Anyone Can Blog; Not All Are Journalists

    January 3, 2006
    WebProNews Staff

Around this time last year, New York University professor Jay Rosen declared the “bloggers vs. journalists” debate closed. He cited New York Times writer John Schwartz’ own admission that “for vivid reporting from the enormous zone of tsunami disaster, it was hard to beat the blogs.”

The question of whether bloggers were journalists was, to some extent, settled. Rosen’s simple answer: “They can be, sometimes.”

Bloggers, especially ones at the scene of breaking news are not only less confined by geography and time (two elements not easily overcome with mortal powers), but also are less constrained by conventional check-double-check editorial processes that become ankle weights for the roving reporter.

And there’s the rub that reopens the debate. While bloggers “can be” journalists, can journalists be bloggers? Would they want to be? Bloggers lack the traditional restraints of the AP Style Book, the inverted pyramid structure, the editors, the advertisers, the costs of production, and every due that must be paid to be granted the title “journalist.” Bloggers can write pretty much whatever they want (though libel suits are beginning to be launched in the blogosphere as well). Anyone can blog.

The question of standards is perhaps the most present in the traditional journalist’s mind, not so much limitations. The limitations, after all, are what create the standards.

“The loss with blogs, as I see it, is the gate-keeping process that is present in most news operations,” says Jim St. Clair, professor of journalism, Indiana University Southeast. “That is, before something is committed to print or broadcast, there is an intermediary step where reports are examined and questioned by editors who look for mistakes, balance, fairness and omissions. The process is hardly perfect, but I think enormously valuable to news consumers.”

Bloggers are often bad at spelling, worse at grammar, and highly opinionated. And on the whole, bloggers are forgiven for their lack of standards and objectivity much faster than traditional journalistic outlets, mostly because they don’t hold the title “journalist” and the gravity that come with it. Professional journalists are not offered that forgiveness.

Dallas Mavericks owner, Internet media mogul, and big blog proponent Mark Cuban has held the New York Timeshead in the fire a few times on his blog for distorting his words, for their alleged lack of standards, and their financial limitations.

Cuban admits , though, in one of his rants against the Times, that from a reader’s perspective, a longer more in-depth piece is more likely read in print than from a screen. The speed and ease of surfing, coupled with advertising annoyances put the edge with print for longer pieces.

“When we encounter multi-page stories online,” writes Cuban, “we prepare ourselves to avoid an onslaught of ads, popups and intrusions. When we encounter a multiplage [sic] story in the newspaper, we have been conditioned to get comfortable, grab a cup of cofee [sic] or soda , and focus our attention.”

Interesting point. Bad editing. But the free expression of ideas and the conversation that comes with the reader comments sections of blogs often outweigh the particulars of perfect spelling and presentation. You get his point.

But a short amount of research will tell you who Mark Cuban is. For some bloggers, like the anonymous J.R. Pessimist, they protect their identities because of their associations. J.R. Pessimist told WebProNews he/she was tied to a well-known Internet company and therefore could not couple his/her real name with his/her controversial ideas. But based on the over-your-head nature of Pessimist’s writing, a reader may be inclined to believe this blogger knows the subject matter.

Knowledge of subject matter is another key contention. While the traditional researcher will balk at blogging because it is unclear who is writing and why they are credible, others will note that many of the most successful and highly visited blogs are run by experts in a field about which they are writing. Unlike many beat reporters, who are assigned a story and must learn the material shortly before educating the public, bloggers are often intimately acquainted with the topic already.

And if they are not, this is one area where the blogosphere will hold bloggers accountable. Like Wikipedia has illustrated, an online community of editors with the so-called “wisdom of crowds” will determine if any given blogger knows what he is talking about. This community of editors exists piecemeal in the comments sections of blogs, on a conglomeration of separate blogs, and the reflective topical relevancy offered on search engines.

Online, standards and objectivity are not as prized as the free marketplace of ideas. Unlike print, the Web-word lacks the harsh finality of the printed word, and opposition to any statement or claim is easily and quickly researched, even offered by its side.

But even as early as 2003, when blogs were first really starting to get attention, it was suggested that the two mediums should not be mutually exclusive, but rather that one should complement the other, allowing information consumers the option of weighing one extreme against the other.

In J.D. Lasica’s exploration of citizen journalism, Lasica quotes Salon Managing Editor Scott Rosenberg:

“It should be obvious that Weblogs aren’t competing with the work of the professional journalism establishment, but rather complementing it. If the pros are criticized as being cautious, impersonal, corporate and herd-like, the bloggers are the opposite in, well, almost every respect: They’re reckless, confessional, funky-and herd-like.”

And maybe the truth is somewhere between the poles. But while blogs are redefining how journalism is done, they may not be redefining what journalism is.