Journalism values are not timeless and etched in stone. Values have changed through the years and the digital-first journalist recognizes that they are changing today.
In some ways, a digital-first journalist shares the values of traditional journalism but may pursue them in different ways. In other ways, we pursue values that we think are more appropriate for the networked world we work in today.
We won’t entirely agree on values. Where we share values, we may vary in priority and practice. Digital-first leaders trust our journalists and the editors leading our newsrooms to make smart, ethical decisions. So don’t view this as a narrow template into which we must squeeze our journalism or as unanimously held views. These are some thoughts on values that guide journalists — how they are changing and how they endure. I share these views to stimulate discussion about digital-first values because I believe we value candid and vigorous discussion about journalism and journalism values.
I am examining and explaining digital-first journalism in a series of blog posts this week. I started yesterday with a discussion of how digital-first journalists work. Today I address the values that guide digital-first journalists:
Digital-first journalists value accuracy. Like traditional journalists, we strive to publish verified facts. With care, we can engage the community in helping us verify (or refute) some reports faster and more reliably than we can by controlling the process entirely ourselves.
As Andy Carvin of NPR has demonstrated on many occasions this year, we can raise questions as we repeat unverified reports, enlisting the crowd in our quest to verify facts and report the truth.
Digital-first journalists are committed to seeking and reporting the truth. We recognize that truthful reporting goes beyond getting our facts accurate; it requires providing context and meaning. It requires debunking lies. Digital-first journalism does not settle for he-said-she-said standoffs, but seeks to go beyond what people said to learn and report the actual truth.
Digital-first journalists acknowledge that much of our work builds on the work of others. We credit and link to those who contribute to our understanding and our search for the truth.
Independence and participation
Digital-first journalists may hold different views about the traditional journalism value of independence. While we agree that we must maintain editorial independence from advertisers, some of us think journalism has swung too far in the direction of aloofness in other matters of independence. Some journalists insist that they can set aside the personal biases we all have, some of them even refusing to vote. This aloofness has cultivated a “view from nowhere” that is neither honest nor beneficial. Some of us see greater value in acknowledging our humanity and recognizing the value of participating in community life. Digital-first journalists seek the right balance of independence and participation for our roles, conferring with our editors, colleagues and community. Update: I rewrote part of this paragraph after Dave Orrick tweeted his disagreement with my use of the word “extremism” in referring to journalists who don’t vote. On reflection, I agreed and rewrote.
Many traditional journalists disdain transparency, saying that discussions of what we do and why are “inside baseball” details that don’t interest the public. This notion is contradicted every time we attend the holiday party of a non-journalist spouse’s company or otherwise socialize with people outside the business. They are keenly interested in what we do and ask lots of questions. We should provide answers without waiting for questions.
Digital-first newsrooms invite the public into our newsrooms through such means as newsroom cafes, livestreamed daily news meetings and posting news budgets online. Digital-first journalists share our processes with the community and disclose connections and potential conflicts. We blog about the processes and practices of journalism.
Our belief in transparency requires us to identify ourselves and our news organizations and honestly state our purposes. If a digital-first journalist feels that extreme circumstances justify working undercover in some situation, the journalist should discuss the reasons and alternatives extensively with editors and colleagues. The organization should seek to avoid deception and, upon publishing, should be transparent in explaining its actions and its decision to the community.
In cases such as restaurant reviews or consumer reporting where identification would result in preferential treatment that would interfere with accurate reporting, a Digital-first journalist may act as a routine customer and not take steps to identify as a journalist, but should not deceive if asked about his or her profession.
Digital-first journalists identify our sources of information except in extreme cases. If circumstances, such as whistleblowers revealing information of public interest, justify granting confidentiality, we must ask about motivation, seek to learn how the source learned the information and seek verification from other sources. We should report only information from such sources, and only if we can verify. We should not publish opinions or personal attacks from sources who are not willing to stand behind what they say.
We should be willing to miss some stories from sources who refuse to be identified. Especially when powerful people who should speak publicly are seeking confidentiality, or in other cases where we can see we are being manipulated, we should insist on identification, walk away from the story or seek to get the story from other sources.
