Flames, infosec shenanigans, Policy, work

On journalism, “fake news,” and the business of news media

I tweeted most of this last night. But as several people have requested, I’m re-posting this here for the purposes of readability, illumination, and annotation.

Journalism is (supposed to be) a search for the truth. It’s not (supposed to be) easy. Like science, sometimes the results are imperfect. Only through peer review, conversation, revisions and (occasionally) corrections does journalism more closely approach the truth.

This is why the drive to make news generation more efficient is so horrible for actual journalism. We’ve already repeatedly seen the problems created by what people call “the news cycle,” particularly on 24-hour cable news networks, but the problem has become more widespread as news media goes “digital.”

The problem with television journalism (especially cable) is that it is transactional, disposable and low fidelity, making quality even harder.  TV journalists are largely generalists thrown at stories with perceived mass appeal, and are expected to quick-read themselves into instant experts on topics they have little if any background in.  (For more on this, see the story I wrote on Sharyl Atkisson in November 2014). It is not a crucible for truth.

If nobody does a sanity/fact check on a story or forces the reporter to defend each sentence, and the focus is on volume, the results will inevitably be lower quality. Narratives will get forced. Facts will be bruised and bent. It’s even worse when there’s a war against truth being waged, and the sources of truth are being destroyed or obscured by bullshit. When you are time-limited and don’t have a review process on story selection and production, bad things can and will happen.

So that’s why it’s especially disheartening to see the New York Times cutting copy editors, and others trading quality for quantity & efficiency. The “digital” process adds more roles for reporters and “preditors” (producer/editors), and by focusing on producing more digital content at the expense of quality control and editorial dialogue, media companies are creating more opportunities for error–and more opportunities for the enemies of truth to exploit those errors to discredit journalism writ large.

The truth can hardly ever be found with efficiency at scale. I’m lucky because Ars is sort of artisanal about journalism. Even so, I know and acknowledge that I make mistakes, especially when thrown headlong into a breaking story. But I make a lot less of those mistakes when I have another editor checking my stuff.

Given how people are actively working to derail journalism and destroy truth, we need to acknowledge how hard a job this is. And we really need to take a step back and look at what “efficiency” and speed in news production actually costs us.

Unfortunately, we’re being driven by a business model that is anathema to deliberateness and reflection. But we need to realize that the more automated, efficient and digitally optimized “news” becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes to manipulation and attack. Journalism needs to take a deep look at its threat model, and harden itself against the forces aligned to bring it down.

 

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