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News You Don't Say

Truth is not optional

If you have not yet read Luke O'Neil's "The Year We Broke the Internet" at Esquire, let me quote a couple of salient passages: 

This, he says, is how online sites operate: "Give me the viral pictures, and I’ll give you the truth. And then, after an appropriate waiting period, I’ll give you the other truth, and capitalize on that traffic too. It’s almost a perfect callback to William Randolph Hearst’s infamous declaration on the eve of the Spanish-American War, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Even more fitting, historians don’t think he ever said anything like that. Then as now, it’s the myth that plays, not the reality. Today it just plays on an exponentially larger stage.

Further: "We’re barely even apologizing for increasingly considering the truth optional. In fact, the mistakes, and the falsehoods, and the hoaxes are a big part of a business plan driven by the belief that big traffic absolves all sins, that success is a primary virtue. Haste and confusion aren’t bugs in the coding anymore, they’re features."

And, tellingly, he quotes Sarah Critchfield, the editorial director at Upworthy: “We reject the idea that the media elite or people who have been trained in a certain way somehow have the monopoly on editorial judgment.”

I've been turning Ms. Critchfield's sentence around in my head. At one level, the innocuous one, it says that the production of journalism does not require any set of formal credentials. One does not have to have a degree in journalism to practice journalism. (Hell, I don't have one.)

But there is an additional level, reflecting the abandon with which both print and online publications have given up on copy editing, or, for that matter, editing. It is the belief that training and experience in the discipline of skepticism don't count for much.

It reflects the broader tendency to allow just about anyone to say just about anything. After all, if it's not true, the follow-up discussion will correct it. This is sort of giddy belief in democratic self-correction that is supposed to animate Wikipedia. If you want empirical evidence of this self-correcting mechanism, look at the comments on any article of even modest controversy. Most of them will demonstrate the soundness of Godwin's Law,* and the futility of reading further. 

Any print or online publication that merits your attention will struggle to produce verified, edited prose, factually sound and as clear as an editor can make it with the tools and time available. It will acknowledge and correct errors. It will be skeptical. It will attempt to look before it leaps. It will value editing, because editing is one of the means by which a publication attempts not to waste your time. 

 

 

 

*"As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

 

A correction to this post has been made. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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