Bloggers and journalists

By Legal Eagle

In his guest post on this blog earlier this week, Ken Nielsen wrote on the changes to media which may result from the growth of the internet. I want to focus more specifically on the role of the blogosphere. Are we quasi-journalists? Or are we something different which overlaps with journalism?

Of course, the answer to these questions is going to differ from blogger to blogger. A blog is certainly a form of media, published with the intention of allowing others to read it, and so it overlaps with other journalistic media. But the interesting thing about a blog is that you can write about almost anything you want in any way that you want, without the strictures of editors and deadlines.

These issues have come to light as a result of the Windschuttle hoax, which crossed boundaries. The hoax was perpetrated against a conservative literary and cultural journal, Quadrant; the story of the hoax was “broken” by the independent media outfit Crikey; the perpetrator of the hoax, Katherine Wilson, was a former blogger with Larvatus Prodeo, but also a freelance journalist; and the story made its way into the MSM, with Wilson being unmasked by journalists from The Australian, although the blogosphere had come to similar conclusions, partially as a result of Wilson’s posts on blogs. Thus, the hoax traversed mainstream media, independent media of different types and the blogosphere.

Margaret Simons, the journalist from Crikey who broke the hoax story, kicked off a debate about the links between journalism and blogging with her post on the uncovering of Wilson, comparing the approaches of the blogosphere with the journalists from The Australian, and concluding:

I have to say I think the mainstream media has done a good job. All the journos who have rung me have been fair and professional, without necessarily cutting me any slack as I wrestled with the various ethical dilemmas. And they have been hot on the trail of the source. The reporting I have seen has also been fair to both me and the hoaxer, and for that matter to Windschuttle, in my view.

The blogosphere, on the other hand, has been as you would expect very variable in its fairness, accuracy and capacity for detective work. Much of it okay, but a fair bit of unsubstantiated speculation about me, Wilson, Crikey and even Windschuttle.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the nimbleness and immediacy of online blogging has made the mainstream media look slow. The stuff that has been in the morning newspapers has been known to people following the story online for hours and hours before it goes on the printing press.

So, it would be nice to chalk this story up as a good one for the bloggers, but I’m afraid that, as usual, its more complicated than that.

Journalists are still of some use, after all. It’s the slowness of the medium that holds them back.

This prompted Mark Bahnisch of LP to debate the question with her, and to post on the issue. Both Simons and Bahnisch pointed to this interesting post from Gatewatching by Jason Wilson, which compares the approach of journalists with bloggers:

I think I agree with Margaret Simons that the “unmasking” of the hoaxer showed that there are some important, relevant and remaining differences between amateur bloggers and industrial journalists. For me, a big, obvious one is: journalists use telephones. According to Simons, a couple took the time to confirm their suspicions with calls in this case.

…According to [Simons’] version, just one blogger attempted to contact Wilson via email. And whereas some bloggers were prepared to write posts and allow comments threads to lengthen on the basis of what appears to be speculative guesswork, working journalists simply called the principal actors and asked to have their suspicions confirmed. To the bloggers, the question needs to be asked: what if you weren’t right about the hoaxers identity?

Now, I realise that not every MSM journalist bothers with fact-checking in every situation. I know that the form of practice that I’ve described as being characteristic of bloggers is also characteristic of many writing under the umbrella of large news organisations. And I’m also aware that not all bloggers aspire to being an alternative news source…

This is a very interesting analysis.

It’s true to say in my case that I do not aspire to being an alternative news source, or a quasi-journalist. It comes down to a question of why one blogs.

As I was explaining to another blogger the other day, my own entry into the blogosphere was almost accidental. I started my blog because I felt passionate about certain legal issues, and wanted to write about them and share those opinions with my friends and family. It was a form of thinking out aloud. At first, I’m pretty sure my only readers were friends and family. But when you put something out there, other people come across it and start to comment. Also, I gradually became aware of all the other blogs out there, and slowly became absorbed into the blogosphere. I still write for the same reasons – including personal satisfaction, wanting to share opinions with others and to get different perspectives.

As I have written before, I do think bloggers have a duty to make sure that what they write is correct:

I am a humble blogger, not a journalist, yet I try to make sure that my posts are accurate and if a comment points out that I am in error, I amend my post. For one thing, there’s just the simple pride in doing something properly. For another, a layperson reading this blog might trust my interpretation of the law implicitly, and not possess the resources to pick me up on an error. I would think the duty would be stronger for someone who is paid good money to write for a newspaper. Who cares if you are a blogger, a newspaper opinion writer, a lawyer or Santa Claus?

So if I’m writing a post, I try my best to research it fully and to acknowledge my sources. My sources are generally online. I confess that I might get something wrong, and I encourage commenters to point out any errors. I’m not a professional; I’m a busy woman with two small children. I don’t do this for a job.

