I was chatting with a journalist friend last night, real old-school wire service guy. We were talking about about blogging, about the decline of journalistic standards, and I was trying to make the point about the continuing misperception that bloggers are inherently unreliable and the traditional media aren’t. Nothing new there, but he told me a story about the BBC World TV channel falling for the Union Carbide/Bhopal story last December.
But it wasn’t just the BBC. Other news agencies picked up the story. But not all of them. My friend, who works for a prominent news service, says he was on duty that day and smelt something fishy. (He’s a modest guy so credited his boss with the decision. But I know how hard it must have been.) His agency didn’t run the story, and soon the retractions and backpedalling began.
Now it’s easy to be smart about these things. I’ve worked for a wire service, and I know the tremendous pressure there is to run with something if your rivals are. You’ve got to have a cool head, and most importantly, a good news sense, to hold off as the clock ticks down. My friend knew that there had been hoaxes before (this is not exceptional knowledge, as others have pointed out; these hoaxes tend to come around every Bhopal anniversary). But he also sensed the spokesman’s name was weird, and there was just something not right about it.
To me this is a skill that translates well to blogging, but needs to be carefully thought through. Bloggers tend to know their stuff; that’s why we read them. They are, or can be, a repository of wisdom about a subject, and know when something’s not right. Indeed, they not only report, but analyze, all on the fly. But we should also acknowledge that they are specialists, and their area of expertise may be quite narrow. My friend, meanwhile, is a generalist, knowing a little about a lot, enough to be able to make a call based pretty much on a gut feeling born of 30–odd years in the business. Where does this kind of experience fit into the new media world of citizen journalism?
When I visited OhmyNews, there was one guy with this level of experience, handling dozens of enthusiastic, but not professionally trained, reporters and editors. Chief editor Jeong Wooh Hyeon is a nice guy, committed, enthusiastic, and carrying the weight of that role that my friend plays in his newsroom. I like the way that OhmyNews has acknowledged the need for that kind of role, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether one was enough. It’s such an important part to play: the skeptic, the experienced eye, the balance, the nose for bias, a planted story, a hoax. But where do they fit, exactly, in the new media world?