Rules for the Media: Independence, Transparency, Accountability, Comparative Reporting
Post from October 10, 2015 (↻ June 6, 2021), filed under Everything Else.
Eh. This isn’t how I’d put it anymore these days, but I’m willing to keep this article up to show how idealistic (or naive) I’ve been at times.
I’ve suggested to opt out of following news for the simple reason that “news” rarely constitute reliable and actionable information—but instead misinformation and disinformation—, and in the spirit that even ignorance may be preferable so to at least keep an open mind.
What would make me change this view? After all, we may not be able to ever have entirely trustworthy media—not in our current economic system, and not as long as the media rely heavily on a) advertising and b) the very people they’re supposed to inform about.
In a daring sketch—as so often here—, I think the media need more independence, transparency, accountability, and what I’ll call comparative reporting.
There will always be a degree of dependence for the media, as probably Noam Chomsky explains best (I’m already presumptuous enough). At the very least, governments may always be able to “guide” the media in their reporting, and to give them “flak.”
However, that’s not to say that we have to accept that media set themselves up to depend more or less on a single source of funding, one that at some point makes for a conflict of interest (as with advertising); and neither should this mean that several media may belong to one individual or company. The potential of abuse is too high; the media would not be independent.
What the cypherpunks demand with “privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful” applies also to the media. The media should go out of their way to demonstrate where they get their information from and how they drew their conclusions; that does not mean to give up all sources (we need strong whistleblower protections) but to do what’s possible to avoid any impression of biased reporting that may stem from conflicts of interest.
We then need accountability, we then need media to take responsibility for their reporting. Like most here this requires differentiation and tact, and so we should not demand heads to roll for every editorial mishap, but that there are (again transparent) ways to hold the media accountable. That should absolutely not be akin to government control in terms of curbing rights of the press, but it may entail fines, the obligation to publicly correct and apologize for statements, and demotions. My thinking here is governed by the idea that there’s always something we can do.
Another critical change relates to reporting itself—it must, for once, be comparative. What we know in information design, where we, ever since Tufte at least, insist charts to answer “compared to what?”, applies to news just as much—if not more. We need context to understand what’s really going on.
Reporting that there were 200 accidents in the last month in a town of 1,000 people is different from 200 accidents in the last year in a city of 20,000,000. And so is whether 1 plane crashes of 3 that took off yesterday, or the 100,000,000 having taken off in the last year. Or whether an athlete earns 20 times more the average salary of his country, or half of the league average. We may be bad with numbers, but we’re not bad at comparison. We need to be enabled to compare, and media just throwing numbers and statements at us are not only negligent but pretty much worthless.
❧ As so often on these pages, this is a cheeky sketch, some ideas poured into paragraphs. And yet the points should come across, that there may be things we can do to keep our media alive, to be able to trust them more. And these things could start with more independence, transparency, accountability, and comparisons.
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
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