We Want Good Journalistic Practices. We Just Don't Want to Pay for Them

Last week, the last vestiges of the pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer's journalistic respectability evaporated. Wired, which had stuck with him through a summer of revelations about his self-borrowing, plagiarism and fabrications, decided to "sever the relationship." The trigger was a devastating report on Lehrer's Wired.com blog posts by the author and NYU professor Charles Seife. (You can read the gory details, complete with chart, here at Slate.) All of which I mention because with this new round of bad news, the sanctimonious pronouncements about Lehrer (including my own) are starting to bother me. Yes, he is the flawed author of his own fall. But he is also the product of a business model that is good for media corporations and bad for you, the media consumer.


What brought this home to me was this line in last week's statement by Evan Hansen, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired.co: "Although Frontal Cortex posts were not edited or fact checked, we expect those whose work appears on our site to follow basic good journalism practices."

Well, yes, that is the general expectation among us journalists.

We blog in much the same way that we write articles for magazines and newspapers. We do this, I think, because accuracy, honesty and conscientiousness are a part of our sense of dignity and self-respect. We've internalized our training. If I am writing about Experiment X for this blog, I have the same anxieties about attribution, fairness and rhetorical overstatement that I had when I wrote for The New York Times Magazine or Smithsonian.

But while matters are pretty much the same between my ears, they are very different outside. And the essence of that difference is money.

When I write for a major magazine, there's a complex machine supporting my desire to be accurate and fair and reasonable. There's an editor. And often a fact-checker. And another editor or two. And a copy editor. Even more important, there's the amount of time I can put into the work, because magazines pay a dollar or two per word, and even newspapers will kick you a few hundred bucks for an article.

This supporting machinery is expensive. Wouldn't it be great if media companies could get the same quality of journalistic work without having to pay for any of that stuff? Well, they sure are trying to: They're having their journalists be bloggers. The poor chumps will hold themselves to the same high standards, but with no help whatsoever. And you can pay them a pittance. Hansen has spelled it out: We won't give you an editor, or a copy editor, or a fact checker, or a living wage. But you'll still do what you did when we were providing that support system. Costs cut! Shareholder value maximized! It's a win for everybody!

Except that it isn't. The ultimate lesson of the Lehrer debacle may be that you can't get journalism if you aren't willing to pay for it. Because the facts won't be checked over and over again without a checker. And the sentences won't be weighed and re-weighed if only the writer reads them. And if I'm only making a few dollars on this post, I can't afford to spend days talking to researchers and skeptics and reading more papers, to get a deeper sense of what the work is all about. Without the apparatus to instill respect for journalistic values, and to check on the product, the temptation to cheat will get to be too much for some people.

None of this excuses any of Lehrer's lapses. But blaming an individual for his corner-cutting lets corner-cutting corporations off the hook. They used to pay the price for serious journalism. Now, increasingly, they want it for nothing.

Now, I am not arguing here that old-style print journalism is a land of philosopher kings. A lot of it is meretricious, mediocre rubbish. Nor am I saying the old-school editorial apparatus is flawless. In fact, for a writer it is often kind of maddening—a gooey tide of resistance and obtuseness that you have to swim through with your words between your teeth. Editors can be ignorant, manipulative and fickle. Moreover, the sacred process of fact-checking is seriously over-rated. Many fact checkers just tick off boxes (you have a printed source for your claim that the moon is made of cheese? OK, cool). Worse, fact-checkers encourage careless meddling by editors (I know what I would like this paragraph to say, so I will insert that here. Who knows if it is correct? The checker will straighten it out.)

All that said, though, the old, expensive way of journalism at least ensured that a number of people felt responsible for making sure that one's work was sound. That increased the chances that dishonesty would be noticed and caught. (For years I have been saying that blogs' substitute for an editorial apparatus was the wisdom of crowds—all those eagle-eyed readers would catch any mistake. Lehrer's story disproved this completely: Many of his corner-cutting moves were made years ago, yet no one noticed them until the pile-on began.)

Personally, on most days, I would rather write a blog post than deal with the gooey tide I've described above. On most days, I like the aloneness of blogging—that feeling that I'm on my own out here, speaking directly to you. Because it is not a collaboration or corporate product, what you read here strikes me as more honest (this is me, my virtues and flaws and prejudices, unmediated). You should enjoy the blogs you read without a feeling that you should be reading Time magazine instead (really, it's not as if this masterpiece of serious journalism puts blogs to shame).

Just remember the difference: Bloggers are either unpaid or underpaid, working fast, with little or no editorial support. What we do is not that same as what gets done by people who have time, and help. Because traditional journalism is expensive while bloggers are cheap, publishers love to blur the distinction. You, the reader, should not let them.

I'm back here at Mind Matters after some time off to recharge and get some perspective on blogging in general and this blog in particular. Stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

Trusting your instincts is lazy: Poker pro Liv Boeree on Big Think Edge

International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to make decisions with the clarity of a World Series Poker Champion.
  • Liv Boeree teaches analytical thinking for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists reactivate cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth

"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Yamagata et al.
Surprising Science
  • The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
  • Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
  • Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.
Keep reading Show less

Here's when machines will take your job, as predicted by A.I. gurus

An MIT study predicts when artificial intelligence will take over for humans in different occupations.

Photo credit: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO / AFP / Getty Images
Surprising Science

While technology develops at exponential speed, transforming how we go about our everyday tasks and extending our lives, it also offers much to worry about. In particular, many top minds think that automation will cost humans their employment, with up to 47% of all jobs gone in the next 25 years. And chances are, this number could be even higher and the massive job loss will come earlier.

Keep reading Show less

Horseshoe crabs are captured for their blue blood. That practice will soon be over.

The blood of horseshoe crabs is harvested on a massive scale in order to retrieve a cell critical to medical research. However, recent innovations might make this practice obsolete.

An Atlantic horseshoe crab in an aquarium. Photo: Domdomegg via Wikimedia Commons.
Surprising Science
  • Horseshoe crabs' blue blood is so valuable that a quart of it can be sold for $15,000.
  • This is because it contains a molecule that is crucial to the medical research community.
  • Today, however, new innovations have resulted in a synthetic substitute that may end the practice of farming horseshoe crabs for their blood.
Keep reading Show less