8 Feb 2003 raph   » (Master)

How blogs are better than mainstream media

The Washington Post recently ran a "journalist checks out blogs, doesn't quite see what the big deal is all about" story recently. A lot of these have been appearing lately; this one seems entirely typical. I've been thinking about the differences between blogs and mainstream journalism for some time, so the appearance of this story in a highly regarded newspaper, and Dave Winer's criticism of the piece, inspired me to speak to the issue.

The main theme of the piece, as usual, is that blogs are an interesting phenomenon, but cannot take the place of professional news organizations. The typical blogger, according to the piece, posts mostly opinion and links to news stories from the mainstream media, as opposed to real reporting.

This is basically true, I think, but rather misses the point. Blogs are incredibly diverse, with a wide distribution of things like writing quality, fairness, objectivity, originality, passion, and so on. The average blog, frankly, scores pretty low on all these scales. But I tend not to read to many of those. I seek out the exceptional blogs, the ones that inform and delight me, move me with their words, bring stories to life, make me think. Even though these are a small fraction of all blogs written, I'm able to find quite a few of them.

By contrast, mainstream media tends to be uniformly mediocre. The actual difference in quality between a top newspaper and an average one is small. In fact, thanks to wire services, they tend to run most of the same content. In computers and software, aside from a handful of good technology reporters such as John Markoff and Dan Gillmor, there is almost no good reporting.

I don't read blogs the same way I read the paper, and that difference, I think, captures how blogs can be so much better. My "toolkit" consists of three essential elements: blogs, critical reading, and Google. In combination, they give me a reading diet that is, on most topics, vastly superior to what I'd get from reading the mainstream media.

To me, critical reading has two major pieces. First, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is especially hard on the Internet (and in blogspace), because there is a lot of chaff out there. Second, reading multiple different views on a story, and trying to determine the truth from the bits for which there is consensus, and also to understand the real disagreements at the root of the differing views.

Synthesizing an understanding from multiple views is important because I don't have to depend on the objectivity of the writer. It is, of course, very important to judge how credible the writer is, what their biases are, and to what extent they let that distort the story. This isn't easy, and it's possible to get wrong. Even so, I find that I get a much clearer picture after reading two or more passionate stories from different sides, than one objective, dispassionate story.

Objectivity, while a noble goal, comes at a price. In the context of the media business, it usually guarantees that the reporter doesn't know much about the subject at hand. This, in turn, is most clearly detectable as a high rate of technical errors (Dave Winer points out some in the article under discussion), and the more worrisome, but less quantifiable, lack of insight. Ignorance about a topic also makes journalists more vulnerable to manipulation, at worst simply parroting press releases and "backgrounders". More typical is the way the mainstream papers accepted the SF police's estimate of 55,000 at the Jan 18 marches, even though the actual number was about triple that.

And on a lot of topics, learning about an issue leads one almost inevitably to take a side. Take the management of DNS for example. Of the people who know what's going on, those who do not have an interest in the status quo are almost all outraged. It's hard to find somebody who's both knowledgeable and objective, so insisting on the latter serves the story poorly.

The importance of Google

If you are going to read critically and sift through various viewpoints, the key questions are "what are other people saying about this?" and "how do these viewpoints differ?". As mentioned above, it's not trivial to find good alternate sources. But it's a skill one can learn, and there are tools that can help. Among the most important of these is Google. On any given topic, construct a nice search query, pass it to Google, and in a hundred milliseconds or so you'll be presented with lots of good links to choose from. Not all will be relevant or well-written, but you only have to sift through a dozen or two before coming up with a winner, and you can tell quite a bit from the results page, without even having to visit the link.

I'll give a couple of examples on how Google can provide more information than mainstream press articles. First was Nicholas Kristof's July 2, 2002 editorial in the New York Times entitled "Anthrax? The F.B.I. yawns". This editorial referred to a mysterious "Mr. Z". For whatever reasons (fear of libel suits, perhaps?), the New York Times saw not fit to print the name of this individual, so people reading the papers were in the dark for a while. Googling, of course, revealed the name readily.

A more mundane example is this Washington Post story on a terrorist scare. A kid on the plane asked a flight attendant to pass to the pilot a napkin inscribed "Fast, Neat, Average". This is an Air Force Academy catchphrase, the standard response to an "O-96" dining hall feedback form, and, according to USAF folklore, also used in Vietnam as a challenge-response. Cadets and graduates sometimes write the phrase on a napkin in the hope that the pilot is USAF-trained. In this case, the kid turned out to be a neighbor of an AFA cadet, without much good sense about how cryptic notes might get interpreted. In any case, the Washington Post article carefully omits the response ("Friendly, Good, Good"), even though it's easy enough to find through Google, among other places in a speech by President George H. W. Bush.

Other newspapers do worse. The Washington Times manages to misquote the three-word phrase. The AP wire story, as published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, CNN, and other papers, doesn't even bother with the O-96 dining hall part of the story.

Why isn't there any coverage of Teletruth?

The systemic corruption of the telecom industry is one of the most important stories since Enron, but you won't find it in your newspaper. Why not? Bruce Kushnick has written a book detailing the crimes of the telecom corporations, but nobody on the mainstream press is following up on it. A Google News search returns exactly one result from either "Teletruth" or "Bruce Kushnick", and that appears to be a press release.

I'm having real trouble understanding why this story isn't getting any coverage in the mainstream press. I'm having even more trouble reconciling this fact with the ideals of objectivity as professed by journalists. If you're a working editor or journalist, especially in the tech sector, did your publication make a decision not to run the story? Why? I'd really appreciate more insight. Even if Bruce Kushnick is a complete nut (which I doubt), it seems as relevant as the Raelians.

I consider it quite plausible, even likely, that this is a huge story, but for whatever reason, readers of newspapers are completely in the dark about it. Critical readers of blogs, though, aren't.

Conclusion

Just about every time I've had the opportunity to check a mainstream news story, I've found it riddled with errors. Every time I've been interviewed by the mainstream press, the resulting story significantly distorted what I was trying to say, and from what I read in other blogs, this experience is very common. Even in the off chance that a tech story is factually correct, I don't learn much from it. There are important voices missing from mainstream media, especially those critical of big companies, or, more importantly, providing a credible alternative.

By contrast, the best of the blogs I read are passionate, well-informed, topical, and insightful. They don't make a lot of stupid factual errors, but those that slip through are corrected quickly. The best blogs are partial but fair, and up-front about their biases, as opposed to pretending to be totally objective.

It's not just technology reporting, either, although that's obviously close to the hearts of the early blogging community. I think the flaws of mainstream reporting, and the potential of blogging to address those flaws, generalize to many other areas of interest. I'm sure, though, that newspapers are a very information source for sports gamblers, and will continue to be important in that role for quite some time.

It takes more time and effort to get one's information through critical reading of blogs than it does to read the paper, but the results are well worth it. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, were it left to me to decide whether we should have newspapers without blogs, or blogs without newspapers, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

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