Losing the Journalistic Security Blanket

    by Clyde Bentley
    November 16, 2007
    i-72eebff1c3030133d3a7ca1bd7d13b7f-Clyde Bentley.jpg

    Clyde Bentley

    Mark Glaser is away on vacation this week, but we’re happy to have Clyde Bentley filling in as a special guest blogger. Bentley is an associate professor for convergence journalism at the University of Missouri. Bentley helped start the MyMissourian grassroots journalism hub, and teaches students how to incorporate interactivity into their journalism. His research team hosts its own blog, The Cyberbrains. Glaser will return to the blog next Monday.

    Here’s the quiz of the day for 21st Century Journalism 101: What makes news critics howl, able reporters swoon and strong editors weep? (Hint: The great unwashed and untutored of the blogosphere consider them pure manna.)


    If I could squeeze another cliche into that first paragraph, I would. As long as it helped generate the answer to the quiz:


    I spent a good part of this now-fading year talking with bloggers, commiserating with news folk, goading students into establishing blogs while dipping my own cyber pen into the blog pot frequently. Back in January I believed that the difference between blogging and journalism was primarily content and style. But as December nears, I have come to realize the chief factor may be self-confidence.


    Explained in academic jargon, journalists buffer their social insecurity with a pantheon of self-fulfilling ideals and professional standards that exclude regulation and intervention by exterior influences.

    Or as the “real” bloggers repeatedly tell me, journalists are a bunch of gutless wimps.

    When we first introduced staff blogs to the traditional journalism world, it seemed a refreshing opportunity to give more of us a try at column writing. But when the IT people toggled the “allow comments” option, all hell broke loose.

    Many of us grew up in a business where the end of the story was the end of the story. Period. The inarticulate sniping of a few know-it-alls adds nothing to the day’s report. Besides, they were embarrassing. So if we couldn’t block comments altogether, we put up walls of rules to diminish them.

    Meanwhile the battle cry from rank-and-file bloggers is “bring ‘em on.” Comments have become the measure of success in many blogging systems. The editors for the big MyFOX system I use in St. Louis, for instance, pick the featured blogs for the home page largely on how many comments they have generated.

    I experimented with the impact of comments this fall by having two sets of Mizzou journalism students post to the Fox system. The first set came from an editorial-writing class. They were only marginally intimidated by the prospect of comments — they were, after all, subjective opinion writers. It was the immediacy, personal tone and volume of comments that took them aback.

    After a rough couple of weeks, my Op-Ed crew learned what hot buttons worked and how to keep the conversation boiling. The students soon reveled in getting 30 or 40 comments per post.

    The other students were more traditional journalists. Although they had studied citizen journalism, they were shocked at the lack of interest from the blog world when they wrote informative, well-crafted and traditional essays. They argued that no journalists need cater to the commenting public — good journalism is good journalism. As one said, “I don’t mind comments as long as they are valuable comments.” Going by her definition of “valuable,” of course.

    That’s pretty close to where I started this year. It doesn’t take much number crunching, however, to demonstrate that we have already lost that battle. Technorati reported that there are 175,000 new blogs launched each day — two per second. If just 1% of those carry credible journalistic information we have more new sources of “journalism” each day than we have daily newspapers in the United States. One could also argue that the remaining 99% have voted with their keyboards on whether the traditional media system has everything they need.

    When I moved from the newsroom to the university, I was rather shaken to find how uninformed I had been about the influences on my own profession. The key benefit of professorship for me is having the time to research and think about problems rather than to just react to them. The more I look, the less evidence I find to support my assumptions about what information interests people, how they value it and what they believe.

    Sometimes now I don’t even need the research databases for pointed guidance. A host of critics with names like Mr. Wildflower, LadyFireman, Weird and AMom offer in-course corrections every time I blog.

    In the long, round-about way we love in academia, I return to my original point. Bloggers feel no obligation to be 100% correct. But they have supreme confidence in the validity of their posts. If they are wrong, no big deal! There will be a dozen comments to either set the record straight or at least keep the pot boiling.

    But journalists are steeped in a culture of insecurity. We send our stories through a gauntlet of copy editors. We fact-check the quotes. And we buffer every statement we can with “allegedly” and “according to…”

    Is it any wonder that we fear comments? Errors are sins. Comments point out errors and therefore damn us to media hell.

    In theory, we journalists thrive in the public sphere. In reality, we find it a very scary place.

