Bloggers as Journalists

journalism’s public service functions: account...
journalism’s public service functions: accountability, timeliness and accessibility @melaniesill #openjournalism (Photo credit: planeta)
Comments on a recent post, the allegations PZ Myers recently posted, and Conservative Skeptic's commentary on PZ's post prompted me to write this one. However, this post is not about the latest drama in the atheist movement; it aims to explore the larger questions of whether all bloggers are necessarily functioning as journalists and if so, whether it makes sense to expect a comparable level of "journalistic integrity" from what we might expect of a print journalist. I believe these are important questions with implications for all bloggers and all blog readers.

Investigative Reporting vs. Opinion in Traditional Print Journalism

I'd like to begin by considering what we can reasonably expect from a print journalist employed by a legitimate news organization (e.g., The New York Times, The Washington Post). I think it is fair to say that we do not expect that same thing from all print journalists, even those who are all employed by the same agency. We understand that some are functioning as investigative reporters and others are serving as opinion columnists. As long as we can clearly identify which is which, we are usually comfortable applying different standards to them.

We expect the investigative reporter is investigating stories before writing them (e.g., conducting research, interviewing people) and that what he or she writes is likely run through a fact-checker also employed by the organization. If such a reporter were to present something as factual that was not and we were to learn that he or she had not investigated it in any way before going to print, we would be upset and understandably so. Why? We recognize that such an individual is functioning as an investigative reporter for a news organization.

Now consider someone writing an opinion column for the same news organization. This individual is not presented to us as if he or she was an investigative reporter. We clearly understand that this individual is providing his or her opinion. We are still going to evaluate this person's writing, but we are no longer expecting investigative journalism. Instead, we are probably evaluating the opinion on whether it is clearly communicated, sounds rational, and whether we agree with it. We understand that the person writing the opinion piece is probably not picking up the phone to call people for comment, check facts, and the like. Our expectations differ based on our understanding of the different roles these journalists occupy.

We also recognize that the dividing line between investigative reporting and opinion journalism is not always clear. There is a large grey area between the two. Consider Glenn Greenwald as an example of someone operating in this grey area. He certainly provides his opinion, but few would suggest that he does no research or checks no facts. Perhaps we could view him as an opinionated investigative journalist. As such, we'd likely want to hold him to the higher standards of an investigative reporter.

Investigative Blogging vs. Opinion Blogging

Blogging does not have to be any different from traditional print journalism in that there are bloggers who do investigative reporting too. Think about the early days of The Huffington Post when it was still a small operation. It was a blog that specialized in investigative reporting. Even today, bloggers like Perez Hilton (someone you probably don't associate with news) are doing some investigate reporting (e.g., calling sources, checking details, etc.).

Still, the vast majority of personal blogs you read (like Atheist Revolution) are not doing any form of investigative reporting, are not presenting themselves as objective sources of news, and are instead providing personal opinion. This is true of most of the blogs you will find in my blogroll and many others, including what you will find at the Freethought Blogs network. Such blogs talk about news reported by others, providing their opinions on it; they are rarely conducting investigative journalism on their own.

Should we expect every blogger to thoroughly research everything he or she posts prior to posting it? No, we should not expect anything like this from your typical blog. Should we expect every blogger to be completely objective on every subject he or she addresses? No, this is the last thing we should expect from your typical opinion blog.

In deciding what is reasonable and what is unreasonable to expect from an individual blogger, I find it helpful to ask the following questions:
  • Is this blogger presenting himself/herself as an unbiased, objective source of original reporting?
  • Does the blogger usually offer original reporting, or does he or she tend to link to other sources of original reporting instead?
  • How likely is it that this blog has the resources and personnel to do much investigative reporting?
If I am still not clear, I ask the blogger. "Are you functioning as an investigative journalist here, or are you simply sharing your opinion?" The vast majority of the blogs I read are doing the latter.

Why This Matters

We all need to evaluate what we are reading and make sure we are judging it with the right expectations in mind. Since I have been writing this blog, I have noticed a tendency for people who agree with the opinions I express to have little trouble understanding that Atheist Revolution is and always has been an opinion blog. I'm not an investigative journalist and do no original reporting. What I post here is my opinion and little else. Most readers understand this perfectly well. And yet, a few who encounter opinions with which they disagree suddenly want to pretend that I am an investigative reporter (I'm not). They demand objectivity, research, journalistic standards, and the like. They accuse me of feigning neutrality even though I have repeatedly gone out of my way to explain that I am not neutral. They seek to turn me into something I'm not and have never claimed to be. This is intellectually dishonest.