What’s in a name?

New online venture takes on objective journalism.

laptop 311 (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
laptop 311
(photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
A new online Hebrew news portal, seeking to take on the established press, proposes a new and controversial take on objective journalism.
The Web site, thepulse.co.il, publishes news reports written by anonymous reporters. While all other news outlets traditionally place the author’s byline underneath the headline, here, all readers get is “written by the pulse news desk.”
The new Web site was formally launched on Tuesday, after three months of beta stage operations, but to date, no one knows who is behind the new venture. The only identifiable person connected to the outlet, is the company’s public relations representative, Update Communications’ owner Tom Vagner. In an interview to The Jerusalem Post, Vagner explained the novel approach.
“The decision to avoid publishing the names of the reporters and editors of thepulse.co.il is a principled one. We believe that it will make it a more trusted news source,” said Vagner. “The Israeli media sector is characterized by blurred lines between news and opinions. Reporters function as commentators and analysts present the news. It has come to the stage where news consumers often don’t make a distinction between the content of the news and the person who reports it.
“In this type of situation, facts are colored by the persona that reports them. We want the facts to speak for themselves. We believe that by removing the identity of the reporter, we will get rid of the bias,” Vagner continued.
Vagner gave the example of Haaretz reporter Gideon Levy, well known in Israel for his leftwing views. “Many readers prejudge his work, before they even read the article, or else they don’t even read it, assuming that they know what he’ll say on any given issue. With us, that won’t happen,” he said.
“Or take Yair Lapid, someone whose political views are famous. Can readers or viewers really trust that his news reports are objective or lacking an agenda? Our news reports are short and factual. They serve the public’s need for information and don’t introduce commentary or opinion,” said Vagner.
According to Vagner, thepulse.co.il’s news staff is made up of 30 editors and reporters. “The staff is a mix of experienced journalists and newcomers to the trade. They are all people with excellent writing skills and with good knowledge of the topics they write about. Not all of them hail from established newsrooms, but we believe that there is no reason why someone who has blogged for years about electronic gadgets for example, can’t make a fine technology reporter,” said Vagner.
When asked how the news site would maintain its accountability without names for which to direct comments, complaints, corrections or questions, Vagner said that like all news outlets, it provided an address for all content related issues, only in this case, the answers would be given in the name of the newsdesk as a whole and not to a particular reporter or editor. “The credibility of the organization replaces the credibility of the individual employee,” said Vagner.
Another aspect of the operation that remains secretive is its ownership. Like its editorial staff, the owners of thepulse.co.il are anonymous too.
All Vagner would say, was that the company was backed by investors with “Strong economic resources.”
Tel Aviv Journalist Association chairman Avi Paz said he found it difficult to understand how the anonymity of the Web site’s staff and owners could turn it into a more trustworthy source of information. “Professional journalists are supposed to act in full transparency and carry full responsibility for the information they publish to the public they serve,” he said.
“These are bedrock principles of our profession and are intrinsic elements in the system of checks and balances that allow the flow of information. It seems to me that the cloak of anonymity that this initiative’s personnel have taken on serves no purpose but to avoid taking responsibility for the information they publish.”
Dr. Yuval Karniel, a lecturer on journalism ethics at the IDC Herzliya School of Communications, said the new approach was thought provoking, but that the burden of trust and accountability was on the publishers.
“In the media world we are familiar with the concept of anonymity in the context of journalistic sources. The working assumption is that anonymity enables the release of information that would not otherwise get out and that its publication benefits the public,” said Karniel.
“This is not necessarily the same for the anonymity of reporters. Here there is a risk that anonymity will be a cover for lack of professionalism and reliability.”
Karniel said that traditionally, bylines were published to lend accountability to news reports. “By naming the author, readers know that the piece was written by a professional journalist and backed by a dependable newsdesk. Not publishing a byline, raises the question ‘what are they hiding?’ “On the other hand,” continued Karniel.
“Maintaining anonymity opens the door to more hard-hitting and courageous journalism. We know that in Israel, journalists are often insufficiently protected from external influences of business or political interests. Perhaps anonymity and joint protection will enable writers to report more freely on controversial topics.”
One news outlet that has a tradition of anonymous reporting is weekly international financial magazine The Economist. For decades the magazine has been providing readers with high quality news and analyses written by anonymous reporters.
Karniel said that the comparison to The Economist is valid, but only up to a certain point. “While its true that the articles don’t have bylines, the members of the editorial staff are well known and reputable journalists, so even if the readers don’t know who wrote a particular article, they know who is on the magazine’s staff.
“Pursuing objectivity is an admirable goal, but I am unconvinced that anonymity will necessarily achieve it. Professionalism and trust is not something that can be purchased instantly. Only time will tell if this new Web site will be able to deliver it. For now, the burden of proof is on them.”