More than six months have passed since the great Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011. And thus more than six months have passed since I started the Bad Journalism Wall of Shame. Although entries still trickle in (reporting on Fukushima in particular continues to be sensationalistic and unscientific), the Wall’s heyday has passed, so it seems like a good time for me to gather together my thoughts about it.
The Wall became more than I had intended it to be. As I’ve written before, I did not expect it to go international, and I did not expect so many people to read it and submit stories. I also did not expect the media attention around the issue (although, interestingly, other than a student paper in New Zealand, the Berliner Zeitung. and the Columbia Review of Journalism, and one or two other small outfits/bloggers, no international media source that ran the story bothered contacting me or anyone involved—many of them just reprinted the dismissive Japan Times story that didn’t even give the link to the site).
Having said that, I think that the Wall, ultimately, was a failure. I know that a few people might disagree with me, but I mean a failure in the sense that the Wall’s potential was not achieved and that there are lessons to be learned by acknowledging that failure.
But let’s start out with the positive. What did the Wall of Shame accomplish? Some of these items are general, and some of them are personal to me.
- Documented the great anger that prevailed over the media coverage.
- Provided material for an upcoming Theatre production
- Introduced me to a bunch of people I never would have met otherwise
- Did manage to document a number of actual, in-the-flesh, bad pieces of journalism
- Did generate several offline discussions about the state of journalism
Now for the negatives. What did the wall fail to do?
- Failed to initiate a productive discussion online about the state of journalism
- Failed to generate or motivate any action on the part of news organizations
- Failed to compile a high-quality list of bad articles.
I’ve done a lot of pondering over the last three months about what I might have done differently, and come to the conclusion that, erm, not much. There are things I would have liked to have done differently in terms of setting up the wall, but to this day I don’t know of a single way to combine the wiki-ness that I wanted (i.e. people could contribute and edit, but be identifiable by user names, discuss entries, edit others’ entries, etc.) and the the ease-of-use that I needed without creating a very custom solution. My use of wikispaces originally caused a lot of problems because a number of contributors couldn’t figure out how to use the tables… and worse than that, the tables couldn’t be easily exported (for, say, alphabetical sorting). The switch to Google Spreadsheets allowed people to submit with no technical knowledge required, but made the submission process irrevocable and anonymous.
The fix I (and my five valiant editors) tried to apply by creating an edited version of the wall didn’t really do the trick either.
But, I really don’t think, in hindsight, that we could have done much better.
However, moving forward, I do have some ideas of what should be done.
Since March, I’ve thought up and discarded grandiose ideas for fixes to the problem of sensationalism and the status quo of journalism, including:
- Treating journalists like we treat other professionals like lawyers, dentists, etc.
- pay is higher for members of the professional organization
- licensing is required and can be revoked
- there are written standards and set consequences for not meeting those standards
- eliminate the profit motive of news organizations
- funding is transparent; donors must be listed OR run through a separate agency in such a way that the news organizations have no specific donors
These methods wouldn’t work for a number of reasons. First of all, they all require a massive change to how the economics of news works today. Furthermore, the first solution has the problem that if the professional organization is compromised/corrupted, then all reporting is similarly compromised or corrupted.
The second solution has the problem that non-profits are more heavily vulnerable to government regulation, and in some countries (and to some people), this move might be seen as a nationalization of the media (which I think we can all agree is a very bad thing when it actually happens). While, philosophically, I think that all corporations should be non-profits, I realize that this is not currently a viable solution.
Both of the proposed solutions also marginalize or exclude the emerging ‘citizen journalist’ movement, which, while frequently frustrating and annoying and low quality, has become an important part of the modern news landscape.
The best I’ve been able to come up with, then, for the future, is this:
An International Media Watchdog Organization, which will rate all news organizations and sites, is non-profit and has a number of permanent employees. Readers submit articles that they think are incorrect, or factually wrong, and those articles are evaluated by editors. Evaluation is done using a grading system and a short summary.
All media organizations start out with the highest rating possible (let’s call it 10 stars), and ratings will be lowered by a set amount based on submitted stories. Organizations can get their rating raised again by prominently issuing retractions/corrections. Media ratings are displayed on the watchdog website, and can be searched using several criteria. Individual journalists and pieces can be searched as well. (It’s possible that individual journalists could have a rating as well, but that might be problematic for several reasons, not the least of which being that two or more people could have the same name.)
There’s a little more to it than this, but those are the essentials. The advantage of this system is that it does not require the participation or cooperation of the Media corporations themselves. It simply gives readers the ability to research a particular news story (a la Snopes.com), or, if a story is not yet in the database, to check out the trustworthiness (by rating) of the publisher of that story. The other advantage is that it doesn’t stop anyone from publishing anything. Mr. 9/11 Truther McGillicutty can still run his blog about how 9/11 was caused by the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa; the watchdog NPO might give it a bad review/rating, but that’s not the same as preventing him from publishing (and true believers won’t care anyway).
If this caught on, and people learned to check stories on the watchdog site, then the media corporations (and individual bloggers too, I suppose), would actually have a economic incentive to keep a high rating.
I think it could work. I really do.
And that’s the main lesson I learned from making the Wall of Shame site.