Sunday, October 10, 2004

Bloggers, journalists have tense relationship

For a decade, journalists have been grappling with the changes spurred by the adoption of the Internet as a primary communications force: news cycles on fast-forward, 24/7 deadline pressure, a "shrinking" world, multiple layers of competition. Overriding all of these, though, is the need to deal with the disappearing boundaries between journalists and non-journalists.Once again, a high-profile case is drawing attention to issues of journalism ethics, credibility and methods while shining a spotlight on the role of non-journalists. And, once again, it's being used as the basis for sweeping generalizations -- particularly when it comes to blogging and the news media.

Bloggers are being toted as "guys in pajamas", as one former CBS exec put it. Media are "scum." The mainstream media behaves usually poorly. Only bloggers can save the world some think. Anyone can be a journalist. Each phrase being flung back with escalating language as though the participants are running against each other instead of all trying to do the same thing: use their varying skills as communicators to share news and information. In blogging, that usually comes with a dash of opinion and a smidgeon of attitude while journalism operates on a spectrum that starts with "just the facts."Both rely on credibility -- and both can lose it in an instant.But the kinds of credibility they have can vary. Some people believe blogs and media outlets that dovetail with their political beliefs are more credible while those who represent the other side, whatever that is, are less so. Others equate credibility with neutrality or at least a perception of balance.

Take the report CBS News aired on 60 Minutes II.Those who don't like Rather, CBS or the traditional media, and/or support President Bush for a second term, leapt at the notion that the story was faked -- with many taking the further leap to the belief that the network was trying to manipulate the election. Staunch Republican Dick Thornburgh, the former U.S. Attorney General chosen by CBS along with retired AP President Louis Boccardi to investigate the 60 Minutes II report, could declare the opposite and most in that cluster will still believe Rather deliberately misrepresented documents to hurt the president.Those who support ABB -- anyone but Bush -- defended the report, pushing for a focus on the events that could be authenticated, not documents that can't. They tend to be dismissive or suspicious of right-wing blogs and media outlets; Fox News is their CBS.

For those who respect Rather as a journalist, it was a mistake, not a plot. If CBS News had stuck to basic reporting, let alone the official CBS News Standards, we wouldn’t be writing about this now. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released Sept. 27 found that 56 percent of the 1,006 adults polled thought CBS made an "honest mistake" and that 55 percent still trust CBS to report the news accurately -- not a great vote of confidence by any means but much better than one might expect given the loud anti-CBS clatter.


'Know where stuff comes from'While bloggers and others online pushed back at the CBS story with a lot of clever work, much of the "information" flying around the Net about the documents was inaccurate -- including claims that the font didn't exist in 1972 (Times Roman was first used in 1931; the IBM version was known as Press Roman in the 70s), that proportional spacing wasn't available on typewriters (IBM introduced it in 1941) and that the superscript "th" wasn't possible then (superscript capability could be purchased as an option). That's not to say the Texas Air National Guard had access to a typewriter with all of these abilities, just that the claims made individually were off target. At the same time, some mainstream media outlets echoed CBS’s mistakes by relying on anonymous sources and making assumptions as they covered the story.Then there was The New York Times, which put Dan Rather's apology on the front page but played its own admission about faulty pre-war reporting inside.

One gauge of credibility is the willingness to correct mistakes.Because bloggers usually control their own forum and don’t have to wait for the news cycle to swing around again, they have a considerable advantage over journalists when it comes to correcting mistakes. If they choose not correct an error, other bloggers will do it for them.Posters on FreeRepublic.com, the same conservative discussion board where the accusation of forged documents began, also challenged the truth of an anti-Kerry report posted to conservative ChronWatch.com. They were right, the post was wrong and ChronWatch ran a correction. There's also a considerable difference between the chief anchor of a broadcast network putting his name on a problematic report produced by his own staff and an Internet site passing along a spurious report. But the correction and a corresponding pledge to behave more responsibly elevated the level of play for ChronWatch, which started as a media watchdog and now was admitting to "a journalistic embarrassment of our own."As ChronWatch explained to its readers, "The lesson to be learned is that it isn’t just the liberal media, but all of us who are vulnerable to letting our political prejudices get in the way of our best judgment at times. The true test is whether or not we learn from our mistakes. And that's exactly what we at ChronWatch pledge to our readers to do."

