bioephemera

Scibling Bora has expressed his wish “to end once for all the entire genre of discussing the “bloggers vs. journalists” trope,” and tried to do so with perhaps the most massive science-journalism-Web2.0 post evah.


Bora says,

the whole “bloggers will replace journalists” trope is silly and wrong. No, journalists will replace journalists. It’s just that there will be fewer of them paid, and more of us unpaid. Some will be ex-newspapermen, others ex-bloggers, but both will be journalists. Instead of on paper, journalism will happen online. Instead of massaging your article to fit into two inches of the paper column, you will make your article’s focus be on information, accuracy and truth. Instead of cringing at the readers’ comments, you will learn how to moderate them and appreciate them and learn from them. (source)

I do see Bora’s point (many points, actually; his post really is massive). Like a true scientist, he takes the time to dissect a number of aspects of journalism/reporting, prior to discussing how they apply in the blog context vs. the traditional media context.

However, as much as I respect this incredibly thorough post, I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions. Bora says,

Journalism is EVERYTHING that appears in the media.

And in this sense, we are all journalists. Even if we never break news or do investigative reporting, if we write poetry on our blogs, we are journalists. And the world is our editor.

Personally, I prefer to use “content” as the catch-all term for “everything that appears in the media”. I think “journalism” is a specific type of content, with salient characteristics in both the pre- and post-Web worlds. Whether the same characteristics will continue to define journalism in the future is unclear; but off the top of my head, I think most of us would assert that the term journalism still connotes expectations like:

objective and unbiased
having a factual basis
written for publication, to reach an audience beyond immediate friends/family
written with an intent to explain or translate events or concepts to the public
written with an intent to provide an accurate public record of events
written with a specific audience (and the needs of that audience) in mind
independent from undue influence by special interests

Obviously journalism has never been perfectly any of those things. We are often disappointed (or outraged) by a media outlet because it falls short in one or more areas; we may write a letter to the editor or post a comment to complain about it. But the fact that we complain means we had certain concrete expectations in the first place. And when one of these expectations is flagrantly, deliberately defied – when a government intimidates its nation’s reporters so they can’t report freely, a journalist fabricates a story out of whole cloth, or an editor intentionally misrepresents events to the public on the eve of an important election – we see a huge outcry. There appears to be a fairly clear understanding of what shouldn’t be considered legitimate journalism.

When I look at the Web, I see a lot of content that, to me, doesn’t resemble my idea of journalism. “Poetry on our blogs” is not “journalism” to me. (I don’t consider poetry in the New Yorker journalism; why would putting it on a blog change that?) A home video of kittens on YouTube may be entertainment, but is not, in my view, “journalism.” Facebook updates could be a type of journalism, I suppose, but I don’t consider my own updates to be consistently objective, factual, or explanatory; nor do I intend them for a public audience. (The structure of the Web makes these distinctions particularly challenging: as social networks researcher danah boyd has pointed out, on the Web it is almost impossible to limit your audience, predict who they will be, and tailor your content appropriately.) When it comes to blogs, the majority of voices on the Web make no claim of objectivity or independence, but they don’t necessarily disclose their biases either.

So it appears that Bora and I have different ideas of what journalism is or should be. It’s helpful to have that clarified, because it affects our attitudes about the old media/new media transition. Discussing the Carrboro Citizen (a local paper I had never heard of), Bora says,

it does not pretend to be “objective” or “fair and balanced” – it cares about truth and reality, not the he-said-she-said Broderian journalism. They write it as they see it, and they see it as they uncover the facts. So, if reality has a liberal bias, so be it. After all, Carrboro was one of the few places in which Kucinich won the primaries in 2004, so nobody here complains about liberal bias. A similar paper in a conservative town would probably have a conservative bias, and that is fine (let them live in delusions, I guess). You can disagree, but you cannot complain about dishonesty, or bias or hidden agendas, because nothing is hidden. And that is so refreshing after years of rage-inspiring so-called journalism of the other local papers, e.g., Raleigh News & Observer.

So here’s the deal. I expect good journalism to aspire to resemble good scholarship in general, and good science specifically. I realize that journalists will never be perfectly objective (nor will individual scientists), but they should aim for it. I think objectivity is good in journalism, just as it is in science. While I think the “fair and balanced” principle is sometimes implemented poorly in the mainstream media (particularly in science journalism; reporters often don’t seem to understand the difference between credible experts and extreme outliers) I think that it is a reasonable goal. Any scientific paper that neglected to discuss alternative interpretations of the evidence should be kicked back to the authors during review; should journalism be different?

I am often horrified by bad journalism. I’ve been horrified several times in just the past week, actually – and the offenders were in print, on TV, on a website AND on a science blog. Talk about equal representation! My point is that while I may agree with McLuhan that the medium is the message, I also agree with Bora that the medium isn’t an indicator of the quality of the work. Bloggers can be great journalists; newspaper reporters can be awful hacks. But if you agree with me on what legitimate journalism should be – which is a big “if” – then you may also agree that the Web as it now exists faces structural and cultural challenges when it comes to fostering good journalism, and that there are beneficial aspects to traditional media that we should try to retain as we move forward.

It’s quite possible that Bora’s catholic* definition of “journalism” may well be where we are headed in the future. Content on the Web is extremely difficult to define; perhaps the categories used in past decades need to be not merely reworked, but replaced. Regardless, it’s important to note that when I say that journalistic training and communications training are beneficial, and that the traditional journalism community is valuable, I am referring to a different type of journalism than Bora.

Perhaps the question should not be whether bloggers will replace journalists, but whether my concept of “journalism” is viable or realistic. What do you all think?

