Credibility in news

by Mark Schneider

Despite the fact that there are no secret handshakes, no Masonic rites or other esoteric indications denoting membership in the society of journalists, a bond of unexamined trust exists among them.

This bond is not a very strong one, because in the subculture they inhabit, a sceptical frame of mind is highly valued. All truths are subject to examination (or at least that is a highly-favoured conceit). What remains largely unexamined is an enormous, unmapped territory in which reporters freely appropriate the work of each other, rarely with attribution. A consensus view of the general state of the world is thus adopted without much thought about it.

Here’s a microscopic view of how it happens: a reporter reports, and other reporters notice or are assigned a follow-up. Sometimes errors are encountered. But often, in the need to “advance” the story, a new chapter is simply written, and the original story becomes a canonical piece of general knowledge.

This is especially evident when the source story comes from a respected news organization or news service, such as Reuters, CP or is distributed by a syndication network such as CBC’s ENS, or CTV’s DNS.

News editors for the most part rightly assume that if the originating producer is credible, the story is credible. One might view this as a kind of “delegated trust”, obviating the need for fine-grained fact-checking or re-interviewing news sources. It certainly saves a lot of time and money. And for the most part, this shared universe of trusting belief rarely creates embarrassment for its members.

But that alone is not evidence that this society of journalists actually “gets it right.” Since there are no other competing social structures that produce a comparable, timely, and popular stream of intelligence about the events of daily human life, the overall veracity of the news stream largely goes unchallenged. And this lack of competition – added to the tendency of journalists to trust one other – only deepens the epistemological frailties of our global news reporting network.

Unfortunately, these problems are worsening as a consequence of the proliferation of news sources and the availability of vast amounts of generic news distributed on the Internet.

Increasingly, news services such as Reuters and ITV are commissioning the work of freelancers, especially in remote areas. Who are these freelancers? What are their bona fides? As a reporter working for a small news operation, say in Prince George, B.C., can I call these freelancers to verify their sources and the validity of the people they interview? Most news managers would see this as an absurd waste of time and money. Even if the source of the material is highly reputable, such as ABC’s NewsOne syndication service, “end-user journalists” do not have the luxury or latitude to do their own fact-checking.

Non-traditional news tipsters and emerging content providers, such as bloggers and photo-enabled, mobile phone users with a taste for capturing catastrophe, add to the stew of news-like stuff. The fact is that stories are now being pieced together, quilt-blanket-style, by editors and reporters with too much to choose from and too little time for vetting.

To meet these problems, the news industry is turning to computerized Content Management Systems (CMS) to catalogue and manage these “assets” and move them into production assembly lines.

In 2000 – 2001, ABC News began developing a powerful digital media gateway, to overcome a growing bottleneck of incoming and outgoing material. Over the years it had built up a sophisticated news feed service that distributed (via satellite) raw video, cut news stories and production sheets. There were multiple daily feeds, faxes, schedules, etc. And it wasn’t just news content – networks and their affiliates also had to move advertising spots, movies, stock footage, and the like. Until recently, all of this content was analogue – which meant multiple handling by recording and transmission engineers, machinery with moving parts like tape recorders and playback decks. The machinery was very expensive to maintain, and difficult for the content people to access.

The introduction of Digital Media Gateways, like Pathfire, began to control that flood. By either digitizing analog material or creating content in native digital formats, this material was much more easily distributed by satellite and downloaded into a form where the content folk could access it with minimal intervention. The next step – eliminating expensive satellite transmission – was made possible by high-capacity networks using Internet Protocol (IP) to distribute all this content. ABC NewsOne began a test of an IP network in 2001, allowing news producers to receive the feeds directly on computers.

Instead of having to wait for a satellite feed to be down-linked, recorded by technicians, and delivered on tape at specific times, producers could access “thumbnails” of feeds (in low-resolution format) directly from their desktops, whenever the material was ready. Hi-resolution versions can now be downloaded exactly the same way.

