Compared to Anglo-Saxon journalism standards, French practices are regrettably lax. It doesn’t mean that France doesn’t have remarkable writers, editors or medias; but, too often, their practices are just sloppy. Here, journalists abuse anonymous quotes and are too cozy with their sources. Papers are insufficiently edited, reporters routinely go after a story with a pre-defined agenda – they know what they want to write and will twist facts, quotes and background accordingly.
In France, stories are never corrected. Or corrections can be used to further drill a point . If someone dares to exercise his legal “Droit de réponse” (the right to force the paper to publish a response to erroneous statements), he risks retribution. In 1984, as I was writing for Le Monde, some politician felt misrepresented and demanded a correction. My editor reacted:” Okay, we’ll publish his response. But we’ll append a “Six-bracket” that will make him cry…” He was referring to a small piece (typeface size: 6) appended below the response that usually blasts the righteous individual… That was my introduction to the ritual.
For the record, I’m not by any means putting myself above the crowd. I made my share of mistakes, I’ve not always acted in good faith and more… And, in management positions, I failed to go after the behaviors I just criticized – mostly by not hiring people eager to improve journalistic standards. The mistakes I made during my career still haunt me; we’ll see which ones resurface in this Monday Note’s Comments section…
The chain of command plays a key role in this collective failure, standards are set at the top. I know a couple of editors who encourage their reporters not to bother collecting the other side’s view on facts, as contradiction would impair the “mission”.
French editors have issued stupid rules such as the “journalism stops at the bedroom’s door”; read: beyond, it’s just muckraking. Sure thing. Except it encouraged the press to turn a blind eye on François Mitterrand’s morganatic family living in an opulent government-owned building and protected by a squad of dedicated gendarmes with their own rules. Or, until recently, French media chose to ignore that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was more a predator than a seducer. (Never wondered why DSK never go after female foreign correspondents? It’s because he knew they’d have reported any misbehavior, as opposed to France where her peers and her superiors will ask a harassed woman reporter to shut up). As for investigative reporting, it went down the drain a long time ago as police, magistrates and lawyers became extremely proficient at manipulating complacent reporters.
In 2009, Francois Dufour, the publisher and editor-in-chief of a successful set of publications for young readers (Mon Quotidien, see story in the New York Times), wrote a funny book titled: Are French Journalists Bad? (Les journalistes français sont-ils mauvais?) He didn’t answer the question directly, but the facts he presented were compelling.
French journalists are not genetically worse than others; it’s their culture, they are simply poorly trained and managed.
That year, I found myself involved in a debate with Dufour along with other journalists who had joined the cyber-zealots crowd. There, I got my first exposure to the “Permanent correction” concept and to the “Publish first, check later and correct (PFCLC)” notion. Dufour and I took the same side, saying the ability to correct a story should not be a license to a kind of permanent approximation. After all, all-news medias have been around since the eighties; they always had the ability to permanently correct stories, but – even though they were far from perfect – they refrained from abusing the PFCLC thing. (I don’t recall seeing a 7:00am news item airing rumors, unverified facts – at least to the best of the reporters’ ability – and issuing a correction an hour later).
The debate about the management of facts at “digital speed” is spurred by two important factors: the Distribution of responsibilities and the Merchant relationship.
1/ Along with social media comes the notion of distributed responsibility. As everyone reports what’s happening, no one will carry the full responsibility for it. In the event of a breaking or a developing news, when hundreds of people congregate around a Twitter feed hashtag, they don’t have – by definition – the safety net of someone with the role of deciding whether or not to publish (by asking basic questions, for instance). When everyone is in empowered to feed the echo chamber (sometimes with a pseudonym), no one is responsible.
2 / The absence of a merchant relationship also plays a significant role in the dilution of responsibility. In the digital cauldron, free is too often associated with a permission to be sloppy. A compulsive tweeter or blogger, propagating whatever s/he is able to grab, without any commercial relationship with readers, will feel no obligation whatsoever to quality. Being first becomes the main goal.
That is exactly the opposite for a newspaper, an online news organization, a TV or a radio network. Such organizations will (at least in theory) feel the obligation to respond to the trust that people are paying for – directly in the case of a paid-for service, or indirectly though advertising.
In the end, this is a matter of accountability. Having an entity, embodied by a group of people (an identifiable set of writers or editors), accountable for what is published or aired, is the best guarantee of acceptable standards. In the best cases, this accountability will apply to direct reporting. Or accountability will play a a key role in curating, in assessing the validity of third party contents coming from places unreachable by professionals.
One last thing, again, for the record. I was among the millions of people literally glued to live-blogging or Twitter feeds during major news events such as the Fukushima disaster, the Arab revolutions or the (less important) DSK affair. Therefore I’m NOT advocating some kind of regulation of the digital flow. For society, I’m still convinced its advantages far outweigh its drawbacks.