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Without editors, blogging can’t be journalism

17 Apr

Every now and then I get accused of bad or lazy journalism for something I’ve written here on this blog. It’s a charge that used to bug me because I take pride in my work, but these days it’s more amusing than anything because it’s clear that many people still don’t understand what a blog is supposed to be, or at least what mine is.

There’s certainly no one definition as to what a blog is and I’m sure everyone who writes one has a slightly different view of what it is they do. With that said, having been at this for three years now, I have some specific thoughts on what blogs are or should be, and what they aren’t.

When it comes to the issue of journalism, the debate is long and thorny. A quick Google search turns up copious screeds and videos on the topic, with some arguing vociferously that bloggers are indeed journalists and others countering equally as strongly that they are not.

I’ve always taken a rather old-school and fundamentalist view that journalism consists of both a reporter and an editor working in tandem. The best reporter in the world sometimes misses things, makes mistakes and allows his or her bias to slip in. An editor – even a lowly copy editor – is there to catch all these things and elevate the story. I feel this way because I spent the first half of my career on the editing side.

It’s also why I don’t consider any work that doesn’t have an editor – including everything I write on this blog – to be proper journalism. I don’t have an editor and am flying without a net here. I’m fully conscious of the fact that I sometimes miss things or add my opinions in. That’s kind of the point.

Back at one of my previous employers, my colleagues and I were asked to contribute to a blog. The problem, however, was that this particular news outlet had a policy against reporters expressing their opinions. We argued that such a policy made it impossible to perform such an endeavour since opinions were an integral part of a blog. After all, a blog without some sort of personality wasn’t really a blog, or so we maintained. Management either agreed with us or wasn’t willing to bend policy, so they dropped the request.

So what are blogs given those two factors? Or more specifically, what is this blog?

It’s not an easy question to answer – and purposely so. I like to think of my blog as a hodge-podge repository of whatever strikes my fancy. Sometimes I’ll post an interview I did with someone, other times I’ll review a product. Most often I’ll analyze the news or critique something, while at other times I’ll rant or sketch out my thoughts on some topic (like what I’m doing right now). On the odd occasion, I might even break news.

For the reader, I hope that what I write is ultimately informative, educational, entertaining, thought-provoking or, at the very least, a decent way to waste a few minutes.

On both sides, the beauty of a good blog, I think, is that anything goes.

I suspect the “lazy journalism” comments come from people who expect that a blog written by someone who considers themselves to be a journalist to practice the same values as proper journalism.

I do consider myself to be a journalist and in fact do produce much journalism for various outlets. But like I said above, though, without an editor I don’t think it can be journalism. Some have argued that readers can perform many of the same functions as editors. While that’s somewhat true, they can’t do it before something is published. I’m still old school enough to believe that proper journalism should be as fully right as possible before it is introduced to the world, rather than made correct after the fact.

Also, without opinion, commentary, analysis or – most importantly – personality, I don’t think that a blog is really a blog. There are many examples of cold, dry attempts, usually from big companies, but these are generally easy to identify as the marketing efforts they’re intended to be.

The best that an independent blogger can aspire to, then, is to be “journalistic.” It’s not quite journalism, but it’s close.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez set out seven rules under which bloggers could be considered journalists and therefore qualify for First Amendment protections. They are:

  1. Education in journalism.
  2. Credentials or proof of affiliation with a recognized news entity
  3. Proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest
  4. Keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted
  5. Mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources
  6. Creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others
  7. Contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story

The rules have been thoroughly criticized for various reasons, but most of them are actually not that bad. The first two are silly, but the remaining five are good guidelines that can be considered aspirational. I do my best to practice them, while at the same time hope that readers understand what I said above.

At the very least, the next time someone accuses me of lazy journalism, I’ll point them to this post.

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12 Comments

Posted by on April 17, 2012 in blogging

 

12 responses to “Without editors, blogging can’t be journalism

  1. JV

    April 17, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Your post today is interesting in that another blogger who is also a journalist for quite a few online websites and UK newspapers covering Formula One, has recently been accused by some readers of his blog for a conflict of interest. He claims there are *different* rules for blogging then there are for regular (I read this to mean newspaper/magazine reporters) non-blogging journalists and he points out – these ‘rules’ are in his FAQ section of his blog. Here is a sample;

    “For the avoidance of all doubt, the word blog derives from the expression “web log”, which is a website maintained by an individual with regular entries on any subject the writer cares to discuss. It is not designed to be an objective news website. Thus one should expect there to be subjective opinions expressed”.

