Journalism is a funny line of work. It wobbles between aspirations to be taken seriously as a “profession,” with all the status and respect that entails, and a desire to be the voice of the people, a critic of the pretensions of the professional class. We’re used to being condescended to, or attacked by, doctors, lawyers, diplomats, and the like. But with the Web comes a different angle of attack, this time from the populace, as the so-called “wisdom of crowds” rivals our claims to expertise. This is a conflict in which journalism has a lot at stake.

“User-generated content” has already altered the landscape of modern life profoundly. The amateur encyclopedists of Wikipedia have largely displaced the professionals of the Britannica on the Web; at Digg, news stories are ranked by their popularity with readers, not by an editor’s sense of their importance; broadcasting must come to terms with YouTube and its competitors. A clunky buzzword of the past few years has been “disintermediation,” a classy Latinate term for the obsolescence of the middleman. And in the middle of that word, as in the middle of things in society for the past century and more, stand the media.

Perhaps there is no place in journalism where this contemporary tension between the expert and the crowd is seen as clearly as in the world of consumer reporting, the kind of work that at its best gives readers and viewers a shot at better quality, safety, and leverage in the marketplace. Shopping is a central part of our culture, the true national pastime. Perhaps the moment when it became clear that Americans were happier thinking of themselves as consumers than as workers was the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906. As the author hoped, the unflinching depiction of conditions in Chicago’s stockyards provoked a national outrage. But rather than directing its anger at the terrible working conditions of the workers there, as he had intended, the public focused its outrage on the questionable quality of the meat sold in the nation. The book worked as great consumer reporting, and when it helped lead to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the author commented, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

So ingrained has this consumer identity become that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush told the nation to return to the shopping malls—it was the patriotic thing to do. Consumerism is central to America’s current identity, but it’s part of the national conversation in which the press plays an unusually peripheral role. Great consumer reporting could again become a powerful journalistic weapon, as David Cay Johnston posits in the piece that follows this one, but is currently in a weakened state, as Trudy Lieberman reports in the article preceding this one.

It has been estimated that the average American child watches more than forty thousand TV ads a year. Add to that the newspaper, magazine, radio, and billboard ads, logos worn by sports stars and emblazoned on race cars, stadium walls, etc., and it begins to seem that there is little room in American life for anything else. The great moveable feasts of our national culture, the Super Bowl and the Oscars, have become showcases as much for advertising spots as for the performances of athletes or actors. In this country, the vast majority of the discourse about products is produced by advertisers and marketers.

But now comes the Internet, which puts a significant amount of new power in the hands of consumers. All sorts of basic factual information is easier to obtain, and many Web sites now routinely post consumer reviews of products.

These developments have come under a lot of scrutiny, and much of the published reaction to this new role for public opinion has been positive. The “wisdom of crowds,” to borrow the title of the best-selling book by New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki, has become one of the hot ideas of the past couple of years. And there is a lot to recommend the idea, as anyone who has used the Google search engine (that is, everybody) can readily attest. Surowiecki’s book opens with a couple of breathtaking examples of the wisdom of crowds, and explores how it is possible for a group of non-experts to come up with a better answer to certain kinds of questions than any individual expert can devise. He is also careful to specify the sorts of questions that crowds do better with, and those they tend to fumble. Another fascinating exploration of this terrain can be found in Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, by Cass Sunstein, the distinguished legal scholar who is just moving to Harvard Law School from the University of Chicago. The idea has obtained a life of its own on the Web and in society at large, where boundless confidence in groupthink prevails. (This has been attacked as well, of course, in such books as Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, a passionate defense of professionalism.)

The best way i know to think about all this is as a consumer. I am a careful shopper, and I’ve always been the person my friends ask when they want to buy a car or stereo or TV. In the past decade, the amount of information available on such products has grown exponentially, as has the variety of sources. The careful consumer has a lot of work to do these days if he or she wants to be thorough. Let’s take car shopping as an example.

