Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Legacy Media Stumbles Over Blogs Again

Another day; another opportunity for the legacy media to stumble foolishly when confronting the blogosphere. Yesterday, the Star Tribune eagerly seized that opportunity, publishing a guest editorial that made false statements about – wait for it – Powerline yet again.

Powerline can defend themselves very well, so I won’t waste much time with the specifics of the Star Tribune’s errors in this instance. Instead I would like to highlight some statements made in the editorial that point to some common errors in legacy media thought regarding the blogosphere.

The editorial stated:

“[Hinderaker] stated that the blogosphere was all about speed and therefore did not allow for fact-checking. Mr. Hinderaker went on to say, "Our readers let us know when we get it wrong.

And therein lies the cautionary Catch-22: Bloggers may serve as media watchdogs, but who will watch the blogs?”

Having read and heard Mr. Hinderaker regarding this topic several times, I’ll voice some skepticism that he ever said that the blogosphere “did not allow for fact checking.” That statement reads more like the writer was grappling unsuccessfully to understand the speed comment along with the second statement, “our readers let us know when we get it wrong.” But the “Catch-22” statement demonstrates that this writer lacks the understanding of the proper context for that statement.

Let’s pull back and examine the kind of fact-checking Hinderaker was talking about, and explain how it is different than the legacy media model our guest-editorialist was apparently drawing from.

The blogosphere is about speed, true. But not in the sense of “careless.” It’s in the sense that it is not restricted by printing, publishing, or broadcast schedules. A blogger can post an article as soon as it is ready without the need to wait for a 6pm broadcast, or a 2am printing time. This has ramifications that extend beyond just the initial publishing. The same speed applies to updating and/or correcting the article.

Let’s look at a simple example I published yesterday: the news that Hillary Clinton had collapsed. At the time it was initially reported that she had been taken to the hospital. Within ten minutes, that report had been corrected to state that she had been treated on the scene, but declined to go to the hospital. Had my original post been published in the Star Tribune, instead of on a blog, a reader would have had to wait at least 24 hours to see a correction. Because of the nature of the blogosphere, the correction happened in 10 minutes – before almost anyone had a chance to read the original post.

For a more spectacular example, it’s hard to beat the classic post The Sixty-First Minute from Powerline, which exploded into Rathergate in mere hours. That post also amply demonstrates the power of reader-based fact-checking.

Another illustration of reader-based fact checking: the memo I referenced, posted at Radio Blogger. I had a reader who seriously doubted the memo’s authenticity, and posted a comment laying out his case. This caused me to respond by verifying what I knew about where and from whom the memo in question came to be in Radio Blogger’s possession. This was all carried out in the comments section, and is just as available for any readers to examine as the content of the original post. If that had been an article printed in the Star Tribune, the skeptical reader’s only recourse would be the remote chance of getting a letter to the editor printed, and even then it would be forever separated from the original article it referenced.

Let’s examine the question: “who will watch the blogs?” The Star Tribune editorial emphasizes this perceived problem with the following:

“…the blogosphere is the perfect vehicle for disseminating ideologically driven rants against people and policy. There are no checks and balances, no fact-checkers, no code of ethics, no professional associations or peer review.”

From this it is apparent that the writer fails to conceive of “checks and balances” in any other than a top-down way. As I have written before, this is a frequent error legacy media thinkers apply to the blogosphere. The new media is bottom-up, placing power in the hands of the reader in a way that simply has not been possible in the past. This causes blogs to be far more accountable than legacy media thinkers can readily grasp.

Let’s look at one of the most reader-empowering differences between blogs and legacy media – citation of sources. Blogs offer a qualitatively superior method for citing sources: the hyperlink. Via the hyper-link, readers are offered direct access to source material, alternative opinion, and other items that add context or support to a blog post (to say nothing of the power Google allows for easy and quick independent verification). Newspaper online sites could do the same, though they generally don’t. Their printed version cannot do that. Nor can television news broadcasts.

The Star Tribune article asks the question: “who will watch the blogs? Do you have time to fact-check what you read online?”

