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Friday, 9 March 2012

The blogger has become the journalist's friend

A blogger shown in the Guardian's 'open
journalism' advert. Note the dressing gown ...
In his long and interesting piece published on Scientific American's website dated 20 December 2010 Bora Zivkovic talks among other things about the way the internet is changing the relationship between readers and the sources of news. While his main interest is in the relationship between science and the media, he says that the media system we are used to - where we rely on a few hegemonic media companies that supposedly value 'balance' - and which dates from what he calls the "anomalous 20th century", is being replaced instead by a many-to-many configuration where individuals talk to one another.
What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.
Zivkovic says that the subsequent erosion of trust - an aspect of the new online world that media companies hold up to display as an evil when they are busy attempting to boost their own brands - is not as important as the fact that having access to multiple viewpoints lets us see that "the mainstream media is not to be trusted". He says that we will have to learn how to discern trustworthiness and that trust is "transitive", meaning that it is conveyed from one source of information to another. We tend to trust stories that come recommended by people we already trust.

There is an element of hubris in Zivkovic's piece, and it translates into a certain amount of crowing at the current economic discomfort felt by the mainstream media. Objectivity, he discounts as an income-generation ploy, for example.
Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake "objective" HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.
Conflating objectivity with "he-said-she-said" journalism (the term is Jay Rosen's) is a bit of a stretch, but Zivkovic attempts to explain what has happened.
A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.
Zivkovic regrets that lack of space available for science reporting. This is true and is due to the need for editors to (1) ensure that the stories they put out are not too long and demanding for readers, and (2) stay within budget because stories commissioned from people not on staff are paid on a per-word basis. And journalists, he says, have merely come to rely on viewpoints from their sources rather than working to understand the ins and outs of the science themselves because that kind of journalism is very time consuming and expensive. So stories often, he says, end up as "he-said-she-said" journalism because the journalist merely relies on those sources, and the internal policy demand for objectivity requires taking views from people who may be pushing an ideological barrow. I talked about the shortcomings of science journalism back in January on this blog:
We all want to be informed, and many believe that the mainstream media has dropped the ball a bit in the communication game. They may regret the amount of disinformation circulating regardless of the actual research, and the climate change debate is a classic example of this phenomenon. Raising doubts about complex issues is what conservatives have done so well for generations. The way the mainstream press operates, these doubts are expressed and thereby gain currency. Momentum is lost. Policies fall by the wayside. Frustration results. The media cops the blame. Scientists grind their teeth and keep their heads down.
And so we tend now to rely on sources who gain our trust through the use of what Zivkovic calls "phatic language", such as in social media where users post information about their personal life, their feelings, and their cats, alongside news stories that they like that have been published by media organisations or by bloggers. However I think it's not quite true to say that "nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around". It is true that "we all get to individual articles via links and searches", but it's also true that people still go to their favourite newspaper website to glean what's new and what's on the news agenda on any particular day. We do both. We still trust our newspapers, and the extraordinary number of page views that newspaper websites are attracting is testament to this (the problem for media companies remains how to monetise those page views).

It's a good thing that science blogs are gaining traction because they will provide a better overall news experience for citizens eager for trustworthy information. The public's appetite for information is bigger than ever before. But the hegemony enjoyed by the mainstream media is not yet exhausted. We see how they function as a forum for debate on a day-to-day basis, even as social media and bloggers add new dimensions to those debates. The stories that the mainstream media cover, and the way that these stories are covered, requires the respect of politicians and other people operating in the public sphere. So newspapers still condition public policy by their activities.

Social media conditions the mainstream media, as do bloggers. The blogger has become the journalist's friend - as shown by the Guardian's latest advert for its 'open journalism' project; see the picture accompanying this blog post - and there are numerous stories that take events in social media as their main point of reference each week all around the world. What is happening is that the mainstream media is adjusting its focus to accommodate these new players in the public sphere. When a tweeter can be sued by an editor for accurately conveying what a citizen journalist recorded during a public forum, the game has changed forever. And Zivkovic is right to applaud the growing number of scientists who are occupying a place in the communication chain. Zivkovic calls himself a "science writer" despite, he says, "never going to j-school". He writes on blogs.

I went to j-school. I am a freelance journalist. I write on a blog. I'm on a horse.

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