Trust online requires a more open newsroom

Big Journalism has had a good 18 months. We started 2005 scared of the Internet. Chris Willis and Shayne Bowman had forecast our end as long ago as 2003 when they published We Media; Dan Gillmor had followed up, a little more subtly, with We the Media. Joe Trippi, meanwhile had forecast the overthrow of everything in The Revolution Will Not be Televised.

They weren't wholly wrong. News consumers have choices they've never had before; and the balance of risk and opportunity has shifted for news producers in an "interesting" way away from them. News has become a conversation and journalists have lost their monopoly as both news gatherers/reporters and as commentators.

The Asian tsunami, the London July bombs and the Buncefield explosion all proved the macabre truth that in the right situation, anyone and everyone could be a newsgatherer.

If the Web 2.0 predictions of web gurus such as Tim O'Reilly had been fulfilled, the world would have got to know about events such as those through dumb — although actually rather clever — platforms, linking the world's citizens peer-to-peer, bypassing clunking "big media".

Trouble was, in 2005 big journalism came into its own and showed it was, after all, capable of absorbing user-generated content, disseminating it within a structure and giving it meaning.

And big journalism was where people went to find it.

Something similar has happened with bloggers. They do have victories under their belt — such as the downfall of Mississippi senator Trent Lott or CNN's Eason Jordan.

But big journalism is still way out in front in afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Bloggers may not like it, but they're now in the tent. Columnists — on The Guardian, for example — are going chin-to-chin with them with mixed results and scary moments, but better than not at all.

And anyway, within journalism’s pluralist and argumentative tradition, there's not that much to choose between a fire-spitting blogger and a pungent leader writer.

But what about journalism's other big tradition: the journalism of verification? It's true that news consumers can gather their own news. But most of the time, it's journalists who are in the places where news happens. Where the rest of us don't go very often. Talking to the people the rest of us can't get access to.

Putting the hard graft into being a watchdog, into the investigation, the explanation, the analysis and the judgment. This is the real graft of journalism. Thankless, apparently: Journalists remain the least trusted people in society.

And one of the reasons most often cited for that is some newspapers' tendency to weave those two traditions of plurality and argument, verification and fact so closely together that they strangle the facts.

I wonder how long that can last in the new environment? The nervous breakdown in American journalism after the Eason Jordan, Judith Miller, Dan Rather and Jayson Blair scandals came about in part because big journalism was found out to be too slapdash and too ready to obfuscate and defend indefensible practices and rituals.

To survive on the web — and big journalism will have to survive there, as well as in print and on the airwaves — it will need to generate the kind of trust that other web survivors generate.

And the only way to do that is through reliability and openness: "I can see what you're doing… tell me how and why."

"Oh… and this is what you got wrong."

American journalism's response has been a flurry of openness, expressed through codes of conduct and promises to readers. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has collated and published online the codes from almost 50 regional titles and the major national chains.

Try to find something similar for UK titles — something beyond the, some would say limp and ineffectual Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice (shamed by the NUJ's code).

The web divides the two traditions brutally. And news producers who want to survive on the "journalism" side rather than the "bloggers" side will have to show their workings.

They will have to make clear promises to their consumers, and live up to them. The wise crowd of web users are as brutal as the tools they use.

Ask for the facts on human rights legislation and get a rant on asylum seekers. Why would you go to that site again for news? Why would you trust it… except as another interesting blog?

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