How do you buy a car? It’s a big decision in any family, and it’s natural to try to get some kind of help (particularly because car salesmen do not have a sterling reputation). One place consumers turn is the press, which runs articles about car safety; reviews of new models; technology pieces on new automotive gear (navigation devices, hybrid engines, safety systems); and business articles about the auto companies, the insurance industry, and so forth.

For years, car-enthusiast publications, consumer magazines, and newspapers have reported on such matters. But today, this expert sort of testimony has been supplemented, and even challenged, by new sources of data. As a careful consumer, I have honed my research methods as the information ecosystem has evolved.

In fact, I am now in the market for a new car. Fortunately, I have a lot of resources that were not available when I bought my first one, a $300 beater, a quarter-century ago. Before I do my own in-person reporting—a.k.a. the test drive—my research relies upon the testimony of experts in the automotive press, the combination of polling results and expert assessment from Consumer Reports, and similar mixes from Web sites like Edmunds.com, cars.com, and Kelley Blue Book. Invoice prices, not just of cars but also of options and option packages, are a snap to find. Available colors, incentives, and so forth are but a click or two away. At the cars.com site, meanwhile, I can find reviews of cars drawn from newspapers and other sources.

But the bigger change is that online the “experts” are being supplemented, and sometimes nudged aside, by the aggregated opinions of consumers (or interested parties masquerading as consumers). Such vox pop input has become a familiar feature on sites like Amazon, Netflix, and so forth. These entries serve as a reminder that the “wisdom” of crowds is aggregate—individual entries can be pretty terrible. But when forty or sixty or eighty consumers weigh in, the results can be very helpful.

Given my family’s needs, our finances, and some of my consumer car prejudices (no GM products, please), I narrowed down my choice to a half-dozen contenders—Toyota Sienna and Highlander, Honda Pilot and Odyssey, Acura MDX, and the new, larger Subaru Forester. (The canny reader will notice that Japanophilia is one of my car-consumer characteristics.)

The “citizen” reviewers online, though, are all over the place. You have to be patient, and perhaps obsessive, to read through their reviews. Reading them gives one a new appreciation for journalists (and in particular for copy editors). And there are usually a lot of them. For the Honda Odyssey, for example, there were fifty-five reviews when I last checked the Edmunds site. These veered from the doting (“Boy am i happy with this van, It’s everything i had heard and read and more”) to the niche (“add a second 12V receptacle in front console”) to the outraged (“The sliding door fell of it’s track onto my 7-year-old’s foot.”). But when you start reading, you can cull some interesting information.

And sometimes the user-generated reviews are the best place for up-to-date and specialized information. Edmunds, for example, had not yet rated as of late July the new Honda Pilot, but sixteen consumers had already weighed in. And some of the information is really useful for me. One reviewer, asked to suggest improvements that could be made to the car, wrote: “One of the biggest improvements would be to remove/redesign the glove box. [This] . . . would allow passengers over 6’4’’ to fit comfortably.” This may not matter to you, but I am over six-feet, six-inches tall, and my wife likes to drive, so a lack of leg space in the shotgun seat is a deal-breaker for me. This is an example of how the new resources of the Web and customer reviewing provide information that can shape the part of the distribution curve that Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson dubbed “the long tail.” In his book of that name (with the informative subtitle: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More), he highlighted the ability of companies in an Internet age to make money selling smaller quantities of products (books and recordings being prime examples) to niche audiences.

This new situation puts traditional retailers at a disadvantage. A brick-and-mortar store, for example, cannot afford to stock a deep inventory of DVDs, so it has to try to make its profits on the big hits. Yet Wal-Mart and big-box stores like Costco use those same big hits as loss leaders, to get customers into their stores. Thus, specialist retailers have been losing these sales of popular items on one side due to price pressure, and cannot compete with the limitless inventory of Amazon and the like on the other. Journalists have written this story about independent record stores and book stores many times, and now journalism is facing similar pressures.

