Monday, January 24, 2005

Standard standards?

Some attention has recently been brought to blogging by a few among us having been paid consultants to political campaigns. Those bloggers dealt with the issue in different ways:

- Jerome Armstrong, hired by the Howard Dean campaign, suspended his blog.
- Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of DailyKos, hired together with Armstrong, posted a disclosure and kept blogging.
- Jon Lauck, a paid consultant to South Dakota's Republican Senatorial candidate John Thune, said nothing, arguing people knew he was pro-Thune just by reading his site.

Now, I think people can guess which of those is the one I think was unethical. But no matter for now. The thing is, this was part of what has prompted some academic discussions of a type with which we are all so familiar, these particular ones about "standards" of blogging and how bloggers relate to "real" journalists: a discussion, for the most part, featuring paid journalists and academics and very few actual bloggers.

In fact, there was one such discussion this past weekend, a conference which, as far as I can tell and like others of its ilk, had nothing to do with blogging or bloggers except as an object of establishment fascination with something it sees as oddball; a break from their usual state of ennui.

At the same time, there is still the actual question of just what we political bloggers are and just how we should regard ourselves. On that broader question, I actually don't have a problem with bloggers "adopting standards" about what we do as long as we recognize that any such standards will be quite informal and be developed by experience over time rather than by committee - and that they will be vague, voluntary, and vociferously violated. "Kinda oughtas" rather than "wills."

While some journalists - and I mean that in the professional, not the hack, sense of the word; Josh Marshall springs to mind - are bloggers, politically-oriented bloggers are not journalists, nor should we (nor, as far as I'm aware, do we) claim to be. We are, for the most past, just very opinionated people who are sufficiently egotistical to believe that someone else might want to hear what we have to say. That does not mean we are not a valuable resource and it does not mean that we don't have a real and growing role to play in the political life of our nation. What it means is that we are much more akin to opinion columnists than to reporters.

So what I have in mind when I say "standards" would be, first, accepting that no political blog should be regarded as, or expected to be, impartial. Our convictions - or, less politely, biases - are the reasons we do what we do.

We should, however, feel an obligation to keep our facts straight and not to deliberately ignore contrary information simply because it undermines what we wish were true. That doesn't mean every post has to be a debate, carefully presenting and analyzing all sides, but it does mean, for example, a post declaring there were no problems with the elections in Ohio patently fails that standard. That should also, I think, include some effort to "go to the source" rather than linking to so-and-so who linked to that guy who got it from her blog which linked to a source. That's not always possible, obviously, but I think an effort should be made in that direction both for the benefit of your readers and, frankly, your own: Better that you consider the source yourself instead of as seen through the filter of a series of eyes. (At the same time, courtesy would require a "link thanks to" acknowledgment.)

And we should also feel an obligation to differentiate between fact and opinion and between fact and conclusion drawn from fact.

Those are standards I have tried to work by - emphasize tried; I'm sure someone looking to do so could find examples of where I have failed - across all the versions of Lotus that have come and gone over the last 30 or so years. (I do miss the print version, but as is common with political publications of both ends of the political spectrum, the subscriptions simply didn't cover costs. And since no angel stepped forward to make up the difference, well....) I think readers can pretty easily distinguish between where I'm reporting and where I'm commenting, can tell where I'm simply presenting information and where I'm drawing conclusions.

I don't mean to set myself up as any sort of role model, only to say that I have tried to uphold the standards I would look for in others. I do think that those of us who like to fancy ourselves as political commentators should look to maintain some sort of self-imposed (self here meaning the individual self, not the group self) standards. That doesn't mean we can't deal in sarcasm, satire, rumor, and ridicule, it just means they should be distinguishable from assertions of demonstrable fact.

(I admit I've having a bit of a struggle here trying to talk about standards when there can be so many exceptions to the rule and what I'm really thinking about is political blogging the way I approach it. For example, satire is a hard one: I generally don't deal in satire - sarcasm, yes, satire, no - because I'm just not that good at it. But satire often works best when it cuts so close to the truth that you can't be absolutely sure that it doesn't mean what it appears to mean. So can you clearly distinguish fact from satire and still have top-flight satire? I don't know but I doubt it.)

There is one other issue, raised during the conference I mentioned.
Dan Gillmor, a former newspaper columnist now studying citizen-driven journalism through blogging, said bloggers who want an audience will voluntarily adopt principles of fairness, thoroughness, accuracy and transparency.

"No one's bound by these rules," Gillmor said, "but I think some norms will emerge for people who want to be taken seriously."
The question is, taken seriously by who? The answer appears to be "by 'serious' journalists." Well, I remember when the album "Switched on Bach" came out and supposedly made the Moog (rhymes with "vogue") synthesizer a "legitimate" musical instrument "instead of just making beeps and boops" as some had it. I, on the other hand, was a fan of "Silver Apples of the Moon" and I was disappointed, even saddened. I remarked to my brother, who preferred "Switched on Bach," that I found it rather depressing that we were presented with a device capable of an entirely new range of musical expression and we are expected to judge its worth by how much we can make it sound like the ones we already have.

So now we have the whole new world blogs and bloggers, this whole new means of electronic communication, and the word from the journalistic powers-that-be is that to be "taken seriously" we have to make it as much as possible like the forms we already have. In the case of electronic music, while it didn't replace traditional forms (and never was meant to), it did influence them. It was less that synthesizer music became traditional as that traditional music shifted and adapted to embrace the synthesizer. I suspect that over time, the same will be true of traditional journalism and political blogging.

No comments:

// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');