    But I’m working on it. A professional site like this is a safe-haven — at best I’ll get two or three comments from my peers. But after I work up my nerve, I’ll post this URL to one of the common-folk sites and let the avatars have at me. LOL! If we want to survive in their world, we have to believe in NGNG.

    No guts, no glory.

    Tagged: comments forums newspapers weblog
    • Just had to click through and leave a comment.

      I’d say it’s less a “culture of insecurity” than it is a desire for accuracy.

    • jordon

      I echo Becky’s comment.

      Comments can also provide valuable information that, for whatever reason, was not mentioned in the article.

      I’ll give you a non-national security example. A guy in my local paper wrote a negative review of the PBS series “Art in the 21st Century.” He failed to mention that this was the fourth season of the series. The implication of the article, therefore, was that this one season, consisting of four episodes, was attempting to define the contemporary art world. This is an unfair implication, because over the course of its run, the series had profiled some 50 artists: some great, some dreadful.

      There was no comments feature enabled, so I emailed the guy and asked him if he knew that “Art:21” was an ongoing series, because his column made it sound like he didn’t. He said he did, but for whatever reason, his editor cut that out of his review.

      Fair enough, but perhaps other readers might want to know that there are other seasons to this series. A comments feature could have enabled this dissemination of information, which might change one’s perspective on the series, and by extension, contemporary art. (“Oh well, so this happens to be a crappy season,” rather than, “This is what contemporary art is about? Then I hate contemporary art.”)

    • jordon

      By the way, this thread is so meta!

    • I agree with he overall sentiment here, that crashing open the editorial gates and allowing people (bloggers) to have a voice is a good thing. Allowing people to comment is a powerful new force (vs the old gatekeeper model where you had to beg to get a letter to the editor in the publication). I was one of those traditional journalists, writing for Business Week up until the early 90s. Now I work with companies trying to find their voice in the new web 2.0 world.

      I’m afraid, however, people are getting too carried away with this. Just because someone sets up a typepad account and launches a blog doesn’t mean they’re adding any value. Indeed, to be brutally honest, the overwhelming majority of these blogs range from marginal to pathetic. To think that this is a replacement for traditional journalism, as this post seems to do, is a stretch. Other points in here border on being shrill. Example: the “gutless wimps” statements and…
      “.. Bloggers feel no obligation to be 100% correct. But they have supreme confidence in the validity of their posts. If they are wrong, no big deal!”

      This is a new model–just throw information out there, to hell with facts, and let your readers correct it. Traditional pubs should adapt this quickly–how about Consumer Reports?

      Another one:
      “But journalists are steeped in a culture of insecurity. We send our stories through a gauntlet of copy editors. We fact-check the quotes…”

      Right–this is the editorial system of checks and balances. It may be cumbersome, but for decades it’s worked to assure at least a certain level of accuracy (pls. don’t point out all the exceptions–I know them well).

      Last, I think journalists, rather than cowering in a corner, are adjusting. Many (including a dozen or so of my old BW colleagues) are blogging and gladly accepting comments. Rather than fearing this, I think they find it an interesting new lease on life.

      At the end of the day I think we need, somehow, the best of both worlds: the diversity of voices that the blogosphere provides and some of the old fashion journalism practices–yes, fact checking, a pursuit for accuracy and real stories (vs opinions and rehashed news) and so on. Minus this and taken to the extreme and you have a Tower of Babel.

    • @ Mark Ivey – I am not a media professional. Just a normal citizen who reads, blogs, and comments. For the past 3 years, I have gotten most of my news/culture from blogs rather than print.

      I say that any netizen worth her salt knows (or learns fast) the steady rule about blogs: those that keep and increase their audience the most, are those that continually feature reliable information and a willingness to correct themselves.

      The blogosphere has a way of weeding out the BS over time. Open sourced fact-checking and etc. We readers can tell the difference between bloggers longing to GET IT RIGHT, and the rest.

    • jordon


      Other points in here border on being shrill. Example: the “gutless wimps” statements and…
      “.. Bloggers feel no obligation to be 100% correct. But they have supreme confidence in the validity of their posts. If they are wrong, no big deal!”

      I think that was a gross mischaracterization of the blogosphere and the weakest point of the post. (And highly ironic; aren’t we reading and commenting on a blog right now?) So I think you’re responding to and accepting a faulty premise.

