Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The blogs and media ethics

In the comments on yesterday's post on "the bloggers that cried wolf" about the alleged jihadist suicide bombing at the University of Oklahoma, two commenters have raised the issue of media silence about this case, and about the bloggers' code of ethics and conduct versus professional journalistic standards.

Dave Schuler writes:

Could that could have been avoided by more openness from the media and the authorities at the outset?

Many of us have the impression that we're being spoonfed information as it serves the purposes of the media, the police, and politicians. That's no way to operate in a free society. We're adults and we don't need editors or censors.

beazl writes:

As a blog "consumer", I think it's pretty well understood that most blogs don't abide by the same journalist standards that the MSM (supposedly) follows, and most readers don't expect them to. The blog creed, as I understand it, is put what you know or think you know out there, without attaching a tremendous amount of personal reputation or ego to it, let others poke holes, publicize the holes, and hopefully out of this messy process the truth will emerge. The betting is that perhaps in some cases the truth will emerge faster and more cheaply than it would with a lone, professional, reporter with a significant budget, who doesn't write anything until (s)he is extremely confident about the story.

It can be fun watching the "online investigation" transpire, even if many of the investigations ultimately lead nowhere.

I wonder, reading these comments, if we've developed a culture of instant news gratification. Do we as members of a free society have a right to all information, verified or not, as soon as it becomes available? In many cases, the police withhold the details of a pending investigation because the investigation may be compromised by premature disclosure. (For argument's sake, let's say that Joel Hinrichs, the young man who committed suicide with a bomb on the Oklahoma State University campus, actually belonged to a terrorist cell. And suppose the investigators didn't want to tip their hand because the other suspects might flee or destroy sensitive information if they knew the authorities were on their trail.) Furthermore, do the costs of disseminating unsubstantiated information outweigh the benefits?

In response to beazl: as I said in my original post, I believe the blogs are best at fact-checking and analysis, rather than actual newsgathering. What's more, if beazl's description of newsgathering by blogs is accurate and blog ethics allow (or even require!) airing every rumor and innuendo out there, then it seems to me that the "citizens' media" offer more cause for concern than celebration.

Suppose for a minute that some politician's wife slips and falls on the stairs inside her house and is hospitalized with life-threatening injuries. Suppose, further, that anonymous sources start spreading rumors that this was no mere accident: some say that it was domestic violence by the husband, others that her fall was due to severe intoxication, still others that she was pushed down the stairs by the husband's mistress after surprising her in the husband's bed. Suppose that the blogs start circulating all these false rumors and demanding to know why the story isn't being covered by the mainstream media. Even if the truth is eventually sorted out, is it really "fun" to watch this online investigation transpire if you have some personal connection to the family? And isn't it likely that even after the real facts are established, some readers will continue to believe that "where there's smoke, there's fire"?

I'm not saying, of course, that we should try to put the blog genie back in the bottle (how could we, anyway?). And I am certainly not denying that the mainstream media have often been guilty of sensationalism, hysteria, sloppiness, and other assorted sins against good journalism. What I'm saying is that the blogosphere should hold itself to higher standards. Reckless speculation and the dissemination of unfounded rumors should be stigmatized and treated as a stain on a blogger's reputation (just like it would be for a professional journalist), not accepted as a normal part of the process.


JodyTresidder said...

Terrific points all.
However, I've come to accept that in the self-correcting speed of the blogosphere lies its salvation.
There is a meritocracy based on "truth" in operation among bloggers and commenters.
And the stink of a rumour circulated - and later demolished - dissipates more quickly, and thoroughly, in our realm than in MSM.
I have a dusty hard news background (provincial reporting and then old Fleet Street in the UK, and stringing in the US) so I , come I think, more naturally to squinting closely at the relative merits of both sides.
Of course, the shoe-leather fact gathering is still - in the main - the product of MSM, though it's by no means exclusive.
But - being a natural cynic - I am still stunned at how efficiently openness versus reputation-protecting agenda functions among bloggers.
Criminal investigations I place - delicately - in another box. We can all - bloggers and MSM journalists - be 100% wrong and disastrously fooled by even experienced intuition when facts cannot be released.
Like you, probably, I've watched blog feeding frenzies in fascination. But I keep returning to that self-correcting flexibility of blogs and the remarkable drive among commenters for "best facts" with, well, awe.

Reid Stott said...

"the blogosphere should hold itself to higher standards"

I agree, but there's a couple of problems there. One, "the blogosphere" is sort of like "the joggersphere." It might describe a group of people who do the same thing, but there's no other connection or larger accountability. "It" can't hold "itself" to anything.

