Showing posts with label Washington Post. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Washington Post. Show all posts

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Ethics and Journalism in the Age of Social Media


"The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses."
Malcom X

There is a fundamental issue that exists today and I want to call it the greatest existential crisis of our time; it is the choice to make money or to do the right thing. I understand that this choice is not something mankind is facing for the first time and that we have always grappled with it in capitalist societies, but my concern is that the tilt in favour of making money, today, seems to override standing on our principles and ethics. More than ever before in our history. Today, the vast majority of corporations and individuals seem to feel that bottom-line growth justifies the means, and this is something that should concern us all, greatly.

Media is the most powerful communication tool. In fact, I would argue that with the advent of social media, where anyone with an internet connection can spread news, the role of the mainstream media has not diminished but become even more important. The internet is filled with rumours and falsehoods, and social media in large part fuels stories that are unverified but popular and trending due to their sensational or gossipy nature. In such a world, the role of established media outlets as the arbiters or truth and fact checking, takes on much greater urgency. And it requires far more responsibility from editors and publishers than ever before in history. Yet driving eyeballs and making money has become an equally important goal for all these media houses that are struggling to survive in the digital age; a situation that has created a serious dilemma between chasing revenue and applying ethics in journalism. The question is whether to break news first (to drive maximum eyeballs and revenue) or wait to check the facts and risk being an hour late to the party - which in social media standard time is roughly a decade late.

Even though the reality is that speed and being first count for more eyeballs than being factually correct, it does not absolve so-called reputable media outlets of the greater responsibility that they have to society. With great power comes great responsibility. Granted, mainstream media is no longer our only source of information. For that reason, it is even more important for them to be sources of trusted and reliable information. Here, I make a distinction between cable news and mainstream news; the former is largely opinion, gossip and entertainment, while the latter needs to be the opposite. However, both should aspire to greater truth, based on some of the ethics and principles that have driven responsible journalism for centuries. They both wield tremendous influence over the masses and our minds.

Money can be made, but a reputation cannot be regained or fixed (with all the dollars in the world) once the trust between reader and institution has been broken. There should be absolutely no place for the sensational half-truths and lack of fact checking that we see from even the most venerable media institutions today. In the race to break a story or get retweeted into becoming a trending topic, they are all willing to put principles aside. Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on the horrific UVA campus rape, and the Fox News interview with a Seal Team Six member who was part of the Bin Laden raid, are both examples of the lack of ethics to which I am referring.

Rolling Stone clearly chose to run with a story based on the “sensational” aspects and in doing so chose to forego the most basic tenets of journalism: fact checking, investigating, and corroborating to ensure the integrity of the storyteller, all with a healthy dose of skepticism that every journalist is meant to have. None of this is about disrespecting the victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Equally, Fox News did a disservice to our country by agreeing to give the Seal Team Six member a platform on which to speak publicly. There used to be an unbreakable code of honour among men who serve our country in the shadows. They did it knowing that nobody would ever know their sacrifice by face or name; there is no greater honour or valiance. I believe these men were the bravest of the brave because they were driven by a sense of duty, honour and the noblest quality in humanity, not by fame, fortune or personal glory. For this reason, Fox should have turned down the Seal Team Six member, even knowing that other news outlets like CBS or CNN would likely jump at the opportunity to do the same exclusive interview with him. If Fox News had done this, they not only might have won my and many peoples respect, but also would have set a very important precedent that is much needed in journalism today – doing the right thing.

Equally, I was shocked by the number of media outlets that jumped to disseminate the embarrassing Sony Studio emails and other private and personal information of executives and employees.  Everyone was aware that this information was stolen and released to the public by hackers. We live in the age of WikiLeaks, but there is a fundamental difference between a whistle blower and a hacker. The latter is always theft and extortion. I have no problem with media reporting the hacking, even debating the state actors behind it and investigating the fingerprint of the hackers, but institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post should have stopped short of sharing the stolen information. They can and will probably justify their actions using “Bartnicki vs Vopper,” where the Supreme Court ruled that “...the playing of illegally intercepted material under these circumstances was constitutionally protected, at least when the broadcaster wasn’t involved in the illegal interception...” (Source: Washington Post Article). They are legally within their rights, but my point is not about legality. It has to do with guiding principles and ethics; things that used to be the cornerstones of our society and journalism just a few decades ago. My expectation would have been for these outlets to refrain from publishing any of the stolen information; leaving that to less reputable sites. A refusal to publish would also have sent a very strong message to future hackers and served as a great disincentive to take the risk. It is notoriety, through widespread exposure, that drives these cowardly criminals.

Media outlets who want to be regarded as respectable should consider hacked information off-limits, much the way eBay considers stolen goods listing unacceptable or how Sotheby’s will not try to auction a painting for which the provenance is in serious doubt. Doing so will draw an important ethical line in the sand which is so desperately missing in journalism today - integrity. They may also gain our respect and their eyeballs, as others start to follow suit.

