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National Public Radio troubleshooter bullish about journalism’s health, but leery of blogs, social media

October 7th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Satenik Sargsyan

LOGAN—National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard came to USU Tuesday and “nudged the world a little,” speaking at the Morris Media & Society Lecture Series about the benefits and challenges of traditional journalism in an Internet-influenced world.

Recognizing that the Internet is changing the news industry, Shepard—a veteran newspaper and magazine journalist, was skeptical about claims that journalism is dying because of advances in technology.

• Other Links: Listen to Shepard’s interview with Lee Austin on Utah Public Radio. And see her post on National Public Radio about her visit to USU, and a profile: “Follow your passion,” Shepard says.

“This is a fantastic time to be in journalism,” she told a crowd of about 200 in the USU Performance Hall. “There are endless sources of outlets, clamoring for creativity to deliver the news in different ways.”

“We are in the midst of a revolution,” Shepard said. “It’s not often that people are aware of the revolution while they are in the middle of it. But we are.”

Shepard, who as ombudsman handles questions and complaints about the news content on National Public Radio, was in town this week as a guest of the USU journalism and communication department and Utah Public Radio. The Morris Media & Society Lecture Series is named after former USU journalism instructor John Morris.

Click here for Shepard’s website at National Public Radio.

“Lisa Shepard is extremely savvy about the news business, and where it’s going,” said JCOM department head Ted Pease. “The concern these days is not whether journalism will survive, but in what form and with what substance, and what consequences for a democratic society.

“We’re very lucky to be able to have this conversation with someone who has Lisa Shepard’s level of insight and expertise with such a fast-changing profession,” he said.

Shepard’s topic was “The Promise and Perils of Social Media,” focusing on the potential loss of credibility as more and more “civilian” journalists fill blogs and Tweets with information. But how believable is this information? Shepard asked.

“The interactivity, on-demand availability and endless capacity” of the Internet have given journalists and citizens a powerful tool and resource, she said, while meanwhile turning journalism “inside-and-out,” she said. But even as “the delivery systems change,” the ethical standards for journalists should remain the same, argued Shepard, who is the “conscience” of NPR and has taught media ethics at various universities.

“No matter what tools or technology we embrace, what still matters the most are the core principals of balance, accuracy and fairness,” she said. “We have to remember to handle any situation with the same high ethical standards because without credibility, journalists might as well pack it up.”

The Internet has also reduced the role of the media as “gatekeepers,” the veteran journalist said. Now, it’s not only journalists who decide what’s relevant for the public, but the public itself in blogs and posts on Twitter and Facebook.

By commenting on news stories, Shepard said, the public engages in a community discussion. While anonymity opens up opportunities for “sometimes mean-spirited and unnecessarily cruel comments,” the audience now has a more accessible public forum, she said.

But there are drawbacks, Shepard said, pointing to privacy concerns on Facebook and Twitter, as well as the pressure social media outlets place on journalists to follow stories while maintaining journalistic standards.

The online industry has increased pressure on journalists to be first with the news. This eagerness to be the primary deliverers may rush journalists into reporting the news without verifying information, Shepard said.

This does a disservice to the public, said Shepard, who added that she has yet to hear of a reader who would prefer “the first to the accurate” in breaking news.

In the real world, she said, the news—be it a newspaper article, video clip or a radio program—does not reach the audience without undergoing multiple layers of editing and fact-checking. The cyberspace edition of the same news piece often doesn’t get edited, creating the possibility of factual errors and inaccuracy.

“Blogging is a useful tool,” Shepard said. “It allows you to reach out for the audience and get help from readers through comments. But putting unedited blogs online causes a threat to credibility. Everyone needs an editor. There has to be a review process and accountability.”

While news organizations recognize the free expression rights of their employees, they also “need to protect the brand name,” Shepard said. Most media organizations don’t have specifically designated guidelines for social media ethics, although most large news corporations have social media regulations for their employees.

Reporters at the Portland Oregonian, for example, are expected to notify their editors when and if they post something on their blogs. At National Public Radio, Shepard said, employees who blog must state that opinions are their own, and not that of the NPR when an employee “expresses an opinion or makes a value judgment,” Shepard said.

She pointed out that misconduct in cyberspace has resulted in public humiliation and job loss. A Sacramento Bee reporter was nominated for the Jerk of the Year Award for blogging “in a snotty, arrogant way” on his family blog about his frustration with an American soldier in Iraq who checked his ID at a security checkpoint. The Bee’s Washington bureau banned personal blogs of the newspaper after the incident.

Shepard also pointed to an incident in Salt Lake City just last week in which a KTVX-TV staffer lost his job within three hours of twitting, “I am eating downtown, surrounded by Mormons and repressed sexual energy.”

These are instances in which the personal First Amendment rights of journalists collide with their professional responsibilities, said Shepard.

Many big media companies are hiring people to pre-screen their websites for inaccurate or inflammatory comments from bloggers and readers. The New York Times, for example, pays people around the country to read comments before they are posted. The costs are high, but credibility is the key, Shepard said.

“NPR has reached the point now when they’re going to spend quite a lot of money to hire an outside moderation service because this [commentary] has gotten out of control,” Shepard said.

Social media like Facebook and Twitter raise other concerns about privacy. Shepard said that despite the fact that there are privacy settings on Facebook, her own experience has taught her to use caution when using any online resource.

Shepard said that she had to correct a misleading “tweet” about an NPR Morning Edition producer who was stabbed, while it was an NPR intern who was attacked on her way home from work. It was “stupid,” Shepard said—soon she was being quoted in the news, and NPR’s management was calling to ask her not to act a spokesperson for NPR.

“This is something that I would consider telling a colleague in the hall,” Shepard said. “It made me feel humiliated. But I learned that there is no such thing as privacy on the Internet.”

“We live in public on the Internet,” she reminded the audience. “Anything that you say or do can and will be used against you. It’s easier to find information about anyone on the Internet than it is to find someone in a crowded mall in D.C. on the 4th of July.”

Shepard is a veteran newspaper journalist who started at the San Jose Mercury News, but also has written for newspapers and magazines ranging from the Washington Post to the Newark Star-Ledger. For several years she was a reporter for American Journalism Review, a professional trade magazine, doing analytical pieces about journalism issues. She is author of three books, including a 2007 book revisiting iconic Washington Post Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.