Thus, I would never think to cold call a person and say: “Hi, I’m [Legal Eagle], a blogger, will you talk to me?” It just doesn’t have the same ring of authority as saying, “Hi, I’m a journalist from [X] newspaper, will you talk to me?” It might be different if I knew or had interactions with the person online, or if I had a higher profile. The fact remains that I am an amateur.

I think that bloggers and journalists are both important in different ways. As an amateur, as I said above, I don’t have to conform to deadlines or to kowtow to an editor. Nor do I have to have a word limit. My co-blogger and I are equals who can write whatever we want, whenever we want (within reason). I do it for enjoyment, and if I stop enjoying it, I’ll take a break. Therefore, my opinions are different to what one reads in the newspaper.

A journalist has deadlines, editors, word limits and researches for a job. A journalist is professional, and can approach individuals in a professional capacity to confirm stories. I do think that there is a greater duty to be accurate if one is purporting to report what has happened. And somehow putting something in print is irrevocable because it cannot be changed once it is printed. It is more serious, just as a letter is a more serious and formal medium than an e-mail. But as I said above, I also think bloggers also have a duty to make reasonable efforts to be accurate too.

I should also point out that there is an increasingly blurred boundary between journalism and blogging. Increasingly, newspapers have popular blogs by journalists. Tim Blair’s site is one that straddles the divide. As Ken discussed the other day, newspapers are now published online, and it may be that print media is a dying medium unless the possibilities of the internet are embraced by media companies.

One of the primary differences between blogging and newspapers is that blogging is more of a conversation, as a result of the comments facility. If people disagree with you, or have other information that they think you should know, then they can make a comment. Posts can be updated and amended swiftly in a way that print media cannot. Online newspapers are a halfway house between blogs and print newspapers. Blogs have the advantage of speed, and a possibility of interaction between readers and writers.

In conclusion, I don’t think blogs and newspapers are necessarily diametrically opposed, and in some respects, they overlap, but they are also different in important and interesting ways. For my part, I’ll just keep on writing as long as people want to keep on reading!

26 Comments

  1. Posted January 18, 2009 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    A very simplistic comment to kick off – when I want to know what the official sources, interested organisations, elected officials and so on think about a situation, I’ll read a good newspaper. If I want to know what other opinions might be out there I’ll read blogs and commenters. I don’t necessarily attach more weight to either of these sources, but I like the breadth I can get from opinions more diverse than my workplace or friendship group.

    In a very fraught situation, eg during a war or after a natural disaster, it can be interesting to read both the news sources and the bloggers – I feel as if the bloggers can provide the broader strokes of colour and texture that it’s hard for journos to get to, even in opinion pieces. They still have to write to a formula.

  2. Posted January 18, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I think your post on Cathertine Deveny some time ago was illustrative: the columnist has been superceded by better researched, better written pieces online. That’s been one big difference. It’s no longer good enough to lament: “They can put a man on the moon so why can’t they (insert mildly irritating aspect of modern living here)…”

  3. Posted January 19, 2009 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    I used to be a journalist, now I’m just a sarky bastard. 😉

  4. Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t Katherine Wilson claim to be a journalist by profession?
    If so isn’t drawing a distinction between bloggers and journalists in this case rather misplaced?

  5. Jacques Chester
    Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Having being a candidate, and having from time to time picked up the phone myself in pursuit of a blog post, I found the remarks from Gatewatching about the ultra-professionalism of phonecall making journos to be a bit risible.

    I’m sure such journos exist. But where?

  6. Posted January 19, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    In my case whenever I have sought information for a blog post I prefer email simply because you have the words that someone has said, in hard copy that you can quote if that suits your purpose. Transcripts of telephone conversations do not have the same sort of convenience (in blogging terms) or the gravitas of something that has been written by the subject of your piece.

  7. Posted January 19, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    A lot of this talk of professionalism is hubris. It’s not professionalism but credentialism. Blogs are digital and are free from many of the constraints of capital intensive, mass media production which requires a complex hierarchy and tends toward restrictive policies on what can and can’t be written.

    You can write anything. To be sure 90% of it is crap but so what? These days one is lucky to find 100 lines of hard news in the papers. And, unlike the blogosphere, there’s no real feedback. I can’t jump online and correct the errors a journalist makes. I can write a letter and maybe it will get published. There’s a severe limit to what a paper can publish.

    There’s sloppiness in the MSM. Just last week-end there was an article in one of the week-end mags about the endings of films. The writer, in defining certain kinds of endings made an absolutely blockheaded summation of The Third Man that betrayed a complete misunderstanding of its last scene and a total incapacity on the part of himself and his sub-editor to spot a glaring inaccuracy. And that was just a film! No phone calls required.