What is true of brick-and-mortar stores is also true of mass-market journalism. The hits—sports news, stock-market information, weather forecasts—can be found elsewhere. Toward the other end of the curve, meanwhile, niche information is more broadly available on the Web than in the newspaper. A general readership is not likely to care much about the special requirements of car buyers who are two meters tall, or baseball fans devoted mostly to Japanese players in the major leagues, so the mainstream media are not likely to include such material routinely in reviews or articles. And if I want opinions about my team (the Yankees), there are dozens of blogs to choose from, including those of beat reporters from New York-area papers, as well as blogs devoted to individual players (including Hideki Matsui).

The narrower the interest, the more likely I am to find it satisfied outside traditional media. The broader the interest, the more likely I am to find it offered by someone with a stake in the subject that is non-journalistic, such as MLB.com, for baseball news. By training and belief, I am much more likely to want to get my information from a journalistic source. But there is no reason to believe that my preference is very widely distributed among the population. In short, the farther out the long tail I go, the more likely I am to be ill served by the mainstream media, and the more I am apt to rely on the opinions of fellow consumers.

Again, a consumer example may be the best way to explain. I love listening to music. And years ago, when I was peripherally involved in producing a couple of albums, I first encountered a “high-end” audio system. It was a revelation, and over the years it has proved an expensive one. I became an audiophile. We are a group easily (and regularly) lampooned—a few examples of the most expensive equipment (speakers that cost $150,000, CD players that cost $65,000, etc.) and a dismissive phrase or two usually suffice. Yet at much lower price points there is great sound to be heard. There is a small journalistic niche for this hobby (in the U.S., the flagship publications are Stereophile and The Absolute Sound). Both publications do a good job, in their different ways.

Their writers are, in my view, real experts. And given the relative paucity of information available, they have a lot of influence on the market (more, I think, than any car magazine has). But a central problem here is simply the variety of the equipment. If you are shopping for a pair of stereo speakers and want to spend under $2,000, it is pretty much impossible to find a reviewer who has had the chance to listen to even a large sample of what’s available, let alone all of it. And to complicate matters further, one of the problems with the audiophile press is the suspicion, often voiced in letters from readers (and denied energetically by the publications), that they are biased in favor of their own advertisers. Similar suspicions trouble readers of car magazines and other enthusiast publications, and these doubts are part of the distrust of the media that we are all too familiar with.

Today, I have an alternative: I can consult any of dozens of online audio forums to learn the views of other hobbyists about, say, two different pairs of speakers. You can usually find someone with an opinion on the equipment you are interested in—but you have no idea how reliable that person’s knowledge, or judgment, is. The experience of reading these online posts is a lot like one of the staples of entry-level magazine work—reading unsolicited manuscripts. With little or no background information on the writer, one must judge on the basis of the internal evidence—logic, coherence, and so forth. Illiteracy, incoherence, and a variety of pathologies are routinely on display. But among the dross there is gold, and an online forum can be a great place to get information, even if the sample size in high-end audio does not rise to the level of “wisdom of the crowd.”

If we leave the rarefied world of high-end audio for that of mass-market consumer products, there is still too much variety to comprehend. Anyone who has tried to buy a digital camera recently has faced the problem—new models are coming out all the time. And again, as in the case of car shopping, this aggregation of consumer opinion can be helpful, particularly for those with niche interests.

All of this is leaving journalism a bit on the sidelines. It certainly raises issues of interest about how the profession is, or should be, changing under the impact of the Web. For what we see here is really a reflection of a classic ambivalence in American culture, the same one referred to at the start of this article—the divide between a faith in democratic decision-making and a competing fondness for expertise (an inherently elitist concept). It used to be a common trope of American history to try to divide the various political movements and personalities into the simple distinction between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Those who followed the former were at peace with the wisdom of the crowd—indeed, they could be said to be the most important advocates of the concept in modern history. Jefferson famously said he would sooner trust the opinion of a ploughman than of a professor (although, like a good deal of Jefferson’s rhetoric, this may be safely attributed to political pandering; he did, after all, pride himself more on founding the University of Virginia than he did on his service as president of the United States). Hamilton’s devotees were leery of the crowd’s judgment and put their faith in persons of (in their view) extraordinary ability.

