Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Journalism and Blogging:
The Search for Common Ground

I cannot wait for exams to be over. Since I am too busy with revision/catching-up, I decide to post an article from a fellow blogger to stimulate you all intellectually - Donaldson

by Steve Nadis

UNTIL LAST FALL, Evan Thomas had never looked at a Web log or “blog.” “I knew they were out there; I just couldn’t make myself read them,” says the Newsweek editor and visiting professor at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (Havard University). His patterns — reading The New York Times, New Yorker, and Washington Post — were well entrenched and allowed little time for exploring this alternative media outlet.

Thomas was not alone in ignoring the so-called “blogosphere” — the Internet realm consisting of millions of blogs, including those started by an estimated 8 million bloggers in the United States alone. Sixty-three percent of Internet users, according to a 2005 Pew Foundation study, still don’t read blogs, nor can they define the term — i.e., a Web site that’s like an online journal, typically characterized by daily postings, an archive of past entries, electronic links to other sites, and a reader comment section.

Yet Thomas was also correct in realizing he might be “missing something.” Whether you peruse blogs or not, love them or hate them, there’s no denying their growing presence in the global media market, competing with the press for readers and sometimes coming out ahead. “The top four blogs today have a larger readership on a daily basis than The New York Times,” claims Joe Trippi IOP 2004, an Institute of Politics fellow last fall. Even The New York Times itself proclaimed, in an article by reporter John Schwartz, that “for vivid reporting from the enormous zone of tsunami disaster, it was hard to beat the blogs.”

It’s enough to get observers at places like the Shorenstein Center wondering: How well is the public served by this new communications avenue? And is there some way of ensuring accountability in the anarchic, free-for-all forum of the blogosphere? Those subjects were addressed at a Kennedy School conference, “Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility,” in January, co-sponsored by the Shorenstein Center, Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the American Library Association.

Before trying to evaluate the credibility of blogs, it’s worth considering why readers bother with them in the first place and why respected journalists like Andrew Sullivan MPA 1986 (former editor of The New Republic) have switched from the conventional media to the other side. Recent tsunami coverage offers a good example of the power of blogs, with vivid firsthand accounts — in text, pictures, sounds, and video — filed from ravaged coastal zones. Blogs also played a vital role in soliciting and distributing aid for tsunami victims. The disaster — wrote Neil McIntosh in the newsblog of the British paper, The Guardian — may be “remembered as a time when citizen reporting, through the force of its huge army of volunteers...finally found its voice, and delivered in a way the established media simply could not.”

Two years ago, the Iraq War sent people tired of stories about “shock and awe” to blogs in droves, says Trippi. “While the networks showed troops parading around in military vehicles, blogs provided different views of the war than readers had been getting before.”

Blogs offer a daily, partisan voice that has been missing in American journalism, notes Kennedy School Professor Thomas Patterson. “It’s good to have voices coming at things from different lenses and angles, rather than being limited to a top-down media controlled by a few outlets.”

Rebecca MacKinnon, a Berkman fellow this year and Shorenstein fellow last year, left her job as a CNN-TV reporter to become a blogger because she saw the future of journalism in this new form of participatory media. Blogging consists of a dialogue between authors and their audience, which contrasts with the traditional, spoon-fed approach of “here’s what you need to know.” One problem with American TV news, MacKinnon says, is how little of the available information actually makes it into a two-minute story. Worse yet, many important international stories don’t even get two minutes; they’re not covered at all. In addition to providing virtually unlimited space to explore neglected issues, blogs can also provide context on what journalists are reporting and why.

Blogging’s most visible role to date has been in the area of fact-checking, serving as a “truth squad for journalism,” as Shorenstein Director Alex Jones puts it. Bloggers hounded Trent Lott over a racist remark he made that was glossed over by the regular media, keeping the pressure on until Lott resigned his post as Senate majority leader. Dan Rather left his anchor seat at CBS News in the wake of a controversy set off when bloggers, and blog readers, determined that some memos concerning George Bush’s national guard service, presented in a September 2004 broadcast of 60 Minutes, were fraudulent. “Nineteen minutes into Dan Rather’s report, bloggers provided detailed reasoning as to why those documents were fake,” Trippi stated at a Forum last October.

As for the accuracy of blogs themselves, Trippi touts their “self-correcting” nature: When a blogger makes a mistake, he explains, “they have thousands of people immediately criticizing them, and they need to correct it within minutes. That’s something The New York Times can’t do.”

The self-correcting mechanism can work up to a point, says Jones, “but sometimes it’s difficult to tell the truth from the screaming. It’s easy to see this devolving into a cacophony of charges and countercharges.”

Last year, he began thinking about whether bloggers might adopt their own set of standards in order to enhance the accuracy of blog renderings — an idea that led to the January “credibility” symposium attended by dozens of journalists, bloggers, and academics. The event, which was publicized on the Web, set off a firestorm of sorts, as some people complained that few hardcore bloggers were invited, while others resented the notion of Harvard experts and old guard media types trying to regulate them.

“Who the _ _ _ _ are journalists to be lecturing bloggers on credibility and abiding by a set of standards?” PhillipG ranted in the official conference blog.

Virtually every aspect of the conference was contentious, including an open session held on the last day to allow more participants to attend. “Trying to buy off ‘the little people’ won’t give your silly conference, which is chock-full of unqualified people...any more credibility,” wrote someone identified as “No Thanks.”

Even a disclaimer on the conference blog that said, “Just because we link to something doesn’t mean we endorse it,” drew flak. “Wonderful. What a great precedent for a conference on ‘credibility,’” wrote “ahem.”

Other comments were more personal and vicious. “It gave us nonbloggers a chance to see some of the shoot-from-the-hip nastiness that’s part of the blogosphere,” Jones says. Yet once bloggers and journalists sat down at the same table, the conversation became civil and productive. “One thing we learned is that many of the qualities that make blogging valuable, such
as its passion and transparency, are things journalism could readily adapt,” he says. The group made less headway on the credibility problem, which Jones now admits cannot be easily solved. “Any standards will have to come from bloggers themselves.”

That’s unlikely, given the diversity of the international blogging community, notes MacKinnon. “The bottom line is that the public needs to become more critical readers of all the media it consumes, mainstream or otherwise.”

Tension between bloggers and journalists is bound to persist, Jay Rosen of New York University — a former Shorenstein fellow and current blogger — predicted in his keynote address. “Journalists have to get used to bloggers looking over their shoulders.” Both now live in a “shared media space,” and some fighting is inevitable.

But it’s not a “zero-sum game,” says MacKinnon. “The two can coexist.” In fact, journalism and blogging complement each other: The material found in blogs is often raw and unprocessed, whereas newspaper and magazine stories are edited and fact-checked to varying degrees. “Blogs are really a conversation about events and facts that journalists are reporting about,” adds MacKinnon. Very few blogs do original reporting. Lacking the same access to
policymakers as journalists have, bloggers tend more toward analyzing existing news reports.

It’s not really a question of one or the other, blogs versus old-school journalism, Jones wrote in a Los Angeles Times essay. “It’s better to have both.”

Evan Thomas, however, still has “mixed feelings” about blogs. On the one hand, he says, “You can never have too many people in this game. When the conventional media blows it, bloggers can catch it. The downside is that there’s a lot of garbage out there.”

Steve Nadis, a writer based in Cambridge, started his own blog, “Call Me Snake,” http://cambridgeguy.blog.com/, in the course of writing this article, though he fears it may be part of the “garbage” Evan Thomas refers to.

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