Bloggers, journalists, same difference?

By Grant Jacobs 17/04/2010 8


A debate on ‘Science in the Media’ was recently held at City University in London. Fiona Fox, director of the British Science Media Centre was one of the speakers, as were science writer and blogger Ed Yong,  Natasha Loder, science and technology correspondent from The Economist, and pharmaceutical correspondent of the Financial Times, Andrew Jack.

This apparently morphed into a bloggers v. journalists debate. Reports are this shift centred around Fiona Fox saying ’ignore the mass media at your peril. Blogs are good but they are not journalism’ in response to Ed Yong expressing enthusiasm for the developments in blogging efforts.

I wasn’t at the event; I’m reading about it from a great distance, long after it happened through the words of others. So I can’t very well comment on the event. I can still opine about the general issue of bloggers v. journalists!

Fiona Fox has since written on the BBC College of Journalism website, arguing that Blogs are not real journalism. There she repeats her thought that blogs lack crucial objectivity.

There are a number of responses to this around the WWW, listed in the references. While I have read these, and encourage interested readers to read them too, I’m going to try write from my own thoughts.

(Source: alexcartoons.com)
(Source: alexcartoons.com)

First the obvious: Blogs themselves are a media, a means of delivering content. Journalism is an approach to delivering content, in particular content about news events.

One is a technology, the other a practice. (Martin at LayScience has since expressed a similar view.)

I’ll forgive Fox that her intent is probably ’how bloggers tend to write’ (and research) their pieces, but even there I think I’ll quibble.

Blogs can have reportage. They can also have fluff.

Newspapers have reportage. They also have fluff pieces.

Just because it’s on a particular medium doesn’t make it journalism. Not all writing is reportage, or ’journalistic’, in either medium.

In that, that it’s on a blog or in a newspaper doesn’t offer a point of difference.

The nature of the medium can have an impact on how you hawk your product.

Web pages aren’t ’delivered’ to readers in the way that a paper is. Blogs use different strategies to draw readers than papers, particularly if they’re not already well-known by their target audience, but that’s another whole topic.

Fiona Fox mentions objectively and critical assessment.

She writes that the approach of (traditional) journalism with it’s specialist roles of editing and whatnot is rarely seen in blogs.

In the literal sense she’s right: little blogging operates under the traditional newsprint publishing model. Done the way intended, the specialist various players have important roles for that industry and make for a better product. I would say that I’m sure it filters out the worse excesses of speculation and poor thinking, but I have to be honest and wonder how effective it some times, especially in specialist areas.

In the sense that the end-product of specialist blog articles is unlikely to be objective or critically examined, I’d disagree.

She muddies the water I think by using general ’citizen journalists’ as her example rather than science bloggers, which was surely what the debate would take as an ’apples for apples’ comparison. Although it has the effect of shifting from her words, I think it’s fairer to compare science reportage (or writing), with science blogging.

On the subject of critical assessment, the traditional mainstream media notion of ’balance’ by asking for several opinions is in and of itself is a crock for matters of ’fact’. (Whatever ’fact’ is.) As I’ve previously written, what is important is  what is known, not opinions, and bloggers can certainly do critical analysis. (I’d love to hear from someone who works fact-checking for a major paper. I can only write from what I perceive.)

An irony, for me, is that perhaps some of the better non-journalists to analyse and seek balance on their own initiative are… scientists.

For that matter anyone who holds expertise in some area and the will to see right done by it will naturally apply critical analysis, which brings us back to bloggers.

It’d be fair to say that journalists are trained and paid to check their material, and that bloggers only check as far as their inclination takes them. But for science bloggers, their inclinations take them past many, if not most, non-specialist journalists trying to write about science.

The same could be said of any specialist area, really. History. Antiques. Pottery. Art. You name it. People are more inclined to fact-check areas that they consider ’their own.’ Or simply make it their business to know the ins and outs of it. They take ownership of the area they write about in a sense. (Specialist journalists will do much the same.)

(Source: alexcartoons.com; Used with prior permission.)
(Source: alexcartoons.com)

If the person has a reputation to up-hold, and most science bloggers or others with a specialist ’patch’ do, they’ll take care with what they write and take responsibility for errors.

I’ll leave you with two relevant points I will elaborate in a later article:

  • the role of editing and editors, something I have been meaning to write about for far too long
  • that it’d be interesting to see newspapers include a statement of intent in their by-lines (or masthead) and hold to it
Footnotes

I should say that I’m writing this to get it over with. Originally I opened this with remarks about this being a perennial topic, etc., but decided it clashed with the way our feeds work.

