You may have noticed – you could hardly miss it – the blizzard of anniversary stories last month about the fall of Lehman Brothers, an event that helped spark last year's financial meltdown. The coverage reminded me that journalists failed to do their jobs before last year's crisis emerged, and have continued to fail since then.
It also reminds me of a few pet peeves about the way traditional journalists operate. So here's a list of 22 things, not in any particular order, that I'd insist upon if I ran a news organization.
1. We would not run anniversary stories and commentary, except in the rarest of circumstances. They are a refuge for lazy and unimaginative journalists.
2. We would invite our audience to participate in the journalism process, in a variety of ways that included crowdsourcing, audience blogging, wikis and many other techniques. We'd make it clear that we're not looking for free labour – and will work to create a system that rewards contributors beyond a pat on the back – but want above all to promote a multi-directional flow of news and information in which the audience plays a vital role.
3. Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: every print article would have an accompanying box called "Things We Don't Know," a list of questions our journalists couldn't answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organisation's website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.
4. We would create a service to notify online readers, should they choose to sign up for it, of errors we've learned about in our journalism. Users of this service could choose to be notified of major errors only (in our judgment) or all errors, however insignificant we may believe them to be.
5. We'd make conversation an essential element of our mission. Among other things:
- If we were a local newspaper, the editorial pages would publish the best of, and be a guide to, conversation the community was having with itself online and in other public forums, whether hosted by the news organization or someone else.
- Editorials would appear in blog format, as would letters to the editor.
- We would encourage comments and forums, but in moderated spaces that encouraged the use of real names and insisted on (and enforced) civility.
- Comments from people using verified real names would be listed first.
6. We would refuse to do stenography and call it journalism. If one faction or party to a dispute is lying, we would say so, with the accompanying evidence. If we learned that a significant number of people in our community believed a lie about an important person or issue, we would make it part of an ongoing mission to help them understand the truth.
7. We would replace PR-speak and certain Orwellian words and expressions with more neutral, precise language. If someone we interview misused language, we would paraphrase instead of using direct quotations. (Examples, among many others: The activity that takes place in casinos is gambling, not gaming. There is no death tax, there can be inheritance or estate tax. Piracy does not describe what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing networks.)
8. We would embrace the hyperlink in every possible way. Our website would include the most comprehensive possible listing of other media in our community, whether we were a community of geography or interest. We'd link to all relevant blogs, photo-streams, video channels, database services and other material we could find, and use our editorial judgement to highlight the ones we consider best for the members of the community. And we'd liberally link from our journalism to other work and source material relevant to what we're discussing, recognising that we are not oracles but guides.
9. Our archives would be freely available, with links on every single thing we've published as far back as possible, with application interfaces (APIs) to help other people use our journalism in ways we haven't considered ourselves.
10. We would help people in the community become informed users of media, not passive consumers – to understand why and how they can do this. We would work with schools and other institutions that recognise the necessity of critical thinking.
11. We would never publish lists of ten. They're a prop for lazy and unimaginative people.
12. Except in the most dire of circumstances – such as a threat to a whistleblower's life, liberty or livelihood – we would not quote or paraphrase unnamed sources in any of our journalism. If we did, we would need persuasive evidence from the source as to why we should break this rule, and we'd explain why in our coverage. Moreover, when we did grant anonymity, we'd offer our audience the following guidance: We believe this is one of the rare times when anonymity is justified, but we urge you to exercise appropriate skepticism.
13. If we granted anonymity and learned that the unnamed source had lied to us, we would consider the confidentially agreement to have been breached by that person, and would expose his or her duplicity, and identity. Sources would know of this policy before we published. We'd further look for examples where our competitors have been tricked by sources they didn't name, and then do our best to expose them, too.
14. The word "must" – as in "The president must do this or that" – would be banned from editorials or other commentary from our own journalists, and we'd strongly discourage it from contributors. It is a hollow verb and only emphasizes powerlessness. If we wanted someone to do something, we'd try persuasion instead, explaining why it's a good idea and what the consequences will be if the advice is ignored.
15. We'd routinely point to our competitors' work, including (and maybe especially) the best of the new entrants, such as bloggers who cover specific niche subjects. When we'd covered the same topic, we'd link to them so our audience can gain wider perspectives. We'd also talk about, and point to, competitors when they covered things we missed or ignored.
16. Beyond routinely pointing to competitors, we would make a special effort to cover and follow up on their most important work, instead of the common practice today of pretending it didn't exist. Basic rule: the more we wish we'd done the journalism ourselves, the more prominent the exposure we'd give the other folks' work. This would have at least two beneficial effects. First, we'd help persuade our community of an issue's importance. Second, we'd help people understand the value of solid journalism, no matter who did it.
17. The more we believed an issue was of importance to our community, the more relentlessly we'd stay on top of it ourselves. If we concluded that continuing down a current policy path was a danger, we'd actively campaign to persuade people to change course. This would have meant, for example, loud and persistent warnings about the danger of the blatantly obvious housing/financial bubble that inflated during this decade.
18. For any person or topic we covered regularly, we would provide a "baseline": an article or video where people could start if they were new to the topic, and point prominently to that "start here" piece from any new coverage. We might use a modified Wikipedia approach to keep the article current with the most important updates. The point would be context, giving some people a way to get quickly up to speed and others a way to recall the context of the issue.
19. For any coverage where it made sense, we'd tell our audience members how they could act on the information we'd just given them. This would typically take the form of a "What You Can Do" box or pointer.
20. We'd work in every possible way to help our audience know who's behind the words and actions. People and institutions frequently try to influence the rest of us in ways that hide their participation in the debate, and we'd do our best to reveal who's spending money and pulling strings. When our competitors declined to reveal such things, or failed to ask obvious questions of their sources, we'd talk about their journalistic failures in our own coverage of the issues.
21. Assess risks honestly. Journalists constantly use anecdotal evidence in ways that frighten the public into believing this or that problem is larger than it actually is. As a result, people have almost no idea what are statistically more risky behaviours or situations. And lawmakers, responding to media-fed public fears, often pass laws that do much more aggregate harm than good. We would make it a habit not to extrapolate a wider threat from weird or tragic anecdotes; frequently discuss the major risks we face and compare them statistically to the minor ones; and debunk the most egregious examples of horror stories that spark unnecessary fear or even panic.
22. No opinion pieces or commentary from major politicians or company executives. OK, this is a minor item. But these folks almost never actually write what appears under their bylines. We're being just as dishonest as they are by using this stuff. If they want to pitch a policy, they should post it on their own web pages, and we'll be happy to point to it.