It's down to the individual. And if there's one thing that's become clear over the past two years, spreading harsh partisan rhetoric will prevail over spreading facts ... 99.8% of the time. Because spreading facts doesn't get links like clever rhetoric does.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it?

If we have to make a comparison to journalism, blogs are tabloids, and they're not interested in "higher standards." They're interested in more eyeballs.

Rainsborough said...

There's lots of evidence that strong partisans believe what they want to believe, that is, what gives them comfort and supports their cause. Thus, for instance, the persistence of the belief among Iraq warriors that were WMD and was an al-Qaeda connection.
So if a false rumor is planted, it may well not self-correct but flourish.
What we have right to is the truth, and it's doubtful that putting unverififed rumors up the flagpole to see who salutes aids us in getting hold of it.
If the MSM check it out and the blogs just put or shovel it out, then there's much to be said for the old-fashioned way.

JodyTresidder said...

Both reid and rainsborough seem to be rigidly applying the old media consumer model to how they think blogs are read. I think they might be mistaken.
Links to other blogs often bounce you out of the old partisan echo chambers (a bit like a friendly colleague passing you a "great article" from his paper, but far, far faster and more frequently).
Blogs that tend to attract swarms of ditto-head commenters tend to be duller, more one party POV, less useful somehow than those with fewer, more engaged commenters.
Reid writes that blogging is essentially an individual activity. I think it's more sectarian in structure - with endless, dynamic regrouping, shifting and cross-pollination, plus its own hierarchies and pariahs ("the trolls"!).
And whenever someone mentions sticking with the news "the old-fashioned way" I always imagine them firmly banging down their empty gin and tonic glass on the bar - shortly before the ceiling caves in...:)

Unknown said...

"I wonder, reading these comments, if we've developed a culture of instant news gratification. Do we as members of a free society have a right to all information, verified or not, as soon as it becomes available? In many cases, the police withhold the details of a pending investigation because the investigation may be compromised by premature disclosure."

I think this may be backwards. The presumption should be towards more freedom and openness rather than less. Historically, the press has claimed that the public had a right to know. Has this transmogrified over time into “the public has a right to know what we feel like telling them”. What right do the media have to take such a stance?

Your point about the police is right on the money. There are definitely cases where not disclosing information is necessary. Perhaps disclosure of information should be subject to a scrutiny system with high, intermediate, and low levels of scrutiny. I haven't thought this out—I'm just spitballing.

Bureaucracies have a reflex towards secrecy. But in a free society there should be a presumption of disclosure.

beAzl said...


Excellent points. I think you've thought through these issues more than I have.

In your hypothetical about the politician's wife who slipped, you ask about anonymous sources spreading rumors. One guideline bloggers (the widely read ones anyway) have followed is not to hide behind anonymity, nor, unlike the MSM, rely on sources which are anonymous. Readers can decide whether the source is someone with a political axe to grind or not. And of course, just like the MSM, the widely read blogs probably want to keep their readership, so hopefully they keep tabs of which sources are more reliable than others.

And really, in a criminal case, a person should report what they know to the police and/or FBI, not to the blogosphere. It's the police's job to inform the media (and possibly the blogsphere) of their progress when appropriate, and keep mum when it isn't. If the person is not satifisfied with the way the police is handling his/her information related to the case, I would think they should first talk to someone from the local media, who I would think have a relationship with the police (but you probably know better how this works). Maybe if the local media seems to ignore the information without providing a good explanation, and the person is really sure it is important, it is appropriate to report the information to bloggers, who have the responsibility of making sure the person is a real person and is providing his/her real name, and also make the judgment that it is really important information. I think this is an important safeguard against a corrupt police force working with a corrupt or incompetent local media, though there is certainly risk associated with it, as you've pointed out. I would think such situations would be rare, so bloggers would be well-advised to be careful not to be duped.

It is fair game for bloggers to repeat what the local as well as national media reports, to analyze it, to say what doesn't seem to add up, to suggest alternative explanations that they would like to see pursued. If the alternative explanations seem plausible to enough people, then it is probably worthwhile for the MSM to pursue it and win a Peabody if it pans out, or debunk it, whatever the case may be.

It is certainly not fair game to make up rumours, or come to hasty, definitive conclusions. From the WSJ article, it's not clear to me that blogger's made up rumours, exactly. Most of the faulty or weak information seemed to originate in the local media. But I do think you pointed out some good instances where bloggers came to hasty conclusions. Maybe this seems to amount to the same thing. The difference, I think, is that these hasty conclusions were based on the information available to everyone else at the time, not on "unnamed sources."

Cathy Young said...

Thanks for the replies, everyone.

jodytressider, I wish I could be as optimistic as you about rumors being quicker and easier to dissipate in the blogosphere. Having followed (for instance) the Terri Schiavo fiasco, I don't think that's the case.

