The Digital Journalist
June 2004

by Ron Steinman

There is a growing and disturbing movement in the media for a new freedom that promotes the idea that whoever covers news, and believes they are journalists without credentials, can and should be their own editor, writing and saying what he pleases in his self-created Web log. Everywhere I turn, those who call themselves serious journalists, some even using that grand and old fashioned phrase, the press, are assaulting us with the virtues of this new-found freedom. Thus, blog, the shortened version, is now the latest gobbledygook noun in the English language. Lewis Carroll would be proud.

However, nonsense instead of clarity serves no purpose, especially in a world where the Internet with its freedom is in some ways the Wild West, lawless and unkempt, the Deadwood of what passes for new journalism. It is not for me. Reputedly, there are more than a million blogs and still counting. It is scary. Truly, who has the time to read, digest, and make sense of all the words spewed forth? I do not. I do not want to try.

Despite what these journalists and media critics are advocating, Web logs are not the answer to journalism's future. Usually written without a shred of control or third party involvement, they are proliferating like control rabbits and filling the air with gas. Many bloggers are terrible writers. A few have real talent. Because someone can write does not make him or her a journalist. Usually those who cannot write need the most supervision. Their thoughts run helter-skelter over the page, disorganized in a race to lay everything they think, not necessarily know on the page. I am not assailing legitimate news websites who have parents in print or in broadcasting. These usually hold to standards that are timeless and usually under the scrutiny of their peers. I subscribe to the old-fashioned theory of gatekeepers, those who control the locks on a canal and open and then close them to best serve everyone on the way to his destination. Without the gatekeeper, meaning the editor, the person with the keys to the lock, all the boats might try to come through when they want or worse, try to get through at the same time without anything to stop them. We all know the result: chaos.

Everyone has an opinion, as should be, and everyone's opinion deserves a hearing. Join the cacophony of any American street corner, luncheonette, water cooler or coffee bar, and now the Internet, and you will see what I mean.

In this need for every voice to make itself heard on the Web, there is a new, innovative site remarkable in its premise and execution. It is here that freedom verges on anarchy in a move to get everyone involved. The Japan Media Review reports a new Web site called OhmyNews, originating in Seoul, South Korea. Webmasters post hundreds of stories every day on the growing site, reputed to have almost one million readers, and the potential for one million voices. An estimated 27,000 reporters submit everything from hard news to commentary. The site's theme is that "every citizen is a reporter."

These include "housewives, school kids, professors and other citizen journalists." OhmyNews' founder, Oh Yeon-Ho says his site "is changing the definition of journalism and who can be a journalist." The site is a great way to vent and personalize your thoughts. But who has the time or desire to read, listen, and react? Ohmy News is popular and draws a huge number of participants and readers, but the numbers should not sway you about its valuein the larger sense of journalism where trained professionals run the asylum rather than the inmates. I have no problem with this until others start believing the writers as bringers of truth. Then I raise the red flag. I imagine all those voices every day steam-rolled, if you will, by the next avalanche of voices, perhaps going up in smoke, crushed by the onslaught of new thoughts finally disappearing into the atmosphere. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung reportedly said, "Let one hundred flowers bloom." I do not think he ever envisioned a million people cackling for attention at once. Academics and online imitations of news distributors, the new freewheeling bloggers and their offspring, the blogs, are on the loose. Blogs, and their originators, the bloggers are doing everything in their power to circumvent any controls at all. Some academics and those hard at work to establish themselves as proselytizers of the innovative, say that blogs allow readers more control over the mass of data we all must deal with daily. I do not agree. I call it information overload because most blogs will not help me decipher, then parse into something intelligible to get me through my day. There is also the matter of time, of which there is little enough left at the end of each twenty-four period, to organize the pieces into a whole. Having hundreds of blogs crying for my time is not the way I want to spend my time. I reject them in favor of the traditional sources of news, most of which I trust and will continue to in spite of the more apparent glitches and blemishes they lately seem to be suffering. Traditional news has been under attack for years. There is validity to that, but now, with the Internet in full bloom and the contamination of email, the vast number of chat rooms and the belief these forums, private and public, can influence the telling and presentation of stories, the playing field is markedly different.

