Friday, September 26, 2008

Bloggers vs. journalists (by Suzie)

           A friend sent me a 2006 review by Emily McMackin of the book “Infamous Scribbers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism” by Eric Burns.
Taking his title from George Washington, who complained during his presidency of being “buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers,” Burns explores an era in which opinion ruled newspapers, and journalists didn’t hesitate to use crude language, baseless accusations or character attacks as weapons to make their cases.
          Sounds a lot like some bloggers and TV commentators today.
          It amuses me that journalists and bloggers snipe at each other because they have much in common. For starters, it’s not bloggers vs. the media. Any blogger who hopes to reach a lot of people is part of the mass media (but often not the MSM, or mainstream media.) There are a lot of journalists and former journalists, like me, who blog, and I’m sure some bloggers would be happy to be hired by the MSM. (I’m waiting to be hired by the FSM.)
         Speaking of hiring, one difference between bloggers and journalists is the latter generally works for someone else and gets paid, while most bloggers do not. As employees, journalists may go against their own judgment to do their boss’s bidding. Rarely would a boss say: “I hate this politician and I want you to go after her." Usually, it’s more along the lines of: You’re working on a story you think is really interesting, but the publisher hits a pothole, and so, you get pulled off your story to write something on potholes. Or, you’d like to spend months investigating a story, but your boss needs to fill the paper, and so, you spend your days on stuff you consider less important.
        The influence can be subtle. You may get praised for one story, but get criticized – or simply get less praise – for another story. Journalists who want to keep their jobs or get ahead look for ways to please their bosses. Some of these same influences affect bloggers. Bloggers may want to drive traffic to their sites. They may want to please their regular readers, other bloggers, people who might give them a job, their Aunt Bess, whomever. A guest blogger may want to please her host.
        Another difference between bloggers and journalists is that the latter get training specific to the profession. Some of us took journalism classes in college or got a degree in journalism. (I have the coveted BJ degree – a bachelor’s of journalism, not science or arts. And yes, there were jokes aplenty.) But many others did not get training in school; they got their training on the job, as do bloggers, for the most part.
        Some journalists have expertise in other areas, such as science or economics, but rarely can they match the expertise of a blogger who comes from that field. 
        Journalism has all sorts of rules and theory, from objectivity to direct quotation. But this information isn’t secret. Bloggers are welcome to learn, use or discard what they want.
       Journalists complain that bloggers make no attempt at fairness. But bloggers are similar to columnists, commentators, editorial writers and others in the MSM whose job is to express opinions. In return, bloggers complain about bias in journalism. Some biases are expected. If a commentator is supposed to provide a Republican viewpoint, you can expect him to be biased in that regard. If he's not hired to be biased against women, then there's a problem. To me, that's the bigger problem: people who think they're being fair, and are unaware of their biases. 
       In journalism, attempts at fairness often amount to quoting people with different opinions. As a character in Absence of Malice said: “You don't write the truth. You write what people say.” (Then bloggers comment on it.)
       Journalists complain about bad writing on blogs, and vice versa. Journalists complain about the lack of editing on blogs, but editing in journalism seems to be getting worse, as staffs shrink.
      Bloggers criticize journalists for acting like a pack and writing the same crap over and over, with little insight or investigation. Journalists say the same thing about bloggers. Actually, it’s a problem for all of us. Let’s say a newspaper publishes a story that is incorrect or distorted. The Associated Press spreads it throughout the MSM. Then a bunch of bloggers have at it. They ay cut through the B.S., or contribute to it.
       I think the best thing about blogs is the increase in ideas, opinions and experiences. In many ways, bloggers reflect the earlier days of newspapers before the rise of monopolies, corporate ownership and the myth of objectivity. People who might not otherwise be heard can now express themselves online.
         Nevertheless, people with time, money, education, writing skills, etc., are going to have an advantage. And, for some unknown reason, white male bloggers get a lot of attention.
         I discussed this on Magda’s Speak Freely radio blog, and she brought up crowdsourcing in journalism. This runs the gamut of a newspaper asking readers to submit their favorite cookie recipes to TPM asking readers to sift through government documents. As the MSM cuts staff, it seeks more information, writing and photography from people who don’t work for it. And some of those people are writing blogs.