MEDIA MATTERS: Advice from World-Class Journalists and Intriguing Media Minds
John Seigenthaler, Sr., is founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. For 43 years he was an award-winning reporter, editor, publisher and CEO for The Tennessean in Nashville. He also was the founding editorial director of USA TODAY and served in that position for a decade. I asked John to share his thoughts about the threat of citizen journalism on the integrity and reliability of traditional news reporting.
Q. The first thing I learned as a “cub” newspaper reporter many years ago was to double-check the facts in my story. It was a badge of honor to be precise and accurate. Now, I’m concerned about citizen journalism and how unreliable it can be. What’s your take on how the quality of reporting has been impacted by citizen journalism?
A. Citizen journalism has created an environment where people have a lot more choices about where to get their news and information. We are still in the infancy stage of online journalism, and much of it is unreliable. As a result, more than ever before, the burden is on the readers, viewers and listeners to be discerning and selective about what they choose to trust and believe.
A different phenomenon is the emergence of opinion in place of traditional news reporting. Cable TV is the chief source of the movement toward opinion and away from hard news. Many citizen journalists also will report rumor as opposed to the facts, and they can be quite subtle about it. Take Drudge Report: Early on, the motto was “80 percent accurate.” That meant the readers of Drudge Report could assume that 20% might be fabricated rumor. When citizen journalists rely too heavily on opinion and rumor, then the readers, viewers and listeners need to wade into content with fear and trembling.
Q. If the reader, viewer or listener has to take the responsibility of discriminating between fact and fiction in the “news,” does that tend to let a traditional journalist off the hook?
A. I think it means that all journalists and editors need to embrace traditional standards of accuracy and fairness that will give credibility to the report. Those standards will send a message that the source of news can be trusted. All of this means that the public must become wiser and more discriminating about what is actually news. There also is a dangerous tendency when journalists feel a need to rely on entertainment instead of news.
Q. You have personal experience with someone trying to attack your reputation by posting outright falsehoods on Wikipedia. Then, after you challenged Wikipedia in a story in USA Today, thousands of “online vandals,” posted even more absurd fabrications. I think that’s downright scary. Do you think people should be allowed to remain anonymous when they make potentially damaging statements?
A. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that internet information service providers (ISPs) are not treated the same way under defamation laws as are speakers or publishers. That means online journalists have immunity against certain legal claims, including defamation. Clearly, since the days of the early pamphleteers, there have been journalists who are anonymous. I wouldn’t want to rob someone who has something important to say of the right to reveal it on an anonymous basis. All journalists at times rely on anonymous sources. But, it seems to me that Section 230 underscores what I said earlier about the burden of responsibility for readers, viewers and listeners to be discerning about to what they give credence.
My primary concern regarding the future of online journalism is that if the new generation of citizen journalists continues to rely on rumor, opinion and outright false information, they will invite federal regulations. My preference is to rely on a society that is alert, informed and discerning.
Q. And now my favorite question for one of the most respected journalists and editors in this country. John, what is the purpose of the media?
A. An important historical truth is that the founders of our country did not trust themselves with the power to control news produced by pamphleteers and journalists. Had they not given us a First Amendment, there would be little criticism of government abuses or scandals. The founders gave us a free press to monitor and report on government, business and, indeed, all societal institutions. That’s what the legacy of the First Amendment is all about. That’s what the news media is supposed to be all about.