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Editors and publishers fail when transparency is absent in reader “comments”

By
Monday, July 17th, 2017

Where the media falls down so badly so often is in its approach to stories.

Slanted and misleading headlines, hyperbolic and unsubstantiated reporting that’s short on facts and long on opinion, and manufactured outrage probably are the worst of what stands for journalism today.

But that’s simply the content that lives above the comment line. What of the interactive, social aspects of today’s journalism?

Well, that can be all forms of awful, too.

According to a report released July 12 by the Pew Institute, four of 10 Americans have experienced online harassment, 18 percent have been threatened in some way for sharing their point of view, and more than 60 percent consider this form of harassment a problem.

If you operate a news media site and allow the online forums to fester with hateful comments when matters are less important, they implode when real issues arise.

Most traditional media companies are so stripped down that they don’t have the resources to monitor comments and, as a matter of creating some visibility, have turned to Facebook comments to create some transparency. Oh, sure, they’ll take the clicks, but the responsibility for the environment? Not so much.

Others, well, I am not sure what they’re doing or if they are adhering to their own criteria because the inclusions and extractions appear arbitrary and capricious. One moment, a seemingly innocuous comment is there. The next time you might visit the site to see how people responded to your comment, but what you wrote is gone. Why? Nobody knows. For readers, the absence of continuity is jarring.

More than a decade ago, a daily newspaper and digital news site in greater Chicago I oversaw became one of the first in the country to allow comments on stories. We had this functionality and interactivity before any of the U.S. metropolitan newspapers had entered into the space. At that time, there was great debate whether the voice of the reader belonged alongside the journalism that had been published.

During my tenure as executive editor there, I saw comments as a meaningful way to interact with readers, and it provided explosive online growth at what was the onramp to the internet for most newspapers seeking to grow a digital presence.

We wanted to engage with the communities that we served. We believed, correctly, that our reporting was not the final word. We were part of a discussion – a significant part, but a part nonetheless. And we wanted meaningful conversations to occur around our reporting, because that is what journalists should strive to achieve.

We opened our online comments – I believe in 2005 – without rules, without filters, without any parameters at all really. It was a new frontier, so nobody knew what to expect.

Iterations ensued that required registration with a confirmed email, a profanity filter, and comments to remain in line with the subject of the story. It was an early handle on this key element of community building, interaction and balancing the newspaper’s standards with the community’s contributions that earned the 2007 Chicago Headline Club’s Lisagor Award for best website (over the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, et. al.) and an innovator of the year award from Local Media Association (an organization that then was called Suburban Newspapers of America).

The online community on our news site was vibrant, somewhat civil, oftentimes humorous, and with balanced and interesting points of view that – on occasion – brought new information or insight to the story. Because we served to include our community, we welcomed a reasonable amount of readers who came in without bringing their flaming torches or pitchforks.

There is nothing more essential to our democracy than the protections provided by the First Amendment. But if you want to hijack a discussion and run away with it on someone else’s news site, you’re not practicing discourse. Stay with the story. Participate in the discussion germane to that story. Be civil. Be frank, but be civil.

Civility may be too much to ask, though, as a story as innocuous as a local lemonade stand could elicit tangential commentary from trolls and wing nuts. Any digital forum, in particular those that welcome comments without accountability for them, can be hijacked by people far less interested in discussion and far more interested in hit-and-run bomb-throwing.

For publishers, a hands-off approach to comments on your site isn’t good ethical practice. It’s malpractice.

If you operate a site, and welcome guests to comment, your guests should adhere to house rules. So, as a site operator, basic rules should be determined that welcome discussion. Be clear about them; and fairly apply them.

And, to evolve the thinking, any organization that would seek to control the comments on their site through deceptive means (cloaking, fire-starting provocation, et al) is equally bad practice and, frankly, unethical.

Anyone who administers a site that allows comments knows the value of comments. And the law is on the side of the site owner. A site owner incurs no more responsibility for what is written on their “wall” than the landlord of a building whose alley-facing fence would for the scrawling from a graffiti artist. It’s actually one of my favorite aspects of digital news, because light reveals truth – right there in front of God and everyone else.

Trolls, flamer-throwers, and other cowards make some news media sites run. They drive more traffic than the content itself. Some editors say they deplore them. But they know readers like them, and visitors return again and again to see what the newest screed says.

Online comments have become the media’s click machine, powering their sites by blowing breath into what otherwise can be so-so stories that don’t advance the reader’s understanding of a subject. As mainstream journalism continues to wane, comments often are more interesting and insightful than the stories that prompted them.

But anyone who operates a news media site and allows anonymous attacks – or those created under the veil of pseudonyms – to stand is morally complicit in those comments.

I don’t care what your lawyer says. Lawsuits shouldn’t be the bar by which this is measured. Responsible news sites should aspire to higher standards.

And, when comments are anonymous and authors shielded by the public, the scrutiny of authenticity is not met. It harms the journalism.

  • Chris Krug is President of Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. This column is original, but draws from his thoughts included in a column for ILNews.org that was published on July 7, 2017.

Krug: Trump hunt begs question: What is the media’s business?

