Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Are blogs journalism? Um, no. But they are a journalism medium

Quote:
The silly mantra, 'Information wants to be free,' overlooks the fact that quality information requires effort, and effort costs money. Blogs are all well and good, they add richness to the exchange of information, but they are not journalism, and they never will be.
The above quote comes to us courtesy of Rudy M. Baum, outgoing editor-in-chief of Chemical & Engineering News [ETA: an arm of the America Chemical Society, which seems to have a policy of being dismissive of blogs]. I'm sure his pronouncement would be news to many of the journalists out there who blog and put in a great deal of effort in doing so (or elicit some "again with this shit?" eyerolling), but let's look at his pronouncement one phrase at a time, starting backwards.

"They are not journalism." What is journalism? Definitions vary, but I find the following first definitions:
  • Merriam-Webster: the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media
  • WikipediaJournalism is the investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience. 
  • Pew Research CenterThe central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society. This encompasses myriad roles--helping define community, creating common language and common knowledge, identifying a community's goals, heroes and villains, and pushing people beyond complacency. This purpose also involves other requirements, such as being entertaining, serving as watchdog and offering voice to the voiceless.
These definitions do not exclude blogs. In fact, is there a better, more accessible medium for defining community and creating common knowledge and language? 

"Blogs add richness to the exchange of information." Or, they yield new information, breaking news, and deep analysis. You know, journalism stuff. 

"Effort costs money." Not really. Effort mostly costs time. It'd be great if effort and money somehow interacted that way, but as anyone in the writing field can tell you, that ain't how it works.

"Quality information requires effort." See above. Yes, it does. And just because bloggers don't get paid or get paid as much as a staff writer doesn't mean they don't put in effort. 

"Information wants to be free" is a "silly mantra." I'm not sure if he's interpreting the mantra as saying, "We shouldn't have to pay good money for information" or if it means, "Information should not be hidden away." Given the comments that followed this phrase, I'm going with the money interpretation.

The medium used to convey information can be irrelevant to the information's quality. I could do a report on a Big Chief tablet in crayon, but if what I've written is accurate, that's quality information. It won't be pretty, but it'll be good information. If no one pays me for my crayon production, that still doesn't diminish the quality of the information it contains or the effort I put into collecting and writing about that information. If I chose to present my reporting using interpretive dance, assuming I could interpret "The scientists were totally speculating" with dance moves, the medium I choose to communicate that doesn't make or break my report as "journalism." Audience access to it? Maybe. 

Blogs are not, however, Big Chief tablets or interpretive dance. As a medium for journalists, they're a pretty obvious front-runner choice, what with all the writing and journalism-type stuff you can do with them. And bloggers are not wielding crayons or dancing interpretively (that you know). Bloggers who use their blogs to report and break news or analyze it--you know, journalists--are working through one of the most powerful media available today. Blogs are accessible to anyone who can get online. They're not limited by whether or not you've got quarters or a credit card or standard cable. Paywalls don't block them, and a layer of bureaucrats beholden to Rupert Murdoch (usually) has no sway over what a blogger covers. This information does, in fact, want to be free. I can see economic arguments for bemoaning blogs as making information less valuable as a commodity, but that doesn't make them not-journalism.

Can blogs be utterly full of shit? Sure they can. So can Fox News, an alleged journalism medium. Blogs aren't necessarily intrinsically journalism. No. A blogger who is also a journalist--and with that combination, boom! 'Blog can be journalism'--earns an audience because that writer builds trust through effort and hard work and honesty and accuracy. Any journalistic outlet has to do that. Walter Cronkite didn't arrange himself in his news anchor seat in the new medium of television and immediately earn the trust of America. The New York Times didn't emerge on paper as the most-recognized and respected newspaper (at one time) in the country. It earned that trust over time through exacting standards, meticulous reporting, admitting and correcting errors, and great writing. Not one single factor I just listed is something that using a blog as a medium excludes. 

The medium does not determine whether or not a product is journalism. As television demonstrates, a medium is just a tool, something that in the wrong hands can turn out trash, like "Real Housewives of BlahBlah USA." The medium does not determine whether what emerges from its use is trash or treasure--or journalism. The writer--the journalist--dictates that. 

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As I noted in the post, these points have been made before, and I've added links below to two writers who've made them quite memorably. Should we be surprised that it keeps coming up?
From Ed Yong
From Bora Zivkovic

7 comments:

  1. Would I be right in saying that the main difference is editorial control?

    By that token, you could make a similar distinction between science blogging and scientific publication.

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    Replies
    1. They can differ in that, certainly, but some blogs or blog networks are under editorial control, and some traditional publications have apparently forgone such editorial backup processes as fact-checking, so even that's all ambiguous as far as distinguishing blogs and traditional media.

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  2. We're deep in Humpty Dumpty territory I think.

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  3. I take solace in the fact that the person who wrote that is now retired. If only everyone with such ass-backwards views could piss off too, the rest of us could get on with our fuckton of work...

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  4. Ed, I'm not sure if this is cast in stone yet but Rudy will remain with ACS in some emeritus capacity and will be -- wait for it -- writing a blog.

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  5. I had a discussion with one journalist about Kathleen Seidel, blogger at Neurodiversity.com. The journalist referred to Ms. Seidel as having done some of the best journalism anywhere, any time.

    On the other hand, I am aware of a journalist who now runs a blog which rarely, if ever, reaches the level of poor journalism, much less good journalism.

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    1. As am I. A hammer is a tool we can use to build or to bash. Blogs can be rather similarly used or abused.

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