One of the most alarming aspects of the Jayson Blair affair was how few people mentioned in his stories complained to The New York Times about his deceptions. This problem is not unique to the Times. In the wake of the scandal an Associated Press Managing Editors’ survey found many readers viewed newspapers as so arrogant, uncaring or disingenuous that it was a waste of time to try to correct errors. A July 2003 Pew Research Center survey similarly reported that 62 percent of the public believed news organizations try to cover up mistakes rather than admit to them.

Clearly major changes are in order if news organizations are going to re-establish credibility with readers and viewers. One step would be to embrace the growing sphere of Weblogs, which break down many of the existing barriers between journalists and the public.

What Weblogs Offer Readers

Weblogs are easy-to-create Web pages reporters can use to post short, regularly updated news items or commentary on issues they are covering, with links to longer stories and background information elsewhere on the Web. Anyone who has authored a Weblog knows the blogging community doesn’t share the hesitation of newspaper readers in pointing out errors. Even the slightest misstep on a journalist’s Weblog is likely to elicit a batch of quick responses.

More importantly, a Weblog thrusts a journalist into a larger community where a posting is picked up and passed from one blogger to the next, each adding comments and expanding the discussion. As such, Weblogs are far more animated than the often-stilted forums at news Web sites. They elicit a much broader conversation in which what people have to say about what’s been written is regarded as being of equal importance.

Reporters can use Weblogs to post items that expand on their regular news stories. This can be similar to the traditional “Reporter’s Notebook,” written by journalists covering government or political campaigns. Instead of a highly structured narrative, designed as a finished product for passive consumption, the Weblog writing style is more informal and approachable, inviting the reader to participate.

“Moving Toward Participatory Journalism”
– Dan Gillmor
Weblogs can engage readers in a dialogue about a story even as it’s being formulated. San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor, a pioneer in journalism blogging, uses his eJournal to float story ideas and get reader input on whether and how he might pursue them. Recently he’s invited his Weblog readers to review his outline for a book on technology and journalism.

Weblogs also can give readers insight into the reporting process itself. This helps strip away the mystique—and misunderstanding—that surrounds so much of what we do as reporters. An example is the string of email dispatches that producers of the “In Search of Al Queda” documentary posted to Frontline’s Web site as they did their filming. While not formally a Weblog, the producers’ very personal descriptions of how they reported the story show how a Weblog-like format can involve the public in a story from the beginning.

Journalists and Weblogs

For Weblogs to become a tool journalists use in their reporting, journalists will have to re-examine the concept of objectivity—the idea that we are detached, dispassionate chroniclers of fact. When we did a class at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism a year ago on creating a Weblog to report on digital copyright, one of the main issues we confronted was the clash between journalistic objectivity and the informal, free-flowing format of the Weblog.

Digital Copyright
That Weblogs and the Internet challenge objectivity is only appropriate, since it was a different technology and media form that fostered it. The advent of the telegraph and wire service in the 19th century allowed distribution of stories to many different newspapers and favored neutral presentations that would offend the fewest and appeal to the most. The evolution of mass media in print and broadcast similarly demanded each news product be tailored to the widest possible audience, with objectivity seen by many news managers as a means to that end.

In the era of digital technology and Web publishing, the mass-market model of news delivery is being displaced by one that emphasizes diversity and dialogue. Rather than presenting a single, homogenized view, the Web, and the blogosphere in particular, is a wide spectrum of perspectives and opinions. It’s a medium where people respond better to a more personal writing style, as usability studies have shown. And this medium is all about communication (e-mail tops every survey as the most favored use of the Internet), something the concept of the detached and impersonal journalist shuts off.

I once heard an award-winning national journalist say she responded to criticisms of her work by telling people their argument was not with her but with the people she quoted in her stories. It was as if no human was involved in the process of reporting and writing the story—just some disinterested bystander stringing together what others had to say. So there was no point talking with her. Not surprisingly, this don’t-bother-calling-me attitude—all too common in journalism—is a message that has been taken to heart by the public.

To be sure, there are many values in journalism that need to be preserved—honesty, integrity, accuracy, fairness, inquisitiveness and thoroughness. But if we’re going to reconnect with readers, we need to drop grandiose claims of being aloof, objective observers and be more transparent about how we do our jobs. When the concept of objectivity came up in our Weblog class last fall, interestingly none of the students voiced much support for it. Instead we settled on more basic principles for our Weblog—to provide “factual” information that was “thought provoking” and would invite a “conversation that will increase understanding.”

Weblogs also pose some dangers for journalism. They encourage quick posting of information, while journalism has distinguished itself with an editorial process that vets stories before they are published. In the case of Dan Gillmor’s Weblog, the Mercury News addresses this issue by having an editor check Gillmor’s entries right after he posts them. For our journalism school Weblog, we decided postings had to be reviewed by another student or professor before they went public.

Weblog postings also often rely on secondhand information, with commentary and links to what has been published elsewhere. But original, in-depth reporting is essential to journalism, and reporters’ Weblogs should be designed to supplement and not substitute for that.

Like other digital media, Weblogs make it easy to correct errors after the fact, which can create the impression that mistakes are just being covered up. In our class we adopted a policy that any significant corrections would be accompanied by a note explaining what had been changed and why.

Weblogs are no panacea for all of what ails journalism. In the case of Blair, numerous blogs dedicated to picking apart the reporting of The New York Times failed to catch his deceit before the Times did. But this also highlights the all too common relationship the press has with Weblogs— the imperious media giant under siege by hostile outsiders. Journalists need to break out of this us vs. them cycle and be part of the community if we’re going to regain the public trust that is essential to journalism.

Paul Grabowicz was an investigative reporter at newspapers, principally The Oakland Tribune. At the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, he is New Media Program director. He co-taught “Creating an Intellectual Property Weblog” and teaches in a class that is using a Weblog to report on China’s attempts to control the Internet. He’s also a contributor to E-Media Tidbits, a group Weblog.

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