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Summary:

Critics of Reddit point to a moderator’s repeated removal of a Glenn Greenwald story as proof that the site can’t be trusted to do journalism, but in reality the moderator’s behavior is no worse — and in some ways better — than that of a newspaper editor

A newspaper... in the Dead Sea
photo: Inju

I’m not sure if it qualifies as ironic or not, but just a day after I wrote a post about how Reddit’s new “live reporting” feature could contribute to the opening up or crowdsourcing of journalism, news started to filter out about moderators on one of Reddit’s topic threads repeatedly deleting a news story from Glenn Greenwald of First Look Media about the British government’s spy program. This kind of “censorship,” some have argued, is one of the reasons why Reddit can’t be trusted with anything approaching actual journalism.

I disagree for a number of reasons, as I tried to point out in my original post on Tuesday, but let’s take a look at what happened in this case first: As the Daily Dot and others sites such as Zero Hedge and TechDirt have detailed, using screenshots from concerned Redditors who recorded the activity, Greenwald’s latest story has been deleted multiple times from sub-Reddits known as “/r/worldnews” and “/r/news,” two of the pages on the site that get millions of readers.

Reddit moderators are like sub-editors

For those who don’t know, every sub-Reddit has either one or a number of volunteer moderators who control what happens on that part of the site — individuals who are more or less voted into that position by other users, not appointed by Reddit’s actual staff. In most cases Reddit’s management, such as general manager Erik Martin, take a hands-off approach to sub-Reddits in keeping with the site’s commitment to freedom of speech and the power of community.

Conspiracy theorists have argued that the main reason one of the mods in this case repeatedly deleted Greenwald’s story is that he disagrees with the First Look Media writer’s position on Snowden and government spy programs and/or is being manipulated by those who do, and point out that he has been accused of rigging the site in favor of other stories that fit with a specific viewpoint. And that is certainly possible, although extremely difficult to prove.

Reddit-Greenwald1

But the more obvious reason (or excuse) for deleting these stories appears to be that they don’t fit the stated intention or mandate of /r/worldnews and /r/news, which is to report “the news.” As the rules of the sub-Reddits state, submissions are banned if they involve links to stories with editorialized titles, petitions or advocacy, as well as editorials, opinion pieces and analysis. Those kinds of links are supposed to be posted in other sub-Reddits, such as /r/politics (where Greenwald’s story eventually became a top link).

The moderator of /r/news discussed this with The Daily Dot, saying he had nothing against Greenwald’s piece, and in fact believed it to be “a great piece of investigative journalism.” But he maintained that the rules of the sub-Reddit forbid any biased or opinionated articles, and that when a purely factual post about British spy agency was posted, it was allowed to stay.

Should opinion or advocacy qualify as news?

What’s interesting to me about this debate is that it’s virtually identical to the one that is occurring in newsrooms and traditional media outlets across the country, if not around the world. What exactly is “the news?” It used to be primarily objectively reported pieces of factual content, but as journalism professor (and First Look Media advisor) Jay Rosen has discussed at length, this “View From Nowhere” approach to journalism has become less and less the norm.

In fact, it’s more than a little ironic that Greenwald himself has been one of the main beneficiaries and standard-bearers of this evolution of news, to the point where he is now the public face of First Look Media, a media outlet that is being constructed around exactly that approach to journalism. And it seems clear that defining what he reports as not “news” simply because it comes from a point of view is short-sighted.

But just as I defended Greenwald’s status as a journalist, at a time when he was being denigrated as “just a blogger” and potentially even a traitor for his opinionated stance on Snowden’s NSA leaks, I feel the need to defend Reddit’s approach to the news, as chaotic and unruly as it might be. In a Twitter discussion about the Reddit affair, Greenwald argued that what the mods there have done is no better than what newspapers do — but is that really true?

Newspapers do this, but less transparently

I think the fundamental difference with Reddit (and Twitter for that matter) is that they are far more transparent than any traditional media outlet has ever been, and likely ever will be, when it comes to the editorial process — in other words, deciding which stories run on the front page and which don’t appear at all. Greenwald compared the Reddit ban to the New York Times refusing to run a story at the request of the U.S. government, but that took over a year and a half before everyone knew the full story behind the story.

As Tim Cushing points out in his post at TechDirt on the Reddit brouhaha, Reddit is a many-headed hydra of a news entity, very much like the old Digg used to be with its “bury brigades” who blocked any story they disagreed with — or like a newspaper with a thousand editors, all of whom see themselves as omnipotent. In other words, a recipe for chaos and disorder.

At the same time, however, that very process or structure also makes it much more likely that tin-pot dictators or sub-editors will be deposed, and far more quickly than any newspaper deposes an editor. And the audience can go elsewhere, as has happened with a number of sub-Reddits. Not to mention the whole process can be documented in screenshots and comments and posts on /r/conspiracy — something that virtually never happens when stories are changed or disappear suddenly from the New York Times or some other mainstream entity.

I’m not trying to be Pollyanna-ish when it comes to crowdsourcing news — I understand it has flaws, and produces a very rough and in many cases chaotic outcome. But then, so does the existing media and we seem to put up with that without too much trouble. It’s not that one of these is supposed to replace the other, just that it’s better to have more rather than less.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Inju

  1. Journalism must at some level be about discovering the truth. No? Greenwald is doing that. His perspective is that of a constitutional lawyer who is trying to discover the truth about his own government’s possible unconstitutional behaviour, which is difficult because the government is shrouding its decisions in secrecy on the basis of “national security”. It is difficult to distinguish between legitimate “national security” secrecy, and secrecy designed to conceal crime on the part of the executive. Finding out the truth is the job of a free press. It involves skepticism and evidence. Reporting who wore what at the Academy Awards is also discovering truth, but of a very different kind. The debate about the definition of “news” is possibly not that important.

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