Please note carefully where I’m talking about specialist blogging.

Some reports of this debate mention a call for regulation of blogs. I know very few people who are calling for this. I do see people calling for arguments to be based on substance, not hearsay, however.

Natasha Loader apparently said ’the archetypal scientist is more interested in talking to themselves than other people — most scientists are borderline autistic’, which must have drawn a reaction! A reason that scientists can come across as talking to themselves in written works is not because they are borderline autistic but because in ’trying not to fool yourself’ (as Feynman famously said) you are effectively arguing with yourself, watching out for your own biases and errors. When written directly, without being ’re-mapped’ to a dialogue to someone else, it reads as being very introspective. Autism has more to do with how you interact with others.

When I say the Fox ‘muddies’ the waters, I mean it in nicest way possible. I’m really not the sort for bloggish sparing matches.

My local newspaper has raised it’s price again this week. Walking away from the supermarket, I wondered if the rising prices are symptomatic of the print newspaper industry collapsing or just general economic malaise.

References

The Science Media Debate: Is this blog journalism or not?

When is a blogger/journalist/communicator not a blogger/journalist/communicator?

Bloggers vs. Journalists: A Response to Fiona Fox (and Richard Littlejohn)

UPDATE

The SMC Alert links to this article with a blurb:

Grant Jacobs gets involved in the blogging vs journalism debate, finding that the subject, particularly when it involves science, may not be as clearcut as at first appears

I’ll forgive their opinion, but however they have come to this conclusion, this isn’t my position! (I have to admit I wish that they had advertised this without ascribing a position to me.) The issue is in fact fairly clear-cut in my own mind. If there is anything that I didn’t appreciate ’as it first appear[ed]’ was the extent of others‘ defensiveness about it. As a practical matter, to me it is in the end little more than navel-gazing in that what matters is what people do, not the titles people give to others (or themselves).


Some of the science communication articles on Code for life:

Post-embargo publication delays: be gone

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate

Sidebar scientists

Scientists can’t write?


8 Responses to “Bloggers, journalists, same difference?”

  • I’ve been watching this one ping around the web Grant. I think it is important to keep in mind where Fiona is coming from. She heads an organisation, the Science Media Centre, that has been set up to help the mainstream media do a better job of covering science.

    So her measure of success is a stronger science media, better public understanding of science as a result. Because the public still gets around 90 per cent of its information about science from the mainstream media, she warns people to ignore the MSM at their peril. That’s a reasonable argument and while I’m sure she supports the collection of credible blogs on science, many of which are written by scientists and journalists, I think her concern is that the blogosphere is increasingly seen as an alternative source of content on science-related issues, but that the blogosphere is not geared up to deliver this with all the checks and balances that the MSM provides.

    The situation for the media and for the Science Media Centre here in New Zealand is different. We do not, by and large, have science journalists or science columnists in our media organisations. So the blogosphere is an ideal outlet for discussion of science-related issues, essentially to fill the void.

    If it weren’t for the writers here on Sciblogs and elsewhere, there would be little indepth discussion of lots of issues. The MSM barely goes near the homeopathy issue in any depth for example. I approach Sciblogs the same way I did my stories at the Herald and I try to spread that culture across Sciblogs. I think blogs that adopt that philosophy, one rooted in journalistic endeavour, would make it onto Fiona’s blogroll. It’s the murky cyberworld beyond those that I suspect she has contempt for.

  • Sigh. I am keeping in mind where she was coming from. Maybe you are being a tad too defensive 😉 If it isn’t already clear, I’m not writing “against” her just giving my reading of things. (In case other readers aren’t aware of it, Peter is the NZ counterpart to Fiona Fox.)

    I could see where she is coming from, I knew of her position within the UK SMC, and I was aware of the difference of the British and NZ settings. In that, your words mostly re-enforce the view I already had.

    Of course I think that she would support science blogs; it’d be hard to imagine that she doesn’t and I didn’t certainly say she didn’t!

    I didn’t write about her remark about ignoring the MSM media at your own peril itself, as I wasn’t debating that; I was looking at what she said immediately after that (“Blogs are good but they are not journalism”), which is what caused the fuss.

    (Mentioning that most people still read papers seems irrelevant here. Neither of us were at the debate where she said this, but my impression is that she wasn’t referring to the number of people who read papers, but the nature of “journalism”.)

