Getting to Wrong

About a month ago, I started writing an entry about Gawker Media as a model for the “new journalism”. When I started writing that, I mostly meant it as a compliment. I was thinking about Deadspin’s Manti Te’o expose (by a different Timothy Burke), about Gawker’s long-running Unemployment Stories series and about some of the longer-form essays that Gawker runs as well, about io9’s Daily Explainer and other bits of reportage they do.

My complimentary view was that at its best, this “new journalism” combines commentary, reportage and lucid interpretation in a way that’s largely unavailable in the self-important culture of what’s left of print journalism. That the best “new journalists” found across a range of sites and blogs are beginning to really define a new expressive and ethical set of norms that don’t just keep journalism alive but overcome some of the ponderous establishment status quo of late 20th Century print journalism. That some of the best of the new wave of work is in every sense better than the best of print and television journalism: more readable, more visceral, more diverse, and covering a vastly wider range of places, people and experiences.

But the last few days have reminded me of what the weaknesses of the new digital journalism are. Namely, that you can get a story really wrong and not ever feel any need to apologize for it. In fact, you can just go ahead and keep at it. Hamilton Nolan–whose Unemployment Stories are a really important document of America’s new economic realities–can also just recirculate other people’s news with just enough twisting and stripping off of context to make the story misleading or just plain wrong. And then never say anything when called on it, just hide behind the interface. (Which is sort of what I thought Nolan’s problem with Bill Keller was.) For example, suggesting that an extracurricular program at Duke University is a full department or major taken for credit. This is like finding out that there’s a group of students who meet one night every month in a campus cafe to listen to each other’s poetry and then ranting that they’re all paying tuition to get a poetry degree. A day later, Nolan gets one small aspect of an already slanted Wall Street Journal article about the new White House data on higher education right, but misses everything else in the WSJ article and in the larger story of the new White House initiative.

I get it, Gawker’s a “gossip site”. This is the usual defense of the shortcomings of digital journalism: that it’s not meant to be serious, that it has no ambitions, that it’s just ephemeral, that you have to privilege getting people’s attention more than getting it right. That all you need to do is confirm existing stereotypes and give your readers information that comforts their prejudices. Basically, Fox News only with a more generous view of anal sex and a less positive view of gun ownership. But in that case, you wonder why Gawker Media, or Slate, or Salon, or the Atlantic bloggers or anyone else out there bothers as much as they do with the writing that really does strive to be high-value reportage or original commentary. Or for that matter why any of these digital writers have the gall to complain when the mainstream media gets its facts wrong or grinds its axes.

It’s important not to turn this complaint into nostalgia for print journalism, either. Just passing along a tidbit of information created by someone else, sometimes with a bit of spurious twisting and recrafting to make it sound original while also grinding some axe, is a very well established part of traditional media practice. Most entertainment journalism for the last fifty years has consisted of the barely-artful repackaging of press releases from agents and studios. Much political journalism in the same time period has been built around reporters acting as the mouthpiece of a “confidential source”, generally repeating verbatim whatever ‘news’ they want to see on the front page. Digital journalism is different because of the volume of its repackaged information and because of the shitty wages it pays to the people who write it, not because in ye olden days there were Great Ethical Men who walked the earth and today it’s just a bunch of scumbags.

But the thing is: the pacing and the interface and the technology actually allow for correction, for updates, for getting the story right in a way that was never possible. The New York Times made a fetish of its corrections in part because its production cycle made them all a big deal, and in part because you couldn’t actually change the original item. Today? If you get it wrong (or miss something interesting) the first time and your commenters call you on it, it is an easy thing to say as much. Of course, do that enough, and people might begin to wonder: why not get it right the first time?

And once you ask that, well, yes indeed: why not?

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One Response to Getting to Wrong

  1. thm says:

    This comment is really an aside to your main points here, but is somewhat illustrative. And also, I was irrationally obsessed with the Manti Te’o story when it broke.

    In the flurry of blog posts and tweets and speculation that followed the original Deadspin story, it didn’t take long before someone unearthed tweets by someone else who, it turns out, had been hoaxed by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo via the Lennay Kekua character. The tweets came months before Deadspin’s story and were a sort of unheeded–and at the time, nearly invisible–warning to Te’o. They changed the tenor of the speculation, making what is now the consensus sequence of events (Te’o greatly embellished the story but was essentially hoaxed) seem far more plausible.

    Thing is: the Deadspin folks had found these tweets and had contacted their authors in their own investigation. Deadspin was really hoping–and had probably convinced themselves–that Te’o was in on the hoax and did the whole thing for publicity. Their original article didn’t mention these tweets’ content at all. Deadspin was very careful to say what they did and did not have evidence for, but the implications were very clear. But I think they clearly set aside some of the evidence they gathered in hopes of a more explosive story.

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