Can you trust a blogger?

Well, that depends. These days, everyone has an opinion and Facebook and blogger sites are means for anyone and everyone to get their opinion out to the public, including me as I am doing now. (Oh, the irony.)

The days are long gone of the news media filtering what isn’t relevant, what isn’t appropriate, what isn’t factual and what isn’t important before it gets wide exposure. Used to be, whether it was a news report, a commentary or an opinion letter, there was an editor who made these determinations and decided what to put out and how.

That seems like ancient history now.
Is this return to information “wild west” days, as was seen in 18th and 19th Century newspapers, a good thing?

It's both good and bad. The good is that information is now democratized. The editors no longer have control. Power to the people! Give voice to the little man, the vulnerable and the few with no powerful influence! No longer do they depend on the judgment of an editor, have to pay for printing up fliers or go through the effort of demonstrating in public places to be heard. A few clicks on a keyboard and the whole world is exposed to what they have to say.

But some is bad. Publicly putting out information about other individuals, companies, nonprofit organizations or agencies is taking on a responsibility. It’s not the same as talking off the top of your head or sharing second-hand information with your husband over dinner.
Information is power and misinformation is destructive power.

Gladly, even on the Internet, newspaper websites are very popular places for people to get information, even more than blogs. Is this because they have more information or better information? Is it more credible? Is it more interesting?
One reason is that since the early 20th Century, newspapers have a standard for verifying that the information they put out is accurate, and so they are more trusted. One way newspapers add credibility to the information they put out is to find out from the subject of a piece if the information they have is accurate or to give them an opportunity to explain what they did and why.

Second-hand information about someone is not credible and must be verified by that individual. “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” so the journalism saying goes. And reporters who learn their trade in college hear many accounts of the stories that seemed so clearly right end up being wrong, due to lack of verification.

And newspapers attribute where they got the information. Even if they use an anonymous source, they describe why that anonymous source is reliable.
And fairness, courtesy and providing helpful information to readers requires that the reporter give the subject of a story an opportunity to tell his side. It’s also important for the reader to know this explanation so they too can act appropriately or form a well-informed opinion.

It didn’t take long when I was the budding reporter to learn there are always two sides to a story, and what I was told by one side was not always accurate. Or sometimes what seemed wrong made a lot more sense when I talked to the other side. Sometimes I misunderstood and was glad I got clarification. I found sometimes I was given just part of the story. I found motives were questioned because one side did not have all the information the other side did. When I spoke to the one accused, the one whose motives were questioned, I found out what they know, and then their actions made a lot more sense.

Happened again and again and again and again.
When I took on the responsibility of reporting (publicly giving information about another) I gave up the luxury of believing second-hand information. I gave up forming opinions after only hearing one side. This was not two friends gossiping over tea. I took on a responsibility, a duty, and I tried to be responsible in carrying that out.

Recently, a long-time Associated Press reporter put out story of a candidate based on information in the deposition of a lawsuit. The person in the lawsuit was identified by initials. The reporter was told by a second-hand source that the person was the candidate with the same initials. It was defamatory.
Did he try to verify that, as journalism standards require? Halfheartedly. He called the candidate or candidate’s people and didn’t get an immediate response. He did not give them time to respond to his inquiry before sending in the story. The editor trusted the judgment of this long-time reporter and put the story out.

They were wrong. The story was wrong. The person mentioned in the lawsuit was not the candidate, and they would have known that had they waited just two hours. The reporter and two editors were fired.
This incident shows that newspapers have standards that make their information more credible.  Even when the reporter did try to go to the source, he did not live up to the standards because he put out unverified defamatory information.

Should bloggers be held to the same standards? If they want to be seen as credible and avoid being sued for libel, they should. If someone is reporting information to the public about someone else, they become a reporter. Doesn’t matter if they also include their opinions. Doesn’t matter if they do it in print, over radio or by Internet or video. It’s the act, not the title or medium or pay that makes someone a reporter.
Recently, one of my clients has been the topic of some bloggers. Some of the information is defamatory and inaccurate. But what I can’t get over is that these individuals were either making stuff up or reporting second-hand information without verification or without contacting my client.

