For the most part, blogging is not journalism. That’s my response to the longstanding debate about whether bloggers are journalists. Bloggers who don’t apply good standards of journalism shouldn’t be offered the same privileges as journalists. Similarly, journalists who fail to apply the same good standards should be stripped of privileges and prestige.

The basic principle is this: There are at least two sides to any story, usually more. Real journalists present all sides of a story, using multiple sources for balance and doing original reporting wherever possible. A quick survey of blogs reveals that many bloggers reporting news generally offer one side of the story. This one-sided difference is partly responsible for the Web being polluted by gossip, rumor and innuendo posing as news.

News aggregators and Google economy-driven news pirates are among the worst offenders. I subclassify these two groups into those operations that steal content wholesale and those that rewrite the key elements of blog posts or news stories. For both groups—and a separate class of news blogs—search-driven revenue is the profit motive. According to a December study by the Fair Syndication Consortium, for sites reposting news (in part or whole), Google accounted for “53 percent of the total monetization with Yahoo accounting for 19 percent.”

Yesterday, I wrote at Betanews:

The state of the news media is this: Gossip and rumors are rapidly replacing factual reporting—in large part driven by the Google economy…for bloggers, journalists and socialwebite gossips to scramble to post anything first, rumors are just fine. Being first with news (gossip or rumor) means higher Google News ranking, more pageviews and so more ad revenue.

The Fair Syndication Consortium reviewed Websites between October 15 – November 15, 2009, finding that 75,195 had published unlicensed content lifted from newspapers. “Among the top 1,000 sites reusing the most articles,” surprisingly “38 percent of the sites were ranked in the top 100,000 most trafficked sites.” Additionally, 112,000 unlicensed “full copies of US newspaper articles were found on sites across the Internet.” However, “any reuse by direct and indirect syndication partners was excluded from the results” as were “articles appearing on Google News.” So the study doesn’t fully represent the fullness of the problem I assert here.

The China Syndrome
News aggregators and, perhaps worse, news blogs regurgitate news in the most insidious way: Double-one-sideness, by sourcing one side of often single-sourced stories. Aggregators, like so many other blogs, typically source news to another blog or news site rather than doing original reporting. This kind of sourcing legitimizes what in this era of rumor as news could be factually flawed. A good journalist does original reporting, starting with seeking out additional or even independent sources. The objective is two-fold: Accuracy and objectivity.

I had planned to present a bunch of anecdotal examples of aggregators or news blogs citing another blog or news site. However, Nieman Journalism Lab has done something a bit more scientific study: “The Google/China hacking case: How many news outlets do the original reporting on a big story?” by Jonathan Stray. The story, broken by the New York Times in mid-February 2010, traced security attacks against Google to two schools based in China. Jonathan writes:

I chose a single big story and read every single version listed on Google News to see who was doing the work. Out of the 121 distinct versions of last week’s story about tracing Google’s recent attackers to two schools in China, 13 (11 percent) included at least some original reporting. And just seven organizations (six percent) really got the full story independently…

I chose the Google-China story because it’s complex, international, sensitive, and important. It’s the sort of big story that requires substantial investigative effort, perhaps including inside sources and foreign-language reporting. Call it a stress test for our reporting infrastructure, a real-life worst case.

There’s another good reason for using this story: First news of the Google hacks broke about a month earlier, offering real and would-be journalists plenty of time to do investigative, original reporting. The seven that did original reporting: BloombergGlobal Times (from China), GuardianNew York TimesTechNewsWorldWashington Post, Wall Street Journal and Xinhua (from China). I was surprised to see TechNewsWorld on the list. I once wrote a regular column for the site, but stopped. In part, I was put off by the aggressive editorial style. But maybe that aggressive style is needed in this era of lazy linking.

Just how lazy is the linking? Silicon Alley Insider is a good example. Late on February 18th, SAI posted “Google Hacks From China Originated In Two Prominent Schools,” presumably to catch pageviews for a single paragraph before linking to a Huffington Post story of the same headline/title. I classify both sites as news aggregators. Huffington Post was the less lazy of the two. February 19th SAI post “Google Hack Traced to Schools in China” served up more pageviews to a single paragraph and link to All Things Digital and the more cleverly titled “World War WAN: Google Hack Traced to Schools in China.” SAI offered no credit to New York Times in either post.

On February 22nd, SAI posted “BUSTED! Google Hackers Linked to Chinese Government,” offering short summary and linking to a Financial Times story. It was another pageview piranha post. Three examples are enough. In the Google-driven economy of pageviews and advertising, SAI can leach off journalists’ good work with the least bit effort. SAI does a good job repackaging, using clever headlines and posting interesting stuff. But the stories are often double-one-sided, because they source single-sourced blog posts or news stories.

Absence of Malice?
Journalists are taught—and bloggers should learn—that there are at least two sides to every story. One of the most effective ways of presenting all sides of the story is seeking out multiple sources. Another is to let the reporting drive the story. Perhaps 80 percent of my news stories start with one premise—eh, hypothesis—that turns out to be wrong. The reporting, based on sourcing, leads to a different story than I had envisioned. The stories would have been much different had I stuck to my preconception or followed a single source. Occasionally, some of my news stories may cite one source, but others are always consulted for balance.

