FAQ: Trusting ‘the blogosphere’

Note: for those coming from Poynter’s summary of part of this post, the phrase ‘don’t have to be trained’ has an ambiguity that could be misunderstood. I’ve expanded on the relevant section to clarify.

Another set of answers to another set of questions (FAQs). These are posed by a UK university student:

How would you define the blogosphere?

The blogosphere is, technically, all blogs – but those don’t often have much connection to each other. I think it’s better to talk of many ‘blogospheres’ around different topics, e.g. the political blogosphere and so on.

The term has become more problematic as the blog form has spread beyond pure blog platforms: for example, social networks give users blogging functionality (e.g. status updates); Twitter is a microblogging platform; and photo, video and audio sharing sites add a multimedia dimension.

It’s probably more useful simply to talk about a community of interest rather than a blogosphere.

What about the issue of the blogosphere being accurate and pursuing the truth, as contrary to ‘proper’ journalism there is no regulation and no rules?

It’s a false comparison, in all sorts of ways. Firstly. the blogosphere is defined by platform, whereas journalism is defined by form. You can’t say blogging is or is not journalism, any more than you can say printing is or is not journalism.

Secondly, it’s a selective definition. There is plenty of journalism which is unregulated (not every publisher is a member of the PCC) and plenty of blogging which is ‘regulated’, either formally (bloggers adhering to a code of conduct, or being members of the NUJ or similar) but, more often, informally (being ‘regulated’/held to account by users).

Ultimately, bloggers and journalists both have to follow ‘rules’, most notably the laws that apply to us all. The internet is not a lawless wild west. Bloggers and journalists also have to follow the rules of society – norms and values which, if transgressed, lead to social exclusion. Many bloggers seek to hold journalists to account in ways that they see regulators failing at, so the argument can be made both ways: are journalists, driven by commercial demands, more likely to publish false or inaccurate information than bloggers who do not have the same demands? The truth is that both commercial and amateur journalism is subject to positive and negative forces in that respect.

This post on blogging vs journalism ethics has more.

To what extent are people more easily deceived by what is read on blogs and is it possible to stop false information from spreading?

Again, there is a problem here with treating ‘blogs’ in general, just as there is in treating the media in general. Journalists are among the least trusted professions – in general – but dig deeper and you find that BBC journalists have much more trust, and tabloid ones less. The Daily Star is trusted less than Twitter (a stupid comparison, but illustrative nonetheless), but The Times is trusted more than many other publications.

So, people are ‘more easily deceived’ by what is credible. They make judgements on a variety of criteria: the brand, the journalist, the context, and particularly the information itself. This applies whether the story is on a blog or a mainstream media outlet.

I’d love to see some research which explores what role the platform has in that mix when applied to specific content (e.g. show people the same content on different platforms and look at differing trust levels, then change the author, etc. to see how much impact that has), rather than research which simply asks people ‘How much do you trust blogs/newspapers/etc?’

Is it possible to stop false information from spreading? It is certainly possible to seek to spread the true story, and social media helps with this – again, whether it comes from blogs or the press (witness the various Twitter uproars over misleading media coverage). When shutting down social media was mooted after the UK riots the emergency services objected because they said social media allowed them to debunk rumours much faster than would otherwise be possible – which I think is illustrative.

We also have to acknowledge that false information is spread by traditional news organisations as well, and blogs have played an important role in tackling this too.

How can blogs actively promote truthful news/stories when contrary to media outlets, the bloggers are not necessarily trained?

There’s an assumption that all journalists are “trained”. They’re not. Many journalists have not been to any sort of journalism school, and some don’t receive in-house training.

Likewise, many bloggers have studied journalism or media, or done journalism or media production training courses.

We should also remember that journalism training is a relatively modern thing – for a long time most journalists entered the profession without training, and some great journalism has been produced by ‘untrained’ journalists.

There’s the suggestion here that people need require training in order to tell the truth. They don’t, of course. People, by and large, tell the truth. There’s a certain egotism to journalists who feel that their trade somehow has a monopoly on truth-telling.

In practical terms, journalism training largely takes truth-telling for granted as something that has been learned many years previously (if it hasn’t then that is addressed in informal and formal feedback).

Journalism training consists, if we’re honest I think, of taking ‘the truth’ – which can be complex, boring, and confusing, and showing how to turn that into a story – simple, interesting (through, for example, focusing on a ‘conflict’, even where that may not be as important as portrayed) and clear. Or, even before then, of which parts of ‘the truth’ to seek out to optimise your chances of getting ‘the story’ quickest.

As journalists we know that the truth is often more complicated than we represent it, so we cannot accuse bloggers of being generically unreliable without acknowledging that our own methods have flaws too.

We also know that any truth that we present is always partial – subject to the limitations of what information we could gather in the time available to us. Official statements and data go unchallenged; we run out of time to find an appropriate ‘victim’ – or we generalise from the same one that everyone else did. When the news agenda moves on, journalists don’t always return to check what else we know. Bloggers, at least, can be less concerned with the news agenda (but they can’t always get an official reaction).

The opportunity in online journalism – whether by professionals or amateurs – is to better represent that complexity, through linking to more detail (full interviews or raw footage, original documents, complete data) or providing for interactivity (how the story affects their postcode, family, or school; experiencing how a process works)

I’d also be interested to see how news consumers’ judgment of ‘truthfulness’ evolves with the medium. Will we attribute more credibility to a story if there are links to source material? Will we be more sceptical if comments are turned off? If we correct content rather than treat it as static? Bloggers tend to be better at all the above – journalists need to catch up.

1 thought on “FAQ: Trusting ‘the blogosphere’

  1. Pingback: Blogging: Does it have a home in the world of Journalism? | Denise's Portfolio

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