Bloggers vs. Journalists

Ken AshfordBloggingLeave a Comment

Matt Yglesius informs us all of the difference between bloggers and journalists in this fine post:

He Said / She Said

I went down to Norfolk to be on a panel discussion with The Washington Post‘s Mike Allen, talking about blogs to interested Virginia Press Association members. Mike had something to say on the topic of "he said, she said" journalism that provided me with some valuable perspective and that I thought readers might be interested in.

Somebody from the audience asked a question which seemed to take as its premise that there was a strict dichotomy between "factual" writing, which is what you see on news pages, and "opinion" writing, which is what you see on editorial pages. The latter, he was saying, seems to be what blogging is mostly about.

I took some issue with that characterization. News pages, I said, aren’t so much giving a "just the facts, ma’am" approach to reporting. Rather, they’re trying to act as neutral arbiters between contending parties. Oftentimes this means there will be political controversy about a basically factual subject ("what’s the effect of X on the deficit?") that goes unresolved by a news writer. Instead of giving us the facts, the news writer gives us a set of meta-facts — "Joe says ‘X’ but Same says ‘Y.’" Bloggers, I said, sometimes do offer pure opinion. More often, what they’re trying to do is present facts in a non-neutral manner. People, including bloggers, become partisans in large part because they think the facts are partisan. When I say that the Bush Social Security plan involves a huge quantity of transition debt that risks provoking a fiscal crisis, I’m trying to state some facts, as I see them. Others who disagree are likewise trying to argue facts. We’re not offering "opinions" as such, though some political disputes (one guy: "executing 17 year-olds is just wrong, man." another guy: "no it’s not.") are like that, must aren’t really.

Allen took issue with that characterization of what news writers are doing. He said that news writers are trying to present both sides’ points-of-view, hence the "he said, she said" quality to it, but that they’re trying to present these points-of-view in such a way so that a discerning reader can tell who’s right based on reading the story.

I tried then to revise my statement of the situation. A good news reporter, on my revised view, tries to "lead a horse to water," while a blogger is more likely to try and "throw the horse in the lake." He seemed happier with that restatement. And I think the restated view has some truth to it. Oftentimes, even though a story doesn’t come out and say, "so-and-so said such-and-such and he was lying," it’s pretty clear from reading the strory that so-and-so was, in fact, lying. Indeed, oftentimes it’s only because it is so clear from the story as written that so-and-so was lying that I, as I reader, find myself annoyed that the reporter didn’t come out and say so. I think, though, that a higher proportion of news writing really is pure "he said, she said" than Allen seemed willing to say. At the same time, he’s one of the better political reporters out there, so probably sees his craft more through the lense of how he practices it, than through how the lense of how others may do the job.

Last but by no means least, I think the "horse to water" model to some extent suffers from a lack of thought about how, in practice, news stories get read. If you need to read something — especially an A1 story that jumps to the inside — all the way through to figure out what’s going on, a very high proportion of readers aren’t going to do that. They’ll scan a few grafs and their takeaway will be "aha! the parties are engaged in a partisan dispute." Now how much can you plame [sic] newspaper writers for the fact that their readers are likely to be lazy and/or rushed as they read? I don’t really know.

Yup. He’s right.