Blogging, Journalism and Credibility
"Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility: Battleground and Common Ground," a conference held in late January at Harvard, featured a group of fifty journalists, bloggers, news executives, media scholars and librarians trying to make sense of the new media environment. The relationship between bloggers and journalists was a particular focus. Since the conference, the resignation of CNN's Eason Jordan and the Jeff Gannon White House scandal have only underscored the power of weblogs as a new form of citizens' media. We are entering an era in which professionals have lost their monopoly over information--not just the reporting of it, but also the framing of what's important for the public to know. Have blogs chipped away at the credibility of mainstream media? How have they influenced the way news is being reported? Is credibility a zero-sum game--in which credibility gained by blogs is lost by mainstream media and vice versa? Conference participants put their minds to these questions, among many others. We've excerpted and abridged some of their thoughts below:
Associate professor of journalism at NYU, author of journalism blog Pressthink.org
[Elaborating on an essay, "Bloggers vs. Journalists Is Over":]
Even though it makes for good feature stories and blog posts, "bloggers vs. journalists" doesn't help us understand where the world of journalism is going, where the Internet is taking it and what this new revolution sometimes called "citizens' journalism" is about.
So bloggers vs. journalists is over. It doesn't mean that they're not going to fight anymore or that we won't have arguments, or that it's all peace and love or anything like that. In fact, the tension between the two will go on. It's necessary and it's inevitable. But we shouldn't see these two camps as adversaries or enemies or opposites, because if we simply look at what happened with the tsunami story, and the way that independent citizen journalists were able to contribute to that, it's obvious that blogs have some role in journalism. We just have to figure out what that is.
First of all, there has been and there is a power shift going on: from the producers of media to the people formerly known as the audience. That's what I like to call them, because they're not really an audience anymore. And terms like "audience" and "consumer" and "viewer" and "reader"--which have become threaded into journalism--aren't really that accurate for the people on the other end of the process. So there has been a power shift from producers to users, mostly because of the Internet.
Secondly, this has led to a loss of sovereignty in the press. What I mean by that is simply a loss of exclusive control. Areas that once were under the domain of the journalist are now not exclusively under the domain of the journalist. You are not the boss anymore. What you say is not the law.
The third key idea is that because of this power shift, because of the loss of sovereignty, a lot of pressure is being put on mainstream journalism's key ideas--the ideas and principles that make it what it is. There's pressure on those things, and they haven't been subject to critical examination for a long time. And that is one of the contexts in which blogging has erupted.
Objectivity as an ethical touchstone, as one of my sources said, is faltering in mainstream journalism. It doesn't provide the kind of guidance and direction that it once did. And this is part of the intellectual crisis. Problems of finding a believable voice keep growing in mainstream journalism, and this is related to the shift in power.
Blogging is very well adapted to the world that I describe. It is well adapted to a world where the shift in power is taking place, to a world where there are many centers of sovereignty. Blogging is well adapted to two-way dialogue as opposed to one-to-many dialogue, which is also part of the media shift that we are living through. And of course blogging is not only well adapted but organic to the web and is itself one of the artifacts of the Internet.
So that's why these two things are butted up against each other. As Rebecca Blood, a student of the weblog form, puts it, "Blogging and journalism exist in a shared media space." One of the reasons blogging vs. journalism is over is that nobody is leading that space. So you can just forget it. We have to get used to existing in the same media space--by which we mean bloggers and journalists are there competing for the same scarce resource of attention, addressing the same important issues and able to reach users.
The press is separating from this other big institution called the media and is moving about in social space, so that a lot of the press today is not based anymore in the media--especially the commercial media. Increasingly, because of the Internet, because of blogging, some of the press is actually shifting into public hands. So whereas the press and the media once overlapped almost completely, now the press has shifted. The nonprofit world owns a piece of it, activists and people involved in politics own a piece of it and the public owns a piece of it.
One of the biggest challenges for professional journalists today is that they have to live in a shared media space. They have to get used to bloggers and others with an independent voice talking about them, fact-checking them, overlooking them--and they no longer have exclusive title to the press. They have to share the press with the public. Rearranging the ideas of journalism to account for that kind of a world is a big challenge. It's very difficult because the ideas that gave birth to professional journalism, the way we teach it and understand it, were in fact an artifact of a one-to-many world. They were built for the media platform that is slowly disintegrating. They are the products of an era of professionalism in American life and modern life that is also slowly passing.
