Integrity, journalism and PR
I attended a very interesting Westminster Media Forum seminar recently on the subject of journalism and public relations (PR). I thought I’d write about these issues in relation to integrity in blogging. It's an article that has been developing in my mind for some weeks now, and the seminar has helped me to put a few of my thoughts in order.
The questions are: how does one maintain one's integrity, and how does one prove that one has done so?
On the first question, you might think that it should not be difficult to have integrity. I think the difficulty lies not so much in the intention but in the practice. After all, without checking every item of news back to the original source, there comes a point where you have to assume that something you have heard about, and wish to write about, is true. Otherwise, you would forever be doing original research, which is untenable, especially when you have a day job.
So, bringing it to a personal level, how do I try and make sure that the ICT in Education website and its associated publications remain honest? I have a number of strategies which seem to have stood me in good stead so far. If you have others I should be interested in hearing them.
1. I try to verify facts. Although, like others, I may use Wikipedia for some information, I do try and triangulate it by checking other sources too. Yes, I know it's a form of political incorrectness to cast any doubt on Wikipedia's usefulness (on its own), but this cartoon strip from The London Daily Telegraph nicely sums up the issue for me. In a wider context, I am with Nick Davies, the first keynote speaker at the seminar, when he regrets what he calls "wikiality", or truth by consensus.
2. I tend not to accept newspaper reports at face value, which is one reason that when I do report on a news item, it is often several days or even longer after the item first appeared. I was horrified to learn in the seminar that some news items are simply made up. I know that sounds naive, and I did already know that to be the case on some level. But it is still a shock when you hear it baldly stated like that.
In the field of educational technology, I have to verify the information given in news items for the simple reason that in some cases the newspapers get it wrong, whether because they are in search of a soundbite or because they don't understand the issue. A classic example of this was press reporting of the introduction of 5-minute lessons into the UK curriculum. I scrutinised the official documentation, and in the end I emailed the QCA about it:
TF: I can't find any official reference to the 5 minute lesson
QCA: Neither can we.
You can read the full story here.
3. I receive an average of three or four press releases each week, and I almost never use them. If it's a product or service that looks like it may be of interest to my readers I suggest to the company that they let me have a review copy. If I do decide to use the press release, or parts of it, I try out the product first (see point 5 for the reason why). In this context it is worth bearing in mind, as Nick Davies pointed out, that PR agencies serve the interests of their clients, not readers, viewers or listeners. An obvious point, but one worth making I think.
4. I like to check out Government press releases too. It has been known for a press release to announce funding for educational ICT in such a way that it sounds like new funding when, in fact, it is funding that was announced two months ago! I have to say, though, that the government press releases are usually comprehensible and accurate. Even so, I like to try and see if there are hidden gems, like the possibility of extra funding on the horizon or connections to other bits of news. Where there are I report these in my Leading & Managing Educational ICT Briefings.
5. I won't accept advertising or publish news from organisations, or about products, I have my doubts about. The reason is obvious: if you find something through my website and it turns out to be dreadful, you might think that reflects badly on me. Now, obviously I can't be held responsible for the quality of 3rd party goods and services, but what I'm saying is that I won't publicise anything willy-nilly.
6. I think it's important that either the bulk of one's income does not come from advertising revenue, or that one has the integrity to maintain editorial standards if it does. Let me explain what I mean. A couple of years ago I was approached by an educational computing magazine because they were looking for a new editor. They asked me what sort of articles I would run or write and I mentioned a few.
For example, I wanted to run an article looking at alternatives to interactive whiteboards. The magazine publishers said they couldn't run that because it might prevent interactive whiteboard suppliers from advertising in the magazine's pages. They even told me that the income from subscriptions was such a small proportion of their total income, which mostly came from advertising, that they could not really take subscribers' interests into account.
I think that is an example of a complete absence of integrity. To not even broach a subject for fear of upsetting advertisers is, to my mind, unforgiveable.
