One of the stories in this week’s edition involves the public scolding of a local blogger from the dais of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
We’ve been there, both for actual issues and things that were no fault of ours.
But without going into the details of this issue or taking sides between the two, we’re long overdue on a few words about the difference between blogs and traditional media.
To begin with, we appreciate bloggers. For the most part, they add a different voice to local issues. Loudoun can boast a strong blogosphere, with blogs on a number of subjects.
Partisan or not
Despite what you might believe about media bias, most newspapers and traditional media still play fair in our experience.
The editorial page is the only section in this newspaper with anyone’s opinion in it. It’s a constant point of review … is this story fair to both sides? Have we gotten comments from all affected parties? Is the tone neutral?
Blogs don’t have to be nonpartisan. And honestly, that’s a good thing. If there’s a cogent argument, bloggers can make it. It demonstrates the ideological diversity among both parties and sometimes opens up a real fount of ideas on different subjects.
So long as these writers make their political leanings know (no one mistakes where Blue Virginia or Too Conservative fall into the political landscape), this is a real place for political junkies to perfect their analytical skill. And sometimes it’s as good as anything written on the national level. Just be sure to articulate these leanings. It’s part of the difference between news and opinion.
That’s a differentiator between bloggers and the traditional media – the importance of balance and the difference between arguing a point and reporting an issue.
Part of the distrust of major media is that sometimes they’ve lost sight of this point as well. And while hyper-partisan blogs likely add to the “us-versus-them” political mentality that seems to have ballooned over the last 10 years, it’s when traditional media attempts to follow suit that things really get ugly.
However, we must agree with the myriad voices, both public and private, who have raised concerns about anonymous bloggers.
It’s a bit of old time wisdom, but it remains true … Don’t say things that you don’t want your name attached to. In traditional media, there are staffer names attached to every story we write. For better or worse, we’re called to stand behind our work. For that reason, we’re careful with language.
Certainly, there are some who remain concerned about the possible career or personal impacts of having controversial statements tied to them. In general, we find these concerns overstated. In the modern age, you aren’t likely to find an office or poker table with the same political opinion.
And if your statements are so incendiary that you’re concerned about the impact, perhaps that’s a sign to recraft your message with a softer tone, but the same message.
It’s a challenge of the Internet age, and one we as a newspaper have also taken heat on in regards to our comment section. For some reason, everyone is a jerk online – and unfortunately it gets worse with anonymity. There is something about a keyboard that frees up disrespectful behavior that no one would dream of using in their offline life.
Optimistically, we’d like to think the online medium will mature over time. But in the meantime, if you’re writing about a serious subject, be confident enough to put your name on it. The public officials you’re writing about receive negative feedback from the public all the time – it’s the responsibility you take on when you decide to put your voice out there.
Rumor or fact
One of the rules of traditional media is that you write about what you can substantiate – just because it’s true doesn’t mean you write about it. It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.
The trouble with political blogs in general is that sometimes this line gets blurred. A plus B becomes H when a well-meaning blogger makes a leap of intuition. And while this may or may not be libelous depending on the situation, it does bring future credibility into question. And while this may not be anathema to a blogger – it’s death to a newspaper.
But more frustrating to us are those instances where a blog gets it right – beating us to story because we’re still trying to get confirmation and solidify our sourcing. Good bloggers get it right and avoid serious gaffes. It’s this strong work that can make blogs a worthy addition to the media landscape when they take responsibilty and accountability for their work.
But consider one word of caution. The reason for the delay by traditional media for sourcing stems from liability concerns and potential libel. While there have been few libel cases against blog writers, quick draw conclusions will eventually lead to more and more lawsuits in our litigious society.
And it’s not just bloggers. Even some of our regional competitors have made mistakes by attempting to run a story faster than they can verify it. Don’t forget CNN’s major mistake on the morning of the health care ruling. For most, being right is better than being first.
In the end, traditional media and blogs have different purposes online. Blogs can challenge the rules of journalism, while newspapers continue to carry on the tradition of balance, public disclosure and reliability.
So long as the reader understands the difference – and reads everything with a critical eye – there are benefits to both. The problem comes from when a reader sees a blog entry and takes it for well-documented fact, which chances are it’s not.
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