    Where it got interesting for the readers of this blog was that these ‘blog rules’ were recently updated to include the information that;

    “(REDACTED) works for publications all over the world. He occasionally writes material for promotional publications and from time to time acts as a consultant for companies involved in F1 – if asked to do so. The commentary, analysis and opinions expressed are not affected by these arrangements. If (REDACTED) considers there to be a conflict of interest he will stop such an activity.

    In the interests of full disclosure, (REDACTED) is a non-executive director of (REDACTED) Cars Group Ltd. This is an advisory role in the company that oversees the road car business. (REDACTED) is not in any way involved in the operations or management of the F1 team. His involvement in the road car business will not influence his F1 reporting in any way.

    Industry consulting does not affect (REDACTED) views as a journalist, except perhaps to give him greater insight into the organisations or people involved”.

    While most of his readers missed the blog rules update – many did not miss his many cutting remarks in recent blogs concerning an F1 competitor to the company he is now working for on the side. Many readers see it as a conflict in that he is writing unfavorable posts concerning a direct competitor and the reader is being confused by which hat he is wearing. Is he wearing the hat of a 30 year print journalist, (he was editor at one time on the number one F1 magazine in the world), is he wearing the bloggers hat or the non-executive director of a car company hat?

    It seems to this reader that there is a disconnect between this Blogger/Journalist/Executive’s thinking and that of his readers. When they protest about his taking a management role in an organization involved in F1 after some bored reader stumbles across his updated blog rules – he gets defensive and falls back on, ‘read my rules’ or ‘if you don’t like it – leave’.

    If bloggers what to elevate their status to the same level of print journalists or have the same legal protection afforded as their bricks and mortar compatriots, isn’t the, ‘I can pick what i want to be today or create my own rules’ – damaging to the group of writers wishing to elevate blogging from what it was in the early 90’s, (bored people) to what we are seeing today with some great informative publications and ground breaking investigative journalism.

    Aren’t the readers being confused by the same individual tweeting information, posting on his Facebook page, posting in his blog or reading his reports in the sports section of several major newspapers? Is the lowly reader correct in being confused as to what is his opinion and what is factual?

    It would be interesting to hear your take on this.

    Thanks.

     
    • petenowak2000

      April 17, 2012 at 11:01 am

      That’s a really good case you’ve brought up. There are a lot of issues packed in there; hopefully I can hit on all of them. On the one hand, it seems pretty clear this blogger you mention has a conflict of interest. Not advocating the cause of a business or entity in which you have a stake is one of the central tenets of journalism.

      That said, most places I’ve worked have allowed reporters to cover companies and beats that they have financial stakes in as long as they disclose those holdings to management and maintain their neutrality. It comes down to transparency; in the case of reporters and editors, if the editor understands the reporter’s innate biases, they can easily be detected and eliminated from the work. If the editor finds that the reporter is exhibiting long-term bias, they can have the writer removed or reassigned. In the case of bloggers, if readers have easy access to the writer’s potential conflicts, they can make up their own minds about whether he or she is crossing the line. From there, they can choose to stop reading, call out the blogger, trash talk him or her elsewhere, and so on.

      I’m not sure I’m comfortable with either scenario, but it seems to be relatively accepted. Where the real problems lie, however, is when the reporter/blogger doesn’t disclose his or her stakes. I know of a few such cases in both spheres, so it does unfortunately happen.

      In both cases, it’s about the writer maintaining credibility, which is where things can get weird. There are many examples of “journalists” and bloggers who have zero cred, yet are very well known and highly paid, while there are others who are highly trusted by their readers. As with any supposedly noble profession, there are some who try to further it while others who try to exploit it for their own gain.

