Category Archives: Journalism

What Happened to Mainstream Journalist Ethics?

Question: Where are journalist ethics these days when we need them as much as ever? 

Walter Cronkite
Walter Cronkite television news 1976.

My answer: Real journalists are trying as hard as ever. The tradition of journalist ethics is strong inside the profession among those who are still operating as reporters of news. News values, the goal of objectivity, the need for facts and quotes, the ideal of objective truth lives on. They teach it in schools and the pros pass it on from one generation to the next.

When I look at what comes out of AP, Time, major network news, CNN, and MSNBC these days I see a lot of people trying to report the news as best they can. I see them respecting the difference between fact and opinion, trying to distinguish the one from the other, and trying to report as close to truth as they possibly can, looking for evidence to establish what’s true.

Journalist Ethics vs. So Much More Noise

But they face a lot more dissonance than they used to. There is tremendous competition for attention now, from…

Citizen news and social media in general. Twitter can literally supplant the professional journalists in some kinds of breaking news. Think earthquakes, hurricanes, crime. Cellphone videos spread on social media are eye-witness accounts on steroids. Instant news is real and its often quicker than professional news and just as true.

Agenda-driven social media in particular, the scourge of real reporting.  Like the social media deluge that may have affected voters in the last U.S. presidential election. And also brand-driven content marketing that looks like feature stories. We are in a world of competition for attention, and legitimate news reporting has way more competition than it used to.

Journalist Ethics vs. Manipulated News

Agenda-driven opinion masked as news. It acts like news. It competes with news. It started in the middle 1990s with the rise of Fox News. Now we have journalism driven not be traditional journalistic ethics but by political opinion acting as if it were news. So, for example, polls show tens of millions of people still, in 2017, believe something as obviously false as the birther allegations against former president Barack Obama. And just last December a poll showed that 49% of those polled believed ‘leaked email from some of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers contained code words for pedophilia, human trafficking and satanic ritual abuse.’ (Source: Polls reveal sobering extent of nation’s fact crisis.)

Radical change in the underlying structure of the business of news. For most of the second half of the 20th century, news was paid for by advertising. To maximize the revenue, news had to stay in the middle and bring in people from both sides. Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley and their peers needed to stay balanced, honor facts, and stay as objective as possible to maximize the audience. Fox news changed that. And now the business model is changing, as advertising is less important, the audiences are bigger, and appealing to tribes on right or left is commercially attractive. Reporters in several major news outlets are paid according to social media engagement, not traditional measures of good reporting.

Where I’m ‘coming from’

I was a reporter and foreign correspondent with United Press International three years and McGraw-Hill World News for five years. I have a master’s degree in Journalism (with honors). Decades ago I switched careers for software and entrepreneurship. But I continued to follow journalism as columnist, and, for more than 10 years now, blogger and follower of, and writer about, social media. I write a column in my local newspaper. And I’ve had a daily news habit, reading the news, following the news, for 60 years.

Source: This is based on my answer, in Quora. The question is Are modern journalists as concerned with objectivity and factual accuracy as they were in the past?.

Image: By U.S. News & World Report photographer Thomas J. O’Halloran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Decline of Real Journalism and Fake News are Cause and Effect

These are related trends: the decline of traditional journalism and the emergence of fake news everywhere.

I’ve accidentally chronicled the decline of journalism in this blog, with occasional posts over the last 10 years. Check out the category journalism here and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, suddenly, so-called fake news is a big issue.

Is that a surprise? We’ve severely discounted the traditional processes related to editing and news values and journalistic ethics that drove our culture for most of the last century. We chose social media instead. We gave the tweet and Facebook post the same credence we used to give to the newspaper and network news.

And, voila, fake news is a problem. What do we do about it?

Fake News

Headlines: Naked, Vicious, Brutal, and So Forth

1972 Tim Berry Mexico City
That’s me there in the UPI office in Mexico City in 1972

I was 26 years old. Married, already a father, but still, so young, and so full of illusions. I still thought – although I was starting to wonder – journalism could be about changing the world for the better. And not at all ready to accept the truth as Matt Kenny presented it to me that night, beer in hand, in a bar in Mexico City.

“Tim,” Matt said, “you have to learn about 50 words that will almost guarantee you play in the papers.” He swallowed. He looked at me and frowned. “But first I have to warn you,” he said, shaking his head, “you’re probably not going to like it.”

He swallowed again, then started listing the words:

“naked, violent, brutal, cruel, vicious, rape, clash, showdown, face-off, fists, bare, nude, stripped, fight … “

I can’t remember them all. Using these words, and combinations of them, Matt told me, would guarantee much better readership. Headlines with these words beat all other news stories.

