Journalism and blogging: Printing what’s known vs. what isn’t
Posted by James McPherson on April 13, 2009
The panel discussion I contributed to on Saturday was well-attended, and people obviously care about news and where it comes from. I know of at least three other bloggers who have already discussed the panel–one who works in mainstream journalism, one who soon will, and the other an interested area resident.
Unlike in most of the city where I live and work (where people tend to argue that the news media have a liberal bias) the audience and most of the panel leaned left in their political views–probably a result of having the panel in a downtown independent bookstore as part of a literary festival. The soon-to-be journalist, one of my students, did the most complete reporting about the discussion, so rather than repeat what she wrote I’ll refer you to her site.
One thing I will mention is that much of the discussion (based on questions from an audience generally mistrustful of media) centered on who is a journalist, and why we should trust “trained journalists” over “citizen journalists.” I think the point I made at the time may be worth expanding: For me, one of the key points is that professional journalists know where to look and whom to talk to for information (they don’t always have the time or ambition to do so thoroughly, but that’s another point).
In addition, trained journalists have (or should have) a better understanding of an overall issue and how it fits into a bigger picture, they have a better understanding of ethical and legal guidelines, and their organizations can better afford to pursue an issue over time or create databases to compare relevant statistics (or to sue the city government, for illegally keeping the reporter out of a public meeting).
Because of the amount of online information now available, it can be easier than it once was for individuals or small organizations to use the kinds of documents that make up most of our most important news. Even so, and despite this story from yesterday’s New York Times, few private citizens can pursue and publish a story in the same way that news organizations can. For one thing, anyone who makes the time to learn a lot about one issue is likely to be viewed as a biased crank by many of the rest of us. For another, even popular local bloggers just don’t get the size of audience that mainstream media do.
As a result, blogs tend to be biased and/or largely made up of news from elsewhere. This blog is no exception. I’m no journalist, though I once was one. Of course I also argue that the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann also are not journalists, even if they happen to share some news now and then. For me, one key distinction is one I made Saturday: Journalists typically do a lot of research that never formally shows up in a newspaper or on the air, and frequently let drop (or put on hold) stories that go nowhere.
Put simply: Journalists know a lot more than they report, while too many bloggers report more than they know.
That difference has less to do with bloggers making things up (though some do) than with the fact that those bloggers (including me) rely heavily on second-hand information from elsewhere–sometimes mainstream media, sometimes other bloggers–that they have no means of checking themselves. Mainstream news organizations have the money and manpower to better check the reliability of their sources.
Put another way: You probably don’t fully trust your boss or your brother-in-law, so why would you trust a random “citizen journalist”? I’m not saying to fully trust mainstream journalism, either–but I’d say that the vast majority of the time you’ll be better off relying on information that appears in your local newspaper than on some interested bystander. Better yet, use both–while you still can.