Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.It was 20 years ago that the Berlin Wall, the most iconic symbol of the Cold War, fell, on Nov. 9, 1989.In recent days, there have been a number of commemorations of the event and news organizations around the world have taken note of what was one of the most important stories of the latter half of the 20th century.I had the privilege of attending and speaking at one Berlin event organized by Google and Reporters Without Borders. The event, Breaking Borders, took the anniversary as an opportunity to explore how the Internet is playing a role in advancing participatory democracy around the globe. Twenty years earlier, television and satellite technology helped play a role in the fall of the Wall, by connecting people and empowering them with information.Among those appearing at the event, either as speakers or panelists, were Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe; Jean-François Julliard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders; Rachel Whetstone, Google’s vice president for public policy and communications; Andrew Puddephatt, director of Global Partners & Associates; Rita Sussmuth, former president of the German federal parliament; and Sami Ben Gharbia, advocacy director for Global Voices.The session was recorded and the presentation is on YouTube.A common theme at the conference was that, yes, the Internet provides a vastly more powerful way to obtain and share information, giving voice to many who had been muzzled. However, there was also a consensus that the Internet also presents myriad challenges and potential barriers.How, for example, does one make one’s message heard over the cacophony of voices on the Internet and, as I explored in my remarks to the conference, what should be the role of the mainstream media? Just as Internet technology can give voice to the voiceless, so can it be used by authorities to suppress speech.Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.It is an honor to speak to you today and to share a stage with such a distinguished group.Twenty years ago, I sat with my family in our house in Palo Alto, California, as we watched live television coverage from Berlin. We watched as only a few hundred meters from here thousands of Berliners converged on the Wall, singing, dancing, embracing and, yes, taking sledgehammers to perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Cold War.Six weeks later, on Christmas Day, we watched again as the American conductor Leonard Bernstein conducted an international orchestra– again, only a few hundred meters from here– in a soul-stirring performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to celebrate the fall of the Wall.For the occasion, the maestro took some artistic liberty with the text of Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy.” He changed one word. Instead of singing of “Freude” – Joy– the assembled choirs and soloists would sing of “freiheit” –Freedom.As my wife and children and I watched—along with millions of others from California to Japan—we joined with the Berliners in the audience and on the square outside the Schauspielhaus in weeping with joy. Just as the media had played a role in helping to bring down the Wall—by connecting people and empowering them with information—so now was it connecting the joy of Berliners to the world.It was particularly inspiring to see among the performers the teenage girls in the Dresden Philharmonic Kinderchor, girls who had grown up in the German Democratic Republic and who now, practically overnight, found themselves playing an important role in a ceremony marking a new era.Now—20 years later—they and their children have access to information and communication technology that has brought about a new freedom, rendering geographical borders more meaningless and making it more possible to get around government efforts at censorship and the suppression of the free flow of information.I believe Schiller, who in his poem yearned for the unity of humankind, would like much of the Internet revolution, particularly the democratization of information. However, such a lover of beauty and reason might look askance at much of the content on the Internet.We have moved into a time when anyone with an idea and an Internet connection can be a publisher, so there has been an explosion of information available to everyone. This explosion has given voice to many who had been muzzled. But it has also resulted in a cacophony of sources—many trustworthy, many not; many beautifully voiced, many not.We have seen how such wide access to publishing tools and information has been a force for liberation, but we have also seen how information can be manipulated and how easily disinformation can dominate the debate.We’ve seen how the disenfranchised can use social media and other information technology to organize and get out their message, but we’ve also seen how the authorities can use the same tools to subvert these “Twitter revolutions”.Social media were justly lauded for their role in breaking through government controls after Iran’s elections in June. When foreign journalists were forced to stay in their offices or leave the country, social media helped fill the information vacuum. Major news organizations, including my own, became dependent on social media for images and information. Practically overnight, we drew up standards guidelines on how information gleaned from social media could be used.There was a great deal of confusion. Some tweeters from Iran changed their location to escape censorship and harassment. Tweeters from outside Iran contributed to Iran-related feeds— some