Rule No. 1 of journalism (and blogging)

Back when I was an editor of a small-town community weekly, I had a bumper sticker affixed to one of my office walls with a simple message: "ASSUME NOTHING." One of my predecessors had left it behind. I really should get a new one because, like even the best journalists and bloggers, I need to be reminded of that cardinal rule, and regularly.

Back in January, I posted a rebuttal to Michican columnist John Tomlinson's hopelessly misinformed attempt to debunk anthropogenic climate change. In my post, I repeated an error Tomlinson made by referring to the "Arctic Climate Research Center" at the University of Illinois. There is no such center. As far as can be determined by a group of bloggers who exchange thoughts on how to deal with erroneous newspaper columns, the center is an invention of Michael Asher of Daily Tech, whose error-laced post of January 1 served as source material for Tomlinson's column.

Tomlinson didn't bother to check if Asher knew what he was talking about and (even though I knew the source didn't know what he was talking about) neither did I, when I copied the wrong name for the Illinois research group in my post on Tomlinson's column. George F. Will did exactly the same thing in his much-criticized column on Feb. 15, by aping Tomlinson's plagiarized reference.

Several other science bloggers (see here and here for their corrections) made the same mistake when criticizing Will's column.

This may seem like a small point. There is group of polar science researchers at the University of Illinois -- I've had their website bookmarked for ages -- but you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to see they're really called The Polar Research Group. The group didn't even bother to correct Asher in a document they posted to correct Asher's misinterpretation of their data, so apparently they don't consider it all that big a deal. Either that of they didn't want to appear petty, preferring as scientists are wont to do to stick to the science.

But there's nothing petty about getting names correct. It is something that every responsible journalist should make a top priority. And there is really no excuse for not doing so. I've corrected my blog post, and my like-minded colleagues in the blogosphere have as well. Have Asher, Tomlinson and Will? Not the last time I checked. And that's the difference between those who are truly interested in getting at the truth, and those who only want to push an ideological wedge between their readers and reality.

All of which brings up a question that is being asked more and more frequently these days: Has the blogosphere become more responsible than the mainstream media?

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Has the blogosphere become more responsible than the mainstream media?

Stated that way, the answer is "Not even close." Basing it on what I've seen, a high % of the blogosphere is barely worth the powder to blow it to hell, and to think that this part should ever be considered "journalism" is laughable.

Now if your question were about 3 orders of magnitude more restrictive ...

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 08 Apr 2009 #permalink

Ah, but the blogosphere has the opportunity to "show 'em how it's done."

Bloggers have it within their capabilities to do very good, original, objective journalism. We readers and commenters have the opportunity ourselves to get them to do it.

Not having to rely on advertising, bloggers are free to report on everything that is important. Not havind editors, they are free to emphasize the pertinent parts of a story, but without editors, bloggers end up drifting to the lowest, quickest slap-dash content they can come up with.

Personally, I would like to see grass roots journalism become the main source of news for people who wish to be truly informed, but we readers have to be involved in the process as well.

A response to Scott Belyea's first comment: of course 90% of the blogosphere is crap, ar at best on-line journalizing.

So is 90% of the MSM. The trick, which many have mastered, is to remember the good sites, the good newspapers,and the good magazines, and return to them periodically. It's a filtering process.

If I want to learn about a recent earthquake or volcano I may start at the BBC or Boston Globe sites, but I'll end up at blogs written by actual geologists.

Now as for coverage of political matters, it can be a bit more difficult...

First rule for a reader might be, question your source. Problem with the question -- "Has the blogosphere become more responsible than the mainstream media?" is pretty obvious, isn't it? Neither comparator is homogeneous. So, yes, some blogs are more responsible than some "mainstream media". Then there's the question of what you consider mainstream media -- does Fox News count? How about CNN? In print, does this include the New York Post? Obviously there are some traditional media who do a pretty good job of maintaining journalistic standards, and then there are others. Likewise in the "blogoshpere" (does this include all blogs or just some subset?) Because there are some pretty funky blogs out there along with the higher-grade variety.

By Albion Tourgee (not verified) on 08 Apr 2009 #permalink

Thank you, Larry, for explaining Sturgeon's Law.

There's many more blogs, and a wide variety of expertise mong bloggers, so some will get it right because they know the terrain, some will get it hopelessly wrong, and some demonstrate reasonable quality control, responding to feedback. A research project I was involved with got some publicity a while ago, and I was a talking head for 3 seconds. The TV folks presented my title, first and last names, and got 2 of them wrong. Print media got them all right, but they also had my business card. (Blogs ignored it, so I have no comparison). I sent a thankyou note to the newspaper reporter.