By
Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Supporters said all along that President Donald Trump would be good for American business.

But many didn’t anticipate that the American media business stood to benefit from his presidency.

Currently the greatest love-hate relationship in U.S. politics, the mainstream and legacy media revels in Trump’s “fake news” claims. While they denounce his behavior publicly, reporters draw strength from Trump’s insults and use it as fuel to power their self-righteous crusade to shame the president.

They wear each hostile tweet as a badge of honor and consider it confirmation they are doing God’s work.

Trump has worked the media masterfully. He didn’t need the legacy media’s support or endorsement when he campaigned for president, and he doesn’t need them now. They are a distraction, and Trump is working them.

Historically, American media have pursued a noble mission to serve the public and keep the government in check. But that mission falls on deaf ears when the watchdogs become attack dogs. We have reached that point.

When does pursuing a story become crafting a narrative with an obvious political agenda? It starts with basic editorial decision-making. And according to the Media Research Center’s recent study, network news has decided that Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election outweighs other critical issues such as health care, tax reform, and jobs. It feels almost as if it was pulled from a season of Netflix’s “House of Cards” – only not as clever.

And then there’s CNN, the cable news network that continues to beat the Russia drum even after there is no new evidence or information to report. Their desperation to find the smoking gun resulted in the retraction of a Russia-related story and the resignation of three staffers last week.

The driver? Not truth. No, it was red meat for the left; creation of controversy. We’ll wait for the next public opinion poll, but I think it’s safe to say that the Russia investigation is not at the top of everyday Americans’ priority list.

The videos released by conservative journalist James O’Keefe, known for undercover sting operations, show CNN producers admitting that the Trump-Russia investigation is overhyped for enhanced ratings. They need something they can own to differentiate themselves from other cable-news channels. And so the love-hate cycle continues.

Although this epic rivalry can be comical at times, it’s sad to look behind the curtain and realize that Big Media has its interests too – and it doesn’t always include the American public.

For media to be credible – truly credible – it must report independently verified facts. It must seek the truth, and report with integrity. It must distill facts and straight news from opinions and insights gleaned from perceptions of original reporting.

The criteria for whether a story is good to air or publish should be somewhat higher than a corporate lawyer’s opinion on the likelihood that it opens up the organization to a lawsuit.

The lone criteria should be truth and public interest. Often, it’s not.

Television news, in particular that which appears on 24-hour cable cycle, is rife with opinion. Understandably so: There simply are not enough resources on any network or cable channel to fulfill a mission of 365-day news content that would be interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention. Without commentary, every network would resort to the C-SPAN model of airing raw footage of endless committee meetings.

Opinion is less expensive than actual reporting, and is in endless supply. It is far more economical to bring in a person from a studio in Washington, D.C., than it would be to send a correspondent and crew to Moscow. That’s a business decision that saves media brands money and costs taxpayers in reliable information.

So what is passed off as straight news often is a new take of an opinion. And with each passing “hot take,” the message is pushed further and further away from the truth.

Why does it matter? Can’t people have an opinion on the news?

Certainly. This is America, and our speech is protected constitutionally. But it matters that the continuous news cycle rarely differentiates between straight news and opinion. The content is often indistinguishable. Context is rarely offered. Oftentimes, the crawl beneath the commentary is in clear conflict. The opinion often overwhelms the core of the story.

The result is that the news itself – the facts, the verification, the story, and the truth – has been discarded in favor of a take on the news.

A controversial or salacious quote often makes a better headline than the old journalism standby of who, what, where, when, and why. Just look at the mainstream media’s obsession with President Trump’s recent tweet about Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, or the video he posted of an old WWE appearance where Trump punches out a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his face. The exaggerated response gives President Trump an even greater villain to demonize and justification for controversial actions such as banning cameras from the White House press briefings. Veering from the facts lowers the public perception and credibility of media as a whole. It threatens our democracy.

So much so that it must be next to impossible for Americans to understand the media’s job, or what business we’re in anymore.

  • Chris Krug is president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.
  • Also posted on Watchdog.org here.

Boehm Op-ed Published in TRIB

By
Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Pennsylvania budget crisis is a product of short-term thinking

The fight for Pennsylvania’s fiscal future has begun. Pennsylvania’s budget has suffered—and will continue to suffer—due to short-term thinking, according to Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office’s 2016-17 budget projections. There is hope to change this path, but short-term thinking may continue to endanger the state’s long-term health.

Eric Boehm, Watchdog’s national regulatory reporter, examines Pennsylvania’s budget trajectory in TRIB:

The Beatles once famously sang that you’ve “got to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time.”

Budgeters in Pennsylvania, unfortunately, are facing the opposite situation. Regardless of whether lawmakers are willing to admit it, things are getting worse. And they are getting worse all the time.

That’s not a comment on the partisanship that recently drove the state though its longest-ever budget impasse. The bad blood will spill over into this year’s budget process, which kicked off Tuesday with Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget address.

Last year’s lengthy budget battle did nothing to address a much bigger problem than partisanship: a long-term structural imbalance in the state budget that is getting worse with each passing year.

Read the full story in TRIB.