What is Journalism?

Jay Rosen is moderating a discussion at BloggerCon on Saturday of the questions, “What is Journalism And What Can Weblogs Do About It?” I am reading through his background essay and the associated comments to get a feel for what it will be like.

Right up front, Jay hits me over the head with insight in making sure that journalism is not defined as a profession, but an act:

By “journalism” we ought to mean the practice of it, not the profession of it. Journalism can happen on any platform. It is independent of its many delivery devices. This also means that journalism is not the same thing–at all–as “the media.” [...]

If printers and postmasters, who didn’t set out to be journalists, can wind up as that, then in any era we should think it possible for people to wind up doing journalism because they find it a logical, practical, meaningful, democratic, and worthwhile activity.

Other key points: The “professional journalists” are a large portion of the quality journalists, but this not always be the case. And, journalism is primarily defined in terms of addressing a “public” about some situations or events.

On journalists being better…

Dave Winer commented on the superiority of bloggers or professionals:

I think the best journalists around today are bloggers, not professionals, and I’m not saying that to be argumentative, I really believe it, and could and would debate it, except this is not the topic of this session.

In a way this is like saying the best programmers are professionalis, yet the hype says the opposite. What does it say about us if we believe that whether or not someone is paid plays a major role in the quality, and that in one profession it’s the fact that they’re being paid that makes them better, and in another it’s the fact that they’re not being paid.

Bryant refers to the idea that other journalists are better–or can be better–because they have better, or exclusive, tools like access (press passes.) He asks how bloggers can get them.

Micheal Boyle lists of many kinds of journalists to illustrate that it’s not correct to refer to them as a homogeneous group.

Many people discussed labels in general and their failure to aide understanding in many situations.

Terry Heaton asks, “Do weblogs really give power to the people? and If weblog journalism is about power, what’s to prevent [it from being corrupted]?”

Jay Rosen interprets the above as related to conflicts of interest in journalism in general.

A nice soundbite of this issue from Academy Girl: “No one owns journalism, but lots of people own journalists.”

Other comments related to power.

Seth Finkelstein identifies that blogging still presents the problem of gatekeepers who constrict information. This seems to related to Shirky’s Power Law, I think with this issue Joi Ito‘s idea of the “amplifier” fits.

b!X wants to know about credibility in weblog journalism. I imagine that many will want to know about credibility in journalism period, as one of the popular modes of blogging is “checking your ass.”

(Related to differences between “Big Media” and “Blogging.”)

Julia G. thinks that blogging can often provide a different narrative that is lost in the big world.

Mary Hodder points out that one of the most unobserved and important changes in blog journalism is the concept of “linking.” It leads me to wonder about what a traditional news article would be like if every quote and statistic was linked to the original source for context and clarity.

Amy Wohl refers to this as the “transparency of the Internet.” I would just, as the “power” comments imply, that this a potential–not a definite.

Michael ask if this is where credibility comes from? In that case, does this means blogs are more creditable on average because of the higher percentage of referenced data?

Academy Girl points out that when bloggers reference they are often unable to double-check. This is like when a local newspaper just pulls headlines from the AP.

Jay Rosen does a great job defining the benefit of linking:

Linking–or let’s say linking at its best–annuls and overrrides journalism’s enormous appetite for forgetting things (also called dropping the story.) Linking negates the context-stripping that daily journalism in a sense demands. Linking obeys a different informational ethic entirely, which is why, Anna, op-ed style writing online–at weblogs–is frequently done at a higher level than the professional norm.

Phil Wolff both asks if blogging is like teaching yourself journalism and if blogging is only different because it is often done for free.

Tangential to this, Tom Matrullo refers to blogging journalism as benefitting from starting from scratch without an intrenched method that must be protected. I think Jay Rosen identified parts of this when suggesting that bloggers could possibly learn from journalism and vice-versa.

Michael says this will be the ultimate effect of blogging: Not replacing, but reorganizing, journalism.

Academy Girl points out that most blogging is just editorial and “second-rate punditry.” I imagine that many would say the same about “professionals” they dislike.

This is related to the lowered barrier of entry that Jeneane mentioned.

Jeff Sharlet continues with this deflating:

I’m afraid that rather than challenging the decrepit state of journalism, blogs are actually propping it up, by validating it through endless punditry, as Academy Girl more or less notes. Hack journalists in the press pool churn out mediocre fluff; blow hard bloggers call them to task, but only by discussing the piece. And the end result is: Nothing new in the way of information or narrative.