Journalists have been slow to understand why they owe a debt to bloggers. They owe a debt because the people who are developing the web as a medium for journalism are bloggers and people like them. Those who are discovering its potential--who are developing the tools and the protocols, who are pushing forward the ideas and the practices of web journalism--are not for the most part professional journalists. They are independent authors and bloggers and writers on the web.
So if we look, for example, at what Dave Winer once called "the art of linking," the people who are experts at linking are bloggers. If we look at tapping distributed knowledge around the web, the people who know how to do that are bloggers. If we look at news as conversation, which is such an important metaphor today, the people putting that into practice are bloggers. Bloggers are developing this platform that journalists will one day occupy, and that is the reason why people in the mainstream press should pay attention to them.
Blogger for Scripting News (www.scripting.com)
I think I can speak for most, if not all, of the bloggers in the room when I say that we have never woken up thinking about how we can get rid of professional journalists. If anything, we have worked hard to bring them in.
If you want to understand the blogger mentality, think of us as evangelists. We're zealots. We want to bring you in. We want you to use our tools. We want you to learn what we have learned and then make the world a better place. We are the idealists. We are into, you know, truth and justice and so forth. We have a passion for news, and maybe that can act as a reminder to the professionals that somewhere deep inside of your core is that same passion. That's the thing that unites us. That's the bond that we share.
Rather than looking at it as an adversarial relationship, let's look at the ways we can help each other, because God knows we have much bigger problems to solve. Look really, really seriously at how you can adopt practices of blogging in what you do. For example, providing full transcripts of every interview that you do would be something that a lot of your readers would appreciate.
Curator, Nieman Foundation
I think the news industry's reluctance or inability to embrace new ideas is embedded in the sort of institutional culture of the newspapers and broadcast organizations for which we work. The fact of the matter is that mainstream news media is a stable industry, and it is very slow to effectively graft new ideas onto its main business.
The question is always raised: "How soon will we make money on this venture?" Secondarily in the thinking is, "How can this serve our audiences? How does this help us connect with our communities? How can we better execute our obligation for public service and public trust by finding a way to use a new technology?"
I am delighted that Ed Cone is here, because I think his newspaper in Greensboro [North Carolina] is doing some very innovative work in finding a way to use blogging as an effective, transparent open-sourcing methodology for connecting with its communities. And I hope that one of the results of this meeting will be to inspire more newsrooms to think creatively and go to the purse-holders in their news organizations and make the compelling case for why this helps us and why we need to make the investment for the technology and the newsroom time and resources to make all this work.
Columnist for Greensboro News & Record, blogger at EdCone.com
I am a professional journalist, and I didn't understand blogging until I got a weblog. I thought I understood it. I profiled Dave Winer for Wired, and I thought, "Oh, this is neat. I get it." Until I got a weblog and started blogging, I didn't really understand what it meant to do it. So the first thing I would say to journalists who are curious about this is, "You might want to get a weblog. And you can do it anonymously."
Let me report just a little bit about some common ground that has begun to emerge in my hometown. The sort of "aha" moment came about five months ago when [John Robinson,] the editor-in-chief of a substantial regional daily, started his own weblog. What they are doing--and what we, the people of Greensboro, are doing on our own and in parallel and with them--is developing a new kind of media culture. There's a lot of common ground.
If you go to EdCone.com, you will see a post this morning about two articles about last night's county commissioner meeting in Gilford County, North Carolina. The newspaper covered the meeting, and they covered it the way they cover meetings. They covered it well, but they focused on a particular issue of interest to the newspaper, which is economic development.
Another guy, a blogger, covered it too, and he focused on other issues. The paper has space constraints. They have to cover a limited amount of what happened at that meeting. Now the reporter Matt Williams can go to his own News & Record weblog, link to Sam Heed's coverage and say, "By the way, let me comment on what I couldn't get in the paper. I don't even have to start from scratch and rewrite it. I can just point you to Sam and then take off from there."
And at the same time, we have independent bloggers who want nothing to do with the News & Record, and they have created what I call an online alternative media of their own; they're congregating at aggregator sites like greensboro101.com. They are having blog meet-ups. They see themselves as competitors, correctors, potential contributors.
We do not claim to have figured out what is going on any better than anybody else. A lot of folks who are blogging down there are very interested in pushing this forward and working together and working separately, but there is this tendency to say, "Well, you haven't done it yet, so it's a failure. Nobody's making money, so it's a failure."
And I'll go back to what I said originally. I am a writer and a reporter, and I feel tremendously empowered as a professional by this tool.
