would be no way to reverse the fortunes of the house organs for that philosophy.

Now, and from now on, journalists are going to be participants in a far more argumentative sphere than anything anyone alive has ever seen. The question for us is not whether we want this increase in argumentation — no one is asking us, and there is, in fact, no one who could ask us — but rather how we adapt ourselves to it as it unfolds. And the two tools we’re most practiced at using — scarcity of public speech, and force applied to defectors from mainstream consensus — are getting less viable every day.

This essay is part of a larger work on digital ethics to be published by Poynter and CQ Press. These ideas will be presented during a symposium in New York next week at the Paley Center for Media, in partnership with craigconnnects, the Web-based initiative created by Craig Newmark. Free tickets are available. The event will also be live streamed on, Tuesday, Oct. 23.

Correction: This post originally referenced Mario Silva instead of Mario Savio. Read more