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Friday, January 06, 2006

blog schmog, hard news schmard news

Cambridge Common got a mention in today's Crimson by technology columnist Matt Gline. Gline focused on the hesitations we should have when approaching the influence of the newly emerging blogosphere:
The trouble is that certain issues tend to get magnified by this bunch, and others suppressed. [...] It’s easy to fall into a trap wherein one believes that by reading the opinions of a few ostensibly well-informed pundits one is oneself well informed. As we saw in December, blogs can do a lot to improve the state of political discourse, and they can do it in ways traditional papers are not yet agile enough to keep pace with. Still, one reason blogs can be so much faster than newspapers is that the latter puts forth an effort to be balanced and well fact-checked, so it’s worth our time to read them and keep our eyes open for incongruities in blog coverage and for stories that might be worthwhile despite a dearth of attention.
Believe it or not, I think Gline is basically right. Blogs aren't a good source of purely "objective" news, and the priorities of what is published are purely based on the priorities and interests of the writer and the interest level of their audience. Some bloggers may be so confident in their own priorities and interests that they feel that theirs is the only perspective necessary to understanding the world (ahem, DailyKos), these people are to be avoided or taken with a grain of salt. Gline is right to emphasize this problem and warn readers against falling into this trap.

BUT I think he misses an important point that many bloggers, myself included, think is equally important. Bloggers aren't the only one's whose "objectivity" should be looked at with a critical eye.(more in expanded post)

The traditional distinction, and the one Gline is making in this column, is between "hard" and "soft" news. Newspapers aspire to write hard news, columnists, blogs, weekend magazines mostly write soft news, the hardness or softness depending on the level of objectivity aspired to, the depth of fact-checking and reliability of the source on both of these counts.

What I think Gline misses while correctly emphasizing the softness of blogging is that part of the critique offered by bloggers is that hard news is not nearly as hard as it would like you to think. Fox News would be the best example of that, but you could also point to things like the questionable relationships people like Judith Miller or Bob Woodward-important reporters at important papers (formerly in Miller's case)- had with their sources to see that newspapers are far from objective reporters of objective truths. This isn't to say that the New York Times and the Washington Post shouldn't be trusted but just that they also can't be taken as the ultimate determinates of hard truth. I've repeatedly offered a similar critique of the Crimson for similar problems, inadequacies of coverage, etc. As the Crimson leadership itself has admitted, for instance, its own lack of diversity slants its news coverage. Said Marra, the incoming President, in his shoot paper (his application for the job):
When we lack diversity on all fronts, including racial and socioeconomic, our coverage suffers from a lack of perspective, and our editors lack information about campus events and issues.
So, while I think Gline is certainly right to take note of how problematic it would be to think blogs to be an objective source of hard news, we shouldn't ignore the problematic subjectivity of those who are actually making claims at being "hard news." It's obviously not on the same scale; the Crimson at least aspires and often succeeds at something closer to objectivity and I never aspire to it at all. But it's not an either/or situation. Take Gline's advice to heart, but don't forget to turn the same set of questions on others.


At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Matt Gline said...

Fair points all. If I didn't highlight the extent to which I agree that blogs provide an incredibly valuable check on the often-not-nearly-as-objective-as-it-should-be traditional news media, it's because I've so internalized that truth such that I thought it obvious, when perhaps it isn't. The Crimson demonstrated their own journalistic foibles a few times during the UC campaign, notably when they printed a story about their endorsement on the cover of the very same issue in which the endorsement itself was buried somewhere near the rear. I've criticized the Crimson publicly before in situations where I felt they did a poor job. The integrity of newspapers is something we should all be very attuned to.

I do have one concern, though: I'm not sure it's fair to treat blogs merely as sources of 'soft' news or editorial commentary. During the UC election, there were several times when blogs actually broke important stories, long before the Crimson had a chance to do so. Soft or hard doesn't matter, they and the house open lists were for 10 or 15 important hours the only source out there for certain facts.

The election blogs did a commendable job, and it worked out well for them: all their stories eventually checked out so far as I know, and because they acted quickly anyone who changed their intended vote as a result of the posts avoided making a choice they might later have regretted (at least insofar as one can regret how one has voted in a UC election.) But not all blogs are that good, and very few are that good all the time. And much as I loved Team Zebra, I don't really think they had the same stringent fact-checking standards to which the Crimson aspires. They certainly don't have the same standards as the New York Times, which despite its errors really does seem to care tremendously about being even-handed.

