We Want Good Journalistic Practices. We Just Don't Want to Pay for Them
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
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