      One of the big problems with being an independent blogger is that it can take up a lot of your time. The electronic ether is full of blogs that were started on the best of intentions, then abandoned once the authors realized how much work they were. The simple fact is, if you can’t make your blog pay off (either monetarily or otherwise), most people will eventually give up doing it. There’s an innate conflict in that situation; indie bloggers want to elevate what they do and get the same legal protections as “proper journalists,” but proper journalists don’t have to worry about paying the bills since they cash regular paychecks. In that way, blogging has many of the same problems as regular journalism – it’s not just a “noble” profession, it’s also a business.

      What’s the solution? I’m not sure. Ideally, each blogger has to find a way to make their blog pay off in a way that doesn’t conflict with what they’re writing. I’ve been pretty lucky for a number of reasons. First, my blog is syndicated by a number of magazines, which provides some income. Secondly, though, I get much more value of it through it being my online presence and portfolio where people (i.e. editors) can sample my work, personality and ideas. It’s hard to guess how much indirect income that generates, but at this point it would probably be impossible for me to stop blogging because the blog has become so central to everything I do. (And in case you’re wondering, I’ve never done any corporate work, nor do I have holdings in any company that I know of.) I hope that covers it.

       
  2. Jason Koblovsky

    April 17, 2012 at 2:42 am

    I come from a journalism background. I don’t think using US law is a good example of what rules would constitute journalism. Right now that profession seems to have come under a lot of scrutiny. Often times major news agencies in the US are not providing an impartial and non-bias view of current events. Look at how SOPA/PIPA was covered. Virtually nothing on it when it was a huge story online until the day before and days after the protests from the major news networks. The NDAA, ACTA also major online stories, which receive little if any air time by the major US news networks.

    As you well know editors are great at catching mistakes and applying a code of ethics which may or may be more business and reader driven, than providing actual hard journalism. There’s not enough hard journalism especially in the unregulated print journalism sector in Canada. This can often make the editor more of a gatekeeper. Blogs in my view can be many things from opinion pieces, to citizen reporting, to providing hard journalism without gatekeepers. All of which are present in the major news industry anyway, and needed more than every online!

    The problem is this post seems to be based on criticism from others that have taken exception too in one of your posts. Hard Journalism is about providing facts without bias or opinion, and letting the reader decide their own position based on those facts. Blogs can often times provide both opinion and hard facts which can achieve the same objective journalists are supposed to be providing and that’s to provide the public with accurate factual independent information (Michael Geist for example). It’s really up to the reader to decide what to take from it. Those that argue sloppy journalism because they disagree with your point of view rather than arguing independent and verifiable facts to back the claim up, don’t exactly know what journalism is and should not be glorified with a post like this.

    In any event, a journalists main and most important job is to protect our democratic institutions by providing independent oversight, factual information, and politically independent commentary. Blogs fit in this category too. In a democratic and free environment we should all have the right to express our own opinions publically whether we are from a journalism background or not. All in the US should be protected by the First Amendment when expressing their views. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez put conditions on this right towards the blogosphere from what you have provided above. As a professionally trained journalist myself, I find that unacceptable. Without the help of the blogosphere, we would be living in quite a different world today, in part due to those journalistic gatekeepers *cough* editors. The journalism profession is changing. Better not stay old school for too long 😉

     
    • petenowak2000

      April 17, 2012 at 11:22 am

      Very good points, although I’d disagree with the idea that editors are gatekeepers. They don’t just correct mistakes, etc. I’ve had the privilege of working with some excellent editors, who on many, many occasions have improved my work by suggesting alternative approaches, talking to additional sources and even straight up rewrites (I’ve also worked with a lot of prima donna writers who think their work should be untouchable). I’ve always maintained that anyone who writes should do a lengthy stint as an editor as well; nothing makes you a better writer than having to fix all the mistakes other writers make.

      Editors do reject a lot of stories and ideas, particularly from outsiders who they don’t know or haven’t worked with, and in this way can be perceived of as gatekeepers. Heck, I often say that if you don’t have enough rejection in your life, you should try freelancing. But a lot of this is because they’re only human. If you’ve worked as an editor before, you’re probably familiar with the sheer volume of pitches they get, yet dealing with them is only a small fraction of the job. Fortunately, blogs fill this rejection void in many ways. For my part, I’m overjoyed to do this blog because it’s a forum for ideas I don’t think fit elsewhere, or that may indeed have been rejected elsewhere.

