Answering back

Great article in the NYT by Katherine Seelye on the way the internet is changing the relationships between sources and journalists, between the writers and those being written about. It is a great article because it does what good journalism does, it provides a range of points of view while still being pointed in its analysis. It begins with a fairly bland analysis of the phenomenon:

Unhappy subjects discovered a decade ago that they could use their Web sites to correct the record or deconstruct articles to expose what they perceived as a journalist’s bias or wrongheaded narration.

But now they are going a step further. Subjects of newspaper articles and news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to generate articles and broadcasts – taping interviews, gathering e-mail exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations – and publish them on their own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented, and it carries implications for the future of journalism.

Too many journalists would have left it at that and this would have been one of the many articles that concentrate on the mechanistic ways blogs and the internet are influencing journalism. But Seelye goes further:

The printing of transcripts, e-mail messages and conversations, and the ability to pull up information from search engines like Google, have empowered those whom Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New York University, calls “the people formerly known as the audience.”

“In this new world, the audience and sources are publishers,” Mr. Rosen said. “They are now saying to journalists, ‘We are producers, too. So the interview lies midpoint between us. You produce things from it, and we do, too.’ From now on, in a potentially hostile interview situation, this will be the norm.”

These processes are changing both journalism paradigms and journalism practices.

Journalists now realise that they have to be extra careful in their transactions with sources and some programs are posting their own full transcripts. It is also changing formal public relations practices with businesses incorporating blogs into their publicity strategies. But the revenge of the source is not just a utopic story about reform and empowerment.

Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org and a former producer at ABC News and CNN, said that while the active participation by so many readers was healthy for democracy and journalism, it had allowed partisanship to mask itself as media criticism and had given rise to a new level of vitriol.

“It’s now O.K. to demonize the messenger,” he said. “This has led to a very uncivil discourse in which it seems to be O.K. to shout down, discredit, delegitimize and denigrate the people who are reporting stories and to pick at their methodology and ascribe motives to them that are often unfair.”

Seelye gives one example where a creationist group used these techniques to dispute a Nightline piece on intelligent design.

Ultimately this process is part of the broader push towards “transparency” in news media:

Reporters say that these developments are forcing them to change how they do their jobs; some are asking themselves if they can justify how they are filtering information. “We’ve got to be more transparent about the news-gathering process,” said Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly and author of “Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media.” “We’ve pretended to be like priests turning water to wine, like it’s a secret process. Those days are gone.”

Some news outlets are posting transcripts of their interviews with newsmakers, and some reporters are posting their own material. Stephen Baker, a senior writer at BusinessWeek, has posted not only transcripts from his interviews but also his own notes on his Web site, saying he likes to involve his readers in the journalistic process.

“Sometimes I say to my readers, Here’s my interview. What story would you have written?” said Mr. Baker, who writes about technology. Journalism, he added, used to be a clear-cut “before and after process,” much like making a meal; the cooking was done privately in the kitchen and then the meal was served. Now, he said, “every aspect of it is scrutinized.”

One of the difficulties with this is that it is forcing a simultaneous public and professional reevaluation of news gathering processes. But it is difficult and confusing to suddenly have a public conversation about news when so much of what journalists take for granted as routine story formation is seen as a quasi alchemical process by much of the public. We have sold the myth of objectivity for so long that it has become common wisdom: whereas once upon a time this provided a protective shield it is now being used as a weapon against us.

It’s classic blowback.

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