Last night, Adriana and I attended The Fall and Fall of Journalism, an event at the London School of Economics which aimed to debate whether the traditional role of journalists is being usurped by simply anyone who has access to a digital camera, camcorder and the internet and explore the new phenomena of citizen reporting, blogging and other new technology/new media-enabled reporting. (Details of the panellists can be found behind the hyperlink.)
It can be quite a drama, in Britain, to be very straightforward about the quality of debate on blogging in this country. If you take issue with a particular argument that someone has made, people seem to feel that you are insulting the person who made the argument. The alternative is to nod and smile and pretend that a splendid bunch of people have inevitably produced a splendid event, full of splendid insights and imparted knowledge for the audience.
That alternative is, quite frankly, dishonest - and it is not the sort of thing any self-respecting, truth-seeking person (blogger, journalist, or otherwise) can do without compromising his or her integrity. I preface my comments on the LSE event if only to prepare people who may be very unfamiliar with blogging for something that is one of the universal truths about those who operate in blogosphere: Our BS detectors are very sharp, and we do not hesitate to use them.
FT Magazine editor John Lloyd, who knows of what he speaks when it comes to old media and particularly newspapers, made some very good points about the ‘tabloidization’ of the media. In his book, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics, Lloyd explains that the expense of producing well-researched, in-depth journalism is what has turned so much of the media towards the infotainment model of ‘journalism’. I especially loved his comment - sure to wind up two very different, sensitive groups - that Britain’s Independent “viewspaper” is the Fox News of the UK media, using strong front page headlines that appeal to emotion to shift copies.
Lloyd also feels that this same expense of producing good journalism is what makes it difficult for bloggers to do so. His thinking is that bloggers don’t have the time or resources to devote to getting to the heart of a story, discerning fact from spin, and understanding complex subjects. What I think Lloyd would be pleased to know is that some of the most significant features of blogging are what make those issues less of a problem. Most notably, the network-building that is inherent to the blogosphere and the fact that blogging gives people who are already experts in certain fields and situations the ability to quickly and easily make their expertise tangible, accessible, permanent, and searchable to a network of hundreds of millions - the latter of which obviously helps other truth-seekers out there ("proper journalists” among them) in their quest for a grip on reality.
What I found somewhat disturbing about Lloyd’s comments later in the panel was his contention that traditional journalism is something of a civic service, and one that we should be very careful to preserve. This sentiment smacks of the current, hysterical cries coming from old media types who are far less aware than John Lloyd - the idea that journalists are the guardians of truth and that, to some extent, we should take a kid glove approach to this most holy of disciplines. The message is that those armed only with their own expertise and journalistic skills learned outside conventional bounds, never blessed with a sanctifying paycheck from an authorized credentials broker, should really not believe their own hype. Lloyd said - and I will give him the benefit of assuming he was joking - that traditional journalism is such a precious thing that we almost need a government-funded National Journalism Service, as Britain ‘needs’ (debatable) a National Health Service, to safeguard it.
This angle, with its stasist attitude to how journalism must be produced, is at odds with the dynamism that our circumstances demand. And it echoes quite loudly the attempts of the trade unions of 1980s Britain to dictate how newspapers ‘had’ to be produced - actions correctly ridiculed by Lloyd in his opening remarks.
If everyone’s main concern was the truth and how we get to it, the focus of last night’s discussion would not have been so squarely on old media versus bloggers. What seemed to be missing was a basic understanding of exactly how and why blogs really are fundamentally different from traditional journalism - a shocking oversight on a panel that included the LSE’s resident new media and internet professor, Robin Mansell, whom one would expect to be aware of such elementary facts.
What no one on the panel seemed willing to point out, if they did indeed know it, was that the aim of bloggers is not to replace traditional journalists. While definitely not a collective, as some panel members seemed to believe, the blogosphere is made up of individuals whose motivations for revealing truth and correcting untruth are not borne of a desire to bring down the media. To be quite blunt, I don’t think “the media” looms as large in the minds of people as perhaps certain elements of “the media” would wish. What really gets to people is sloppy reporting, spin presented as fact, and audiences being misled.
These people sometimes become bloggers. Most of them do not become bloggers in order to police journalism, but to share their knowledge and opinions with whoever is interested in reading them. But that same disdain for reporting in the traditional media that lacks credibility also fuels the ongoing peer review to which bloggers naturally subject themseves and which keeps everyone in check. An audience member at the event, Professor Ivor Gaber, seemed quite angry that - as he sees it - blogs whose reporting is informed by a particular worldview may be mistaken as ‘objective’ news reporting by dim internet users. He cited Spiked (which is, it should be noted, not a blog) as an example of this danger. (I can’t help but wonder if Gaber eschews email and warns others against using it, lest they be taken in by spam scams.)
When people start wringing their hands over provenance and how to protect the unsuspecting man in the street from his own stupidity, for the common good, in the public interest, etc, etc, things are going down a frightening path.
What no one on the panel pointed out was that the self-regulating, peer review aspect of blogs goes beyond pulling people up on their shoddy reporting, and that many bloggers are recognised experts in their fields, not (as often with traditional media) generalists who move from one subject to another and whose reports are often received with assumed authority. For example, Brad Delong is a noted economist who served in the Clinton administration and who - fancy that - today corrects a statement from a group blog produced by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh. Blogs are not, as Gaber and Mansell seemed to think, message board-like stomping grounds of the illiterate and uninformed. What we see much more of in the US - and France and Japan and Iran and Poland, for that matter - than we do in the UK currently is noted experts blogging about their discipline and subjecting themselves to the scrutiny of fellow experts and others. The blogosphere is not a world where traditional journalism is regarded as a group of scum to be scalped - no matter what some scared journalists seem to think - and other bloggers are treated gently and go uncriticised. And guess what? Those who read blogs have brains, too, and can work out for themselves that Instapundit is a law professor who isn’t a news reporter and comes to the table with a worldview that informs his writing, just as those who read the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph know that those publications are not - like the BBC is - operating under the pretence of complete objectivity.
Believe it or not, I could go on cataloguing the errors touted as truth and misguided thinking presented as expertise that was on display at the LSE event. Mick Fealty, journalist and editor of the superb Slugger O’Toole blog on Northern Irish politics, covers some of the bases I have ignored in the interest of time (mine and yours).
Look around at this blog: It’s my job to know all this stuff. So I find it depressing that we are still at the stage in the UK where many or all of the panellists at an event like this - even the LSE’s own new media and internet professor - will come to the table without a basic grasp of the fact that the internet is not a broadcast channel, but a two-way conversation whose one-to-many information distribution differs significantly and inherently from that of traditional media.
So consider this post a demonstration of the “narrative of fact” that John Lloyd spoke of as being sacred to society. And if the fact that I’m doing it on a blog, instead of in a newspaper or on TV, makes you uncomfortable, just wait till blogging actually breaks in the UK. Some people - in media, academia, and other fields, and often calling themselves experts - are in for a very rude awakening.