Journalism, Blogging and Objectivity

Here in Rochester, we’ve had our recent dust-up, ably covered by Exile at RT, concerning traditional news journalists getting themselves into hot water on “new media” blog formats. Prior to that, we have all of us in the Rochester blogging community been complaining about the uneven and oft-times irresponsible reporting of the D&C and others. Meanwhile, our concerns are becoming increasingly mirrored in the American community at large, with more and more reports showing Americans regard the media as biased, uncaring and irresponsible. And oh, no one is amused by the celebrity stories on CNN anymore, either.

I thought it would be a good exercise for what may well be one of the last posts for the next five days or so to go over some thoughts concerning the nature of media, responsible reporting and what effect blogging is having on the journalistic community.

What is journalism? If we are to consider the effect of blogging on journalism, it is important to calibrate our understanding of what, precisely, journalism is. Moreover, every single blogger I’ve talked to who has ever been interviewed on the news has been asked if they regard themselves as journalists, so it’s obviously on more minds than just mine. A quick search of the definition shows a wide variety of definitions, from a style of writing to a profession, from merely the act of recording events right down to an elitist’s form of intellectual slander.

Doctors and lawyers are educated in medicine or law at a college or university, then licensed by a peer-review group. But while there are journalism degrees in colleges, most of the greatest reporters of all time had no such degree. Edward R. Murrow graduated with a degree in Speech, as one example. Meanwhile, there is no licensing involved in being a reporter.

Of course, many professions do not require either of these two things. Is the answer that a person who makes a living reporting on news is considered a journalist? Well, if that’s true, then freelance journalists can’t be considered journalists, since they rarely manage to make a living bouncing from report to report. And if journalism is meant to be kept distinct from blogging, it bears mentioning that there are a number of people blogging and making a lot more money than those who are reporting in conventional publications.

So no degree, no certification, no license and no means of income determines what a journalist is. What if some of us just stand up, ask a few questions and report the answers back to our online space? Well, that’s precisely what many of us are doing. Is that journalism?

When asked by one reporter, my response was perhaps overly-deferential but still largely accurate. I said that what blogging is largely about is “meta-journalism,” or the act of aggregating stories and articles from other sources, along with our own thoughts and ideas, into a cohesive narrative that sometimes eludes the reporting of those upon whose work we so often rely. As private citizens, we often lack the resources and connections to get close to even local politicians and news-makers. Where this is the case, we are forced to rely on those who work for well-connected organizations.

I’m sure no one would suggest that the backing of a large corporation is the only thing that makes one a journalist. Yet without saying so, many do hold this misapprehension as fact.

One of the principle criticisms of blogging is that we lack objectivity; that we are all partisans working for the Democratic Party, or if you believe Bill Orally, Hitler. The national news media and most conventional news media outlets tend to pride themselves on being, in the words of Fox News, “Fair and Balanced.” The blogs, they say, are too judgmental.

But isn’t there some cognitive dissonance to be found in this concept of journalistic objectivity? When Channel 10 claims to be “Digging for answers, reporting them first,” how do they go about “digging” without starting with the premise that there is something to dig into? And what of those agencies which do not bother digging? What are they contributing except stenography? Perhaps then the profession of journalism really is simple note taking for the benefit of future historians. If so, then it must be depressing indeed to work for the D&C.

I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog that I believe the rush to maintain what I regard as an erronious interpretation of the word “Objective” is precisely what leads to our current state of stagnant news and 24-hour Paris Hilton coverage. The one time a couple of D&C reporters step outside the imagined boundaries of both objectivity and of journalism, they rush to pretend it didn’t happen.

Finally, let me leave you with a quote from days of yore. It may be taken for what it’s worth, as either a slander or a compliment, depending on your point of view. During the American Civil War, while the Army of the Potomac suffered through the birth-pangs of the new Bureau of Military Intelligence (some of which would later become Wackenhut Security, believe it or not. fact check did not hold up, but it’s one of those security companies! ed.), keeping information out of the hands of the much-more-robust journalistic community’s hands was a constant irritant. In this time, General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was quoted as saying:

“I do believe that if we did exterminate all the journalists alive this afternoon, there would be news from hell by breakfast.”

Here’s to hoping that quote is paraphrased to match blogs, soon.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

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