This was in 1974.  Matt Kenny, 50-something, gray hair, glasses, and quick to smile, was day editor for United Press International in Mexico City. I was night editor. Matt had been with UPI longer than I’d been alive.  We were at that bar together that night because I Matt was a nice guy, a teacher at heart, and I was annoyed at him. So he took me out for a beer, to explain. To teach. And what he taught me 44 years ago is still true today. It’s true about headlines, readership, traffic, and people. Matt’s 50 words still work.

I was annoyed at Matt because a few days before he had rewritten my lead about a Kon-Tiki-like raft trip arriving on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. I covered the story live, from Cozumel, and Matt handled it on the desk. It was a scientific expedition, a social science experiment, or so said the adventurous organizer. I wrote a lead focusing on the science, the experiment. Matt rewrote my lead to emphasize “suntanned bikini-clad” women and the co-ed journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft. He took the science out of it, and replaced it with the sex.

United Press International, alias UPI, was a wire service with generations of history as the “other wire service,” the competition to Associated Press, AP, which still lives today. Mexico City was an outpost. We filed stories from Mexico City to the New York editors. The system gave the editors in New York our first sentence only, as they scanned new stories coming in. From that one line they decided whether or not they wanted to see the first paragraph.

Matt was right, of course; I didn’t like it. And he was right about headlines. Matt Kenny was not unhappy or bitter or cynical or even hard-boiled. He was a pro. He did his job well. Matt’s 50 words don’t tell us anything about him — I liked him a lot, was proud to work with him — but they tell us a lot about us. I’ve seen it over and over in the years since. I see it in the coverage of politics, news, and life in general, not just in news media, but throughout social media. And in email subject lines too. That’s who we are. It’s not the media; it’s us. Now, about violence and the primary elections … do you think this is related?

(Image: that’s me in the picture, in 1972, in the UPI Mexico City Bureau, photo by David Navarro)

50 Years of Truth vs. Opinion, Facts, Truthiness

Something happened to truth in the last 50 years or so. Where once we had the ideal of objective truth based on evidence, we now have contentious argumentative truth, based on opinion and belief. And I miss the old kind. Let’s look at two divided nations, ours in 1968, and ours in 2016, and how they deal with truth. I like the old way better.

1968: truth, evidence, and facts in a troubled time

TruthLet me take you back to 1968. I was in college. The U.S. was in the throes of the war in Vietnam. The country split apart over the war, civil rights, free speech, the military industrial establishment, and a presidential election. President Lyndon Johnson faced opposition inside the Democratic party from Robert Kennedy, first – but Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated that same Spring, and we had riots in a dozen major cities. Newspapers and television news called them race riots, but they echoed the frustration of an entire generation all over the world. There were riots that year in Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, and many other cities. Johnson stepped away from re-election. It became Hubert Humphrey, the liberal senator, vs. Richard Nixon, the former vice president.

And in the background, we, as a society, believed in old-fashioned objective truth. We actually argued over evidence, with the shared conviction that evidence and validation of facts mattered. For example, those of us who opposed the war in Vietnam believed the government was hiding the objective evidence related to casualties, progress of the war, raids on Cambodia, and so on. Those who supported the war believed the government’s press released described the truth. Those of us who believed in sweeping change on civil rights believed that separate could not be equal, and those who fought for status quo insisted it could.

So we argued about the evidence, which we believed was a matter of finding the facts. Were we winning the war in Vietnam, or not? Were we supporting a government that represented its people in Vietnam, or not? Had we invaded Cambodia, or not? Was separate but equal acceptable, or not?

2016: Truth as repetition of opinion

Please notice the difference between then and now. Back then we believed that objective truth, which we called evidence, or facts, would end arguments. Today we don’t. The U.S. economy today isn’t growing or not, healthy or not, based on gross national product growth rates, unemployment, or other objective numbers. Instead, we nurture two radically different truths, depending on where we stand in polarized politics.

As you read this, you know exactly what I mean.

For example, unemployment is down to about 5% now, from more than 10% seven years ago. The economy is producing jobs now, hundreds of thousands per month, instead of losing jobs seven years ago. Those numbers prove something to some of us, and prove nothing to others. Each side has its arguments.

For another example, a recent poll showed that significant numbers of Americans believe President Obama was not born in the United States. And significant numbers believe he is Muslim. A couple of generations ago, arguments on those points would have been ended by what we then believed were objective facts, also called evidence. Today, however, evidence is discounted. There are no objective facts. Everything is based on what we believe.

