Everything they touch

On a Guardian blog, Bill Thompson, a UK j-school teacher, almost says that journalists can’t blog because whatever they write becomes journalism — because of who they are — and is then judged on those standards.

He makes the mistake of thinking that all writing is product and so he misses the value of the process: the conversation that brings out more facts, questions, and perspectives. He doesn’t see the value of journalists finally being answerable for their work. And he dismisses the interactivity that occurs, judging it by the ranting of a few bozos and losing the value of listening and being responsive to the public these journalists are supposedly serving.

Thompson is not saying that only journalists do journalism but he is saying that everything journalists do is journalism:

… we have to live with the fact that whatever we write on our blogs, in whatever context, automatically becomes journalism the moment we click ‘publish’.

This can be annoying because as professional journalists our writing is carefully scrutinised, our opinions are dissected and compared with our other work, and our views will, whatever the disclaimers may say, reflect on our employers, editors and the organisations which use our professional services. Just ask Robert Fisk what happens when the bloggers get hold of your copy.

They fact-check his ass, that’s what they do. Sorry. Couldn’t resist a minifisking.

Unlike amateur bloggers who can rant, comment, express bizarre points of view or promote their latest acquisitions and obsessions with no concern for conflict of interest or even internal consistency, we are not mere citizens in the world of the blog and the MySpace profile, and it is about time we stopped trying to act as if we ever were….

This is because professionalism, and the adherence to certain standards of openness, objectivity and fairness which it implies, is not an added extra for some forms of published writing but a core value which either underpins everything we write for publication or none of it.

: Bill responds in the comments:

Jeff
I’m always happy to have my ass fact-checked, and was accustomed to it happening in the pre-blog days when emails and even sometimes letters would follow anything published. The point I was trying to make – and I mustn’t have been clear enough, so it’s good that this sort of space exists to provide room for clarification – is not that being answerable is bad – I think it’s great. It’s that we can’t avoid being answerable, that we can’t just claim to be blogging and therefore somehow outside the framework of professionalism which being a paid writer implies.

And I have to say that I don’t see how you can see what I’ve written as dismssing ‘the interactivity that occurs, judging it by the ranting of a few bozos and losing the value of listening and being responsive to the public these journalists are supposedly serving’. I’m not commenting on the quality of debate which happens online, which you and I both know can be very variable but is often of an extremely high standard. I’m saying that when those of us who are paid to write put pixels to the screen on a blog we can’t claim that we’re just having a rant and expect readers not to judge our blog output with the stuff we write for bylined columns or news reports.

I fear that your own enthusiasm for the ongoing debate meant that you construed what I was saying as some sort of veiled attack on the blog-based conversation instead of what it was meant as, a warning to all professional writers who engage with the new medium to understand what they are doing, and be prepared for the comments/flames/arguments.

And I respond:

ill,
Thanks for the thoughtful reply to my reply to you.

Perhaps we’re each misreading each other — which is what happens in conversation and debate, eh?

I think you still see journalism as a product and that is my fundamental disagreement with you. It is a process. And the conversation and accountability and ass-fact-checking and help that goes on in public now — not in a still-controlled and private letter to the editor — is that process. Journalism is now, as it should be, additive. I believe this will lead to better journalism: checked facts, answered questions, new viewpoints. But that can’t happen if the journalists refuse to join in, if they still think this is a about creating a product that is separate from the public. Our job, of course, is not to deliver the truth but to help the public we serve judge the truth themselves. That is the process we join in.

I also think that when you use words like “objectivity,” you risk continuing the myth that journalists necessarily get it right because we have that training and standards. We often — more often than we admit — get it wrong. And that’s fine, I say, so long as we acknowledge that and value the process in which the public — who, as Dan Gillmor says — help us get it right. But that, too, can’t happen if we stay apart from that public.

As for your dismissal of bloggers, I quote that paragraph in full:

“Unlike amateur bloggers who can rant, comment, express bizarre points of view or promote their latest acquisitions and obsessions with no concern for conflict of interest or even internal consistency, we are not mere citizens in the world of the blog and the MySpace profile, and it is about time we stopped trying to act as if we ever were.”

You don’t say there that some blogging is wonderful and that the process of blogging brings value. You say that bloggers can rant, comment, express biazarre points of view. I’d say that if you wanted to be objective — fair and balanced — then you should have said there that blogger can also bring tremendous information and vaue to the process and that journalists can also push an agenda and be unfair. Journalists ain’t perfect. But you’re right that the old journalist v. blogger cockfight is beside the point.

On his own blog, Bill says he’s just trying to warn his fellow journalists. I’d say it would be more valuable to teach them how to do this well.

And there’s more discussion on the Guardian Organ Grinder blog. This is a very distributed conversation.