That’s a pessimistic view, but how many people read blogs who don’t blog? The fact that so many blog readers are also bloggers (or frequent enough commentators to count as such) isn’t some kind of democratic achievement, it’s an incestuous community. Sure, we welcome new cousins, but this isn’t changing the world. It’s making a new watercooler for media types and political hobbyists (no insult intended; I’m one myself and spend a lot of time reading others).

Of course, this critique is limited to blogs that deal with news. Personal blogs, religious blogs, food blogs, knitting blogs — perhaps they’re actually inventing a new journalism.

b!X seems to suggest that because blogs are read, and readers define worth, this implies that blogs are of worth. The only thing up and the air then is: Are they journalism? Someone would naturally ask next, Does it matter if they are journalism?

Rebecca MacKinnon:

What about the social negatives of weblogs? (Don’t lynch me please but we’re not doing our job if we don’t ask this question.) To what extent might they contribute to the spread of disinformation, and to tyrannies of misinformed majorities? I hear this question a lot from blog-skeptics. (This also leads to a question I want to deal with in my session: what happens when people are blogging in countries that don’t have a free press?)

Something clever for Rebecca’s session: If there’s blogging in that country, then they don’t know they have a free press. Har har har.

On the lowered barrier of entry…

Seth Finkelstein says that the barrier being lower, smaller, or easier is an illusion… at least for bloggers who want to be read.

My advice to bloggers seeking traffic is to entirely ignore anything said by bubble-blowers and it’s-a-New-Era type visionaries. Rather, the game is the same-old-same-old. Either you have to attach yourself somehow to one of a few attention-gatekeepers (as a favorite or protege or water-carrier or similar), or have some sort of institutional endorsement, or be willing to spend a very great deal of time and energy on promotion, etc. Otherwise, you’re going to be the equivalent of the public-park soapbox-standers, and then have to watch all the nattering about how your standing on a soapbox proves the vibrant democratic properties of the parksphere.

Matt Stoller ponders the connection between blogging and non-media journalism: Like the Daily Show or the Onion.

Weldon Berger writes about how bloggers don’t go after the big targets for news, but the emergent effect of their trawling can compete.

Jeneane refers to this as this disappearance of the “ta-da!” in journalism and news.

Debra Galant explains that everyone is excited because everyone has a story to tell, they don’t need to wait for journalists to ask.

Adopt-A-Journalist, by Jay Rosen

Initially, Jay Rosen posted a number of links about an idea going through the blogosphere:

Over the holidays, an idea gained some Net traction: webloggers “adopting” a campaign reporter. That means you monitor and collect all the reporter’s work, and then… And then what? Follow the turns as the suggestion is taken up and debated.

Then, a few days later Jay Rosen continued with what he loved and “dreaded” about the idea.

Love:

Adopting a campaign reporter, and writing a weblog about the work that reporter does, is involving yourself in the press. And you can never predict how involving things will evolve. But that’s not why I love it. I love it because it’s one-to-one. That cosmic abstraction, The Media, which has no earthly address, is reckoned with by reduction to a single journalist, somebody who, far from the news wars, might be eating a sandwich when you are eating your sandwich. This gives the activity human scale, even if it’s antagonistic. Our expanding culture of complaint about Big Media could use more of that– a human scale.

Hate:

Don’t tell me it doesn’t exist–floating hatred for The Media, (which has no address) addressed to individuals who in someone’s eyes represent “the” media–because I can find occasional evidence for it in comments here at PressThink. You can find it at a million Web pages in public view. Bipartisan evidence, too. Is the contempt deserved? A lot of intelligent people think so, and they act on that belief. They write of it. They sometimes commune around it. Is there contempt for an intelligent lay public by the press? There is, but right now I am not discussing it.

Now it’s ridiculous to put a powerful system like the American news media in the position of victim, and I intend nothing like that. Nothing at all. But I am curious why we don’t see hatred of the press as taking some toll on the hater. (We do when it’s racism.) In this sense I dread the adopt-a-journalist scheme, even though I support the idea, because I think dread is a fit response when people who are in some quarters hated–perhaps symbolically so–are being carefully “watched” in those quarters.

Al Giordano comments on this and tries to build a case against the “dread.”

Should we trust cops to monitor cops? We can’t trust “licensed” (i.e. commercial) journalists to monitor their peers either. The brotherhood is too deeply ingrained and imposed by the owning class of the media, and most journalists have gone along with this racket to the detriment of the vocation and its work.

