Monday, October 22, 2007

Journalism, Journalists, and Bloggers

The cacophony continues about whether or not bloggers are journalists, and whether or not they practice journalism. This particular case not only offers a good opportunity to ask generally what is the relationship between blogging and journalism, but to explain how Brighton Centered itself fits into the picture. So we'll start at NECN and BMG, depart to a length trio about Brighton Centered, and then join back in the recapitulation and development of the principal themes.

Beat the Press and NECN Beating Up Bloggers

The latest incident throwing a wrench into the debate occurred a week-and-a-half ago when several writers for the BlueMassGroup blog, who were about to watch a debate among the candidates for the 5th Congressional District, were asked to leave the audience at the NECN studios. Their exclusion was at the request of the handlers for Republican candidate Jim Ogonowski. The reason given was that the BMGers are partisans in the election, having endorsed Ogonowski's opponent, Democrat Niki Tsongas, and actively participated in raising contributions for Tsongas's candidacy through links on their website.

The BMGers left the studios without incident (everyone involved appears to have behaved well publicly), but raised the issue later -- online, of course, but also through the MainStream Media. (See BMG discussions here, here, and here.) The topic was taken up by the pundits on WGBH's "Beat the Press" edition of Greater Boston on Friday, October 12th (video available), who came down on both sides of the issue. Dan Kennedy, of Northeastern University, said that the bloggers should have been able to stay since the BMG bloggers "practice journalism" -- even if they are not professional journalists in a traditional definition -- while John Carroll of Boston University said that those particular bloggers may have been rightfully excluded, because they stepped over the journalistic line by participating in fundraising activities.

Phil Balboni, president of NECN, drew a stark line separating bloggers from journalists when he stated, in a taped interview, that:
Bloggers are not journalists. Not in my definition. You know, the objectivity, the accuracy, the completeness, the balance, and so on and so forth. A story has to have integrity. Bloggers have -- they may or may not wish to subscribe to those standards.
I find that Balboni's statement is self-contradictory: "bloggers may or may not wish to subscribe to those standards" means that those who do are therefore journalists. But that contradicts his point that "bloggers are not journalists," unless he can demonstrate that there exists no blogger on Earth who follows those journalistic standards. Methinks Balboni failed to source his own material; furthermore, I predict that he is probably ignorant about the the blogging corps because he has read little of their writing. To their credit, Beat the Press then countered Balboni's assertion by providing contradictory opinions, i.e., more than one example of a blogger who qualifies as a journalist in their mind. Practicing journalism score card: Beat the Press 1, NECN President Balboni 0.

Does Brighton Centered Practice Journalism?

Let's not just be general about bloggers, let's look at one blog in particular: Brighton Centered. In my view, blogs that deal with local issues, politics, and so on, most closely parallel local newspapers. There are a series of functions that any MSM newspaper will typically contain, and news-related blogs are no different:
  1. Community event listings
  2. News reporting
  3. Opinion (aka "Op/Ed" or columns)
  4. Editorials
  5. Advertising

What You Will and Will Not Find at Brighton Centered.
Here at Brighton Centered, I have made a clear and conscious decision to do #1-3, not to do #4, and not to bother with #5 (because I can't imagine I would make enough money to justify the time spent trying to do so).

This is a very important set of distinctions to make: I endorse no position or candidate for elected office (an "editorial" or "endorsement") like BMG did, while I consider it a key element of this blog to provide thoughtful opinion and analysis of the news and community issues. If I see a stupid proposal I am free to call it that -- while providing details supporting the point -- but I do not need to endorse a position or a person who proposed (or opposed) that stupid idea.

The problem with the blogging corps is that we are all too often a single person who tries to do all of #1-3 and maybe also #4. Newspapers, on the other hand, simply have more than one person working for them and can therefore cleanly separate the news desk from the columnists and the editorial board. It is often quite difficult to separate the news from the opinion... but more on that in a moment.

