Will blogging keep the mainstream media in line?
Here’s a very interesting piece from Mark Glaser on the Adopt-A-Journalist movement, otherwise called Watchblogs. “The so-called “watchblogs” are generally anonymous bloggers who have taken it upon themselves to read each report from a particular presidential campaign reporter and then critique it for factual errors or bias,” Glaser writes. “If they gain traction, watchblogs represent another step in the evolution of reader feedback and media criticism, and they have the potential to improve the work of journalists.”
Speaking as a journalist, all I can say is: yikes. I don’t mean it’s not a good idea: Journalists can benefit from people reading and commenting on their stuff (most journalists assume no one reads their stuff, let alone looks for the byline to see who wrote it), and, particularly in political campaigns, misperceptions can become embedded if there is not some kind of oversight and balance. I just worry, along with Daniel Okrent, the new public editor at The New York Times, who Glaser quotes as saying: “There does seem to be a great deal of naivete [on some watchblogs] about how newspapers work. It can lead to an incomplete impression, that someone was making a conscious effort to turn the news one way or the other, when in fact it’s that someone was on a deadline or something had to be cut.”
Here’s another interesting case. TechDirt, an excellent and industrious blog, has taken a close look at wire service Reuters’ coverage of a speech by Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, who resigned recently. (This may well be the most blogged event ever, according to those present.) Reuters’ lead is this: “Internet activism that thrust up the Howard Dean U.S. election campaign later hobbled the organization’s ability to respond to criticism in the weeks before the primaries, Dean’s former campaign manager said on Monday.”
TechDirt’s Mike has then compared it with the accounts given by two bloggers, Howard Rheingold and Ross Mayfield. His conclusion: “…it certainly looks like Reuters is the one doing the spinning here, taking a few quotes here and there out of context to make their point. With the bloggers’ notes, you can see the context of what’s being spoken about, and the Reuters report gives none of that. I’m not one who believes that bloggers are a “threat” to journalism, but the contrast here shows a perfect (if a bit scary) example of just how easy it is for the press to spin things to make their point. “
Robert Scoble, a blogger from Microsoft, takes it a bit further. He agrees with Techdirt, saying the “spin doesn’t match the speech”. He goes on: “This was like listening to a two-hour speech and then ignoring almost all of it so you can write the story you want to write in the first place. Why go to the conference then?”
I can quite understand why people say these things, and I am optimistic that blogs may help provide a different point of view to traditional media. And I think Mike has made clear that he’s not out to flay the media and promote blogs as an alternative to traditional media. And Robert has a point: Journalists often do have a preconceived idea of the story (we’re taught to do that) which they sometimes stick to doggedly in the face of uncontrovertible evidence to the contrary. But, speaking as a journalist (and one who used to be with Reuters for nine years) I think it’s worthwhile to try to get a clear fix on what journalists are required to do in their line of work. A journalist’s job is not to summarize a speech, say, nor, necessarily, to take the line that is presented in the speech. If we did that, stories would be boring and journalism would be little more than ‘journalism of record’. A journalist’s job is to take what he/she thinks is the most newsworthy information from an event/speech/interview and present it in a news story. What that newsworthy bit is, is of course subjective.
A news story is a very formulaic presentation of the material that often, for those present at the event being described, bears disconcertingly little resemblance to what happened. It’s a format honed (or distorted, depending on your point of view) by centuries of newsgathering, and I quite sympathise with those who think it’s warped and bears little relationship to reality. But it’s not spin. Spin is what PR people, flaks and others do. Journalists take an angle. That’s what the journalist is doing when she/he writes their story up and focuses on one aspect of it. Not everyone is going to agree that the angle taken was the right one; that’s where news judgement kicks in. But spin is what someone with an interest in the outcome puts on information in the hope of influencing a journalist; an angle is what the journalist thinks is the ‘sexiest’ take on the story. (Of course if a journalist has been spun, so that the spin becomes the angle he/she adopts for the story, they end up being one and the same. But the distinction, I think, remains an important one.)
I’ve looked at the blogs and looked at the original report and one could certainly argue for more context, to his remarks, as Mike has suggested. But only if Reuters misquoted Trippi, or quoted him out of context so the meaning of his words were twisted, would the story be wrong. But it’s also instructive to see the quite different angles taken by other news organisations: AP, for example, focused on whether to give all the email addresses Dean’s campaign has gathered to the Democratic Party. The LA Times went with the idea that Trippi lost money on the whole thing, while Wired led with Trippi’s claim that it was a beta test of a political revolution. This is an example of a story that had no clear news angle, leaving it open to the reporters to focus on what they will.
Perhaps that in itself is a reflection of the gulf between the way traditional media focuses on things, and how bloggers and others might do it. I think the idea that bloggers focus on what journalists write more closely is a good step forward, but those who do it need to have a strong understanding about what a journalist’s motives and tools are. The reason why there is a ‘news angle’ which may be quite different to what the those at the center of the event may consider to be important is because, somehow, journalists have to filter out anything that’s not new and find what is, whether or not those present consider that to be the most important element. That’s what news is.
That said about angle/spin, a lot of factual errors creep into news stories, usually as background. A journalist, under time constraint and with limited resources to hand, may end up throwing in a few lines of background which tend to entrench errors or slants that should be noticed and corrected. Glaser points to an interesting role played by Campaign Desk, which was set up to “help correct the record before a mistake was taken up by the pack”. Already, Glaser writes, Campaign Desk helped correct the record on Wesley Clark’s opposition to the war in Iraq after Matt Drudge made it look like Clark supported it. This sort of thing is helpful.
In the end bloggers may provide an important missing element in the news process: alternatives sources of information. Those who want to hear everything that Trippi said now have some good resources to fall back on, thanks to the dozens of bloggers who blogged his speech. That enables those interested enough to trawl through the blogs for more information. For the rest of the world, however, they need a filter, someone to distill what he said and take out of it an interesting angle that somehow pushes the story forward. That’s what journalists are for. Until something better comes along.