Monday, June 22, 2009


Truth and rumour and journalism

The New York Times recently ran an item about bloggers and other online writers “competing” with mainstream journalism. A main point of the article was that news-bloggers often take more risks, do less fact-checking, worry less about reliability of sources, and so on. And the idea, it seems, is that when they miss — a “fact” isn’t, or a source turns out to have been wrong — it doesn’t matter much, because they’re “only bloggers”, but when they hit, they have a real scoop.

But seeking credibility may be a less-important strategy for the blogs at this stage. Mr. Arrington, a lawyer, is quick to point out that he has no journalism training. He is at ease, even high-minded, in explaining the decisions to print unverified rumors.

Mr. Arrington and the other bloggers see this not as rumor-mongering, but as involving the readers in the reporting process. One mission of his site, he said, is to write about the things a few people are talking about, “the scuttlebutt around Silicon Valley.” His blog will often make clear that he’s passing along a thinly sourced story.

The point is that when you consider the resources needed to do all the real, you know, journalism work, you see that the little guy can’t compete with the big media outlets... but there is, they say, a place for that little guy and his tossing out of questionable material, hoping that enough of it is right — or right enough — to have value.

I’m uncertain. It seems to me that we used to call such people “gossip columnists”, and we used that as a pejorative term. When we wanted to know what was going on in the real world, we turned to the real news and we expected reliable facts and reliable sources, news items written by reporters who took the time to investigate what they were reporting on. Breaking stories demanding urgent reporting were always different, of course, but even then we expected something with real facts.

When we wanted to know who was dating whom in Hollywood, who was on the outs and who was having whose baby, well, we were happy to turn to whispered, unsourced, unchecked innuendo, often put in the form of rhetorical questions. “And who’s that sexy blonde who’s was seen with Herkermer Biffelwogg in Cannes last month?”

And now, it seems, the latter is encroaching on the former. Now that one no longer needs a publisher to be published, now that one can be a soi-disant journalist on a whim, trained by no one and hired by no one, now that any 10-year-old with a broadband connection[1] can publish what he has to say to the world, readers, not writers, are often the ones expected to check the facts.

The Times article describes a situation where a blogger ran with a rumour (about the health of Apple’s Steve Jobs) that turned out to be right:

Mr. Lam says it taught him a lesson. “If we don’t have rumors, what do we have as journalists?” he asks. “You have press releases. So maybe there is some honor in printing rumors.”

Is that really the dichotomy: what isn’t “rumour” is just canned material released for gullible journalists to reproduce with little editing and less thought? I don’t think so. That’s clearly not what Woodward and Bernstein did with the Watergate break-in. It’s not even what Damon Darlin did for this very New York Times article. Mr Darlin neither printed someone’s press release nor pasted random rumours into his computer. He talked to people. He made some phone calls, he probably followed chains of references, he sorted and culled what he got, and he wrote an article with some though behind it.

There’s still lots of that sort of reporting out there, and it’s what I prefer to read.

I’m not sure to what extent I have any interest in rumours, but I know this: I expect to see them labeled as such. Facts, opinions, analysis, and rumours are all different things, and it needs to be clear which is which.[2]

[1] I used to say, “any 10-year-old with a modem,” but, well, times have changed.

[2] In case there’s any question: I cite my sources, and everything else here is opinion, always. But, then, I also don’t claim to be a journalist.

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