: Roy Greenslade — a veteran journalist and now blogger — add this wonderful bit:

One obvious, but important, point first: there is all sorts of blogging and all sorts of journalism. Good and bad, valuable and worthless, serious and trivial, witty and cringe-making. Second, I understand the Thompson view because I have spent 40-odd years in print journalism. We have been groomed (groomed ourselves) to write for our peers (screw the readers!). It means that we automatically imagine what we write being judged on a professional level. Jarvis is asking us to unlearn it, to be reborn as non-journalists, to breathe the free air of blogging. It’s a big ask, but it’s the future, folks. It’s where the people are (even if our peers are burying their heads in printers’ ink).

  • Bill Thompson

    Jeff
    I’m always happy to have my ass fact-checked, and was accustomed to it happening in the pre-blog days when emails and even sometimes letters would follow anything published. The point I was trying to make – and I mustn’t have been clear enough, so it’s good that this sort of space exists to provide room for clarification – is not that being answerable is bad – I think it’s great. It’s that we can’t avoid being answerable, that we can’t just claim to be blogging and therefore somehow outside the framework of professionalism which being a paid writer implies.

    And I have to say that I don’t see how you can see what I’ve written as dismssing ‘the interactivity that occurs, judging it by the ranting of a few bozos and losing the value of listening and being responsive to the public these journalists are supposedly serving’. I’m not commenting on the quality of debate which happens online, which you and I both know can be very variable but is often of an extremely high standard. I’m saying that when those of us who are paid to write put pixels to the screen on a blog we can’t claim that we’re just having a rant and expect readers not to judge our blog output with the stuff we write for bylined columns or news reports.

    I fear that your own enthusiasm for the ongoing debate meant that you construed what I was saying as some sort of veiled attack on the blog-based conversation instead of what it was meant as, a warning to all professional writers who engage with the new medium to understand what they are doing, and be prepared for the comments/flames/arguments.

  • Pingback: the billblog » Blogging journalists, and other oxymorons

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Bill,
    Thanks for the thoughtful reply to my reply to you.

    Perhaps we’re each misreading each other — which is what happens in conversation and debate, eh?

    I think you still see journalism as a product and that is my fundamental disagreement with you. It is a process. And the conversation and accountability and ass-fact-checking and help that goes on in public now — not in a still-controlled and private letter to the editor — is that process. Journalism is now, as it should be, additive. I believe this will lead to better journalism: checked facts, answered questions, new viewpoints. But that can’t happen if the journalists refuse to join in, if they still think this is a about creating a product that is separate from the public. Our job, of course, is not to deliver the truth but to help the public we serve judge the truth themselves. That is the process we join in.

    I also think that when you use words like “objectivity,” you risk continuing the myth that journalists necessarily get it right because we have that training and standards. We often — more often than we admit — get it wrong. And that’s fine, I say, so long as we acknowledge that and value the process in which the public — who, as Dan Gillmor says — help us get it right. But that, too, can’t happen if we stay apart from that public.

    As for your dismissal of bloggers, I quote that paragraph in full:

    “Unlike amateur bloggers who can rant, comment, express bizarre points of view or promote their latest acquisitions and obsessions with no concern for conflict of interest or even internal consistency, we are not mere citizens in the world of the blog and the MySpace profile, and it is about time we stopped trying to act as if we ever were.”

    You don’t say there that some blogging is wonderful and that the process of blogging brings value. You say that bloggers can rant, comment, express biazarre points of view. I’d say that if you wanted to be objective — fair and balanced — then you should have said there that blogger can also bring tremendous information and vaue to the process and that journalists can also push an agenda and be unfair. Journalists ain’t perfect. But you’re right that the old journalist v. blogger cockfight is beside the point.

  • http://www.charlesarthur.com/blog/ Charles

    I think Roy Greenslade has expressed it best. As a full-time, long-time journalist one is conditioned to writing with care, and thinking before pressing “send”. I’ll often pause whilst writing “You can probably find this somewhere..” in a blog post, and then I’ll go and look for the link, and put the link in instead. It’s habitual. But it’s a practice that isn’t yet second nature to many bloggers, because they’re not used to the process by which something one writes then goes to a news or sub-editor, who’ll throw it back with queries about logic or spelling or fact long before it sees a reader. See Tim O’Reilly for his rude (in both senses) awakening about bloggers and fact-checking over the ‘Web 2.0′ ™ row.

    Yes, blogging can be fantastic – I get plenty of story leads and feature ideas from bloggers; I spend a lot of time in my aggregator. But in the main I get journalists, people who can find stuff out and know when facts are missing or contradictory, to write the pieces.

    Also, journalism has always been additive. It’s just that the speed of the feedback loop has been increased. Though not necessarily the quality of the feedback. For example, I commissioned a piece for the Guardian’s Technology section (which I edit) a couple of weeks back, by a guy who writes software for a living (and who blogs, sometimes about that, for a recreation). Some – no, a lot – of the feedback simply didn’t take the trouble to understand what he had written, and accused him of knowing nothing.

    That’s not additive. It’s not even subtractive, if there is such a word. It’s just noise. That’s the reality we have to deal with in the New Blog World: sometimes, the journalists and/or writers really do know more than the readers because they’ve researched it. More than every reader? Almost certainly not, but the journalist can express it better. Not always, perhaps not even often, but when they do, it can matter.