Back then we looked to statistics and reliable middle-of-the-road journalists. Now we look for crackpots. If you don’t agree with me, my sources are crackpots to you. And your sources are crackpots to me.

I noticed the other day in a comment stream on my local newspaper. One commenter challenged another for evidence. The other responded with URLs of blog posts by crackpots. The act of publishing used to imply fact checking and reliability, and, therefore, factds and evidence. Opinion was there too, but set aside as opinion. Now opinion (of crackpots) is pushed forward as evidence. We seek what comedian Steven Colbert called “truthiness.”

The business of fractured truth

I studied Journalism in grad school in 1970 and 1971. Journalistic ethics were a big deal back then. The country generally depended on a slowly declining number of newspapers and three major television networks for news. The journalists of that time generally recognized that objective truth, based on evidence, was technically impossible but still the ideal, the goal. They strove to disclose their bias while still aiming for objective truth. They wanted evidence. Opinion was rampant, but there was the idea that opinion and truth were different things.

One thing that has happened, since then, is that the market for truth split into segments. In 1968 any major news source could only make money by uniting an entire audience around the goal of objective truth based on evidence. Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley need to stay in the middle, to seem unbiased, to optimize the audience and the potential revenue of news. Today the market is so much bigger, so much more splintered, that even large news organizations can make money by addressing only specific segments. So the phenomenon of segmentation that used to drive a few niche magazines can now drive entire news networks. Roger Ailes showed the world a new way to make money in the middle 1990s, with Fox News.

It’s now a common behavior: opinion, repeated often enough, serves as a surrogate for truth. Evidence is discounted, ignored, or manufactured. People are citing blog posts with wild claims and bizarre opinion as if they were evidence.

And that’s bad. I miss arguing over evidence. And I miss arguments that end with facts.

Will Web Metrics Kill Professional Journalism?

The crumbling of mainstream journalism worries me. But am I just being nostalgic? Was it really that good in the past?

newspapers, Journalism, mainstream journalism, trends in journalism

The Portland Oregonian, one of the grand old daily newspapers they used to use an example when I was in J-school in 1971, and is still printing big paper newspapers every day, is changing the game for its reporters. They’re going to be paid for traffic. They have to post often on the live website. The should “stir up conversations among reader.” (More on that below)

David Carr followed the announcement with a thoughtful New York Times post on the underlying trend. Old-guard journalism seeking new-world eyeballs. (more on that below). 

Paying journalists for traffic, and eyeballs? Carr suggests ironically:

Gee, it’s almost like news is supposed to be a business or something.

I’m worried too. I’ve posted about my worries for journalism occasionally on this blog for years. I’m most worried about who pays for local coverage and investigative journalism as advertising fades out of journalism and into other media. 

But, trends aside, in respect for truth, when I was mainstream journalist, foreign correspondent in Mexico, during the 1970s …

  • In the wire services agencies, Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), we got scores for every major story. Literally. While I was a foreign correspondent for United Press (1971-1974) my workday began with metrics. They tracked how many newspapers used our story against how many newspapers used the AP story for every major story. The scores looked like football scores, 15-10, 7-3, and like that. 
  • When I was a foreign correspondent for McGraw-Hill, writing for Business Week and other McGraw-Hill magazines, I got paid by the column inch. The more inches published, the higher the monthly check. 

Was it the same thing then, like now? No. There was a conceptual firewall back then. Although we all knew our salaries depended on our employers’ revenue, but we didn’t connect that to the quality, content, length, or frequency of the stories we submitted. By “we” I mean me, my colleagues at UPI, competitors at AP, friends in the correspondents’ club who worked for major newspapers, magazines, and television networks. 

And back then we believed in Journalism as a profession. We cared about the quality of the news and being objective, and — yes — having facts and attribution. Those of us who didn’t get that like I did, in grad school, got it from their peers. I mentioned the foreign correspondents’ club in Mexico City. We met once a month. We also played squash, and chess. And when there was a big story, we’d see each other at the scene, and share stories. 

Here’s more detail on the new trend: 

Here’s what Willamette Week (a competitor) reported

The new policy, shown to the editorial staff in a PowerPoint presentation in late February, provides that as much as 75 percent of reporters’ job performance will be based on measurable web-based metrics, including how often they post to

Beat reporters will be expected to post at least three times a day, and all reporters are expected to increase their average number of posts by 40 percent over the next year.
In addition, reporters have been told to stir up online conversations among readers.

“On any post of substance, reporter will post the first comment,” the policy says. “Beat reporters [are to] solicit ideas and feedback through posts, polls and comments on a daily basis.”

