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Friday, September 19, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Some Dubious Links for PBS.org

Maybe it's just another sign of the new world of media, but two events on PBS.org — the online component of the Public Broadcasting Service — rather than on television, produced the proverbial ton of e-mail and online controversy for the past week or so.

One of these events is the by-now famous, or infamous, "Palin Poll," which first appeared on Sept. 5, following the Republican National Convention, on the Web site of PBS's weekly public affairs program NOW. That program asks a new question online every week, and the one on Sept. 5 asked whether the newly named vice-presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was qualified to serve as vice-president.

Last week's column dealt in part with that issue. At the time, the earlier comments were mostly from viewers who wanted to know why NOW didn't have a similar poll asking if Sen. Barack Obama was qualified to be president. I wrote that I thought the question about Palin was a reasonable one given the surprise nature of her nomination and the fact that she was unknown to the vast majority of voters.

But what I didn't recognize at the time was that the kind of polling used by NOW, which is used by other organizations, such as CNN, and has some real online privacy advantages if people vote just once and then go about their business, is totally vulnerable to the same person voting a thousand times, to being hijacked and manipulated by partisans and e-mail campaigns on both sides to the point where it swamps the system with tens of millions of votes and becomes totally useless while making many people quite angry at, and disappointed in, PBS. One possibly good thing to come of this is a PBS policy, instituted on Sept. 23, of a new online voting system that can help prevent such abuses but at the cost of reduced privacy.

Here's a new explanation of the background to policy changes and a brief history of the Palin Poll from NOW executives Joel B. Schwartzberg and John Siceloff.

The Unidentified 'Embedded' Blogger

The other fascinating drama unfolding on PBS.org did not involve millions of people, or thousands of people voting hundreds of times. Rather, it involved two articles published on "MediaShift," a weblog that is updated very frequently — about 15 postings a month since it got started almost three years ago — on PBS.org. The editor and host of MediaShift is Mark Glaser, who is described on the homepage as "journalist, critic, facilitator and new media expert." The purpose of the site is to "track how digital media technologies and techniques such as weblogs, RSS, podcasting, citizen journalism, wikis, news aggregators and video repositories are changing our world. It will tell stories of how the shifting media landscape is changing the way we get our news and information, while also providing a place for public participation and feedback."

My career has been mostly in what younger people would describe as old media — newspapers printed on paper. But I obviously work online, read a lot of what is online, especially newspaper sites, and try to keep up with what's going on. And so I follow, from time to time, Glaser and MediaShift, both of which are intelligent, provocative, and on the frontline of the new means of reporting and communicating that we all know are emerging. I think it is to PBS's credit, and to the underwriters, the respected John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, that this feature has a prominent place on PBS.org.

Here Comes the 'But . . .'

But, I have serious problems with the episode that unfolded recently in which a journalism student at New York University, Alana Taylor, authored a Sept. 5 posting as an "embedded" blogger on MediaShift, writing critically about her class content and professor at NYU without informing either the teacher or her classmates about what she was doing. The headline read: "Old Thinking Permeates Major Journalism School." This column attracted a lot of online attention and controversy, not to mention attention by the professor, Mary Quigley, who was not happy. Glaser then wrote a follow-up column on Sept. 17 about the controversy, headlined "NYU Professor Stifles Blogging, Twittering by Journalism Student."

The controversy was brought to my attention by Adam Penenberg, an assistant professor at NYU and chairman of the journalism department's ethics committee, who raised numerous journalistic challenges to Taylor's "embedded" role and reporting techniques and also questioned whether this was not a violation of PBS' own editorial standards. That's where I came in.

This is a complicated issue involving all sorts of free speech and privacy issues, respect for other students' rights, private versus public institutions, and also whether the classroom should be a place where every word can be recorded, personal opinions introduced, and put on the Web without anyone but a blogger knowing about it beforehand.

I think that teachers and professors need to be accountable for what they say in class, and certainly student blogging (after class would be my preference) can be a useful tool in helping to improve struggling courses, reinforcing those that are really good, or simply expanding ideas and discussion.

But the issue here for me is that Taylor was not just an undergrad posting her observations on her own blog about her journalism class, called "Reporting Gen Y." Rather she was hired — although not for money, according to Glaser — by Glaser as an "embed" to write for MediaShift. So Taylor's post did not simply join millions of other postings in the blogosphere by individuals that may or may not have many readers. This one was sponsored by PBS's MediaShift and had immediate access to the huge PBS.org audience.

Furthermore, this was a journalism student in a journalism department who did this without either telling the teacher what she was doing or who she was doing it for, without asking permission of the teacher or other classmates (one classmate is quoted anonymously, also not a great journalistic habit to get in to), without checking content or asking for the teacher's views of the author's critical assessments, and without, of course, identifying her national connection to PBS. Glaser, wrote Penenberg, assigned this NYU junior "to go undercover in one of her classes to blog about her impressions for PBS." That is more straightforward language in this case than "embedded," but it sounds right to me.

However journalism is going to evolve in years to come, and whatever platform readers and viewers will choose to get their news — assuming they want to stay informed — it seems to me that certain fundamentals must remain bedrock. Among them is the notion that journalists must always, except in the most rare circumstances, announce themselves, go through the front door, say who you are, what you are doing and who you are working for. To avoid doing this in a journalism course is not a great career move or a way to get started, in my opinion.