      “But journalists are steeped in a culture of insecurity. We send our stories through a gauntlet of copy editors. We fact-check the quotes…”

      Right–this is the editorial system of checks and balances. It may be cumbersome, but for decades it’s worked to assure at least a certain level of accuracy (pls. don’t point out all the exceptions–I know them well).

      Those are hefty, paradigm-shifting “exceptions” you’re asking us to ignore. It’s quite simple: if the traditional media didn’t continue to let us down on the most important issues of our time, we wouldn’t be turning to the blogosphere.

    • Mark (my former colleague), you’re right. I LOVE comments. They indicate we have engaged readers, the best kind, and often enough the comments add a lot to the original story. (Conversely, I feel I’ve failed somehow if nobody comments on a post.) The only thing I fear is comment spam, because it takes a lot of time to weed through that.

    • I think most of you are suffering from what researchers call “The n of 1.” You are using your own observations as a generalization.

      The fact that you come to this blog makes you outside the norm in journalism. Sure, online journalists have integrated the comment into their lives. But step into a traditional newsroom and ask about comments.

      If journalism is to successfully evolve, the “installed base” of journalists must move toward the new culture. I don’t see that happening yet. Traditional newsroom types (and I both was one and still work with them) still see themselves as high priests of truth. And their truth is the absolute defense.

    • Carl Odom

      A journalism professor, at my alma mater, when he takes pen in hand,
      either lives in an unreal world or he can’t overcome his penchant for writing about the world he wants it to be.

      Seems that with every column he gets higher on his high horse.

      Sadly, he’s exposing young minds to his shinola.

    • Carl, I think your comment is indicative of the sheltered perspective of many working journalists. If a blog is not a horse (or soapbox) to climb upon, then we may as well write boring textbooks. Or newspapers.

      I was on the working side a heck of a lot longer than I’ve been in the classroom, so it’s something I remember fondly but need not long for.

      But as an update, one of my students is blogging for the Kansas City Star in preparation for this weekend’s Border War with KU. She read the post and wrote:

      “Those who can’t take it get out of the kitchen, and that’s why a lot of those 175,000 blogs a day don’t last. It is rough. I’ve been called stupid, boring, ugly, uninformed, a bad journalist, an awful writer, a dumb girl… If you can’t read that and both learn from your mistakes and ignore the truly ignorant, then the no-feedback bubble looks a lot more appetizing.

      Like I said, I’m trying to take it in stride. I know I’m going to get some negative comments no matter what. I have to find a way to take the criticism and make it constructive and then do my best not to take the rest personally. ”

      That’s the journalist I want us all to be


    • mark

      I’m not sure who is more sheltered–professors or journalists–but some of this misses the point. Most of us are all for comments and feedback for any story. The question is whether the new army of bloggers and their shoot from the hip style is actually a better model than what many say it will be replacing, the old media model. Journalists have been critiqued for years, sometimes rightfully so, sometimes for doing their jobs. Probably before the earlier quoted student was even born (assuming she’s under 24) I was facing a legal challenge from an angry entrepreneur who didn’t like our (BusinessWeek) story on the way he ran his business into the ground and into bankruptcy, leaving thousands of creditors with nothing. He hired a high powered East Coast law firm and tried to go after us but later dropped his case. Another time I wrote a story about an up and coming technology company with enormous promise–or so I thought. The company went bankrupt nine months later. Oops…I got to read about it in Forbes, which of course, rubbed our noses in it (I would be much better off today since I could simply write a new post saying I screwed up). Today’s bloggers are unlikely to do the hard hitting stories that will land them anywhere close to a courthouse (with exceptions), and while comments should be applauded, they are only part of a bigger and changing picture. The media has plenty of faults, but let’s just hope we don’t sacrifice the positive parts of this profession–example, the pursuit of hard-hitting stories and being accurate–as we move into this Brave New World. “News,” like everything else, is becoming more of a “conversation” and as I posted in my blog today, the better journalists will make the leap into the new world. They have no choice.

    • Blogs can be timely AND accurate. I’m a fact-checker for National Geographic Traveler magazine, and we fact-check and copyread all our blog posts before publication, and we post two or three times a day. As a magazine, we publish 8 times/year, so there’s lots of travel news that can’t wait for print. And if we goof, our readers will point it out. We adore comments! That immediate connection with readers is something we can’t get any other way.

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