That tenuous good—a function of authority, accuracy, and audience attention—is a limited resource largely because one of its key components—attention—is itself finite. Each audience member has only a limited amount of attention he or she can give to news stories. And that limited resource, in turn, leads to a tension between plenty—the variety and redundancy of news outlets available to audiences—and scarcity. With the end result being, among other things, that no longer is reader loyalty something that can be safely assumed, in the old ‘well, where else are they going to go for their news?’ model. In our world of media plenty, no longer is the cultivation of trust one component of the journalistic equation; it is a key component. It is, in many ways, the component: If people doubt the accuracy of the journalism you produce—or, worse, if they don’t pay attention to it in the first place—then what, really, is the point?
For bloggers, whose journalism evolved with the Web, the visceral instinct toward trust—the implicit recognition of its primacy—is coded, so to speak, into their journalistic DNA. Mainstream outlets, on the other hand—outlets which, up to now, have been able to take their readership largely for granted—don’t generally share that instinct. They’ve always been interested in cultivating trust, of course—trust builds audiences, which builds both revenue and journalistic impact—but their relationship with trust has been more detached. They’ve generally understood trust as something to be ‘earned’…but not as something that is implicitly, and existentially, necessary. While they’ve had to work to maintain reader trust…they haven’t had to work too hard at it. Because, again: where else are the readers going to go?
That disparate attitude toward trust is something we see play out often—and certainly in the case of the Scalia story, in which the bloggers went out of their way to correct the record, flagrantly and loudly, while the mainstream outlet did so more quietly. HuffPo readers, if they look at the outlet’s Scalia piece, come away with a much fuller picture—of the broader Scalia story, its movement through a kind of group-moderated fact-checking process—than the Tribune readers do.
Though the preferred stereotype of the blogosphere, as portrayed by external viewers, is of a kind of ethical Wild West in which there are few rules and even fewer outlets interested in following them (“freewheeling” is one of the kinder descriptors)…their reaction to the Scalia story is only the latest bit of evidence of blogs’ development of mechanisms by which to cultivate trust. These mechanisms have been organic, to be sure—they’ve sprung up individually, rather than by professional fiat, and they have often been the results of coevolution. But they have quickly taken on a universality suggestive of external mandate. They’ve taken on, in other words, the guise of professionalization—even as they’ve been defined precisely by their lack thereof.
Indeed, in the same way that professionalization—and codes of ethics along with it—was an evolutionary adaptation that helped newspapers to thrive in the media environment of the early twentieth century… today, in the blogosphere, shared norms of behavior—voluntary adopted, as before—are helping online outlets to thrive. The Scalia story is yet another piece of evidence that the “freewheeling” blogosphere is, in its own way, professionalizing: it’s developing shared standards that are aimed, as similar standards were for the MSM, at cultivating trust. “CORRECTION:”—updating stories in real time, in a can’t-miss-it manner—is one of those standards. Mistakes, particularly as the speed of our news cycle shifts into ‘warp,’ will happen. The distinction—and the trust—comes in how outlets choose to fix them.