    The MSM gets it wrong all the time. But it also makes sure we get it scrubbed and bland and pompous as well. I’d wager that the pyramid/military organization of the media will be replaced by the online network. Quality will be in the eye of the beholder and, being subject to the criticism of everyone who bothers, likely to reach high standards both of inaccuracy and outrageous spin both.

    Or maybe Rupert’ll just buy up the internet and it’ll be strictly agit-prop, fingerpointing columnists and regular updates on Britney Spears inebriation episodes. :)

  8. Posted January 19, 2009 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps there are useful analogies between Bloggers/Journalists and Wikipedia/TraditionalEncyclopaedia[se]

    A while back Nature went through a number of wikipedia articles in topics that interested them (i.e. science not moviestars) and concluded that:
    Wikipedia and E Brittanica (print or electronic) had the same error rates, but wikipedia was corrected faster (even online versions of EB). And EB was better than other commercial encyclopaedia[es], such as World Book or Microsoft Encarta.

    One of the critical skills in the wired world is judging who can be trusted on what, not only for correctness, but also completeness.

    Perhaps there should be a spin-off from the wonderful ABC Media Watch program that looks at high-profile and trusted-by-many or cited-by-many blogs on public issues (not naming names)… I’m sure they’d get lots of great material sent in to their hotline! Better still, the spinoff might provide a rollcall of purely venomous bloggers who dob in other bloggers without just cause.

    Luckily, the blogs I trust have got a good track record when I sample their sources and google around…. even those that come from a different political persuasion to my own.

    LE says

    The fact remains that I am an amateur.

    LE (and SL, and other reputable bloggers around the traps) should remember the huge amount of worthy scientific information collected by amateurs over the years…. such as the Patents Office Clerk who came up with Special Relativity.

    How impoverished would every field of human art and endeavor be without gifted amateurs?

  9. Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    the huge amount of worthy scientific information collected by amateurs over the years…. such as the Patents Office Clerk who came up with Special Relativity

    Dave, I’m hoping you’ll know who this was, but there was an Indian mathematician parked out in some remote village somewhere who sent his ideas to the head of Cambridge University’s maths faculty. The Cambridge Don received the fat envelope thinking ‘here we go, another crank’ and finished up hiring the Indian guy on the spot! Turned out he knew his stuff. Can’t remember his name, but it’s a true story.

  10. Ken N
    Posted January 19, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    The comparison, it seems to me is between bloggers and opinion writers in MSM.
    As a foolishly broad generalisation, bloggers (some) provide better and more thoughtful comment than most opinion writers in MSM.
    As I have said before, I look to opinion pieces to make me think, to challenge or at least fine tune my own opinions. That rarely happens with stuff in MSM but often with blogs.
    My problem is with news – ie facts. Someone’s got to pay for its collection. Blogs don’t do news.

  11. Jacques Chester
    Posted January 19, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Can’t remember his name, but it’s a true story.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srinivasa_Ramanujan

    A similar story in physics was Bose:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyendra_Nath_Bose

  12. Posted January 19, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    SL: Ramanujan (I knew the name, but had to check if there was an “i” in there somewhere or not)

    KenN: Actually, bloggers got the story of the plane landing on the Hudson first, and, AFAIK, I discovered that our parliament webserver had died without notice and other faults. (See here for the latest installment).

    And apart from opinion pieces, and foreign correspondents in dangerous places, too often the MSM just do media releases and summaries of reports from thinktanks/academia.

  13. Posted January 19, 2009 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    On a similar theme This just came in from New Scientist a couple of minutes ago, with the RSS teaser saying “The internet is a great learning tool, but we need ways to help students filter the useful information from the dross,”

  14. Nanu
    Posted January 19, 2009 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I actually have faith in the youth of today. They’re online & savvy and can fell the trees that hide the forest. Blogs will take up the challenge and newspapers & TV will follow thereafter. The print medium may be slower to get with the program but you’ve got to remember that online opinion writers are future journalists. It’s been expressed that the recent US elections highlight the failing of the MSM; even the most biased Democrat can’t deny that. The AGWers have had free ride and they too will find the mood will change. You write something, your footnotes will be challenged. Everything is open for investigation. Those of us who grew up with newspapers & TV’s telling us about the world have our peers that will buy into their opinions but not the youth today. They will source everything in their feed and will debate it live. It’s time for journalism/reporting to step up.

  15. conrad
    Posted January 20, 2009 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    All this talk about people sending stuff off and getting jobs is of course the opposite of what happened to Einstein at the start of his career. He didn’t get a job until after the rather obvious. The Cambridge Don was obviously wiser than some of his German equivalents at ETH, and certainly the exception rather than the rule (as he would also be today) !
    .
    On an unrelated note, I think blogs are far better than papers for many things — and one obvious reason is that papers are restricted to employ a very small number of people, whereas there are now innumerate experts on things running blogs.

