Craig Newmark Advocates Fact-Checking As Key to Building Media Trust More More More More

Craig Newmark Advocates Fact-Checking As Key to Building Media Trust

Date: Monday, June 21, 2010
Guest: Craig Newmark
Forum arranged by: Jim Norrena
Summary notes organized by: Karen Asbelle

Craig Newmark built a reputation for himself, first locally then nationally, as the founder of Craigslist.org, which today ranks as one of the top-ten visited websites on the Internet. While no longer a public spokesperson for Craigslist, he is increasingly involved these days with a variety of community organizations—many in the political and government arenas—and is particularly interested in emerging forms of news media.

"In traditional media, trust in news was established by ethical behavior," he says, "like good intent backed up by checking the facts. Distrust in the press grows when traditional journalistic values, like fact-checking, are forgotten." He also predicts, "Among news organizations, the successful survivors will be the ones that build a culture of trust, largely by checking facts and not tolerating disinformation." A frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, Mr. Newmark has coined the phrase "trust is the new black."

We invited Mr. Newmark to share his thoughts about how the news media landscape is changing. Following is a general summary of the exchange, which was moderated by BAEF Program Coordinator Jim Norrena:

JN: As evidenced in the short videos we just viewed, you've been exploring many new avenues since founding Craigslist. What exactly is Craig Newmark up to today?
CN: I make a living doing customer service these days—nothing noble or pious about it. It just feels right. Ten years ago, people helped me understand that, as a manager, I suck. So I hired a manager much better than I am. But I am a pretty good customer service rep, which flows from the basics: Treat people how you want to be treated. And the notion that now and then, you want to give the other person a break. What I learned 50 years ago was that you are your brother's (or sister's) keeper, so you try to make sense of what's right, even when people have different ideas of what that means. Do what you can. Being a CSR, and not selling the company, means I can stay closer to the grass roots or the virtual street, hearing and seeing things I wouldn't otherwise encounter, which is something I need to do in order to do what I want to do. It feels right. I'm not interested in selling things. Money changes people and I don't want to be changed. Not in that regard.

Regarding the news media stuff, I'm very aware that jobs are involved, jobs that need to be preserved during this time of industry disruption. Sociologists call it a period of creative destruction. I have been writing on the importance of journalism in a democracy. I'm very aware that I don't know the business. I'm really a nerd—an outsider. But I'm fortunate that I get access to talk to people who really do know the biz: editors, publishers, industry analysts—I've been talking with them for the past 5-10 years. These days , though, I like to have something to say, then stop; it shocks people in Washington. And I've spoken with younger staffers of politicians who are tired of the toxic Washington/Capitol Hill atmosphere; they don't want 30 years ahead of the same. Anyway, I can listen to those who really do know the industry and who are getting things done, and synthesize a lot of what I'm hearing from them.

JN: Then let me just ask, what is Ariana Huffington really like?
CN: Ah, Ariana is very nice and very smart. She is a natural at networking and connecting with people. I'm a nerd, so I'm the opposite. But she knows what she's talking about, and she's very giving of herself.

JN: Do you think people demand the truth? Do readers expect the truth? Here's how a post to one of your online articles reads: "Most people today do not want fact-checking, unless that fact is what they want to hear...If you say anything remotely different or offer another idea/option/opinion, the buzzards fly in and peck your eyes out. People do not want facts. They want only what reinforces their own conceptions/misconceptions."
CN: Most people like me are couch potatoes and would prefer not to be involved in any of this. I'd like to be able to watch TV and read books, but this decade is pivotal in human history so I figure I gotta step up. Most people want their preconceptions verified. Most people are grown-ups and, if presented with facts by independent, honest authorities, they may not like what they hear but they can be influenced. Fact-checking appeals to those who care and are willing to listen. In politics, that translates to "independents," who these days are determining elections.

I'm surprised we haven't seen more truth squads in politics. There may be employment in that; I hope so. But there's also a psychological problem: If you try to debunk information the wrong way, people will remember only the repeated information and not the debunking.

