Without integrity and ethical standards in journalism, technological innovations are diminished to being vapid portals. News executives have deeply struggled with issues relating to online and mobile news, ranging from implementing a social media policy to news selection when there is a plethora of content being created and shared by users and competing media organizations. Tom Kent, Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production at The Associated Press (AP), offers his expertise on where ethics fits into digital journalism.
GEN: On a whole, what do you think the biggest challenge is for the media as it enters the digital age?
Tom Kent: I think that one of the challenges is the tremendous amount of information out there, and what the news media wants to be. Some news media feel that they want to take on an entirely new role of being a discussion leader among their readers as to what’s true. Others feel that they should retain a more traditional role of verifying information, and not publish until they are sure of the facts. Some media will publish rumors, and say, “This is the rumor we heard; can anyone help us?” in order to determine whether it is true or not, while others in the news industry feel that they are the first filter. The news media now has an opportunity and an obligation to define what they want to be, and the decision for every news company can be an independent one. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer, but it is something every company needs to think about.
At the AP, we’ve taken this approach: We do not publish rumors, as we feel that we should only put out information that we have verified. On the other hand, we want to hear from our news consumers, and often we get good ideas from them for stories. We collect a lot of great information, ranging from audio, video, and photos, that we can use for our news service. So on one hand we are very open to an exchange with our audience, but at the same time they look to us not as just a depot of information which may or may not be true, but rather they expect us to be certain of what we are publishing.
Why do you think it important to remain objective in the digital age? Do you think it is even possible for journalists to truly remain objective?
I suppose that perfect transparency is always an elusive goal. We don’t expect politicians will always be perfect, that courts will always make perfect rulings, and journalists may not always be perfectly objective. Yet we do think there is value to the existence of news media that are trying to be as objective as possible. We don’t think everyone must have this goal, but there should be some news media who do.
This question boils down to thinking about news consumers. For those of us who live in the media hothouse, we imagine that every time there is an event news consumers will rush to Twitter, where they will have a carefully curated list of news sources, and go through all these sources to get their news. There are people who live that way, but most of them are in the media. Ordinary news consumers – who have lives to lead, work to do, who have ten minutes to consume the news on the bus – expect to have some news media that will attempt to synthesize and filter what is happening in the world, and give a fair representation of that as possible.
There is some evidence that news consumers like to follow news media that reflect their political point of view. But at the same time, we’ve seen some studies recently that suggest when people quickly want to know what is going on in the world, they do tend to seek out sources they know to be objective. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for news media, bloggers, and other information sources that do have a point of view. Yet we think news media that strives to be objective provide a valuable service, and they need to be there among everyone else.
What is the AP’s social media policy as it relates to objectivity?
We do have a social media policy, and it is a public document. It encourages our staffers to be active on social media, and our staffers do a lot on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. But at the same time, we feel that AP staff should be objective on social media the same way they are on our wires. It seems strange to me that a person could be a source of straightforward news on AP’s wires, and then show a definite political point of view in tweeting. Our policy has not created much controversy among the staff, as I think the AP attracts people who believe in balanced, straightforward journalism. I believe that people who feel the need to be strongly opinionated on social networks tend to seek out work at news organizations that have a strong political opinion.
Photo Source: Screen shot from twitter.com/AP
One reason I think a journalist needs to take the same approach to his profession on all media – which most people do not think about – is that tweets often tend to be quoted out of context. You can have a conversation in the world of Twitter and express your point of view, and the people you are talking with on Twitter may understand that this is an informal medium and expect you to give your personal opinion. Yet once your tweet is picked up and quoted in a blog, news article, magazine, or by a political party, then suddenly you realize tweets can be taken outside of Twitter and create a very different impression when they are used in another context.
How does the AP use crowdsourced information?
We crowdsource a lot in terms of seeking out people to interview. If we are writing about a particular subject and we need people who have certain opinions and experiences, then social networks are good way to find them. One example is we did a story a few weeks ago about Fifty Shades of Grey. We were looking for people who after reading Fifty Shades of Grey became sufficiently interested in the subject matter that they became pregnant. It’s hard to go out on the street and find people who will say “I became pregnant after reading Fifty Shades of Grey.” On social networks its easier, and we were able to find a number people who were willing to talk about the subject. At the same time we recognize social networks are a bit self selecting, and that we can’t do an opinion survey on a social network and get the same results you would from professional opinion polling. When we are looking for something specific, we do use social networks.
