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In the unverified digital world, are journalists and bloggers equal?

Shark in flood waters after Hurricane Sandy

Amongst the many challenges facing the field of journalism in the move from print to digital, the question of what distinguishes a journalist from a blogger has been a perennial one. This is not just an existential crisis for journalists contemplating their relevance in a digital age, it has real life ramifications as a recent libel case has highlighted. In the case, Crystal Cox, a blogger, was sued for libel to the tune of US $2.5m. The subsequent appeal in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals however turned on whether Cox was entitled to be treated as a journalist under which circumstances, she might be protected. The court decided she was ordering a new trial, declaring: “With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media… the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”

Aside from a legal distinction between bloggers and journalists, other commenters have argued that the distinction rests on practice.

Journalists will attempt to use primary sources for information whereas bloggers “typically” may rely on secondary, or already published sources. The problem here is that as self-identified journalists have made the transition from daily print to continuous 24/7 online news, they themselves have had to learn what it actually means to report and comment on news in a digital world. Here, it is not clear that the journalists have had any particular advantage over bloggers. They have had to learn new skills and the news organisations they work for have had to adapt to new ways of collecting and reporting news. In fact, given that a blogger’s natural medium is digital, the advantage in many cases could be said to rest with the bloggers.

The situation has become even more complicated as the source of news moves increasingly away from traditional channels to the millions of people carrying mobile phones and sharing commentary, photos and video on social networks.

Making sense of this type of information has been as much a challenge for journalists as it has bloggers. Journalists, like bloggers, have had to learn new skills in working in this environment.

In addressing part of this skills gap, the European Journalism Centre has released a handbook called the Verification Handbook. Although aimed at dealing with information arising out of emergency situations, the principles apply equally to everyday reporting, irrespective of who that reporter happens to be.

The case studies detailed in handbook outline the difficulties of fact checking what is called “user-generated content” or UGC. These are the videos and images posted by people who happened to be on the scene of an event. Although it is tempting to simply take a video of a bomb explosion at face value when it appears on Twitter, YouTube of Facebook, reporters or commenters will always need to establish the reliability of the piece of content. With digital content, this becomes harder because it is so easy to scrape content from any source and repost and potentially modify that content in any number of different ways.

The challenge facing anyone trying to use user-generated content is how to verify that it is actually what it purports to be.

Perhaps to highlight the fact that journalists have no special claim on making reliable claims based on digital media, the handbook authors show in one case study how the verification process was used to examine a headline in the Washington Post that alleged that “Shocking photos, video show Egyptian protesters pushing armored police vehicle off bridge”. Through analysis of the video and other videos taken from different perspectives, Christoph Koettl working at Amnesty International was able to demonstrate that the video in fact showed no such thing.

The point of this is that the handbook is aimed at anyone reporting or commenting on news in the digital realm. It makes no distinctions here between journalists and bloggers and in fact, the techniques and resources are such that anyone can use them to help verify information that they are reporting on. One of the key tenets in all of this is establishing an idea of the reliability of sources. This allows reporters to not have to always go back to an original source, or get a secondary source of a piece of information.

The general public automatically assumes that reporters working for a news organisation like the New York Times, the ABC or the BBC are likely to be trustworthy and reliable, there is really no reason to not reach the same degree of trust of anyone writing on the Internet. The key is professionalism, and this is an attribute that is open to anyone on the Internet, paid or unpaid.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Ronald Ostrowski

    logged in via Facebook

    In Australia the mainstream media does not bother with fact-checking, particularly in political news coverage. Its all opinion, and our chronically fact-impaired journalists all close ranks and into a tizzy fit about 'freedom of the press' when the likes of Andrew Bolt gets busted in a court of law for racial vilification based on a false premise. So, I doubt whether they will be too fuzzed with the accuracy of digital media.

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    1. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Ronald Ostrowski

      What Colbert calls truthiness is of little interest to either the media or the politicians. The lies told daily by the leaders of the land are awe-inspiring: the mining tax is ruining the Western Australian economy. The carbon price is wrecking business in Australia just two of the more egregious examples.

      So yes Ronald, online veracity way down the list.

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  2. John Kampert

    aged pensioner

    The difference between a blogger and a journalist?