    And I think Bill’s right: it’s pretty hard for a journalist to let go of the process of journalism in writing a blog. You don’t expect a pro chess player to forget everything in a pickup game. They might not try their hardest, but they will try. (The analogy isn’t exact, of course; blogging isn’t about opposition.) They can’t let go because their training and experience is all about not letting go. Same with journalists.

  • Pingback: Ryan Sholin's J-School Blog » Blog Archive » How I learned to stop worrying and love the blog

  • http://www.mythusmageopines.com/wp Alan Kellogg

    It helps if you know where to look. Then you have those occasions when you’re sure you know of a good post to illustrate your point, only to learn – once you’ve actually read the piece – that it says actually the opposite of what you thought it said. And then there are the occassions when you just say it better than the other guy.

    The game is to get your point across. When your readers respond it then becomes a game of listening and responding; modifying writing and stance as you learn. A conversation in the classical sense.

    But, what do you do when a correspondent can’t change his point of view?

  • ahem

    > Just ask Robert Fisk what happens when the bloggers get hold of your copy.

    They fact-check his ass, that’s what they do. Sorry. Couldn’t resist a minifisking.

    <sarcasm>
    <fisker>See, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong.</fisker>
    </sarcasm>

    And Fisk doesn’t give a shit, because he neither goes online nor cares what’s said about him online, whether it’s opponents claiming intimate knowledge of the Arab world one snarky line at a time from their basements or supporters shrieking about his being barred entry to the US, when the problem stemmed from a battered old passport.

    Once I’d call such a thing blindness. But now I think it’s really quite smart. It places you outside of a world defined primarily by the limits of a search engine, and grants a certain immunity.

  • Pingback: BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » Blog or perish

  • Evil Progressive

    “Journalists” need to get over themselves, take their head out of BushCo.’s collective ass, and to stop soiling themselves every time a GOP hack mentions 9/11.

    The NYT and WAPO, once great newspapers, are now dumb and partisan rags. NPR has sold out to the Bush noise machine. Tthe level of TV news is so low that it is an embarrassment.

    Thank goodness for the bloggers. The ones with the largest readership are generally well-written and well-researched (Daily Kos, Glenn Greenwald, etc…).

    Traditional “journalism” is a pathetic joke. Time magazine signalled as much the day it put Ann Coulter on its front page. As for the NYT and the WAPO, they are too busy sniffing the Clintons’ underwear to be of any use.

    When I feel like reading mindless, trashy, prose, I peruse the tabloids while in line at the supermarket, or I buy the New York Post. Neither the store tabloids nor the New York Post pretend to be “newspapers”, like the NYT or WAPO. What you see is what you get.

  • http://blogspotting.net steve baker

    It’s not as if mainstream journalist bloggers are shackled and everyone else is free to rant and spew. We all have reputations, our associations, our jobs, and all of us have to take those things into account when we put our voices onto a global and eternal medium. Even 10th graders on MySpace should consider this. Formal journalists are not a special case by any stretch.

  • Bill Thompson

    I think Steve makes a really useful point when he points out that ‘we all have reputations, our associations, our jobs’, and mentions 10th graders on MySpace. This discussion – and those taking place elsewhere – is helping me greatly as I try to clarify my thinking on this issue [which, of course, supports Jeff's main argument, but I'm happy to do that]. It is about reputation, and about whether the things one writes in one place can be seen as separate from things written elsewhere.

    My main contention is that once you’re a paid journalist – which I am – then everything that is not private becomes part of the corpus of your writing. Not finished product – I’m with Jeff on that one too, that the articles we now write are the zeroth draft of history not the first, and that they cannot be considered closed or final any more – but part of our output. Because of that we can’t apply different standards to ‘journalism’ and ‘personal blogging’ because they occupy the same space, one that those who want to comment and criticise have access to.

    This applies to a greater or lesser degree to every blogger, and over time, as blogging becomes part of the general conversation, it will apply to more people. So those who are currently blogging about topics that seem to have nothing to do with work, or the teenagers writing about their drug experiences, should observe the position we professional journalists find ourselves in and realise it will apply to them in future.

    It doesn’t mean that we should stay away from blogging, or that what we produce is somehow ‘better’ or more objective. It means we will be judged by it in ways that, at least for the moment, other bloggers aren’t. If we embrace this new world maybe we can use some of the skills we have to provide a good example to those who are speaking online for the first time, but that would take a degree of humility and openness to criticism that few of my colleagues seem able to demonstrate.

  • Pingback: Not the Cheese » Blog Archive » Jeff Jarvis ponders what the blogosphere could mean to professors

  • http://ondemandmedia.typepad.com/ Nico Flores

    I think Thompson is getting at a really important point, one that as far as I know has never been mentioned in the debate. The point is that what journalists say are not mere opinions or ‘information’ (whatever that hideous term means). Journalists’ utterances are what JL Austin called ‘speech-acts’: real-world actions that just happen to be performed through words. More here.

  • Pingback: mathewingram.com/media » Thoughts about newspapers and the Web