We’re going to need some new institutions. Between the anarchy and spontaneity of the blogosphere and the rigid, hierarchical structure of the old media, there lies a huge gap. Soon it will be time for some new organizational form to take root in that fertile middle.

Democracy has always been good at making room for organizational creativity. The two-party system in the United States is a good example. The Constitution makes no provision for parties, and the founding fathers didn’t like them much. In his farewell address, George Washington warned against “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” But he was already involved through his support of John Adams, the Federalist Party’s choice for his successor.

Parties are needed to mediate between the complex networks of individual interests and the purposely separated power centers in government. When things go right or wrong, it’s hard to pin the credit or blame on specific officeholders. But if one party or the other is clearly in control of the government, you can hold that party responsible. The decision is reduced to its most basic form. Support goes to the ins or the outs.

It’s going to be the same with media. When big media were natural monopolies, the best of them knew that trust had economic value, both for their communities and their advertisers. Now that media power is becoming radically decentralized through the Internet, we need a new kind of media organization to focus responsibility.

For bloggers and their fans, this idea is counterintuitive. With everyone free to reach everyone else, they argue, a free market will force truth to the top. John Milton made the same observation in 1644 when printing was in its early state: “Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” But the greater velocity of information today multiplies the opportunities for confusing and misleading the public. Processing is far more important now than it was when information was scarce. It will be necessary to invent a new institution to take the responsibility for evaluating, grading and processing information to make it fair and accurate.

It’s no use asking me what this institution will look like. I don’t know. I just have faith in the ingenuity of free markets to keep finding new things to try until something works. Some kind of order will arise.

Promise Meets Reality

For an example of the existing confusion, consider just one simple moral issue—the ways that bloggers deal with corrections. Back when I was part of the team helping Knight Ridder develop its pre-Internet experiment, Viewtron, it seemed obvious. When we found mistakes, we’d fix them right then. Many were the times as a newspaper reporter when I found an error in my own story and wished that all the papers out on the street could be yanked back into the office and fixed. One of the ways that electronic delivery would add value to information, I fantasized 25 years ago, was that such after-the-fact error fixing could be done.

But it’s not happening. The Internet culture has developed an odd impulse to preserve every error as though it were part of some important historical record. Corrections do show up, but without disturbing the supposedly sacred significance of the original error.

It reminds me of those automobile drivers who, when involved in a fender-bender, insist on preserving the accident scene, right where it happened, regardless of the impediment to traffic. You’ve seen the highway signs: “Fender-bender? Remove vehicle from roadway.” Why is such a sign necessary? What are those drivers thinking? That the wreckage will be a candidate for a national monument? That they want to get it bronzed like baby shoes?

Journalists who make errors in their blogs treat them with the same tender respect. Here’s a personal example: John Robinson, the well-known Greensboro newspaper editor and blogger, mentioned my book, “The Vanishing Newspaper,” in his blog, which was good, but he called me “Dr. Meyer,” which is really bad. In academe there are few greater sins than claiming credentials you don’t have, and anytime somebody calls me “Dr.” I have to go to the trouble of correcting him or her at the peril of passively pretending to have a title I never had. I explained this to Robinson, and here’s what his blog said after the “correction.”

“I haven’t read Dr. Meyer’s book yet—and I emphasize yet—but I’ve been following Porter’s deconstruction closely. Dr. Meyer, a journalism professor at UNC, apparently has done what so many other media watchers haven’t: Substantiated his conclusions with research. (Updated correction: Meyer’s not a Dr.)”

The problem is evident. Now it sounds like I did inflate my academic credentials, and he caught me at it! Why not just remove the offending error?

Blogger Tim Porter, who honored me by serially reviewing each chapter of my book, made an error in his first reference to Hal Jurgensmeyer, creator of the “influence model” on which I based the theory. When I sent Porter a correction, I was terrified that it would end up sounding like I, not Porter, was the one who made the error. So I made a point of assigning blame:

“Good introduction to the concept, Tim. Out of respect for its originator, I’d like to correct your fumble on his name. It’s Hal Jurgensmeyer, not Hans.”

My words were dutifully added to the commentary section way down at the bottom of Porter’s review of chapter one. Six months later, near the top of his review, the influence model was still credited to “Hans” Jurgensmeyer. The correction wasn’t even on the same screen. Only readers who made it all the way through Porter’s piece and continued to the commentary section could learn Jurgensmeyer’s real name. That’s ethical?

Chapel Hill’s Martin Kuhn, in a paper prepared for the August 2005 meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, explained this urge to preserve errors. It represents, he said, a desire for “accountability.” It has become the generally observed rule that “once a blogger makes a post, that post should be treated as if it were carved in stone, and bloggers have a duty never to erase their posts … warts and all.”

Thus is preserved a lot of unnecessary messiness. Why not just fix the damned mistakes and acknowledge them at the end of the document? Robinson would offend no one if he removed the silly reference to me as “Dr.” from his column. He could preserve the history of his mistake, if he insisted, by adding a note at the bottom, e.g. “In an earlier version of this column, I erroneously referred to Professor Meyer as a doctor. He has advised me that he is not any kind of a doctor, and I regret the error.”

That would eliminate a distracting speed bump in the start of his otherwise very readable document. Tim Porter could do the same thing for Hal Jurgensmeyer. Just fix the man’s name! That would leave a clean first reference, and then, in a footnote, he could, if he wished, preserve his precious error by admitting that he got the name wrong on his first attempt.

The Value of Knowledge

Ethical standards develop over time through a natural selection process. Rules that work tend to be kept, while those that cause confusion eventually get dropped or repaired. So it is not surprising that a medium as new as blogging would be in a period of moral confusion.

Nature likes to organize herself into hierarchies of dominance, and blogging will be no exception. A pecking order based on reputation is starting to emerge, and trusted bloggers are slowly rising to the top. We need some mediating agencies, perhaps the rough equivalent of political parties or trade associations, to help that process along.

When it comes to building trust, blogging’s needs are no different from those of the old journalism. It helps if you know what you are talking about. And so one way for a journalist, blogger or mainstream, to earn and keep a reputation is by demonstrating subject-matter competence.

The old journalism has been figuring this out gradually, but it has never been willing to pay reporters enough or to subsidize their training sufficiently to bring standards to where they ought to be. We’re still not very far from the situation described by Nelson Antrim Crawford, who headed my old journalism school before I was born. (It was then the Department of Industrial Journalism at Kansas State Agricultural College.) Here’s what he said in his 1924 volume, “The Ethics of Journalism”:

“Real knowledge of modern economics is less likely to gain promotion for a reporter on the average paper than the ability to write an interesting but largely untruthful story about a street fight over the ownership of a custard pie. The public, the editor says, is more interested in the humor of custard pies than in economics.”

In the past 80 years, that situation has not changed nearly as much as it is about to change in the next 20. In order to stand out in the noisy buzz of the information age, a talent for trivial humor will still be useful. But a reputation for competence and truth-telling will be worth a lot more, and raising the standards of training is the best way to get there.

Subject-matter competence is still so rare in journalism, mainstream or blogging, that it can be the critical element that gets a voice heard above all the din.Thomas Friedman’s advanced degree in Middle Eastern studies isn’t the only reason that his overseas reporting in The New York Times is followed closely. His clear writing and clever reasoning by analogy also help. But his ability to speak with such persuasive authority would be weaker without that training.

Subject-matter competence is still so rare in journalism, mainstream or blogging, that it can be the critical element that gets a voice heard above all the din. Russell Neuman, writing in “The Future of the Mass Audience” in 1991, called this the “upstream strategy.” Profits have been high in the media business because of the bottleneck created by the expensive means of production, i.e. printing presses and TV stations. As these are supplanted by the Internet, the bottleneck is moving upstream, to the creation of content.

The fact that higher quality content is a logical outcome of the new media technologies has been obscured by the reaction of mainstream media to the competitive threat. Instead of making their content better, they have been making it cheaper, a byproduct of their short-term preoccupation with maintaining their historic profitability. That situation will reverse itself after some apocalyptic adjustment.

When it does, the investment in better content is more likely to come from brash new risk-takers, not the careful, conservative old media. And they will need a new institution, perhaps some League of Extraordinary Journalists, to help us identify them and make our personal media choices on the basis of the ethical standards and the competence of their content creators. As individual consumers, we can’t track all the complexities of those variables without help.

The League of Extraordinary Journalists. Doesn’t that name have a nice ring to it? I can hardly wait for it to show up. Keep watching.

Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is a Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article is based on notes prepared for the 2005 meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment