I was watching a documentary on UK television the other week about the impact that bloggers had on the race to become the US Democrat party’s candidate for the Connecticut Senate election last year. Out of nowhere anti-Iraq war businessman Ned Lamont defeated sitting senator Joe Lieberman for the Democratic nomination last August but Lieberman, running as an independent, won the actual Connecticut senate election.
The documentary made the case that anti-Iraq war, anti-Lieberman bloggers had generated support for Lamont and the programme’s production team followed the bloggers around giving an insight into how they work, what technology they use, who the individuals were. During the documentary one blogger made the comment that now he had got involved in covering the senate candidate race he didn’t think what the media did was so tough and anyone could do it.
I am the first to admit that listening to what people say, asking them questions and then writing it up in a clear and concise form is not rocket science but the bloggers big mistake was to think that writing anything and publishing it on the internet makes you a journalist. By writing anything I mean only writing about one issue and approaching the subject with preconcpetions about what reality should be presented. For example these Connecticut Democrat party candidate race bloggers always wrote supportive reports about Lamont and always attacked Lieberman.
On journalism courses you are taught to try to be objective (although there is a never ending debate about whether anyone can truly be objective but lets not be pedantic), to be accurate and as you work in the industry you learn that you have to give people the right to reply to accusations and in disputes between two parties question each of them equally hard because without a perception of fairness and responsible reporting people will never speak to you again.
Many bloggers, probably most, do not even speak to the parties involved. I have encountered websites that purport to write about spaceflight and look very professional and even charge for access to some information but when you check with the organisations that they are making claims about, what is being reported isn’t true and these websites’ writers are not even bothering to check with the organisatons they are referring too.
NASA is often a victm of this and in the last few days I came across reports on two websites that claimed that Bigelow Aerospace’s preferred orbital inclination for its future inflatable spacecraft is 41degrees. “That’s news to us,” came back the reply from Bigelow Aerospace when I rang them. Now 41degrees is a good guess because that orbit covers a large part of the globe’s land but if these websites, one a blog, the other a site that paints itself as a bonafide spaceflight news organisation had bothered to check they would have realised that this is wild speculation.
The internet is ultimately a reflection of humanity, all of our species’ obsessions, fears, wants, desires, and inadequacies. And it is inadequate to make claims without checking with the organisations concerned, without properly researching the subject matter and without presenting the information in a way that reflects the reality.
So bloggers are not journalists, they are presenting their own opinions and the theories about their favourite topic and will not follow the disciplines that professional journalists must adhere to to maintain good working relationships with colleagues, other media outlets, and the people and organisations they deal with on a daily or weekly or monthly basis.
But what of the mainstream media’s inadequacies I hear some cry from the corners of the world wide web? My recommendation is vary your sources of information, assess everything you read for bias, but remember that real journalists talk to the people they are writing about and that access and the reporting of those conversations is what will deliver the information that sheds light on how the world really works.