Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

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

LIVE EVENT | Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo


Keep reading Show less

DMT drug study investigates the ‘entities’ people meet while tripping

Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?

Pixabay
Mind & Brain
  • DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
  • Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
  • The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
Keep reading Show less

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Keep reading Show less

The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

Image: solarseven / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
  • Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
  • Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

Navy SEALs: How to build a warrior mindset

SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast