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Truth, verification, and the blogging way of life

Itís not that thereís anything particularly wrong with the 1700-word section on weblogs thatís buried inside the massive report released this week by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, titled The State of the News Media 2005. Itís just that the authors have so little to say about what even they recognize is the most significant media development of the past year ó if not the past several years.

And then thereís this: in attempting to explain a phenomenon that they donít quite understand, the reportís authors manage to describe blogging at its reductive worst. They write: "The blogosphere, while adding the richness of citizen voices, ... brings to it an affirmative philosophy: publish anything, especially points of view, and the reporting and verification will occur afterward in the response of fellow bloggers. The result is sometimes true and sometimes false."

Now, anyone who reads a reasonably wide variety of blogs on a regular basis knows that this observation is, well, sometimes true and sometimes false. The best blogs, like the best news organizations, try to get it right. And the worst are certainly no worse than a bad local newspaper run by a corrupt and dishonest owner.

Immediately taking offense to the reportís characterization was the conservative blog Little Green Footballs. LGFís editor, Charles Johnson, was a key player in showing last September that the documents CBS News used in its story on George W. Bushís National Guard non-service were mostly likely computer-generated fakes. "The Columbia School of Journalism has released a steady stream of anti-blog stories, and this conclusion is simply part of their bias," Johnson wrote on Monday. He added: "The idea that blogs Ďpublish anythingí without regard for factual truth is a smear, pure and simple, coming from an organization that feels threatened by something it canít understand."

But this wonít do, either. For one thing, the Project for Excellence in Journalism is indeed affiliated with Columbia; but it has nothing to do with the Columbia Journalism Review, which has been pretty hard on bloggers. For another, the projectís director, Tom Rosenstiel, comes across as not the least bit anti-blog; instead, he seems to be genuinely attempting to get a handle on a burgeoning new media form that no one, not even its practitioners, fully understands. "If journalism was a lecture from a prepared professional who had double-checked the facts and put things in order and then executed the lecture, blogs are a free-flowing debate in the coffeehouse afterwards," Rosenstiel told me. "It has all the strengths and weaknesses of an open debate. Itís not always the wisest person who prevails. Sometimes itís the loudest, or the most tireless. But there are clearly benefits to that."

Rosenstiel added that he picked up the "publish first/verify later" line from Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who is among bloggingís most enthusiastic proponents. Rosen ó who writes the popular Pressthink.org blog ó pleads guilty, but says heís sympathetic to Johnsonís complaint as well. "The comforting view is that these are people without standards entirely," Rosen says. "If that were the case, who would worry about blogging? It would fall of its own weight."

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, whose InstaPundit.com is ranked by Technorati.com as the second-most-linked-to blog, says the key is transparency. A blog, he says, is more likely to identify a press release as a press release; many newspapers will simply publish it as though it were its own. And he sees nothing wrong with posting a rumor, identifying it as such, and asking readers to chip in with what they know.

"My overall take, not to sound too harsh, was that it sounded a little like whistling past the graveyard," Reynolds says of the reportís section on blogs. "The dismissiveness may come as much from cluelessness as from hostility."

The Project for Excellence in Journalismís latest report, The State of the News Media 2005, is available at the organizationís Web site, www.journalism.org

Issue Date: March 18 - 24, 2005
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