A Blog Around The Clock

Are we Press? Part Deux

This is kinda funny. Waveflux digs out a couple of truly ancient articles – What Journalists Can Learn From Bloggers and What Bloggers Can Learn From Journalists by Steve Outing, which, though not as awful as some (especially the first one), still reveal (especially the second one) the basic misunderstanding of the blogging world in the way we have by now got used to (no editorial control, no accuracy, no money yada-yada-yada). But that was 2004 and one could be excused about not understanding something that was quite new at the time (hey, not THAT new – even I had a blog back in 2004 and I am certainly not one of the ‘early adopters’ and pioneers of technology).

Just as an aside, the worry about libel lawsuits mentioned in one of the linked old articles did not really pan out, did it? The only such lawsuit I am aware of was filed by a thin-skinned clown Paul Deignan against Bitch PhD. I have no idea how it ended – he may have withdrawn, or they settled, or he lost by being laughed out of court. If he, by some miracle of bad judiciary, won that suit, I am sure we would know as the MSM would gleefully report on it. If the first libel lawsuits are filed by un-serious people like him, this makes precedent favourable to bloggers and difficult for subsequent suers to overcome.

But you would think that the world has changed since 2004. Perhaps not, if one reads this piece of crap which is even worse…but is from only nine days ago. At least one occasionaly now finds an article in the MSM that actually gets blogworld, e.g., this one from LATimes. In that LATimes article, Henry Copeland offers a brilliant quote:

“A newspaper is a boat, a highly evolved mechanism designed and built to float in water. Blogs are bikes, built to cruise in another environment. Now, you can pull a bunch of planking off a boat and add wheels and pedals, but that won’t make it as light and maneuverable as a bike.”

Which, finally brings me to the main question of the day: “What the heck is blogging and why are journalists so afraid of it?”

Blog is software.

You do with it whatever you want.

Out of millions of blogs out there, only a miniscule proportion are written by journalists, or journalistic wannabes, either on their personal blogs or as parts of MSM blogging outreach. Almost all bloggers do something else entirely and do not consider themselves to be journalists, do not call themselves that, and do not aspire to become journalists. Nobody – not a single blogger I could think of – actually envisions MSM dying out by being displaced by bloggers.

A Shakes commenter, ‘toast’ added (among other smart stuff):

The personal blog is the culmination of all that effort and in my estimation will be (and is now to a significant degree), the driving force behind a new democratic resurgence… based not upon the ‘mocracy of top down, corporate owned information dissemination, but on a communication model that is radically different in comparison to any other that we have experienced to date. It is one of a hyperlinked 3-dimensional sphere as opposed to a two-dimensional pyramid or hub-driven wheel… and offers almost immediate access and control by individuals.

It’s different… and a lot of people are having a difficult time adjusting. It scares the hell out of some to the point of backlash… especially those who have a stake in protecting the older models. It’s true that most blog content is currently “reactive” to reports generated from traditional media sources… but that too is changing. One of the recent examples is onsite blogging at the Libby trial that demonstrated bloggers could not only compete with corporate media, but scoop them. When “live” camera feed (news video) is not allowed, blogging is the next best thing… and in some real aspects is even better, as a relatively permanent record is afforded by the sender, to be accessed at the convenience of the receiver. By the way, that factor is something that is not lost on traditional media, as they are rapidly following suit by actually deemphasizing the models to which they have traditionally adhered.

What ‘toast’ is referring to is the on-site reporting on the Libby trial by the Firedoglake crew, which, as Jay Rosen points out is as good or better than any mainstream journalism.

One of the problems is what do we mean by “journalism”. All the anti-blog screeds use a very narrow definition of journalism as ‘investigative reporting’. In the responses, bloggers usually point out that op-ed writing is also journalism.

Let’s look at a piece of old media – how about a newspaper – and look at everything it does.

There is the front section with national and international news. There is a page or two (more on Sundays) of editorials, columnists and letters to the editor. There may be a health/medicine section once a week and science/technology section once a week.

Then, there are state and local news, including hyperlocal. There is stuff about local schools. About local people. There are locally contributed poems and stories. Photographs and art.

There is an arts & entertainment section, perhaps focusing on books on Sundays, religion on Fridays, cooking on Saturdays, gardening on Mondays, home-improvement on Tuesdays and automobiles on Wednesdays.

There are TV and movie listings and reviews. Calendars of cultural events. There are comics. There is a crossword puzzle. Unfortunately, there is usually also a horoscope.

There is a sports section and a business section.

On Sundays, there may be a magazine-like section with much longer pieces that go in more depth into a topic.

