Shouting fire in a crowded internet
February 19, 2011 2:43 PM   Subscribe

I am a strong believer in free speech and a free press, but I work in a field where news coverage is used as rock-solid evidence with serious, even deadly consequences. I am looking for resources on how to reconcile free speech and responsible journalism...and what the limits of both ought to be, if any, both legally and morally. Canadian/American/British academic articles or books and examples or cases would be particularly welcome.

Bonus side-question: My impression is that even the most responsible reporters/papers/bloggers sometimes get things wrong, and would be horrified at anyone taking a single article as "proof", for instance of criminal guilt. I know Robert Fisk has made some comments about this, but I would be very interested in any other sources on the nature of news reporting and how they sometimes get things wrong. I have read Fisk and Thomas Friedman's work about their time in the Middle East, and would love recommendations for other respected journalists' memoirs of their time on the ground, especially in chaotic situations.
posted by sarahkeebs to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe a little context would help people answer your question, because it's not quite clear what you're asking.

There is a somewhat well-worn saying that journalism is the rough draft of history. It gets trotted out a lot, but it's true. Reporters, especially for a daily publication, write the most accurate story they can with the facts that are available to them by deadline. That's just the way it goes. Longer investigative pieces get more attention, and are fact-checked more meticulously. Even then, yes, errors happen.

Short version: Journalists get things wrong all the time. Responsible ones print corrections.

Nobody should expect journalism to be the last word of truth on a subject--anyone who does is going to end up in trouble. What field are you in that this happens? That's disturbing.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:48 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


As a lifelong journalist, I'm a First Amendment absolutist, and mistrust your idea that maybe there should be "limits" on journalists' work. thinkingwoman is correct; we don't always get things right today, but if we're good, we try to fix it tomorrow, or the next day. it's naive to expect every word published to be perfectly accurate every day. life isn't like that. nobody with good sense would take a single article as evidence of criminal guilt. Your question is vague, though, so I'm not sure what you're getting at. But something about it disturbs me, and I don't know whether it's naivete or some un-said agenda. you say you're a strong believer in free press, etc, and then you add: but. . . . . . . .
posted by fivesavagepalms at 3:59 PM on February 19, 2011


A good reporter never gets anything wrong, because they publish only what they know, how they know it and who said it.

There is a difference between: "Person reportedly dead." and "Person reportedly dead, but the family will not confirm this." The former can be wrong, the latter cannot, because they are also reporting that it is not confirmed. If Person isn't dead yet, they were right because they *said* the family didn't confirm it.

Similarly: "The streets in Cairo are awash with jubilant crowds." That implies universal happiness, and something the reporter cannot know. But, "I am in Suez Square in Cairo, and from what I can see, the crowd is mostly jubilant this afternoon," is correct, because it is exactly what the reporter is seeing at that moment.

So you watch language and see how precise they are being. The less precise, the more wrong they are.

Unless they are lying.
posted by gjc at 4:06 PM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


A recent Supreme Court of Canada case may interest you.
posted by Dasein at 4:58 PM on February 19, 2011


I work in a field where news coverage is used as rock-solid evidence with serious, even deadly consequences. I am looking for resources on how to reconcile free speech and responsible journalism...and what the limits of both ought to be, if any, both legally and morally.

I would suggest that the problem is with the standards of your field, not with journalism. Regarding news coverage as rock-solid evidence with deadly consequences is, frankly, fucked.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:41 PM on February 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Make friends with reporters who you get news from. When they print something, ask for clarification, the "real deal", or just other stuff that was cut out. NOW you have some data you can use.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:46 PM on February 19, 2011


A good reporter never gets anything wrong, because they publish only what they know, how they know it and who said it.

This is absolutely wrong. The word "never" is for the gullible and the naive. Good — even great — reporters get things wrong all the time. Miskeying, mishearing, misreading notes, faulty cut and paste, etc., are all common and legitimate reasons for errors. On top of that, there are editor's errors, and copy editor's errors, layout errors, and production errors. There are more than reporters at work in journalism.

For what it's worth, I've been a journalist of some sort for more than 20 years. Errors happen all the time. sarahkeebs, I hope to god you can get the people you work with to see the light. They're making a fundamental error that undermines everything they're doing. I hope you can help them see the light. I don't know what the business is, but it seems to me that if it is truly life or death, then they should be working with raw data sources and their own fieldwork rather than with the reports in newspapers.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:07 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


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