Shortly after the November 1, 2009 municipal election in Montreal, professional journalists from different media organizations were congratulated for their good job. Many of them had worked hard to push public debates further by digging up dirt on a number of municipal contractors and front political figures.
“It’s the traditional media who did the job,” said Marc-François Bernier, chair of journalism ethics at University of Ottawa to Le Devoir in an interview published few days after the election[a]. “Not new media, nor bloggers, nor those who call themselves citizen or participative journalists. The investigations were done using the good old methods. It’s refreshing.”
According to Bernier, what new media had to offer most of the time was ‘noise’. “Bloggers work as open line presenters,” he said. “They read the papers and then comment on it.”
Bernier’s words, more or less, echoed what David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of The Wire, had to say to the Senate Commerce Committee on May 6[b]. “The Internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future,” he said during the hearing on the future of journalism, “but thus far, it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregated websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth.”
If we put aside their contemptuous tone, these comments are hard to refute. According to a study published in 2007 in Journalism, 99 per cent of the posts appearing on six of the most popular political blogs in the U.S. were either comments or analyses on material found elsewhere[c]. Indeed, only a handful of posts were first-hand information.
More recently, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism issued a study on the news ecosystem of Baltimore[d]. The study revealed that only 5 per cent of the new information reported during the time period in which the study took place came from new media.
Bernier was right to say that bloggers were no different from open line presenters. But who ever said otherwise?
“Bloggers comment on the stories of others” said Le Devoir reporter Stéphane Baillargeon, “exactly like columnists from the newspapers do, or radio news analysts, who base their work on the traditional media. Bloggers are no worse than any commentator.”[e]
Whether these comments are just ‘noise’, as Bernier puts it, is up to the audience to decide. Of course, one could accuse the new media of conveying comments rather than news. However, the same accusation would also target more traditional forms of commentary in the media, like columns, news analysis, editorials, etc. In fact, this debate has little to do with new media per se.
A healthy parasite?
According to David Simon, there’s more to it. “Readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin –namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is killing the host.”
Now that is a much more serious accusation. According to Simon, bloggers are not just like any traditional commentators. They take readers away from the sources, leaving the newspapers to asphyxiate, and slowly take their place.
But are they really? “Of course, blogs are parasitic,” said Lisa Lynch, assistant professor at Concordia University. “But the relationship between the parasite and the host is a symbiotic one. The parasites are not killing the host. Something else is killing it.”[f]
A ‘symbiotic’ relationship? She might well be right. The 2007 Journalism[I1] study cited above showed that almost half (47.6 per cent) of the sites to which the blogs referred were professional news media. In terms of content, 28.8 per cent of the links lead to straight news stories, while another 15.4 per cent lead to opinion pieces, again, from the professional media.
“These bloggers, for the most part,” concluded the authors of the study, “simply engage the facts and information carried in news accounts, accepting them at face value and using them to form their own arguments, reinforce views, and challenge opponents.”
According to the study, far from ‘leeching’ the stories to which they refer, bloggers bring these to the attention of others while engaging a conversation about it, “a conversation distributed more broadly across citizens and journalists”.
“In fact,” wrote the authors, “much of what these blogs do is push readers toward other information that they would not have otherwise read. We would therefore argue that, far from supplanting the professional news media, they provide an important secondary market for its material.”
Blogs would thus be the equivalent of late family arguments beside the fire about what the newspapers said that day. Only now, these private comments about the daily news can potentially reach, through the Internet, a much larger audience than the one the ordinary citizen used to have.
Not only is the ‘parasite’ not ‘killing its host’, but the bloggers’ very reliance on professional media have ironically had the effect of “preserving and reinforcing professional norms of journalism as they disseminate content generated by traditional reporting practices”.
The deception of new media
Still, according to Simon, by commenting on the Internet stories they used to discuss in their living-rooms, citizens are usurping a position traditionally reserved to journalists, thus ‘stealing’ their audience, and as a result, their jobs. “To read the claims that some new media voices are already making,” he said, “you would think they only need bulldoze the carcasses of moribund newspapers aside and begin typing.”