7. I think appearance is important too. I experimented with Google Ads for a bit, but seemed to end up spending half my time tweaking it so that it didn't display advertisements for mortgage brokers every time I wrote an article which included the word "interest". In the end, I decided it made the website look amateurish and cheap. Basically, it didn't reflect the sort of values I try to promote.
Now, that is not an indictment of Google Ads as such, or even of other websites that use them. If you can make some money out of effortless advertising, then I say good luck to you. I even put up with the advertising on a couple of Ning sites I had. But for this website and my newsletters, which are the most important of my online publishing activities, I am much more particular.
I have started gingerly dipping my toe in the Google Ads water again. So far I have placed them in an area other than the front page, and so far they seem to be “behaving themselves” as far as relevance is concerned. If this continues I may yet put them on the front pages of my websites. At least with Google Ads one cannot be accused of partisanship in favour of particular products or their suppliers, because you don’t have any direct control over the ads that appear.
I have to say, too, that as a visitor to websites, when I come across a website festooned with automatically-generated ads that seem to have nothing to do with the subject matter of the website, it makes me doubt the seriousness of the website. Is that fair? Perhaps not.
8. There is also something to be said for trust. For example, there is no need for bloggers (or anyone else) to think they have to be constantly declaring an interest, or lack of an interest. It could lead to incredibly banal writing:
I should like to declare that I have nothing to disclose,
or ridiculous writing:
I should like to declare that this book was sent to me free of charge by the publishers for the purpose of this review. Therefore if I say anything positive about it, you must take that information into account.
Although we each have a responsibility to be as honest as we can, I don't think we need to try to convince people that we are doing so. When all is said and done, the onus is on the reader to check out the veracity or otherwise of the stuff they are reading. To borrow from the world of commerce, it is a case of caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. That leads me nicely onto my final point.
9. In the web world, and even in the offline world, integrity or lack of it soon gets found out. In his story And then there were none, Eric Frank Russell describes a society in which people use "obs", or obligations, as their currency rather than money. The way it works is that I give you a room for the night, which plants an ob on you. You can repay that debt by giving a friend of mine, who planted an ob on me, some food. The question is asked: what happens if someone doesn't repay their obs? The answer is that eventually nobody will do business with them, and they will starve.
That is exactly the situation that pertains in consultancy, and especially educational ICT, and especially in the UK, which is a relatively small and close-knit community. If I, say, were to lie or cheat, as opposed to make a genuine mistake, in the long run my work would dry up. The same is true for other people. This leads me to this conclusion:
Having integrity is not simply a luxury, it is an economic necessity.
This is true not only in educational consulting or blogging. Car repair businesses that replace exhausts that don't need replacing end up losing out on two counts. They have to battle for an ever-increasing supply of new customers in order to stay afloat. And they have to do so against bad word-of-mouth publicity, which means they have to pay for advertising.
Presumably in the educational blogging world this sort of thing would manifest itself in frantic attempts to find new readers and subscribers, to compensate for the ones dropping by the wayside. Again, it's a costly exercise, in time if nothing else.
I'd be interested to hear from people about two things in particular: how do you judge the integrity of what you read, and how do you ensure the integrity of what you write. And also, of course, what you think about the points I've raised here.
Having exhausted today's ration of creativity in creating this article, I could not for the life of me think of how to illustrate it. I posted a message in Twitter to ask what people thought. Ric Murray replied "aged couple for emotion. Building or bridge for strength". At more or less the same time, Jennifer D. Jones suggested "Ancient building still standing." On the basis of those great replies, I dug out the photo of the British Museum from my Flickr pages. I hope you like it and think that it illustrates the article well. I'd like to thank Jennifer and Ric for their responses, and hope you will enjoy reading their blogs.
An earlier version of this article was first published on 4th July 2008. A slightly different version of it appeared on the Writers' Know-how website yesterday.