Not only is this damaging, but it distracts from my client’s work, it takes up time and resources in my client determining how to respond, causes stress and misleads the public. But above all of this, it hurts to the point of tears.
Do these bloggers not know the power they hold? Do they not know the responsibility they have to verify before putting out this information? Do they not understand the difference between reporting a supposed fact and giving opinions? Do they not know from training or experience that second-hand sources are not reliable? Do they not care about being fair? Are they really that calloused? Are they so caught up in pushing their agenda that they just don’t care if they have it wrong? Is it based on malice? Why would they not go to the source and verify or find out why? If not courtesy or curiosity, wouldn’t fairness and sense of responsibility require this?

If my fellow reporters and other bloggers could share their insights on this, please share them with me. It’s puzzling.
What should the reader do? As I thought of answering this myself, I wondered what others thought readers should do or not do when they see unattributed, defamatory and unverified information in blogs. Should they pass it on? Should they challenge the blogger? Or, should they just stop reading that blog? Or does everyone know you can’t believe unverified information in blogs so it doesn’t matter? What do you say?

Comments

  1. I'm sceptical of news bloggers unless I know their agenda. Many writers who fall on one end of the political spectrum or the other, have an agenda and they slant stories to better support their agenda.
    So before I trust any news blogger I would look more deeply into their background to see where they are coming from.

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    1. So instead of looking at whether they attribute or get response from subject, you look to see if they have an agenda and judge reliability and thus whether you should follow and read their blogs based on their agenda?

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  3. People have gone from a general distrust of "The Media" (a term I loathe because now more than ever we are not a unified group with identical ideologies) to not trusting anything they hear or read - but people are also quick to repeat snippets of unverified things they read to back up their previously established beliefs. That is one way straight-out opinion blogs or blogs w/ an agenda and the cable news shows (very little of it is straight news reporting anymore) are problematic. People tend to follow and like blogs that support what they already think about an issue or person, and don't differentiate between a blog (or TV cable news show or online "news" source) that is opinion or agenda driven and one that is trying to put out good journalism. To the average person with no news background, we're all the same. And, except for columns now called blogs on established news sources' websites, how many blogs are out there with a purpose to do good journalism in general? I view all blogs as opinion - or an individual's analysis at best. I think what the average reader can and should do is take that view, too. Recognize opinion and spin for what it is.

    When I started in newspapers about 25 years ago, we were under pressure to not miss a thing but of course verify and double and triple check anything that could end in a claim of libel. My employer was overly cautious, but, things were checked. All articles edited by at least three editors. NO unnamed sources were allowed, even in a series I did on domestic violence when that policy made no sense. Letters to the editor had to have not only a name, but a street address printed with them. Now, veteran newspaper people have been laid off by the hundreds and replaced by fresh-out-of-college recruits who desperately need an editor. Things go from an iPad to the web without a filter. It's often not the reporters fault - they have NO guidance and we all have been "taken" by people trying to deceive us when we were green. The drive to get it live on the web overrules the fear of getting it wrong or doing it poorly, everywhere. People can post comments that get put in the newspaper's print editions using only their made up "handles," with no accountability.

    So, again, what everyone needs to do is step back and say - is this opinion, is this done fairly and with an ounce of concern for accuracy with both sides not only called but genuinely pursued for comment, or was it done to get online quickly and/or get hits?

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    1. So the key is to educate readers to use good judgment?

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  4. I agree with Tara in the main, and also in general with Rick. Bloggers are offering opinions, and frequently, the writers of those pieces are not people who have any training in journalism at all.

    There is a reason for the training. Fairness to the source or subject of a story does not happen by accident. Reporters, being human, have built in biases that can easily creep into their work -- but for the training they receive and the gatekeeping that is done to prevent that.

    Each person in a news organization is responsible for a piece of the effort to report true, verifiable, factual, information. That means that reporters have to be scrupulous to ask questions and report the answers, they have to be willing to reach out to a subject they may or may not like and get answers they may or may not believe to give that person or organization the opportunity to give their side of the many-faceted story.

    Editors have to make sure reporters are asking the right questions and asking the right people, and scrupulously police bias when it creeps in. And while reporters should edit themselves before they even turn in their copy, there is no substitute for having a second or third set of eyes helping to hold to the standards -- at least if you want fair, objectively reported, honest journalism.


