· Essays

Preventing Shattered Glass

The New Republic, a respectable American magazine in Billy Ray’s film "Shattered Glass", has a few problems. Journalistic fraud and deception are rife when the uncontrolled and uncontrollable Stephen Glass invents journalism in his own head. Unfounded facts and misleading stories reach the audiences while errors go unnoticed by the editors.

The journal that is advertised as the ‘in-flight magazine of Air Force One’ (Ray) publishes content that is often poorly checked, and in many cases – simply untrue. Eleven years later there are new ideas on of how such things might be prevented from taking place. New technologies and open communication hold the promise of preventing journalistic fraud and facilitating the creation of good journalism.

The integrity of journalism depends on truthful and accurate information. In many cases,  and in particular in The New Republic information acquisition involved independent investigative journalists such as Stephen Glass practicing fieldwork, and fact-checkers checking facts against the journalists own notebook. Because every element of information produced by Glass was in essence proprietary – that is to say his findings could not be verified trough third parties – it was difficult to determine that his work in fact was truthful or accurate.

Perhaps in the most basic of terms one could suggest a number of practical policies which would have been likely to work towards decreasing the prevalence of journalistic fraud and form something of a baseline that many contemporary media creators already have or would be likely accept. In addition to such practical considerations there is a philosophical movement that is on the route of changing the established paradigms of journalism.

Firstly, on the practical side, a story with a picture is better than the one without a picture. Photographs have numerous functions in providing a comprehensive journalistic unit from illustration to commentary. At the very least pictures provide a proof duplicate of the events and action taking place before the journalist.  At a higher level they can add structure to the story underlining key elements and putting emphasis on the main points. If taken by the very best of photographers pictures allow the journalist to accurately convey the kind of complexity that is only presentable by a visual device narrating the atmosphere of the story. Photography was a readily available tool at the time of The New Republic but was only used after the Glass scandal.

Secondly, elements such as video and sound add new dimensions of proof and accuracy, as do the maps, charts and other elements that complement stories in many magazines, for example in the National Geographic. Television stations were the first to learn that without video there is no story. News outfits such as CNN were the first to innovate in the new media space; they learned that they can create trust by presenting relevant information from third party sources (such as respectable blogs) on the side of the story. Later that trend of collaboration caught on with other types of journalism. Because a range of these today known and understood features of journalism were not as widely implemented as today in smaller media because of cost or other reasons at the time of the Glass’s controversy in 1997 it was far simpler to deceive the public.

From the philosophical side of the matter there are three features of contemporary journalism that innovate on what was possible at the time of the Glass scandal. They compound to what could be called the pillars of open journalism.  With the goal of creating maximum transparency and by bringing together different media and multiple sources contemporary journalists create a package of journalism that puts emphasis on being open, comprehensive, and accurate. For people living in a network society and for those whose principal medium is the Internet such journalistic ideals are realized by tools of collaboration. One might argue that it is because of the virtues of collaboration that movements such as Wikipedia and Wikinews have been successful despite of rational criticism and reservations by many people. Although this is already a controversial point, the American writer Dan Gillmor would go even further:

“An open source philosophy may produce better journalism at the outset, but that's just the start of a wider phenomenon. In the conversational mode of journalism [...] the first article may be only the beginning of the conversation in which we all enlighten each other.”

One could also imagine that by using the paradigm of these three pillars the editors and journalists of The New Republic could have fulfilled these idealistic dreams to a greater extent than was demonstrated by the actions of peers of Philip Glass. Today’s new media journalists have taken note of these three ideas inspired not by their peers from the history of journalism but rather by the success of the open source movement in the software developer communities and by ramifications of the ground-breaking technology that was created is such open communities .

Indeed online publication is by nature more open and participatory than its preceding offline cousin. When mistakes are made online there is a high likelihood that someone notices and reports any such error encouraging thoroughness and fairness in content creation.  Judged by that token one might argue that the paradigm of open journalism in which all content is created in a participatory fashion would have entailed better journalism even at The New Republic.

The ideas of open journalism and the use of innovative new technologies hold the promise of bringing a degree of comprehensiveness and accuracy to journalism unknown to Stephen Glass. In a philosophical sense the three pillars of open journalism have ramifications which make truthfulness and accuracy more possible than previously. It is in essence a paradigmatic shift in the realm of investigative journalism that Stephen Glass missed just by a margin.

Works Cited

Gillmor, Dan. We the Media. New York: O'Reilly, 2004.

Shattered Glass. Dir. Billy Ray. 2003.

Written in 2008 at a Baltic Film & Media School class with James Thurlow.

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