Bloggers vs. journalists again: Getting it right the first time

You go away for a week, you come back, and people are still arguing about blogging and journalism! Sheesh. This bit jumped out at me from my catchup reading, an exchange that took place on a panel at a conference hosted by Fortune:

Scoble said that the difference between bloggers and traditional media like Fortune magazine is that the audience participation helps keep his blog honest. “This is written by the audience. People participate in fact-checking,” he said.

Lashinsky, however, got the last laugh. “In the old school, we like to get it right the first time.”

This exchange could have taken place in any year since 2002. I imagine it will still be taking place five years from now. Here’s the problem: both positions are off in a fundamental way.

Scoble’s audience doesn’t write his blog; he does. Saying “this is written by the audience” is simply repepating a formulation of Web 2.0-style idealism that overstates the audience’s role. If it was “written by the audience,” then the audience would cease to be such — it would have become, in Dan Gillmor’s amusing coinage, the people formerly known as audience. (I haven’t seen a video or full transcript of the panel; context might shed some clarity here.) What Scoble means is what most bloggers understand: that their writing exists in a real-time dialogue with their readers, in a fashion that is simply impossible in print, and that does transform the writer’s experience.

Scoble is guilty of exaggeration; Lashinsky’s comment is the one that’s really off. It’s a glib line that I’m sure harvested a wave of guffaws. The thing is, everybody — old school or new — “likes” to get it right the first time. Doing so is hard work. I’m working like mad trying to get every little bit of chronology nailed down for my blogging book; this stuff matters when you’re composing non-fiction.

The problem with the “old school” defense is that, sadly, the old school — newspapers, magazines, broadcast — really screws up the details too regularly to make this argument a credible case. If you have personal deep knowledge of a story, you are bound to find an alarming volume of errors in most versions you encounter in the professional press: everything from misspelled names to basic factual goofs to broad misunderstandings of subject-area subtleties. Yes, there are rare reporters who you can count on to Get Stuff Right. Sadly, they are the exceptions.

Of course we all want “to get it right the first time.” If that’s not a given, then — blogger or ink-stained wretch — you’re in the wrong field. The question is, which approach, the old-fashioned newsroom or the two-way Web, yields the best results when you don’t get it right the first time? If you accept that we live in a fallen world and journalism is always going to be full of errors, one might well prefer the corrective feedback loop of the blogosphere, where you have the chance, thanks to the technology, both to hear from your readership that you’ve gotten something wrong and to correct the story immediately.

Amusingly, as I dig into the history of blogging, its coverage in the media has provided me with an alarming pile of gaffes and errors. Consider this one tiny but glaring example of many: When Justin Hall shut down his blog, posting a dramatic confessional video explaining his decision, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about his decision. The front-page article was headlined, “Time to get a life — pioneer blogger Justin Hall bows out at 31.”

Unfortunately, if you read the article carefully, you learn, a few paragraphs in, that “Hall recently turned 30.” The newspaper had contradicted itself in its own front-page headline. The article text was correct; the hed was wrong. The paper never fixed the error.

UPDATE: Here’s more from Scoble on this.

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  1. What I find amusing about the journalism industry -both mainstream and bloggers – is the lack of real accountability for such gaffes (and much bigger ones as well). Some journalists/bloggers have a self-image as a profession that is never at fault. Journalists, like members of any other trade, often assume that their peers will always uphold themselves to the highest levels of integrity and ethics. As you said, this might be the exception rather than the norm.

    Journalists rarely excommunicate or banish those who break ethical codes. As a lawyer, if you break the law, you cannot practice your trade. But there is not such accountability in journalism. We don’t have to take it that far — but why can’t we ensure that a journalist has a public track record?

    Great thought-provoking post!

  2. I look forward to the day when we can stop talking about blogging verses journalism. I suspect it will come when those cute little curmudgeonly journalists stop talking smack about bloggers. Till then, ugg. Opps, I mean, i’m very happy to talk about this with people who don’t understand and have strong opinions about why we should return to the 70s.

  3. My first startling realization about getting it right the first time was on having served on a felony-trial jury and reading the newspaper coverage afterwards. I could swear that I and the journalist were at different trials.

    The lack of nuance, especially before the verdict, was appalling. The trial was not a biggie in the public attention, so the coverage was slim. Fair enough. The unreality wasn’t. And the ignorance of the legal/judicial system that was reflected was frightening.

  4. Lee

    Ok, here’s the point that seems to be missing from this discussion – who’s doing a better job of informing their readers? All this noise about journalistic methods, and ethics and so on is just inside baseball that misses the real point – People are turning to blogs because the mass media has abandoned its role of informing the public and dedicated itself to serving the interests of the corporations and politicians who pay their salaries.

    Looking back this started decades ago – I remember in the 70s it became obvious that Detroit was manufacturing crappy cars, but newspapers continue to publish car columns that tiptoe around this fact because car dealers were important advertisers.

    The tobacco institute campaign against the evidence that smoking causes cancer was another example of the media failing to report the truth and instead ‘covering the controversy’ because the truth wasn’t as profitable.

    But the complete abandonment of all principle didn’t become fully apparent until the clinton administration. The first real alternative that i found to that was Salon, and I’ve had a diminishing interest in corporate media since then.

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