June 07, 2003

JEFF JARVIS echoes a call from Brian Linse for constructive debate about improving the media in the wake of the New York Times scandals.

I guess I'd take Brian's call for reasoned, constructive debate more seriously if the post below it didn't describe NRO this way: "Can anyone argue that this pathetic site is now anything more than a convenient meeting place for neocon circle jerks where K-Lo usually has the biggest dick?" It's kind of hard to ride the civil-and-constructive high horse when you say things like that. . ..

But, actually, I do have some constructive suggestions for the Times and other Big Media. Here they are:

1. Diversity: By which I mean real diversity in the kinds of people it hires -- not the faux-diversity that the Times practices. Where are the Ken Laynes, the Mark Steyns, etc. at the Times? The Times has been an intellectual and political monoculture for a long time, and that makes it hard for it to engage in the kind of critical evaluation of its own coverage that's necessary if it wants to be a real national paper, rather than a northeastern city paper with national aspirations.

2. Accountability: Follow up on stories. Do an after-action interview with sources and subjects. Accept feedback. And make sure that corrections all appear on the Web versions of the stories where the errors occurred. (And keep those archives open!) Get an outside ombudsman. Give him/her power to really do things -- including investigate reporting practices -- not just an occasional column for airing lame non-apologies, which is all you get from most ombudsfolks. I'll bet I know someone who can provide more advice on how to do this.

3. Feedback: Get RSS feeds from a bunch of blogs. Filter them to highlight references to stories in the Times. Hire somebody smart to read those posts about Times stories, and give him/her the power to recommend followups, corrections, etc. (This is a trivial effort, technically, and I'm sure Dave Winer or somebody would be happy to help). Make the corrections, etc., credit the blogs that spotted the problems, thus encouraging more scrutiny and -- in essence -- enlisting a free army of fact-checkers. (Did you hear that, Pinch? "Free!")

Okay, that's a start anyway, and with no genital references. I'm sure that other people can do better.

UPDATE: Jonathan Swerdloff emails:

Your RSS feed idea is a good one. A correlate idea would be opening their articles for trackback pings. When an article gets commented on by a blogger, he or she can ping the site, and the ombudsman can check the ping. I'm a little surprised that no major media outlets have taken advantage of trackback - it's a good way to drive traffic. Bloggers ping because they want the link back, and the Times wants the links for "eyeballs" to increase ad revenue. It's a win win.

Yep. And this is so easy, so simple, and so likely to be effective that I'm amazed at how unlikely the Times is to actually do it.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jim Lindgren emails:

The reason that the NY Times won't decide to allow routine comments to articles on its sites is a version of the same reason that you don't have comments turned on at Instapundit.

The Times reasonably fears that, while some good would come of it, the time spent on wasted leads and pointless controversies could be better spent on other stories. Even in the midst of a campaign of supposed correction, the Times initially ignored a reader's complaint about Dowd's intentionally misleading quotation of George Bush. It took the blogs to bring it to the Times' attention. I think appointing someone to monitor blogs for disclosures of bias or errors is a good idea because (somewhat ironically) the "unedited" blogs actually collectively perform some of the sifting duties of a good editor. Open comment pages do not.

That's true -- though trackback isn't exactly the same as open comments. But it might become unmanageable where the Times is concerned, I suppose. God knows that when I open comments here it tends to. The RSS-monitoring idea would be easy, though.

STILL MORE: Reader Lewis Wagner has an excellent suggestion:

I think you missed an important point ... references. It should be a requirement that the online versions of all reports link to source material.

For example, if there is a report on a speech, it should be a requirement that the speech be linked, even if this means that the news outlet types up the
speech and puts it on a local page. No link to source material should mean that neither the online nor paper version of a story should be published at all. The
same should hold for discussions of scientific articles or policy papers. This should be as basic a requirement as spell checking.

Good point. While there are times when that wouldn't be feasible, it's a good general rule.