Blogs: news or noise?

There's a prickly little battle developing between blog enthusiasts and techno-pessimists over what, if anything, blogs actually contribute to modern journalism, and by extension, the health of our democracies. The first salvo went out on August 19th, when LA Times columnist Michael Skube published "Blogs: All the noise that fits". In it, he suggests blogs don't contribute much actual information to public debate. Instead, they are forums for opinion, opinions that seldom refer to facts:

"One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt. Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background -these would not seem to be a blogger's trademarks."

What public debate needs, according to Skube, is more professional journalism- what he calls 'gumshoe reporting'. It is here that information essential to politics is produced, not in the blogosphere. In other words, blogs are not 'real journalism', just cranky mouthpieces for the disenfranchised.

The blogosphere did not take this attack lying down. Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU,  a founder of the public journalism movement, and author of the Pressthink blog hit back with his reply, "The Journalism That Bloggers Actually Do" (he also wrote a snarky reply on Daily KOS).  He accuses Skube of condemning blogs without actually reading any of them, a charge tantamount to calling Skube a bad journalist. Writing a story without doing research is a cardinal journalistic sin. Rosen follows up his j'accuse with a comprehensively crowdsourced list of genuine journalistic accomplishments made by bloggers. Says Rosen:

"No one owns the practice of reporting or assigns the right to do it. It's a democratic thing to tell others what's going on and "show your work." Some people will not be deterred from doing that. Most of them don't care what you call them. They do care if their story stands up."

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Photo: Journalism professor Jay Rosen

Who has it right? As a blogger, I've often wondered what the significance of the blogging phenomenon actually is. Rosen's point- backed up with concrete examples- is well taken. Bloggers break stories, uncover new information, and help keep more traditional news outlets to account. As the 2004 American presidential election amply demonstrated, blogs and bloggers have real power in American politics. This trend has continued well into the current campaign, demonstrated by the parade of Democratic hopefuls at the recent YearlyKOS forum (here and here).

However, the proportion of bloggers who engage in original journalism and media criticism is relatively small. The vast majority of bloggers are writing 'identity blogs' concerned with their articulating their daily experiences, thoughts and feelings. Moreover, opinion rules in the blogosphere, even on ostensibly journalistic blogs. In this sense, Skube may have a point when he says:

"The more important the story, the more incidental our opinions become. Something larger is needed: the patient sifting of fact, the acknowledgment that assertion is not evidence and, as the best writers understand, the depiction of real life."

Now, I know the idea of journalistic objectivity and evidence is problematic- what with all the bias and ontological difficulties- but I generally think that attempting, as much as possible, to remove one's self from a story is an important ideal. And ideologically untainted information is important to democratic debate. Bloggers have largely been released from the requirement to be objective and evidence-based, and this can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it encourages free expression and the refinement of personal beliefs. On the other, lies and half-truths can thrive in the blogosphere, and can propagate and entrench partisan misleading partisan rhetoric from both sides of the spectrum.  Moreover, blogs, like the Internet in general, can support forms of speech that are 'anti-democratic'- racist, sexist or otherwise 'hate' speech that seeks to marginalize, exclude, and at it's worst extremity, incite violence. Blogs that embrace these aberrations damage democratic discourse.

The interesting thing to me about the Skube/Rosen throwdown is the polarity it implies- either blogs or traditional journalism, not both. But if we're talking about a media system- a totality composed of many different components- a symbiosis between blogs and journalists will likely work to the benefit of our democratic systems. Blogs can hold journalists to account, exposing distortions and bias in the mainstream press and occasionally breaking stories of their own. Journalists, in their somewhat vain quest for objectivity, can help sort through the 'noise' of the blogosphere, seizing and widely disseminating important stories identified by bloggers. If done right, the whole thing could be a mutually re-inforcing feedback loop that works for the benefit of democratic debate. Unfortunately, acrimony between the blogthusiasts and recalcitrant journalists may hinder this loop from developing.

To take a step back from the journalistic debate, it is important to consider the important democratic benefits of blogging in general. For all bloggers, everywhere. In the conception of radical democratic theorists like Chantal Mouffe, blogging can be viewed as a means to constructing citizenship in the digital age. For Mouffe, citizenship is fluid, constantly defined and created through interventions in the public sphere. As such, any blogger, from the HuffPost to a 12 year old girl in Montana, is participating in a political act every time they post something, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. Thus, when we limit discussions on the relevance of blogs to questions of journalistic epistemology, we truncate our understanding of the social and political dimensions of the blogosphere.

So, news or noise? The answer is probably both, at different times, and in different ways. And, both the news and the noise produced by the blogopshere are politically significant, charting the development of democracy and citizenship in a wired world.