Actually, It’s About Ethics in Atheist Journalism

Actually, It’s About Ethics in Atheist Journalism May 20, 2016

Image via Pixabay

Every time I think I’m out, I get sucked back in.

Earlier this week, as we were ending our conversation on the Life After God podcast, I told Ryan Bell that hopefully I’d be writing less about the movement. But here I am, in part because I know people are still paying attention to what’s going on and there has to be a little more balance than currently exists.

My colleague JT Eberhard has written several posts about the current kerfuffle between Neil Carter and Recovering from Religion (you can read Neil’s perspective here and here, and I wrote about my own trepidation with RFR leadership behavior here). In them, he details how he approached RFR to investigate the mess on his own, although RFR’s own press release says that they had “approached a reputable blogger in the community,” which JT admits refers to him. Neil was appropriately skeptical in calling out this apparent discrepancy, but I can’t tell for sure whether this is JT trying to play it both ways or RFR trying to pretend that they’d essentially requested the assistance of an independent blogger to investigate. (More on that “independent” part shortly.)

Here’s the reality: This whole situation is completely unethical. If RFR requested JT’s assistance, they acted unethically. If JT initiated the investigation, he acted unethically. There is no rubric under which any of this is appropriate.

There are a few really significant problems here that need to be fleshed out.

Bloggers Need Standards, Too

Although my undergraduate degree is in English education, much of my studies focused on journalism and so-called “new media” — in many ways, how the Internet and blogs have changed the way we look at credibility and authority. For a period of time, I was the online editor of my alma mater’s student newspaper, and I was deeply involved in discussions pertaining to journalistic ethics in that context in addition to studying it in a more formal setting.

One of the issues that comes up frequently is how independent blogging had started to encroach (and it’s only gotten more pronounced since I graduated college seven years ago) on the world of journalism, and more importantly how that affects the issue of standards.

Journalists have a fairly defined set of ethics that guide their work, of which the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics is probably the best and clearest example.

But bloggers largely don’t have training or accountability (other than their own reputations) to hold to any such standards. Moreover, bloggers often don’t even function in any sort of formal context where there are clear expectations.

If a reporter comes to talk to me about a story (and I have been personally interviewed on several occasions, including once by a CNN reporter), there are a number of things I can expect. The first is that everything I say is to be assumed as “on the record” and thus liable to be printed. The second is that the person interviewing me is not themselves a part of the story or closely connected to it.

So what do you do when many of these conversations happen in informal contexts like Facebook messages with people who you’ve had plenty of friendly conversations not related to any investigation?

That was the question I asked when JT published a long conversation carried on via Facebook with Neil. (To his credit, JT has now apologized, although I am still very concerned about how much that wasn’t directly related to the “investigation” got disclosed but wasn’t acknowledged in that apology.)

I don’t particularly know JT’s background and whether he has any training in journalism (my understanding is that his academic studies were in music, but I could be wrong), but I don’t think this is necessarily just a “lapse of judgment.” It, along with the next and more serious issue, shows how unprepared many bloggers are to become investigative journalists.

This isn’t a particularly damning accusation, in my opinion. People don’t often get into blogging to be proper journalists; some do, and some end up there and do okay. But we should be clear to acknowledge when we don’t know what the hell we’re actually doing.

When Ryan and I talked on the podcast, one of the points I raised is that atheists sometimes have a parallel problem to the one faced by religious people: Where religious people may see themselves as morally superior, atheists often think themselves intellectually superior in some way — more rational, clear-headed, etc. As such, I think it’s all too easy as we pat ourselves on the back for rejecting religion to get overconfident about our ability to diminish our own cognitive biases.

It thus wouldn’t surprise me to find that atheists getting into blogging because they’re good writers might also think that they can turn that skill in writing into skill in undergoing thorough investigations when coupled with their superior rational abilities. But that is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and we should be able to recognize that. (And I’m being charitable here and calling it an inability to see that fallacious thinking rather than a willful disregard for it.)

It’s Not Only About Evidence

The other really glaring problem here is the massive amount of conflicts of interest that are endemic to this whole situation — and indeed, basically to the movement itself.