The Oregonian will hand out yearly bonuses—if the finances of the company allows it—to reporters who exceed these goals. The policy says “final performance ratings will determine merit pay.”

David Carr’s post was this one: Risks Abound as Reporters Play in Traffic – He identified a trend, and cited multiple indications of it. He said: 

The availability of ready metrics on content is not only changing the way news organizations compensate their employees, but will have a significant effect on the news itself.

And this:

And journalism’s status as a profession is up for grabs. A viral hit is no longer defined by the credentials of an individual or organization. The media ecosystem is increasingly a pro-am affair, where the wisdom — or prurient interest — of the crowd decides what is important and worthy of sharing.

Can Journalism Preserve Truth over Appearances?

Are you a parent? Do you deal with two squabbling kids by assuming it takes two to fight, so you scold them both? 

That may be good parenting. But it’s bad journalism. 

Traditional Journalism is obviously threatened by technology, the crumbling of media advertising economics, distraction of blurring lines between online gossip and news, the cult of celebrity … we all pretty much understand that … but is partisan politics and the illusion of middle ground a bigger threat that we don’t even realize? 

James Poniewozik Time Magazines Both Sides

I was struck over the weekend by what I thought was a brilliant alert in a Time Magazine column by James Poniewozik, media critic. Reflecting on Journalism and media, he asks: 

What do you do when the facts of a situation are such that to describe them accurately will make you sound biased?

He add this: 

This month’s fiscal crisis is one such situation. One party (in fact, essentially one wing of the Republican party), seeking the elimination or delay of Obamacare, precipitated a government shutdown and threatened to force a default on U.S. debt. Period. 

That’s the situation. To accurately describe it, as news coverage should, is not to endorse an ideology. 

And your reaction to that depends on your politics. Right? If you accept his summary, then you’re in the Obama, Jon Stuart, Bill Maher camp. If you object, you’re in the opposite camp with Fox News and friends. 

So where’s truth in this? What’s the right reporting for the professional journalists? 



The Irony: Complaining about Linkbait with Linkbait

Here’s an irony: Mashable’s thoughtful post titled Stop Linkbait Before It Ruins Content Marketing is surrounded by linkbait. 

And what’s there on the right, in the sidebar? An ad, then “what’s hot,” one about an injured kitten and the other about Justin Bieber. Both of which are, well, linkbait. Right? 

The post, by Sam Slaughter, starts like this:

“You’ve clicked them before: ‘5 Things Preventing You From Becoming a Billionaire,’ ‘The Secret Video Obama Doesn’t Want You to See’ and the ever-insidious ‘[Hot Female Celeb’s] Wardrobe Malfunction.’

It seems harmless enough linkbait, but stories like these have the potential to kill content marketing.”

In Sam’s defense, he’s not — despite the title — just complaining about linkbait tactics. Instead, he has serious suggestions, and reminders, of how content can and ought to be different from linkbait. 

The title got my attention because it seemed like one of those impossible quests to change humanity. The linkbait phenomenon he writes about is, like spam, the natural result of what people, en masse, choose to click on. It’s related to the same human phenomenon that sensationalizes headlines, yellow journalism, television news, and tabloids. It’s as old as journalism. I ran into it more than 30 years ago, as a young journalist in Mexico City. And it’s still there today. 


Compare And Contrast These 2 Blog Pub Strategies

Yesterday my email stream included two starkly contrasting approaches to getting links and mentions from bloggers. 

email blog link bait

One offered me free guest posts, supposedly good quality posts on relevant business topics. The email had links to examples. It’s author said…

Having graduated in International Business and Journalism a few years ago, Ive covered everything from global politics to local news, economics, sustainability issues and a lot in between.

Sounds good, right? But what about this:

I work on behalf of one of my business clients, and as long as I am able to link to them within the content (in a related and subtle manner) 

Ouch. No thanks. I’m not an attorney so I don’t know, but I thought the FTC had issued guidelines for bloggers that rule out that practice. If it isn’t illegal it’s still sleazy. 

And in contrast to that, yesterday I also received an email from somebody at suggesting I should link to that site’s video titled Why Women Make Better Business Leaders. I don’t know that organization, I don’t endorse it, but I do like the fact that they generate good (in my opinion) content and make it available. They don’t offer to pay me. They just do good stuff. 

So I posted about the video, and it included it embedded, earlier today on our companion blog Up and Running. And tagged on both posts. 

And — let me make this clear — I have no deal, no incentive, no financial interest. I just liked the content they offered. And it’s not the first time. I think this is what that organization is doing to win some links. 

Content is king? Yes, I think it’s pretty important. And self-serving links (in a related and subtle manner) are not. 