Using a single source is often careless. Referring to another blog or news source as single source is reckless. Reporting news based on a single, anonymous source is negligence.  Good journalists are mindful of their sourcing, particularly those sources who aren’t identified. One rampant problem: The increasing number of unnamed single-sourced blog posts or news stories that seemingly countless other blogs link to. Gossip and rumor runs amok masked as news. Let me be clear: Just because everybody is saying some true doesn’t make it that way. It’s my observation that most rumor posts remain uncorrected when later proved to be wrong.

Today, Valleywag served up an unexpected example of tech news turned to gossip. Post “Exclusive: How Google’s Eric Schmidt Lost His Mistress, His Partner and Steve Jobs” is good reading but accuracy is questionable because of the sourcing: “This is the story told to us by a close friend of [Kate] Bohner’s, who spoke about the undoing of several of Schmidt’s close relationships.” Kate Bohner and Eric Schmidt were recently romantically involved. Now compare to the New York Times‘ well-sourced March 14th story “Apple’s Spat With Google Is Getting Personal.”

Bloggers aspiring to be good journalists must adapt to standards of accuracy, accountability and, most importantly, sourcing. Accuracy and accountability standards are difficult to maintain without good sourcing. Sourcing another blog or news site without seeking to extend the story is weak journalism at best. It’s bad journalism when the sourced story is factually challenged. Rumor isn’t news just because some blog or even news site reported it.

My standard has always been corroboration by at least two other sources when presented with rumored or leaked information. I also always seek to answer the question: “Why?” Why is this information being leaked? What is the person’s motivation? Who benefits most from the leak?

“Who benefits?” is the most important question. The Nixon White House turned leaking into an artform, because of its cleverness. Sadly, too many 1960s-70s news organizations scrambled to publish first rather than answer the “Who benefits?” question. The Nixon White House used leaks as a distraction, which inhibited the investigative reporting into the Watergate break-in. How ironic in a way that leaks from Deep Throat would help Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncover the real story behind the break-in. The Post reporters did original reporting. They sought out sources that could give all sides of the story. As such, they got the big story.

Newspapers have long cited and credited rivals that broke big stories. This might seem to some people as what news aggregators and other blogs do now. Wall Street Journal might report on a New York Times story, but also present all sides of the story and seek to add something more. By comparison, today’s lazy linkers do just enough to snag pageviews that in aggregate generate revenue from the Google economy. A few minutes ago, I posted another perspective on the said state of journalism at Betanews: “Palm’s not dead, so why write its epitaph?

Photo Info: Russell Crowe is an old-school journalist and Rachel McAdams a blogger in thriller “State of Play“.

Do you have a blogging or journalism story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.

18 comments

  1. Whilst I agree with the main thrust of the argument here, my own take is that blogging is opinion and should be read on that basis. Depending on the standing of the blogger and your knowledge of them, you can choose what kind of weight to attach to that opinion but it remains just opinion.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Nigel. Huffington Post and Silicon Alley Insider are considered blogs, but they post news, often by recapping and linking to the original source. TechCrunch also is a blog, and it often posts unconfirmed rumors as news. I frequently write opinion stuff at Betanews, and it’s labeled as commentary (“Viewpoint”). These other three blogs and many others don’t look at all like opinion sites.

  2. Our society has become one of ‘sound bites’ and rumor. I too agree with the majority of points made here, with one caveat: I can, and do, often find errors and unsubstantiated ‘facts’ within blogs and the supposedly journalistic rantings of the press.
    The difficulty is determining rumor from fact, and it’s becoming increasingly blurry to me. I don’t consider the majority of the stories on CNN, Fox, or The Huffington Post, news. I continue to have issues with the obviously biased reporting of say, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, etc…
    Where can I find real news that’s not slanted and accurate?

    1. Bias is inevitable, Mark. I find The Economist to be reasonably balanced. But, you’re right, it’s difficult to find “news that’s not slanted and accurate.”

      Readers should ask the same question as people doing the reporting and writing: “Who benefits?” Who benefits from the story being written this way? Is some Website looking to game pageviews? Is the writer looking for advancement in his or her organization or move to another? Is there a money motive? Is the story being written for a specific reader profile (either as good customer service or perhaps to drive advertising to a certain demographic group)? Is it another reason or combination of them?

      Social media is becoming the new news media, which isn’t necessarily bad. I wrote about the trend in July 2009: http://www.oddlytogether.com/2009/06/iran-and-the-internet-democracy/. Social media tools break down the monopoly (and inherent bias) that established news organizations have disseminating information. But there still needs to be context, accuracy and accountability. There seems to be less, and that’s a situation I expect to persist during the social media/new media/old media transition underway.