Does Brighton Centered Practice Journalism?
I believe the answer is yes. There is probably little question in readers' minds that I have strived to perform a public service here by providing such a wide-range of information on candidates for elected office; a reader can find plenty examples of such journalism currently by looking at the top-right column of this blog. Postings here regularly fit neatly into categories #1, 2, and 3 above.

Some blogs are simply opportunities for the writer to collect, rewrite, or comment on news reported elsewhere. Does Brighton Centered do its own reporting [#2 above]? Once again, the answer is a clear yes. Reporting has included: campaign finance reports (and thereby correcting inaccurate reporting found in the Boston Globe), neighborhood meetings (e.g., BC Task Force), election-day problems and get-out-the-vote-efforts, IP addresses, candidate interviews, dying trees, unblocked-and-then-reblocked Wiltshire Road, local angle on EPA lead-paint allegations, phone surveys, a Ward 21 endorsement, correcting misinformation about bicycle paths in the Boston Globe, community policing in Brighton, a rabid raccoon, past contributions to political campaigns, structurally deficient bridges in Allston-Brighton, candidate opposition to BC's proposal to build Brighton Dorms, withdrawal of two and then another candidate from the race, flooding and a fire along the Charles, etc., ... I'm tiring out from all this linking, so I'll just let you read the last six months of posts.

More to the point: do news-related posts such as these follow standard practices of journalism? Mostly yes, but I am always open to criticism and education on this point. The specific item on which I might be considered to most often depart from "standard journalistic practice" is getting on getting comments from subjects of news stories. The code of ethics states that a journalist should always "diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing." I rarely carry outright accusations of wrongdoing -- and, when I do, I am very conscious about offering the opportunity to respond -- but there are many more cases in the gray area where I don't always seek out a response. While it may not always appear to be the case (!), I do significant fact-checking behind the scenes, much as is expected by a MSM journalist, and follow the standards on when information can be reported as fact or as assertion. If I were a full-time journalist, I would have far more time to track down more sources... but I've got a real job that pays the bills. Such are the trade-offs of the citizen journalist beat.

Separating News From Opinion on a Blog.
One way of separating news (#2) from opinion (#3) would be to label the top of every post as either one or the other. Unfortunately, that is often a harsh remedy which divides up a story in an unnatural way -- fully separating the information itself from the analysis of it. Nonetheless, I have used this approach frequently, for example when covering the City Council candidate forums with news quotations and transcript as opposed to analysis, or when providing precinct-level election results and then analyzing them.

Another way to separate news from opinion is by using section headers that offer a fairly clear distinction. Examples of this are in my reporting on campaign finance (for District 9 Councilor and Councilor-At-Large), casino gambling, BC's possibly new -- possibly old -- student behavior policy, and CRI beginning construction of a new boathouse.

A more subtle method to separate news from opinion comes from simple language usage: moving from the active or passive voice to the first person. See the section in this post (above) labelled, "Beat the Press and NECN Beating Up Bloggers," where the last paragraph provides my analysis of NECN President Balboni's remarks and the preceding paragraphs report on other people's positions. Since most of the readers here are well-read and understand the subtleties of language, I believe they can appreciate and follow the simple change of voice, which is a clear way of separating factual news from opinion. This use of language is commonly found in my technical scientific writing, where the factually-supported, strong voice "experiment X causes result Y" can be immediately followed by the (first-person plural) assertion that "we consider the experimental approach to be systematically biased."

Reader Comments.
Opinion and commentary also enter into Brighton Centered through another route: comments by readers to the post. Here, I have made some clear decisions that define the nature of the comments allowed. Brighton Centered's reader comments are moderated and require the user to have a Google/Blogger account -- no anonymous reader comments are allowed.

Why? News posts touching Boston College sports in any way -- even when purely factual and containing no opinion or commentary -- routinely result in a torrent of offensive, poorly-written, and totally off-topic responses from readers who are devoted fans of BC sports. (A tiny minority of such fans, I'm sure.) Such reader comments accuse me of bias, hatred of BC sports, etc., even when the posts themselves (and Brighton Centered altogether) contain no such statement; such accusations are not just ignorant, since they have no factual basis, but they would massively clutter up this blog were it to be un-moderated and/or allow anonymous comments.