A reverence for experts has assumed many forms over the course of American history. The almost godlike status of George Washington is perhaps an extreme example, but the deference shown to him and to subsequent war heroes has been one of the central facts of presidential politics, down to the present moment. Today, though, we are more likely to place business leaders on a pedestal than we are to anoint our politicians. We honor the Jack Welches and Steve Jobses of the world, and tend to overstate their contributions, forget their blunders, and ignore the roles that circumstance and lucky timing have played in their careers.

The tension between the many and the one is a central theme of American culture. And against all the politicians and salesmen who have flattered the sentiment of the crowd, there has stood a Ralph Waldo Emerson to honor the judgment of the individual. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson makes his most impassioned plea for the worth of the individual and the individual’s perceptions. Yet Emerson is not the simple booster of the gifted individual he is sometimes made to be. For it is not the right choice that concerns him as much as it is the right process—in “Self-Reliance,” he makes clear that it is as foolish to be misled by an uncritical acceptance of expert opinion as it is to follow the whims of the ignorant masses. Ultimately, the key is to think for oneself.

Here, perhaps, we can find journalism’s place in the current maelstrom of change. Consumer reporters and editors have already abandoned the game of trying to offer comprehensive guidance—it simply is not possible. But journalists can, and do, bring a professional (dare I say objective?) perspective to the enterprise. Reporters can and should embrace their “citizen” competition, and they should use it. Because this explosion of citizen opinion on the Web is both a story in itself and a source of stories, a challenge to the traditional hegemony of the professional journalist and an opportunity to earn again, in new ways, the respect of readers and viewers.

After all, we are all looking for “filters” that allow us to glean information efficiently from the cornucopia of it that flows through our computers, our cell phones, our lives. Crowd wisdom (as exemplified by Google) is one way to do this, but turning to experts is another. And when journalistic experts add to their own arsenal of intellectual weapons the collective wisdom of the crowd, then that arsenal becomes more formidable. That crowd opinion, which seems at first to be a challenge, can become something all journalists are used to, and rely upon—a source.

We should be mining online data for useful information, and pointing out instances where flackery or momentary enthusiasms have overwhelmed judgment. The role of journalists as crusaders remains, and the profession can and should do much more to explore the systemic ills of our consumer economy. Enlisting the aid of readers, and listening to their voices, is far better than end-of-days handwringing. And it may be the best way to win the confidence of a public that is so often hostile to journalism.

Journalists should recognize that there is an opportunity in the fact that the information that people need most is often the information that requires the greatest effort to obtain. We have talked about cars and stereo equipment, but it is not going to make a huge difference to my well-being if I choose a Honda or a Toyota or a Chrysler minivan for my family. But understanding how different HMOs treat certain kinds of claims, or how different state laws can affect mortgage loans around the nation, or uncovering patterns of discrimination against the young, or the old, or the female, or the non-white, or the immigrant—all of these things still cry out for the energies of consumer reporters. Such reporting can be—and is already being—made stronger by the inclusion of voices that previously were hard to hear.

It makes our jobs as journalists harder—there is so much more to sift through—but the value we add is as great as ever, maybe even greater.

In the end, for all the usefulness of the web and the input of my fellow consumers, it was an article in the mainstream press that most impressed me in my search for a new car. In November 2006, the Pulitzer Prize-winning car columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Dan Neil, wrote a review of the new model of the Acura MDX. The premise of the review was that Britney Spears was kicking out her husband, Kevin Federline (she had already taken away his Ferrari), and that K-Fed would soon be living out of his car. Neil happily suggested that, in that case, the new mdx would be an excellent choice. He went on to discuss the comfort of the car, the excellence of its sound system (that got my attention), and the technological advances that made it a great-handling SUV. The review was a rave for the car, and also a delight to read. For all the crowd’s current power, experts, thankfully, still have their place.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

More in Feature

In the Beginning

Read More »

Evan Cornog , former associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and the former publisher of CJR, is dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University.