Academia: February 2009 Archives

Social-democrat economist John Quiggin fires an interesting salvo in the journalist-blogger debate: ethics and journalistic practices are perhaps the key distinction between the two.

Watching the hostility between 'old media' journalists and some Web 2.0 bloggers is often like watching Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave experiment. For bloggers, traditional journalists are constrained by objectivity, news values and institutional power, and traffic in biased op-ed columns and lightly rewritten corporate press releases. For journalists, bloggers don't understand the norms and practices of the craft, don't navigate the institutional shadow network, and vary greatly in the quality of their analytical insights. The two clashing stereotypes fuel a circular debate, which like Sherif's experiment, may only change when a frame-changing exogenous threat is introduced.

For me, Quiggin makes three key points: (1) journalists have a socially recognised role to "pick up the phone" and talk to strangers; (2) journalists may select material from their interviews into a story and do not have to report everything; and (3) journalists have "a formal code of ethics and a set of informal conventions" to do this whilst bloggers do not. In doing so, I believe Quiggin adopts a middleground position similar to Terry Flew, Barry Saunders, Jason Wilson (from their YouDecide2007 project) and my own thoughts on citizen journalism, with some new insights.

My personal experience of Quiggin's first point is that their role can empower journalists with Freedom to talk with anyone, and to view a situation through different, iterative stances. As I discovered during a 1994 student journalism stint and 1995 coverage of Noam Chomsky's Australian lecture tour, this is a great shock: in the right situation, people can tell you anything, and you can also become a a participant-observer who is now inside the unfolding events. It's a little like Jim Carrey's character in the romantic comedy film Yes Man (2008): you 'forget' the self-limitations of yourself and act beyond normal social conventions.  As Quiggin observes, few people can ask questions of strangers and expect to get revelatory answers.

This approach reaches its zenith in New Journalism as a methodology and repertoire of practices in three ways. First, the journalist may create the "story" through a catalytic, influential effect on the external environment. Second, the journalist can become part of the "story" through capturing their subjective consciousness, and trying to capture a similar stance from the other participants through internal dialogue, scene reconstructions and other techniques. Third, the journalist has more freedom in convention, methodology and practice, such as using fiction techniques in a non-fiction profile. At its core, New Journalism fuses autoethnography, anthropology and acting, which are facets that a blog publishing system might not capture.

Quiggin's second observation is a major flashpoint in the debate: how journalists hone a story and select the facts to report. Bloggers turn to critical media studies for many of their arguments: objective news values, op-ed columnists and other biased sources, institutional forces, and a conservative implementation of web publishing capabilities. In turn, journalists point to the chatter/noise factor in blogs: they may be alternatives to op-ed columnists and newswire press releases yet do not yet replace areas that are resource-heavy and have mature practices, notably investigative journalism. Bloggers counterargue they have more freedom to use nonlinear narrative styles and to publish the raw sources. Perhaps one of the lessons from YouDecide2007 and AssignmentZero was that the editorial decision process to hone and select material is more nuanced in practice than Twitter's role as a first responder in disasters and emergencies.

How do journalists navigate such decision processes? Journalists have discipline-based norms, practices and ethics as barometers. This acts as a check and balance within newsroom culture and its role only becomes clear in a go/no-go decision where the editor has to weigh up the competing interests of different stakeholders and the potential outcomes of publication. In contrast, many bloggers appear to be driven by normative-based anchors (Web 2.0 compared with institutional journalism) and commons-based advocacy (education, sustainability, future generations). But belief alone in noosphere politics and networks may not be enough to surmount the different manifestations of power. If bloggers want to influence the objective universe they can learn much from journalist ethics and strategic nonviolence.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Academia category from February 2009.

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