For a reporter, the initial impact was liberating. She no longer had to wait for a fax to announce the “feed time” — when a run of syndicated stories would be transmitted by satellite and then down-linked to the control room. For there, it would have to be recorded on a Video Tape Recorder that could only be operated by a skilled technician, who would then dub it and (hopefully) call the reporter when it was done.

The Pathfire system completely collapsed this complex, news production line. The reporter could now simply wait at her workstation and see the roster of coming stories from ABC. Included would be the production details, including running time of the item, potentially a text introduction, and the names and titles of those interviewed.

Clicking on a thumbnail of an item would launch a Windows Media Player (WMP) on her desktop and a low-resolution version would play. Another click and she could route the data stream to a robot video encoder which would “fetch” the hi-resolution version, and automatically make this available to the edit suite.

The downloaded story could thus be cut apart, and useful elements included in a local version. Since most news organizations subscribe to multiple news services, digital media gateways have now made it possible to create journalistic amalgams (“meltdowns” as they were called) in which very little original material might be required.

The recursive nature of this process is immediately apparent. Since some of the syndicated material was similarly culled from a multitude of sources, the end product was really an “amalgam of an amalgam”.

Try then to trace the delegation of trust in such a system.

Currently there is no convenient way to signal to the news consumer how the material they receive was collected, no way to indicate the bona fides of the originating collector and no way to validate what has been included and excluded in the final product.

This delegation of trust is forced on the unsuspecting news consumer, with no discussion and of course, no real debate about this system. Another way to view this is to consider that, unlike the food we consume, with laws insisting on the strict labelling of ingredients and the provision of nutritional information, consumers digest our news products largely in the dark.

And yet it is possible to imagine ways to rectify this situation, without going the route of official regulation.

Good newspapers often attribute (either in the byline or in a footnote) when “files” from other sources have been used. This is a useful piece of information for the news consumer, and it is even possible, if one has a sharp eye, to discern what the file material is likely to be.

However this is a practice rarely used in broadcasting or in online journalism. According to the Law of Delegated Trust, the publisher of material gathered from trustworthy proprietary sources (such as CP, AP, UPI, Reuters, ITV, etc.) assumes that all material thus received has previously been certified as accurate according to accepted journalistic practices.

In no case that I am aware of – except for those rare times when a news syndication service has transmitted an egregious error – do news organizations routinely explain the way this works to their consumers.

The consumer has no idea that this law exists. There is no rule of disclosure that is accepted industry-wide. There is no label on news products to inform the consumer of the “ingredients.”

When there is no system to inform or disclose accepted but hidden news practices to consumers, the news practices themselves suffer, and the risk of a catastrophic “meltdown” of trust becomes inevitable.

With the increasing dependence on digital networks for the collection and distribution of news products, the industry must develop a way to certify their output, in the same way that many other industries are doing.

For example, in the lumber industry, a variety of “forest certification” measures to prevent over-logging or logging of old growth forests are being implemented by governments, end-users, and organizations. Lumber produced under strict guidelines are stamped with a seal of approval. Retailers and consumers are thus reassured that their purchases are as sustainable as possible. The same is true for organic and “fair-trade” produce.

Can news be certified? Can we include in our journalism information about the way we collect and report information? These are questions that beg a wide and noisy conversation.

Mark Schneider is a senior journalist with 25 years experience. He was CTV National News’ first “Internet Guru”. For four years he hosted Digital Desk, a daily national news segment on NewsNet, CTV’s headline news channel. He was also New Media Advisor to the President of CTV, its first New Media Senior Editor, and built CTV’s first website. In 1998 he was a founder of New Media BC, a pre-eminent trade organization representing an industry with annual revenues in excess of $1 billion generated by more than 350 companies.

Prior to coming to CTV, Schneider was bureau Chief in Ottawa for BCTV between 1989 and 1994. He was a senior reporter for CBC Television and a broadcaster for CBC Radio. His work appeared on many network shows, from The Journal to Sunday Morning and As It Happens. He won three CanPro awards including its prestigious Show Case award in 1992, as well as awards from the BC Association of Broadcasters. In 1995 and 1996, he was awarded Gemini nominations in Best Reportage and Best Information categories.