Neuron Culture

What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of long-form, slow-bake, “mainstream” journalism and the idiom we call the blogosphere? As per Bora, the meaning of these terms are shifting as we speak. Last night, using my recent story and blogging on PTSD as a point of focus, I put in my latest two cents on this subject at my talk — actually a long conversation with host and audience — at the NYU Science, Health and Environmental Program’s “Inside-Out” lecture series.

This was a crowd of writers, journalism profs, and journalism students, and I think we were all surprised at how many threads and issues crossed at the nexus we set out to explore — the “balance” issue, “objective” reporting v opinion, advocacy v reportage, the fuzzy line between publishing and self-promotion, the nature of conflicts of interest, and the difference between “objectivity” and transparency. It fueled a very lively 2.5 hours.

Don’t worry — I’m not going to transcribe the whole talk. But I wanted to call out a couple of blogging v slowbake/longform differences that we discussed last night, and which came into play — and increasingly into my awareness — as I worked on the PTSD story.

One of these differences is a major issue in the blogger v MSM discussion, which is the blogosphere’s apparent greater readiness to challenge prevailing paradigms that the MSM either accepts or ignores. The blogosphere also more easily allows an extension of coverage and conversation: RIght now it’s allowing a faster, fuller examination. crtique, elaboration of the issues raised in my PTSD story (as well as — dundun dundun — snark attacks.)


Yet the history of this PTSD story also illustrates some of the blogosphere’s limitations — and suggests in particular that the blogosphere doesn’t challenge problematic dominant paradigms as readily as, say, Bora (whom I like very much, esp in the low-snark version) has argued. For while the wobbly, overextended PTSD construct is a classic dominant paradigm of the sort the blogosphere presumably excels at calling out, the blogosphere paid it little mind. This huge, juicy, highly consequential story has been hiding in plain sight since at least 2003, when McNally published his lengthy critique, and was dropped flat out in the open in 2006, when the Dohrenwend paper and McNally’s commentary about it ran in Science. Yet the blogosphere has ignored it every bit as much as the MSM.

So if the blogosphere is so good at asking questions and raising issues the MSM is scared of, why was this story broken by me, in print, rather than a blogger in a blog? Inside that question sits another: Why didn’t I break this story via blogging rather than a long, exhaustively reported print assignment?

My tweet-sized answers:

a) The blogosphere missed it because while the hive mind is great, sometimes all the bees like the same honey. (This is okay. Everything has its limitations. You can’t expect one form of vigilance and attention to notice everything.)

b) I did it in a long print piece rather a blog because the former created conditions far more amenable to the necessary insights.

Among other things, it gave me the time to change my mind.

My longer answer to b:

What conditions provided by print were more amenable to me doing this story? It gave me the time to change my mind.

Changing one’s mind is of course possible and somewhat common (though not common enough) in blogdom; Andrew Sullivan illustrates this wonderfully. Yet while it allows this, it doesn’t necessarily encourage it, particularly if the change in question is toward a minority opinion.

When I first encountered this debate in Science in August 2006, I felt the PTSD skeptics had it wrong. Had I blogged about it, I probably would have have essentially written, “There’s an interesting debate about PTSD rates over at Science; I think the skeptics have it wrong.” I would then have heard, if anything, a chorus of huzzahs, which would have confirmed to me my wisdom; and perhaps a few objections from PTSD skeptics, which would be unlikely to sway me. Then I would have moved on.

As it was, however, I could withhold judgment, not take any stand, and pursue what really interested me, which was finding the smell of smoke emanating from the letters that appeared in Science in the weeks that followed the publication of the Dohrenwend paper and McNally’s critique of it. The letters were more or less polite. But I had learned to watch the letters departments of scientific journals for the veiled pique and the long strings of signatories that suggest a hot conflict. It was all there. When I started making some calls, the smoke fairly poured out of the phone.

Where did I get the time to do this? Enter the MSM and its money; enter the long, delicious process that is the cultivation of a big story. I could take the time to make these calls and start reading because I had faith that I had found an important story I could sell for enough money to pay for that spec time; and then a story contract (and the expense allowance) completed the job, giving me the time and resources to talk to dozens of people, travel to several different cities to talk to them some more, attend conferences and buttonhole yet more people, transcribe and review several hundred pages worth of interviews, and read scores of papers and books, many of them several times. This slowbake method let me consider and reconsider the evidence offered by both sides — and come to see that the less intuitive and less comfortable argument, the one that put me off at first, was actually by far the stronger.

Was that the only way to realize that? No. Someone could reach that conclusion otherwise. But I don’t think that I would have got there any other way — and, as noted above, no one else in the press or the blogosphere had done so.

Another benefit of the slow bake was stumbling across key pieces, like the Australian PTSD disability structure, that suddenly illuminate both a crucial part of the problem and the existence of a viable and even beautiful solution. I hit that nugget deep into the reporting, in perhaps the 20th interview I conducted, with a person I grabbed because he was at a conference I attended, and whom I probably would not have talked to otherwise.

I think long-form pieces offer a roughly similar set of conditions friendly to reader insights. Really new ideas are often most successfuly absorbed if you give them extended consideration. This difference is perhaps less marked than with the writing, and it probably varies even more heavily by individual reader, but I’d argue it’s real. For some ideas, and for some people, the long read is the most convincing. This is partly because the long form allows you to bring in unexpected new juxtapositions right next to the main material, as with the Australian PTSD scheme. But it’s also a question of marination — of the saturating rumination that a long read more easily provokes.

