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

Doomsday hd

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.

Links: Legal Eagle makes much the same point Art School Confidential about making calls to strangers.

45 thoughts on “Picking up the phone

  1. Oh yes, Marginal Notes @ #25, the San Francisco journalist was talking specifically about the American situation. Outside the West, it’s different. Antony Loewenstein in his book The Blogging Revolution refers to bloggers in the Middle East and China who’ve been jailed or threatened with jail. Actually I can think of a few bloggers (and combox trolls) in Australia – not to be found at civilised venues like this website, of course – who are so criminally irresponsible that I wouldn’t mind too much if they got into legal difficulties …

  2. Isn’t this a moot point? Blogging and journalism aren’t mutually exclusive properties are they?

    As Theodore Sturgeon said, “90 percent of everything is crap.” IMHO this is equally valid whether applied to either journalists or bloggers.

    There are lazy journalists and there are lazy bloggers, and a small fraction of both who are worth paying attention to.

  3. Sorry, that should be THERE are a small fraction of journalists and bloggers who are worth paying attention to, APART from the lazy ones (i.e. not including them). 🙂

  4. John – I’m not actually sure I’m either saying or implying what you claim I am here. I had better do a follow-up post, I suppose, at some point.

    Meanwhile, my consistent claim is simple: on those occasions when bloggers find themselves in receipt of information (You can call it news or gossip – I really don’t mind) that may impact on others’ reputations, they ought to make an effort to confirm it before publishing on the Internet. That’s not least because no blogger can make any kind of guarantees about what will happen to that information once it’s published online. Even if they decide they’ve made a mistake later, the “facts” they’ve published may have circulated in ways that are beyond their control.

    Journalists have – built into their professional practice – some very simple methods for confirming information. One is: they call people in order to confirm things. I think that bloggers could profit from considering doing that or something similar before publishing things they think they know about someone to a global audience. A pretty mild proposal, I would have thought. The suggestion seems to have offended a widespread view that bloggers have nothing whatever to learn from journalists. It’s fine to hold that view, but it won’t be any defence against a defamation suit, or ethical disapprobation. It’s also a little hubristic, IMHO.

    I don’t really buy this:

    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.

    First of all, if you talk to journalists, they’ll tell you that they often get short shrift when they ring people too. Professional license or not,
    people don’t have to talk to journalists. Frequently they choose not to. Being abused on the telephone (or in person) is part of the price journalists pay for quality information. If there is any “license” extended to journalists by the rest of us, perhaps its for this reason: we understand the social value of the high-quality information that comes from confirming information.

    Second – well none of us have to “imagine” the results of bloggers calling people to make sure of something. We could just try doing it. If someone’s reputation is at stake, I rather imagine they might be quite keen to clear things up if possible.

    Lastly, while I am emphatically not making any sweeping claims about the “laziness” of bloggers in general (or even their “amateurishness”, given that some bloggers do make money from advertising), I’d like to ask you a couple of questions, if I may.

    Given that material published on the Internet is so efficiently archived, easily searchable, endlessly republishable, and accessible in principle to anybody with an Internet connection, what responsibilities do bloggers have when it comes publishing information about individuals? Do you think blogospheric norms are sufficiently well-developed around this area? Have you never seen a blog post that gave you pause, and made you think that some bloggers don’t have a well-developed idea of the possible consequences of publishing information?

    I have to say that I’m very surprised that people are so defensive about this. I’ve been accused of thinking about things in terms of a tired or hackneyed frameworks. But what I find tiresome is the attitude that takes every criticism of what bloggers do – however constructive – as an attack on the value of the blogosphere in general.

  5. I should say quickly, John, that I’m not accusing you of hubris or being overly defensive, but I do think that you perhaps misconstrue what I was trying to say.

  6. Minor point in the scheme of things, but you touched on one of my pet hates: journalists reporting as direct quotations statements that they have only ever seen in a press release. They are knowingly reporting an untruth: not only do they have no knowledge that the person quoted ever said, they know well that those statements are usually drafted by a PR person.

    A more correct way to report would be “According to a press release issued by Company X, So-and-so said ….”

  7. Speaking of untruthful journalism – has anyone noticed the shift in the attitude of the SMH to Kevin Rudd’s policies and fiscal stimulus package…or am I just imagining it? Why do I always suspect Murdoch allows a honeymoon period (just like he did with Obama) and then puts the boot in if it isnt a conservative government? The old Murdoch slant has to come out doesnt it? The papers should give some respect where respect is due. Im sick of reading two bit journalists like Paul Sheehans slanted opinions of policy especially when it makes sense and its necessary.

    I just wish he (Murdoch) would get off the one one eyed tone he establishes in all his media. Its just so plain predictable and as well it shows no respect at all for our political leadership (except when conservatives are in power).

  8. Jason

    Your project for the Federal electionYouDecide2007 was groundbreaking in terms of many of these issues. As a citizen journalist I found it challenging to act as news gatherer, feature writer and commentator.

    The politicians had even more difficulty. Few took up the opportunities for media releases or interviews that were offered. Barry Haase, the member for Kalgoorlie, basically ignored online politics though he did respond to letters to the local paper. All attempts to get any sort of responses from him to questions, often directed to multiple candidates, failed.