To avoid this usurpation, it is paramount to maintain a clear distinction between journalists and citizens in people’s minds. “A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker,” said Simon. “Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.” By the same logic, he argues that citizen news-commentators are not journalists. According to him, such a deception would have a disastrous impact on the overall quality of stories, since citizens aren’t bound to any professional standards, as working journalists do (accuracy, fairness, balance, objectivity, etc.).
“It is nice to get stuff for free, of course,” he said. “And it is nice that more people can have their say in new media. And while some of our internet commentary is –as with any unchallenged and unedited intellectual effort– rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it is also quite good, even original.”
Journalists have often expressed in many ways their disdain for new media –blogs, citizen journalism, public journalism, and so on. Some diatribes were more imperious than others, such as an editorial from The Digital Journalist, entitled “Let’s abolish ‘Citizen journalists’”[g].
“Citizen journalist is a misnomer. There is no such thing. There are citizens and there are journalists. […] We advocate abolishing the term ‘citizen journalist’. These people can call themselves ‘citizen news gatherers’, but it is no more appropriate to call them citizen journalists than it would be to sit before a citizen judge or be operated on by a citizen brain surgeon.”
It is obvious that many professional journalists feel that their jobs are threatened. One of the common reactions to this threat has been to highlight, again and again, the clear line between pros and amateurs. Pros have privileges that amateurs don’t.
“But the reality is that in order to be given access to events,” said Dirck Halstead, editor of The Digital Journalist, “whether it is a fire or a political campaign, there must be an accrediting body. You can’t cross police and fire lines by simply saying you want to do that. Try it with your local police department. You can’t waltz into the White House or a summit meeting or embed with a unit in Afghanistan simply because you want to.”[h]
Of course, if it was just a matter of who is accredited and who is not, journalists would not need to worry so much about the rise of new media[I2] .
The thing is, journalists already have good reasons to be anxious about the future of their profession, and are thus eager to see in new media, accredited or not, an aggressive rival threatening to take their place. This anxiety transpires in the numerous diatribes about new media ‘stealing’ the audience, while replacing the ‘good old’ standards of professional journalism with a flow of emotionally-motivated, inaccurate, and deeply biased commentary. Like an ethnic minority at a time of economical crisis, the new media have become, for a number of them, an easy scapegoat for the declining of the profession –understandably or not. I would seem that new media are to blame, and for two different reasons, usually confused and interchangeable in the arguments of journalists: economically, they accelerate the financial decline of traditional media by ‘stealing the audience’, and morally, they are guilty of degrading the standards –and hard-won privileges– of journalism essential to democracy.
Is the new media just an audience with a mouth?
The irony of all this is that this dreadful “online army of bloggers [that] will supplant the work and value of traditional journalists”, as the authors of the study above put it[I3] c, are none other than the once invisible audience. Only now that readers can write back, some journalists may find it disturbing to note how far their actual audience, with all its ‘ideological’, ‘inaccurate’ and ‘juvenile’ comments, is from the one that they once imagined.
This point was raised by Jim Jarvis, professor at the City University of New York, as he reacted on his blog to anti-blog comments from a tech reporter for the New York Times. “Hey, fool,” wrote Jarvis, “that’s your audience talking there. You should want to listen to what they have to say. You are, after all, spending your living writing for them. If you were a reporter worth a damn, you’d care to know what the marketplace cares about you. But, no, you’re the NYT mighty guy. You don’t need no stinking audience. You don’t need ears. You only need a mouth.”[i]
“Comments reflect where people are with issues,” said Lynch. “The way the papers are constituted –neutral, balanced, objective– does not reflect the way communities are constituted. For journalists who have been committed to thinking and writing in an objective, neutral and balanced way for years, it can be disconcerting to suddenly hear how people really think out there.”