Finally, there are ads, including classified ads for jobs, cars, etc.

Out of all that (and radio and TV offer a similar range of stuff), what is journalism and what is not? If we take the broadest possible definition – “everything that is done by a newspaper is journalism” – then bloggers are indeed journalists. Not everyone does investigative reporting or even writing opinion pieces. Some do the equivalent of cooking, gardening and sports sections of the paper on their blogs.

But all of that is not the point, really. Because there are some real differences between traditional journalism and blogging. There are differences in purpose, in method, in targeted audience and in style.

All of the traditional media is top-down, one-to-many communication. Blogging in the opposite: many-to-many (or, in each person’s individual case, many-to-one). You may read only one newspaper, but you read dozens if not hundreds of blogs on a regular basis. You do not compare David Broder to me (Broder wins), but David Broder to the entire blogosphere (Broder loses), because, despite many blogs that get a story wrong, more will get it right and after a while the story is settled on the most correct version.

In traditional journalism the story ends with the publication of the article. All the research, thinking, writing and editing happen before the publication. It is a work of one person. As soon as that story is done, the journalist turns to the next story and does not want to be bothered by feedback about the previous one – according to him/her, that story is finished, over, done.

On blogs, the process starts with a first post on a new topic. All the reserach, thinking, writing and editing happen after the post is published. It is a work of many people – starting with the blogger who posted the initial article, continuing with commenters on that blog and spreading to other blogs quite rapidly. The story does not die down until there is a resolution – a final form of “Truth” is arrived at by a collective work of a large number of people, each with own expertise, knowledge and insights. While a journalist usually works on one story at a time, a blogger (not to mention the entire blogosphere) works on multitude of stories in parallel – each taking its own time until it is settled.

The journalist produces one article – the blogs produce hundreds on the same topic and the combined power of all of those posts is much greater than that one article. Even better – the perusal of the entire body of work by bloggers on a single topic reveals the dynamics of the process: how different pieces of the puzzle were brought in and fitted with the rest of the story over time. A journalistic article is static – it provides a snapshot in time of one person’s understaning of the topic and nothing more. The latter is, thus, much less informative.

Finally, the matter of Truthiness….eh.

I don’t want to promulgate the mean stereotypes that those who cannot pass their math and science freshman requirements end up in journalism schools, but it is a fact that most j-schools do not require co-majors and that most of their students do not graduate with expertise in anything else but the mechanics of journalism. They know how a newspaper (or a radio or TV show) is put together and they learned how to write (the whole pyramid deal, etc.). J-school must differ on this but it is worrisome how many times I heard journalists state that they were never taught anything about journalistic conduct and ethics, either while in j-school or later on he job.

Now, don’t get me wrong – there are some excellent journalists out there who gained the expertise on their topic on the job by doing the local school beat for years, or whatever else they report on. They take their jobs seriously and do everything they can to make themselves as educated about their area as possible.

But the best journalists are those who started out with expertise in a subject and only later became journalists, learning the mechanics on the job. They are respected because they earned the respect through their expertise on the subject.

Best bloggers are just like the best journalists – people who have a real-life expertise on a subject and only later became bloggers. They are respected because they can be trusted on the subject of their expertise, be it Middle East, constitutional law, developmental genetics or baseball statistics. Or teams of bloggers of varied backgrounds who work their asses off to get the story right, like the crew of the Talking Points Memo and TPM Muckracker.

So no, I am not talking about personal diaries here. I am talking about a growing number of expert blogs. People like my Sciblings here on Scienceblogs.com. Real-life authorities in their fields.

The best bloggers, by the virtue of being experts in their fields, are actually better than any J-school graduate without such expertise. That is why the whole EurekAlert saga was so infuriating. People who know how to write can see the embargoed papers, but people who know what they are writing about cannot.

The Creationist bloggers, the Rightwing nuts (“Pajama Media” bleh), the Christianist apologists – they may be loud, but they have been shown to be wrong so many times, a Google Search is almost more likely to come up with multiple analytic explanations of how and why they are wrong, than any self-congratulating accolades. The fact that the MSM originally touted the disastrous examples of Powerline, LGF, The NRO Corner. Michelle Malkin, Hugh Hewitt and Instapundit as examples of the best of blogging may have something to do with the perception that blogs are bad – because THOSE blogs are bad. They lie, spew nonsense, and show the most offensive characteristics of those excuses for humanoids and their horrific rhetoric and the resulting actions. But they are diminishing. It may take some time, but the blogosphere as a whole IS self-correcting and puts the bad guys in their place (at least on Technorati and Google rankings).