Our content should be fair. Digital-first journalists believe in giving people who are criticized or accused of failures or wrongdoing a chance to respond. Given the unfolding nature of digital coverage, fairness is achieved over time and not always in initial reports. In cases where initial reports don’t include such responses, we should invite them and report that we are seeking responses. Then we should play those responses as prominently as we played the initial reports.
Fairness is not the same as balance. Digital-first journalists are not satisfied with the faux “balance” of he-said-she-said news coverage. We want to find and report the truth, which does not need balancing.
Digital-first newsrooms invite the community to report errors in fact and to raise questions about our content. We correct our errors quickly and prominently, not just fixing the mistaken content but noting the error.
We hold the powerful in our communities accountable and recognize that we must be accountable ourselves. When we make particularly egregious errors, we must examine our own processes, report what happened and report on steps we are taking to prevent similar errors in the future.
Where we can track others who have passed along our errors through retweets and links to our content, we should call corrections to their attention, too.
Digital-first journalists serve our communities. We inform our communities. We examine important community issues. We provide an outlet to community voices. We lead and stimulate the discussion of important community issues. We seek to improve our communities without being cheerleaders.
Digital-first journalists embrace our role as watchdog of the government and powerful institutions in our communities. We need to commit time and other resources to beat reporting and investigative reporting that informs the community about the effectiveness, honesty and priorities of the government and institutions.
As we explore the proper relationships and involvement in community life of the newsroom and individual journalists, we must avoid conflicts that could diminish our effectiveness in the watchdog role. As we seek ways to collaborate with bloggers and other media, enhancing our watchdog role and supporting other watchdogs will be a high priority. We especially should strive to highlight and support the work of bloggers responsibly pursuing the watchdog role.
Digital-first journalists cherish and defend our First Amendment freedoms. We must advocate for the rights to gather and report the news. We must advocate for freedom of the press and freedom of speech to effectively cover all aspects of digital communication. We advocate for citizens, bloggers, news organizations and independent journalists exercising these freedoms.
Digital-first journalists advocate for openness of public meetings, public records and public data. We participate in freedom of information councils and activities such as Sunshine Week. We test governments in our communities and report how well they uphold sunshine laws. We support citizens and bloggers in their efforts to gain access to public meetings, records and data, recognizing that journalists’ access in most cases is the access of the citizen.
Timeliness and reflection
The digital community expects swift and accurate reports of the news. Digital-first journalists must report what we know — and what we don’t know — quickly in breaking news stories. We must commit to experimenting and improving our tools and techniques for reporting unfolding stories.
We should recognize when the reporting of big stories will be well-served by a reflective overview report that is less hurried and fragmented than breaking reports have to be.
While we must react quickly to the news, we cannot just react. We need to undertake enterprise, examining community life and choosing topics that may not be big issues without our initiative and attention. We must look at potentially big issues for the community and examine them before the needs are urgent and obvious.
Digital-first journalists cover issues and events thoroughly. We recognize, though, that the complete report comes in many parts and many updates. We need to follow up on incomplete reports. We need to provide helpful links to earlier coverage.
Digital-first journalists recognize that the truths we report can hurt people. We need to avoid or be careful in crowdsourcing stories that involve allegations of criminal wrongdoing or appearances of impropriety, because our questions or answers from the community could harm innocent people or people about whom we have not verified damaging reports.
We need to be sure to correct inaccurate reports, not just publish correct information in subsequent reports, because our content will show up in Internet searches about people. We should exercise care and compassion in publishing information about victims of crime, particularly sex crimes or crimes against juveniles. We should be alert for corrections in content we aggregate and link to, and be sure to link to the corrections and correct archive aggregated content.
While we don’t generally believe in “unpublishing” content, we would make exceptions for an inaccurate, damaging tweet because it cannot be corrected and can be read separately from a subsequent correcting tweet.
Civility and respect
Digital-first journalists want to foster civil and respectful discussion. We will be civil and respectful in our interactions with the community, whether digital, in person or by other means. We will not tolerate abusive or disrespectful comments in discussions we host. We seek to find, develop and use tools that will foster civil and respectful conversation.
