Blogs and Trust – the Debate Continues

Riding home on a train from New York City to Long Beach (NY) gives a creative mind a lot of time to think through a variety of topics, and form a variety of opinions on those topics. In the current wired world, there are many different methods of bringing those thoughts to both friends and others via tools available via the Internet.

“I find time (to write) in airplanes, taxis, and while riding the train. I will write myself articles on the Blackberry, email to myself, and publish (to a blog) when I get home” Hunter Newby

Blogs are becoming a very popular way of bringing your story to both your friends and the rest of the connected world. Friends who read your blogs (or email), tend to have fairly high confidence that what you write is based on some level of fact. Or they simply enjoy reading your accounts of events happening in your part of the world.

Corporate blogs, or blogs based on meeting the marketing objectives of a company, are generally not accepted with a high level of trust, or respect (according to a recent Forrester report). On the other hand, those companies promoting the work of individual bloggers with an identity that both supplements and transcends the corporation tend to attract a more loyal following of readers that may even continue after the blogger leaves a company.

Hunter Newby, CEO and Founder of Allied Fiber, and seasoned blog writer, has a large following of readers spread over several subject areas. Newby often uses blogs as a record of conversations and people he meets. “I come across people every single day with unique, interesting, and useful stories, knowledge and information” says Newby.

Those conversations and experiences should not be lost. To ensure the conversations retain their value to current and future readers, it is important for Newby to format his blogs and material in a way that is “not only useful for readers today, but also informative for people in the future.”

Blogging and reporting current events are different. While journalists provide expertise in evaluating specific events, good bloggers also bring a high level of tacit knowledge and experience to the blog.

If a writer like Newby discusses a topic such as Carrier Hotels or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), his opinions and views are based on many years as a professional in the industry.

When interviewing or recording conversations with other professionals in the field, he is able to apply that tacit knowledge with the new conversation, and draw conclusions and opinions not possible if the same conversation had been recorded by a journalist.

The main issue with reading those blogs is trust. The reader has to assume that either the blogger is an expert in his field, or the blogger’s work can easily be cross-referenced and fact-checked. Most good bloggers will be a mix of both, understanding that new readers and casual readers will initially look at blogs with a level of skepticism – until a level of trust in the credibility of a blogger is attained.

Newby also warns that blogging may be used in nefarious ways, including deception and intentional misrepresentation of fact. Giving the example of Orson Welles original broadcast of the “War of the Worlds,” he notes that people expect media outlets to record and represent the truth. Orson Welles was a real, card-carrying journalist, and nobody had any reason to doubt his word.

The result of this breach of trust is a matter of history – the people of America actually believed the country was being invaded by Martians, and it caused mass-hysteria around the country.

While blogs may appear in an expendable format (most blogs are a roll of new articles by date, and in many cases are placed in a database that may or may not be permanent), search engine utilities provided by companies such as Google are becoming much better at indexing blogs. Google also provides a very powerful search utility for blog topics, adding another level of “findability” to blog topics.

As print journalism continues to lose ground to online media and blogging, and the number of bloggers continues to grow (according to the blogHerald this number may exceed 50 million), we will need to add more filters to blogs, remain skeptical, and also embrace blogs as a new media of not only receiving news, but also learning more from people around the world with ideas and opinions of interest to us in our personal and professional lives.

So the prevailing opinion is that blogs are not a problem, and that blogs are in fact a great tool. As with all things, people bring value, or take value away from the media. Blog on, and bring value to your blog.  Be a citizen journalist, gather readers, and express yourself in a positive way. Base your message or stories on fact, or back it up with solid experience.

“I get emails from people all over the world responding to my articles. I’ve even had messages from soldiers on the front lines in Iraq asking me questions on how to call home using VoIP.” Hunter Newby

If your message brings value, then you will also, as Hunter Newby, be driven to educate people in mass. Now that is a personal characteristic we can respect, and thank the blog for helping bring it to us!

 

John Savageau, Long Beach (California)

Journalists and Bloggers – Conflict or the Future of Media?

Can an enthusiast blogger generate the level of experience and credibility of a card-carrying journalist?

In part 2 of our series on journalism, newspapers, and the new media, we look at a comparison of bloggers and professional journalists.  The question, recently voiced with strong emotion by David Simon (film producer and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun), asks whether or not bloggers can adequately research and write on topics traditionally reported on by professional journalists.

In a powerful speech given to the National Press Corps in Washington DC, Simon expressed concern that the art of reporting, performed by professional journalists, is being lost.  This is partly the result of local newspapers being shut down, or with local news being replaced by wire service content. 

Professional journalists and reporters spend years developing their skills, personal networks and sources, and are able to dig into stories at a level not possible by a casual or enthusiast blogger.  In addition, the reporter has editors and the media institution behind him, providing not only support, but also a professional team to ensure facts are straight and good form is maintained.

A blogger, in general, does not need to walk a beat, develop a core of informants and news resources, and in most cases will post their blog without any 3rd party or professional editing.  Fact checking and topical accuracy are not as important as blogging frequency and search engine optimization.

Rick Daysog, reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser is not as pessimistic as Simon.   While he agrees good journalism requires a lot of “gumshoeing,” he also believes there is a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge within the blogging community.  Daysog also believes there are many people who are “very good writers, but do not fall into an institutional framework.” 

This could be based on prior experience, or they have specialized skills in niches that a typical journalist might not be able to comprehend or effectively present in print.  Reviewing the Honolulu Advertiser website, there are no less than 50 featured blogs where professional and registered local bloggers discuss topics ranging from sports, to entertainment, to business news, to lifestyles.

As blogging and immediate access to news and web pages further evolves, we will need to accept the reality that blogging does come with some compromise.  We will see spelling errors, grammatical errors, and style errors.  We will need to assume anything we read cannot be consumed with 100% confidence, as there is no fact checking, forcing non-institutional blog consumers to assume a credibility margin of error.

Bloggers reporting on events, such as a school board meeting, may be able to record the event as a binary image.  Recording events forces you to believe in everything you see, and accept that as a reality.

In the Army, deception is nearly as important as reality.  You want to present a strength, weakness, or condition to a potential enemy, while masking the real information behind a façade.  Directly recording an event presents a similar danger.  While a non-professional recorder can make a tape, snap a picture, and transcribe the event into a blog, and professional reporter will probably approach the same event differently.

The professional reporter will develop resources, ask many “why?”  questions, play dumb to get the actors to open up and go into teaching mode, or simply drill into the facts to audit accuracy.  Then he will match information developed with the event he recorded, and the result will be a new story.  All with the advantage of professional editing and compliance with style.

As a police investigator may believe that crime witnesses are not credible, as they lack professional observation skills, the blogger may be considered a recorder of events and commit similar errors.

So the burden is on us – the blog reader, to determine if what we are reading is meeting our information needs.

In the next segment of this series we will explore the idea of paid .vs unpaid journalism, and the value of information.

John Savageau, Long Beach

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