    Obviously, bloggers who are untrained don't get that. The democratization of the internet has made it possible, as you have correctly pointed out, for anybody with access to a computer or a smart phone to say pretty much what he or she wants. Readers do need to consider such factors as potential bias by the blogger, actual credentials of the blogger, where the blog appears, and the ultimate aim and intent of what the blogger writes. What are the blogger's standards? Does he have a clear agenda? Is she a rumor-monger?

    Obviously, a blog, even on a news site, is going to potentially represent the writer's opinion. But that's why the blogs on the news sites are labeled as blogs and differentiated from news stories.

    It is quite apparent -- not only from your cited AP example but from the horror stories involving journalists who lied or plagiarized -- that even professionals might not hew to the standards of good journalism. It is also apparent that a reader has a much better chance of being certain that the information he or she is consuming is truthful, honest, fair, etc - if they consume news from credible, trusted, more proven sources.

    Unfortunately, in this age when traditional news organizations have shrunk and some have abdicated their responsibilities to their communities, and some propaganda-promoters have taken on the form of news organizations, it has become harder to figure out who can be trusted.

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  5. The above comments would be reasonable if journalism was taught as it was in the first part of the 20th century, when truth mattered and accuracy mattered, regardless of the political inclination of the writer or the story. That situation is entirely altered. Journalism students, by and large, are now raised with progressive lenses, and their reality is altered thereby. The comment above -- "and some propaganda-promoters have taken on the form of news organizations"-- seems to me best applied to CNN, MSNBC, the NYT, and AP-- but obviously Nick feels the same about FOX, DRUDGE, etc....therefore, perhaps the best way to get the real news is to read the headlines on Drudge, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC...and expect the truth to be somewhere in between....to really get educated one has to expend a certain effort, and blogs help that process...all of us need to begin to learn to parse the truth for ourselves.

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    1. Actually, I see the problem as bloggers outside of news media. Those who just want to share their opinions. But, they are mixing reporting in their blogs without verification or going to the subject for response.

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  6. As someone not in the industry it seems odd to me that the integrity and accuracy of blogging would be an issue. I think I could start a blog if I wanted in about 5 minutes. To me it's akin to questioning the integrity of Facebook posts. What it has to do with journalistic integrity I'm not sure since blogging is not journalism. I realize we are in a new world where the internet gives everyone a voice and they can say what they want with almost no repercussions. This is a huge game changer. The potential for damage is very real. Gossip just doesn't spread through the office now it spreads all over the world in an instant. But it is still gossip. And some will believe it because they are the gullible types or because it fits into their already existing prejudice. But some will have the sense to be skeptical and look for facts that can be verified.

    But now, what if the blogger is also a journalist by trade? His blog would be where he would put opinions and conjecture I assume. Surely he would use statements of fact to support these. Is he not still bound by journalism ethics while blogging? If you are a journalist are you always one? I'm curious what the prevailing thought is. Is it like being a doctor? Doctors are doctors 24/7, right? Even while "off the clock" so-to-speak if they were to come to the aid of a bystander in need of medical attention they are still bound by medical ethics. Would the same basic principle apply with journalists?

    To me, since anyone can blog about anything from presenting all the evidence that the president is a lizard alien to explaining in detail how we know the earth really is flat, there just are no rules for blogging. But when a journalist blogs they should be held to a much higher standard.

    In a perfect world I would think that it would be best if journalists stayed away from diatribes with their opinions regarding issues they are currently reporting on. It's too easy for the public to assume that the opinion of the reporter is based on their investigations on the topic and is therefore more valid and should be believed. It happens on the TV news media all the time. First they give the credentials, ("...who has been following this story since the beginning and interviewed many of the people involved") then ask them what their opinion is.

    I believe need a news media that is similar to times past. Investigative journalists investigated and reporters reported. Woodward and Bernstein didn't get on the news every night saying what they thought the president had done. They didn't go around calling him names and attacking his character everywhere they could. We never heard how the felt about the whole thing or what they predicted was going to happen. They wrote the stories with the facts they had as they learned them. Then when they had the story - really had it - they told the world.

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