There has been a spate of stories in recent days from journalists in the MSM (mainstream media, just in case there’s one among you out there not familiar with that term) wringing their hands over the death of media and therefore democracy, as newspapers shut down, television stations lay off swathes of staff, and radio struggles.
Along with that has been a not coincidental, I think, stream of stories from MSM journalists unhappy about the level of discourse that seems to have come with the rise of the webosphere. Judith Timson in the Globe had a column last Saturday about how web commenting is the new blood sport. The Globe’s health writer, Andre Picard, also had one during the week, looking at how the Internet and the nasty conversations on it are having an impact on science and health. Those are just two of the more prominent ones I noted, but they add to a growing concern about what the new form of journalism is going to be.
It’s a strange time for me to watch this. I teach a course in the history of journalism and so I know that the constant in the business is the level of manic change. And I straddle two universes. I still work in MSM and I also blog. I like both worlds. MSM journalism, at its best, means really devoting yourself to trying to tell a complete story, with all that that demands in the way of rigorously searching out information and distilling it to something coherent for readers.
But the blog world is great too. For me and for many of my MSM friends, it’s been a revelation to be able to have a dialogue with readers that goes far beyond the usual “Here’s my story, what do you think of it?” exchange in MSM. As one of my friends said recently, “It makes me feel like I really understand all the people out there who have been reading my stories all these years. Now I get to hear from them. The problem with most of us is that we only know a limited circle of people and we think everyone thinks like us. But this puts me in touch with whole different worlds.” I know I feel that way, too, and I feel privileged, for the most part, to have such interesting people commenting on my blog.
But there is another side to WebWorld that bothers me, and both Judith’s and Andre’s columns struck a chord as a result.
One is the abuse that gets heaped on journalists who do not write the story that certain readers think should be written. I have really noticed this recently, as people have dumped on me via web for not sufficiently crucifying people like Paul Haden or Judy Rogers or the Maleks. It’s just so puzzling to me. I went into journalism because people interest me and I want to know more about them, good and bad. When I was a kid, I was dying to know what was going on behind every picture window on our block. When you decide you’re going to make a villain of someone, you run the risk of blinding yourself to parts of their story. But it seems as though, in this increasingly partisan world, if you try to write that more balanced, more open story, you’re seen as a dupe, a wimp, a shill.
The other part of the new web journalism that disturbs me is the lack of any kind of standards when it comes to disseminating “facts” and opinions. I know people like to imagine that MSM journalists have no standards, that they’ll print every scurrilous thing that crosses their desk. I just wish all the conspiracy theorists could spend time in a good newsroom, where reporters often turn down dozens of stories of alleged wrongdoing in a month. Why? Because they actually try to check them out, see if they can verify whether any of the information is true, sort out people’s imperfect understandings of how the bureaucracy works and see what still holds water — and only when they can be assured that there’s some validity to they start shaping it into a story.
But out there in WebWorld, people think it’s good enough to BELIEVE something is true — without actually doing the hard work of checking anything — to put it out there as a fact. My friend who loves her new blog world is also disturbed by the conversations she has with some posters who don’t get why they can’t post libellous comments about people using their real names, without providing a shred of documentation.
I’d like to think that, out of the tectonic shifts now reshaping traditional journalism, that we come out with a kind of information sharing that is better. It’s not a bad idea for reporters to have a dialogue with people in the community about how they do their jobs and to accept their input about what’s a story and whose point of view should be included. But I sometimes worry that it’s going to be much worse and than, in 10 years, when the MSM media are dead and buried, information and news will consist of isolated groups of people all screaming out their distorted version of the truth only to each other.