      1. Thanks, Joe. Funny, The Economist is one of the magazines I subscribe to.
        This is off on a tangent, but here goes… Several years ago Michael Crichton wrote ‘State of Fear’, a novel about global warming and terrorism. Regardless of your stance on global warming, the book highlights the need to question the motivational factors behind the story. Is, as you mention above, the writer steering us towards a stance in line with their advertising? Is the scientist’s research on hydrocarbon emissions funded by Greenpeace, or Exxon.
        I find it increasingly difficult to believe anything I read. (except from you, of course!)

        1. State of Fear is an excellent book, and I agree with most of the concepts introduced by Michael Crichton. I was a science geek (majored in biology) and find much of the science behind global warming to be questionable. (Of course, I advocate protecting the environment. You clean your house, right? Why not the Earth it resides on?) There are simply too many unknowns, such as the impact of the sun on climate. The earth is on what its fifth or sixth atmosphere? Global warming theory is more about protecting humanity than Mother Earth. But I digress.

          “Who pays?” is a good question to raise, regarding research or anything else. “Who profits?” is another good question to ask. I tend to disbelieve most of what I read until doing some additional research. That is unless I truly trust the source.

          The housing bubble is good example. In summer 2004, everyone around me said, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” Everything I read said the same (except for a few smartly written and well-sourced news stories from reputable news organizations). I looked at houses to buy, did my own research and concluded a dangerous housing bubble had formed; it was the wrong time to buy. I blogged about the housing bubble about a year later: http://www.oddlytogether.com/2005/08/pop-goes-the-housing-bubble/

          So who can you trust? Yourself most of all, if you can step back and be an objective reader. What kind of sad answer is that in a world so big and so connected?

  3. Joe, The Economist is a British publication. What are your thoughts regarding the bias of America’s news vs the opinions and insights we get from abroad?

    1. Americans are some of the most provincial people on the planet, Mark. The world seemingly stops at the continental borders, if not state boundaries. How many people do you think could point out Iraq on a map, and we’re fighting a war there? Economist and BBC offer great global coverage. To my utter surprise, Wall Street Journal is more global since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. But, of course, he’s not American.

      The point: Most American news is locally slanted. Overseas stuff is a grabbag, depending on source.

  4. I think you make a good point but it is a point made many times before. Some blogs report news well and some do not. The same argument applies to any medium a journalist uses. It is easy to start a blog so you will see more of the bad journalism.

    1. The point needs to be made again, Matt, because so much has changed in the last 18 months. News aggregators are popping up seemningly everywhere, fueled by the Google economy and benefitting from cutbacks at existing news organizations. Gossip or rumors are increasingly becoming standard news (perhaps I should put some numbers behind that assertion in a future post). Last week, many tech sites reported the rumor that iPhone 4.0 OS will have multitasking. It’s a rumor. No one knows for sure. But suddenly the rumor becomes headlines across techdom.

      1. I do agree with you about how much gossip is out there it is at times overwhelming. I like the smart aggregators that act as a filter.

      2. If the recycled rumor trend continues, does that mean more responsibility falls on the consumer? People need to ‘shop’ for news today, to find the sources and filters they trust. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, though, if people choose to believe the news that matches their ideology.

        There are credible, knowledgeable sources and voices. How do we ensure those rise amidst the chaos?

  5. Thank You, Joe. I’ve bookmarked your site and that’s something I rarely do. I appreciate your objectivity.
    You’re right, I do everything I can to lessen my impact on the environment. It just makes sense to do so.

    Keep up the good work, Joe. I’m going skiing. (We’re getting a bit of snow here in Vail) I’m assuming global warming has caused it but, I can’t be certain.
    Take care!

  6. I’m a blogger who also does magazine work, here and there. So I call myself a “journalist”. With some embarassment, because I mostly blog.

    But on the other hand, I have a sense of pride about my best blogging — I feel that it’s often better, in spirit, than what the New York Times churns out every day. As others have pointed out, the traditional “both sides of the story” compulsion is often incredibly distorting to the facts. Witness traditional media’s reportage on global warming, for one, which set out a cadre of about a dozen people (not all scientists) as equal to the world’s body of several thousand climate scientists.

    Yes, it’s worth distinguishing blogging from journalism. But first, I think we should excise sources like the Silicon Alley Insider from the former group and give them a new name; most bloggers manage to do more than throw out a blurb. And instead of criticizing bloggers for their differences from the not-perfect habits of traditional journalism, why not try to define the best characteristics of bloggers and help improve them?

    1. That sounds like good topic for a future post. So how about we crowdsource a bit, Chris? I ask you or anyone else reading this comment: What makes a good blogger? Please respond in comments or start up a dialog by email (which we could extend to Skype or IM). Better: I would gladly lead a discussion, over Twitter or even live over USTREAM or other streaming service of anybody’s choice.

  7. Your second para begins … “The basic principal is this: …”

    I don’t wish to be snarky but Journalists AND Bloggers should learn and know the difference between Principal and principle.

  8. Thanks for being a journalist. There’s a reason why I subscribe to your RSS feeds and look forward to new posts. You always have something substantial and thoughtful to say. I can’t believe that Microsoft Watch let you go – the new guy is boring and superficial. Google Watch had been that way always, now Microsoft Watch is that way, too. Oh well, at least I can still follow you on Betanews and Oddly Together

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