JN: How do you build a culture of trust?
CN: First, face-to-face communication is always better but the problem is that it doesn't scale beyond hundreds of thousands of people. What's new is that the Internet scales up person-to-person communication from hundreds of thousands to maybe, at some point in the future, hundreds of billions of people, allowing people to work together and collaborate to make things work. That's where citizen journalism can develop, with people using the tools they have to inform each other.

Journalism is like the immune system of democracy. But journalism requires its own immune system—a firewall between reporting and advertising (like between church and state). Fact-checking is the immune system of the media. Editors are certainly a part of that.

I see the importance of fact-checking and traditional reporting ethics. Fact-checking is a hybrid of business and community services. But now it's being tossed by many publishers as an unnecessary cost, though it continues with ConsumerReports, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, though there's currently an internal struggle at The Times about how much they should invest in it. And I give special credit to Jay Rosen at NYU who was able to convince Jake Tapper to get someone involved to do fact-checking on the politicians speaking on ABC This Week. It's a breakthrough in reporting. They engaged the people at PolitiFact.com to rate politicians' statements: true, half-true, false and pants-on-fire. They are pioneers…really sticking their necks out. Some news organizations consider fact-checking as naive and have given up, but those organizations won't do terribly well in the future.

Some fact-checking groups are getting together raw data for people to do serious reporting. Sunlight is one of the foundations that has created a network of sites and they find people to put data online. We might see things like who's giving money, what contracts are being granted. And there could be data online to list who's donating to politicians. For example, telecom companies are giving politicians a lot of money and some politicians are doing the bidding of those telecoms. And I heard in the last hour that the Center for Investigative Reporting in the East Bay is working on a database to fact-check statements of Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman as the election approaches.

JN: Fact-checking is how we make a living—it's what we do. What role can editors play in helping to build this trust?
CN: Speaking as amateur, and a consumer of documents and information, I want to see some indication or evidence that something has been fact-checked, with adherence to traditional reporting values. As a consumer, I'm willing to go on faith for some of that. But if editors and others network together and commit to doing the right thing, I have a feeling that will go some way. I'm trying to figure what to tell folks at PolitiFact.com, Factcheck.org and the Center for Media and Democracy where we might enlist large numbers of people who will step up and get it done...to fact-check politicians everywhere, from school boards on up. There's something there but I don't know the industry well enough to suggest what yet.

Fact-checking is frequently challenged by cost. What else? The speed of the news cycle often can prevent fact-checking. Serious journalists exercise judgment. But everyone must understand you can't believe all that you read, unless there is some reason to do so—like when it's been verified. There are people out there who are good at spreading disinformation and it can spread fast. Something is picked up by the news organizations that they admit they didn't fact-check.

JN: Here's a comment posted to one of your online articles: "Where have all the real journalists gone to?...the ones who ask real questions and do not accept BS; they challenge, they investigate, they do their homework." What's your response?
CN: Actually, some of the most trusted and best investigative reporting and media criticism today is being done on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And by Stephen Colbert. I realize the irony of that, but I recall Oscar Wilde said that if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh first or else they will kill you. (I admit I suffer from ACS (Attempted Comedy Syndrome), repeating the same joke over and over. They say the genetic marker for this is having a y chromosome.)

JN: Another post: "Showing two different kinds of bias does not equal balanced or unbiased. News used to be unsponsored, which meant it was not a source of profits—leaving it free to be factual, instead of entertaining...And psst...news has never been unbiased—it has always been filtered and framed by editors and writers." Your thoughts, given that the news media may never be completely unbiased?
CN: I'm okay with bias, as long as people are relatively honest about it and not presenting themselves as objective. The problem is when a reporter knows the guy is lying and doesn't call him on it...somehow that will change this decade. We will see lots of tipping points. Victor Hugo said, "Nothing…is so powerful as an idea whose time has come."

