Monday, January 10, 2005

Blogging, Journalism and Credibility

This is the title of a conference to be held at Harvard University this month. Despite the general-sounding title, the conference is very specifically aimed at the question whether blogs, especially blogs about politics and current affairs, are credible. This is what the organizers say about the intention of the conference:

To both journalism and blogging, credibility is essential. What are the areas of common ground shared by these very different approaches to handling news and information? Can journalists who also blog do their work without conflicting standards? Might bloggers adopt standards and a transparency that will elevate their credibility? Our purpose is to bring together a small group of smart and thoughtful people to ponder these and other related issues, which will result in a published report and - we hope - will mark the beginning of an on-going and very important dialogue.

The purpose of bringing together "a small group of smart and thoughtful people to ponder these and other related issues" appears to have resulted in a list of participants which mostly excludes bloggers. Maybe bloggers are not smart and thoughtful enough to be included in such a small group? Though I think that the real reason why bloggers are only represented in a token form is that scientists don't invite the bacteria they study to give papers at their conferences. We are the bacteria. Well, the big bloggers are the bacteria, I'm something not yet even named.

The response to the news about this conference in the left blogosphere has been swift and sharp. Both Digby and Seeing the Forest have valuable insights about the relationship between traditional forms of media and blogging. Seeing the Forest points out that the bloggers have made it much harder for the media to decide which news merit the most attention. Bloggers can simply pick quite different news for emphasis, and there's nothing the mainstream news can do about this:

With the internet, this arbiter function is lost. Every man [sic] can be his [sic] own I.F. Stone now. Stone used to say that you could always find the truth in the newspapers, but it would often be in a short paragraph on page sixteen. Most of the damage that bloggers do to the established media doesn't come from independent reporting, but from displacing the copy editors by highlighting stories the editors wanted to downplay.

Digby elaborates on another theme in Seeing the Forest's arguments: that of the extreme polarization of the blogosphere (into us and Wingnuttia!). This polarization makes blogging less credible in the eyes of the so-called liberal media. But the loss of credibility doesn't appear to stick to the Wingnuttian blogs as well as it sticks to us:

On the right, the blogosphere has been incorporated into their message machine. (Indeed, the political blogosphere was really invented by a guy named Drudge, wasn't it?) They feed and are fed, without explicit direction. They know what they are supposed to say and it filters up down and around talk radio, cable news and into the mainstream. We all know how it works. This is why only a right wing freelance political blogger was invited to the conference --- the mainstream of both political parties are really only aware of the bloggers who have been pushed to the forefront by the Mighty Wurlitzer. Just as they are only aware of ... so many things that have been pushed to the forefront by the Mighty Wurlitzer. It's the essence of our political weakness.

I agree. The right is organized, militarized and hierachical. We are individualistic and disorganized. This makes us much more fun to read but there is a cost, and the cost is evident in the way "everybody" knows that wingnut bloggers brought down Dan Rather, but not that many people know about the heroic deeds of the lefty blogosphere.

This is all very interesting, as it casts some light on the question the conference will probably not discuss in great detail: What is credibility? Here is Seeing the Forest's definition of credibility (short and gutsy):

People who promote Judith Miller, but fire Robert Parry, really need to shut up about credibility. "Credibility" is just the conventional wisdom -- if you disagree with it, you're not credible. (Scott Ritter knew as much about the facts of Iraqi WMD as anyone did, and he was right when almost everyone else was wrong, but do you see him on TV any more, or read him in the NYT? No. Not credible.)

The dictionary definitions of credibility are slightly different:

The quality, capability, or power to elicit belief: "America's credibility must not be squandered, especially by its leaders" (Henry A. Kissinger).

n : the quality of being believable or trustworthy

What is it that elicits belief? In an ideal world it would be a long thread of evidence, carefully appended to each article and opinion piece, and freely available for each reader or viewer to follow. In reality, readers and viewers have neither the time nor the inclination to study the truthfulness of each item they meet in the media, and substitutes have been invented for the need to double-check everything. That's why we rely on the reputation of the source to judge its truthfulness, and that's why writers who are known or suspected to be biased are less likely to be regarded as credible. That's why we want to know whether something interesting cropped up in the New York Times or on the blog of a nectar-influenced minor goddess, whether the writer was academically trained in journalism or whether she just picked it up in bars while carousing with Aphrodite. These things are shortcuts for checking credibility in the minds of many.

But the shortcuts are only as good as their correlation with the underlying thing we seek: believability. If a respected source of news suddenly starts releasing bits and pieces of state propaganda, or propaganda from one political party, then its credibility goes down the toilet. The old signal no longer works. There is no better signal of credibility than a long and uninterrupted history of having been shown to be credible, and whatever dirties up this history destroys credibility. Many blog readers have concluded that large parts of the traditional media are no longer credible for them, and this is why there is a market for political blogs.

Of course, I could have approached the dictionary definitions of credibility from a darker angle, which is to point out that people find credible whatever supports their prior beliefs. This is the reason why conservatives rave and rant about the liberal bias in the media, and probably also the reason why so many of us nice liberals rave and rant back about the so-called liberal media. Blogs can be found to agree to any prior political stance, however weird, and then the blogwriter and readers can live forevermore in a happy (though ignorant) symbiosis. If true, this state of events doesn't bode well for future peace and democracy in this country.

See how unbiased I am? I keep giving you one hand and then the other. I even admit that some of the concerns of the traditional media are warranted. Many bloggers don't adhere to journalistic principles of transparency or ethics, but neither do some journalists in the mainstream. Caveat emptor is still the most useful maxim for the consumers of news or for the citizen readers of blogs.

I never thought that blogs were seen as rivals for journalism before I started writing a blog, and it still seems a little odd to think of blogs in those terms. After all, very few bloggers have the investigative resources of mainstream media. For example, I have nobody in Iraq to send me reports, and I couldn't afford to have someone even in the next town. No, blogs are not in the business of reporting news. What blogs do, instead, is commenting, which is a very different endeavor altogether. And in this they provide a most useful service: it's like having an extra conscience sitting on the shoulders of all the toiling journalists! Isn't that nice?