Ah, for the carefree world of the blog.
“It’s optimistic, energetic, new, open, growing, and fun; it’s the medium in the better mood, and that’s catching,” wrote the widely quoted Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine. “In short: Bloggers make better bar mates.”
Jarvis contrasted this electronic Eden to traditionalism journalism, which, he wrote, is shadowed by “a defeatism … mixed with anger and defiance: ‘We’re shrinking, and we can’t make money.’ ”
This defeatist mood apparently has led to a certain desperation, recently illustrated by the attempt to make the Los Angeles Times editorial page more fun and energetic by making it interactive, employing the Wikipedia model.
Andres Martinez, the editorial page editor, explained to readers that these “wikitorials” would be “an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials.”
But the Times’ site had to be taken down after only two days. Mischievous Web weenies suddenly discovered it – several days after it had been in all the papers – and started posting pornographic images. How fun and energetic!
This time, Martinez had this to say: “I was heartened by how seriously people took it. I was really impressed by the level of high-minded participation. It’s not a total shock it ended up this way. Now we will evaluate what this means.”
One of the things it means is that it’s risky to reconfigure newspapers to try to seduce people who don’t read newspapers. Apparently it doesn’t encourage reasoned discourse. It invites anarchy; or, at best, truth by majority vote.
There were quite a number of serious postings before photos of genitalia started showing up. The innovation attracted hundreds of readers who wanted to see their own opinions in print – or at least on a screen that carried a leading newspaper’s logo.
Yes, I know. We uninformed relics of geezer journalism better get used to the brave new world of customized journalism.
Blogs have gained favor because people are looking for information they can agree with. There is widespread and intense suspicion of all established institutions – including traditional journalism. Most people think everybody spins the news, including the people who are supposed to provide facts unspun.
But there is a difference between “citizen” journalism and “professional” journalism. A professional journalist’s No. 1 obligation is to be accurate. A citizen journalist’s No. 1 obligation is to be interesting.
A professional journalist has layers of editors checking his facts. A citizen journalist is usually a lone crusader.
There’s a lot to be said in favor of blogs. They provide a much-needed new layer of checks on the accuracy of the mainstream media.
Everybody needs a watchdog. It encourages higher standards. And if journalists weren’t sloppy, the blogs wouldn’t have these great coups.
But then, who checks the blogs? The obvious answer, to a blogger at least, is other blogs. But that begs the question, which blog is the more credible blog?
The 11th Annual Euro RSCG Magnet Survey of the Media, in which Columbia University participated, found that 51 percent of journalists read blogs regularly, mostly for story leads, but only 1 percent of them think blogs are credible.
A traditional journalist’s responsibility is to find and report new information – new, accurate information. Blogs are good at finding the flaws in others’ information. They’re not so much seeking new facts and reporting them; they’re seeking to rebut the “facts” others report.
The discrediting of Dan Rather is an example. His attackers didn’t come up with new information; they debunked what he had reported.
The rumor grapevine does the same thing. Its information may or may not be accurate, but its purpose is to refute, not to innovate.
The grapevine is more than a rumor mill. It’s credible because it confirms people’s suspicions. It’s what “they” say, and what they usually say is that what the authorities are trying to convince you to believe isn’t right. Aha! you think. It’s just as I suspected.
In this environment, it’s hard for any source to be authoritative. It leads to desperate measures such as the L.A. Times’ interactive editorial page. But the old-timers aren’t all as down in the dumps as the hip new competition suggests. There’s still a lot of fun in journalism, something new and different every day.
But there’s also that troublesome obligation: to seek truth and report it. To be accurate. To make sure that what you’re communicating is solidly rooted in reality, not just your personal suppositions, assumptions and preferences. An ethical journalist has a responsibility to at least try to meet those difficult, but crucial, standards.
Fred Brown, SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver.