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!