Yes, openness is a good thing and bloggers can correct other bloggers' mistakes. But in an ideologically polarized debate, people will tend to believe the sources on their side if there is any ambiguity at all.

Unfortunately, from what I have seen of the blogosphere, I do think that most readers stay in their own partisan niches (and when they go to blogs "on the other side," it's with a hostile predisposition).

However, I agree with you (and not with reid) that the blogosphere is not simply an aggregate of disconnected individual projects. As you noted, the blogosphere has its own hierarchies and pariahs.

Dave: you make some very good points, but allow me to quibble. What, exactly, does "the public's right to know" mean? The right to know what? The salacious details of a divorce involving a public figure? Unsubstantiated allegations of criminal activity? At some point, doesn't the "right to know" conflict with the right to privacy?

In some cases there are genuinely tough calls to be made. For instance: let's say you have learned that a teacher at a local preschool has been accused of molesting a child, except that there is no physical evidence and the parent who has made the accusation is mentally unstable (as was the case in the infamous McMartin day care sex abuse case). Do you publicize the information, or sit on it until you have learned something more concrete? If you withhold it and the accusation turns out to be true, more children could be victimized whose parents could have taken them out of the day care center if they had been alerted to the problem. If you publicize it and it turns out to be false, you could do very serious damage to an innocent man. (Even if he is completely exonerated, there will always be the "no smoke without fire" crowd.)

Again, it's not a matter of blogs bad, MSM good. It was the MSM that fanned the McMartin hysteria.

I'm just saying that "the public's right to know" is not a simple issue and is not a license to make public everything you know (reliable or not).

beazl, excellent post. I agree with you that the local news outlets share the blame in this case, though I understand that their coverage was in turn fed by some websites such as The Northeast Intelligence Network.

Rainsborough said...

I hope the McMartin case Young cites is not that tough a one, since if it were, it might well be needful (to warn parents) to spread a damaging smear and victimize an innocent person. But as she notes, the source is of doubtful reliabilty and there's no corroborating evidence, except maybe the testimony of others who are spreading rumors they've come to believe in an atmosphere of hysteria. That atmosphere we can now see clearly and maybe then clearly enough was much more conducive to false accusations than to valid warnings. (We were living in Salem.) In retrospect, this is surely not a tough case, and at the time, one hopes, given the source, the absence of reliable corroboration, and the tenor of the times, a fairly easy call, too.
But today there is many a blogger would gladly run the story, and too many who should know better who would link to it, excusing themselves by saying they're just linking to, not vouching for. Spreading lies.

JodyTresidder said...

Rainsborough wrote:"But today there is many a blogger [who]would gladly run the story, and too many who should know better who would link to it, excusing themselves by saying they're just linking to, not vouching for. Spreading lies."

But this, surely, is to argue as if each repeated "lie" exists in a vacuum?
Granted there are pointless, crude, entirely self-referring blog communities (neonazis etc.) But that universal impulse to cry "hey, I know better!" is often the fuel behind links - and the reason for corrective "updates" to a story worth debunking.
The very excuse you mention - "I'm not vouching for this information, merely citing it" makes it EASIER for a good blogger with a rolling deadline to evaluate and include the next, better digest of facts.

That's probably why I'm an unashamed booster for the symbiosis between bloggers and MSM.

citizen_us said...

In many cases, the police withhold the details of a pending investigation because the investigation may be compromised by premature disclosure.

That is usually the way it works. The FBI has said nothing of the kind with Joe Hinrichs.

What they did say and do; there is nothing here, just your normal suicidal college student.
They sealed the search warrant.
They lost the roommate.
They squelched discussion by the Norman, OK tv station.
They say he (Joe Hinrichs) did not attend the mosque, while other students and witnesses claim that he did.

Two days after the suicide, they tell about the "suicide note" left on Hinrichs computer.

Three weeks after the fact, friends and family start claiming that "he always had an obsession" with explosives.

There are many ways and means of handling a situation like the one that occured in Norman, OK.

Everything the FBI, the MSM and bloggers are claiming could very well be true.

Without the facts, we will never know.

Mike said...

Sorry, Cathy, you've been "one upped" by Jason Smith of Generation Why? Not all bloggers are out to indict these certain events and charge them with an automatic guilty. And you wonder why the MSM hardly ever covered it, much less ask questions? Those truly responsible bloggers with the right instinctive journalistic integrity will ask these questions but not as an indictment but to wonder why these discrepancies exist. We won't know until the FBI/JTTF actually concludes their investigation and give us the actual facts that may clear up those discrepancies that many of the responsible bloggers uncovered that the MSM REFUSED to even ask or address.

Just a note there.

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