In journalism, credibility often starts with a news organization while individuals earn credibility over time; on occasion, the credibility of the journalists bolsters the standing of the news organization. A journalist's flaws may be camouflaged by the credibility or prestige of the organization.Bloggers earn credibility on their own but also through fellow bloggers, who put a seal of approval on someone by sending visitors their way. They can yank that approval by dropping someone from a blogroll or letting their own readers know they no longer trust that person.

CBS News squandered some of its hard-earned credibility in several ways:
*by rushing the story to air without thoroughly vetting it
*by failing to include dissenting opinions by experts consulted for the report
*by waiting too long to acknowledge there was a problem
*by including a lawyer without a media background as one of the investigators while omitting anyone with experience in television news
*and by spiking until after the election a different story that would be perceived as critical of the administration.

The Los Angeles Times was excoriated by critics when it produced a report about accusations of sexual harassment against then-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger just before the election. CBS apparently was willing to take the flack over the National Guard story when it aired eight weeks before the presidential election -- and for another story about the Bush administration and Iraq before it was pulled to make room for the National Guard report. By screwing up the former, the network marginalized its ability to do the latter and failed its viewers again.

'They are scandal mongers'

Walter Cronkite, already on the record as not being a big fan of the Internet, could not keep the venom out of his voice when he told listeners in a crowded ballroom: "I cannot understand how the Internet should have gotten so entirely oblivious to the whole theory of libel and slander. How is it possible for these people to get on the air with any allegation they want to make, any statement they want to make as if it were true, as if they were journalists which they are clearly not? They are scandal mongers."Brian Williams, his co-anchor for the session, drew on his own concerns for a series of open-ended questions. "Now, if you have a modem and an opinion, in many cases, you're a journalist. The Internet -- is it good or bad for the discourse? Is it making us fiefdoms of one in our own homes with our computers? Is it counter to the kind of town square approach to journalism that a lot of us believe the founders both of the nation and journalism had in mind?"The former CBS News correspondent slated to succeed Tom Brokaw as NBC's top anchor, described his own way of dealing with standards and credibility. "The part of this new trend that breaks my heart is that people coming up right now don't realize that we all trained under standards -- the great blue book of standards authored largely by [former CBS News president] Dick Salant, which continues, I think, to be the best North Star in our industry for what I do ..."

Willams added, "What saddens me about this new trend is people perhaps may not know there are rules that govern our behavior. I choose to go using the way [Washington Post editor] Len Downie has always run a newsroom; I choose to go a step further. I don’t believe in things like speaking for money or ever, ever, ever letting political opinions seep in to what I do on air or off." But it was Bill Moyers who tackled the reality of an Internet populated by people who may not be journalists by training and are making up their own rules as they go along. He said he was glad to see bloggers credentialed for the conventions, then urged his audience to read Dan Gillmor's new book on citizen media. "He argues persuasively that Big Media is losing its monopoly on the news, thanks to the Internet," Moyers told them, adding, "He’s on to something. In one sense we are discovering all over again the feisty spirit of our earliest days as a nation when the republic and a free press were growing up together." Moyers described a time when the young country had more than a 1,000 newspapers. "They were passionate and pugnacious and often deeply prejudiced; some spoke for Indian-haters, immigrant-bashers, bigots, jingoes, and land-grabbers. But some called to the better angels of our nature. ..."

He warned his audience that even with the advent of a modern wave of citizen media, "You and I will in no way be relieved from wrestling with what it means ethically to be a professional journalist. I believe Tom Rosenstiel got it right in that Boston Globe article when he said that the proper question is not whether you call yourself a journalist but whether your own work constitutes journalism. And what is that? I like his answer: 'A journalist tries to get the facts right,' tries to get 'as close as possible to the verifiable truth' -- not to help one side win or lose but 'to inspire public discussion.' Neutrality, he concludes, is not a core principle of journalism, 'but the commitment to facts, to public consideration, and to independence from faction, is.'"


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