Thursday, May 03, 2007

And there goes the point, gents

Babble on.

David Akin has put up a post on his blog in which he excerpts without comment from a couple of pieces that discuss media and blogging. Note to David: it's a blog, you're supposed to tell us what it means to you.

Here's a chunk of what he cut and pasted:

I'm all for blogs and blogging. But I'm not blind to the limitations and the flaws of the blogosphere - its superficiality, its emphasis on opinion over reporting, its echolalia, its tendency to reinforce rather than challenge ideological extremism and segregation. Now, all the same criticisms can (and should) be hurled at segments of the mainstream media. And yet, at its best, the mainstream media is able to do things that are different from - and, yes, more important than - what bloggers can do. Those despised "people in a back room" can fund in-depth reporting and research. They can underwrite projects that can take months or years to reach fruition - or that may fail altogether. They can hire and pay talented people who would not be able to survive as sole proprietors on the Internet. They can employ editors and proofreaders and other unsung protectors of quality work. They can place, with equal weight, opposing ideologies on the same page. Forced to choose between reading blogs and subscribing to, say, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist, I will choose the latter. I will take the professionals over the amateurs.

But I don't want to be forced to make that choice.

Holy missing the point, Batman.

Let's start with the whole idea of "opinion over reporting." Journalists are weaned on the idea of objective, impartial reporting as a separate beast altogether from editorializing. One of the most interesting aspects of my little neighbourhood within the blogosphere is that the bloggers I interact with understand there's no such separation. "Objective reporting" is like a unicorn: a pleasant myth, but you'll never find it in real life. Journalism would be a lot more relevant if it would give up the ghost on that front and join the rest of us in acknowledging that everyone, everyone involved in the flow of information cherry-picks from the almost infinite supply of facts available for reporting each and every day. Just like David did by even choosing the articles he so lamely posts without throwing in his two cents (OK, I'll stop ragging him on this now).

Let's also address the idea that placing opposing viewpoints on the same page with equal weight is somehow valuable. This has got to be the biggest single scam in all of journalism. And I'll tell you why.

Let's say you've got a pain in your side. You go to the doctor, and the doctor tells you it's appendicitis. But in the interests of "balance," you also ask your six-year-old son for his diagnosis. He says it's God punishing you for not letting him have a second helping of chocolate cake at Billy's birthday party on the weekend. Giving those two opinions equal weight is what journalists hide behind every day, in order to mask their own illiteracy in the subjects they cover.

I see it all the time in military reporting. You query MGen (Ret) Lewis MacKenzie on combat operations, a subject he spent the majority of his adult life studying and applying, a subject he mastered to the point where he was promoted nearly to the top of his profession. And then, in the interests of "balance," you quote Dawn Black, a politician whose entire body of knowledge of things martial would fit comfortably on the back of a cocktail napkin. That's not balance, it's professional malpractice - and although I've picked on Akin here, I will point out that it's standard practice across the trade.

The rest of the argument in Akin's quoted article revolves around money, pure and simple: media outlets have the coin to fund better stories. Fair enough, as far as it goes - I don't have the time or resources to do half the research I want to do each blogging day. But that line of reasoning assumes that more time and money will attract better writers, producers, and on-air talent. I say that's garbage. Wretchard is far more insightful than Siddiqui, and he doesn't make TorStar money, or have a TorStar expense account. Heck, I started writing at The Torch in order to combat the abysmal standard of media coverage on the Canadian Forces, and it's now read by journalists who actually cover the CF for a living, MP's and their staffers, consultants, lobbyists, and defence contractors - not to mention soldiers and other officials at DND.

If folks like that who rely on good information about the CF choose to come to a site like mine to supplement their media diet, what does that tell you about the substance - or rather the lack thereof - of the journalism within my little area of interest? I'll spell it out for you: if the paid media was that much superior to the blogosphere, as the article Akin quotes suggests, there would be no audience for an amateur like me who writes for free in his limited spare time.

This isn't to say that blogging is perfect or that traditional journalism is useless. The echo-chamber criticism is quite valid, for example. And more often than not, bloggers rely on the MSM as secondary-source fodder for tertiary-source blogging.

