The Difference Between Blogging and Journalism

State of Play

For the most part, blogging is not journalism. That’s my response to the longstanding debate about whether bloggers are journalists. Bloggers who don’t apply good standards of journalism shouldn’t be offered the same privileges as journalists. Similarly, journalists who fail to apply the same good standards should be stripped of privileges and prestige.

The basic principle is this: There are at least two sides to any story, usually more. Real journalists present all sides of a story, using multiple sources for balance and doing original reporting wherever possible. A quick survey of blogs reveals that many bloggers reporting news generally offer one side of the story. This one-sided difference is partly responsible for the Web being polluted by gossip, rumor and innuendo posing as news.

News aggregators and Google economy-driven news pirates are among the worst offenders. I subclassify these two groups into those operations that steal content wholesale and those that rewrite the key elements of blog posts or news stories. For both groups—and a separate class of news blogs—search-driven revenue is the profit motive. According to a December study by the Fair Syndication Consortium, for sites reposting news (in part or whole), Google accounted for “53 percent of the total monetization with Yahoo accounting for 19 percent.”

Yesterday, I wrote at Betanews:

The state of the news media is this: Gossip and rumors are rapidly replacing factual reporting—in large part driven by the Google economy…for bloggers, journalists and socialwebite gossips to scramble to post anything first, rumors are just fine. Being first with news (gossip or rumor) means higher Google News ranking, more pageviews and so more ad revenue.

The Fair Syndication Consortium reviewed Websites between October 15 - November 15, 2009, finding that 75,195 had published unlicensed content lifted from newspapers. “Among the top 1,000 sites reusing the most articles,” surprisingly “38 percent of the sites were ranked in the top 100,000 most trafficked sites.” Additionally, 112,000 unlicensed “full copies of US newspaper articles were found on sites across the Internet.” However, “any reuse by direct and indirect syndication partners was excluded from the results” as were “articles appearing on Google News.” So the study doesn’t fully represent the fullness of the problem I assert here.

The China Syndrome
News aggregators and, perhaps worse, news blogs regurgitate news in the most insidious way: Double-one-sideness, by sourcing one side of often single-sourced stories. Aggregators, like so many other blogs, typically source news to another blog or news site rather than doing original reporting. This kind of sourcing legitimizes what in this era of rumor as news could be factually flawed. A good journalist does original reporting, starting with seeking out additional or even independent sources. The objective is two-fold: Accuracy and objectivity.

I had planned to present a bunch of anecdotal examples of aggregators or news blogs citing another blog or news site. However, Nieman Journalism Lab has done something a bit more scientific study: “The Google/China hacking case: How many news outlets do the original reporting on a big story?" by Jonathan Stray. The story, broken by the New York Times in mid-February 2010, traced security attacks against Google to two schools based in China. Jonathan writes:

I chose a single big story and read every single version listed on Google News to see who was doing the work. Out of the 121 distinct versions of last week’s story about tracing Google’s recent attackers to two schools in China, 13 (11 percent) included at least some original reporting. And just seven organizations (six percent) really got the full story independently…

I chose the Google-China story because it’s complex, international, sensitive, and important. It’s the sort of big story that requires substantial investigative effort, perhaps including inside sources and foreign-language reporting. Call it a stress test for our reporting infrastructure, a real-life worst case.

There’s another good reason for using this story: First news of the Google hacks broke about a month earlier, offering real and would-be journalists plenty of time to do investigative, original reporting. The seven that did original reporting: BloombergGlobal Times (from China), GuardianNew York TimesTechNewsWorldWashington Post, Wall Street Journal and Xinhua (from China). I was surprised to see TechNewsWorld on the list. I once wrote a regular column for the site, but stopped. In part, I was put off by the aggressive editorial style. But maybe that aggressive style is needed in this era of lazy linking.

