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Monday, May 09, 2005

Gray Lady to enter 21st century?

The New York Times has done a little self-reflection:
In order to build readers' confidence, an internal committee at The New York Times has recommended taking a variety of steps, including having senior editors write more regularly about the workings of the paper, tracking errors in a systematic way and responding more assertively to the paper's critics.
The report comes as the public's confidence in the media continues to wane. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing of what they read in their daily newspapers, a level of distrust that may have been inflated because the questions were asked during the contentious presidential campaign when the media itself was often at issue. When specific newspapers were mentioned, The Times fared about average, with 21 percent of readers believing all or most of what they read in The Times and 14 percent believing almost nothing. In a response to the committee's report, Mr. Keller called it "a sound blueprint for the next stage of our campaign to secure our accuracy, fairness and accountability." He said he wanted to "hardwire these guidelines into the newsroom" and would be explaining them to the staff and appointing people to enforce them.
Wow. Frankly, I'm impressed at the candor. Let's hope these recommendations are implemented, and soon:
An internal committee at The New York Times has made specific recommendations to improve the paper's credibility with readers. They include the following: 1. Encourage the executive editor and the two managing editors to share responsibility for writing a regular column that deals with matters concerning the newspaper. 2. Make reporters and editors more easily available through e-mail. 3. Use the Web to provide readers with complete documents used in stories as well as transcripts of interviews. 4. Consider creating a Times blog that promotes interaction with readers. 5. Further curtail the use of anonymous sources. 6. Encourage reporters to confirm the accuracy of articles with sources before publication and to solicit feedback from sources after publication. 7. Set up an error-tracking system to detect patterns and trends. 8. Encourage the development of software to detect plagiarism when accusations arise. 9. Increase coverage of middle America, rural areas and religion. 10. Establish a system for evaluating public attacks on The Times's work and determining whether and how to respond.
Some of these are easy, and we should see them pretty quickly. Point #1 should be standard operating procedure at every newsroom in the country. Point #2 is just a matter of adding an email address at the bottom of every story. Point #5 is just good policy. It's awful that Point #6 even needs to be said, but it does. However, some of these points will substantially change the nature of newspaper journalism, and I think for the better. Point #3 is huge. It would allow the whole spectrum of the blogosphere -- from Daily Kos to Little Green Footballs -- pore over every word of every document. The Times would be forced to live up to an unprecedented level of accountability and transparency to its readership, and the standards of quality would skyrocket overnight. And that's why Point #3 isn't going to come to fruition anytime soon. For now, I'm skeptical. But as Gene Hackman says in A Bridge Too Far: "I'll be properly ecstatic if it works." The full text of the committee's report is available here.


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