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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Like A Rolling Stone: When Reporters Get Duped

The journalism industry is being targeted for not properly vetting its sources. The newest Ground Zero for this movement is the recent Rolling Stone investigative piece which the magazine is now questioning.

Some commentators are blaming the news media for the falsity of the story (if that is the ultimate conclusion). This is wrong.

The blame for a false allegation lies with the liar, not the person who is lied to. So, don't blame the victim!

Blame the liar. Better yet, as sunshine is the best disinfectant in all instances of fraud, corruption and crime: Expose the liar.

In some quarters, the news media is ripped as being "irresponsible" or "partisan." But this misses the essence of the news media.

The news media is a business, first and foremost.

Because it is a business, and not a public trust, it does not have responsibilities to the public. (Arguably, such responsibilities lie with publicly-funded news media organizations like National Public Radio.)

The news media is about eyeballs. And that's how it should be.

Sensationalism, and arguably irresponsible or jumping-the-gun practices like poor sourcing, may make for short-term gains. Journalistic fraud like the Jayson Blair debacle years ago can ruin a career. What's happened to Jayson Blair, by the way?

Credibility ultimately drives eyeballs, and commercial revenue follows.

Blaming reporters for "getting it wrong," or believing a fraud, is wrong. Worse would be a move to make the reporters or their news media outlets legally responsible. Even worse, you could face a chilling of the First Amendment by erecting a legal standard making journalists the guarantors of the truthfulness of their sources. The reporters get duped just as easily, and when they're working for peanuts, you're talking about young, green and naive reporters. Those reporters will take enough of a reputational hit for being fooled, particularly in an industry with cutthroat competition and ease-of-entry for new bloggers and news websites. An unintended consequence of this blame game will be to chill news-reporting activities, drive out some organizations, reduce bonafide investigative reporting and turn it into the very exclusive province of investigative lawyers working for private clients (in other words, people like me) and issuing reports only to private audiences (i.e., clients).

When sunshine is the best disinfectant, the solution is to have more reporting, more disclosure, and more news media competition. Targeting the reporters will be a tremendous mistake in the wrong direction.

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