The blog-bashers in the media put forward two arguments that are contradictory. First, they state (like this guy for instance) that the audience wants a ‘story’, a quick summary presented in as simple manner as possible, suggesting that the journalists do not think their audience is very smart or has attention span long enough for a more detailed account. Second, they use the “he-said-she-said” model, defending it by invoking the intelligence of the audience to figure out the truth when exposed to two differing opinions.

So, which is it? Is the audience smart or dumb?

Bloggers say: audience is smart. And while some people all the time, and all people sometimes, want only a quick summary, many are hungry for in-depth, detailed reporting with expertise. Bloggers provide both. The Firedoglake crew certainly provided both covering the Plame/Libby case – there were summary posts, there were human-interest/story-line posts, there were satirical posts, and there were detailed posts about the legal minutiae. Each visitor could choose how deeply to get educated on the matter. But the entire enterprise gave Firedoglake the well-deserved respect. Even if you did not dig through the detailed posts every day, you have learned to trust their short summaries. You know they have the background and expertise. You know they have put an enormous time and effort into undertanding the story. You trust that even their shortest, funniest commentary is right on the mark.

So, the audience is smart. But that does not mean that audience is well educated and informed on every topic. It is the media they turn to in order to get the correct information. The media has to give it straight. Putting on a biologist and a creationist on a show, treating them equally, and not stating which one of them is legit and which one is a fraud is dereliction of duty. That is not informing. Many people do not have enough background and expertise to figure out from a few minutes of talking points by two sides who is correct. All that happens is that one or the other side will be better at invoking the positive frames in the audience who then sides with that person.

The same goes for everything else. Supply-side economics is bogus and the media should not have anyone on who pretends that it is valid. Global warming denialism is a fraud and the media should not have anyone on who pretends that it is valid. Abstinence-only sex education is a disaster and having a promoter on the show (and not exposing the fraud and making the guest cry in front of cameras) is a crime (or should be). Cutting taxes does not stimulate the economy (extremely high taxes can inhibit the economy and cutting them down a little eliminates the inhibition – any further cuts do nothing). And people do not know any of this because the media never says it as it is – they give equal time to sense and nonsense in the name of ‘balance’.

Of course the people are ignorant – there is no easy source of information for them because the media has abrogated its duty to inform and educate for various reasons – some going back decades before much of the audience was born, but still giving the journalists personal pain.

Of course, many times it appears that the talking head running the show himself has no idea that one side is correct and the other side bogus – he’s been groomed to look good on screen and to talk clearly and to be polite to everyone, not to KNOW anything about the topic. Yet, the audience assumes that the talking head understands the topic and trusts him to deliver the Truth.

And some journalists are proud of their own ignorance. Others are just not aware how ignorant they are. They see themselves as entertainers, not educators or informers.

So, is the goal of journalism to entertain or inform? Both, of course. But that does not mean that entertaining pieces should be misinforming. They should plainly state the truth, not leave it to the audience to figure it out. People come to the media to get informed and if that can be done in an entertaining manner, great. If not, and the topic interests them, they will invest time and energy to slog through a long detailed article.

In the comments of my three old posts about FoxNews, my resident conservative commenter ‘Deep Thoughts’ asked me what media outlets in the US I consider to be legitimate news sources (since FoxNews is not) and I responded: “None”. Even PBS and NPR are sliding into the false balance mode, allowing guests from Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and Cato Institute on their shows as if they were legitimate experts and not just shills for the money-folks, trotting out Luntz-designed talking points that have no connection to the real world. Only blogs remain as legitimate – but not any one individual blog. The entire blogosphere as a whole, with the most respected bloggers given the greatest weight and the shrill shills the least.

In a comment on Shakespeare’s Sister, commenter ‘ballgame’ writes:

From “real” news people I learned that Iraq had WMD’s, and was on the cusp of deploying nuclear weapons. From blogs I learned that this was false.

From “real” news people I learned that there is a great deal of controversy about man’s role in global warming. From the blogs I learned that in fact the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community was that human activity posed a major, if not primary, role in global warming.

From “real” news people I learned that George Bush was a moderate, and Al Gore was a compulsive liar. From blogs I learned that George Bush is a compulsive liar, and that Al Gore was being honest in just about everything that the “real” news people were claiming he was lying about.