Good News for Local Journalism — I Hope

Eugene Register Guard newspaper journalism

This week what my local (Eugene, Oregon) newspaper is doing with an iPad app makes me feel better about the future of journalism in the new online age.

I’ve got a newspaper habit. I begin my day with the local paper. While I make my coffee and gather a breakfast, a browse the headlines, and read the stories that appeal to me.

So what’s changed? This morning instead of going downstairs and grabbing the paper outside of my front door, I turned to my iPad beside my bed and had the paper in front of me five minutes earlier, and in a much more convenient format.

The app itself isn’t the news. It does about the same thing the majors (New York Times, Huffington Post, USA Today, etc.) do: it puts the paper in its real layout onto my iPad. I can scroll around the page with my finger, pinch it to enlarge portions, tap an arrow to go to the next section.

What is a big deal, to me, is that this is a local paper. My local newspaper, the Register Guard. In a town of about 150,000, in a metropolitan area of about 250,000 maximum. And its iPad app. And it is covering local news, as you can see in the illustration: That day’s front page included a governor’s visit to local schools. I would not have gotten that news from any of the majors.

Why do I care? Precisely because it’s not one of the majors. It’s a local newspaper. Its very existence solves some of my long-term concerns:

  • I’ve worried that people think social media somehow replaces journalism. Bad idea. Useful for breaking news, of course (there are lots of examples). But investigative journalism? No. Local news? No.
  • I’ve worried that major nationwide media (New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Huffington Post) unintentionally overwhelm the economics local coverage.
  • I’ve worried that the advertising model, particularly the classifieds, is threatened by the efficiency and functionality of online ads. And Craig’s List and friends.
  • And I’ve worried that investigative journalism, valuable as it is, is hard to do, takes training and experience, and doesn’t happen with the economics of social media. Huffington and NYTimes and friends will hold that up for major issues, but not for local.

They — the owners of the local paper — do charge money for it. The iPad edition is $1.99 per week as an introductory price, and free to subscribers of the physical paper, who pay $16.50 per month. That seems perfectly fair to me. In fact, I approve, because I want them to make enough money to stay in business. And if I subscribe to just the iPad version, it’s cheaper than the physical newspaper. If it were just me, I’d be iPad-only, but I’m not the only newspaper reader in my household.

So this is good news. And with this development, it looks like maybe local coverage in our area will continue even as newsprint becomes scarce and expensive and the physical paper dies out. For more on that local stuff, the illustration below shows the front page of the regional/local section, which is all local news. So there is hope.

The Difference Between a Journalist and a Blogger

What’s the difference between a journalist and a blogger? I see this from both sides because I was mainstream journalist for 10 years in the 1970s, then entrepreneur and consultant, software guy, and lately I blog a lot. 

A real journalist tries to tell the objective truth, reports facts fairly, strives for balance, and discloses bias. Technology hasn’t changed the fundamentals. 

Real journalists have opinions. Editorial writers and columnists are also journalists, not just reporters. But if it’s real journalism, opinions are framed as opinions, declared openly, and not masked as facts. 

So I say lots of bloggers are journalists. And a lot of people writing for or appearing on mainstream news media are not. 

Earlier today I posted Are Tech Conferences Distorting the Business News? over on I linked there to a trio of posts debating the ethics of the New York Times Dealbook conference, which brought tech company leaders together with opinion leaders and journalists. 

Dave calls this “access journalism.” He makes it seem sinister. He quotes the New York Times’  own columnist Margaret Sullivan writing, in her column, that the event made her “a little queasy. It didn’t include …

…A great deal of distance between sources and those who cover them — something traditionally thought to be a bedrock journalistic idea.

Dave links back to the early days of Silicon Valley in the 1980s and some run-ins he had with journalists and the dark side of popularity, plugs, and mixing business relationships with news reporting. 

And I say that’s been going on forever.  There are some very practical natural phenomena related to what Dave Winer is calling “access journalism:” 1.) Good journalism wants to quote legitimate sources to turn opinions into reporting. 2.) You can’t quote people you can’t reach. 3.) Good quotable experts and well-positioned people are good to know; access to those people is good to have.

In fact, tech conferences notwithstanding, What I love about these days in reporting and journalism is that access is orders of magnitude easier today than it was when I was doing it in the 1970s. We depended on phone calls to gatekeepers (assistants, receptionists, etc.) and treasured relationships that have us a direct telephone number, which was as good as it got. Journalists these days, who can easily use email and Twitter, have no idea how good they have it (in comparison to then). 

The ethics haven’t changed. Accessibility has.