“Bloggers vs. journalists is over,” declared a January 2005 post by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who writes prolifically about the new world of journalism at his site PressThink. “The question now isn’t whether blogs can be journalism. They can be, sometimes. It isn’t whether bloggers ‘are’ journalists. They apparently are, sometimes. We have to ask different questions now because events have moved the story forward.”
When Rosen wrote that almost four years ago, events hadn’t moved nearly far enough to convince many mainstream journalists that the debate was over. But in 2008, with old media in a financial crisis that seems to deepen by the week, resistance is evaporating. Traditional reporters and online writers are increasingly converging under one shared journalistic tent, where each side is free to borrow from the other. Thus, mainstream reporters still write news and analysis that strive for impartiality, but increasingly they also blog (at midsummer, nytimes.com had sixty-one news and opinion blogs; there were eighty-one at washingtonpost.com). Bloggers still aggregate and riff off the news reported in mainstream media, but a few are beginning to draw readers with original reporting.
These days it’s more the act of journalism that gets you entry into the tent, not whether you’re doing it every day, or doing it for pay. There are still distinctions, though. “Old” journalists are called professional, traditional, mainstream, or institutional; “new” ones are amateur, nontraditional, nonprofessional, or citizen journalists. PressThink’s Rosen promotes “pro-am” experiments, in which unpaid citizen writers like Mayhill Fowler (who broke the Obama “bittergate” story for Huffington Post) work with professional editors like Marc Cooper (a journalism professor and former contributing editor at The Nation) to cover the news in different ways.
Does this mean we’re one big happy family in the big new tent? Far from it. In an interview, Rosen said many bloggers still fume that they have second-class status; even when they break news, “there’s still a sense that a story hasn’t really arrived until it’s picked up by the mainstream media.” And while some traditionalists may be enjoying the breezier writing style that blogging allows, they wonder what it’s doing to journalism’s hallowed standards.
Setting the Bar
Last December, former NBC correspondent David Hazinski unloaded his traditional-journalist concerns on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s op-ed page. Hazinski, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, railed against television’s increasing reliance on a new form of citizen journalism—video shot by nonprofessionals, like CNN’s iReports.
Calling a citizen iReporter a journalist, said Hazinski, “is like saying someone who carries a scalpel is a ‘citizen surgeon’ or someone who can read a law book is a ‘citizen lawyer.’ ” What distinguishes a journalist from the average citizen who records news on his or her cell phone, said Hazinski, are education, skill, and standards. “Information without journalistic standards is called gossip,” he concluded.
The blogosphere dumped a blizzard of “absolute hatred” on Hazinski. “I had death threats,” he says. Most were rejecting his suggestion that a lack of standards for citizen journalism “opens up information flow to the strong probability of fraud and abuse. The news industry should find some way to monitor and regulate this new trend.” The more irate responders reminded Hazinski that mainstream media’s record on fraudulent reporting was far from unblemished, and that his vague call to “monitor and regulate” wasn’t likely to be embraced even by mainstream journalists, in a country where the media tend to equate “regulation” of their industry with censorship.
Underneath Hazinski’s provocative phrasing is an important point, though: let’s not cast aside good journalism’s goals and values simply because there are new ways to report and present the news. At the same time, let’s do see if some of the rules need rethinking and adjustment to fit the new realities. That Mayhill Fowler article on Obama’s “bitter” remarks sparked one fierce, and useful, ethical debate. Fowler recorded Obama at a fundraiser that she was able to attend only because she had contributed to his campaign, a move that violates the ethics codes of major U.S. news organizations. Yet even as Fowler’s newsgathering strategies were being debated, her scoop—followed and amplified by the mainstream press—became an important new narrative in the election. No one denied that what she reported was important. “But if the old rules are fading away,” wrote Michael Tomasky, who edits Guardian America, “there have to be a few new ones to take their place. There can’t just be anarchy.”