In the comments on yesterday’s post on “the bloggers that cried wolf” about the alleged jihadist suicide bombing at the University of Oklahoma, two commenters have raised the issue of media silence about this case, and about the bloggers’ code of ethics and conduct versus professional journalistic standards.
Dave Schuler writes:
Could that could have been avoided by more openness from the media and the authorities at the outset?
Many of us have the impression that we’re being spoonfed information as it serves the purposes of the media, the police, and politicians. That’s no way to operate in a free society. We’re adults and we don’t need editors or censors.
As a blog “consumer”, I think it’s pretty well understood that most blogs don’t abide by the same journalist standards that the MSM (supposedly) follows, and most readers don’t expect them to. The blog creed, as I understand it, is put what you know or think you know out there, without attaching a tremendous amount of personal reputation or ego to it, let others poke holes, publicize the holes, and hopefully out of this messy process the truth will emerge. The betting is that perhaps in some cases the truth will emerge faster and more cheaply than it would with a lone, professional, reporter with a significant budget, who doesn’t write anything until (s)he is extremely confident about the story.
It can be fun watching the “online investigation” transpire, even if many of the investigations ultimately lead nowhere.
I wonder, reading these comments, if we’ve developed a culture of instant news gratification. Do we as members of a free society have a right to all information, verified or not, as soon as it becomes available? In many cases, the police withhold the details of a pending investigation because the investigation may be compromised by premature disclosure. (For argument’s sake, let’s say that Joel Hinrichs, the young man who committed suicide with a bomb on the Oklahoma State University campus, actually belonged to a terrorist cell. And suppose the investigators didn’t want to tip their hand because the other suspects might flee or destroy sensitive information if they knew the authorities were on their trail.) Furthermore, do the costs of disseminating unsubstantiated information outweigh the benefits?
In response to beazl: as I said in my original post, I believe the blogs are best at fact-checking and analysis, rather than actual newsgathering. What’s more, if beazl’s description of newsgathering by blogs is accurate and blog ethics allow (or even require!) airing every rumor and innuendo out there, then it seems to me that the “citizens’ media” offer more cause for concern than celebration.
Suppose for a minute that some politician’s wife slips and falls on the stairs inside her house and is hospitalized with life-threatening injuries. Suppose, further, that anonymous sources start spreading rumors that this was no mere accident: some say that it was domestic violence by the husband, others that her fall was due to severe intoxication, still others that she was pushed down the stairs by the husband’s mistress after surprising her in the husband’s bed. Suppose that the blogs start circulating all these false rumors and demanding to know why the story isn’t being covered by the mainstream media. Even if the truth is eventually sorted out, is it really “fun” to watch this online investigation transpire if you have some personal connection to the family? And isn’t it likely that even after the real facts are established, some readers will continue to believe that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”?
I’m not saying, of course, that we should try to put the blog genie back in the bottle (how could we, anyway?). And I am certainly not denying that the mainstream media have often been guilty of sensationalism, hysteria, sloppiness, and other assorted sins against good journalism. What I’m saying is that the blogosphere should hold itself to higher standards. Reckless speculation and the dissemination of unfounded rumors should be stigmatized and treated as a stain on a blogger’s reputation (just like it would be for a professional journalist), not accepted as a normal part of the process.