In the second part of my book chapter I look at the criticisms leveled at both bloggers and professional journalists. I would welcome any corrections, extra information or comments.
The amateur-professional debate
Blogs have attracted criticism from a range of sources for being susceptible to mob rule (Allan, 2006), for containing ill-informed and biased opinion, for being an ‘echo chamber’ of homogenous voices (Henry, 2007), for lack of editorial rigour, and as representing the rise of the ‘cult of the amateur’.
At the same time, professional journalism itself has been under attack for the rise of a corporate culture (Gant, 2007), with many journalists seeing “their autonomy diminishing as newsroom standards of ethics, rigour and balance lost out to management goals of saving money and trivializing the news” (Beers, 2006: 113), while under-resourced newsrooms have faced criticism for running unedited PR videos (Henry, 2007), or relying on only one source (Ponsford, 2007), and investigative journalism specifically has been criticised for allowing sources to set agendas (Feldstein, 2007).
Underlying many of these debates are tensions around discourses of amateurism and professionalism. By its nature, professional journalism is a commercialised entity, required to make money. In order to do this it must either attract very large audiences, or relatively affluent ones that are attractive to advertisers or willing to pay high cover prices. It must also keep costs low where it can, meaning newsgathering is generally routinised, and bureaucratised.
Herman (2005) illustrates this in identifying five conditions which information must fulfil before it becomes news: the size, ownership and profit orientation of news operations; the dominance of advertising; dependence on ‘official sources’; attempts at control; and ideological pressures.
Herman’s framework is useful in illustrating how few of those pressures are applicable to blogs. Most journalism blogs are written by one person, who does not make a profit from their blogging. Advertising, if any exists, is typically sold through a third party such as Google AdSense, and the blogger is rarely dependent on the revenues generated from that.
However, while ‘official sources’ are not used in the same way that journalists rely on press releases and spokespeople, there is a well documented reliance on the mainstream media itself for second hand information, albeit often complemented with reference to alternative versions, deeper information, and original documents.
The amateur nature of blogs is often seen as a crucial counterpart to the professional nature of journalism – what Axel Bruns calls ‘gatewatching’ (Bruns, 2005), or Jane Singer describes as an “antidote to journalistic group think” (Friend & Singer, 2007: 119). As Skinner points out: “They are guided by a purpose or mandate other than the profit motive and they are often organized to facilitate a broader range of input into production than their corporate cousins [and] provide ways of seeing and understanding that are marginalized or not available there” (in Beers, 2006: 115).
Michael Yon’s Pullitzer-nominated blog reporting from Iraq, for instance, expressly rejects commercial assignments in order to remain independent: “Not as a rabble rouser or as pugnacious individualist reflexively bucking “the system,” merely someone who could buck the system when it needed bucking.” (Yon, 2007)
The subjective quality of blogs is compensated by their sheer number: objectivity, some commentators argue, is no longer essential in an age and platform where publishing monopolies do not exist, and the opposing view is only a click away (Gillmor, 2005), while objectivity as a quality of professional journalism was motivated by commercial pressures to attract advertisers and large audiences (Friend & Singer, 2007; Gant, 2007). Indeed, objectivity as a value within mainstream journalism is losing its appeal, with some organisations dropping it from their codes of ethics (Friend & Singer, 2007).
Blogs’ apparently ‘unchecked’ nature, meanwhile, is misleading. Whereas professional journalism employs editors to check reports before publishing, blogging tends to reverse the process: publishing, then checking. Editing, in this case, takes place ‘from the margins’, as readers and other bloggers check the facts presented in a process of ‘iterative journalism’ (Bruns, 2005). Unlike mainstream journalism, which produces a time-bound product that seeks to be definitive, or at least a ‘first draft of history’, the products of blogging and other forms of new media journalism are forever unfinished: open to comments, rewrites, updates and, in the case of wikis, editing and redrafting by users themselves.
Have I missed something? Included an error? If you want to make changes directly, this section is available as a wiki at http://blogsinvestigativejournalism.pbwiki.com/proamdebate. Click on ‘Edit page’ and log on with the password ‘bij‘.