The case for editorial excellence (and judgment) in technology
Late in the day of the Las Vegas massacre, my phone lit up again with texts from friends, missed calls and news notifications about another big story: rock legend Tom Petty had died.
Gabriella Schwarz, Flipboard managing editor & head of news / Steve Fine
Or at least, that's what CBS News reported. Celebrity gossip site TMZ reported he was taken off life support. The story started to spread and pressure mounted on me as our managing editor to send out a notification to our readers announcing Petty’s death.
But something seemed off about this one. TMZ and CBS weren't naming their sources — and other news organizations were citing TMZ or CBS. So I waited to alert our readers...and waited...and waited for further confirmation. One of our editors told me to call the LAPD — which, reflexively, I wanted to do. But I didn't.
In my former life as a producer at CNN, making that call would have been my job, but it isn't now. Instead, my job is to monitor hundreds of news sources from the world's best publications, and working with our engineers, make sure the best of the best finds its way to the millions of people who rely on our daily feeds. The sources are feeding me information, the algorithms are feeding me information, and I must find the truth. It's the conundrum of a 21st century editor.
As I suspected, Petty was still alive. Full stop. While I'm proud we used our news judgment to accurately assess the validity of the initial reports, we're not perfect. If you follow TMZ on Flipboard, you may have seen the story they ultimately corrected--proof that a combination of editors and algorithms is a tricky business. But a necessary one in this age of non-stop news.
In the hours after the heinous massacre in Las Vegas, misinformation was delivered to people through some of the world's biggest platforms. These reports misidentified the shooter. (No false reports were included in our coverage.)
It's my job to be steady, to be careful, to be thoughtful, and to draw on my experience as a journalist and the core tenets I was so expertly taught over a decade ago: We don’t know what someone’s thinking, we just know what they’ve said. We’d rather be right than first. Lead with the most important facts. What did the other side say?
But do all technology companies hold themselves to that standard? Are we critiquing the deliverers of that news enough? How about those who choose the information that's delivered to our devices, the engineers who help craft the algorithms that surface "trending" news, the editors who choose the day's lead stories, and the people who enter our technological space in a steady stream throughout the day?
I'm one of those people — the crafter of the notifications, the chooser of the lead story, one of the arbiters to the information on your phone. I expect to be held to the highest possible standard.
The space on your phone is sacred. It's your personal space upon which you trust so much, and I don't take adding to it lightly. Pushing critical news updates is one of the most important aspects of my day, as it is for all those at Flipboard. It's why I haven't had a good night's sleep in three years.
Yes, we work at a tech company. But it's also a media company. In a sense, our editors are engineers and our engineers are editors. That symbiosis between editorial and data strengthens the service we provide, the service we're dedicated to because we know how much is at stake.
The illusory truth effect, which has been studied for decades and was recently eloquently described by Vox's Brian Resnick, tells us the more people hear something, the more likely they are to believe it, even if they have reason to discount it.
"Participants are reliably more likely to rate statements they’ve seen before as being true—regardless of whether they are. When you’re hearing something for the second or third time, your brain becomes faster to respond to it," Resnick wrote.
And we know readers need to see quality to learn what quality means. A recent survey from the nonprofit Common Sense Media showed fewer than 45% of American kids, ages 10 to 18, could spot fake news and almost a third said they shared information they later learned was false. Only about 25% of kids put their faith in news organizations, according to the same poll.
The onus is on us — it's on the editors and leaders at tech and media companies across this country to stand for quality and perpetuate truth. Always. The information that informs the citizens of our country is in our hands. I can sound preachy on this issue. I'll blame my father for that. He's a symphony conductor and it's his job to preach, if you replace the lectern with a podium. But if that's my tone, there's a reason. Eighty-one percent of US adults receive news through online platforms. These are the individuals who fund our economy, raise the next generation, make discoveries, create jobs, and keep our democracy alive.
Congress' low approval ratings are common fodder. John McCain's oft-used line (that I must have logged dozens of times covering his presidential campaign) still rings in my ears. The rating is so low "we're down to paid staffers and blood relatives."
But what about the country's editors? The country's tech companies that have wittingly or unwittingly entered into the news and content business? Ire has turned on Facebook and Google, but they are part of a larger, more nuanced ecosystem in which there are positive stories of judgment and investigative rigor to tell as well.
We have created a technology company with media values, combining cutting-edge engineering with the highest journalistic standards. It's a combination that is required of any company that delivers news. We need to constantly judge quality, weed out sites that traffic in false information, and ensure the most important reporting has a platform to thrive.
Sources matter, facts matter, balance matters, timeliness matters, original reporting matters and news judgment matters. Just like it always did in the news business. Only now, the stakes are so much higher.
Gabriella Schwarz, Flipboard managing editor & head of news