This misleads the reader into thinking they will have no way of separating truth from falsehood in the blogosphere, in a way unlike getting news from legacy media. Yet this alleged difference falls apart upon even cursory examination.

I referenced Rathergate above, in which television’s most prestigious investigative journalism program, with huge resources and time devoted to a story, proved inferior to bloggers in its ability to separate truth from fiction. The myth of legacy media quality should have been shattered right there, but it was not in most media circles. However, as more attention is paid to the problem, Rathergate’s failure begins to look unsurprising. The legacy media with all its self-congratulatory professionalism screws up in a similar manner all the time. I can’t resist citing this quote from Powerline’s John Hinderaker in response to this very editorial:

“I talked to [Star Tribune] Commentary Editor Eric Ringham today, and he acknowledged that the Strib didn't do any fact-checking at all before they accused us of not fact-checking.”

The reason this kind of situation has been allowed to develop is quite simple – news consumers of legacy media in the past were marginalized due to their inability to get their own contrary information disseminated. What have been the traditional ramifications for messing up? When a newspaper like the Star Tribune posted inaccurate information in the past, readers wanting to correct it could easily be ignored. Even in cases of serious defamation, unless the defamed wanted the hassle of going through a tedious and uncertain legal procedure, legacy media could generally get away with amazingly little corrective action.

The blogosphere is changing that rapidly. Today it is almost certain more people have read Powerline’s self-published correction of the Star Tribune’s attack than read the Star Tribune's original editorial.

Despite Powerline’s supposed disadvantage of, “…no checks and balances, no fact-checkers, no code of ethics, no professional associations or peer review,” Powerline clearly outperformed the Star Tribune here. Over time, readers themselves will decide whether to trust Powerline, the Star Tribune, or any other source. And in making those decisions of trust, they'll be empowered rather than disadvantaged by the nature of the blogosphere.

Incidentally, I realize I’m just a small-traffic blogger with strong opinions but little reputation as a media critic. So allow me to bolster my point by linking to a couple of old posts on the topic from some bigger fish in the media world.

First, this from Rev. Donald Sensing:

“…there is only one real standard of journalistic accountability: the marketplace of ideas. People read or view or listen to sources that they deem reliable and credible (or entertaining, but we were talking about news and commentary). Glenn Reynolds gets 200,000 page views per day because people trust his record. My blog's readership has grown from a few dozen to a few thousand for the same reason, I presume."

Sensing also cites (and links directly to) the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. It’s worth a read, especially because many of the items in the code are curiously better exemplified in the blogosphere than in the legacy media.

Bill Hobbs, one of many bloggers who is also a professional journalist, also wrote an excellent post in response to Sensing’s, saying in part:

“No media tool allows for more accountability and more-rapid correcting of error than weblogs. None. And blog articles - which, incidentally, tend to be commentary rather than straight news - are often better referenced than anything you'll read in your local daily. Bloggers won't just tell you what they think about something - they'll provide you links to the relevant source materials, and even links to other blogs that take a different point of view. Rev. Sensing quotes the SPJ "Code of Ethics" in its entirety - and links to it. What are the chances he would deliberately misquote it? Zero. He linked to it - you can read it for yourself. The Internet makes it easy to fact-check bloggers - which creates more pressure on bloggers to get their facts right.”

He also has an excellent comparison between blogs and some legacy media alternatives:

“When's the last time you saw a footnote in a newspaper? When's the last time you were listening to talk radio and another talk radio host from a different show called in to correct an error? Never and never. Blogs do both.”


Blogger Kerry said...

Greetings Bogus Gold! A simple comparison of feedback: letters to the editor vs. the swirling electron dance of the blogosphere; admission to the exclusive nightspot, rabble turned away vs. the free-for-all of comments and links; is there no greater contrast? When did any paper print all the letters received? We see only a chink's worth. And those arrive with "delayed in delivery" in faded fuzzy blue, stamped on the envelope. They might be relying on the Pony Express to deliver their papers, so quickly have they been overtaken by Einstein's locomotive.

8:40 AM  

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