  16. Ken N
    Posted January 20, 2009 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Dave said “On a similar theme This just came in from New Scientist a couple of minutes ago, with the RSS teaser saying “The internet is a great learning tool, but we need ways to help students filter the useful information from the dross,””
    It is fascinating to watch interest groups trying to get control of the net. Conroy’s plan to censor it is another example.
    My guess is that governments will try to do more to control or influence what people read.
    Fortunately, I think it is now beyond control. People will just have to decide for themselves what to read or reject.

  17. John Greenfield
    Posted January 20, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Blogs such as this one that share the specialist knowledge of its operators and habitues are a godsend, but on the general comparison of bloggers and journos, are these Maggie Simmons and Mark Bahnisch types on drugs? If not, they bloody well should be!

    Bloggers as journos? ROFLMAO. What next, home-handy men as astronauts? I merrily spend tens of dollars each week on journalism, but who anywhere in the world would pay tuppence h’apenny for the entire archive of the Australian “blogosphere”!

    This Luvviesphere exists to let off steam, goof around, and provide Cultural Studies types with onanistic opportunities they will never be afforded in real life. It is made up overwhelmingly of people on the verge of committing acts of terrorism in order to get an op-ed article published in The Oz. Hell, even a Letter to the Editor would give these sanctimonious cretins an orgasm.

    Face it Luvvies, y’all simply are not up to it, so be content with the good Lord’s meagre dispensation to your poor benighted brains, and see your blogs at totally harmless and irrelevant vanity devices to express your anger at said Lord’s looking you over and deciding to pass.

  18. Posted January 20, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    My problem is with news – ie facts. Someone’s got to pay for its collection. Blogs don’t do news.

    I really don’t see that much by way of news in the newspapers. I suspect in the future individuals and small groups will just link to central feeds and obtain facts just as well as official journalists (like that great intellect Wayne Sanderson). The process really isn’t that complicated.

    Most so-called journos are simply scribes that regurgitate PR nerds’ scribblin’. Sad but true. They cling to their status because they know that what they do really isn’t that hard.

    The only real thing ‘journos’ have are credentialist status. Like when you ring someone up and say “I’m from The Age” or something. Books are the same. So many ‘in depth’ books are utter shite that could’ve been written from your loungeroom.

    My favourite sample of the breed just lately is Anthony Lowenstein’s The Blogging Revoltion.

    Each chapter consists of – a. Lame wikipedia rundown of the history of a country’s situation; b. Even lamer ‘new journalist’ style descriptuion of what it’s like to drive from the airport of said country (lots of Australian disgust at third world squalor); c. Totally boring anecdotes in which Lowenstein goes to meaningless social engagements with locals (only interesting when he manages to implicate one or more of said parties in ways that might get ’em in serious hot water), and: d. Almost nothing about the blogosphere at all.

    When he does write about it he gets it wrong, like calling Sandmonkey a neoconservative. You can’t be a fucking neoconservative in Egypt it’s not possible. Merely supporting the Iraq War doesn’t make you a neoconservative. Is Chris Hitchens a neoconservative? He was blasting the neocons before the rest of the world even knew there were neocons.

    And yet he’s got ‘a book’, so he must know. Bollocks!

  19. John Greenfield
    Posted January 21, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    LE

    “Don’t even get me started on Anthony Lowenstein, Adrien”

    OK, but does that preclude the rest of us? :)

  20. John Greenfield
    Posted January 21, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    LE

    I wrote a lengthy review of his first book, but I never tried to get it published, but boy did it let me rip off some steam! :)

  21. John Greenfield
    Posted January 22, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Well congratulations to one blogger – LE – who has made the Best Blogs final cut.

    http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=8434

    Great piece LE. Recently as an undregraduate I was stunned at how much time undergraduate law students devote to topics more suited to sociology/politics. FFS, most of this international public law bollocks is not even bloody law, but rather 21st century bible-bashing or happy clapping.

  22. John Greenfield
    Posted January 22, 2009 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    LE

    I was talking to a contemporary of mine only yesterday, who did Science/Law at Sydney Uni in the 1980s and then went to Harvard. I was saying it is only now, that I realise Real Property is probably the most fascinating AND politically important discipline taught to undergraduates.She agreed, adding there are in fact few problems in the law that at their rights are NOT Property problems.

    If all these “international law/human rights/dignity” Luvvies opened their eyes they would see that most of the world’s “injustices” they are addicted to mewling over are ALL rooted in conflicts over property rights!

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