*I hate to footnote this, but I know someone is going to complain if I don’t. So just FYI, little-c “catholic” means “universal” or “comprehensive” in this context, and has nothing to do with religion.

Comments

  1. #1 eNeMeE
    April 6, 2009

    Isn’t the “fair and balanced” approach irrelevant?

    If a producer-of-media follows the good scholarship model, then shouldn’t the appropriate categories receive due attention anyway? Kind of like it being better to teach good reasoning skills rather than rote facts.

    I’d agree that “Journalism” has those connotations/expectations, but those things are so rarely met in the media people(what’s not the plural of personal anecdote again…) I encounter in most places that style themselves journalism…

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    April 6, 2009

    Interesting question. I’d argue that “scholarly” is not necessarily “fair and balanced,” because one can write a factual, scholarly article that is also powerfully persuasive.

    Suppose a reporter is covering the allocation of limited science funding to cancer research vs. energy efficiency research. In a situation like this, with no “wrong” answer, the advocates and critics being interviewed are likely to be respected scholars in their own fields, making well-reasoned and persuasive arguments for their positions. Interviewing advocates and critics on both sides for a “fair and balanced” story is really the only responsible way for a journalist to proceed. There is no reason to expect that following good scholarly practices will prove one side wrong, because the issue isn’t one of fact, but of competing priorities.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    April 6, 2009

    Thank you.

    I did point out that my first 4 categories are what is normally considered journalism, but that public as a whole tends to think of “everything in print, radio and TV” to be journalism, so in that section, I used that definition. The sentence about poetry was almost tongue in cheek – done as a test of where that logic leads. But it really may change to be included in journalism one day.

    Jay is currently asking for a student to do a PhD dissertation on the current gradual waning of the “he-said-she-said” aka Fair&Balanced journalism. Difference between traditional journalistic mode and blogospheric mode is that both are biased, but the traditional journalist hides it, pretending to be objective instead, and instantly being recognized as biased by the audience – this is one of the biggest sources of loss of reputation by the MSM.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    April 6, 2009

    I see, I am fantastic with HTML tonight….le sigh…

  5. #5 Jessica Palmer
    April 6, 2009

    I got your back – it’s fixed. :)

    But I have to ask – if it’s impossible for a traditional journalist to be mostly unbiased when researching and writing an article, then why do we claim it’s possible for scientists to be mostly unbiased when examining the evidence? Isn’t that a double standard?

  6. #6 Coturnix
    April 6, 2009

    Are scientists unbiased? Science as whole might not be, but not sure about individuals.

    Is journalism (except for science journalism) covering the same topics, i.e., those where one can be truly unbiased? If the topic is not based on hard data, opinion must seep in.

  7. #7 eNeMeE
    April 6, 2009

    There is no reason to expect that following good scholarly practices will prove one side wrong, because the issue isn’t one of fact, but of competing priorities.

    Hmm.

    I wouldn’t expect any side to be proven wrong, but I would expect a good

    (sentence fragment left in, on account of the last word is what sparked the next thought)
    That last word may be the root of a lot of (my at any rate) problems – a lot of this talk seems to be about good journalism vs bad, not necessarily journalism. Perhaps the problem is more with editors – perhaps if there was an effective editorial step where the context of discussion (i.e. the alternate sides) were sought out and given an equally skilled (and likely interested) advocate it would work out better.

    Or maybe journalism needs peer review!

  8. #8 BioinfoTools
    April 7, 2009

    So just FYI, little-c “catholic” means

    FWIW, this reminds me of the distinction of little-c and capital ‘deaf’, although that’s another story completely!

    Regards ‘scholarly’ and the ‘scientists being biased’ thing, yes, scientists are often biased: to their “pet” ideas, at least for a while… until they get brutally squished by a competing idea! In my opinion, better scientists concentrate on attacking/testing their own pet idea (rather than “proving” them*), as it serves to counter the natural favouring of a “neat idea”, but reality is people do favour points of view they have built up over time.

    A central point here, I think, is that science publications are best viewed “arguments for a case” until their peers have had a fair crack at the work. This is one of the things that many journalists seem to not understand: that research papers should be treated as an argument for a case. It can be particularly hard to deal with if the field has a number of “camps”, and the journalist simply has no idea of this (nor perhaps the sense to probe to see if this is the case). It’s much easier to pick up, if you know the broad area of science the work falls within.

    * Should add, I’m thinking of biology here: biology doesn’t have formal proofs in the same way that mathematics has.

  9. #9 BioinfoTools
    April 7, 2009

    Ugh, I meant to write:

    FWIW, this reminds me of the distinction of little-d and capital-D ‘deaf’, although that’s another story completely!

    In feeble defence, it has just rolled past midnight over here. Midnight brain dysfunction. Newly discovered syndrome in scientists try type on blogs around the midnight hour :-)

  10. #10 Jessica Palmer
    April 7, 2009

    “This is one of the things that many journalists seem to not understand: that research papers should be treated as an argument for a case. It can be particularly hard to deal with if the field has a number of “camps”, and the journalist simply has no idea of this (nor perhaps the sense to probe to see if this is the case).”

    This is a really great point, well-stated.

    I’m actually happy to see y’all arguing on the side of scientists also being biased – my earlier question usually elicits protests that scientists are TOTALLY unbiased (which is impossible, because we’re human). :) Although the general perception among the non-scientist public may be that scientists are unbiased and we’re just conveying pure nuggets of knowledge that we found laying around in the lab, that’s not how the scientific process works. Unfortunately, the scientific dialogue is way too complex to represent in a short news article, so the public usually doesn’t see that part clearly. That leaves me feeling like Bora’s complaint that journalists appear to the public to be objective but aren’t really, could also apply to scientists. . .

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