This comment by The Eh’theist on JT’s recent post is a great example:

So, 3 hours and 35 minutes later, and I don’t think things are much clearer than they were. The one thing that was undeniably clear was that Dogma Debate didn’t declare any of its conflicts in this.

Darryl (sp) Ray, the founder of RfR has a podcast that is part of the Secular Media Network (that also includes Dogma Debate), which is David Smalley’s organization, which has arrangements with a number of secular organizations. Brandy [Madden] and Joey [Lee Kirkman] are both C level officers in Secular Media Network, and Jerry DeWitt is a former staff member of RfR (a conflict he declared part way through the broadcast to his credit.) It was also announced on the No Religion Required podcast that the founder of that podcast would be starting a new podcast with Jerry Dewitt, which *may* also be part of the Secular Media Group. So there are a number of linkages between Secular Media Group and RfR through the Founder and to a much lesser extent Jerry DeWitt.

And that’s just the people on this one podcast episode.

But the reality is that conflicts of interest are abundant, partially because this growing movement is still essentially run by a small group of individuals, and organizations themselves are increasingly interdependent. I’ve been mostly silent about the controversy surrounding Sarah Morehead, in part because I know her personally and still consider her a friend, but her involvement in leadership of several different groups might be one of the clearest examples of this right now. The involvement of Eliott Canter in all this mess — especially given that, I have found, his involvement runs deeper in the movement and you would never otherwise know it — is another glaring example.

The world of organized atheism is still a small pond with far too many people vying to be the big fish. It takes almost no serious investigation to find clusters of people who are fiercely loyal to each other, sometimes even business partners as above, and those connections are virtually never disclosed.

This is a massive problem.

Conflicts of interest (hereafter COIs) must be disclosed so we can know where biases are liable to sneak in. Hiding COIs is one of the clearest signs that there are issues with transparency, and we’ve already seen how much of an issue that is in the movement.

But disclosure is the bare minimum. In some cases, individuals with more serious or involved COIs should recuse themselves from involvement. In my judgment, and evidently the judgment of a lot of other people if you look at the comments on JT’s many posts, the COI that JT has disclosed is more than sufficient to require him to step away.

To his (partial) credit, JT has acknowledged that the COI exists and that it could be a concern, but he has dodged the real issue:

Now, I’ve had some conversations this morning that I think capture what a lot of people are asking.  I’m going to post them here along with my responses, and that will be the last I attempt to defend my credibility.  I want the focus of my work here to be what evidence I can provide to clear up this dispute.  At that point any readers will be able to decide if the evidence I provide supports what I say it supports.  But right now I’ve wound up spending more time defending myself than talking about what can be shown about which publicly made claims by RfR and Neil can be confirmed true or untrue.  That should not be the focus, and I lament that it’s been permitted to become the focus.  I don’t want this to be about me, I want it to be about the situation I’ve decided to cover.

If my objectivity is compromised, then I will make unsupported claims and, if that happens, people shouldn’t accept them.  Of course, that sword cuts both ways.  If anybody else makes claims they don’t support with evidence in this dispute, those claims should be met with reserved judgment.

This is a hopelessly naive view of what’s at stake here.

I don’t know exactly why JT is persisting with this farce of an investigation at this point, given that he has received near-universal condemnation for continuing it (at least outside the world of people who are close enough to the situation to have COIs). Maybe it’s the desire to bolster the reputation as an “investigative blogger” that he started with his long “exposé” on Sarah Morehead (although if so, it might just have done the opposite). Maybe it’s the sunk cost fallacy at work. Hell, maybe it’s the backfire effect causing him to retrench. I won’t pretend to have a good idea.

To be clear, I have my own biases. I have friends involved, most specifically Neil, although I have also lost some friends in the process of all this as well. I’m not totally neutral, and I’m more than willing to admit that. But I’m also not pretending to be capable of overcoming that bias in order to undertake a massive investigation of people who I’m friends with. I’m just a blogger who wishes that he could go on talking about other, more consequential things.

And I will, of course. I’m hoping that people will come around and see reason on this point so that whatever unfortunately necessary legal or quasi-legal proceedings can just go on and we all can get on to other matters.

But if the movement wants to do some soul-searching, the preponderance of conflicts of interest is a hell of a good place to start.

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