The nature of information and the notion of truth-what it is and how to arrive at it-are changing dramatically online.
Although mainstream media sites (see sidebar) continue to be dominant sources of information online today, they no longer have the virtual turf virtually to themselves. And their underlying ideas about what news is and how it is constructed are being challenged in significant ways.
The challenge comes mainly from a group of more or less ordinary folks with a relatively new kind of Web site, a group expanding rapidly in both size and influence. They call themselves bloggers, and they create and maintain blogs. The word is a shortened form of ";Web log";; the result is a combination journal, diary, news digest, electronic water cooler conversation, opinion column-or whatever else the blogger wants it to be.
This is rather different from the typical definition of journalism. So it is probably not surprising that bloggers and journalists have rather different ideas about truth.
Journalists tend to be both reactive and practical people, and their explicit efforts to either define or refine the meaning of truthfulness often are muddled (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001). But perhaps it is fair to say that in general, journalists hold what might be characterized as an Enlightenment view: They understand truth as something that can be seen or heard, by either themselves or someone who can reliably communicate what was seen or heard to them, and verifiable. They consider themselves gatekeepers, collecting and vetting information as best they can before disseminating it (or not).
To bloggers, on the other hand, truth is not about one individual or group of individuals within a news organization gathering, verifying and disseminating information. Rather, bloggers see truth as emerging from shared, collective knowledge; as Matheson (2004) puts it, a blog ";depends upon a different model of its authority, establishing itself as a site of multiple knowledge and of breadth of knowledge of the world"; (p. 460).
Rather than acting as gatekeepers, bloggers see themselves as serving a nearly opposite function: Providing a venue in which whatever anyone in the world knows or thinks can receive a hearing and then be publicly debated. Blogs are, if you like, the ";marketplace of ideas"; with a vengeance. In the bloggers' view, truth emerges not from the top down, as in traditional journalism, but from the bottom up. The vetting of information does not come before its dissemination; it comes both through the process of disseminating multiple views and as a result of that process.
This view of collective and emergent truth has multiple ethical ramifications. For instance, it suggests that transparency-the understanding of where a speaker or writer is coming from, in order to facilitate interpretation of his or her views-is a better route to credibility than traditional journalistic adherence to norms of objectivity. Bloggers say that knowledge of someone's subjective viewpoint is more likely to produce an accurate interpretation of that person's information than is acceptance of his or her claim not to have a viewpoint at all. And since knowledge is produced through a synthesis of multiple views, the result is more accurate, more representative of multiple perspectives and ultimately, more democratic.
Most professional journalists would have problems with that approach, on a variety of grounds. They would argue that objectivity relates to a method-to being fair and impartial in gathering and processing information, for instance (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001)-rather than a humanly impossible mindset. They would see preservation of a line between opinions and news as a means of maintaining credibility. And they would as well have practical questions about transparency of the sort advocated by the bloggers. For instance, who decides what is relevant to know and what is not, and on what grounds is such a decision to be based? Is it helpful to know a journalist's political party or race or religion or views about any given topic-or will that knowledge simply encourage readers to fall back on stereotypes in assessing the information that journalist provides?
More disturbing, perhaps, than disagreements about the form and function of transparency are ethical issues related to responsibility. The view that knowledge is collective, while it sounds eminently reasonable and tantalizingly democratic, emphasizes the right to speak over the responsibility for that speech. The notion of individual responsibility becomes diffused among the collective, and ultimately lost.
If the group will correct bad ideas anyway, then what's the harm in expressing them? On the contrary, the marketplace of ideas approach suggests that the best, if not the only, corrective for bad or erroneous information is to give it as a wide a hearing as possible, through both links and diverse commentary, and to allow the countering views of the presumably wiser collective to prevail. Blogs make such an approach feasible for perhaps the first time since John Milton expressed the idea (in somewhat different terms) nearly four centuries ago.
However, what gets lost in the interim between bad ideas and collective corrective-even assuming, dubiously, that the collective is both unfailingly wiser and comprised wholly of fellow bloggers-is the responsibility of minimizing harm that is part of the professional journalists' stated commitment to the public (Society of Professional Journalists, 1996). Pre-publication efforts at verification are one way of minimizing the harm that erroneous or misleading information can cause.