Director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism
I think there is a huge "so what?" factor about whether one is a journalist or not. I think the real tension that we are not focusing on is: What will news look like, and what do people need to know in a democracy? Where will I find what I didn't know before? Who will connect the dots for me on big issues? Where will I have "aha" moments? Who will ask the missing questions for me?
In fact, I think that both "big J" journalism and "small j" journalism are hugely failing in this task. By "small j," I will include the blogger universe. Not to be demeaning, but the real tension is how do we design--it's a design issue, not a platform issue--ways to give people what they need to know.
Is it going to look like a linear feed in a blog? I actually don't think so, because it is terribly, terribly inefficient to get information that way. Is it going to look like an inverted-pyramid story? I also don't think so, because that's also a terribly inefficient way to get stories.
So, I think the metaquestion is, What will news be in the future, and what will it look like?
Director, Librarians' Index to the Internet, blogger at Freerangelibrarian.com
I have heard a lot here today about the beginning of the information transaction where news is gathered and delivered in many formats, but I represent the other end.
About four years ago, I was a rural library director for a couple of years in upstate New York. We received a large check from our assemblymen--yes, that was pork, and yes, I am proud of it--and we used it to buy our first public Internet computer. Because our library was open twenty hours a week, we set up half-hour sessions where you could be online. This was in a town of 11,000 that was definitely underconnected to the Internet.
So when you talk about asking the user to do a lot of legwork and read up on everybody who is writing about all this, you can ask yourself: In a town that has one Internet-access computer for the general public, which is available for forty-one half-hour sessions per week, how is the user on one half-hour session during the week going to be able to do that?
Coming back to the ethical framework concept, I would like to say first that any ethical framework needs to start from not only the interest but the needs and limitations of the people that you are ultimately serving. I think that's really important. I think it's a great reality check to remind yourselves that most people are still not very well connected, not very well educated about the Internet. As my sister says, "What are these globs you keep talking about?"
And think about the eighth-grade student trying to look up information about tsunamis. Or, heaven help her, the student, teacher or librarian also trying to ferret through all these blogs and information. We have a proliferation of information, and we have a dearth of resources to help process and assess that information.
, blogger, Buzzmachine.com, talks with
, author of We the Media, and
, blogger, Powerlineblog.com
: Dan Gillmor, you said that the public has to start to learn news differently. You're right. They have to do more work. They have more tools. They have to learn that the first story out isn't necessarily the right story out: "Oh, that trailer! It's making WMDs!" "Oh, it's making yogurt." You know?
In the old days, it would have taken a day for the story to get out, and maybe it would have gotten debunked, but now it's out. They've got to try to figure out their sources, they've got to figure out lots of things. How do we train, or retrain, the public on news?
: I think people will have to recalibrate their BS detectors for this new world. We have pretty good ones in the traditional media world, which is to say we know the supermarket tabloid that is blaring a headline about George Bush's latest alien love child is probably false, whereas the piece in the Times is probably true.
We are going to have to do the same thing online, but one of the problems among many is that any random website can look as good as any other website. We are going to be working this through for a long time. I guess we'll have to tell people to be skeptical for some time to come, and I hope we don't get to the point where--like every old editor tells every young reporter--if your mother says she loves you, you'd better check it out. It would be a problem if everyone had to do that.
[to John Hinderaker]: You were at the center of Rathergate, [telling Dan Rather and CBS,] "Hello, Dan. Hello, this doesn't look right." You helped spread that. Is that the kind of skepticism that is going to help journalism? Do some people say that hurts journalism? What's your view on your relationship to journalism in that story?
: Well, it'd better help journalism. I mean, if we don't have a lot of journalists who learned a lesson from that episode, then I think the industry really is in trouble. The main thing we say about that incident is that it shows the power of the medium. And the thing that we emphasize is that there were a number of different issues that were raised with respect to the authenticity of those documents, but none of them were areas in which any of us were experts.
All of the information came from our readers, and our role was to assemble it, review it, select what seemed to be the most interesting, point out conflicts where there were conflicts and publish it to an audience that within a matter of hours was numbering in the millions.
That goes back to the point about our readers knowing a lot more than we do. The world is full of smart people, and what the Internet gives us is the opportunity to pull together thousands of little bits of information that those people have in a widely scattered way. Now, if I were a professional journalist who hadn't already figured that out, I would look at that incident and say, "Wow, there is power there that we in my industry need to learn how to mobilize."