Santa Clara University

When “Truth” Seems a Matter of Debate, Should Journalists Advocate Critical Thinking and News Literacy?

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Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation
2013 Digital Journalism Ethics Roundtable

New media do a better job of living up to traditional journalistic values than predecessor media, such as newspapers and TV, according to Sue Gardner, executive director of Wikimedia Foundation. Gardner made her remarks at the 2013 Digital Journalism Ethics Roundtable, sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

On all measures--quality, relevance, timeliness, fairness, accuracy, objectivity, utility, and depth-- today's digital information is superior, Gardner argued, particularly in the case of depth, as evidenced by the 27 million articles offered by Wikipedia.

She also cited improvements in fairness; with so many people contributing to articles, she said, there is a net increase in objectivity. Accuracy, too, has gotten better, according to Gardner. For example, a 2006 study by the journal Nature comparing Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica found roughly the same number of mistakes in both sources. But once the study was published, all the mistakes in Wikipedia were fixed within a couple of days, while the errors in Britannica had to wait for a new edition.

Transparency, Gardner said, has improved significantly in the digital world. Mistakes on blogs are usually acknowledged using strikethroughs so that readers can see what has changed. On Wikipedia, visitors can see the history of every edit.

In addition, digital journalists and other online content producers have far more independence than newspaper or TV reporters, Gardner argued. Newspaper publishers and TV producers may want to protect reporters from undue influence, but they are always under pressure from advertisers and other interested parties. At Wikipedia and similar sites, Gardner said, there is no way for the publishers to apply pressure to writers. "I can't fire them; I can't bring commercial pressure against them; I can't ban them."

Finally, according to Gardner, digital media are doing better than traditional media on inclusion and diversity. Newsrooms, she said, have always been the province primarily of white males of a certain age and socio-economic background. While Gardner acknowledged that Wikipedia is still dominated by men, on other dimensions she said it is "vastly more diverse than any newsroom we've ever seen,” with editors from every country, religious tradition, age, and background. What particularly impressed Gardner is that this diverse group can come to a mutual understanding of what is known and understood about a topic.

In this context, what is left for journalism? Gardner said that professional reporters must learn to gracefully share power rather than own and control the stage.

April 2013