with support, some with false information, some with irrelevant tweets.A number of fake feeds were set up, some by the authorities, according to activists.Just whom could we trust?In the Telegraph, columnist Andrew Keen wrote that “the early promise of a democratic Twitter powered revolution (had) been replaced by a series of bleak lessons in digital realpolitik.”A little over a year earlier, in Kenya, the digital revolution helped empower journalists covering the elections there. Let’s remember that in Kenya–and in much of Africa, where Internet penetration is barely 5 percent– the mobile phone, not the computer, is the networking tool.Journalists were able to transmit news, such as poll results from remote locations, immediately via text messages, circumventing government controls. But later, during ethnic clashes after the elections, the same technology was used to spread false rumors and to threaten journalists.As Tom Rhodes, who heads the Africa program of the Committee to Protect Journalists, put it, “Though many Kenyans used text messages and blogs to urge a peaceful resolution during the post-election crisis, others encouraged violence.”Think back 15 years. If today’s Internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter and robust mobile platforms had been available, could they have helped prevent the genocide in Rwanda—or at least serve as a counterweight to inflammatory domestic television and radio broadcasts? Might social media have made it harder for the world to turn a blind eye to the massacres? Or might the voices warning of genocide have been lost in an Internet cacophony of celebrity news, trivia and self-important shouting?The invitation to this event tells us that, two decades after the fall of the Wall, today’s open Internet is playing a pivotal role in advancing participatory democracy around the globe. I believe that is true. But the Internet is really a utility. It can empower and amplify voices that otherwise would not be heard and it can unite communities of interest into powerful networks.But how do those voices and networks cut through the cacophony and the disinformation?It is here that I believe we in the mainstream media have an important role to play.For far too many years, news organizations had an arrogant, one-way relationship with their audiences. We gathered news, packaged it in ways we thought made sense and shoveled it out to our audiences. If they liked what we delivered, fine. If not, well, they could always write a letter to the newspaper editor.In today’s media world, not only is feedback instantaneous. Anyone with an Internet connection can be a publisher, can raise their voice, can tell the world what they see and what they think.But my, what a din! How can anyone know whom to trust?In the old, arrogant, one-way world, we told you whom you could trust—us! And by and large you did. But over the past 20 years, trust in news organizations – particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom—has plummeted to new lows. A recent Pew Center survey found that barely a quarter of Americans believed news organizations generally got the facts right in a story.Once that trust is lost, we mainstream news organizations also run the risk of becoming just another lonely voice in the cacophony.So how do we retain—or regain—that trust, and how do we remain relevant in today’s connected world?We start by telling the world about the rules we live by and truly living by those rules. We also must be an enthusiastic partner and participant in the newly democratized world of Internet publishing and social media. We need to shed the arrogance and share the standards and values that give us strength and credibility. By doing so, we provide resources to others to create responsible, ethical journalism.Let me offer a couple of examples of what we at Reuters have done.First, in July we made the Reuters Handbook of Journalism available to the public for free online at handbook.reuters.com. It’s my hope that the citizen journalist, the student, the teacher, the budding reporter, the blogger will be able to learn and benefit from our handbook. By putting the 513-page handbook online, it will be available to countless thousands who otherwise would not have had access.We decided to make the handbook available for a number of reasons.The first is transparency. At a time when trust is such an endangered commodity—in both the publishing and financial worlds—it’s important for news consumers to see the guidelines Reuters journalists follow.Just as important, however, is the service we hope the handbook will provide to journalists, publishers, teachers and students around the world. As the barriers to publishing have practically disappeared, practically anyone can be a publisher. But it’s also become clear that publishers have varying standards of truth, fairness and style. Our handbook is a good place for a new journalist or publisher to begin to develop his or her own standards.And there’s a feedback button to tell us what we might have wrong or how to improve the handbook.But it’s not enough for us to merely share our rulebook. We must be actively engaged in the new media reality.Reuters journalists use social media to report and distribute news and we are developing new standards and guidelines to help us do that in a way that we can retain the trust of our audience. As those guidelines are developed, they will be added to the Handbook of Journalism.We’ve also reached out to our publishing colleagues in the blogosphere to complement our reporting. I’m honored to be on the program with Sami Ben Gharbia of Global Voices, just as we were honored