When Media Values Collide

Overnight, I came out against my colleague’s story “New Mozilla CEO is allegedly anti-gay marriage—Firefox developers boycott” . Had I been editor on duty, the story wouldn’t have run, not because of the topic but the sourcing. However, response to the post—820 comments as I write—raises an interesting quandary about the cultural clash between old and new media.

Reader response is explosive, and comments are much more interesting reading than the story (no offense to buddy Brian Fagioli). Commenters largely fall into two opposing camps—those complaining about societal constraints on free speech and others disgusted by Mozilla’s CEO being allegedly anti-gay marriage.  The polarized ends, and even some discussion between them, is fascinating snapshot about freedom, community, and human rights—one person’s personal versus those of the larger group.

Contextual Debate
Comment reaction alone is reason to run the story. Debate like this is healthy and illuminates what contextual journalism should achieve: Audience engagement. The days of primarily reporting who, what, where, and when are over. In an era where so much information assaults us anytime, anywhere, and on anything, why is as important, if not more, than the other Ws. Commenters can add the why by their reaction and interaction, which puts the story in cultural and societal context.

Debate is healthy. Good journalism provokes response. In America today, few topics provoke like gay marriage. Comments to Brian’s story strip back layers of values and expose them to forensic examination. Brian could write another story just based on reader reaction, and as a trained sociologist perhaps he should.

From that perspective, the story accomplishes much. But the decision to run or not reveals another clash of values, and these are editorial. I am a stickler about sourcing, which arguably is rooted in old media practices. New media blogs tend to post first, often second-sourcing, as Brian does, and ask questions later. He links to the Los Angeles Times.

Values Differences
BetaNews isn’t a new media site. There is “news” in the name for a reason, and the site predates modern blogs. But many of the writers contribute to blogs and they are not classically trained journalists. By new media values, and the tremendous reader response, Brian did right with the story. My old media values would rob readers of the opportunity to react and interact around such socially significant topic as gay marriage.

While I praise the result, based on comments, I can’t—and shouldn’t—let sourcing concerns go. This story, and any others like it, will cause troubles for Mozilla and its new CEO. Sourcing has to be tight. First-hand.

More disturbing. I learned while writing this story that Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, addressed the donation two years ago in a blog post. There is an original source, with comment from the subject. The developer boycott is the news—the what, where, and when—and Eich’s blog post the who and somewhat why.

Source Cited
He writes:

A donation that I made in support of California Proposition 8 four years ago became public knowledge and sparked a firestorm of comments in the last few days, mostly on Twitter…Ignoring the abusive comments, I’m left with charges that I hate and I’m a bigot, based solely on the donation. Now ‘hate‘ and ‘bigot‘ are well-defined words. I say these charges are false and unjust…the donation does not in itself constitute evidence of animosity. Those asserting this are not providing a reasoned argument, rather they are labeling dissenters to cast them out of polite society. To such assertions, I can only respond: ‘no’.

By linking to the Los Angeles Times, overlooking Eich’s blog post, and not aggressively seeking comment from him, the BetaNews story in context looks like character assassination at worst and advocacy journalism at best.

Selective sourcing is typical behavior among new media blogs. Common practice doesn’t make it responsible reporting. My journalism values tend to mix old and new media attitudes, and proper sourcing should be common to both. It’s not, oftentimes. Sensation and advocacy matter more, in the new media world view.

From the perspective of public response and the discussion created, Brian’s story is a hugely successful piece of new media journalism. Hell, while I wrote this post, the comment count rose from 499 to 820. But from the perspective of process—responsible sourcing and reporting—the story is lacking.

Photo Courtesy of: Musée McCord Museum