    Video interviews were the most powerful part of the new armoury. I let them speak for themselves without a raft of questions and did virtually no editing except overlays local footage that seemed relevant.

    Have you formally or informally evaluated the project? It certainly made some news that was picked up by the MSM.

    It may be worth repeating that blogging and citizen journalism are not synonymous. Recent twittering, such as that related to the bushfires, has shown that online evolution is outpacing our traditional ideas of news reporting and journalism in general.

  9. Jason#35
    I think what is really awful with todays media is that even important politicians themselves cannot get their own views into the media and instead the so called political view of their party (or of themselves) is provided by media employees ie regular journalist commentators who make a habit and a living of being more extreme and more flamboyant and more divisive (and more like charicatures) hence political reporting in the media has a much more inflammatory tone than direct political discourse.

    I do know one politician that wrote a very good piece for the SMH and which I thought was very good (and they do write releases in attempts to be heard) but lamented “it actually took a jounalists strike for the media to publish my article.” Thats pretty sad considering he isnt a minor politician.

  10. […] John Quiggin recently wrote about the difference between journalists and bloggers. This article highlights where opinion and journalism collide. It is by Cathy Alexander and Colin Brinsden and it reports on the views of some economists on the Government’s stimulus package. The headline is of course the grabber: ECONOMISTS have raised concerns the Federal Government’s cash handouts to millions of people will be blown on pokies and plasma televisions. […]

  11. John Laws and his radio show comes to mind. Just as some people think bloggers should behave like journalists some people thought John Laws should behave like a journalist. And just like John Laws the bloggers argue that such people have misunderstood the medium and the product and claim that they are not journalists and shouldn’t be regarded as journalists. It would seem to me that John Laws and John Quiggin have a lot in common. 😉

  12. #24

    Absolutely true!

    We’ve even had instances where we’ve asked politicians a question about some strange going on and they have either (a) told us lies, or (b) ignored us and then…. you’ll never guess what happens next, will you?

    That’s right, the local Rupert Murdoch News Ltd Rag trots out the spin and spun version of the same point, regardless of the reality, and the ‘Radio Rupert’ ABC follows.

    Hang on and don’t give up. Apart from the fact that Rupert, in all his genius, managed to lose 10 Billion dollars in the last half of 2008, it is important to remember that despite our politicians grovelling to his fools, he is having less and less influence on genuine Australians and he is also going broke.

    Sucks to be Rupert!

  13. I agree re Ruperts media. He manages to publish articles by every biased organisation under the sun from global warming sceptics, real science poo pooers, ideological nutcases, one eyed fossil fuel lobbyists, sycophants of large business politicos, and the would be destroyers of public services and regulation. Move along with your tawdry press Rupert.

  14. A few messy thoughts:

    The power of a good blog comes as far as I am concerned from
    a) expert opinion
    b) good analytical minds and
    c) the ability to let me into their lives by great personal blogging.
    d) good writing

    You don’t have to behave like a journalist to do any of this; indeed several people above have shown how much direct questioning opens a huge technical can of worms. How do you deal with off the record comments? What if you are lied to? How do you go on to get a more rounded view… etc.. etc.. and you find yourself learning the craft of journalism and spending a lot of time.

    Having said that, I do think a couple of questioning methods can help. The obvious one is to check the facts. The other is to build understanding – if you don’t know how, say, genetic engineering helps in the manufacture of tiddly winks, you can profitably ask them that know.

    In that case, as a blogger, you can point to your blog to get some credibility. Believe me, journalists who dont work for Fairfax, Murdoch or the broadcasters find it hard to get time and attention too.

    The model is not print journalism but radio – much longer quotes, people speaking for themselves, minimal lines from the reporter etc. I really notice in my own writing that I am essentially often writing radio, particularly when I clip other sources and quote at length. Indeed, I would rather to do this to let the sources speak for themselves.

    It is nonsense to say that bloggers don’t have an ethical system, and that journalists ethics are stronger or more clearly defined.

    We don’t plagiarise. We cite our sources. We corrborate from other online sources. We run comments, we don’t change them, and we only censor for clear reasons.

    In some ways, a good blogger’s work is cleaner and more honourable than a journalist’s; we are constantly having to “take their word for it”.

    What we don’t do, of course, is take the trouble to build contrary cases accurately, which helps to explain why the blogosphere is disfigured with regiments of straw men.

  15. I have to say, there’s a great deal of ignorance among the blogoratti about what being a journalist involves. If you’re in a newsroom, your nose is to the grindstone for pretty well most (if not more) of the eight hours of your day you’re required to make an appearance – calling, reading, writing, re-writing, calling again, helping other journos, dealing with subs’ queries across the multiple stories you’re required to submit. And unless you’re an op-ed columnist, you ARE doing multiple stories in one day. Sure, you get invited to pissy lunches here and there, especially if you work in the business section of the paper; but it is not, as they say, all beer and skittles.

    Journalists frequently have to (try to) understand a shedload of information in a very short time, then call people and demonstrate to those people that they know what they’re talking about so they can get decent answers to decent questions. There is little time to consider the ills of the universe and whether one’s work will be considered one of these ills the next day by some nong who’ll pick on one mistake – or merely something they don’t like the sound of or disagree with.

    It is, unlike blogging, a full-time job. Thankfully, most journalists still get paid for doing it.

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