Credibility and the Blogger-Journalist Spectrum

Frankly, for years now I’ve been fairly annoyed at the attitude I get from many of my colleagues from mainstream media. These are the journalists, editors, and publishers who blithely dismiss online or independent journalism as inherently lacking in credibility. Not only is that belief inaccurate and counterproductive, it’s shortsighted.

I’d like to call to your attention a fabulous posting in one of my very favorite Weblogs, Phil Wolff’s A Klog Apart. Check out the Oct. 17, 2003 entry, How Much of a Journalist Are You, Blogger?, in which he discusses the kinds of standards which lend credibility to news reporting, regardless of who’s doing the reporting.

I’m pretty opinionated on the matter of credibility among online publishers. I’ve long held that the credibility of news and commentary stems not from the nature of the publisher but rather from intent, knowledge, and skill. I believe that independent publishers (online and elsewhere) and other types of organizations (such as companies or advocacy groups) can provide news and comment that is as valuable – sometimes even more valuable – than what comes out of many established news organizations. Wolff sets a fine example in this regard.

…Wolff goes into considerable detail about his blog’s editorial policies. These are well worth reading, especially if you publish information online but don’t have a professional background in journalism or publishing.

I especially like his notion of an “editorial policy generator.” Something like that definitely would be a useful guide to the broad spectrum of people who publish news and commentary online and elsewhere.

News organizations should wake up and smell the 21st century. The news business has hit turbulent economic times, just like nearly every other industry. The key to thriving amid chaos and scarcity is to capitalize on diversity and new options, not squelch them! I’d think that news organizations might benefit from finding creative ways to partner with the best nontraditional news and commentary publishers (such as “citizen bloggers,” as described in this recent Poynter E-Media Tidbits blog item, and this Editor & Publisher column, both by my colleague Steve Outing), wherever that would best serve their audiences.

In short: Every source of news and commentary should be evaluated on its own merits. Every news venue has its unique strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and biases. Just because a news venue is an “established brand name” does not tell you anything at all about its usefulness or credibility. Look closer.

Case in point: A recent series of polls by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (Univ. MD), uncovered that slipshod reporting by some of the biggest names in broadcast journalism – in particular, Fox News – has yielded astounding levels of public misperceptions about the facts of recent major news events. This Washington Post article by Harold Meyerson explains the significance of these findings in greater detail.

For a long time, the technology of mass publishing and broadcast demanded centralization of news production functions mainly within large companies devoted to this purpose. It was a huge, costly deal to publish a newspaper or produce a TV show, and it took a huge organization to do it. So we got used to relying on major brand names to provide news and instill an air of credibility. However, that association has always been a fallacy, and the advent of the Internet and other technologies that benefit nontraditional publishers is proving it anew.

Once traditional news organizations recognize that they don’t have, and in fact never did have, a monopoly on “credible news,” they might start to move in some interesting and productive new directions – and maybe even clean up their own acts a bit more in the process.

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