But as more and more bloggers witness newsworthy events first-hand and post about them online, that chain of information will break down. It's already happening in more technical fields, where the experts (the scientists, the researchers, the analysts) are taking their message directly from raw data to public consumption in one step. Who needs a reporter on the "science beat" for the Globe and Mail these days, when you can read the scientist's own words without the filter of a less technically-competent journalist in the way?

It's fascinating to watch journalists try to justify their diminishing contribution in the value chain. I'm an insurance broker by trade, a middleman - much like a journalist. I act as a buffer between the insurance companies and the insurance consumers, in the same way that a journalists acts between the creators of news and the consumers of news.

But here's the big difference: I add value. I get paid for my specific expertise. I make sure my clients' needs are being met by the products they buy, and I make sure they understand the limitations of those products. I'm their professional guide through a technically challenging insurance and risk management minefield.

Tell me what value most reporters add to their stories? Do they know their subject inside and out? Can they knowledgeably separate the wheat from the chaff for their audience? Or do they actually distort the truth by forcing it through their mostly uninformed filter?

I'd argue there's actually an advantage to part-time, volunteer blogging over paid media: we don't have to make money on the stories we tell. We're not slaves to ratings or advertising dollars, so we can communicate a boring story without sensationalizing it. We can delve into the complexities of a subject without fear of our audience changing the channel. We can follow our heart on what's important and what's not without having to pitch our ideas to a producer or editor. We can tell it straight - and I don't mean "tell it like it is," but rather "tell it like we see it" and let our readers make up their own minds.

It's a real shame that journalists commenting about the blogosphere so often resemble the astronomers of the day who opposed Galileo. Instead of trying to justify their shortcomings, their mistakes, their flawed status quo, they should be embracing the compelling evidence that indicates why their model hasn't been working. Because only at that point can they begin the difficult process of fixing it.

Instead of focusing on why blogging is inferior, journalists need to look at how they can add value to the information distribution chain. Without that epiphany, and the hard work that comes after, I'm afraid the mainstream media will eventually collapse under the weight of their own arrogance and sense of privilege. What a shame that would be.

Babble off.


At 9:39 p.m., Blogger David said...

Nice defence of blogging. Some good points.

Now, you're ragging on me for not having opinions on this stuff. Man, this debate is so old, I'm all opinioned out :)

But if you're up to reading on as much babbling on :) -- try this:

"The blog is an increasingly important tool for newsgathering and for maintaining a connection with the community or ecosystem of those that you report on. That last part was the bit that surprised me as I started blogging. It has made my print reporting interactive.

I write; I publish. And that used to be the end of it. Now, I write, I publish and a community of people who have special knowledge or who are deeply interested in the topic amplify, correct, modify, or extend the reportage. For a beat reporter, this is fabulous, because I now have more knowledge about my beat ...[Read the rest]

And be sure to read the comments section....
Readers and viewers decide who is a journalist and who is not one -- not you, not me and not academics at journalism schools. Is Jon Stewart a journalist? He says he's a comedian but many of his viewers believe he's a journalist. Is Rush Limbaugh a journalist? Some say he's a propagandist; others might call him a journalist.
Who am I to argue and why should I? You want to be a journalist? Fine. You're a journalist...

Here's some other links back at my place:

Blogs are bad, blogs are good, blogs are . . . I don't know from 2003.
Blogs and Journalism -- will this discussion never end? also from 2003.

There's lots more from me, too, if you're really bored.

At 2:16 a.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Oh, I figured you had an opinion, I was just ragging on you for not posting it with the articles.

But after reading some of what you referenced above, I'll bite: since you do have an opinion, why didn't you post it with the quoted articles? And if the debate is that old - and I'll agree with you on that, although it remains interesting to me as I learn more and more about both blogging and journalism - then what was the point of putting the articles up without giving us your viewpoint on them?

By the way, some of those archival posts you referenced at your site have some...provocative...trackbacks. You may want to check & edit.

At 6:04 a.m., Blogger David said...

Damn trackback spam ....

An important point: What was the point of blogging something without giving an opinion? Plenty. For me, my blog is like an online notebook. I dump all kinds of stuff there. I blogged, for instance, every proposal passed at the 2005 Conservative policy convention. Didn't "opine" on each policy proposal. Just wanted to basically take note. Then when I'm on, say, an election campaign and I can't haul all my paper notebooks around, I can just do a quick keyword search on my blog to double check what was said at a policy convention against a morning campaign announcement. I'll let you you guys do the opining on most topics -- I find straight reportage much more interesting -- and rare -- in the blogosphere.