Just how lazy is the linking? Silicon Alley Insider is a good example. Late on February 18th, SAI posted “Google Hacks From China Originated In Two Prominent Schools,” presumably to catch pageviews for a single paragraph before linking to a Huffington Post story of the same headline/title. I classify both sites as news aggregators. Huffington Post was the less lazy of the two. February 19th SAI post “Google Hack Traced to Schools in China" served up more pageviews to a single paragraph and link to All Things Digital and the more cleverly titled "World War WAN: Google Hack Traced to Schools in China.” SAI offered no credit to New York Times in either post.

On February 22nd, SAI posted “BUSTED! Google Hackers Linked to Chinese Government,” offering short summary and linking to a Financial Times story. It was another pageview piranha post. Three examples are enough. In the Google-driven economy of pageviews and advertising, SAI can leach off journalists’ good work with the least bit effort. SAI does a good job repackaging, using clever headlines and posting interesting stuff. But the stories are often double-one-sided, because they source single-sourced blog posts or news stories.

Absence of Malice?
Journalists are taught—and bloggers should learn—that there are at least two sides to every story. One of the most effective ways of presenting all sides of the story is seeking out multiple sources. Another is to let the reporting drive the story. Perhaps 80 percent of my news stories start with one premise—eh, hypothesis—that turns out to be wrong. The reporting, based on sourcing, leads to a different story than I had envisioned. The stories would have been much different had I stuck to my preconception or followed a single source. Occasionally, some of my news stories may cite one source, but others are always consulted for balance.

House passes historic health billUsing a single source is often careless. Referring to another blog or news source as single source is wreckless. Reporting news based on a single, anonymous source is negligence. Good journalists are mindful of their sourcing, particularly those sources who aren’t identified. One rampant problem: The increasing number of unnamed single-sourced blog posts or news stories that seemingly countless other blogs link to. Gossip and rumor runs amok masked as news. Let me clear: Just because everybody is saying something is true doesn’t make it that way. It’s my observation that most rumor posts remain uncorrected when later proved to be wrong.

Today, Valleywag served up an unexpected example of tech news turned to gossip. Post “Exclusive: How Google’s Eric Schmidt Lost His Mistress, His Partner and Steve Jobs" is good reading but accuracy is questionable because of the sourcing: "This is the story told to us by a close friend of [Kate] Bohner’s, who spoke about the undoing of several of Schmidt’s close relationships." Kate Bohner and Eric Schmidt were recently romantically involved. Now compare to the New York Times' well-sourced March 14th story “Apple’s Spat With Google Is Getting Personal.”

Bloggers aspiring to be good journalists must adapt to standards of accuracy, accountability and, most importantly, sourcing. Accuracy and accountability standards are difficult to maintain without good sourcing. Sourcing another blog or news site without seeking to extend the story is weak journalism at best. It’s bad journalism when the sourced story is factually challenged. Rumor isn’t news just because some blog or even news site reported it.

My standard has always been corroboration by at least two other sources when presented with rumored or leaked information. I also always seek to answer the question: “Why?” Why is this information being leaked? What is the person’s motivation? Who benefits most from the leak?

"Who benefits?" is the most important question. The Nixon White House turned leaking into an artform, because of its cleverness. Sadly, too many 1960s-70s news organizations scrambled to publish first rather than answer the "Who benefits?" question. The Nixon White House used leaks as a distraction, which inhibited the investigative reporting into the Watergate break-in. How ironic in a way that leaks from Deep Throat would help Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncover the real story behind the break-in. The Post reporters did original reporting. They sought out sources that could give all sides of the story. As such, they got the big story.

Newspapers have long cited and credited rivals that broke big stories. This might seem to some people as what news aggregators and other blogs do now. Wall Street Journal might report on a New York Times story, but also present all sides of the story and seek to add something more. By comparison, today’s lazy linkers do just enough to snag pageviews that in aggregate generate revenue from the Google economy. A few minutes ago, I posted another perspective on the said state of journalism at Betanews: “Palm’s not dead, so why write its epitaph?

[Editor’s Note: Typos corrected April 15, 2010.]

Do you have a blogging or journalism story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: oddlytogether at gmail dot com.

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