    I doubt I could say more positively that I agree that the newspaper “checks and balances” model makes for a better newspaper than I did.

    I then went on to point out that specialist knowledge in an area can bring a similar high-standard of objectively and critical assessment. It seems to me that it is a valid and relevant point.

    There are other models still. Just because one model works (to the degree that it does; the newspaper model has its flaws), it does not mean other models are “wrong” or can’t work.

    (I left out copy editing intentionally; it’s one of the reasons I said at the end that I want to come back to editing. Copy editing in particular is not particularly related to the key issues here.)

    I try pretty hard to be fair to others and my take on her remarks are considerably more balanced and in her favour than others I have seen.

    The only points I made “against” her—note the inverted commas—are (1) that it was unfortunate (not “wrong”, unfortunate) that she used a word (blogs) that conveyed what I believe wasn’t the meaning she intended, and (2) that her example is unfortunate in the context of discussing science communication as in that context it conflates general and specialist blogging. I did say that in addition to the newspaper model, specialist blogging seems (to me) to achieve pretty good objectively and accuracy, but from a different basis.

    For (2), bear in mind that she spoke & wrote in the context of science communication and science communicators. The setting was science in the media, not general media. One of the reasons others object is that specialist bloggers are quite capable of holding their own (copy editing aside!).

    If general blogging and general reportage (not science journalism) was the context she wanted to refer to, I think it would have been helpful for her to open her post with setting this context, otherwise it will be assumed to follow the science writing/journalism context her points emerged from.

    For (1), you might like to know that other writers are frustrated at people using ‘blogs’ to mean ‘blog posts’, not blog sites or the technology. The ambiguity causes problems. While I think Fox’s intended meaning is closer to my interpretation (how bloggers tend to write (and research) their pieces), this is ambiguity is almost certainly part of it why it’s being misread.

    There certainly is plenty of nonsense in the blogosphere masquerading as science, but then again we repeatedly see “fails” of a similar nature within the newspaper model too, as has been widely noted here on sciblogs. It would be nice to be able to say that the check and balances of the newspaper model provides some sort of assurance of accuracy, but the reality seems suggest it doesn’t work well in the specialist areas… without specialists on board; the point of difference being the specialists, not the infrastructure as a whole. Now if the bloggers are specialists… See my thinking? The key difference is the same in both cases. Between blogs (the sites) and newspapers it seems “same difference”, at least as far as specialist areas go.

    Once you try riddle out her intended meaning (as I did), I agree with most of what she (and you) say, but generally speaking I disagree that specialist blogs cannot be an alternative to newspaper articles and can’t have the same standards. (Copy editing excepted.)

    My impression is that they already are for some people. Some get the topics, as it were, from the newspapers but turn to specialist blogs to get the low-down.

    Take the recent earthquakes or volcanoes for example. I get the headline and “human interest” aspects from the paper or TV—they’re good for that—but move to the likes of ‘Eruptions’ at scienceblogs for the story on the event itself. Others say they do the same (not all of them scientists).

    It’s also telling, too, that some journalists seem to use specialist blogs as information sources. I suspect a good deal of what is written about the Simon Singh libel case owes something to the Jack of Kent blog, for example.

  • “in addition to the newspaper model, specialist blogging seems (to me) to achieve pretty good objectively and accuracy, but from a different basis”. I think there are plenty of examples here and abroad, and I’m thinking mainly in relation to climate change, where highly specialised blogs are full of distortions, misinformation and shonky science. So I don’t think it is specialisation that lends credibility – it is an integrity and purpose that is really borrowed from journalism that when executed well can really lead to the line between MSM journalism and blogging disappearing entirely. There are thankfully many good examples of this (especially as out of work journos start up their own online ventures!)

  • BTW, this isn’t really “my” point, but “the” point that others make in this thing. I’m not really interested in some protracted defence of it, as it’s not really something I’m for or against.

    I think there are plenty of examples here and abroad, and I’m thinking mainly in relation to climate change, where highly specialised blogs are full of distortions, misinformation and shonky science.

    I would draw your attention to the fact that I addressed this in the comment you are replying to 😉 See :

    There certainly is plenty of nonsense in the blogosphere masquerading as science, but then again we repeatedly see “fails” of a similar nature within the newspaper model too, as has been widely noted here on sciblogs. It would be nice to be able to say that the check[s] and balances of the newspaper model provides some sort of assurance of accuracy, but the reality seems suggest it doesn’t work well in the specialist areas… without specialists on board; the point of difference being the specialists, not the infrastructure as a whole. Now if the bloggers are specialists… See my thinking? The key difference is the same in both cases. Between blogs (the sites) and newspapers it seems “same difference”, at least as far as specialist areas go.

