August 29, 2011

Blogging vs. journalism and the ‘citizen journalist’

Now that I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound on this issue, having done one overview post on the issue anyway.

Let me caveat this first. I'm not attacking all news bloggers, and certainly not all small-community, small-scale ones. I'm just pointing out some realities of claims that bloggers can replace traditional media, or set up a "new ecosystem" alongside of the mainstream media. (For an overview of how some of the top myths about both traditiona new media, as "sold" by new media fluffers, are wrong, go here. Bursting the bubble of the claim there's money to be made off social media in general, including new media in particular, go here. For refuting Jay Rosen's claim, regarding possible paywalls by online sites of traditional media, that they won't work, go here. [I'll confess that I long ago halfway believed Rosen and Clay Shirky on paywalls.])

I do charge that the idea of “citizen journalist,” or to spell it out more fully, “beknighted citizen journalist,” is a straw man. (And yes, I know how to spell the word; I’m deliberately rewriting it with the “k” to make a point about how New Media fluffers look at citizen journalists as knights unhorsing mainstream media. Of course, the reality is more that both the beknighted citizen journalists and their academic fluffers who have never worked at an actual newspaper a single day of their lives are actually tilting, if not at windmills, at least at straw men on the Extremadura landscape.)

John/Jane Blogger of news blogging, especially if at the local small-to-medium town level, is, if anything, at least from my anecdotal experience both at newspapers in those-sized areas and seeing bloggers at those-sized areas, more likely than “mainstream media” newspapers to have some of the reportage issues and problems, including ethical ones, that the likes of Bora, Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky and others hurl at the MSM.

First, if you’re a smaller-scale blogger, you may not know the ins and outs of libel law. Related to that, you may know and willfully not care. Some bloggers operate on the idea, I think, that “I not only don’t have deep pockets, I have zero pockets, so nobody will sue me.” And, trust me, I have seen bloggers write material that was at least on the borderline of libel. And, perhaps, do so deliberately, not out of ignorance.

Second, a news blogger may not always be careful at disaggregating straight news posts and opinion posts. Newspapers do that. It’s called the op-ed page. Now, before the cornucopian new media fluffers claim that plenty of news stories have a “slant,” see immediately above. Bloggers can and do do that too, on what they claim is straight news. Parallel to my first point, our beknighted citizen journalist may also not care about separating news from opinion, too.

Third, contra a newspaper reporter, even when allegedly writing straight news, a blogger often writes to a particular audience rather than the general public. Again, yes, in some cases, like financial reporting, and national security and foreign policy issues, the MSM does this as well, writing to insiders of the Acela Corridor. But, at the local level, this can become obvious, such as when a community is divided over the actions of a school board or a superintendent and, under the guise of reporting straight news, a blogger writes to one faction of that divide.

NOTE: NONE of the above is hypothetical. I have seen multiple instances of every one of these things, and from multiple bloggers.

Related to my third point is the fact that local politics, especially in those smaller communities, can often be personality-based at best, clannish and tribal at worst. I can tell you plenty. Texas, about 15 years ago, changed some education statutes to cut down on school boards micromanaging superintendents. Well, at a town of 4,000 in a county of less than 10,000, at one paper I edited, some people didn't like that. When the superintendent didn't hire an interim high school principal to be full time (this guy had retired several years ago), some former board members (silently abetted by a minority of the current board) took out quarter-page ads in our newspaper! And, yes, small town bloggers can play to that.

The role of editors, at newspapers of any size, are connected to this. At community newspapers, the training and ethics of a managing editor who also reports are key and invaluable. Looking for bias, pointing out bias, and writing it out of stories are important.

Finally, as a friend points out, bloggers are soloists. A modern newspaper of any size requires multiple news reporters, for several reasons. One, a reporter may need help on a story; it’s too big to tackle alone. Second, in smaller communities, at times, one editorial person may need to play good cop to a certain individual or institution while another plays bad cop. Again, from my experience at weekly newspapers where it’s a one-person editorial operation, that’s tough to do by yourself.

Coming later? More squarely addressing the money issue, and why beknighted citizen journalists, because of money and time constraints, plus the good cop/bad cop issue above, can’t generally do investigative journalism.

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