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March 07 2011

08:32

Culture Clash: Journalism’s ideology vs blog culture

Culture Clash: Journalism's ideology vs blog cultureIf you read the literature on journalism’s professional ideology – or just follow any argument about journalists-versus-the-rest-of-the-world – you’ll notice particular themes recurring.

Like any profession, journalism separates itself from other fields of work through articulating how it is different. Reading Mark Deuze’s book Media Work recently I was struck by how a similar, parallel, ideology is increasingly articulated by bloggers. And I wanted to sketch that out.

First, two disclaimers: I am not claiming that bloggers are a coherent body any more than journalists are. Blogging is of course not a profession, and many bloggers do not make any claims beyond their own personal beliefs.

What I am exploring here is a common ideology that a particular contingent of bloggers expresses when attacked by journalists, or when attacking professional journalism.

One of the reasons this parallels journalism’s professional ideology may be because the arguments are often made in response to that exact ideology: journalists argue that bloggers are not objective; bloggers counter by arguing that journalists are not transparent, and so on.

Secondly, this is not based on any systematic research, but rather reflecting on ongoing analysis over the past few years. I’m putting this up for discussion and as a basis for further research, rather than suggesting it is the finished article.

Ideology 1: Public service vs accountability

The journalist’s claim is that they are performing a public service, whether that is informing the public, holding power to account, giving a voice to the voiceless (or the ‘voice of the people’), providing a forum for public discussion, or something else.

Bloggers articulate a similar ideology: that they are directly accountable to the public through their comments and the ability of others to direct them in how they ‘serve’.

The journalist’s public service is top-down; the blogger’s, bottom-up.

Ideology 2: Objectivity vs transparency

This is a long-running debate that I barely have to articulate, as it is easily the most prominent ideological battle that has taken place between journalists and bloggers. But here it is: journalists say they are objective while bloggers are subjective. Bloggers argue that any claim to objectivity is flawed, that the grounds for it (limited access to publication) no longer apply, and that in the age of the link transparency is their own badge of honour. Journalists who do not link to their sources, who take credit for the work of others, and who fail to declare interests are all targets in this battle.

Ideology 3: Autonomy vs non-commercial

A part of journalism’s ideology that is employed much less often in defending the profession is its autonomy: the fact that journalists are independent of government and that there is a church/state separation between advertising and content.

Bloggers articulate a similar argument around their very non-professionalism: because we do not rely on advertising or cover sales, say the bloggers, we enjoy more independence than journalists. We do not need to chase ratings or circulations; we do not need to worry about the institutional voice, or offending advertisers.

Ideology 4: Immediacy vs ‘Publish then filter’

The fourth aspect of journalism’s ideology identified by Deuze is ‘immediacy’, that is, journalists’ desire to be first to report the news.

Bloggers have their own version of ‘immediacy’, however, which is that they ‘publish, then filter’, allowing users to act as their editors (or ‘curators’) rather than being constrained by any editorial production line.

It’s notable that as journalists’ claims to immediacy come under particular challenge in an age where anyone can publish and distribute information, some journalists and news organisations are re-orienting themselves towards a role of ‘curation’, and using the ideology of ‘editorial process’ to defend themselves against the new entrants.

Ideology 5: Ethics vs ethical

This is a line that has always fascinated me. Journalists frequently employ their professional ‘ethics’ as a defence against the incursion of the blogging barbarians. But if journalists were so ethical, why are they consistently one of the least trusted professions?

Journalistic ethics are explicitly declared in documents such as the NUJ’s Code of Conduct, individual organisations’ own statements of principles, and even journalists’ contracts, while organisations such as the PCC act to further enforce behaviour.

Similar attempts to create a code of ethics for bloggers have been met with objections – for reasons not too dissimilar to the reasons that journalists do not want their profession to be professionalised: it would limit access, and provide an opportunity for governments to control the medium.

But bloggers are fiercely ethical. How is difficult to pin down – the transparency ideology outlined above is part of that, and many elements are shared with the ethics asserted by journalism: protecting sources, for instance. But broadly this ideology is one that is held in opposition to the worst excesses of journalism: bloggers would argue that they do not resort to underhand tactics in pursuit of a story: exploiting vulnerable people, passing off others’ work as their own, or pretending to be someone else.

What have I missed?

There may be other themes that I have missed – or examples of the above (after I wrote a first draft of this, Jay Rosen published his own selection of quotes here, some of which I have linked to above). It may be that journalism’s own ideology is changing in response to these challenges (as it seems to be regarding immediacy vs curation). I’d love to know what you think – or if you know of any research in the area (some here and here).

January 11 2010

15:00

A cautionary tale: The Fiscal Times and Washington Post

Enterprise reporting partnerships with online news organizations are in vogue at major newspapers these days, and arguably no paper has been more aggressive in pursuing them than the Washington Post. But in his ombudsman column Sunday, Andrew Alexander takes Post editors to task for a series of failures that plagued its most recent partnership, with a new organization calling itself the Fiscal Times.

The Fiscal Times is not a nonprofit, but it has a lot of the markings of one. It is backed by a wealthy philanthropist, investment banker and U.S. commerce secretary Peter G. Peterson; it is staffed by established journalists, including former Post political writer and editor Eric Pianin; and it claims to run an independent, nonpartisan, non-ideological newsroom. The main difference is that the Fiscal Times is run by a privately held company controlled by Peterson and his son Michael.

So what went wrong?

On Dec. 31, the Post ran its first story from the Fiscal Times, a newsy report that support was building on Capitol Hill for a bipartisan commission to tackle the nation’s chronic deficits and mounting debts. As it happens, this is Peterson’s pet issue and the focus of the Peterson Foundation.

According to Alexander, problem No. 1 with the story was that it quoted the president of the Concord Coalition, but failed to mention that the group receives funding from the Peterson Foundation. It also cited data from a study supported by the foundation but again failed to note the foundation’s backing, according to Alexander.

Alexander goes on to cite other problems with the story, including balance and timing. But the big foul-up in his book appear to be the transparency issues surrounding Peterson’s support for issue advocacy, and I couldn’t agree more.

Is is possible for a deeply opinionated philanthropist to keep his nose out of a newsroom of his own making? I do think it’s possible. Look at ProPublica, funded almost entirely by Herb and Marion Sandler, who also launched the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. But transparency is key to credibility — and ultimately, to the viability of any news organization, for-profit or nonprofit.

What does transparency look like? Mostly, it resides with the intent of the publisher, and it might be expressed as a newsroom oversight board or other firewall structure that keeps newsrooms insulated from financial pressures. But to the outside world, it means disclosure of anything that might even hint of a conflict.

In this case, the Post fell down on the job, according to Alexander. But the Post has been around for a long time, and it certainly will recover. The Fiscal Times — like so many of the new news organizations that have sprouted up in recent years — has not developed a similar reservoir of credibility. The question is whether any governance structure, process or procedure can provide an adequate substitute.

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