Friday, December 5, 2014

On Education: Why Peter Thiel and Vivek Wadhwa Are Both Wrong.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela 

You may have read an opinion piece by Peter Thiel that lambasts the traditional four year college (“Thinking too highly of higher ed”) calling it an elitist tournament that “bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists.” Some years ago Mr. Thiel famously offered students $100,000 to drop out of college to start a company; since then he has been trying to hasten and also championing the demise of traditional education. On the other side of the argument, Vivek Wadhwa penned an Op-ed, also in the Washington Post, defending college education as we know it today (“In defense of college: What Peter Thiel gets wrong, once again”). He cites numerous studies about how college educated workers earn many times more than their peers without degrees. He purports that Mr. Thiel’s formula would lead us in a race to the bottom. 

The problem is that both men are completely wrong. 

The issue lies in this same absolutism that we seem to have generally embraced as a society. It comes in large part from a totally broken political system in Washington. One that has permeated into the media; with pundits from both sides having raucous debates on every issue, always with black and white viewpoints and never agreeing on anything at all. Sure, it is great for ratings because it is much more fun to watch but it is lousy for progress and keeping America competitive for the next century – which will require collaboration and ideas from all sides of the political and individual spectrum. The same seems to hold true for debates in the business world today. Whether it is the abhorrent behaviour of an Uber senior manager or the growing cacophony of women claiming that Bill Cosby drugged and raped them, we inevitably have two sides emerge, both firmly entrenched in their positions and refusing to budge. Both citing anecdotal and statistical evidence to make their individual cases. The end result is that we never reach consensus and most times the perpetrators walk away without facing any real consequences for their actions (other than a social media battering or outpouring of support). The net result is that we learn nothing and nothing changes. 

In fact, it feels like compromise has become a bad word. To suggest it is deemed as a sign of weakness rather than seen as a positive way to find a better solution - one that takes into account both viewpoints and finds the BEST path forward. Here, I stress the best path and not the one of least resistance or one that appeals to the lowest common denominator, by trying to satisfy all sides. The point is that nobody has a monopoly on great ideas – democrat, lesbian, republican, entrepreneur, African American, corporate executive, short, tall, illegal immigrant or college professor – we need to take the best ideas from across the spectrum to find the most innovative solutions to the problems we face today. Having a position, and getting entrenched without being able to listen to those who oppose our position will never allow us to make progress. Also, consider that many entrenched positions are driven by purely political ideology versus substantive data or genuine objectivity. 

In this instance I would suggest that each man has merits to his arguments, but neither is right on the merits of his alone. If we were to combine their contentions, we might start with the premise that the education system in the US is broken. Granted, pre-college education seems much more broken than higher education, but this is in large part due to the fact that it has received far more attention and been the focus of both political parties and many interest groups. However, when parents stop having a second child purely because of the cost of a private school and the ability to send a second kid to a top tier college would be cost-prohibitive, I would say we have a problem that needs to be fixed. 

Mr. Thiel is right when he states that the education system today designed to make us all conform. From the first time we step into a classroom we begin the process of removing creative, independent thought and courageous risk-taking behaviour from our wild and imaginative little minds. We are taught to act, speak and think in a certain way rather than to explore our imaginations in ways that expand our little boundaries without ever suppressing bold and unconventional thinking. On the other hand Mr. Wadhwa is also right when he argues that we learn invaluable real world skills in college, beyond what comes out of a textbook. It is in college that we are away from our parents and fending for ourselves for the first time. Sharing a room and learning to negotiate, resolve differences and get along with perfect strangers. It is the first time many of us have had to step outside our little bubble and deal with people with whom we may have nothing in common. We also taste untethered freedom for the first time, and need to learn how to balance it with studies. We learn to deal with professors, select classes, make a schedule and figure out how to be accepted into various social circles. Most importantly it gives us time to figure out how to become adults before we have to face big bad world of responsibilities and mortgages. 

I would also go further and say that college, in the traditional four year format is not for everyone, but we cannot simply write it off as completely redundant for this reason alone, as Mr. Thiel suggests we do. What I am saying is that the premise of pre-college education should be based on teaching us valuable inter-personal skills to help us survive, but also ensure that our curious little minds get the opportunity to explore a world we did not know existed and barely imagined; from mathematics to woodwork and Shakespeare to swimming – we should stop trying to box kids into neat little squares and expect them all to become monochromatic adults. Based on this premise, if we were to re-think higher education in the same vein then we would imagine a world where it consisted of various different types of courses based on passions that have peaked during the early school formative years. We could have some kids coming out of school wanting to become mechanics, woodworkers or electricians and they can attend a two or five year specialized skills based training program that would involve job placements. Equally, we may have a bunch passionate about law, engineering or business. And finally we may have another set of people who have no idea what they want to be and attend a newly designed curriculum that exposes them to everything from business to the arts, and a host of other things. 

The point is that if we can get Mr. Wadhwa and Mr. Thiel to sit down and start to envision new ideas and ways to get kids ready for this brave new world then we will likely end up with an amazing starting roadmap to fix our broken system. But as long as they refuse to acknowledge the realities, positive and negative, and remain invested in protecting or tearing down their status quo, our kids will continue to suffer and nothing will change.