    Please note I didn’t write that the infrastructure that newspapers doesn’t help, I’ve already said it does. Here my concern is that it’s not the main point that is making the difference in specialist areas.

    How do people improve the standard of presentation of science in a newspaper? Do they add more editors, more fact checkers? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not the impression I get. Or do people hire specialist writers, acquire the work of specialist writers, or set up or use Science Media Centres to try help bridge the gap?

    Even when no specialist writer is involved, the point of difference is usually making use of the specialists.

    Why? Perhaps because in specialist areas it’s not so much about opinions as what is known, as I’ve written about previously.

    It strikes me that the additional checking layers in papers are largely to cover for that they don’t know first-hand some of the areas they cover. Some things are easier to check than others, etc., etc. (Obvious argument.)

    On pointing to junk on the blogosphere, as I wrote, yes there is, but there is stupid stuff in print publications too, even with the full caboodle on board. There are discreditable print publications (as a whole) too, which only re-enforces the point is that not the medium that defines if it’s (sound) journalism or not. These wayward things have editors too, although—just joking here—I suspect in their case most of their fact-checking is of the legal “can we get away with saying that” kind. (Let’s be fair, they have a different aim, to entertain.)

    Think about newspaper websites that allow comments. They’re basically blogs with a different organisation behind them. Again, it’s not the medium.

    Think about tabloids. Err, sort-of said that already. Oh, well.

    Think about conspiracy magazines, and their accompanying blogs. (You know at least one.) They’re basically the same content right?

    And so on.

    BYW, to my reading your writing “borrowed from” looks dangerously close to asking for credit by association 😉 I think you’d find that scientists writing blogs get their “integrity and purpose” mostly from their science backgrounds, not from journalism. (As a point in case, the shonky efforts in the press are often cited as a motivation that started their blogs.)

  • “I think you’d find that scientists writing blogs get their ‘integrity and purpose’ mostly from their science backgrounds, not from journalism.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a scientist, a pop star or a Catholic priest. You might be the most qualified person in your field, but still be shown to have no integrity if you sit at a computer and start blogging on issues and ignore the values that are inherent in journalism eg: telling the truth, not misrepresenting people. If you do that, you are just another opinionated person having a rant, which I think goes to the heart of Fiona’s complaint – a lot of people do exactly that….

  • I understand Fiona’s point, as I said earlier. Each time you write, it re-enforces my original thoughts. With one exception I didn’t disagree with her, but I tried to point out how I thought the delivery was was causing some people to cross wires. On the point I differed, I wasn’t so much disagreeing as pointing out that I didn’t think her generalisation extended to specialists, science bloggers in particular.* Generalisations are like that, they rarely extend to all examples. That’s in her favour, not against her.

    (*She gives faint praise in the same direction as I took, incidentally.)

    By the way, you have made one of central points I tried to make earlier, It’s not about the medium, it’s about what people do.

    I think you know what I meant by my reference to science being a basis for scientists’ integrity, etc., in science blogging 😉 Scientists are taught to treat a subject with honesty, look at different points of view, logic, etc., i.e. broadly the same things that were offered as being “unique” to those trained in journalism. Scientists get it from a training that’s particular to their own area. (I personally would like to see it trained more explicitly as Alison and I have talked about, but it’s there all the same.) Without giving a lecture, over and above basic honesty, a willingness to look at the alternatives, etc., there are aspects peculiar to science needed to work out the balance of alternatives in science issues.

    I’m sure some aspects of the journalists approach works better for, say, politics, but I can’t see that the scientists’ approach fails for their own area.

    The important point here is, scientists have the values you are talking about. Of course they need to use them as you say, but so to does everyone else including journalists and editors; that seems self-evident to me.

    My selection of blogs may be biased, but a fair number of specialist blogs spend their time clarifying or correcting unbalanced reports elsewhere. It seems to be a characteristic of them.

    As this is getting tedious, I think I’m going to let this stand with what I’ve already written.

  • I find many blogs so badly written that they’re tedious or impossible to read, which doesn’t do much for science communication. At least most journalism is put through some kind of editorial process.

    I quote Grant: “Fiona Fox mentions objectively and critical assessment.
    She writes that the approach of (traditional) journalism with it’s specialist roles of editing and whatnot is rarely seen in blogs.” What?!

    I rest Fiona’s case.

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