Posted by: Ciaran | May 30, 2010

Is good journalism multi-platform?

This article in the New York Times by Clark Hoyt explores the ethics of a blog post by NYT reporter Corey Kilgannon which described a locked, private room in the home of recently-departed jazz legend Hank Jones.

Kilgannon’s post was criticised for being intrusive – he entered the room with Jones’s landlord, Manny Ramirez, and described what he found without seeking the consent of the late musician’s family.

Wendell Jamieson, the NYT’s deputy metropolitan online editor with responsibility for Kilgannon’s article, justified it by saying invasion of privacy is inherent within all forms of journalism.

He said: “A lot of journalism is invasion of privacy. What can I say? If you want to tell a story, you sometimes have to pry if you want to provide the whole 360-degree sense of a person.

“When you do it to someone who is beloved and well-known and perceived in a certain way, obviously people are very sensitive to that.”

I can’t really disagree with that. But the problem is that, in my limited experience at least, many people seem to view some of even the most basic journalistic questions – name, age, occupation, and address – as a gross intrusion in to their life.

The problem seems to be that people want to know the truth, but on their terms. They want public figures held to account, but only when it is in (what they perceive to be) the national interest.

They want problems sorted, but often don’t want to get involved in complaining about the problem in the first place.

Which is why the sort of sleight of hand Kilgannon has arguably used comes in to play.

Hoyt explains the dilemma – and his view on why Kilgannon got it wrong – when he states: “It’s one of the awkward truths about journalism: finding out what readers want to know is often not pretty and involves rude questions and a bulldog determination to get around things like closed doors and yellow police tape.

“But good journalism also involves judgment about when to charge ahead and when to be restrained. Hank Jones’s room wasn’t a crime scene, and Kilgannon was not there on a breaking news story. Somewhere along the line, someone should have asked if the next of kin had been contacted for permission.”

And he blames the medium of the blog for the way the matter was handled. He writes: “I can’t help wondering whether a portrait of Jones in his later years would have been more deeply reported and carefully edited had it been conceived from the start as an article in the paper instead of a post on a blog.

“It’s an important question. The reputation of The Times rides on both forms of journalism.”

There is, perhaps, one crucial flaw here. Should we still be talking about two – by virtue of the notion, separate – “forms” of journalism?

The standard of ethics expected when writing for online should not be set any lower (or higher) than the test of good journalism people want when they pick up a printed product.

And it’s not just the reputation of the New York Times resting on that – it’s the reputation of journalism itself.

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