What Bloggers Can Learn From Journalists
Blogging can be not only influential, but also great fun. As Wonkette.com's Ana Marie Cox has said, "It's all chocolate cake and no potatoes."
Of course, as blogging has grown up -- from exclusively the domain of hobbyists typing for the world from their spare bedrooms to the addition of top-flight bloggers making careers of it and bringing in professional salaries -- the diet has become a bit more balanced, at least for some.
Bloggers need to eat their vegetables, too, if they expect to grow up and win the respect of larger audiences and survive the rigors of long-term publishing.
So, while mainstream journalists have much that they can learn from the experiences of bloggers (as this article explains), bloggers could learn a thing or two from traditional journalists.
Let us count the ways.
Checks & balances (a.k.a., the editor)
The principal difference between traditional journalists and the vast majority of bloggers is: an editor. The lack of one is one of the charms of blogging, of course. The blogger ponders, perhaps reports, analyzes, types, and publishes. It's fast; it's creative; it's different from mainstream journalism.
Even when there is an editor involved with a blogger, it's often after publication.
But having an editor involved -- even if it's immediately after hitting the Publish button, a.k.a. back-editing -- is a brilliant idea, even for solo bloggers. An extra pair of eyes can certainly help to catch spelling, grammar, and factual errors, but more importantly they can catch really dangerous issues -- such as when you're about to libel someone.
With so many new people involved in blogging, most of them having no training in journalism practices, ethics, and media law, personal legal liability is a big deal. Bloggers publishing without the protection of an employer to pay for their libel defense are on their own should they make a mistake. In the years ahead, I expect to see some solo bloggers get in trouble -- and some get driven to personal ruin when they lose libel lawsuits. It's a wonder it hasn't happened yet.
Ah, but some bloggers say, audience members are our editors. Mistakes are pointed out quickly and bloggers readily acknowledge and correct their errors in plain sight. Good point, but a blog item that libels someone will remain on the record, likely archived for a good long time, and a libelous statement left online for even a day puts a blogger at tremendous risk. So bloggers, take a tip from traditional journalists and find yourself some form of editing safety net.
Reporting isn't a dirty word
Let's face it, the majority of bloggers don't do original reporting. They comment on the work of others, or write about personal experiences. But more and more, we are seeing bloggers who do reporting. The only real difference between what they do and the work of professional journalists is that most bloggers lack the credentials to gain access to sources as easily as their journalist cousins. That's become less of a problem for top bloggers lately. Quite a few of them got credentialed to cover the U.S. national political conventions this year, for example.
But solid reporting can help any blogger. Learn the value of journalistic legwork. Talk to multiple sources, and check out the credibility of those sources. Double-source information that seems suspect. Seek out the aid of public- and media-relations professionals for corporations and public institutions; today, many of them are accustomed and willing to work with bloggers as well as traditional journalists. Don't be afraid to go to the top of an organization for comment, but also know the value of seeking information from those much further down the organizational ladder.
Avoid anonymous sources when you can, for just as in traditional journalism, bloggers can lose credibility when quoting from them, unless there's a darn good reason.
Speaking of anonymous sources, there's talk in the U.S. about the idea that bloggers should be entitled to the same protection against revealing sources that traditional journalists get. First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams has suggested that bloggers acting as journalists should get that protection -- but that bloggers who confine their writing to personal opinions and reflections should not get any special protection.
The blogger's toolbox
Bloggers have much in common with journalists, of course; ergo, they have the same rights to gather information. And that includes using resources long available to traditional journalists to help get the right information.
The U.S. Freedom of Information Act is a journalist's best friend, and a blogger's, too. Anyone has the right to access public records (at least here in the U.S.), and sometimes FOIA is the tool necessary to get the job done. It's not just for professional journalists.
Bloggers also would be wise to frequent resources designed for journalists. Poynter Online, publisher of this article, can be a useful site for bloggers. And there are so many more journalistic and reporting organizations whose resources will help bloggers produce better, more accurate work. Poynter Online maintains lists of them here and here.
Bloggers may not get chosen to participate in in-person seminars at the Poynter Institute or other journalistic training organizations, but increasingly such institutions are offering online learning programs that allow bloggers to join in -- sometimes for free. At Poynter, NewsU is the institute's e-learning program, offering a variety of online courses. Bloggers wishing to get better at their craft, just as with journalists, should consider taking advantage of these opportunities.
Let's think about ethics
If there's one area about blogging that raises the most concern, it's ethics. With most mainstream news organizations, you can pretty much be assured that a reporter isn't taking money for writing about someone or some company.
But guess what: That's not the case with blogging. A hot controversy in the blogging world right now is a company that's paying bloggers a monthly fee to write about its clients. While some of those participating bloggers are being up front and acknowledging when they do this, there's nothing stopping other bloggers from doing this surreptitiously.
Part of the problem is lack of any community blogging standards that might discourage unseemly behavior. Perhaps a current effort to establish a blogging ethics committee, as suggested by Jason Calacanis of Weblogs Inc. and Nick Denton of Gawker Media, will lead to a blogging model that at least articulates ideal blogger behavior. While still in the planning stages, such a committee might provide member bloggers with a sort of "seal of approval" that suggests adherence to reasonable ethical standards.
Bloggers need only to look at the ethical standards developed by various journalism groups to get ideas on important issues to be included in a bloggers' guide. Cyberjournalist.net's Jon Dube also wrote a Blogger's Code of Ethics in 2003 that's worth reviewing.
Ask before you attack
Here's something you frequently see with bloggers that trained journalists usually avoid: Making accusations or strong criticisms without asking the target for reaction. For the sake of balance, it just makes sense to be fair and to seek the other sides of the story.
Get to the point quickly
In journalism, one of the first things you learn is the importance of the inverted-pyramid style of news writing. Putting the most important information in a story up top makes much sense online, where attention spans are short and you can't count on readers looking beyond the first sentence or paragraph.
Write those headlines with care, too. Strong, intuitive wording is important in getting readers to go beyond the first words. Professional journalists have long been refining the craft of headline writing, and bloggers should pay equal attention to it. Ignore this aspect of traditional journalism and bloggers risk not engaging their audience.
That's not to say that bloggers can't be creative -- I'm not suggesting that they copy the styles of mainstream journalists -- but I do advise that bloggers take traditional news writing theory into account.
Accuracy, accuracy, accuracyFinally, bloggers can learn a thing or two about accuracy from traditional journalists. No, I'm certainly not implying that journalists reporting for mainstream news organizations don't make mistakes -- they make plenty of them. But there's an institutional ethic in professional journalism to try to always get it right.
With blogging, it's up to the individual blogger. With no institution or organization watching over them and guiding their behavior, we can only hope that most bloggers adhere to a mission of accuracy and accountability.
When done without proper care and thought, blogging can be dangerous -- not only to the blogger's reputation, but to the community at large. Inaccurate blogging can damage personal reputations and worse, just as can sloppy journalism. So bloggers, please make accuracy a guiding principle, just as it is in all successful journalism.
Journalists, as members of the "Fourth Estate," have long held power. Now bloggers are positioned to share some of that. Take care, please.
For some of the ideas in this article, I turned to several colleagues in the U.S. and around the globe who traverse the world of traditional and new-media journalism, including blogging. I'd like to acknowledge the contributions and advice of Matthew Buckland, David Carlson, Amy Gahran, Jeff Jarvis, Steve Klein, and Jade Walker.