Thursday, January 4, 2007

Bloggers vs. Journalists

Why does every one of 1,300 air travel deaths worldwide in 2006 make front page news, while 40,000 driving deaths every year in the U.S. barely make a blip on traffic reports?

Take a journalism class and you'll find out: "news" is defined by journalists as unusual, timely information. Traffic deaths happen all the time, so they generally don't qualify as news. Planes almost never crash, so when one does, that's news. Really. This goes way beyond the well-known "if it bleeds, it leads." Professional journalists are trained not to report on things that routinely happen. That's simply not their job.

It stands to reason that professional journalists, and the organizations they work for, are uniquely unqualified to cover long-term trends, change fundamental misconceptions about the world, or foster the public awareness necessary to solve routine problems like the yearly death of 40,000 Americans in twisted piles of smoking metal.

OK, so I'm exaggerating a bit. Newspapers and other journalistic organizations do investigative reporting, analysis, etc., that does not qualify as "news". But the fundamental truth remains: if you are primarily interested in gathering information that will help you know about, understand and solve the real problems in your life, looking only to "news" sources is, by definition, going to send you down the wrong path.

The other major problem with journalists is "objectivity". Objectivity has always been a sham, since journalists have this built-in bias toward "news", and even the most dedicated, fair-minded journalist filters events according to this bias. However, in recent years, "objectivity" has devolved to mean choosing exactly two "sides" of a notional "debate" about the story and presenting those sides' biased, self-serving perspectives verbatim. Obviously, this does not yield objectivity in the sense most people undertand it. More often than not, journalists eschew even this faux objectivity by providing exactly one perspective. When was the last time you read a report on a recent arrest that quoted the accused?

Some journalists, however, go all out with an independent investigation of the facts. It's rare, but it definitely happens, and good journalists from better news organizations always strive to infuse their stories with independently verified information - in essence, the truth. This "fact checking" is often cited as a reason to trust the professionals. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, journalists are professionals only in the journalism field. Their understanding of complex issues pales in comparison to that of experts in relevant fields. This is obvious whenever you read a news story about a field you are expert in - you will always find factual inaccuracies, ommissions, and misrepresentations in the story. A news story that reports accurately on a complex or technical subject does come around once in a while, but you have to assume that if you're unfamiliar with the topic of the story, the truth is being misrepresented in some substantial way.

For example, this article on CNN Money states: "Meanwhile, the two houses are expected to appreciate only about 3 percent a year - the couple can do better than that with Treasuries." This is an invalid apples-to-apples comparison between the return on a non-leveraged asset (t-bills) and a leveraged asset (real estate). It's misleading and false in a way that materially affects readers' decision-making, and yet it appears in an article from an authoritative, even specialist traditional news site. Moreover, I've complained about this statement and it hasn't been corrected. Obviously, a large organization like CNN is never going to take the time to correct an error in an obscure analysis article just because a mortgage industry professional calls them on it.

The bottom line: professional journalists add little value to people's day-to-day information-gathering and decision-making process. Historically, with their unique constitutional protections and access to viewers and readers, journalists have been the only source for a lot of important information. However, this role of providing access to information has largely been taken over by other information sources, such as the World Wide Web, which gives ordinary citizens direct access to most of the primary sources, experts, and geographically distributed observers of breaking news that journalists once monopolized.

Enter the blogger. Bloggers can have horrible bias and publish falsehoods with striking ease and impunity. Journalists also publish biased statements and get away with printing falsehoods. In fact, their job is to filter events in a way that, by definition, misrepresents reality and radically molds public perception. Despite this, journalists as a profession pretend to have a special value and authority as information sources, a pretense bloggers will never pull off. When you first encounter a blog, it's just a blog. You approach it warily. You observe it carefully from a distance. It's time we applied the same standards to the news.

Reader beware.


walkitout said...

Great to see your commentary! Of course, no one should get all their information from "news" or jouralistic sources, any more than any scientist would rely on the tabloidy Science and Nature journals, ignoring the better vetted specialist journals, never mind actually reading (gasp!) a book once in a while.

I do find it a little bizarre that I often run into "breaking news" on TV and in papers that I read a book about years earlier (_Toxic Sludge is Good for You_ by Stauber and Rampton being the instance that happened again and again and again).

What do you think of the tizzy about political bloggers accepting money from candidates? I'd love to read your opinion.

Anonymous said...

Great insight! Aren't you the author of Trine? Great book.

Peter LeSourd said...

It is crucial that some news-gathering organizations survive that have the money to do in-depth investigative reporting. This is as important to us as individuals in the long run as is providing us with accurate information for use in individual decision-making. Bloggers cannot provide this service. A recent example, in my area of the country, has been the Los Angeles Times' exposure of the disfunctional and deadly operating conditions at the Drew-King Hospital in Los Angeles. It has led to the dismantling of the hospital as it existed, despite the opposition of extremely powerful interest groups.

Bruce LeSourd said...

Peter LeSourd says:
"Bloggers cannot provide [in-depth investigative reporting]."

This is true only in a very specific sense. Because of reporters' special status in the U.S., they are able to pursue stories they are not personally involved with. Thus, the journalistic tradition of objective investigative reporting can, by definition, only be pursued by journalists.

Working journalists also, by definition, have a mass media outlet for their work. In the past, ordinary citizens have not had access to a mass audience, but this has changed. In China, for example, bloggers have more ability to get uncensored reporting to a mass audience than journalists. The same can be said of U.S. journalists to a lesser extent, since they are under the editorial control of large corporations. Chinese bloggers exposed the SARS epidemic and other environmental disasters and government malfeasance. U.S. bloggers are often on the cutting edge of the story, with journalists reporting first-person accounts that are already huge on the Web.

In the final analysis, much investigative journalism is simply the assembly and recounting of leg work that has already been done by others. What would Woodward and Bernstein have been without Deep Throat? And what reporter would have been able to get the kind of dirt that Zhang Yu got on China's TV and film industries?

Again, the main difference between non-journalists who do extensive, in-depth, well-supported investigative reporting and journalists who do so is that journalists are supposedly objective, while the bloggers who are doing this work are personally involved in the story in some way. This also goes to the question of legitimacy: journalistic, editorially reviewed, institutionally fact checked, traditional reporting is still considered more legitimate than non-journalistic reporting of the same depth and importance.

If you are a primary source, your choice is increasingly, to use the Web as your media or to use journalists. Journalists can provide anonymity protected by the Constitution - but that protection is increasingly under fire. Journalists can provide a mass audience, but that is dwindling while the chance of getting a mass audience on YouTube or one of the big blogs is increasing. Journalists can verify your story and give it the stamp of legitimacy, but on the Web that is increasingly obtained by mass corroboration and organic reputation.

I do agree, however, that investigative reporting is an important function, and that journalists can be excellent at it when given the funding. It's useful that there are people whose paid job is to do this kind of work. However, I don't believe the impending demise of journalistic investigations will necessarily leave an unfilled hole in the public sphere.