Wednesday, December 23, 2009

If bloggers want to be treated like journalists they should act like journalists

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling broadening the libel defence available to Canadian journalists, and opening the door for such protection to be extended to bloggers, reminds me that I’ve yet to blog about the second presentation I made during last month’s World Blogging Forum in Romania.

I mention the conference because my second presentation to the conference (first is here), on the theme of blogging becoming media and professional standards, seems to have a pretty direct link to what the Supremes had to say in yesterday’s ruling.

I’ll leave it to James Morton, Warren Kinsella and Ian Capstick to get into the nitty-gritty of the ruling and how it could apply for bloggers; check their posts out for the details. But I’d sum up the court’s statement as this: bloggers can avail themselves of the same libel protection as journalists, but only if they engage in the same journalistic standards of due diligence and public interest.

And that's not far from my message to my fellow bloggers in Romania (video here, audio is not too good). I’d heard a lot there, and back here, about how bloggers want to be taken seriously as news sources, about how citizen journalism should be considered as legitimate as traditional media, and that bloggers should be granted the same level of access, say to press conference or parliament hill, as the professional media.

My response to them was fine, but if you want the benefits of being a journalist, you also need to shoulder the responsibilities. If you want to be a journalist, act like one. That means respecting libel law, that means making good-faith effort to verify information, that means allowing the right of response if serious allegations are being leveled, and publishing good-faith corrections when appropriate. Basically, it means abiding by certain professional standards.

Right now, I said, the Internet and blogdom is something of a lawless wild west, and as long as that prevails, citizen journalism is unlikely to evolve. Sure, mainstream media readership is declining rapidly and moving online. But people aren’t moving to Joe’s Blogspot to get their news.

They’re getting it, by and large, from the web sites of traditional media outlets. Not directly, but through aggregates that give them content-specific links from sites around the world, but that’s another post.

The point is, people are getting their news online but still from the same professional media organizations. Only the content delivery mechanism has changed. Why? Because we can trust the Globe and Mail or the New York Times. We may have our issues with them, but we know who they are and we know that they subscribe to a code of conduct and certain journalistic principles. I don’t know who Joe’s Blogspot is, so how can I judge the veracity of what they write?

I argued it’s that lack of trust or inability to judge the bonafides of blogs (without regular, long-term readership) that will hinder the wider adoption of citizen journalism. The question then becomes, what are we going to do about it?

Certainty, I as an individual blogger can make the choice to conduct myself according to certain principles. Over time, you as readers can see that I conduct myself in a certain way, and I begin to gain your trust and build credibility. Still, that’s a very long-term process, and happens for each reader one at a time.

Here is where it starts to get complicated, but I suggested something to consider would be a blogger code of conduct. A list of certain principles that a blogger would agree to hold themselves to, and would so state with a badge on their sidebar. Then, even if a visitor doesn’t know the individual blog, they would know at least that this blogger subscribes to this code, and so can have a certain level of confidence in their writings.

Immediately, a number of flaws in this concept were pointed out to me. It would be quite bureaucratic. How would everyone agree on a code? How could it possibly be enforced? Would people be kicked off for non-compliance? Who would judge that? Some countries where freedom of expression is limited would have concerns. All valid points with no easy answers that make such a concept likely unworkable.

So, I’m not sure what the solutions are. Credibility may just have to continue to be earned on an individual, blog-by-blog basis. Perhaps news aggregate communities/publications, such as The Huffington Post, are a better solution as well. Building communities where the credibility of the community is bound by the conduct of its members seems important.

The point though, reaffirmed by the Supreme Court ruling, is that if bloggers want the credibility, and the legal protections, of journalists, they need to conduct themselves in a professional, journalistic way. Because you can’t have the meat without eating your vegetables too.

(Just to add as a post-script, there are many other impediments faced by blogging here vs MSM: the resources for research and reporting for one, not to mention the legal and fiscal resources required to initially defend even frivolous libel charges. But an easy, and crucial, place to start is with our own conduct.)

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Unknown said...

The solution seems obvious, no? A Professional association of bloggers, whose membership is controlled and enforced based on protocols set out by the association. In the same way that I am more inclined to trust a business that is a member of the Better Business Bureau, I could see that a blog is part of the Better Blog Bureau and is, therefore, trustworthy. Complaints to the association would result in your blog being removed.

In return, the association would negotiate press rights for member blogs. Members would be issued Better Blog Bureau press passes, which would grant them access to press conferences and the like.

The question then becomes, who starts this association? And who enforces it? It would take a dedicated group of bloggers to get such a system off the ground and popularize it. But it would be a worthwhile effort, I think, and do much for having blogs taken more seriously.

Gauntlet said...

Bloggers need to get over themselves.

If you want to be a journalist, and get the benefit of a defence against libel, go ahead. Do it. It doesn't have anything to do with whether you share your stories over a blog, or on a podcast or on a twitter feed, or by standing on a soap box at speaker's corner.

Just be a journalist with a blog, and stop pretending that "blogging" is something different.

Jim Parrett said...

I don't know. I love the freedom of blogging. It's unique in our world today. To institutionalize or otherwise rob us of the no-holds-barred luxury we now have is worth the threat of legal action. I don't want to be legislated just so I can say I'm a 'professional', either. I hate the word, 'should', too. If I wanted to be a journalist, I would have long ago pursued a career as such. I'm a blogger dammit and that's all I want to be.