Sunday, July 26, 2009

An idea to save news

I believe there are several problems with news media today which must be addressed.
  1. News, especially television news, often competes for advertising revenue and is expected to profit. This opens the possibility that the news will favor their advertisers.
  2. Some programs appear to be news but in fact offer opinion and comment on news reported by others. Hosts on these shows usually call themselves commentators and do not claim to be journalists, and thus don't feel bound by any journalistic integrity. They claim their right of free speech; free speech is not limited to unbiased and independently verified work.
  3. Reports might be biased by many different means.
I'd like to see a simple-to-use, voluntary rating system applied to programs which do claim to report news.

It would be impossible to have independent verification of every published article or even every individual reporter. Whole organizations would receive a single rating for all their individuals and articles published. The organization would be responsible to hold its individuals and published matter to the standards described under their rating, or risk losing that rating - and thus affecting the whole organization.

This rating system would be paid for by application fees. Any organization which wants a rating would pay a non-refundable application fee and submit to an audit by the rating organization. Only if the rating organization is satisfied would it award a rating.

The ratings would describe what to expect from the news organization. For example, does it contain original reporting? Does it exhibit any bias? Does the organization employ any independent verification of its facts?

I expect a rating would benefit large newspapers and TV networks which could afford the costs; not just the application, but the corresponding overhead of living up to the rating. In general, people should be more attracted to a rated show than a non-rated show, and enjoy higher ratings. Bigger audiences should lead to higher advertising revenue. Indeed, even advertisers would perhaps enjoy being associated with higher quality news - or even as another demographic or targeting tool for their advertisements after they learn how to use it.

Organizations which can't afford the cost, or which choose not to apply for a rating could still carry on as usual. They might be disadvantaged compared to rated organizations. But that is the whole point - to make bias more visible so that people can decide. In the case of small organizations like individual bloggers, they could appeal for financial support to pay the rating costs. This could be anything from a paypal tip jar, to soliciting private or public sponsors.

Non-rated organizations could still function as they do, and if a rated organization re-reported an article from a non-rated source, they could add value by performing independent verification. Indeed, perhaps a rated organization might only perform independent verification and do no original reporting, and be rated as such. Perhaps this could be a business case itself - I'll leave that to businessmen to determine.

In fact, journalists themselves could set up a ratings system to help in marketing their added value, without government intervention. Simple brand-building, I should think.

The problems in a rating system might be:
  • How to limit bias in the rating organization itself?
  • The ratings organization might be overwhelmed by complaints against rated organizations. Complaints would have to bundled together like class action law suits.
  • Non-rated organizations could systematically attack the rating organization itself. The most damaging attack would be to falsely promote the idea that the rating organization is against free speech. An 'anti-rating rating' could be displayed, where the anti-rating rating conveys no information about quality - but simply a belief in free speech. The impact of the rating could be diluted, or even exploited by non-rated organizations.
I believe even some non-rated organizations would have some interest in backing a rating system. For example, imagine a biased non-rated organization which does no original news gathering re-reporting only those selected facts which support their bias - then claiming these facts came from a rated organization - thus 'stealing' the impression of being unbiased.

Ratings do work for other things like entertainment (movies and video games get ratings like G, PG, R, etc.). Ratings are also applied to certain financial instruments; in some cases these work, in other cases they might need reform - I'll leave that to better experts than me to say.

This post is not yet rated. ;-)