to work with Global Voices on our news website Reuters.com. Global Voices bloggers have supplemented Reuters coverage of a number of stories, including the Mumbai bombings, the visit of Hu Jintao to the United States and this year’s elections in Iran.These are small steps in the vast information ecosystem of the Internet, but I believe they demonstrate ways we can help promote responsible, high-quality journalism across the Internet, in a media environment without walls.We are living in a scary but exciting media world. The world’s financial system is facing challenges not seen since the Great Depression. Mainstream news organizations are struggling, as advertisers cut back and customers cut spending. As news becomes available—for free—from a vast range of sources, we face challenges in adding value to our product.But we in the mainstream media have a responsibility to be enthusiastic participants in—and moderators of—this exciting and challenging world.I think again of those wonderful young singers from Dresden in the Christmas Day concert of 20 years ago. The fall of the Wall was their story –and the media of the day shared that story with the world. Now they’re in their 30s and the media they and their children use include the Internet, Blackberrys and iPhones.What will be their children’s story? Whatever it is, they will be able to share it in ways undreamed of when the Wall fell. And no matter how the storytelling medium changes, we in the mainstream media must be there to help.
Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.One thing I’ve tried to be consistent about in this column is the notion of transparency.As I’ve written, at a time when trust is such an endangered commodity in the financial and media worlds, it’s important that news consumers see the guidelines our journalists follow. That’s why we made our Handbook of Journalism available free online.But it’s also important to remember that handbooks don’t do journalism. Journalists do. And journalists are continually facing new challenges in a brutal economic climate with tough competition and a news cycle that is measured in seconds — or less.So in the interests of transparency, I want to share with you a piece written by my colleague Sean Maguire, who is Reuters editor for political and general news. Recently, I introduced a panel discussion in London on journalism ethics, sponsored by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.Sean, a panel participant, was questioned sharply about how Reuters handled a report on Sept. 11 about Coast Guard vessels supposedly involved in a gun battle on the Potomac River. Were we too quick to pick up a story quoting another news organization? Here’s what Sean had to say.
Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.This week brought more distressing news for journalists, as a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found the U.S. public more critical than ever of the accuracy and independence of the media.Only 29 percent of Americans believe that news organisations generally get the facts straight, the survey found, the lowest level in the survey’s near quarter-century history.It gets worse:–Just 26 percent said the media are careful that reporting is not politically biased.–Only 20 percent believe news organisations are independent of powerful people and organisations.–Barely a fifth believe the media are willing to admit mistakes.And news organisations have been able to do what politicians have failed at: creating consensus across party lines. Now solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents all believe that stories are often inaccurate and tend to favor one side.It’s been a long road down. Back in 1985, in the first survey on media performance cited by Pew, 55 percent said news outlets get the facts straight and only 45 percent said the press was politically biased. Now 60 percent see political bias and only 18 percent say the media deal fairly with all sides of political and social issues.What are we to do?In the face of criticism, there’s sometimes a tendency to take shelter, keep one’s head down and hope the critics go away. But they won’t go away. And judging by the passionate and sometimes vitriolic criticisms I see in our comment sections, there are significant numbers of readers who will never believe reporters can put aside personal viewpoints and report a story accurately and fairly. You only have to look at discussions of coverage in the Middle East to see that.The proper response, I believe, can be summed up in two words: More transparency.That’s why we decided to make freely available to the public the guidelines our journalists live by when we published our Handbook of Journalism–and asked for feedback on it. That’s why I’m doing this job. That’s why we’re aggressive and open about correcting our mistakes. That’s why, in this blog and others, we welcome comments and debate on our work and issues in the news.Reuters Editor in Chief David Schlesinger put it well in a recent speech, when he described journalism, at its best, as “a mirror, exposing back to society a true and brutally honest picture of what is going on.””When we fail at that,” he said, “when our picture is not clear or is at all distorted, we deserve to be criticised.”At the risk of violating metaphor-overload rules, I invite you to take advantage of the windows we’re opening into our world–our Handbook of Journalism and our blogs–to tell us when you see a distorted picture or when the view is foggy. Or when it’s clear and distinct.Judging by the dim view of the media revealed in the Pew survey, we can’t open the windows too wide or too soon.
Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.Last month we made our Handbook of Journalism freely available online, and the response has been gratifying.Since then, several thousand of you–hundreds each day– have visited the Handbook and a quick analysis of the traffic shows how global the audience is.Visitors have come from 106 countries. Not surprisingly, about 32 percent of visits have come from the United States and 16 percent from the United Kingdom. But Germany accounted for 7 percent of visits. Rounding out the top 10 are Canada, Singapore, India, Russia, South Africa, Australia and Brazil.Visitors have viewed 207 separate pages and are averaging just under three pages per visit. Some are using it much more intensely: One visitor spent 32 minutes with the handbook and visited 72 pages. Of visitors from the top 10 countries, Brazilians are spending the most time with the handbook per visit.We’ve already had some useful feedback and comments on my column. One visitor wrote to note some inconsistencies in our American spelling style, which we’ve adjusted. Others have suggested possible new entries, which we’re exploring.Coming soon: A button on the main page of the handbook, which will make it easier for you to provide feedback; and an easier route to the handbook from Reuters.com.Thanks for all the comments and feedback so far–and thanks for using the handbook.
Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.The first entry is abattoir (not abbatoir); the last is ZULU (a term used by Western military forces to mean GMT).In between are 2,211 additional entries in the A-to-Z general style guide, part of the Reuters Handbook of Journalism, which we are now making available online. Also included in the handbook are sections on standards and values; a guide to operations; a sports style guide and a section of specialised guidance on such issues as personal investments by journalists, dealing with threats and complaints and reporting information found on the internet.The handbook is the guidance Reuters journalists live by — and we’re proud of it. Until now, it hasn’t been freely available to the public. In the early 1990s, a printed handbook was published and in 2006 the Reuters Foundation published a relatively short PDF online that gave some basic guidance to reporters. But it’s only now that we’re putting the full handbook online.We’ve decided to make the handbook available to everyone for a number of reasons. Among them:
Transparency: At a time when trust is an endangered commodity in the financial and media worlds, it’s important that news consumers see the guidelines our journalists follow.
Service: As we’ve seen over the past decade, the barriers to publishing have dropped so that anyone with an idea and a computer can be a publisher. But it’s also become clear that publishers have a varying standard of truth, fairness and style. Our handbook is a good place for budding journalists to begin.
Geography: Reuters serves a global audience and the handbook recognises the cultural and political differences that our journalists face in reporting for the world. This is a handbook not just for English-language journalists in the United Kingdom or the United States, but for wherever English is used.
