Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Legitimizing the Blogosphere


Say that word in most newsrooms and you get sniffs of derision or jokes about the fat guy in his pajamas living in his Mommy’s basement or, at best, a concession or two that there “may be a few good ones out there,” but most of them are trash.

I’m firmly in the third category. Most of the blog posts I read, and certainly most of the blog posts I write, are throwaways. Little men and women with little minds sharing their little thoughts with a world that will get along just fine without what they think, thank you very much.

There’s no original reporting, some of the sniffers say. They’re just riffing off articles they’ve read. Like this blog post, naturally.

This is one riff you ought to read. Among many you ought to read, especially if, like me, you want to avoid the herd mentality that comes with any kind of group activity, be it reporting, Scouting, church-going or what have you.

Here’s a man thinking. Maybe his thoughts on most things aren’t worthwhile. But he has his Psycho Milt moments.

Psycho Milt is Internet pundit Clay Shirky’s answer to the newsroom and boardroom scoffers-at-the-Internet. Psycho Milt, in Shirky’s example, is an Iraqi war veteran who posted, at the time of the lecture, one photo on the photo sharing site Flickr pertaining to the war. One photo. He’s not a massive contributor. There are a few who have posted thousands of photos of the Iraq war on Flickr. Psycho Milt, just one.

But what if you really, really liked his photo? What if it were so telling of the war that it made it on the cover of Time magazine? Is the volume of Psycho Milt’s contribution to photojournalism as important as the potential impact? No.

Same with bloggers. Maybe, once in a blue moon, one of those pajama-wearing basement dwellers really has something interesting to say.

That’s the premise of Suzanne Smalley’s article at Newsweek, in which she outlines how, as a mainstream reporter, she looks to specialized blogs that treat on the same subjects as she does to inject a little skepticism into her reporting and to help insulate her from the herd mentality that exists among journalists. Read:
The summer of Chandra Levy seems like yesterday, though almost a decade has passed. I'd like to think I'm a better reporter now, less likely to follow the pack. More important, the media landscape has changed. Blogs barely existed in 2001. Now, when I cover any high-profile crime, I make sure to check out Web Sleuths, an Internet forum for armchair detectives who analyze cases and post court filings. When I followed the Duke lacrosse rape story, blogs—many written by people with expertise about North Carolina politics, the law, or even, say, protocol for forensic nurses collecting rape kits—were the best source for appropriately skeptical reporting. The herd mentality of the mainstream media still exists, but it is no longer in control of the narrative. That's a good thing.

Bloggers are unrestrained by the orthodoxies of the professional reporter. They don't need to follow the conventions of the 800-word newspaper story and can instead toss out an idea in two sentences that will nonetheless spur national discussion. They can ask questions without necessarily supplying an answer. Critically, bloggers also do not typically rely on official sources for information. Reporters and their anonymous sources both benefit from the relationship. Reporters get exclusive information, which earns them promotions; sources weave narratives that serve their interests. This corrupting symbiosis makes the reporter all too quick to take an official's word at face value.
There are legitimate arguments to be made that bloggers are not professional journalists. That I will concede. But many bloggers out there do not fit the article-riffing, pajama-wearing stereotype most in the mainstream press insist on slapping them with. There are legitimate experts out there blogging not in the expertise of journalism but in the expertises of law, police procedure, ethics, nuclear science, and other disciplines. What a treasure trove of informative sources for professional journalists to tap into, rather than deride.

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