JOURNALISM, ETHICS AND BLOGGING: John Hiler of Microcontentnews has a good column today about whether bloggers could – or should - be considered journalists
on the merits of their blogging alone; in the interests of full disclosure, I talked to John via email about some of the issues he discusses in the column, a fact he mentions here
. And while I don’t think he “got it all wrong in this piece” – in fact, I thought it was very well done and a great opening to the discussion - I do have some significant disagreements with portions of it.
First, my bona fides to comment. While I’m not now working as a paid journalist (which apparently is what John uses to define “professional” journalist), my undergraduate degree is in journalism and I worked four years as a reporter/photographer and sometime columnist before going to graduate school. Since that time I’ve worked some as a freelance journalist, although not recently. Currently I’m working on a doctorate in criminal justice, in the early stages of developing my dissertation proposal on the topic of the intersection of media and police, which includes a look at media bias in relation to policing and criminal justice. In both capacities – journalist and academic – I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of media bias. In addition, I’ve been a part of the online community since 1994, a blog reader since late last fall and a blogger myself since February.
The very fact that I felt the need to establish bona fides goes to the heart of what John says:
The fundamental principle of trust between reader and writer holds equally true for journalist and blogger alike.
That’s the heart of John’s column, and that is true. But he gives professional journalism too much leeway to establish that, and gives bloggers too little room for defining it. Let’s look at it more closely.
John tells us that during a conversation with a “real journalist” friend, he called what he does “online journalism”. His buddy bristled:
"Wait, how can that be real journalism?" he interrupted. "You're totally biased because you work in the industry. A lot of journalists don't even register with a political party so they can write about politics objectively!" And that was just the beginning of my crimes against journalism: "You don't even have an editor, so none of your articles are even peer-reviewed!"
John’s buddy is showing a peculiar tunnel vision that journalists develop and, if they have journalism degrees, they’ve paid good money to gain. That tunnel vision is the concept that journalists, and thus journalism, are in any shape, form, or fashion objective. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines objective as:
expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations
Any human who is truly objective is also truly dead. It’s not possible to turn off everything you have been up to the point you begin reporting something and, I would argue, it’s neither necessary nor desirable. Yet we have this distorted view that journalists can be, SHOULD be, objective, promulgated by them and believed by the audience to the damage of both.
But think about what happens from event to story: Events A, B and C occur at the same time, same day, same town. Editor has two reporters. She decides (based on what?) to send reporters to A and C; B gets no coverage. One reporter is a veteran, one a newbie. Which reporter goes to which event? Once there, who does each reporter talk to? Is a photographer sent along? Once the reporter returns, how long is the story? How long does he have to develop it? Which copy editor does it go to? What other news is happening in the world? What factors are considered in putting Event A on Page 1 and Event B on Page 12 under the advertisement for corset girdles? And the list goes on. At each stage, the personal experiences, preferences, training and honesty of the journalists involved subtly (or not so subtly) affect the final product and its presentation. This doesn’t even include reporter-initiated stories, which beat reporters are required to produce consistently to maintain their position, or agenda pieces where a reporter, editor or publisher thinks a particular social issue needs to be addressed – selecting one over the other, I would argue, represents some type of bias. It is true that journalists develop a sense of what is important to their readers, and they have a sense themselves of what is important, but both of those are subjective. There is no objectivity, merely varying levels of consensus.
John’s “real journalist” friend also, somewhat naively, seems to think that not registering with a particular political party somehow indicates political impartiality. That is false on its face, and again is actually opposite from what would be best – knowing a reporter has liberal or conservative leanings helps me evaluate his or her work. How does it help me, as a reader, that Reporter A doesn’t register as a Democrat, when she voted for Bill Clinton twice, and Hillary once? The ideology doesn’t go away just because you don’t sign up under it. And what peer review is there when the assignment editor, reporter, copy editor, page editor and publisher all voted for Clinton (or, for that matter, Bush)? When they’re good – when it matters to them – they check things, and they try to compensate for their own biases. But if news media organizations as a whole are massive pools of peer review fact checking and ideology busting, how did all the glowing articles
about historian Michael Bellesiles get published without a single outlet figuring out that his basic premise was deeply flawed because of fundamental, fairly easily discovered, inaccuracies
? And how did the false calculation of Afghan war civilian casualties
get purchase in the mainstream media?
This all leads to what John identifies as a major weakness of blogging:
…amateur journalists often have agendas of their own
Yes, this is true. Usually people who start a blog, who take the time to speak out, have something they’re passionate about; otherwise, they’d watch TV or play golf. But that doesn’t mean they are less likely to be accurate in their facts, or less fair, than the paid journalist – they’re just more likely to mix opinion with the fact, and that’s okay because the very nature of the medium warns you that such is the case. But “real journalists” have agendas too – look at Paul Krugman, as Andrew Sullivan
has so intently (you'll have to link around his archives, but there's lots there). Look at Eric Alterman, as Matt Welch
has done. And whole hard drives could be stuffed with the bytes generated on blogs debunking the American and foreign media’s faulty coverage of the Afghan war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even science (for instance, the piece I did taking apart a biased presentation of research about gun suicides by black youths).
John explores the professional ethics code of journalists (which could inspire an entire column on its own), and gives a personal story to illustrate the heavy responsibility journalists carry to present their information properly. I agree the responsibility exists, but from John’s story I think the culprit was not John – who wrote a carefully explained story on Google Bombing – but the BBC, whom he says drastically edited the story and then used a dramatic photo only tangentially associated with the story’s topic which conveyed a completely false impression to the casual observer. The “real journalists” screwed up by either following an agenda or seeking to entertain rather than accurately inform. So down goes the journalism code of ethics as a practical indicator of the state of the art in today’s news media. It’s a nice idea imperfectly followed.
So what about bloggers? John wants to set up a code of ethics for bloggers, which is again a nice idea, but limiting in a libertarian environment like the Internet. John doesn’t advocate objectivity for bloggers – and it’s a good thing too – but he says full disclosure is crucial. Well, what does full disclosure mean? Where does it end? If I tell you I’m a conservative with a graduate degree, do you know enough? Is it important to know that I’m a Christian? Well, what stripe – high church, low church, no church but the forest? Do you need to know if I am pro- or anti-abortion? Is it important that I’m a southerner, with rural roots, that math makes my head hurt? All of those things could be important, depending on what I’m writing about. But still, for both bloggers and “real journalists”, it comes to this:
This is where John and I reconverge. What we as readers need to know is, can I trust you to be fair? Can I trust that you will say, “I have this bias about this topic so take my story with a grain of salt, but I will make every effort to be fair”? John gives good examples of how this works, and another article in TechCentralStation on the economics of old media vs. blogging
gives a good perspective on why it is more efficient to trust, say, the New York Times vs. cut on the bias. But while I think the world of blogging and the world of old media will blend together at the edges even more as time passes, they both serve their purposes and have important roles to play. Are bloggers as good as “real” journalists? For the purposes of Constitutional protection of free speech and freedom of information, yes. In quality of reporting (when we do it), writing and fair presentation of material, many times yes as well (in this category, don’t think of New York Times
vs. cut on the bias, think of, say, Arab News
). In terms of identifying bias? Well, no, not there.
Usually, we’re better than they are.