    A journalist has a livelihood to be concerned about... remember: "Who pays the piper calls the tune".

    A blogger "pushes a barrow" for personal convictions.

    Neither necessarily convey the pure unadulterated facts.

    It is up to the reader/internet surfer to determine what to accept or reject. Fortunately that is made easier by learning the biases of the websites and to read not only the ones that reflect ones own bias.

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    1. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to John Kampert

      I think that is an important difference.

      David writes that: "reporters working for a news organisation like the New York Times, the ABC or the BBC are likely to be trustworthy and reliable, there is really no reason to not reach the same degree of trust of anyone writing on the Internet."

      But the ABC has a charter, a complaints mechanism, teams of people who notice what each other's work is like, editors, research resources .... very different from an independent blogger.

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    2. Ronald Ostrowski

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      I would question the integrity of the ABC compliants mechanism. I also am concerned by the shallowness and sensationalim of ABC 24. It matches the commercial networks in its serious lack of analysis and objectivity, and it is too selective and headline focussed. Case in point was the over the top ABC 24 coverage of the Ashby allegations against Slipper, and then the obstinate refusal to ask questions in response to Justice Rare's ruling against the Ashby and the clandestine activities to overthrow a legally elected Government by certain LNP stakeholders. The ABC's enjoining the Murdoch stable in the politicised trial by media of Slipper and Ashby has yet to be reconciled. Only online publications and bloggers (including legal experts) explored this important story.

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    3. Liam J

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Ronald Ostrowski

      Fair call Ronald, the ABC is far from blameless .. but at least there is some reasonably transperant process that can & does issue corrections and apologies. News Corp by comparison never seems to find any error in its output, despite many failures of fact and countless v.biased and disproven opinions.

      Therefore I put the average blogger ahead of News Corp & behind the ABC in credibility; eg. any factoid coming from Andrew Bolt is false until proven true by independant sources, whereas I'll at least consider assertions of fact by random unknown blogger.

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  3. Peter Chapman

    Teacher

    'Manipulation of the medium', either through good old-fashioned cherry-picking of stats/facts or through the more insidious massaging of digital images is an occupational hazzard for both producers and consumers of news. Verification is so fraught that experience and instinct seem to be as much the sine qua non of reliability as source-checking (a state of affairs that would put a smile on the mouldering face of David Hume....)

    ps: nice piece, but the pedant in me can't let "key tenants" slip in unannounced... for me, a key tenet of good housekeeping.

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  4. Google-Cide

    logged in via Twitter

    Although there is much variation within journalism, the ideal is to inform the citizenry.

    The role and status of journalism, along with other forms of mass media, are undergoing changes resulting from the Internet.

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  5. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    Bloggers tend to be nothing like journalists. They are more mere writers of letters to the editor. Not by definition. By behaviour. Imagine Australian blogging without The Australian or Andrew Bolt.

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    1. Ronald Ostrowski

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      I can. We have it here on the TC, which is somewhat more cerebral and people do at least attempt to engage in some research before they opine. When a fact-impaired hate monger like Bolt publish, the standard of blogging reaches down to the same hateful and crass level. Life is too short to engage in meaningless verbal brawling. In stark contrast to the mindless Bolt site, here on the TC and on other sites I have seen many insightful and illuminating posts to articles.

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  6. Jennie Taylor

    Consultant

    "One of the key tenants in all of this..."

    I think you mean *tenets*.

    Editors perleez.... there's plenty more red pen where that came from - this is just the worst boo-boo in there!

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    1. Maggie Li

      Sydney University Graduate

      In reply to Helen Westerman

      Helen - "Tenants" is a real word?

      In response to the article, I think there is too much conversation and essentialist assumptions about the digital world - having huge impacts on mainstream media/mainstream news journalism.

      Some journalists are bloggers themselves, but when they write for a newspaper or report for broadcast TV or radio, they are doing it to produce content for their employers.

      When bloggers publish articles on their own platform, they do so with the freedom and creative license of whatever content they see fit to their audience.

      In the future, I can see successful news bloggers reporting under the same guidelines as Wikipeadia, in which there is a need to cross reference and cite. (Wikipeadia only became successful and reputable/reliable due to this requirement but in the beginning it was just free information).

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