I’m wild about the way the blogosphere spurs, curates, and continues conversation and corrects, suppplements, or inspires longer slowbake stories. I like that it gives voice to many who have something worthwhile to say but would not have a platform otherwise. But those who suggest we can use the blogosphere to altogether replace the MSM and its structures without concern, they need to explain how to replace the sorts of dynamics and circumstances, both for writer and reader, that were at work in this PTSD story.

Comments

  1. #1 Jay Rosen
    April 3, 2009

    Well done. I saw you talking to the science writers at NYU but unfortunately could not stay. I missed a good discussion, obviously.

    I agree with you that long and slow is sometimes the only way some things emerge. It’s a good point.

    One part I did not buy. It’s this: “But those who suggest we can use the blogosphere to altogether replace the MSM and its structures without concern, they need to explain how to replace the sorts of dynamics and circumstances, both for writer and reader, that were at work in this PTSD story.”

    Please don’t offer me that unless you link to those who suggest the blogosphere can “replace” and who have no concerns about how and whether that will happen. I don’t know the state of it in science writing, but the “replace” discourse that I do know of is an extremely debased one, with 90 percent of the references debunking the replace idea, and almost no bunkers. No one ever links to the people they’re disputing, basically because they can’t. Everyone thinks their battling some prevalent view among bloggers but very few active bloggers would buy the idea that they can replace what full time professional reporters do. Many would find it absurd. But what I think is more absurd is the constant debunking of a view so few hold.

    Now as I said, maybe you have lots of “replacement by the blogosphere should be easy” thinkers in science journalism, and those are the people you are battling against. If so it should be easy to point them out and show where and how they make this argument. Cheers.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    April 4, 2009

    This is an excellent response. I want to follow up on what Jay above wrote about ‘Replacenicks’, i.e., people who warn about the impending doom of ‘newspapers being replaced by blogs’.

    This is the matter of framing. When you say ‘newspapers will (or will not) be replaced by blogs”, you invoke two demonstrably erroneous frames in readers’ minds:

    a) that “newspapers = journalism”, and
    b) that “blogs = inane chatter”.

    Journalism is medium-neutral. Journalism can and does happen on paper, over radio waves, on TV and online. A lot of other stuff also has place on all those communication channels as well.

    Blog is software, thus the first thought upon hearing the word “blog” in the context of journalism should be TPM, HuffPo, Firedoglake, etc., not Cute Overload. Guess who planted that framing? The journalistic curmudgeons like Keen, Henry, Mulshine at al, in their endless Luddite op-eds railing against the internet.

    So, we need to quit using that ridiculous phrase ‘newspapers being replaced by blogs’ and engender much more meaningful discussions by using an alternative framing, e.g., something along the lines of “most paper will be replaced by Web”. Journalism will continue to happen, but it will be less and less on paper and more and more online.

    Switching to a new medium will change the way journalism is done in many ways – the questions and problems of speed/timeliness, the pre-publication vs. post-publication filters, the echo-chamber formation, the ethics, the privacy concerns, the question of expertise, the he-said-she-said format, the linking to sources and documentation, the multi-media approach, the lengths constrains of articles, the formality of language, etc. All of those will have to be assessed and experimented with until we settle into a new way of doing journalism right.

    Of course, much of the noise on this topic comes from the job uncertainty of today’s journalism – the change in medium is a real threat to jobs and livelihoods of journalists, thus so much talk about ‘business models’ – the part, that frankly, interests me the least as I am not personally affected, while I am excited about being the witness of a technological revolution and student of the way this revolution will alter the society.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    April 5, 2009

    I wrote a follow-up to this: ‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing

  4. #4 Coturnix
    April 5, 2009

    Oh, and the “has argued” link is broken… ;-)

  5. #5 David Dobbs
    April 6, 2009

    Jay & Bora,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Jay, your request for examples of the “First kill all the journalists” meme is well-advised, for indeed we don’t want to misrepresent the nature of the discussion. Unfortunately, there are examples of this sentiment expressed in the blogosphere about science journalists, including by very prominent bloggers; I’ll post a few examples later after I do due diligence. My own feeling is that the discussion is moving away from such rhetoric; my post is in part an effort to accelerate that move so we can all consider this print v online or MSM v New Stream Media in a properly open-minded and nuanced manner.

    And Bora, as I mentioned at your site: while your post about “‘Journalists v blogs’ is bad framing” makes a good basic point about framing, it contains two errors about MY post to which it is partially a response:

    1. My post about MSM, blogs, PTSD, etc was NOT written “in reply” to your epic post, for I had not read your epic post before writing my post. No big deal, but readers might be confused if they go to my post looking for a response to yours.

    2. You err in citing my post as an example of the “can blogs replace newspapers” question. I was not addressing whether blogs could replace newspapers. I was addressing whether the online venue could support the sort of long, slow work and research and rumination that is necessary to write long magazine articles. That’s a different matter.

    And I did not and don’t argue that such support is impossible. We may find a way. But we won’t find a way to support that long, slow, and expensive process if we don’t recognize its particular advantages, and at this point I don’t think the debate is recognizing those advantages.

    As to the “business model” — you may not think it important, but it IS important if people are to have the time to do this sort of work. Note this is NOT the “investigative journalism” that new efforts are (wisely) trying to find and fund online venues for. This is something a bit different. And the sort of process I describe as crucial in the PTSD story requires time and travel, and that requires money.

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