Saturday, November 21, 2009

journalism in the age of the internet

When was the last time you believed something because you heard it on FOX News? How about MSNBC?

Do you settle for any single source these days, however reliable, or, whenever something happens that really moves you, such that it becomes important to know the truth, do you turn from your television to your computer to track down the real story?

Even if you don't understand the relevant terminology well enough to look up references, Google does.

Even if you're not personally acquainted with someone living near the scene of the event, someone else on Twitter, or AOL, or FaceBook, or MySpace is.

You may have to settle for second or third-hand accounts, but you don't have to settle for what passes for journalism in this age of media consolidation, which while sometimes excellent is also sometimes abysmal.

That ability, to fact-check what you're fed by corporate journalism, is an important new factor in the few-to-many dissemination of information that is print and broadcast journalism. Journalists are constantly at risk of having their bullshit called, not just by other journalists, but by members of their audience or readership. This constitutes pressure to get it right, and may well be the single most important reason many working in the news media still aspire to call themselves journalists rather than entertainers, and mean something by it.

It also constitutes pressure on the corporate "news" divisions themselves, on the editors and publishers, on the people who make the decisions about which stories to go with and which to bury, to keep their corporate agendas in check and not allow them free rein to dictate what the news is. Before the Internet people had little idea of what they weren't being told; now there are other ways to get the story out, and other bases for determining whether a story that is run is being spun.

The Internet doesn't replace journalism, but it can empower individuals to take on the role when the professionals fall short, their curiosity enhanced by advanced search engines leveraging the huge resource of available information, and their soft voices amplified by ad hoc networks driven by others's need to know.

Bloggers are the semi-pros in this environment. The best of them gather followers who value something about what they publish, whether subject matter, sources, process, or perspective, and they frequently put the professionals to shame. Because they typically read other blogs, a story which finds its way into the blogger network can take off like wildfire. The most important reason for corporate news organizations to keep bloggers on staff is for the early warning they can provide of a breaking story the blogger network got ahold of first.

Even casual bloggers, like myself, play a part in making this network happen, passing along tidbits that interest us and contributing our own ideas and insights. One needn't make a career of it to participate.

Don't settle for less than real journalism - by which I don't mean professional journalism, although the two certainly aren't mutually exclusive - and don't be afraid to take on the role of journalist when the ball lands in your hands. You may be the person in the best position to tell a story others don't yet know they need to hear.

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