Bloggers, the better journalists?

Newsroon at Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar
Photo: Neubert

There is a future for professional journalists. In particular those who have their specialities, like science journalists. There is no reason to complain about the competition of bloggers and the social media networks, to sing the swan-song on journalism. Blogs, Facebook or Twitter are not drivers of news. Instead they are a still small pathways to news published on the home pages of traditional media. Brands are still enjoying the highest credibility, as the US report State of the News Media 2012[1] found out.

However, in search to compensate revenues from dramatically decreasing advertisement incomes, especially the printed media team up with the social media networks hoping to attract more hits on their web pages, or even feed their news right into the networks. In turn the networks want them in order to increase customer attraction.

In the Coffee House

But the notion that social network users get their news from recommendations from friends is wrong. Only about ten percent follow the suggestions. They are only an additional way rather than a replacement for gathering news. Nevertheless get news sites now nine percent of their traffic from social media, which is an increase of nearly 60 percent during the last two years, and half of what comes from search engines.[2]

But what about bloggers? Are they sources or producers of news? The Austrian journalist and blogger Tom Schaffer writes: »Journalists search and find stories, bloggers just find them.«[3] And they find them quite often in traditional media. Thus bloggers mainly comment, argue, philosophise or just swagger about agendas others have set.

The bloggers’ realm is a modern version of the honourable coffee houses and clubs, or the marked places of the past. Arianna Huffington, founder of the same named, utmost successful online Post said in a old interview about blogging: »You may set out to write about politics but, in the end, you write about yourself; about the things you care about beyond politics.«[4]

Pit Bulls of Journalism?

Huffington frequently repeats her credo from 2006 since years in many interviews: »When they (the bloggers) decide that something matters, they refuse to let go. They’re the true pit bulls of reporting.«[5] This might be true, but as Hans Leyendecker from the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung put it: »The world does not need pit bulls. It needs craftspeople who are able to distinguish the important from the unimportant, and who deliver verifiable stuff of societal relevance.«[6]

Looking on the front page of the Huffington Post, there are three columns: Left the opinion column derived from blogging editors, politicians, celebrities, industrials. In the middle the news aggregator streams mainly news products from other media, and on the right side streams from social media under the ranking list of most read articles.

You may say that this is nothing more than a[7] product with the difference that it has an editorial staff for searching and picking the topics and issues in order to saturate the readership basically with short news pieces, lots of infotainment, and quite some sensationalism. Occasionally you find decent works of journalism on Huffington Post, but the best pieces are reserved for the paid issue of the »Huffington« magazine for iPad.

The »Like«-Society

The web offers a wide platform for exchanging views and opinions. But within the hotchpotch of the online news and opinion streams every information is of the same importance – or unimportance. Everybody can choose arguments for his or her own position, no need to check facts. The social media world has created a “like” society where groups of friends select their information according to their believes, popularities and preconceptions. In addition, the algorithms of search engines try to anticipate the searcher’s opinion in order to deliver confirming links. Others’ opinions, criticism of own attitudes and assessments of sources are not »liked«. There will never be a »dislike« button on Facebook, which would be the nightmare of advertisers. The social media are basically there to create a feel-good atmosphere, not primarily a platform for debate and discussion. Of course do discussion groups exist, and they are desperately missing the »dislike« button, but that is the positive other side of the coin, when people use existing technology for their own interests.

Need to Learn

Verifiable news and in depth stories which put news in frameworks are still the domain of decent authors with proper craftpersonship. They are able to set agendas even against the mainstream of official political, economic, celebrity or even scientific agendas. But considering the openness of discussions in blogs and networks the journalists have to learn. They need also to be more open with their work and accessible to their audience. They cannot any longer announce the truth down from the ivory tower. Instead they have to clarify the credibility and authenticity of their sources, and why they think a topic is of relevance to the audience and to the society.

Such an openness could even have an added value. In a dialogue with their audience new topics may arise which may be worth to be researched. Thus the role of journalists may evolve in order that they become even stronger advocates of society. By that they may also be in a better position to break the search engine’s bubble of ignorance in which most internet users remain, so that people can get also news and information which may doubt their preconceptions.

Science Debate

But new topics gained from the interference with the audience, duly researched in addition, may also reach the power to change political agendas in the interests of the people. The concept of a science debate may be develop into such a tool. First introduced in 2008 in the US[8], lead by Shawn Otto, a movie maker and author[9], the science debate received some regard also in Germany and other countries a year later[10]. When questions, concerns or research needs are expressed by the audiences of the media and the journalists, they can be turned into verified new stories, giving stuff for re-debates and thought for politicians and decision makers. Science debates are an experiment and time will show how successful they are. But they are worth the try in order to open up new perspectives and roles for journalists as servants for society, in this case science journalists.

Don’t Forget Story Telling

However, there is another aspect which should not be forgotten: People like to read and listen to good and thrilling stories. »A good story will always find its way«, Kaianders Sempler used to say, editor, story teller and comic artist at the Swedish technology magazine »Ny Teknik«[11]. He is right. News, knowledge and research results packed into a thrilling story will have much more impact than grumbling or swaggering. It will be a long way for bloggers telling good stories with verifiable stuff of societal importance.

This article was first published at ScienceCom on 2012-10-05.

There are already two comments:

1st by Tom Schaffer:

Thx for quoting me. I do have some criticism though.

“It will be a long way for bloggers telling good stories with verifiable stuff of societal importance”

Of course it is. It is a long way for everybody to learn to do that. But many bloggers are already doing it. It makes little sense to maken an overall judgment about a group so diverse. Some bloggers are journalists, others don’t want to be. Some are great, others don’t even care if they are. Loads of articles that are written every day by professional journalists don’t even get near this standard you are describing.

You’re saying: “bloggers mainly comment, argue, philosophise or just swagger about agendas others have set.”

Of course they mostly do. But so do most journalists. Of the millions of pieces of journalism produced every day, how many do contain original thinking or reporting?

2nd by Hanns-J. Neubert:

Well, yes. A comment to think about. Thanks.

However, having the viewpoint of a science journalist, I think that sports and science journalists are more focussed on reporting than on commenting, like especially the feature writers in the arts sections.

  1. State of the Media 2012 (2012–10–04) – Unfortunately I did not find a comparable analysis for Europe as comprehensive as this one. But as trends from North America use to spill out to Europe sooner or later, this report is well worth to take into consideration even when discussing European concerns about the future of journalism.  ↩

  2. State of the Media 2012 (see above)  ↩

  3. SCHAFFER, Tom (German only): Wie Blogger und Journalisten sich unterscheiden. ZurPolitik.Com 2010–07–26 (2012–10–04)  ↩

  4. HUFFINGTON, Arianna: Now the little guy is the true pit bull of journalism. Comment. The Guardian, 2006–03–14 (2012–10–04)  ↩

  5. HUFFINGTON, Arianna (see above)  ↩

  6. LEYENDECKER, Hans (German only): V wie Vierte Gewalt. Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, 19/2009 (2012–10–04)  ↩

  7. » is a content curation service. It enables people to publish newspapers based on topics they like and treat their readers to fresh news, daily« (2012–10–04)  ↩

  8. Science Debate: (2012–10–05)  ↩

  9. OTTO, Shawn Lorence: Fool Me Twice – Gighting the Assault on Science in America. (2012–10–05)  ↩

  10. Wissenschaftsdebatte 2009 (German only). (2012–10–05)  ↩

  11. Ny Teknik: Kaianders (Swedish only) (2012–10–05)  ↩