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.