JN: Sponsorships can influence what is reported. How can that affect fact-checking?
CN: Find out who's paying the dollars, and take results with a grain of salt. And look for people with track records of getting things right. We need more people doing serious investigating to show when the media is not fact-checking—and to call them on it. Do what you can to keep folks honest and report on that. There was a recent Supreme Court decision on a disclosure act...about having to tell who's paying for political advertising. The NRA just got an exception. I don't know if that's a roadblock, but that exception tells you something.

JN: How would you respond to this post to one of your online articles: "For us to get real and great journalism, we have to figure out a way to pay for it directly without whoring the news organizations to the ad world. I for one would pay for that."
CN: With limited dollars for advertising, Internet ads are cheaper. People expect to pay less for ads, which dictates what people are willing to pay. The question becomes how do you pay for this stuff? Public financing? We will see experiments. Maybe you'll watch ads with the free feature. Or pay a bit to skip ads. I've asked and no one knows at this point how it will work out.

JN: If "trust is based on reputation," as you've explained in previous interviews, and "database-driven reputation engines are a big part of our future," isn't a trust engine only as reliable as those who input the data?
CN: Just as we tend to trust those we know and rely on friends, and friends of friends… and their friends, people are starting to develop trust based on online connections. Like Facebook. Or like on Yelp, through reputation. Or as on Amazon, you might trust people who are trusted by a lot of other people. But there are a whole lot of issues. Anonymity, for one…someone who hates you can rate you low, or alternately, someone may be willing to rate you really well. The best we have right now are identity systems that cost in terms of effort and time. With Facebook profiles, for example, scammers are less likely to build up credible-looking profiles. If you want to sound natural, a non-native speaker might gather bits and pieces into a "Frankenstein profile"—hmm, I just made up that term—by pasting parts together, but in those cases, you might have a sense that something is wrong. The opposite of that is spam, which is easy and cheap to create…zero cost.

JN: Recently, Facebook surpassed Google in page hits. What does this mean for those who are resistant to social networking?
CN: One thing it means is that human connection is more important to us than just searching for facts. Online is not a substitute for face-to-face human connection, but a compliment. Connecting a big chunk of the species can promote doing work together for the common good, and can provide us with some protection against disinformation.

Q: I'd like to see standards applied to websites: who edited, who reviewed…certified as having met the standards. Do you think standard verification for websites is good?
CN: I like certified websites. They are a step in the right direction. The real solution is many eyes plus disclosure on who is being funded by whom—for example, studies funded by medical product companies. However it develops, we'll need a collection of solutions. And I would like the FCC to ensure a level playing field. If you are using the airwaves of the American people, you should have to respect their values. Not paying for privilege. Net neutrality.

Q: These days, the Internet is still "anything goes"...anyone can put up anything. What do you see happening so that average users can cite and have faith?
CN: The Internet is not one thing; it's a whole bunch of places. Some are "anything goes," some have the online equivalent of neighborhood watch, some are fairly closed with accounts and accountability. We all want places we can go for reasonably reliable info, even knowing there's still misinformation in vetted places. People are trying to figure out how to build their own immune systems for their sites. At Wikipedia, articles are more or less as reliable as they've been with encyclopedias, with lots of eyes looking at controversial places. But they are still looking for solutions. If a page was subject to warfare, it was locked down and no one could make any changes. Now they allow changes, but they are only visible after a trusted administrator takes a look. Far from perfect, but a step in right direction. Part of the immune system solution at curated sites is requiring verified identity and being accountable for what you're saying. Like on some discussion boards. The White House, as part of open government, and Republicans in the House are experimenting. For example, people could vote up or down on an issue to form a sort of consensus reality, which works if you have enough people getting involved. If you put things up for people to vote on, like what the country should do, and if you have a system of fact-checking so people know what they're voting on, and if you have millions of people participating, that's the kind of direct democracy the Founders described. Politics and media today are very different from what they will look like in 2020...it may happen faster than anyone thinks. An exciting time to be alive—and kind of scary, too.

Q: What do you think of companies and organizations using Facebook for (essentially) their promotion and advertising?
CN: I don't mind, if they are open and honest about it. And you always should ‘fess up when you're wrong. Consumer Reports made an error regarding baby seats, then admitted they did.

