(This is a reconstruction of an earlier post lost when our server crashed in midweek. Idiot me didn’t save a backup.)
I’m a journalist. Been one all my life. It’s all I ever really wanted to do. I love getting to the truth behind spin, uncovering facts our elected officials would rather keep hidden, and writing about things that make a community, a state or a nation unique.
In today’s Internet-driven world, people too often confuse bloggers with journalists. Some bloggers consider themselves journalists. Most, even those who aspire to be journalists, are not. They confuse opinion with facts, perception with truth and bias with objectivity.
To their credit, most bloggers make no pretense at journalism. They write about things that affect or move them. Fred First at Fragments from Floyd is a good example. So is David St. Lawrence at Ripples. David also mixes in some journalism, reporting on what is or is not happening in and around the Floyd County area.
Philadelphia journalist Jonathan Last has some excellent thoughts on the subject:
It wasn’t until last year that I became convinced the Internet was the locus of all evil in the known universe.
You may find this statement odd. After all, the Internet pays my mortgage, so I have a vested interest in its continued success. I’ve been the online editor of the Weekly Standard (www.weeklystandard.com) since 2001, and I was dabbling on the InterWeb long before that. I launched a Web zine with two college friends in 1997, before Web zines were cool. In 2004, I started a little blog. I may be an idiot, but I’m not a Luddite.
But last year, a flack called me from one of America’s most prestigious think tanks and invited me to participate in a panel on “The Impact of the New Media.” The event, he explained, would work like this: Six distinguished panelists, three from the Old Media and three from the New Media, would argue on stage in a discussion moderated by another famous Old Media personage. I was invited to be one of five bloggers who would sit in the audience blogging about the panel discussion, with our comments to be projected on a screen above the stage, in real time!
This stunt struck me as a good bit of synecdoche. The New Media in general, and blogs in particular, are concerned primarily with the meta (that is, commenting on commentary), which makes the blogosphere occasionally useful, often harmful, and ultimately pointless.
I’ve met, interviewed, and worked with a lot of bloggers over the years, and for the most part, they’re swell folks. The defects I see are largely – maybe even exclusively – inherent in the medium, and not the result of individual failings. Whether the person blogging is a pajama-clad lawyer or a Pulitzer-winning journalist, the medium is the message, and the message of blogging is: More! FASTER!
Blogs can be a real force for good when they act as supra fact-checkers. They can add serious value when they quickly elevate experts in obscure topics to the fore of public discussion (see, for example, the Bush “National Guard memo“). And they have enormous potential to enable on-the-ground reporting when news happens suddenly or in remote locations. We’ve seen some of this potential realized, as in sites such as Iraq the Model, but not nearly so much as one might have hoped.
Good points. Certainly ones worth considering.
Balanced against these goods are the pernicious effects of blogs: They elevate analysis over news-gathering; they value speed over judiciousness; and they encourage the practice of journalism to turn in on itself, to tend ever more toward navel-gazing.
This last bit is the most annoying. Show me a New York Times story on war in Sudan, and I’ll show you 20 bloggers who think the real story is how the Times fails in its coverage of war in Sudan.
But the biggest evil of blogs is that first flaw, blogging’s original sin: the discounting of news-gathering in favor of news analysis. Bloggers are forever telling us how easy journalism is, yet very few of them have ever really practiced it. Sure, they may have written opinion pieces that compare favorably to the work of Molly Ivins or Ann Coulter, but opinion writing is a tiny – and let’s be honest, inconsequential – corner of the journalism world. Real journalism – the practice of adding to the store of public knowledge by reporting news – is a difficult, thankless, and often unpleasant task. Bloggers want no part of it. Everyone wants E.J. Dionne’s job; no one wants to be Michael Dobbs.
There are other substantive critiques of the blogosphere. Writing for the Financial Times, Trevor Butterworth notes that the “dismal fate of blogging” is that “it renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence.”
Rick Edmonds, a writer and researcher for The Poynter Institute, offers some other perspectives:
The jury is way out on what business models, if any, work for blogs and citizen journalism. The noise-to-signal ratio in the new media forms remains alarmingly high. And it’s time to stop this silly stuff about replacing big media.
Says who? Contrarian me or some other nostalgic MSM dinosaur? No, that’s Dan Gillmor, the justly acclaimed author of “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People,” who quit a comfortable day job chronicling new technologies for a more active involvement. “We’re on the verge of something,” as he put it during a daylong conference on new media matters in San Antonio in August. “I’m trying to clear away the underbrush so people can do it.”
This was to be a breakthrough year for citizen journalism. It is the subject of deep-think conference after deep-think conference. Traditional media have roused from their slumber and are indulging in the most sincere form of flattery, getting urgent about bringing blogs or citizen-written sites into their mix. But as candid reporter Gillmor notes, the future hasn’t arrived just yet. Especially for a straight news report, blogs and citizen journalism are showing limitations. What seems on a faster development track is adaptation of the new forms into MSM online operations together with some artful combinations of civilian and professional input.
Let’s start with a positive. Armed with cell phones or other digi-cams, citizens can be counted on to enrich coverage of events like last winter’s tsunami, the London subway bombings and Hurricane Katrina, with still photos and streaming video. To my eyes, ABC’s “World News Tonight” wove roughly equal volumes of their own and civilian film into a seamless report the evening of the subway attacks. For this kind of story, video civilian-reporters appear here to stay.
Rick mentions two words that scare the hell out of me when I hear them: business model. The purity of what we had hoped to accomplish with the ‘Net is always threatened when people talk about making something like blogging a business.
In news with words, achievements are more sporadic. Blog reports can also provide an unmediated, granular ground-level view on huge stories like Katrina or the Iraq war. It is not as if mainstream media has dropped the ball on either of these, but the blogs are a useful supplement, for instance, filling out the perspective of soldiers on the ground.
Consistently breaking significant stories is tougher. Sure, there was Rathergate. But what reporting coups have you scored lately, blogosphere? Judge Richard Posner in his bombastic essay on old and new media in The New York Times Book Review did make at least one solid point. The Bush/National Guard story played perfectly to one of the blog world’s strengths — bringing people with an arcane area of expertise (old typewriters, in this instance) onto the case quickly.
As a news medium, blogs and citizen journalism have some soft spots widely noted and others perhaps less obvious. Content that is factual, reported, verified, placed in context and therefore credible is a sometime thing. As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (not necessarily a booster himself) has noted, enthusiasts have an answer for that: after-the-fact discussion and criticism is an alternate form of checking what gets asserted in blogs. Also, the cream rises — the best and most insightful practitioners get the good reputations and big audiences.
It is hardly original to observe the deep affinity of the blogging form with let-me-vent opinion riffs and back-and-forth, so’s-your-old-man exchanges. Of course, these often veer to outright incivility. That creates a host’s dilemma — let the rude and profane post along with everyone else, or go to the expense and trouble of policing comments, courting the wrath of those whose microphone is shut off.
Amen. I’m journalist. I’m not a blogger, even though I play one on the Internet.