Many entries deal with words that are sometimes confused or misused. Turning randomly to the “H” section, we learn the difference between hyperthermia and hypothermia (The latter means “Too cold. Think that o rhymes with low” while the former means “Too hot. Think of ‘er’ as in very.”); Haarlem and Harlem (the latter is in New York City, the former in the Netherlands); hangar and hanger (the latter is for clothes, the former a shelter for aircraft); and hale and hail (the former means “free from disease, or to pull or haul by force.” The latter “is to salute or call out, or an ice shower”).We take a global approach to the spelling of many words. Often, it’s the United States against the world. For instance, our preferred style is “artefact,” except in the U.S., where it’s artifact. Same goes for axe and axeing — our standards for most of the world — which become ax and axing in the U.S. There’s also “backwards,” which loses its “s” in American stories, and “leukaemia,” which loses that first “a” in the U.S. There’s plenty more: tyre and tire, titbit and tidbit, and defence and defense.In the world of diplomacy, economics and academe, the G3 is Germany, Japan and the U.S.; the G5 extends membership to France and the U.K.; G7 grows the club to Canada and Italy; make it G8 with Russia; G10 adds Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. As for the G24, G30 and G77, you’ll have to look for yourself (we’ve got entries for them, too).There are slang words to avoid (posh — though one former Spice Girl might object) and a number of common misspellings (Viet Cong, not Vietcong; ventricle, not ventrical; machinegun, not machine gun; and ketchup, not catchup or catsup).The sports section of the handbook offers a list of sports cliches to avoid (hard fought, made history, veteran, bounce back, and icon), the difference between a field and a pitch (the former’s where American football and baseball are played), and an explanation of delight as a transitive verb that needs an object (“Marat Safin delighted Russian fans with a neat chip…not Marat Safin delighted with a chip.”). Words like disaster and tragedy shouldn’t be used in sports stories, as this devalues the significance of these words (“Losing a football match is not a disaster. A stand falling down and crushing a fan is”).When language implies a value judgment, we must use words very carefully (cult, for instance: One person’s cult is another’s religion). The entry for “good, bad” advises: “For financial and commodity markets good news and bad news depends on who you are and what your position is in the market. Avoid them.”One of the most controversial entries is that of “terrorism.” The entry reads, in part:”We may refer without attribution to terrorism and counter-terrorism in general but do not refer to specific events as terrorism. Nor do we use the adjective word terrorist without attribution to qualify specific individuals, groups or events. … Report the subjects of news stories objectively, their actions, identity and background. Aim for a dispassionate use of language so that individuals, organisations and governments can make their own judgment on the basis of facts. Seek to use more specific terms like “bomber” or “bombing”, “hijacker” or “hijacking”, “attacker” or “attacks”, “gunman” or “gunmen” etc.”This policy has been passionately debated inside and outside Reuters. As the handbook says, “we aim for dispassionate language” so that our customers can “make their own judgment on the basis of facts.”Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger puts it this way:”Over the years we have been criticised for this policy on numerous occasions, when people or governments wanted us to label an incident ourselves rather than quote their views. Criticism of our policy was especially fierce when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Reuters made the decision not to describe the attackers as terrorists, because we thought a label would not add to our vivid description of the thousands of deaths and the destruction of the iconic twin towers of the World Trade Center. In the years since, as the world has witnessed numerous other attacks, we’ve chosen to continue that policy of sticking with the facts and letting our readers make up their own minds based on our reporting and the evidence we present them.”It’s important to point out that the handbook is a living document, one that preserves rules that have guided Reuters journalists through a century and half but also one that may change when the times change. It’s also important to note that the handbook is produced by humans who aren’t infallible — and it’s used by humans who aren’t infallible, so sometimes we make mistakes. I’m sure you’ll let us know when we do, but we’re usually harder on ourselves than anyone else is.I hope you’ll find the handbook useful, whether you’re a journalist, a student, a teacher or an engaged reader. And we welcome your comments and suggestions.
Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.The recent election in Iran was one of the more dramatic stories this year, with powerful images of protests and street-fighting dominating television and online coverage.Because traditional news organizations were essentially shut down by the authorities, it fell to citizen journalists — many of whom were among the protesters — to provide the images that the world would see, using such social media as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.This has raised a number of ethics, standards and legal questions for mainstream journalists. My colleague John Clarke, Reuters Global Television Editor, found himself in the middle of the issue as images became available and clients demanded coverage of the election’s aftermath. John discusses the issues raised, the lessons learned and the opportunities for the future below. As always, his opinions are his own.—–Protests following the controversial Iranian election have put citizen journalism even more firmly in the spotlight. With traditional news gathering organizations effectively shut down by authorities, text, video and stills being produced and posted on social websites by the protesters themselves became the main way that much information was getting out of the country. This dramatic coverage — regardless of (and perhaps even enhanced by) its shaky nature — was accessed by Reuters (and other news organizations) and distributed to clients and viewers around the world.Citizen journalism isn’t new. We have long accessed amateur footage of stories around the world, from plane crashes to wars to natural disasters. However, the internet and mobile devices have resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount of content available and the speed of delivery, the ability to deliver outside of normal controls, more uncertainty over origin, ownership and verification, and the viral nature in which it can all spread around the globe.At Reuters, we have used video from social networking websites for several years. We put in place strict rules about how such material can be accessed and used, with only senior editors authorized to approve running this material.Verification is a major issue. Video or photos might not be what they purport to be, either because of sloppy information from the person posting it, or deliberate deceit, either to create mischief or for political or other reasons.Another important consideration is that copyright still applies to the internet. The person posting material might hold copyright, or worse, they might not hold copyright. The material could originate from a private individual, a company or another news organization. Wherever possible, we have sought to find and seek permission from the originator of the material, as we would do for any third-party material accessed in any other way. This can apply to hard news and lighter material, including funny visual postings that have gone viral and have become stories in their own right.When the Iran story broke, even when we were able to operate, we still accessed internet-posted amateur video. But such footage became even more important when our operations were hampered by authorities –- the sheer number of mini-cams and mobile phones taking visual images meant there would be good material we would want, even if we were able to operate freely ourselves.Early on, we set up a 24-hour monitoring of Twitter and various social networking sites. We made a call early on that we would relax our rules on clearance –- protesters posting video and pictures on social networks wanted to get them to the world, and we were another conduit for that. Other news organizations followed a similar rationale.Throughout the Iran story, however, we were extremely careful about what we wrote and said about material accessed from social networking sites, certainly not taking at face value what (little) information usually comes with such posts.We have been clear when we are unable to verify content or location or date, and have also clearly stated that we’ve accessed it from a social networking site. Our subscribers (and their viewers) are also intelligent enough to know that no-one can 100 percent verify this type of material and are similarly circumspect, and the shaky, low-resolution quality of much of this material is an immediate signal to clients and viewers that it was shot by an amateur.This approach does not, of course, absolve us of all responsibility. There have been many videos and photos we haven’t used because they have not rung true for one reason or another.Iran was also a special case in that citizen journalism was not only a way to get video and photographs, but it was a very important part of the story itself. We didn’t just get video from citizen journalists, we did several stories, like the one below, about the importance of citizen journalism in Iran, which put our use of it in its proper context, too.Iran was in many respects the culmination of trends in the way citizens have been using the web for the past few years –- a confluence of the proliferation of mobile recording devices, internet delivery and social networking sites that allow almost instantaneous interactions between users and an exchange of information and ideas.How social networking intersects with traditional news organizations is also an evolutionary process.It will not be good enough for traditional news companies to simply take from citizen journalists –- it needs to be a two-way exchange of content, information and ideas, with mainstream news companies contributing via blogs, chatrooms and other social networking sites, whether in the general news area or in specialist forums such as those for the financial community.Verification, copyright and quality will always be significant issues — even more so as millions of people around the world have the ability to distribute and exchange content. The combination of citizen journalism, and the standards of news organizations of companies such as Reuters, has the ability to produce a richer flow of information around the world.Provided we clearly flag the origin of material and put the relevant context around it, our subscribers, our viewers and our readers –- who are already immersed in social networking as consumers and contributors themselves –- are smart enough to evaluate this content, without challenging our core journalistic values.– John Clarke, Global Editor, Television
Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.YouTube has launched a worthy project called the Reporters’ Center, a collection of videos from journalists around the industry providing advice for aspiring citizen journalists.I’ve contributed a piece on ethics and gaining and keeping the trust of your audience, and my Reuters colleague Adam Pasick, the U.S. editor of Reuters.com, has done a piece on shooting different kinds of video interviews.You’ll also find contributions from folks who are a lot more famous, such as Katie Couric, Bob Woodward and Arianna Huffington, among others.
Are we too connected?
In recent days and weeks I’ve been wondering if our mobile phones, Blackberries, text messaging and constant access to email and social media have brought us too close together for our own good.
As I calculated the investment loss since the steep decline in the markets began, and particularly since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September, some questions arose (in addition to: Will I ever be able to retire?).