Blogs break stories in the real world all the time. Apple rumor blogs break stories about the newest iPod supertinyitsreallysmallthistime, and Apple's stock price fluctuates accordingly. Markets are pretty good at aggregating information and pricing the reliability of sources, but generally speaking we don't get to watch the market for clues, we have to weigh the value of the information ourselves. What if Team Zebra had been wrong and people had changed their votes anyway?

To the extent that blogs are merely vehicles for soft commentary, they're amazing - I think they're the best thing to hit substantive political discourse in America in decades at least. But to the extent that they're starting to have a real influence on what people think is actually going on in the world - how people view the situation on the ground in a hurricane-ravaged city or a war in a country halfway around the world - well, if I read your post properly I think you agree: at the moment, we still need to be pretty careful, and to read them with a grain of salt.

At 7:25 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

I absolutely agree with you on all points.

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Greg Schmidt & Team Zebra said...

I should start out by saying that I'm generally big fan of Matt's column, but I'm having some trouble seeing where he's coming from on some of the points in this column and the above comment, especially when it comes to the on-campus commentary. Most of the points raised in the column, and in the followup comment above, make quite a bit of sense in the abstract. When you apply them to this campus, however, it's hard to see what he's basing them on.

I suppose the column makes sense if read solely as commentary on national blogs, using the references to the emergence of new blogs on campus during the UC campaign (did any blogs emerge during the campaign other than Team Zebra and the pre-existing Cambridge Common?) just as an intro. The bit about real-world blogs being disproportionately techie-run and tech-focused is interesting, but campus blogs I can think of (Team Zebra, Cambridge Common, Bikini Politics, Symphonic Man, Stillytheone) are neither tech-focused nor techie-run (I was the only TZer who had to learn any sort of technical stuff, Golis started out using the free-and-easy Blogspot but eventually designed his own template himself, Paloma uses the free-and-easy TypePad, David Richmond uses the more-difficult-but-still-learnable MovableType, and Stillman uses the free-and-easy Blogspot, with a slightly tweaked version of a template).

That's not to say I don't think there are major problems with getting news from blogs, I just have trouble ranking the bias towards tech among them.

I'd generally agree with the observation that blogs tend to focus on what interests their writers, but I think it helps to think of blogs, in the on-campus sense, as a more formalized version of a dining hall conversation or mass email than as a less formalized version of The Crimson. The Crimson is a vital and irreplaceable campus institution which is entrusted with covering all aspects of campus life; blogs are not, and treating them with any sort of equivalence can be dangerous, both for their fans and for their skeptics.

Our thinking was never that Team Zebra would emerge to challenge the Crimson: we were less concerned about rivaling the Crimson than about getting people who usually don't pay attention to UC races to tune in. I often find myself talking to friends of mine who don't care about the UC or other political issues and making the case for why they should pay attention, and a blog, done right, seemed like a good way to keep people aware of the race. This started as just our friends, but word spread fast, which itself raises an interesting question: do our responsibilities change when our readership grows from our blocking groups to 2000 unique readers a day? That was a question we struggled with, which leads us to Matt's comment about our fact-checking.

I actually take the accusation that we might have been careless about fact-checking quite seriously (and I realize that it was as much by way of example as by way of direct accusation, but since TZ was repeatedly singled out as the blog that supposedly didn't care about fact-checking we feel a need to respond). Obviously, our general attitude towards the blog was "don't take ourselves too seriously," as we wanted to avoid the kind of ego-inflation that often goes on with blogs (as Golis rightly references Kos), but behind the scenes we were quite serious about not publishing things that could unfairly tilt the election or misinform people; we were sensitive to concerns that our presence could be a negative factor in the election, and were careful to make sure that if we had any effect, it was a helpful (while still light-hearted) one.

First off, we really didn't publish all that much "hard news." A quick review of our offerings shows that we had quite a bit of general commentary, some attempts at humor, Leah taking several online quizzes on behalf of the candidates, a little bit of Teddy offending minority groups, some number-crunching, some photo-blogging, and The Contender blogging about blueberry pie. I'd say 90% of our commentary was "soft news."

As for the other 10% (only read this section if you really care; it's long):
- Election results: We published these immediately after they became public, getting the number from a member of the elections commission, and after they had made the results public to the candidates. According to the time stamp on their article, The Crimson chose to publish the results before they were officially announced, a full hour before Haddock (I'm not sure about Voith or Grimeland) had heard of them officially from the Elections Commission. (To be clear, I'm not criticizing The Crimson for doing so.)

- I think Brokaw's piece on the vote-buying scheme may have been the first piece on that story (I'm really not sure), but the only factual claim he made was that the email publicizing the scheme had gone out over campus open-lists, and then offered his opinion that this was a bad idea.

