Fixing the Media: A Modest Proposal

Over at the National Center for Public Policy Research’s Blog, I’ve floated an idea I believe could help journalists and editorial writers be more accurate – even when they’d rather not.

I suggested that online versions of newspaper and magazine articles include footnotes.

I conceded that footnotes in the paper version of publications would be distracting and costly, but the major impediment to including them in online editions would probably simply be resistance by the writers themselves. Footnotes are a hassle for writers -- but they do have a way if helping to keep writers honest.

Blogger and Washington Examiner editorial page editor Mark Tapscott had a few thoughts in response:

1) Mark says: "...reporting assertions of the "most right-thinking people are liberals on this issue" sort would likely continue unless the regimen included all assertions subject to verification."

I agree and for that reason believe they should.

Consider editorialist Margaret Carlson's Tuesday Bloomberg column regarding Rush Limbaugh and Michael J. Fox. I believe it could have been a much stronger piece -- to the benefit of the reader, Carlson, and the ideologies Carlson expouses -- had a footnote requirement imposed upon her the discipline of checking the reliability of her assertions.

Like many writers, Carlson (apparently) uses her memory as a source. Her memory is not as good as she supposes:

Carlson says: "There was a time when politics wasn't a blood sport. At the end of the day, Tip O'Neill shared a whiskey with Ronald Reagan..." Bonhomme for the cameras aside, Reagan and O'Neill were not in the habit of unwinding together at the end of their workdays, with a whiskey or without. (For that matter, which experts don't believe politics in the Iran-Contra era was as much a blood sport as it is today?)

Carlson says: "After Limbaugh suggested that Fox enjoyed being a victim..." Having heard much of Limbaugh's show the past week and a half, I believe Limbaugh said no such thing, but if Carlson heard something I missed, it is reasonable for her to provide a precise quotation (the broadcast is archived on RushLimbaugh.com) or, at least, tell us where she learned this (Daily Kos?) so readers can evaluate her source's reliability.

Carlson says: "...the Republican Party sped up production of an ad that began airing on Tuesday. It features actress Patricia Heaton and James Caviezel... as well as several sports figures." It didn't. The group "Missourians Against Human Cloning," not the GOP, created and ran the ad.

Carlson says: "Imagine if Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, were deprived of federal funds because a minority of Americans said scientific research was against their religious beliefs. There would still be kids in iron lungs today." The Virus Research Laboratory in Pittsburgh where Jonas Salk worked was supported by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (known today as the March of Dimes) and a lady named Sarah Scaife. As the Washington Post put it, "Sarah Scaife's... most famous gifts, in the late 1940s, were to the University of Pittsburgh -- $35,000 to equip a virus research lab. In that lab, Jonas Salk discovered his polio vaccine."

There's also the little matter of a scientist named Albert Sabin and his live-virus oral polio vaccine.

Carlson says: "One ad ran in Missouri, where Republican Senator Jim Talent is locked in an unexpectedly close race with challenger Claire McCaskill..." Unexpectedly close? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch on January 22, 2006, said: "With the election 10 months away, state Auditor Claire McCaskill is in a statistical dead heat with the man she hopes to replace in the U.S. Senate, incumbent Jim Talent." Associated Press, January 22, 2006: "The St. Louis Post-Dispatch/KMOV-TV poll released Saturday found no clear leader in the race for the U.S. Senate between State Auditor Claire McCaskill and incumbent Sen. Jim Talent." Kansas City Star, April 18, 2006: "Early polls show the race should be close." Roll Call, June 14, 2006: [Jim Talent] and Missouri Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) are duking it out in possibly the most evenly matched Senate race this cycle..." Associated Press, July 9, 2006: "...Missouri Republican Jim Talent, who appears to be locked in a tight race with Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill..." Roll Call, July 27, 2006: "Polls have shown McCaskill and Talent running neck and neck." AP, August 8, 2006: "...polls show a tight race."

If the editorial policy of Bloomberg News included footnotes, Carlson would have had to track down citations for each of these and other assertions in her op-ed. Presumably, her effort to do so would have resulted in a self-correction process as invisible to the reader as it would be valuable to everybody.

Yes, providing footnotes would have been a hassle for Carlson, but in weighing accuracy against convenience, I have to give the edge to accuracy.

But this isn't about Margaret Carlson. It's about sloppy writers and editors everywhere. And I do mean everywhere.

2) Mark also points out: "Footnoting would also present a problem when sources insist on anonymity. Yes, there has been vastly too much anonymous sourcing in the MSM for decades, but the fact is there are some stories that cannot be done without such sources. Possible alternative - Instead of an identifying footnote, the reporter could describe the grounds for granting the source anonymity, as a means of reassuring readers of the veracity of the information provided."

If bona fide reasons existed and were described, and all other assertions of fact in an article were footnoted, it would be a huge improvement over the present situation. When it comes to "the reporter could describe the grounds for granting the source anonymity," however, I'd hold out for a lot more specificity than what we get now (for example, reporters write "a source who requested anonymity due to the sensistive nature of the inquiry." What the heck does that even mean? How about something like: "Because he is the lawyer for a person potentially under investigation and any comments he makes could be attributed to the client by law enforcement." Or: "Because he is not supposed to talk to the press but enjoys the feeling of self-importance he gets from seeing his words in the newspaper.")

3) Mark says: "But while I'm not holding my breath, it would be a worthwhile exercise for bloggers to begin campaigning for MSM footnoting - and practicing it themselves as well." I take it, then, that, on balance, Mark agrees with my idea. I agree that most media outlets will be reluctant to do this. Partly its the production hassle; mostly, I think, it will be the response of journalists who would be personally offended that they should be held to the same standard as academics and scientists and other mortals.

Nonetheless, it is always possible that a newspaper owner or two might be open to the idea. With newspaper circulation down 2.8 percent from last year, some members of management may be willing to consider product improvements.

As to bloggers, would I be wrong in thinking that the standard blogger practice of providing a link in support of nearly all significant factual assertions in blog posts serves as a de facto footnoting process?

Consider this: If even one paper, one news organization, started footnoting, the public would start wondering why the others aren't doing it.

What publication will go first?

Back to you, Mark Tapscott, editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner.