Blogs have at least one significant advantage over newspapers: They are naturally configured to make the source of information clear. Whether a blogger indicates it in words (“according to Loose Wire, the earth is spinning”) as well as a link to the original source, or just via a link embedded into the declaration, the reader can easily figure out where the information is coming from. It’s neat, it’s simple, and it’s what the Web is all about.
Traditional media don’t have this inbuilt emphasis on sourcing, although they should. A good journalist always indicates, as high up as possible, the source of his/her information: “The earth is spinning, according to Internet blogger Loose Wire.” If the information seems somewhat hard to believe, or could be obviously a expression of opinion rather than fact, the source is placed first: “Loose Wire blogger says the earth is spinning.” But there’s no easy way in traditional print to offer the hypertext function of allowing the reader to automatically jump to the original source material to gauge its credibility for himself/herself, nor to check whether the original source has been quoted accurately and fairly.
But there’s a more important weakness, and it has nothing to do the shortcomings of the medium. It’s when traditonal media bury the source, leaving any but the most seasoned reader in the dark about where, in fact, the information is coming from. Take this account, for example, from the Sunday Times of London of reports that an immigration officer sought sex in return for helping an asylum seeker:
A SENIOR Home Office immigration officer has been suspended after allegations that he offered to help an 18-year-old Zimbabwean rape victim obtain asylum in the UK if she had sex with him.
James Dawute, 53, who works at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in London, allegedly told the girl: “I know how to win your case . . . I can handle it, don’t worry,” before asking her to go to a hotel with him for sex.
The immigration centre at Lunar House in Croydon, south London, was the subject of a separate “sex for visas” scandal in January, prompting an inquiry into whether immigration officials were trading favours for sex.
Dawute is alleged to have signalled to a security guard to bring the girl forward after seeing her waiting at the centre. He is said to have passed her his telephone number on a piece of paper and asked for her number in return.
He then signed forms allowing the girl to claim emergency accommodation. According to the girl, Dawute called her two days later, saying he liked her and wanted to meet to discuss her application.
At the meeting in a Croydon noodle bar the immigration officer was recorded by reporters from The Observer as he told the girl he wanted to take her to a hotel to have sex and indicated he might be able to help her application.
It’s only in the sixth paragraph of an 11 paragraph story that the source of the information is made clear: a rival newspaper. As far as I can make out there is no original reporting at all in the whole story. This is not just sloppy journalism. It’s a reflection of the fact that competition between newspapers is often conducted to the detriment of the reader. Here, the reader has no idea where the allegations come from (four “allegations/alleged/said to” weasel words in as many paragraphs) until the source is mentioned. (There’s an example of how the story was better handled in The Independent, which mentions the source in the second paragraph.) When the reader’s interests — who alleges this? Where did you get your information from? Is this your material or someone elses? Can I trust you on this and future stories to be straight with me? — are thrust aside for the interests of obfuscating the fact that a rival got the better of you, you can understand why some folk don’t mourn the slow demise of the traditional newspaper.
Imagine how this might have been handled in a blog picking up The Observer story: the link to the original in the first sentence, along with a “report in today’s Observer”, perhaps even a mention of the byline. In the meantime, I think traditional newspapers could do well to focus on raising their game to compete with blogs — not just in aping the technology that makes them so powerful, but the transparent sourcing, that invites readers to check with the original and draw their own conclusions.
It’s all about the reader, and always will be.