What we should give reporters hell over

Should reporters apologize for running stories that people find offensive? Hell no.

When GrantLand apologized they set a bad precedent, and they weakened journalism for everyone. GrantLand got hit by a pressure group that didn’t like the story. There’s nothing special about “The Internet.” Is it common procedure for reporters to apologize when they offend a pressure group? I didn’t think so.

Here’s how I see it. They took a risk, the subject of their piece committed suicide, and we don’t know why. It could be the shame of being outed publicly, as some people say. Or it could have been the shame of having lied, committed fraud, and possibly going to jail. There are all kinds of theories, but the truth is that we don’t know.

It’s okay for you to be hurt by reporting, to be enraged by it, to want to do something about it, but that can happen when a reporter is just doing their job. They don’t have to apologize or retract, or make you feel good.

However there are times when we should give reporters hell — when they lie, either overtly, or by not outing a lie. That’s the one cardinal sin of reporting, and it happens all the time, and we let them get away with it.

When a source lies in front of you and you don’t challenge it, when you give it credence, when you accept its premise, this is a reporter committing malpractice. And the consequences can be devastating. I don’t use that word lightly.

For example, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, reporters knew that it was a trumped-up war, that there was no actual connection between the terrorism of 9/11 and Iraq. This was Bush being opportunistic. He wanted to attack Iraq, for whatever reason, and used 9/11 as an excuse. Anyone who was paying attention knew this. Yet supposedly credible journalists, ones who still insist on our respect (including Bill Keller, btw, the subject of another recent Internet controversy), went along with the lies, and never acknowledged or apologized for all the death they caused. Those deaths are largely faceless and nameless. We don’t know about their struggles. We don’t empathize with them or their families. They were caught in our hypocrisy.

Of course every death is tragic and sad and deserves our sympathy. But a reporter’s job is not to avoid tragedy, quite the opposite — their job is to out it, to make it visible, to tell us what’s happening, so we can act on it.

When we make reporting an evil, we’re asking to be lied to. We’re asking reporters to ignore their responsibility for fear of offending us. That’s not reporting. And that’s a choice you may want to make, but it’s not my choice.

Previously: Suicide and reporting.

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About Dave Winer

Dave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.
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