James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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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.

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12 Responses to “Journalism and blogging: Printing what’s known vs. what isn’t”

  1. […] he meant when he said that bloggers often publish more than they know. He goes into more detail on his blog. Second, I discovered in that post that one of McPherson’s students has done an excellent job […]

  2. Well put, James. I would add that journalists, at least the ones who work for well-established, reputable newspapers have another advantage over citizen journalists: peer review. Like you, with regard to my blogging, I’m not really acting as a journalist, though I do at my day job. I’m simply acting as an opinion writer. I’ve often thought it would be neat to do some freelance “reporting” on my own, but as I have a real job doing that, I have neither the time nor inclination to devote my free time to it as well. Thus, I suppose my blog (on which I depend on secondary sources) serves as an outlet for me of a different kind.

    But at papers, writers have editors and publishers who know what constitutes a well-reported story, and I think at decent papers, reporting and writing is critiqued. Thus, there’s constantly a push (and an expectation) to “get it right” and deliver a great story. “Citizen journalists,” on the whole, likely have no such system of peer review. Further, as you say, there’s a difference between trained journalists, who should know how things are done and have a sense of ethics, reporting principles, etc. versus those who don’t have that knowledge or experience. I think both have merit because information gathering isn’t all that difficult as long as it’s accurate, but preference should certainly be given to established newspapers and outlets which diligently attempt to report the news, hold public officials accountable and serve the public’s best interests.

  3. James McPherson said

    Good points, Jeremy. And in addition to the peer review of editors and publishers (though I definitely got more useful feedback from the former than from the latter where I worked), it helps just to have other folks in the newsroom to bounce things off of.

    I even benefitted from interaction with people from other publications who were covering the same beat. One of the advantages of two-newspaper towns is the decreased chance that a lone reporter will miss or badly misinterpret something. And of course bloggers also probably don’t benefit from such critics as Columbia Journalism Review. Thanks for the comment.

  4. zelda said

    Trained journalists!!!……….hahahahahahaha

  5. Gabrielle said

    What’s so funny, Zelda??

    Jasmine quoted you as saying (and, after reading this post, I see you restated that) just having a media & politics blog does not necessarily mean you are a journalist. I would agree and say your work makes you more of an opinions columnist. That’s not an insult (not that I’m terribly worried you’ll read it as such 🙂 ), especially coming from someone who believes that humor & fiction often come nearer the truth than is possible in formal nonfiction pieces.

    But as an English major (might as well continue in my properly capitalized & punctuation format) I really put more trust in the words of the proletariat. Of course that’s also just due to hipster distrust of ‘the man,’ and the fact that I now write for The Whitworth Forum, a student-run blog, and enjoy it far more than I did writing for The Whitworthian, the official student newspaper of Whitworth University. But, that said, the experience also makes me appreciate & agree with your statement(s) about the value of training. Writing for The Whitworthian (especially because i was on governance beat) taught me a lot about professionalism, how to conduct interviews, how to format an (idealistically) unbiased article, and DEADLINES. Ye gods. 🙂

  6. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Gabrielle, Perhaps not surprisingly, my brief period as an opinions columnist was my favorite newspaper job . Unfortunately it came with being an editor, and therefore my least favorite jobs–managing people and enforcing DEADLINES. You can tell I love them as much as you do, though I probably wouldn’t get much work done without them.

    I like what Jasmine said in something else she wrote–that anyone (including you, me and Zelda) can commit acts of journalism if we happen to be in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re journalists.

    More importantly, I repeat that the best way to get at the truth is to go to various locations for information. But if you can only go to one, even with all the problems with American journalism (and I’ve written repeatedly about those), almost always a mainstream news source is the one I’d pick. Definitely over opinion writers me or Zelda. 🙂

  7. Gabrielle said

    Yep. Which is why I have a local & global news section on my homepage, so I can see at a glance the major stories of the day. If it looks interesting, I click.

  8. zelda said

    Geeze ……..

  9. […] Anyway, today I’ll explain why I’m moving at least partially leaving cyberspace. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the biggest reason is the time involved. I loved how one respondent put it yesterday: “the beast that is online journalism,” even though what I do usually isn’t quite journalism. […]

  10. […] Journalism and blogging: Printing what’s known vs. what isn’t […]

  11. You forgot me. I was sitting right next to the “interested area resident.” Consider me “interested area resident #2.”

    Anyways, I find your observations about blogging vs. journalism quite fair and relevant. Thanks for sharing.

  12. […] some of this malaise will be cleared up (or at least vindicated) by City Cable re-runs and/or professional coverage by Jonathan Brunt. We eagerly await the results of his interviews and journalism on behalf of the […]

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