Don't get me wrong, I think we need the mainstream media, but as one of these so-called citizen journalists (that's just a "blogger" for those of us in the flyover states) I can tell you part of my motivation for doing this is precisely a reaction to my own criticisms of how the MSM cover stories. They should at least acknowledge the beef goes both ways.
Digital Journal quotes a grey-bearded ex-journalist from the Tornonto Globe and Mail, Jack Kapica, who offers this critique of blogging:
"Much of the writing I’ve read, on most citizen journalism sites, shows little understanding of the process of gathering the news and writing it in a conventional form. Conventionality of presentation is important because it can give readers a recognizable framework to assess and understand what’s being written."These comments interest me, particularly the bit about conventional presentation, because of the other main critique of bloggers Kapica offers - "bias." This confluence of opinions tells me Kapica (and, believe me, many other grey-bearded journalists) doesn't understand the biases inherent in traditional news reporting to which the blogosphere is largely a reaction.
Style issues aside, Kapica says citizen journalists need to focus on doing more original reporting rather than working as a rewrite desk in a newsroom. "One of the critical things many citizen journalism writers do not understand is the necessity of interviewing people and quoting them. The value of original quotes cannot be overstated. Too frequently I see citizen journalists quoting the mainstream media stories and I can’t see how this differs from mainstream media."
When Kapca talks about "conventionality of presentation," he's referring to what in journalism school is called a reverse-pyramid format for news-writing: Where the "most important" news is presented in the "lede" or opening stanza to the story with less important items by rank appearing further down in the copy. The idea was, in the old days, that editors at daily newspapers making snap decisions could reliably just "cut from the bottom" and be confident that they didn't remove the crux of the story.
But that "conventionality" reflects an historical belief by journalists in a faux objectivity that most bloggers believe does not exist. When you think about it, a lot of value judgments must be made to decide what's "important" about a story and different people may think different facts are key.
Indeed, most quality blogging in my experience comes from folks with expertise in a field who see that MSM coverage of their area fails to adequately cover or even identify what's important. In Grits' case, I launched this site in part because I was sick and tired of the MSM's crime coverage dichotomy: Tuff vs. Soft seemed like the the only terms of debate, usually "balanced" with quotes from "both sides." I thought such discussions deserved more nuance.
Which is another reason I think Kapica overstated the value of getting independent quotes. "Getting quotes" is a means of maintaining the appearance of objectivity by attributing views expressed to others. Often the journalist already knows what they want the source to say but comes to them to fill in already-made assumptions about the story. Quoting sources can be useful when journalists earnestly explore different perspectives, but that's a lot rarer than the formulaic use of quotes in most MSM stories, particularly on crime and punishment.
That explains why often bloggers will simply quote and comment on the MSM: Their role isn't to supplant it but to fill in its gaps missed by the he-said/she-said formula, to assert meaning to the news beyond the reporter's faux objectivity and identify biases and agendas that underlie MSM coverage but are too often un-acknowledged by it.
That's also why I'm less concerned than Kapica about journalists or bloggers acknowledging their biases, which he thinks reduces journalism's credibility.
"I see [citizen journalists] freely mixing opinion with factual reporting in obvious ignorance of how this is a conflict of ambition," Kapica says. "In one story I read a while ago, a fairly well-structured news story suddenly included the following sentence opener: 'Now come on, folks...' If the mainstream media tried to pull a stunt like that, it would be flayed for bias. For some lucky reason citizen journalism is being held to a different standard."I see this completely differently, believing the oberserver's bias is inherently part of any high-quality written piece. If the reporter masks their opinions, their views are still latent in decisions about what is important, who to quote or which quote to use and which ones to discard. I'd rather the writer tell me their opinion, even if I disagree. That way, I can identify the threads of fact they present that I believe independently are probative and which ones merely support the writer's personal views. Indeed without that knowledge, I don't always know whether to trust the conclusions in a piece of reporting sans independent verification.
I think Kapica's right that the blogosphere could use more original reporting, but it's easy to overstate how much original reporting many MSM reporters historically have done. Many stories begin with a press release or a single insider source with an agenda. That's particularly true in politics and on the crime beat, where the local police department PR office is the source for the vast majority of what's printed about local crime. While not universally the case, it's true often enough that workaday journalists can't be too high and mighty about the amount of shoe-leather spent getting their stories.
I do agree with Kapica that the lack of editors in the blogosphere is a tremendous loss and can sometimes lead to embarrassing slip ups. But these days even MSM journalists produce unedited prose in daily newspaper blogs so that trend goes beyond the amateur/professional gap. For that matter, publishers frequently don't finely edit books anymore; either an agent does it or the job is left to an amateur, family member etc.. In such an unfiltered context, though, isn't knowing the reporter's biases even more key to understanding what you're reading?
I also agree that would-be bloggers would benefit from training, but perhaps we should think about that more broadly than just that wannabe bloggers need to take a few classes before they can play in the big-leagues. Such classes may be needed by some in the current class of bloggers, but going forward maybe we need to rethink how we teach writing in public schools if, in the future, the public will rely more on average citizens' journalistic contributions.
Obviously I believe there can be credibility in citizen journalism or Grits wouldn't have more than 4,000 posts published in the last five years. IMO, perhaps its time to discuss instead how to boost journalism's credibility generally, regardless of medium or employment status.