At 11:01 a.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

I'll let you you guys do the opining on most topics -- I find straight reportage much more interesting -- and rare -- in the blogosphere.

So with that comment, you've dismissed my idea that there's no such thing as "straight reportage" without explanation, and said that you find this mirage of yours much more interesting.

David, you picked those articles for your post for a reason. I think you do your readers a disservice by not telling them why you did, what you saw in them. Hiding behind the idea that they're "straight reportage" is quite frankly disrespectful to your audience: it says you think they're not smart enough to figure out that you have a purpose in picking those stories, and it says that you think they should ignore those reasons and blindly accept your assertion that you're just doing "straight reportage."

Every time you choose to post something, you're imparting an importance to it to your reader - otherwise why would you go to the effort of putting it on your blog?

You say you'll leave the opining to the rest of us, but you opine by picking and choosing what you post, by what you choose to highlight within the posts, by how you title your posts, by how you order the posts and link within them. At least the rest of us are open with our opinions. Your conceit - and I've found it among a number of other paid journalists - is that your can keep your opinion out of your reporting (which you can't completely), and that it shouldn't matter to your audience (which it does whether you like it or not - we'll tell you what matters to us, thank you very much).

Everything you do online tells us something about you, David - even the fact that you tracked down this post on a little-read blog that's barely keeping the lights on. Might as well give in to that fact and be open about it.

At 9:32 p.m., Blogger Lemon said...

Opinions have traditionally been cheap and facts expensive. That has been the advantage of MSM. But main media are squeezed financially and are replacing news gatherers with subscriptions to news services and newgathering journalists by talking heads and opinion writers.
They are more like blogs than they would ever admit.
So the "trusted news sources" are becoming news makers by spinning stories through the voices of their 'talent'.
Meanwhile, as you well point out, news events are now being covered on-the-scene in real time by bloggers while the MSM waits for their newsfeeds.
Facts are becoming cheap now - but aren't for sale. Some kid looking out a window is posting it as he sees it (and not from an opinion perspective).

At 10:17 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Some kid looking out a window is posting it as he sees it (and not from an opinion perspective).

Or, more likely, with an opinion, but a transparent and open one. Which is preferable to hiding one's opinion behind some misguided set of "journalistic ethics" that never seem to do the job to everyone's satisfaction anyhow.

At 10:27 p.m., Blogger El Cerdo Ignatius said...

Run for office once - just once, even for village council or dogcatcher - and you'll find out quickly just how bad the MSM is.

And they truly are very bad all the time. Indolent, hooked on repeating conventional wisdom, uninteresting in any true research, unprepared, biased, and sloppy. Your comments on journalism's weak attempts at "balance" are right on, as are your words of approbation to those who believe that journalists just report the facts.

At 6:49 p.m., Blogger Paul said...

Recently, I resigned as President for a fairly high profile community organization. Whoop-de-do-dah, right? Well, I left in circumstances that were slightly less than optimal as no one wanted to step up into my role. At the AGM, there were 3 MSM types (pencils and tape recorders in hand) and I had the thought that this could be spun a number of ways - good, bad or indifferent - and I wondered which way each would present it. When the articles were published, two featured me and my message at the AGM (good year, lots of fun had by all, etc.) and only noted at the end that I was resigning and that I'd be missed. The third didn't write an article (lazy bastard). The lesson for me was that sometimes it is good to just present the facts and let the readers take from it what they want. I'm sure that someone who wanted to sensationalize the story could have done it on that one fact alone - "CA finished - no President". The lesson for me is that perhaps there is room for "striaght reportage". Whether Damian is correct in saying that the reporter showed his bias by even printing the story and chosing to be "unbiased" - okay - but it could have been alot worse in my mind. I think sometimes we confuse having opinions with adding value and the two aren't always the same in my mind. In fact, sometimes opinions only act to defend, confuse, or detract from having an open and honest dialogue. Just a thought... hope I got the gist of the thread as I skimmed through it quickly.


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