Insiders call much of what the bloggers write on the fly and often only from inside their heads, "user-authored content," meaning that honed, critical and carefully formed content from experienced reporters and editors has become a pejorative in the eyes of those who are modern Luddites in the world of journalism.

Journalism-centered information no longer is good enough in this so-called democratic form of dispensing the news. Why should we believe or take seriously any blogger? I have no idea who the blogger is, despite sometime accompanying biographies. For me it is a problem. Worse, is that the audience often takes their word as gospel, something beyond any plausible explanation. When you start negotiating the Internet, often as if in a dark cave, you quickly learn all bloggers revere all other bloggers. This does not mean they agree with their content, but they do believe in their methods. There is one problem. They are preaching to the converted. Ultimately they belong to the same church, that of the innovative only for the sake of being innovative. In the same church, there is no room for disagreement. Bloggers are in a rut of the self-absorbed where they exist without any restraints. I want no part of this world that lacks discipline. There are no gatekeepers for the community of untended bloggers and there will probably never be. The Internet is infinite, meaning anyone can write anything, and as much of it as possible as often as possible. A major problem is bloggers who run items with no sources. When they cite sources, they are so tenuous as to make you pass Go and return the $200. When caught, the blog will sometimes print retractions quickly. The problem is that the readers have become so undiscerning it makes no difference. As quickly as an item is found wrong and as quickly as the blog runs a correction, another rises to take its place. Accuracy has no place on many blogs.

Regurgitate is the keyword. How can we know which blogs are accurate, which are not? Should we depend on a blog of blogs to steer us in the right direction. There are no warning signs telling a reader about blog crash tests. At least when buying an SUV, you can find out how it survived a publicly announced thrashing. There is no such luck with a blog. Call me an elitist. Call me a snob. When I am a victim of bad reporting, erroneous information, and erroneous facts, found in many blogs, it makes it hard for me to trust much of what I see on the Web unless authored by a professional. Some blogs are professional, their writers holding excellent credentials, but even they require an editor with a red pencil as their writers spew forth everything on their minds. Sadly, many blogs are ego-driven, illogical, often incoherent, filled with pap. With all that in play, it makes it impossible to evaluate an issue, to know what is right, what is wrong. Contrary to current thought, the right and wrong of an issue is very important. Still, that is not enough. There seems to be a rush to fill the Internet's space with as many words as possible. Without wary, questioning sentinels, trying to keep up is akin to running downhill while chased by a never-ending stream of lava. Because the Internet is free, keeping in mind that we should not delude ourselves that anything is ever free, user beware. If you follow that, you have a starting point for making choices.

Journalism, in all its forms, needs discipline to survive. An informed public is our best defense against anything that threatens democracy and our delicately held freedom. If journalism follows the path of everyone for his or her self, anarchy will result. The free state we revere, now threatened by terrorism from outside, will face threats from within. We must somehow create a firewall between good information and bad information if we do not want to suffer from the constant silt-filled flood of data arising from our crazy-quilt world. If we do not, we may become prisoners of misguided thoughts, others' and our own, which thunder untouched across a once nearly beautiful, but now battered and cluttered plain, stuck in a desert of empty minds trying to fill their own void with senseless chatter finally run out of control. This is my opinion, of course, and mine alone. With all the hype that blogs are generating, through themselves, and those who think the old media is in its final gasp, and there is a growing number of self-serving bloggers, I am secure being part of the press, the old way. Traditional media with its checks and balances will prevail. We can only hope it will get better. Freedom is the most positive possession we have in this country. We should not squander it for the sake of being able to write what we please, as long as please, as much as we please. The mostly undisciplined Web logs are not the answer to either more knowledge or better journalism.

© Ron Steinman

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