I have also regularly rejected partisan reader comments on elections-related posts that are of a non-partisan nature. I consider it inappropriate to have reader comments like, "What a stupid answer by Candidate X," attached to a post which is the candidates response to a questionnaire he returned to me. There are places on a blog for reader comments -- but a post containing non-partisan, raw information about a candidate is not such a place.

Does BlueMassGroup Practice Journalism? Is It Even a Blog?

BlueMassGroup is an interesting, albeit odd, online community. It does not squarely follow the format of a blog or a newsgroup; instead, it is a merger of the two, with all of the warts that brings. Blog posts by core members of BMG are typically followed by a wide-ranging discussion of the topic by lots of readers. While it has many lengthy posts, the BMG nonetheless often becomes comment-heavy, not poster-content heavy, which often gives it more of the feel of an active newsgroup than a tightly-controlled blog.

BMG Ejection. The criticism levelled at BMG by John Carroll on Beat the Press was direct and relevant. Newspapers may endorse a candidate but do not participate in fund-raising activities for him/her, so BMG has stepped over a reasonable line drawn by newspapers over the years. As a result, BMGs activity can be argued, with merit, as partisan on the issue of the 5th Congressional District race.

Assuming that NECN had a written document describing how the debate would be run (including who would be in the audience), and had sent this document to the candidates well in advance of the event, then I think that the BMGers probably would not have qualified for press credentials to the event. But NECN appears to have granted press credentials in advance to the BMGers, so we can only conclude that there was no written policy banning journalists who participate in fund-raising activities for one or more candidates. (Or that NECN didn't follow their own rules.)

That said, I don't know why the *&#$ NECN would ban the BMGers from the audience at the studio debate. I have moderated two candidate forums in the last month, and will moderate another debate this week, that have had audiences full of partisans supporting one candidate or another. A professionally-run event simply has to set ground rules for audience behavior (such as no signs, applause, or talking); trust me, the audience will follow the rules and behave with decorum if you ask them. By all accounts, the BMGers were well-behaved and courteous. When NECN President Balboni ejected the BMGers from the audience, he was providing zero confidence in the ability of his own moderator, Jim Braude, to run the event professionally and keep a lid on the audience. I think Balboni's behavior is sad and warrants an apology directly to Braude. If BMGers received press credentials to the event according to NECN's written policy on the debate format, then they should have been allowed in. If Ogonowski's people objected, then he should have walked out the door. His decision, his loss.

BMG, Op/Eds, and Editorials. Some at BMG are correct to state the parallel between their writing and the Op/Ed opinion columns typically found in newspapers. My understanding, however, is that newspapers typically forbid Op/Ed columns from endorsing a specific candidate: "[New York] Times columnists are not allowed to endorse candidates," wrote Thomas Friedman recently. News journalists usually steer clear of endorsements as well as fund-raising activity. Dan Rather of CBS, for example, was criticized in 2001 for participating in a private campaign fund-raiser, although he later stated that he was given inaccurate advance information about the event.

BMG has enough contributing members that they could easily form a small "editorial board" to decide upon endorsements, while leaving the other writers to express Op/Ed opinions and report on the political news. It would be a worthy exercise to examine the BMG archives to see if they follow any such procedure, and also if such a process is fully transparent to the reader. I am an occasional reader of their site, so I lack a full understanding of their process, but I would hazard a guess that their endorsement process is not fully transparent to the casual reader of their site (like me). Now is their opportunity to define a process for making endorsements which is structured, transparent, and clearly defines the roles of various, specific individuals in contributing to that process. If they do so, then they will be able to justify why certain individual BMGers contributing to their site are free from allegations of editorial bias. The MSM has already invented that wheel by separating editorials from news; BMG would be well-advised not to ignore that invention.

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