      As for staying old school, you are right in saying that things are changing. I do think, however, that there’s room for both “old media” and new. Both bring benefits and problems to the table and we’re in the process of sorting out how to blend the best from each into some new form. My feeling is the best and most reputable news sources will somehow find a way to maintain a high priority on editors. For the most part, they are our friends, not our enemies.

       
  3. Jason Koblovsky

    April 17, 2012 at 3:43 am

    @JV – Most blogging journalists I know will post links to verified independent information to back up their posts if they are not his/her own personal opinion. Without knowing what the comments were, most information can be easily verified using google. The rule of thumb is to verify from 3 independent sources. However, it seems to me from what you wrote, this bloggers blog is more of a opinion based site which could be subjected to bias. It sounds like he’s made this clear to his readers.

     
  4. russellmcormond

    April 17, 2012 at 7:57 am

    I like your blog, partly for the personality and honesty you offer here. I have no criticism for your blog.

    I know that journalists are supposed to not have bias when committing “journalism”, but I see bias-free reporting so seldom in the mainstream media that it is hard to believe there are many acts of that form of journalism still being committed. Learning the undisclosed biases of the authors, editors, and publishers is part of the game of understanding how to read any given mainstream media article. It would be so much easier if there were honesty about these biases, which is why I tend to get my news filtered through bloggers and others who are fully transparent about their own biases. Even while reading mainstream media articles I prefer to have it contextualized.

     
    • petenowak2000

      April 17, 2012 at 11:29 am

      I think you nailed it. On the plus side, covering a beat or topic for a long time gives a reporter in-depth knowledge and experience on it. That enables them to get closer to the truth, which is what journalism is really about. On the downside, it’s very, very difficult for anyone to cover a beat for long without developing biases and opinions about it. Not letting that seep into or colour the work requires superhuman restraint.

      I’m not sure which is better. I like “knowing” a topic inside and out, but I also really love the rare occasions where I get to do a story I know nothing about. You get to approach it completely fresh and learn something new, which is one of the big reasons I got into this business.

       
      • russellmcormond

        April 17, 2012 at 11:51 am

        In my mind part of the job of a good journalist should be to contextualize the biases of source material. Without you having experience in the tech sector, could you really read the press material from some technology company and separate out the story from the marketing and/or misdirection?

        Having someone take a press release from two arbitrary “sides” of given issue, give them equal weight, and without any prior knowledge of the subject matter (IE: bias 🙂 simply merge the two isn’t something worth reading as you don’t learn anything. In my mind this is what the majority of mainstream media is, where actually knowing the subject matter and giving the more credible source material appropriate weight is discouraged rather than encouraged.

        I may not always agree with how a journalist uses their personal experiences to filter source material into a real story, but I can get to know that individual and know how to sort what they are saying as I’m reading. This is far more valuable than not having any of this metadata about the story.

         
      • Jason Koblovsky

        April 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm

        I really like Russell’s take on this. I worked as a News Director at my college radio station for some time. I’m not trying to vilify the role of editors, just commenting on the reality. An editors job is to ensure copy sells, or in my previous case listeners tune in. Sometimes they can miss the story completely because they think it won’t sell, or in the cases I’ve provided in the US major news outlets, provide a political bias where the stories are not printed or aired depending on the publication.

        There is a bit of a difference if you are a seasoned journalist, I will agree with that. If you have a built up reputation where stories sell, the editor is obviously going to give you some lead way based on that fact. That in itself also provides bias.

        Bias is not necessarily a bad thing. With the amount of news out there it has to be filtered somehow. I think of and treat the blogosphere as a more in depth coverage of the issues that compliment mainstream journalism. Like you I love diving into a story I know nothing about, but researching that story often does go beyond a 800 – 900 word story in a printed news section. In this day and age, most rely on the blogosphere to pick up that slack, including mainstream readers. I do agree that both new and old media can survive together, both complement each other nicely.

        As you probably know I was on the flipside of journalism when our Canadian Gamers Organization group filed a CRTC complaint against Rogers. Sometimes I would spend close to an hour for media interviews explaining the technical situation to journalists, only to have Rogers pull a cloak over the story, claim innocence and pass the buck to us to prove any wrong doing once the story got printed. Hardly any of the technical background and facts made it to press. Only the main points were provided.