JN: You mention MediaBugs.org in your work. What's your opinion of their work so far?
CN: MediaBugs is an experiment to start tracking when people in the media get things wrong, which news consumers will appreciate. You will piss some people off, but if you want to build your reputation as a tough fact-checker, check it out. Need to find a way to get paid for it, though.

Q: Have you looked at BayCitizen.org?
CN: Yes, I have a great deal of hope for it. They are acting in good faith. Committed to fact-checking. Publicly funded with no advertisers. ProPublica.org is also publicly funded, and they get reporters who are doing a great job. And NewsTrust.net is another local experiment.

JN: I must ask you to share with us your views on where you see the print publishing industry headed.
CN: What I read is that newspapers and magazines are in trouble. You have to buy paper and ink, as well as expensive printing presses, and hire people to distribute it all. It's a luxury that needs distribution. As an "aging gentleman," I do prefer the paper for some purposes. But a screen will be how we read in the future to a great extent—on devices that weigh under a pound, that can be continually updated, without a lot of eye strain. I'm a big reader; I read one book a week, mostly on Kindle because I don't want trees to die. I've read 150 books onscreen. Plus it's great for travel: you don't have to carry around books and you still have choice. It's a great tool. And there are new alternatives like flexible screens that can roll up. This is a most exciting time to be involved with journalism. While it's true we're going through a tough period, with newspapers becoming a medium too expensive to distribute, and seeing them move to the Net, new organizations will do well if they follow through with traditional journalistic ethics.

Q: Any tips on setting up an online forum for a new product?
CN: I'd say make it so that people have to sign up with some authentication. Then invite a lot of people in to participate. The users typically will take care of anyone misbehaving. Ask for some accountability from your community. And train your employees to follow the law and know related legal requirements.

JN: Can we win the war on spam?
CN: We'll start winning when the norm is accountability. Anonymity is appropriate in some cases and some spam will still get through. But in the future, you can tell your email to only accept emails with verifiable identities.

JN: Is it really possible for us to get to a place where tens of millions of people are helping each other?
CN: I think we're seeing the start of it now spreading through the Net. Think Facebook social graphs: everyone can be connected with everyone else. People normally will offer help, if they have the time and knowledge. That's what motivated me to start Craigslist 15 years ago at the beginning of the Internet bubble: I could tell people what I had heard about, and people would tell me. On Craigslist, we show people every day that it's easy to help someone get a job or find a place to live, which prepares people for more sophisticated forms of collaboration, like on Wikipedia or Facebook.

Q: One demonstration of those connections in action was seen recently with the protests in Iran—people sending photos and updated information outside the country to the world.
CN: Yes, that's just the beginning of how this could be used to communicate...sending information out fast. It's helping a bit, and puts pressure on a regime, but we know it's a long process.

JN: Last question: Moving forward, what would you consider your "dream job"?
CN: I think I have it. Customer service when done in good conscience is public service. It's what I should be doing and that feels pretty good. Overall, it ain't bad. Thanks, folks!

Craig Newmark is the founder of Craigslist.org, a site where people can help each other with everyday needs including housing and jobs. Based in San Francisco, he works at the company as a customer service rep, in no managerial role. Previous experience includes thirty years working with computers for IBM, GM, Charles Schwab & Co. and Bank of America. He's also working with a wide range of groups using the Net to help each other out, like Donorschoose.org, the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, Kiva.org (microfinance) and Consumer Reports. He's working on the advisory board of Wikipedia, considering customer service and trust issues. Craig is also actively engaged with government workers on multiple levels to use the Net for superior public service, and with Sunlight Foundation for government accountability and transparency. He's not as funny as he thinks he is, but sometimes can't help himself. Craig no longer wears a plastic pocket protector and thick black glasses that are taped together, but is still a self-professed nerd. You can reach Craig at twitter.com/Craignewmark, facebook.com/Craignewmark or cnewmark.com.

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