Legitimacy: How responsible are you to your readers?

Media | Accountability
This should be the central obligation of any publisher: legitimacy to the readers, the audience, the constituency. Whether it takes priority over responsibility to the public at large, or even the truth, is a separate, though necessary, discussion. Here we try to help anyone new to publishing consider– questions to ask in assessing how well they are serving their readers. It’s absolutely necessary as the number of readers grows. Call it the Media Contract. (read a longer introduction on media legitimacy)


I. Consistency

  1. Do you have a mission or focus?
  2. Do you admit when you don’t know things, and how often is that?

II. Who are your readers?

  1. How many regular readers do you have?
  2. How many subscribe, how many post?
  3. Of your regular readers, how many do you know?
  4. Of your regular readers that you know, that you regular read their web writings as well?
  5. How many find via links, via searching, via friends?

III. What sources do you use?

  1. What proportion of typs do you get from: the newspaper? other media? books you’re reading? the physical world? other websites? reader suggestions via private email? Reader suggestions in the public comments?
  2. Do you cite all of your sources?
  3. Do you give any signal as to how confident you are, in a give piece, that you’ve given the best sources that you can find to your readers?

IV. What sources do you read?

  1. What online sources do you read?
  2. Does your blogroll accurately reflect this?
  3. or would you be willing to open up your bookmarks for public accounting to reveal what you read? The upside is that people wouldn’t spare you from tips that they’ve already read.

V. What tips do you get?

  1. How much email do you get a day?
  2. How many are tips?
  3. How many tips do you turn around and publish?
  4. Have you published criteria for what tips you value?
  5. How many tipsters seek anonymity?

VI. Response

  1. Do you have a public comments space?
  2. Do you or your staff/associates/defenders respond to all comments?
  3. Do you allow hyperlinks in your comments?
  4. Do you wrap up conversations with a “final word” to ensure everybody that you’ve listened to all their points?
  5. Are you able to quantitatively summarize the feedback to a given article or post?

VII. Corrections

  1. Do you have a corrections policy?
  2. Where do you make your corrections?
  3. Do you consider addressing corrections before making any new point?
  4. How long does it take you to post corrections?
  5. Do you ensure that each comment made to your site can be tracked back to a working email account and/or real name? (and if not, do you have a legal or PR strategy…?)

Collecting the Information

Feel free to comment on the questions here. If you have answers, don’t post them here. Post them on your own website (and send me the link). I have to do my own, too. You may answer by section and not by each line item.

This seems like a lot, but there should be ways begin to quantitatively assemble the data. Developers of online publishing software tools should start to consider these measures.

Many of the questions are phrased in a way to suggest a value judgment. I certainly hope so. Some of these do contrast with other well-known value systems. For example, in this month’s Cites & Insights newsletter, Walt Crawford does a thorough job of considering which online technologies facilitate conversations, and asserts that registration to a website can be an obstacle to conversation. But conversation is not the values these set of questions seek. In the last question, I suggest that a registration system (which this site uses) is a value that protects the names of the innocent from misuse– and thus of greater value to the readers.

I don’t expect anyone to get a perfect score. But nor do I expect blogs to automatically, or on average, be better than traditional newspapers. I do expect that people who want to be journalists– or at least act like them– to start seriously thinking about these questions and how to answer them, if they want to be more responsible to their audiences.