And it is still not any better to this day.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark
    March 21, 2007

    You are going the long way around (a really, really long way around) to talk about a point that should be obvious: all bloggers are journalists. It doesn’t matter whether they refer to themselves as journalists, and it doesn’t matter whether they write hard news. All newspaper writers consider themselves journalists, whether they write about political scandals, crime and trials, or food, movies and what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation (and yes, they do write exactly that sort of article). Any question about whether bloggers are journalists boils down to one of two factors – mainstream media who don’t want the competition, or someone who doesn’t want scrutiny. To argue that bloggers are not journalists and are not entitled to exactly the same constitutional protection of any other journalist is to invite the government to decide who is and is not a journalist.

    In any event, rights belong to people, not institutions. Newspapers do not have First Amendment rights, people do, whether they write for an established newspaper or a blog read by only family members.

  2. #2 Scott Belyea
    March 21, 2007

    An interesting perspective, but very badly one-sided in my view. I think you fall into the trap that is one of the major weaknesses of the “blogosphere” – the false dichotomy, or overstating things on “your side of the issue.” A major piece of this is taking the worst exemplars of the other side of the issue to fight with. Or perhaps not even seeing that there is another side.

    I haven’t time to point out what I feel are a dozen or more examples in your post, but here are a couple …

    “A newspaper is a boat, a highly evolved mechanism designed and built to float in water. Blogs are bikes, built to cruise in another environment. Now, you can pull a bunch of planking off a boat and add wheels and pedals, but that won’t make it as light and maneuverable as a bike.”

    Right. And you can mount a bike on a plank and pedal as hard as you want, but when the wind comes up, you’ll sink.

    All the anti-blog screeds use a very narrow definition of journalism as ‘investigative reporting’. In the responses, bloggers usually point out that op-ed writing is also journalism.

    One-sided and false dichotomy, I suggest. I haven’t seen many claims that only “investigative reporting” qualifies as journalism. In fact, the more usual term “investigative journalism” clearly implies that it’s only one type.

    You may read only one newspaper, but you read dozens if not hundreds of blogs on a regular basis.

    Nope. Overly simplistic and black/white. What % of the population reads “dozens if not hundreds of blogs on a regular basis”? I have no stats, but I suspect the % is vanishingly small.

    But the best journalists are those who started out with expertise in a subject and only later became journalists, learning the mechanics on the job.

    Examples to back up what seems like a very broad assertion? To take just one counter-example, I doubt very much (but I don’t know for sure) that Carl Zimmer started with expertise in the broad range of subjects he writes about in the NY Times and elsewhere … but I’d be hard-pressed to name a better science journalist.

    So, which is it? Is the audience smart or dumb?

    Bloggers say: audience is smart.

    Well, this strikes me as about as unsupported a false dichotomy as I’ve seen in some time.

    In traditional journalism the story ends with the publication of the article.

    Right. “Woodward? Bernstein? Get a grip – it was a break-in, but now it’s over. Move on.”

    A journalistic article is static – it provides a snapshot in time of one person’s understanding of the topic and nothing more. The latter is, thus, much less informative.

    Now this is quite blinkered. The same description applies to a blog post. There’s the germ of a worthwhile idea here, but it’s grossly distorted and overstated. If I take what you wrote at face value, I’d expect to see a single article in the much-derided MSM. In fact, of course, I can compare articles from different journalists writing in different publications, and increasingly adding new info and taking comments on-line. Again, you posit a false dichotomy.

    In summary, I don’t think that the world is nearly as binary as you seem to want it to be. The MSM are not all the stick-in-the-mud know-nothings you’re portraying; and the blogosphere is not the only hope to move toward the Truth and the Light.

    None of this is intended to exculpate the MSM. They had big problems before the blogosphere began to flex its muscles, and the problems are deepening (even as some are starting to be addressed).

    On the “other side,” the blogosphere adds tremendous value that could be added in no other way that I can think of. But it doesn’t need, nor does it deserve, the one-sided sprinkling with holy water that I think you’ve given it.

  3. #3 hibiscus
    April 4, 2007

    “adds tremendous value” — oy — like poetry adds value to literature, like a person speaking at a public meeting adds value to democracy —– oy.

    the conversation and criss-cross-research, that’s an aspect i hadn’t given thought to, isn’t that funny? “the story’s never done” kind of thing. it’s true it has many positive qualities. it’s also a little bit like one giant telescope, with a small handful of projects, following around the big stories, it’s sometimes hard to get a picture of the whole world through the big blogs because they’re concentrating so hard on what other blogs are concentrating on because of what other blogs are concentrating on and so on. and so forth.

    as a group of aggregators, from all sources, it’s very good, like an open-source yahoo, in its early years. i guess the danger that sb almost got to is, everybody who’s on the inside of any group will tell you their group is, in some way, a meritocracy, because the merits of that argument are harder to weigh from the inside than the out.

    maybe?

    (came here via pandagon)