Why report news the way we do
I have a reputation for provocative headlines and affirmative writing style, and this irks some readers. But I, and my colleagues here at BetaNews, strive for accuracy in reporting. You can bitch about tone and disagree with storyline and dispute posts' points. I confidently say that we report responsibly.
Following the lead of my predecessor, Scott M. Fulton, BetaNews steers away from rumor stories and the feeding frenzies that often envelope the news media -- sometimes even when the originating blog or news site is highly trusted. Some of you accuse me of being anti-Apple, but I treated with great caution January reports from "This American Life" and the New York Times about worker abuses at Foxconn factories producing Apple gadgets. The ensuing controversy was opportunity to repeatedly zing Apple, as many sites did -- obviously to drum up pageviews. BetaNews didn't. My agenda is responsible reporting, not standing for or against any company or product. The Mike Daisey scandal proves the wisdom of that policy and spotlights what's wrong with news on the web today.
This Chinese Worker Life
On January 6, esteemed public radio show "This American Life" aired "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory" -- its most popular segment ever and one removed from the web last week. Yesterday, TAL aired "Retraction", which followed Friday's stunning blog post by show producer Ira Glass.
For two months, following TAL episode #454 and a New York Times exposé, bloggers and journalists pounded Apple, with a relentless barrage of commentaries and stories about conditions at Foxconn factories. Protesters rallied against Apple, tainting the company's public image at a time of soaring popularity. My problem isn't TAL's report, but the others that followed. The feeding frenzy generally regurgitated what others' reported, rather than obtaining original sourcing. Bloggers and journalists treated hearsay as fact, perpetuating a massive circle-jerk.
But someone did choose to act responsibly. "Marketplace" reporter Rob Schmitz is on the ground in Shanghai, China, and followed up on some of Daisey's claims, leading to the smoking gun -- Daisey's translator during his China trip. Last week, Glass and Schmitz confronted Daisey, who suddenly reversed position and admitted to having exaggerated and even fabricated information.
In "An acclaimed Apple critic made up the details", Schmitz lays it out: "Daisey told 'This American Life' and numerous other news outlets that his account was all true. But it wasn’t".
He lied to BetaNews, too, but long before the TAL segment aired. In April 2011, Larry Seltzer wrote "The crimes of Foxconn, Steve Jobs and ourselves", a riveting review of Daisey's play "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs", upon which TAL eventually based program #454. Larry used the one-man monologue as mirror for ourselves, but also questioned the veracity of Daisey's claims. (By the way, I republished Larry's review/commentary today with refreshed headline: "The crimes of Foxconn, Mike Daisey and ourselves".) Daisey responded to our April story and others in this blog post, which is more self-indictment in light of this week's confession.
Daisey blogged on Friday: "My show is a theatrical piece...What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed 'This American Life' to air an excerpt from my monologue. 'This American Life' is essentially a journalistic -- not a theatrical -- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations".
Right. Accurate reporting is among those expectations and that sources tell the truth when asked if they are. After admitting to at least one undeniable lie, Daisey tells Glass and Schmitz about his monologue: "It’s not journalism. It’s theater".
Today, AllThingsD's Arik Hesseldahl asks my first question in hearing about TAL's retraction: "Who in their right mind would lie to Ira Glass?" Mike Daisey, unbelievably. Glass is a remarkably good, and long-time radio reporter/personality. He, like me, is a 1959er. My first love was, and remains, radio. I got my FCC Third Class license (back when tests were required) at 17, which allowed me to broadcast on air. Point: I can appreciate Glass' passion for the airwaves.
The Daisey debacle puts Glass and "This American Life" in a difficult position. I applaud their retracting the story so vocally and responsibly. Their problem is the risk every journalist faces: That a source will lie to achieve some other objective. In this case Daisey claims his passion about alleged atrocities in China. But surely there is money motive, which is one benefit of the notoriety received from the Apple-Foxconn scandal.
At BetaNews we largely stayed away from any hard commentary on this topic. Two stories ran. The first, "We must blame Apple for China", by Ryan Tyler, uses the New York Times report, not the "This American Life" segment, as foundation. The commentary mostly focuses on apologists defending Apple's behavior and logical fallacies of their defenses. I wrote the second, "Apple protestors make me really mad", questioning critics' sincerity and also expressing disgust about "bloggers and journalists looking to profit from the scandal -- riding the buzz to fame (in some cases infamy) and higher pageviews".
Among the reasons BetaNews did no more:
1. We didn't have access to sources in China to accurately report independently about working conditions there.
2. Any stories written about Apple were sure to reflect negatively on a public company, making accurate and responsible reporting and, therefore, reliable sourcing more urgent.
3. BetaNews' policy is to avoid news topic feeding frenzies, particularly when most sourcing is circular, meaning hundreds of reports going back to one or two blogs or news sites and our having no veritable, third-party sourcing.
4. A barrage of heavy pageview driving stories would be morally reprehensible, by exploiting Foxconn workers in yet another way (e.g., profit motive for the posts).
5. BetaNews is a small shop. We have limited resources. We use them as conscientiously as possible. I saw nothing conscientious about joining the anti-Apple chorus, recognizing that many blogs or news sites shift positions with the winds.
Good journalists are mindful of their sourcing, particularly those sources who aren’t identified. Sadly the state of the news media is this: Gossip and rumors rapidly replace factual reporting -- in large part driven by the Google-free economy. Too typically, there is one source, as aforementioned often a single blog post or news story. Using a single source is careless. Referring to another blog or news story as single source is wreckless. Reporting news based on a single, anonymous source is negligence. Re-reporting as fact, or seeming fact, a blog post or news story relying on a single, anonymous source is criminal.
The news feeding frenzies that follow give credence to a report's veracity, even if it's in fact flawed or out and out wrong -- often as is the case with many rumors. Just because everybody says something is true doesn’t make it that way. But often there is presumption of veracity.
"This American Life" is a program with otherwise impeccable reputation for being reliable, trustworthy -- for checking its facts. If TAL can't get it right when trying, how can blogs or news sites that don't?
Rarely a day goes by I'm not upset about the poor quality of news reporting, spurred on by the Google-free economy. The web would be better, we'd all be better informed, if more news organizations had the high journalistic standards of "This American Life". The Mike Daisey story is an aberration, and one TAL is taking responsibility for. There's an important lesson here that sadly I expect few will adopt.