- The Crimson endorsement: I found out about this Sunday afternoon, eventually getting independent confirmation from several people. Though I was virtually certain that the information I was getting was accurate, I wound up feeling that a front page post wasn't appropriate, instead posting it as a comment within one of our other posts (as opposed to front-page posting, any random reader has the ability to post a comment), and making clear that this was by no means definite.

- My post on how none of the six candidates had gone to American public schools might be charitably called "hard news." The process here was fairly simple: we either learned their schools from the Facebook or from their staff (or both), then went to these schools' web sites and to listings of schools in each state to find out if they were public or private. Using the Facebook for research might be a tad sloppy, but it was hard to imagine why any candidate would lie about their high school, and it didn't seem like a controversial enough post to get confirmation from the candidates on. (For what its worth, The Crimson has also been criticized on its letters-to-the-editor page for using Facebook statistics in reporting.)

- The post on the Kirkland HoCo elections probably "broke" that story, but only because it was too obscure to garner coverage elsewhere. It was a brief post with few factual claims other than "this is happening, here's the text of an email that was sent out."

- Chadbourne's piece on candidate's voting records on funding religious groups was, I think, hard news, but was extensively researched and well-documented. He and I worked on it together, made sure we were approaching it in the right way, and made sure that there was full documentation of any votes and the public statements for each. Nobody has questioned the accuracy of that piece, and I don't think anybody would question the fact-checking process were they aware of it.

- We broke the story that John Haddock looks eerily like Bob Saget. We stand by our story.

- I could see some criticism of our debate coverage: rather than publishing a transcript, we offered Leah's and Aaron's running commentary, which was mostly offered as humor. Since it was the first content available on the debate, however, it may have been the first "news" of any sort that people saw of it. This is a tricky issue: we didn't see it as our role to publish the sort of story that would appear in the Crimson the next day, "The candidates debated, here's a soundbite from each, here's a two-paragraph summary of all the issues in this race," and we wanted to publish something that people would read, be amused by, and pay attention to the UC race as a result of. I think these humorous pieces were the best way to achieve that, but I'll grant that ideally, we would have been able to include a transcript or a video feed as well (we posted a link to the video feed when it went up the next morning).

- My post on the similarities between Voith's signs and Glazer's signs from the previous year could be called "hard news," but the only facts it rested on were the visual realities of the posters: I took a picture of Voith's sign, and used the original PDF of a Glazer sign from a year ago.

- Endorsements: We kept a running count of endorsements in our left hand column, adding in new ones when either a campaign or an organization informed us of them, generally waiting until the organization put out a formal statement if we first learned about the endorsement from a campaign staffer.

When it came to dicier issues, our fact-checking standards were, ultimately, fairly stringent: if anything about the facts, or the journalistic merits, of a post were in question, we didn't publish it. We didn't publish (1) a post on the Voith staffer's email to a Grimeland staffer about Grimeland dropping out before the Crimson broke the story (we knew The Crimson was writing it, so held off), (2) the text of the infamous email (or the name of the author) when it was sent to us, (3) a post on the intricacies of the Crimson endorsement meeting with notes on its attendance and attendees, (4) various posts whose contents I still don't think we should make public, (5) in general, posts we were concerned were unfairly negative on any particular candidate.

So yes, it's possible for blogs to have lax fact-checking standards, but it's equally possible for print publications, as Golis pointed out, to not rigorously fact-check the material they publish. One need look no further for proof of this than the fact that Matt's column was published without first calling anybody from Team Zebra (I'm not sure if anybody from CC, BP, SM, StO, or others was contacted) and asking us (1) whether we are disproportionately tech-savvy, and (2) whether or not we had a fact-checking process, or what level of discretion we exercised in posting content. Additionally, contacting the Independent would have revealed that their publication schedule, which they keep to, is in fact shorter than the campaign period. (Sorry if that sounds snippy; this is all just by way of example, and I have a soft spot for the Indie.)

My, this got to be an absurdly long post. Sorry about that. In summary, I'm sympathetic to many of the arguments Matt's advanced about the problems with getting information from blogs (indeed, note that we ultimately shut down Team Zebra, and that we were careful never to portray TZ as a legitimate news source, alternative or otherwise), but I think some of the ways he's applying them to this campus, especially in the above comment, don't really pan out. To be sure, they could pan out in the future, and they're worth thinking about and discussing. I don't mean for this comment to discourage that discussion or disparage him for starting it, just to set the record straight on a few of the specifics.

(Didn't get the chance to touch much on the broader substance of this discussion. May try to do that in another comment.)

At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leah did take the pie test twice to back up her claim. That's good enough for me. GO LEAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At 3:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt and Andrew - why no response? It's reading period!


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