That is not the case for Michael Boone, sports columnists at The Gazette who also writes a sports blog. “I’m really hard to shock,” he said, “but people get extremely emotional with sports. The thing is that, whereas people can’t start yelling and swearing around in a sports bar, they can write everything they want on the Internet.”
This encounter, between readers who feel they can write things they won’t even say, and journalists who are used to a balanced and neutral writing, can certainly be disturbing at first.
One thing is sure though: it is hard to think of any professionals who would tolerate their clients interfering in and questioning their working methods on the grounds that, in the end, they work for them. This is where Jarvis is difficult to follow: it is not because journalists write for their readers that they necessarily want or have to listen to what they have to say.
This comes from a confusion about the role of journalism. Journalists are not talk show hosts, and their role is not to engage the public in discussing the news. Journalists would like to think of themselves as speaking the facts. What the audience decides to make of these facts is of no concern to them.
What happens when people start talking
One of the fears that the Journalism study[I4] quoted abovec emphasized was that blog communities might actually work as ideological echo-chambers. “People like to see their prejudices comforted,” said Boone. “It could become an issue in the long term.” Citizens would turn to the blogs and forums that suit best their political affinities, while avoiding the others. Blogs would thus increase the political polarization of the public, more and more fragmented into communities that never meet.
“And it’s a danger that journalism has always been a buffer against,” wrote Jane B. Singer as early as 1998, in an essay on online journalists[j]. According to Singer, the Web enabled individuals to choose the communities of interest they want to be a part of, while ignoring the others.
Traditional media, on the other hand, make sure that a common knowledge is shared by all and that individuals maintain “ties to a geographical place, to a home […] that includes not only people who are just like us but people who are not just like us”.
Singer made a case for the role of journalism as a community builder, even writing that “community building is inherent in the nature of journalism itself”.
More than ten years after, Lynch is sceptical about this. “The ‘neutral’ media that remain today are not the ones that create a public agora where people come together,” she said.
The foxification of the media made it less and less obvious that journalism is a ‘community builder’ and not just another participant in political fragmentation.
“The atomisation of individuals began way before the Internet,” said Baillargeon. “Societies are less organized around strong principles. The media reflect this fragmentation.”
Are new media increasing this fragmentation? “New media just enabled the diffusion of opinions people used to keep under their coat. A wacko blog might attract a few wackos, granted. So what? We, who come from the twentieth century and remember Stalin and Hitler, have no lessons whatsoever to teach anyone about the diffusion of extremist ideas. If some people have an interest in diffusing extremist ideas, they’ll just find the ways to do it –with or without the Internet.”
But something else is at stake, which is the source of an important misunderstanding between new and traditional media. According to Singer, traditional media is the cure to the ongoing political fragmentation: more objectivity, more neutrality, more balance is needed.
But for Jay Rosen, who first conceived the public journalism model, people are turning to new media precisely because the traditional values of journalism do not meet their needs anymore. People need to talk between themselves face-to-face about the issues that concern them. What journalists have to offer are commentaries about the effectiveness of such and such political moves, analyses on the strategies and techniques of political players.
This kind of coverage, where strategies are dissected at the expense of the issues per se, leads people to think “it is sufficient to understand the inside game of politics without ever having to actually participate in a discussion about their lives as citizens”, as James Compton put it in his 2000 essay on public journalism, published in Journalism Studies[k].
Indeed, people can have night-long political discussions without ever having to reveal their personal views.
According to Lynch, this ‘he said, she said’ journalism is politically emasculating and is losing its audience. “The irony is that you became a journalist because you liked politics, and you end up being the guy who can never talk about politics, because it would put you into trouble. You’re screwed.”
Are political journalists, like sports analysts who cannot take sides, technical experts who keep the public informed on the moves that were made on the chessboard of politics?
Rosen thinks so. It would explain why bloggers are successful: it offers a platform where questions like ‘What should we do?’ can be discussed thoroughly by a public that is tired of the power games. “Rosen,” said Compton, “wants the public to join in a conversation about itself. He wants journalism to help make public opinion trustworthy and, so doing, establish quality public opinion, as opposed to objectivity, as the legitimating principle of journalism.”