The inevitable result of this trend that you’ve bravely been willing to discuss honestly is that, to survive the assault, the “official” press (that is, Commercial Media) is going to have to allow its reporters to interact more honestly, and less condescendingly, with the public.

The days when an editor or a publisher or an ombudsman could mediate that relationship are coming to a close. The handcuffs have to be taken off the journalists, and the culture of elitism that considers journalists as apart and separate from the masses – that is, unaccountable to the people – has to end.

Halley comments on Halley’s Comment.

I love it if it lets us see who is twisting the facts about politicians to their own or their friends’ partisan advantages and denying the American public factual information about what’s going on in Washington. Just like giving up on Santa Claus being real, none of us really believe the media is objective anymore, do we? If the dirt on folks like Karl Rove is correct and they manipulate the media to destroy people just for the fun of it and for the big fees their benefactors pay them, this is a problem. A big problem. I’d like to trust journalists. I’d like journalists to help me be educated, to help me be an informed citizen, to help me participate in democracy. Am I naive? Probably, but I vote yes for foster parenting journalists if this can be the result.

[...]

So, I think we actually are talking AROUND the subject. There is a middle ground we haven’t found yet. We’re at a flashpoint in terms of media technology. Bloggers instituting Adopt-A-Reporter is to journalists as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz were to your travel agent, a transparency mechanism. The big difference being what’s at stake — an open democracy, or a cheap fare to Tampa/St. Pete. As we learned in the “transparentification” of the travel industry, there is no going back, but when it comes to democracy, I think we better proceed with caution.

Later, Jim Moore proposes an “Adopt-A-Journalist”-like scheme.

The MMN [Media Monitoring Network] is designed to monitor the journalists who report the news of today. Journalism has developed a lack of accuracy and responsibility, and has a propensity to promote controversial spin on statements and events that have been taken out of context. We stand vigilant against the degradation of the integrity of the media, and seek to promote honest reporting.

Will Richardson ruminates on this idea and the future of it.

I know I have said this before, but I love watching the way all of this is evolving. I’m not sure we’re going to get to the point where every reporter has a widely read blogger fact checking his or her behind, but just the mere fact that “ordinary” citizens who feel so compelled can now find an outlet for their motivation to add to the record on a potentially meaningful scale is a significant change. Is there potential for abuse here? Sure, and Jay correctly worries about what those motivations may be. But I think that the more opportunities we can provide for people to exercise their freedoms of speech (whatever remain) to a wider audience is a good thing. And besides, the knuckleheads who do try to abuse it won’t sustain much of an audience anyway.

Michael Feldman on a similar idea, the Citizen Blogger/Journalist.

In fact, the vaunted objectivity of the mainstream media is immediately suspect from at least two points of view. First, all human experience is inevitably and a priori subjective. The same words, the same story, mean different things to different people. Perhaps it is better to know the orientation and viewpoint of each voice up front and try to achieve a balance, in order to hear various viewpoints and make your own decision, rather than let Dan Rather tell you what the “objective” reality is.

Finally, it seems obvious to us that the major media conglomerates are such major players in the economic and social evolution of the country that the idea that they are the ultimate arbitrators of what is worthy of public attention and what they should think about those things would be laughable were it not so scary. How can we imagine that they or any of their minions can be “objective” when their very future, their employment, and their families futures depend on the information power grid continuing as is?

My take:

While not necessarily opposed to the idea of someone trying this out, because I think it’s too hard to tell what something will be like before it is tried, I do not think “Adopting a Journalist” will be the best way to reform the media.

People have been complaining about journalists doing a bad job for a very long time. It hasn’t really done much for us. And I don’t see how it would be differently if it was more of a one-on-one pairing, rather than the current “find the worst ones, and fact-check their ass.”

It is my opinion that the best way to compete with journalism and the media is to replace it. As Jello Biafra once said: “Don’t hate the media, become the media!” (Note: I do not think everything he says is great, but this was a good one.)

I’m on the side of citizen journalism. I think that by providing a better alternative to the conventional media machine, it will do more to reform the media in this country. If the vision of a derived objectivity from multiple perspectives is really what is best for the country, and what people want, then by doing it you will attract eyeballs. These eyeballs will move their attention and dollars away from the conventional media; and, if the main media wants to remain competitive they will have to change how they act.

The “Adopt-A-Journalist” scheme seems to me to be as effective as creating an “anti-” site. Why would you build your world and identity as being against something (a corrupted media) rather than for something (an open and educating media)?