As the week ends and we re-set for a new one, I feel compelled to react to two very different events: the news from a blogger that Obama had referred to Pennsylvania’s small-town voters as clinging to guns and religion; and a Minnesota Public Radio contributer using his blog to deliver breaking news.
I am so weary of the “are bloggers journalists?” question that I am beginning to get angry about it. As we’ve said so many times in Intro to Digital Communication, blogging is nothing more (or less) than writing. It just happens to be published on the Web. When that writing is journalism, the blog writer could be referred to as a journalist, or at least as someone who committed an act of journalism. When the writing is fiction or “what I did at the mall last night,” then obviously the blog writer should not be considered a journalist. That person’s blog was used as a sort of diary.
The blog itself is neutral, in other words, just like a pen or a computer or a camera. It’s the content that defines the writer, and it is the audience that matters. Where the content represents original reporting to which the discipline of verification (corroboration, fact-checking, triangulation) has been applied, the writing — be it on a blog or in a pamphlet or, though rare it might be, on TV — should be considered journalism.
The first event
Earlier this month, Obama was at a fundraiser in California to which news media were not invited or allowed. He referred to the small-town or rural voters in the state as “bitter,” as clinging to guns and religion, and as having antipathy to people “who aren’t like them.” Obviously, when publicized, this didn’t go over well nationally. But what is interesting for us is that the news of his remarks was broken by a blogger, a 61-year-old Obama supporter who deliberated for four days whether or not to publish what she heard. Declaring herself a “citizen journalist,” Mayhill Fowler determined to publish, which she did on OffTheBus.Net, a cooperative news blog launched by Adriana Huffington and, you’ll recognize this name, Jay Rosen at NYU.
Since then, commentators have discussed how digital is changing campaign coverage in unpredictable ways. This is a welcome discussion, because the democratization of publishing, a trend fueled and enabled by the Internet and that includes blogs, inevitably alters our political process, and in fundamental ways. Obama didn’t think his remarks would reach beyond the ballroom; he didn’t know he was being blogged.
One of the questions in this discussion: DId Fowler’s post represent journalism? As an eyewitness account of remarks at a campaign event that I think we can all agree are important to the race for the party nomination, yes, the post must be considered an act of journalism (she also videotaped the entire thing in plain view, begging the question of why the Obama campaign was surprised or upset with the coverage). Is Fowler a journalist? As an avowed contributer to Obama’s campaign (and Clinton’s and even Fred Thompson’s), Fowler presents some real problems. The four-day delay is a sign of these problems, or conflicts. A journalist doesn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of publishing news in the public’s interest, at least not in the circumstances the California fundraiser presented.
Objectivity as a process goal (not a product goal)
We seem to agree that pure objectivity in journalism is impossible. I think we can also agree, however, that striving for as objective a news-gathering process as is possible still is noble and good. Contributing to candidates we are covering clearly threatens, even mocks that objective process. The fact that Fowler has been criticized both by media and by her fellow Obama supporters points to this inherent conflict, bringing to life the biblical paradox of trying to serve two masters.
The other event I call our attention to is Bob Collins’s deployment of his blog for breaking news. Also a pilot, he’s focused first on the impending mergers in the airline industry. Collins is reporting and writing, publishing to a blog, for a radio station/network. This is cool, convergent stuff. As a single voice, he has fairly wide latitude to express himself. As a pilot and a newsman, he has credentials and credibility to cover a complex area of big business. I won’t be reading (mention of the terms “airlines” and “mergers” make me sleepy), but I applaud the initiative.