While we consider social networks a great source of material, when it comes in the newsroom it is like anything else; we have to vet it thoroughly. During hurricane Sandy, we saw all sorts of imagery from social networks – dramatic storm clouds over the Statue of Liberty, sharks swimming by flooded houses, etc. These images turned out to be fake. We have pretty effective ways of determining what has been photoshopped. Whether it is New York or Syria, we have people who know these areas and can interpret what is in the photo. We have people who can interpret audio and distinguish a Syrian accent from a Lebanese accent. We use a lot of methods to determine what is credible and what isn’t.
Our position is that we will only use what we can verify. We have no need to put out thousands of user-generated pictures and videos. We are not under pressure to use everything. I would say the vast majority of crowdsourced information that came in during the recent hurricane was legitimate. Yet if you publish one thing that is fake, people will remember that for 100 years. So we are willing to take our time, and this is true to the DNA of the AP.
As the news industry has become essentially instantaneous, how does the AP handle taking the extra time to verify information?
We always are willing to say “we are not sure, so we are not putting it out.” And over time this has cost us, because there have been occasions where we didn’t believe something and couldn’t confirm it, so we didn’t publish while our competitors were putting it online. In the end it turned out that our competitors were right all along, and we were unable to confirm it and therefore lost out. It is the price you pay. However, we think we’ve had enough occasions where we have been right to wait and it was worth it. But you have to have that in your DNA. You have to be willing to verify, meaning to sit for very long and uncomfortable hours while others have something. This is what you get with the AP: We are a very fast news agency, but we do take the extra time to check things.
Thanks to the Internet, users are much more exposed to violent and graphic pictures and videos. At the AP, where do you draw the line of what should be censored and how has this changed over time?
It’s a constantly moving target. I think that over time we and other organizations have probably come to use more in the way of graphic content and obscenities, but at the same time I think it is important that we think about it every time that we do. Does a graphic photo or a graphic obscenity in a quotation really add something to our coverage? Does it tell the reader something that they would not have known otherwise? Or is it just gore for gore’s sake? I think that we have bloodier pictures coming out of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq than we had out of previous wars. Maybe to some degree, the world is either more desensitized, or feels a greater need to see the reality and horror of war. But we still try to apply the standard of “does this really advance the story, and does it tell the news consumer something they would not have known otherwise?”
One important thing has changed – and we can thank the Internet for this: A couple of decades ago, the news agencies owned the wires, and if we decided to transmit something, the world saw it. If we decided not to transmit something, that in many ways censored it for the world. Now, the Internet has liberated us from this role. Now people on the Internet can find anything they want, and nobody can say that the news agencies prevented them from seeing something, since there are so many sources for any image or quotation. Now, we are freer than we have ever been to have an editorial policy and provide a coherent news report that reflects our standards. If people want something we don’t carry, it is easy enough for them to find it.
One major ethical topic which has been reassessed in light of new forms of media is the issue of identifying children involved in crimes as perpetrators or as victims. Can you detail how the AP’s stance has evolved?
Our general policy is not to identify juveniles who are accused of crimes, or are victims of crimes, even if other media or authorities release this information. Yet this is not an absolute rule, and we have tended to identify juvenile perpetrators somewhat more frequently. Within the past year, we’ve defined better the situations on which we make exceptions and use juveniles’ names. This includes whether the juvenile has been formerly charged as an adult, whether there are questions of public safety – that is to say if the child is the object of a manhunt – or the name has been published by so many media that there is just no point in concealing it anymore. We probably get as many questions from our bureaus on this subject than we do on any subject because it is a very delicate one, and it is an area where policy is evolving. Again, our goal is to protect privacy when we can, but if a crime is particularly horrendous or if the police are searching for someone and there is a public safety reason to identify them in our reporting, then we will.
It used to be that the police would issue a statement, and it depended 100% on the news media whether that statement would ever reach the public. Now the police issue a statement, and it goes on their website, Twitter, and Facebook. They are publishing directly to the world, and they do not depend on us uniquely to carry raw information to the public. It’s now an editorial decision as to what we think is right to publish, and we can focus on doing what we think is the right thing.
Given your vast professional experience, what is one piece of advice you could offer to GEN’s editorial community?
Seeing information published in a thousand places does not suggest in any way that it is true. People will say “everybody has got it” or “it’s out there,” but that should not be a factor in your editorial decisions. You have to be true to yourself, and you have to be true to your own organization. We love to crowdsource, but we don’t feel like we have to chase the crowd.
Don't want to miss an exclusive interview? Subscribe to GEN's weekly newsletter.