        Once the CRTC found Rogers in violation of policy, Rogers than pulled yet another cloak over the story stating that they would stop throttling, and claimed innocence. As a result, virtually no media outlets are reporting that Rogers has been found yet again by the CRTC to be against ITMP policy. From a journalism perspective Rogers controlled the news cycle on this story which is rather representative of a company taking advantage of journalists and the news cycle through PR. It should be the journalists job to distinguish this.

        Now I’m not blaming at all the journalists who worked on CGO’s story, rather trying to make a point. This is where the blogosphere comes in to compliment old journalism. Sometimes the story doesn’t end, when the editors of the mainstream news cycle says it does. Most I know use both old and new media to get the full picture due to the gatekeeper effect of old style media. This is something I’m not at all complaining about. It’s something that those in old media need to understand, in order to understand the changes that are occurring in the journalism profession as a result of new media 😉

         
  5. petenowak2000

    April 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Jason: I think I agree with you completely. Again, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with editors who have not only not shut down stuff I’ve wanted to do, but actually encouraged me to further dig into such topics. That, and the fact that I’ve been on the other side of the desk, is why I have tons of respect for them.

    I can, however, understand the need to avoid technical info and details in stories, because you ultimately have to think of the reader. Some say this is dumbing things down, but it doesn’t have to be. Telling a technical story in non-technical terms so that it doesn’t turn off non-nerds is something of an art form that not many writers can do.

    I think what you’re mostly talking about is media ownership and the influence and pressures being exerted downward from management to editors and reporters. I wrote a post a little while ago about that very topic (on the CBC budget cuts) and how this is a very real and growing problem. Good editors and reporters push back against this stuff, but it’s easy to foresee a near-term future where they get drummed out of their jobs.

    All of that seems to suggest that blogs are important and indeed may be becoming even more so. Maybe what we need are blogger editors – people who don’t actually write anything, but who edit other bloggers’ stuff before it’s published? How that would work and why anyone would want to do it is beyond me…

     
    • russellmcormond

      April 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Peter may have a strong enough voice that he can be edited and the editor is doing a value-add on his story that remains his. Not all writers are going to be like that, and the editor can be adding their own undisclosed bias to the story that the reader won’t be aware of.

      As an outsider to the industry my interactions with editors have been minimal. I’ve been asked to do volunteer articles for sites like The Mark where the person hired as editor has been critical. I have only two articles on that site that were there based on an earlier article that encouraged the type of political writing I do. I then had other articles that never managed to get published as the editor changed, and things got edited to death to the point that the article was unable to get published.

       
    • Jason Koblovsky

      April 17, 2012 at 4:11 pm

      A lot of the changes new media presents is unfiltered access to information. That can be somewhat of a double edged sword, but also needs to be facilitated and promoted in the journalism industry IMO. It can also be debated until the cows come home on both sides of the media desk. I know and understand both arguments.

      The community aspect of blogging for the most part works as very similar to the traditional role of editors. If I post something that is not factually correct, than other bloggers/readers will pop up and correct this with links to factual information and research to correct. This has happened to me before, and very common place on blogs, trolls aside. The blogging community basically keeps other bloggers and even professional bloggers on their toes in much the same way an editor would. A perfect example is what JV posted above.

      In Canada the only federally regulated wing to the journalism industry is the broadcast sector, where journalists have to adhere to a code of ethics in which the news source can be fined if they are in breach of those ethics. To my knowledge print journalism’s code of ethics is voluntary, and industry enforced.

      It was much easier in the older days of print journalism to stand up against an editor and debate around journalistic ethics than it is today, due to a voluntary code of ethics. Competition in this industry is quite fierce, and standing up to an editor with no real leverage on those code of ethics can lead to fear of dismissal and/or replacement. It’s part of the crisis that in my view is plaguing this profession, and also creating an environment where sites like wikileaks are popping up.

      To me anyway the blogosphere is an arm of journalism which should have the same protective rights as news organizations, and serve the same principles in a democratic environment as professional journalists do. Although I wouldn’t mind an editor to pick out my typo’s once in a while 😉 Your blog is a source of credible information for me. I really enjoy reading this blog, not just as someone in tech, but as someone with a journalism background as well. And you’ve done all this without an editor.

       
 
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