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Home > Publications > Quill > The watchdog goes ARF: An Internet survival guide


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Friday, June 30, 2006
The watchdog goes ARF: An Internet survival guide

By Fred Brown

The Internet offers many challenges and opportunities for mainstream journalists.

The challenges: The Internet is luring away a chunk of mainstream media’s readers and viewers. Also, there is a risk when reporters use the Web as a resource because much of its content is not accurate.

The opportunities: almost unlimited research and interviewing possibilities.

New media have been widely touted as the source of choice for a new generation of news consumers. But a closer examination of the figures suggests new media aren’t fully replacing old media. The growth doesn’t match the loss of viewers and readers of old media. Perhaps some people simply have decided to live news-free lives.

Then there’s this problem: Much of this new-media content is not reliable information. One recent survey reported that only 25 percent of Web log readers think those blogs can be trusted to give accurate information.

On the Web, it’s all supposed to be hammered into something approaching reality as other individuals weigh in with their own version of the truth. But what if you, as an information seeker, access the site before the hammering is finished?

Podcasts. Instant messaging. Downloads of darn near anything. Given all these new choices, consumers of what used to be considered news don’t have to waste their time on facts that challenge their assumptions. They want affirmation, not information.

Don’t get me wrong. Even in geezerhood, after a long career in traditional journalism, I use the Internet extensively. But it’s important to think about the reliability of what you can get from the Internet.

E-mail interviews are convenient, and e-mail provides an easy tool for fact checking. Web logs are a good source for opinion, even if they’re questionable for facts.

In this world of multiple choices for information — or affirmation — how can the mainstream media compete? By providing consistently trustworthy information, comprehensive and free of bias.

We journalists relish our role as watchdogs. It’s the exciting part of journalism: sniffing out wrongdoing in government and business, nipping at the silly and foolish, snarling at the inept and incompetent, attacking the liars and the cheats.

But consider the noise a watchdog should make, and you have a handy way of remembering how ethical journalists can survive in a world teeming with choices of places to get news. Or maybe I should call it “content.” Or maybe just “words.”

ARF, I say. ARF! Those letters stand for Accuracy, Reliability and Fairness.

Accuracy is not the same as truth. Different people have different truths. Evolution. The age of the Earth. Whether a fetus is the same as a baby. Global warming. Your job is to report those beliefs, those sometimes disparate truths, accurately.

Reliability means that people can trust your accuracy consistently. You don’t make mistakes — or you make as few as is humanly possible, and what you report is an accurate reflection of what people think.

Fairness means you give everyone with a stake in the story a chance to explain his or her version. It’s not often a 50-50 balance. You have to use your judgment. Some points of view don’t carry as much weight as others.

Mainstream media will survive only if they insist on providing accurate, reliable and fair information.

Let others give readers what they want to see. Your duty as an ethical journalist is to give them information that they need to make sound decisions. OK. Maybe they don’t want it. Maybe they’d rather see something they agree with than something that challenges their assumptions. But you should at least make accurate, reliable and fair information available. That’s your responsibility. And a sense of responsibility is what divides an ethical journalist from a careless polemicist.

ARF. Accuracy, Reliability, Fairness. Those are the keys to ethical journalism in an environment where this poor, battered profession is increasingly seen as unethical or, worse, irrelevant.


Fred Brown, an SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper

columnist and

television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.

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