It's not that bloggers fail to recognize the power of information; on the contrary, they exult in that power and in what they see as its liberation from behind the locked gates guarded by an often hypocritical and stale media elite. But the philosophy that truth is a result of, rather than a precursor to, publication ignores that fact that unchecked (in both the literal and metaphorical meanings of the term) information has enormous power to harm. When journalists take on a gatekeeping role in deciding what deserves dissemination, most also take on responsibility for what they disseminate-and they, along with their employer, suffer the consequences if it is wrong or harmful. Some bloggers also accept such a responsibility, certainly, but solely by personal choice rather than philosophical, professional or practical obligation.
All that said, there is much common ground between bloggers and journalists, not least in the fact that, although their approaches differ, they are both deeply interested in truth-telling as a route to a better and more civically-engaged society. Both can learn and borrow from the other.
Bloggers are a long way from having the resources to cover a story the way a major news organization can; The New York Times managing editor estimates that it takes roughly $1 million a year to maintain the paper's presence in Baghdad, for instance, while most blogs are labors of love for people with day jobs. Bloggers have lessons to learn from journalists about the ethical use of the power of information, about the inherent responsibilities that come with the right to free speech and, perhaps ironically, about inclusiveness. After all, traditional news is accessible to just about everyone, while nearly two-thirds of online users do not know what a blog is (Rainie, 2005)-and, of course, tens of millions of Americans are not online at all, let alone part of the ";blogo-sphere.";
Journalists have significant lessons to learn from bloggers, as well. Bloggers may define transparency and accountability differently than journalists would, but the extensive use of links to support published statements would be every bit as valuable for journalists as it is for bloggers. And the willingness to accommodate and pay heed to voices not normally heard through traditional media channels should be a wake-up call to journalists. Too many continue to rely too heavily on ";official sources;"; adhere to news-production routines and practices that overlook key issues and concerns in their communities; and seem increasingly out of touch with readers and viewers, who now have plenty of other places to go for the information that once was the exclusive purview of the mainstream media.
Some of the gaps between journalists and bloggers are going away. One long-time media observer declares that the ";journalism vs. bloggers"; debate, if it ever really existed at all, is over now (Rosen, 2005). Audiences are changing, notions of news are changing and the people who provide information of various kinds are changing.
Many journalists are becoming bloggers; a rapidly growing number of news sites include blogs, many of them provided by columnists and commonly dealing with hot-button topics such as sports or politics. (For a nice collection of journalistic blogs, see the ";Cyberjournalist List"; maintained at the American Press Institute site.) Many bloggers are serving journalistic functions; for instance, bloggers were credentialed to cover both the Democratic and GOP conventions in 2004, and the ";warblogs"; from Iraq in the early days of the war provided a valuable counterpoint to coverage from embedded journalists.
Ultimately, the growing prevalence of bloggers is a healthy development for journalists. They can and should borrow the positive aspects of blogging, most crucially its commitment to a true diversity of voices. They also can and should take the opportunity to re-examine the strengths and value of a professional approach to news, including its emphasis on both verification and a minimization of undue harm. The rest of us will not only be watching; we also will be letting you think what we think. That's what a marketplace of ideas is all about.
Fallows, Deborah. (2004, August 11). ";The Internet and Daily Life."; Pew Internet & American Life Project. http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/131/report_display.asp.
Gillmor, Dan. (2005, February 4). ";Where Newspapers Can Start the Conversation."; Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism, Etc. http://dangillmor.typepad.com/dan_gillmor_on_grassroots/2005/02/where_newspaper.html.
Kovach, Bill, and Rosenstiel, Tom. (2001). The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Crown Publishers.
Matheson, Donald. (2004). ";Weblogs and the Epistemology of the News: Some Trends in Online Journalism."; New Media & Society 6 (4): 443-468.
Project for Excellence in Journalism. (2004). Online: Audience, in The State of the News Media 2004: An Annual Report on American Journalism. http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2004/narrative_online_audience.asp?cat=3&media=3.
Rainie, Lee. (2005, January 2). ";The State of Blogging."; Pew Internet & American Life Project. http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/144/report_display.asp.
Rosen, Jay. (2005, January 21). ";Bloggers Vs. Journalists Is Over."; PressThink. http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2005/01/21/berk_essy.html.
Society of Professional Journalists. (1996). Code of Ethics. http://spj.org/ethics_code.asp.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 1,14-16.