Far from having to go back to an even more objective journalism, Rosen believes the media “need to call on the public to exercise its right to discuss political life as individual citizens”.
In this view, traditional media, which never intended to part from disinterested analytical distance, ended up pushing more and more people toward blogging and other new means of expressions.
“The traditional senders of media messages –the journalists– are faced not just with a new delivery method,” said Singer more than ten years ago in the opening of her essay, “but with what may be a fundamental shift in their role in the communication process.” It was already clear then that “journalists [were] swept up in challenges to their one-time franchise of creating and delivering mass-mediated messages”.
What has happened since? According to the Columbia Journalism Review, there have been close to 20,000 lost jobs among U.S. newspaper editorial employees since 1992.
“It’s been a decade since we started trying to reinvigorate traditional journalism without having to break the hierarchy.” said Lynch. “But there is just no revenue model for the traditional hierarchy anymore.”
We will leave to others the task of telling what it is that is killing the host. Advertisers don’t need traditional media as they used to do, since they can now connect directly with consumers through search engines. Dematerialization of contents going online allows instantaneous diffusion with which traditional media can hardly compete. The severe cuts that newsrooms went through to satisfy bottom line pressures from executives and shareholders resulted in a dramatic decrease in news quality, and thus sales.
These are just some of the numerous reasons why traditional media will either find new revenue models, or disappear. Anyone interested in knowing what is ‘killing the host’ should look into these factors first. In fact, David Simon reserved the main part of his speech to tear apart the revenue model that, according to him, ‘butchered’ the whole print industry in less than two decades.
It seems that behind this misunderstanding about the role of journalism hides a much more critical issue. On the one hand, you find people clinging to what is left of journalistic values (objectivity, neutrality, fairness) as the only existing access to the ‘the facts’, which are presumed equivalent to ‘truth’. Around the fortress of objective reporting, lies the infinite, wild and threatening sea of ideologies.
On the other hand, you find people tired of the endless power games, determined to push their ideas forward, rally people around them and jump into the political arena. ‘Facts’ have no value in themselves –they need to be used, appropriated by discourses, discussed, opposed, doubted or acclaimed in the vast agora of politics. For more and more people, it seems that, behind so-called ‘objective’ reporting, lies an unsustainable status quo that needs to be broken, and an ideological posture that needs to be unmasked.
The debate, as we see, might well surpass the new media issue.
And we’re starting to realize that bloggers aren’t the culprits.
[a] Baillargeon, Stéphane, “Les électeurs restent indifférents à l’appel des médias.” Le Devoir. 3 November 2009.
[b] Simon, David. “Wire creator David Simon testifies on the future of journalism.” Reclaim the media. May 2009. http://www.reclaimthemedia.org/journalistic_practice/wire_creator_david_simon_testi0719
[c] Reese, Stephen et al., “Mapping the blogosphere”, Journalism 8.3 (2007): 235-261
[d] “How News Happens : A Study of the News Ecosystem of one American City”. Journalism.org. January 2010. http://www.journalism.org/analysis_report/how_news_happens
[e] Personal interview.
[f] Personal interview.
[g] “Let’s abolish ‘Citizen journalists’”. The Digital Journalist. December 2009. http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0912/lets-abolish-citizen-journalists.html
[h] Rosen, Jay. Quote and Comment. December 2009. http://jayrosen.tumblr.com/post/274294279/my-strange-q-a-with-the-editor-who-said-we-must
[i] In Lemann, Nicholas, “Amateur Hour : Journalism without journalists”. The New Yorker. August 2006. http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060807fa_fact1
[j] Singer, Jane B. “Online journalists: Foundations for Research into Their Changing Roles”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 4.1 (1998)
[k] Compton, James. “Communicative Politics and Public Journalism”. Journalism Studies 1.3 (2000): 449-467
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