Our content should reflect the diversity of the community. Digital-first journalists recognize that our coverage will reflect our communities better if our newsrooms reflect our communities better, so our newsrooms should seek diverse pools of candidates as we recruit and promote staff members.
We recognize that diversity goes beyond the obvious demographic categories of race, ethnicity, gender and age. Our content also should reflect the diversity of our communities in such areas as religion, sexual orientation, disability, politics, education, interests and economic class.
We should be aware of areas where we cannot achieve staff diversity, either through our own failures or because of the nature of our workforce (for instance, our staffs will have more college education than the community and can reflect only the working-age population). In areas where we fall short in our diversity, we should take special effort to reflect the community’s diversity through our selection of story ideas, play of content, selection of sources and recruitment of bloggers for our networks.
Objectivity and bias
Digital-first journalists understand that we are people, not objects. Decisions about which stories to pursue, which beats to cover, which stories go on our home pages and front pages are subjective decisions that reflect human judgment.
We should be honest about our biases and opinions in newsroom discussions and should consider whether to be transparent with the community about those biases and opinions, and whether we should seek out different perspectives for our stories and our blog networks.
We recognize that both traditional values of striving to be objective and new values of transparency can serve the community. We encourage hearty, respectful newsroom discussions about the best ways to address these conflicting values in our news coverage.
Digital-first journalists should be skeptical as we gather information and curate content from the community. We should ask, “How do you know that?” and “How do they know that?” We should answer those questions for our communities about our content.
We welcome the skepticism of traditional journalists as they watch digital-first journalists practice the profession we all love. Their questions will test us and help us improve and prove the value of our journalism. As we address their questions and win their support, they will provide important milestones in our progress.
Journalists are by nature curious people. Our work is guided by seeking the answers to questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Digital-first journalists apply this curiosity to the new tools and techniques provided by digital technology. We wonder how we can use them to elevate our journalism and tell better stories. We experiment and learn how to use them and whether they merit a spot in our toolbox.
Collaboration and competition
Traditional journalists are a competitive lot. Digital-first journalists are a collaborative lot. We seek to engage the community in conversation about events and issues. We network with community bloggers and curate the community conversation. We link to others who are discussing the same issues, even our competitors. We seek out new opportunities to collaborate.
We are also a competitive lot, though. We want to be first with the news (as long as we’ve verified our facts). We want to produce the best content (but when we don’t, we will link to it). Only on rare occasions will we override our transparency values for competitive reasons. We recognize that we can’t scoop ourselves; when we have the story first, we scoop everyone.
When a situation doesn’t lend itself to collaboration, or when a competitor won’t collaborate, we want to kick our competitors’ asses.
Traditional journalists were largely uninvolved in how the business of journalism operated. Our paychecks appeared regularly as if by magic. Digital-first journalists accept that we must be involved in the quest for successful business models. We can protect our integrity and still contribute to the discussion about business opportunities.
Learning and adapting
Digital-first journalists need to be humble and curious, recognizing that new tools and techniques are always being developed. We must continually learn new tools and techniques and consider how to apply our values in these new situations, and whether new developments in journalism justify reconsideration of our values and priorities. As we make adjustments in our practices and values, we should discuss these changes within the profession and within the community.
What do you think?
Where I say “digital-first journalists,” you could often change that to “digital-first newsrooms,” because we exercise values individually and collectively. So we should discuss the values frequently. This blog post is not meant as a final statement about what those values are and must be, but a contribution to discussion of those values. Please join and continue the discussion in the comments here, on social media, on your blogs and in your newsrooms.
Tomorrow I’ll blog about how a digital-first approach guides your thinking as a journalist. Other posts will address leading a digital-first newsroom and how digital-first news organizations can succeed at making money.
Update: Gotta add this tweet from Susan Clotfelder of the Denver Post:
September 2014 update: This post originally referred to my work for Digital First Media and thus capitalized Digital First throughout. I have left DFM and thought I should update this. I am still a huge believer in digital-first journalism, and still plan to lead workshops based on the points here, but I thought I should update this post to reflect that I’m talking now about an approach to journalism, not a specific company.