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:
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:
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).