Picking up the phone
Looking at various topics that have been covered by both journalists and bloggers, I’ve noted a common theme in which journalist deplore bloggers’ habit of speculating about subjects instead of “just picking up the phone” and asking those directly involved (examples here
and here). The implied (and sometimes expressed) view of bloggers is that of lazy amateurs.
It struck me though, that asking questions of total strangers is both a distinctively journalistic activity and one that implies and requires a special kind of professional license. In fact, “Journalists do interviews” comes much closer to a definition of what is distinctive about journalism than formulations like “journalists report news, bloggers do opinion”.
Starting with the professional license, it’s generally accepted that journalists can talk to anyone they want, ask them questions and report a summary of their responses, with some selected quotes. This is quite something, when you think about it. If I called someone unknown to me personally who happened to be of interest for some reason, and started asking them questions on the basis that I would like to write about it, I don’t imagine the results would be very pleasant. The same license that allows journalists to do interviews is embodied in a whole set of formal and informal institutions including the press conference, the “background briefing” and the “leak”.
When journalists write about themselves as “breaking news”, what this normally involves is talking to a number of people and distilling the results into a coherent “story”.
The second part of this is perhaps more important than the first. There’s no obligation on journalists to report everything said to them; a major part of the journalist’s role is to select what is “newsworthy” and relevant to the story being told. There’s both a formal code of ethics and a set of informal conventions surrounding this.
The other side of this “gatekeeping” function is that newspapers and other media organisations are expected to cover anything that meets this definition of “news” (though they are often a bit coy in cases where a rival has beaten them to the punch). What this means is that journalists have to distil, from interviews, and to a deadline, a readable, and at least half-way accurate, story about a topic of which they may know little or nothing when they start. This is a difficult skill to acquire, and something we should remember when we complain that, on any subject where we are well informed, the media stories we read or see are often wrong in at least some important detail.
By contrast, on the relatively rare occasions when bloggers and other non-journalists do interviews, the practice, almost invariably, is to publish the result verbatim. More generally, bloggers typically don’t claim a gatekeeping function – the norm is to quote extensively and link to what is not quoted. On the other hand, there’s no obligation to cover any particular topic.
This difference in approach seems to me to get much closer to the centre of things than “journalists report news, bloggers do opinion”. In economics, for example, the distinction between news and analysis is largely meaningless. The information from which journalists and bloggers work consists mainly of official statistics and statements put out by governments, companies and organizations of various kinds. Here, for example, is the release announcing the Rudd government’s recent stimulus package.
Bloggers typically go on from here by briefly stating, or linking the relevant facts and then providing some analysis. Added value, beyond the analysis itself, is likely to consist of more links to relevant information or to further commentary.
By contrast, the typical straight news story would consist mainly of (what are presented as) quotes from government ministers, and reactions from the opposition, business and so on. Even when simply restating the governments announcement, journalistic convention requires that it be presented in the form of a series of statements, presented as if taken down by reporters. Press releases are routinely written to facilitate this.
Conventions like this differ a bit between media outlets and between countries. In the US for example, it would be normal for the main story about something like the stimulus package to include an interview with a person selected somehow to represent the impact on the average person, say the owner of an insulation company. In Australia, this kind of thing would typically be done, if at all, as a separate story.