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Media Inquiry day two: Embracing the cacophony

Letting readers comment can direct journalism and make accountability a reality. Flickr/Cayusa

On day two of the Media Inquiry, unconstrained online speech figured as a danger to democracy, rather than a new avenue for discussing media ethics and journalistic transparency.

Justice Finkelstein opened Pandora’s vessel when he asked Press Council Chair Professor Julian Disney to comment on Robert Manne’s claim that a flood of “self-evidently defamatory” comment was appearing on certain news blogs.

“The greatest threat to freedom of speech in Australia is abuse of freedom of speech,” he told the inquiry.

At this stage anyone who has been on the end of an Andrew Bolt or Tim Blair online lynch mob might have agreed. But Disney then lost some sympathy when he condemned the internet “cacophony” for damaging democracy and free speech.

He was using this term as short hand for the amped up tone online discussions can take when users compete for attention – a case he has made to Radio National.

But for some the description was evidence that the Press Council takes an elitist view of what qualifies as legitimate speech.

While Justice Finkelstein ponders whether self-regulation is the best option for a digitising print media, there are three obvious things that online publishers could do right now to improve media accountability - beyond a greater institutional investment in self-monitoring.

Greater transparency

Making the mechanics of journalism more transparent to reader/users can expose the ethical complexities of everyday media work and sometimes head off complaints. “Transparency” involves disclosing vested interests, discussing editorial choices with users and responding quickly to their queries and comments.

Back in 2006 the renowned US journalism body, the Poynter Institute ranked transparency up there with accuracy and credibility as essential values for online reporting.

For bloggers and native online publications like, transparency has been a by-word for their moral superiority over mainstream journalism. A few have refined the art of disclosure to a fault and use it to critique media institutions like Time and Associated Press.

Ninemsn’s submission to the Media Inquiry pays lip service to the term, but equates it with good attribution, timely correction and identification of ad-supported content. Interestingly its news stories don’t enable user comments.

If you want evidence that a more evolved approach to transparency works to gain trust and promote debate, look at the Twitter stream of @latikambourke, or track down journalist Margo Kingston.

When Kingston started her pioneering webdiarynews blog at the Sydney Morning Herald in 2000, she was horrified when the IT staff posted her email address for all to see and use.

But the experience of interacting with her readers and laying bare her journalistic rationales transformed her ethical standards:

“When you let readers join the show and help direct it,” she said. “Accountability is no longer a sham, but a reality. Online ethical codes drafted for hard copy journalism must adapt and stretch to fit a medium less planned, more open, faster, and much more in-the-moment.”

More responsive interaction

Webdiary is not short of robust, sometimes incendiary commentary. One legally-inclined user has described commenting there as a “blood sport”.

But the community does have clear rules of engagement – from a detailed moderation policy down to ways of referencing other users’ posts.

These guidelines for effective, civil debate are missing from many print industry-born online forums, or obscured in Terms of Service that no-one reads.

More broadly the codes of conduct and standards that govern the print industry haven’t been updated to respond to the era of interactivity and user generated content.

Recently acknowledged the Media Alliance’s code of ethics wasn’t enough to govern its activities. It drafted a new code of conductand set up a complaints adjudication process.

As the inquiry has heard, News Limited and Fairfax have also appointed reader editors/ombudsmen to respond to complaints, all in anticipation of a post-Inquiry regulatory clampdown.

But it’s how journalists and editors handle everyday user interaction that will be the test for online accountability.

That’s why my joint Inquiry submission with Dr Tim Dwyer recommends that publishers draft new guidelines and codes that consider their responsibilities to their users, and which make the obligations of both very clear. This is critical with commenting and moderation policies.

Better moderation

Tim Burrowes publisher of the innovative marketing blog Mumbrella, has just moved it to a comment pre-moderation model – to the surprise and dismay of his regular commenters.

Pre-moderation, where every user comment is checked before it’s made public, is becoming a print industry standard in order to control abuse, spam and legal breaches. This is despite wide recognition that delays in vetting posts can short-circuit any kind of effective online debate.

Professor Disney supports pre-moderation as a response to “the cacophony”. But while it might help to weed out vicious, direct insults it does nothing to foster a culture of respectful debate.

Another approach, but one which requires money and time to implement, is reactive moderation. This has moved beyond its hand-off origins, where users simply report bad behaviour to hovering moderators, and now includes sophisticated methods of rewarding users for excellent contributions.

In the ABC’s Self-Service Science forum helpful, expert users or ‘avatars’ earn the right to duck pre-moderation and get automatically published. In turn they and other community members are enlisted to flag any speech code breaches, so a moderator can intervene.

In other commenting systems, like Gawker magazine, users can rate one another’s comments. Their votes are fed into reputation management software, which ranks posts on these quality judgements. Gawker has released figures suggesting this policy initially led to a drop in posts, but was followed by a rapid, and steeper, increase.

True, that type of reactive accountability is well beyond the financial reach of small, independent publishers. But improving journalistic transparency and rewriting codes and guidelines is not.

As Paul Chadwick, ABC director of editorial policy, told Justice Finkelstein a new model for accountability requires new thinking, not that based in a previous era.

And on that note, a request to the ABC and Inquiry administrators: next time we have public hearings on a publicly funded matter would be useful to have them streamed, à la Murdoch at Westminster.

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