President Obama said in 2009:
I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.
Is this fair?
It’s true that there is a lot of chaff out there: some estimates put the number of blogs in the tens of millions, with the number of new posts a day at 500,000. Not all of these are active of course — many blogs don’t survive past the first few months of their existence. Of those that do, most are of limited interest to anyone but the creator and his or her friends and relations. And for those few that actually do get a decent following, a good portion are escapist — humour, celebrity gossip, TV-show fansites, and the like. I have no quarrel with any of that: give me a good dose of Crappy Pictures (crappy baby!), Hyperbole and a Half (love pathetic dog), Go Fug Yourself (“look into pants“), or The Bloggess, (“knock, knock, motherfucker“) and most days I’m perfectly happy.**
But I think Obama has it completely wrong. Bloggers are upending journalism and research in ways that truly benefit the consumer of content on the internet.They are the new fact-checkers, in a journalistic environment where news desks are being cut, where consumers expect real-time news, and where a timely story is valued more highly than an edited one.
Consider the following.
Blogger Carol Waino of mediaculpa discovered and exposed the alleged plagiarism of Globe and Mail star columnist Margaret Wente (among others). Her side-by-side comparisons of Wente’s “work” and the work of others are astounding. It hasn’t resulted in Wente losing her job (yet), but it did prompt the Globe to suspend her, issue an apology (of sorts), put its content behind a pay-wall, and block commenting on some of its articles. The CBC removed Wente from its Q Media panel. So why wasn’t the Globe‘s editorial desk taking care of this sort of fact checking, the sort of fact checking that someone with free time, some motivation, and an internet connection can do with ease? Waino has stepped into a vacancy at the Globe all right, but she’s not being paid for it, and she’s certainly not being thanked for it. On the contrary, in her words, the Globe’s response to her work has been “frosty.” But as news consumers, Carol, I tell you: we are grateful.
And an example of a blogger unearthing even more important and embarrassing falsehoods: During the 2004 American presidential election, Charles Johnson and other bloggers exposed documents regarding purported irregularities in George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard as forgeries.
Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania and co-helmsman of the popular Language Log blog, a makes mincemeat of scientific “scholarship” on a near-weekly basis. His blog includes countless examples of this sort of investigation; a recent one is his skeptical assessment of claims that young people today are less empathetic than those in a bygone age.
Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia and author of the RRResearch blog, is an open-science advocate who entered the public eye when she made a justified stink in the #arseniclife affair, which cast serious doubts on NASA claims to have discovered arsenic-based lifeforms on Earth.
And Goldacre, a medical doctor from the United Kingdom who has used his BadScience blog to expose sloppy (at best) and near criminal (at worst) research methods and reporting, has done an enormous amount to educate the public on how to assess what they read in scientific journals and the popular press. See what he has to say about Andrew Wakefield and the MMR-autism hoax, for example.
This is not “all opinions”
This is not “all opinions.” This is not “people shouting at each other across the void.” On the contrary, this is careful and considered work that holds traditional journalists and researchers accountable. It gives consumers some assurances that someone is taking a look. And, most importantly (I think), it shows us that regular people can take a look too…. we learn from writers like Waino, Liberman, and Goldacre how to read critically.
Time to reflect in a time of instant information?
Why have bloggers taken on this role? It might have something to do with the rise of Twitter and Facebook — platforms that allow for people to communicate an instant reaction to events around the world. This means that the traditional journalists have to get content together in a real hurry too — the competition for a scoop, the race to get there first, must be brutal in this digital age. And, unfortunately, it’s at the expense of quality. (“Report a Typo” forms are de rigueur these days –– news sites expect you to find mistakes. Think about that for a moment.) In contrast, bloggers can take their time. They can read the tweets, the status updates, the hastily-put together news articles, and reflect. Analyse. Fact-check.
In a 2010 piece for Wired, Clive Thompson states
[Twitter and status updates have] already changed blogging. Ten years ago, my favorite bloggers wrote middle takes—a link with a couple of sentences of commentary—and they’d update a few times a day. Once Twitter arrived, they began blogging less often but with much longer, more-in-depth essays. Why?
“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.
What do you think of this? What blogs do you read? How do you rate blogs against more traditional news outlets like The Globe and Mail or the New York Times? Have bloggers influenced the way you read? Add your thoughts to the comments below.
** I only wish that The Bruni Digest were still active. Believe me, it’s worth reading the archives.