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Guest Thinkers

A Good Idea I Hope Will Catch On: The Journalists’ Wall of Shame

With koanic brilliance, Robin Sloan recently summarized the difference between last century’s old command-and-control journalism and today’s. It was, of course, a tweet: “The way to cover big news in 2011 is not ‘here’s what happened.’ It’s ‘here’s how to follow the story.’ ” Just so. We journalists used to be a priestly caste, relying on authority, telling you what Reality has to say. Now we’re a professoriate, hoping to earn your trust by pointing you to multiple sources that you find rewarding. This can be done with cloying sweetness (or am I the only person tired of tweets in which people burble about the greatness of other tweeters?) But it needn’t be all carrot and no stick: On this part of the JPquake wiki, for example, you will find the “Journalist Wall of Shame.” It is the place to learn whom you should not follow.

This is a useful and necessary service, because journalists are used to getting away with murder, be they old school or new (there’s also a blogger Wall of Shame). The institutions created by broadcasters and dead-tree media severely limited people’s ability to call bullsh*t on our work, and that culture persists into the Internet era.

I think there are at least two reasons for this. One is that the ease of blogging/tweeting/tumblring and all the rest has led to plenty of attacks on journalists that are, basically, worthless: The usual suspects trundling out predictable denunciations that are based on ideology. People tend to tune that out. The other reason is digital media’s promotion of efficiency. We use these media to get what we value, quickly. Dwelling on what’s badly done and worthless can seem like a waste of time.

I don’t think, though, that it is. For one thing, when a journalist gets away with fear-mongering or dwelling on stupid stereotypes (too of the most common offenses on the Walls of Shame), the behavior is encouraged. Secondly, learning why a report is flawed in these ways can help you open your own mind: If the journalist is trading in this stuff, what does that say about the audience—ie, what does it say about us?

Though there have been some famous cases of journalistic behemoths corrected by the blogosphere, the profession could stand more of this kind of thing.


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