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A Few Thoughts on Journalism and What Can Weblogs Do About It
15 april 2004
I've been emailing with Jay Rosen about weblogs and journalism. Jay, you might know, is the Chair of the New York University Department of Journalism, and he's moderating the upcoming BloggerCon session entitled What is Journalism? And What Can Weblogs Do About It?
In preparing for his session, Jay has been trying to articulate a working definition of journalism, one that will provide a useful springboard for thoughtful, enlightening discussion. When I first started thinking and writing about this subject, I searched for a canonical definition, looking to authorities like the Columbia School of Journalism and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. I couldn't find one. Journalism, it seems, is like pornography. The specific definition varies from person to person, but in general, you know it when you see it.
Paul Andrews provided one definition that I like very much. In "Is Blogging Journalism?", written for the Fall 2003 edition of Harvard University's Nieman Reports, he defines journalism as "the imparting of verifiable facts to a general audience through a mass medium." Now, there are things to quibble about in that definition. "Mass Medium". Does that mean that size of audience is a factor? "General Audience". Does that mean that trade journalism, isn't? But it's a good stab at a definition, and it contains what I am coming to think of as the key component of any definition of journalism: verifiable fact.
Applying this standard to a publication like the Weekly World News demonstrates just how serviceable it is. No one would judge the Weekly World News to be any form of journalism. This in spite of the fact that it is published weekly, read widely, and even contains advertising. The Weekly World News indisputably imparts information as fact to a general audience through a mass medium. But few, if any, of those facts are verifiable.
So, that word "verifiable", it seems to me, is crucial to the practice of journalism, whether it be in a newspaper or in a blog. A blogger or columnist may assert something--or may be told something by a source--but until it can be verified (as fact by evidence or a second source, or as an accurate representation by a second reporter), it may not qualify as "journalism". In that way, perhaps journalism is similar to the scientific method with its reliance on reproducible results.
The broad definition of journalism I propose is this: Journalism is any third-party account that adds to the record of verifiable facts. (A first-person account would be one by a participant in the story; a second-party account would be by a spokesman for one of the participants.) Participants--individuals who are part of the story--and their proxies who add to the record of verifiable fact are sources, or witnesses, or autobiographers. A weekly Presidential radio address may inform listeners of events; but because this record is created by a shaper of the events it recounts, it is not journalism.
Note how broadly and clearly this standard can be applied. When a blogger writes up daily accounts of an international conference, as David Steven did at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, that is journalism. When a magazine reporter repurposes a press release without checking facts or talking to additional sources, that is not. When a blogger interviews an author about their new book, that is journalism. When an opinion columnist manipulates facts in order to create a false impression, that is not. When a blogger searches the existing record of fact and discovers that a public figure's claim is untrue, that is journalism. When a reporter repeats a politician's assertions without verifying whether they are true, that is not.
Of course, this criterion does not reach widely enough to include the vast majority of bloggers, few of whom provide original reporting of their own. But defining journalism less rigorously than we have done can only benefit those who desire to gain the privileges extended to professional journalists while evading their professional standards. Like many people, I am frequently disappointed by press coverage of current events. Too often, journalists unskeptically accept whatever "facts" are given to them by authorities without verifying that they are true. If anything, we need to establish higher standards for journalism, not a second, lesser standard for people who lack the resources to do the job well. This will especially ring true for those who believe that weblogs are the future of journalism. We must not create a situation in which top-quality journalism produced by conscientious amateurs can be cavalierly dismissed as "weblog journalism."
You may notice that this definition will leave out a great mass of bloggers who are practicing what I call participatory media: shaping, filtering, commenting, contextualizing, and disseminating--interacting with--the news reports that others have produced. And if they are left out, what's the problem with that?
One problem is that we--and I am part of that great mass of non-journalist bloggers--think what we're doing is important. And if we can't apply a title like "journalism" to our work, how can we make others understand how important it is? More to the point of Jay's session, how can we make the journalism establishment understand the value weblogs bring to the public conversations that journalists shape?
Those are fair questions, but I don't believe the answer is to redefine journalism to fit weblogs. I think it's more useful to demand high standards from those who practice journalism, whether they write for a newspaper or on a blog. Bloggers, as experienced, critical readers, are in a perfect position to advocate for more comprehensive, nuanced coverage of events--and to highlight examples of excellent journalism. At the same time, we need to explore the value non-journalist bloggers offer both to the public and to journalism.
Let me be clear: I have a high respect for journalism, especially good journalism. I think it's rigorous, skilled work. I think it is not easy to do well. And I have a high respect for blogging, especially good blogging. It can be rigorous, skilled work. I know it's not easy to do well.
In my view, the journalism establishment isn't paying enough attention to the weblog universe. Journalists who read weblogs often tend to read only those which are written by other journalists, a huge mistake. There are hundreds of talented amateurs who are producing smart, incisive writing every day on their personal sites. These individuals don't hold to journalistic standards--and that is their strength. Bloggers say what they think, giving reporters a window into the views of those outside the media. Bloggers often find angles that professional reporters have missed, or ask questions reporters have neglected to ask. And bloggers do amazing research. Professional journalists, often working under extreme time pressure, may not have time to research a piece as thoroughly as they would like. Bloggers have no externally imposed deadlines, and no mandate to research equally the claims of both sides. Reporters would benefit by regarding bloggers as modern Baker Street Irregulars. When bloggers link to conflicting or contextualizing material, smart reporters will further research and verify promising leads, and credit the bloggers who uncovered them.
Participatory media and journalism are different, but online they exist in a shared media space. There are tremendous synergies possible between the two. I have no desire to conform my weblog to journalistic standards, or to remake journalism in my image. I want to find ways to leverage the strengths of both worlds to the mutual benefit of both.
citation: Blood, Rebecca. "A Few Thoughts on Journalism and What Can Weblogs Do About It", Rebecca's Pocket. 15 April 2004. 08 January 2006. <http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/what_is_journalism.html">.