It is also a violation of the NYU journalism department's ethics handbook that says, according to Penenberg, that "the vast majority of time journalists should make clear to the people they are interviewing that they are journalists. State your name and affiliation up front." But are journalism students journalists? Are bloggers journalists? And does an ethics handbook have any validity? I would argue the answer is yes to all three in this case.

In past MediaShift columns, Glaser has been upfront about his intention to use "embedded" correspondents. (That term, in Taylor's case, is actually a misnomer. It became popularized during the run-up to the war in Iraq when reporters — clearly identified — were "embedded" within various military units.) Back in June, Glaser put out a call for new correspondents and "embeds" to write for MediaShift. The idea, he said, was to: "add more voices to this blog besides mine, open it up to more ideas and diverse opinions, and get better coverage of areas where I am lacking." That's all to the good. And in July he listed 10 or so embeds and correspondents who had signed on. Taylor was one of those listed. I read the first report by an "embed" at NBC News that was quite informative, had people on the record with different views, and was journalistically sound. But Taylor's approach, and Glaser's acquiescence, was different.

Glaser Agreed She Should Have Asked Permission, but Didn't Say So

In his message to me, Penenberg also pointed out that Glaser, in e-mail exchanges with Penenberg about the Taylor episode, said: "I agree that she should have got her teacher's permission before writing about the class." Then Penenberg adds that Glaser never mentioned that in the follow-up piece he (Glaser) posted on MediaShift on Sept. 17. "He was not forthright about that posture in his piece," as Penenberg politely put it. Glaser's follow-up piece was lengthy and brought in all kinds of ethical and legal issues as he and others see them. Yet failing to mention that he also felt that Taylor should have gotten the professor's permission seems a serious omission.

When I asked Glaser if he had indeed acknowledged that Taylor should have asked permission, he said that was correct. But he said there was "more context to my statement than that. While I did want Alana to get her teacher's point of view in the first story, and wanted her to interview other faculty at NYU, she said that she would do it in a follow-up story. She was worried that if she approached her professor about what she wanted to write, that the professor wouldn't have allowed her to write the piece at all. I stand by running that initial piece because I think it was a valid opinion piece written in the first-person by a student about what she saw as the failings of NYU journalism's school. Again, I think my follow-up piece (and one by Alana, if she hadn't been banned from writing about it) took the time to get the point of view from [Professor] Quigley and from Brooke Kroeger [Director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute] from NYU — as well as legal scholars.

"I know Adam has strong feelings about the initial story," Glaser continued, "and he obviously thinks that Alana got a lot 'wrong' in that story. But what Adam fails to understand is that Alana has the right to voice her opinion about what went on in her journalism class and that just the exercise of bringing it up for discussion and conversation is worth it — despite his thoughts on the journalism ethics behind running it in the first place."

Here, too, I disagree with Glaser. Taylor should have been upfront with Quigley and her classmates before she published. If Quigley said no, Taylor would have had to make the choice about what to do. She could have taken it to higher-ups at the university, or the school newspaper. She could have published anyway, reported on the professor's stance and reasoning, and challenged the consequences. But she stayed undercover and got a lot of publicity, greatly aided by PBS. Aside from MediaShift's audience, her column was picked up, among others, by the extremely popular Poynter Institute/Romenesko Web site, which is like a Bible for those following the press. And, everyone knows that the (proposed) second story never quite catches up with the first one.

A Violation of PBS Standards?

As for PBS, Penenberg cites a passage from PBS's own editorial standards and policies. "Deception: The credibility of content is jeopardized whenever the audience or a source is duped or feels duped . . . Duping a source would include when a producer misleads an interviewee concerning the purpose of the interview. Honesty, candor, and common courtesy must govern producers' behavior." Since Taylor's post was published on a PBS site, with PBS in the URL, it bears the imprimatur of PBS. Does her post violate PBS's own editorial standards, he asks?

"We also wonder," Penenberg writes, "what responsibility Mr. Glaser bears for Ms. Taylor's post, which ignored numerous accepted journalistic conventions, starting with basic reporting. She never sought other opinions nor asked for comment from the person she was criticizing. She didn't check facts. Does blogging fall under a separate category from journalism? If it falls under the rubric of opinion, to what lengths should a pundit go to seek the facts and offer contrary viewpoints?"

I would also point out that those PBS standards call for giving "individuals or organizations that are the subject of attack or criticism an opportunity to respond."

In 2005, PBS carried out an extensive review of its Editorial Standards and Policies, and one of the main reasons "was to make the Policies less exclusively concerned with television programming and more platform neutral. It was essential," the committee members said, "to recognize the ways in which new delivery systems, such as the Web, have affected and will continue to affect . . . the editorial implications of these changes."

There is no evidence that MediaShift intends to make a habit of other embedded correspondents having their work posted under the same circumstances that Taylor's piece went online. So this may be just an interesting, one-time episode. Blogging is here to stay and is in keeping with the expansive view of freedom of speech that is fundamentally American. It is widespread among college students and used as a teaching tool in some classes. MediaShift and Glaser are, as I said earlier, on the frontline of the digital revolution and it is, in one sense, fitting that this particular episode and discussion unfolded there.

But the PBS imprimatur on this online feature takes it out of the realm of what one ordinarily considers individual blogging. This was an assignment for a very large public service, and I do think that in this instance this posting did not meet PBS standards. There is no way that Taylor's posting would have appeared as a PBS television segment or NPR broadcast without additional comment and reporting, and so PBS needs to look into this and perhaps come up with a more refined set of guidelines that cover these new situations if they are going to lend their logo and PBS.org link to them. NYU probably needs to do the same thing.


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