Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Are Bloggers "Citizen Journalists"?

Not in the strictest sense. After all, most of us rarely see our articles published or broadcast by a legitimate news source, not that any of us would object should we be lucky enough to attract the attention of one of the big guns. Yet, aren't those of us who "cover" politics and current events "citizen journalists" in a manner of speaking? As such, shouldn't we strive to be as accurate, fair and balanced as we would like the MSM and Fox News to be - and rightfully criticizing them for not being?

Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, I depended on liberal bloggers to not only analyze and highlight stories not being covered by the mainstream media but also to present the news accurately and objectively. During the entire health care debate the media was more fixated on Tea Party antics and Sarah Palin tweets than they were on the contents of this historic bill. Not one time did a single member of the MSM call out Palin for the "biggest lie of the year" in 2010.

Most recently, it took the media a full week to utter a single blip about Occupy Wall Street, despite the fact that an estimated 1000 protesters had kicked it off and it had been growing in intensity ever since. Even then, and until very recently, the media coverage has been spotty, lazy and fraught with predictable preconceptions but is likely to improve, according to an article at Poynter. Well, the amount of coverage has certainly improved thanks to the actions of city fathers and mothers and to police brutality against peaceful demonstrators.

Needless to say, relying on Fox News and conservative blogs, with only a few notable exceptions such as the Frum Report, is not an option. There's a reason that Fox viewers are even less informed than people who don't watch any news at all: lies, distortions, hysterical conspiracy theories, propaganda and the list goes on.

Ironically, I'm seeing a disturbing trend among progressive bloggers who seem to be resorting to the same kinds of practices most of us abhor on the right-wing blogs - misleading headlines, hysterics, slanted news, disregard for facts in too many cases, and a lack of substantiation. While most of us enjoy scooping a story, it should never be at the expense of accuracy, which usually requires a little time devoted to research and verification.

Remember the story that originated with the National Enquirer about an alleged affair John Boehner had been having with a lobbyist? According to the article, "Capitol Hill insiders and political bloggers have been buzzing about an upcoming New York Times probe - detailing an alleged affair that the 61-year-old married father of two had with pretty Washington lobbyist LISBETH LYONS." When I'd inquire why anyone would trust anything printed in this yellow rag, the response was inevitably, "Well, they were right about John Edwards." One correct story out of umpteen million manufactured ones makes this publication a "reliable source?" By the way, I'm still waiting for that Times expose.

Remember the one about how folks in the little town of Brandon, MS showed members of the Westboro Baptist Church their own brand of southern hospitality? It took a lot of backtracking but it was a myth which had originated on a college bulletin board. In the meantime it too had gone viral. Just because we'd like something to be true doesn't make it so. Just because a story or video can be found all over the Internet doesn't make it so either.

A headline on Addicting Info recently proclaimed, "Occupy Oakland Update: Marine Scott Olsen to Have Brain Surgery". The author wrote, "The LA Times is reporting that Occupy Oakland Protester and veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Scott Olsen will need brain surgery . . . ." What's wrong with this picture? The answer should be obvious - no link. So, I get on my broom and fly over to LA to check it out. The story was by Marvin Scott at WPIX in New York. A friend of Olsen's was quoted as saying, "Scott is in stable but serious condition as the neurologists decide whether to take him into surgery or the ICU.Another misleading story bites the dust but spreads like the plague that it is.

Another even more recent Occupy story that doesn't meet the smell test but which has also gone viral is the one about Jennifer Fox of Seattle who allegedly had a miscarriage because of being pepper sprayed and kicked in the stomach by police. Salon took their story from Crooks and Liars which got it from The Stranger, blah, blah, blah. To their credit, The Stranger did provide an update of sorts while Addicting Info hasn't even bothered. The Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly offer up some pretty persuasive proof that there's more fiction than truth to Fox's claims.

When Sean P. Means defines "citizen journalists," I wonder if he is including people who claim to be journalists when they aren't, which is what I suspect may be the case in this video.

In a comment, I asked how we know this guy is in fact a journalist by pointing out the obvious: he admits to not having a press card, a pretty standard requirement. Usually, in fact, the press wear their id's on a cord around their necks or attached to their belts or another piece of apparel. Of course, as in all things in a society that thrives on gen-u-ine replicas, it's not all that hard to buy or even make a fake press card,*

Mr. Means, in describing the pros and cons of "citizen journalists" writes:
The truth is that journalism is a profession. But, thanks to the First Amendment, it’s one of the few professions that don’t require a license or an advanced degree (as doctors and lawyers do) — which means anyone who claims to be a journalist can be one.
While most of us "citizen bloggers" on the liberal side refrain from calling ourselves professional journalists - fake or otherwise - if we want credibility, which I think most of us want, shouldn't we strive to be as accurate, as fair and as balanced as possible? Shouldn't we avoid using hysterical, sensational and misleading headlines and the same kinds of mythology that is so prevalent on right-wing blogs? Shouldn't we learn the art of the smell test, how to read between the lines, and look beyond the headlines? Shouldn't we take the time to research back to, and beyond, the original source?

*Procedure required to get a press pass in NYC.

NOTE: I should make it very clear that none of what I describe here applies to one single blogger currently listed on my roll, with one tiny exception - but as someone commented, we all make mistakes. Each blogger is knowledgeable, highly principled and  talented, and each one, regardless of what they write about (it isn't all about politics), strives to be as accurate as humanly possible.  Take some time and get to know them.


  1. I completely agree. I am frequently disappointed by those whom I generally agree with who nevertheless elevate rumor or resort to ad hominem attacks or irrelevancies just like The Other Guys--several dozen examples of which I could come up with if I had not just spent the day snowshoeing and am distracted by chilblains in my very tushie.

  2. Yes to all the things mentioned in your last paragraph, plus this: being willing to await further developments or more-solid reporting from more-reliable sources. And lacking those, to let something go.

    Most political bloggers don't attempt citizen journalism. Actual first-person reporting requires access to people who make the news or sources close to them. It takes more time, money and perseverance than 99 percent of bloggers can muster. It also requires being physically close to where most news is made; places like D.C. and New York City.

    What the overwhelming majority of bloggers do is scan various media outlets and present their commentary on what's going on. Some do original op-eds. Those range from atrocious to excellent, as you might expect.

    Bloggers in aggregate can make a contribution to better public attention to and understanding of things such as the OWS movement, though. I think the attention progressive bloggers paid to OWS, the seriousness they afforded the movement, along with their criticism of the MSM for ignoring OWS, helped oblige some media outlets to do their job. That was a positive contribution.

  3. I'm aware of this issue. I once posted an incriminating quote from Rush Limbaugh, which I later discovered was fake; I deleted the post, the only post I've ever deleted from my blog. I've posted retractions of things I'd previously linked to which turned out not to be true.

    The value of blogs as a source of information derives not from any special virtue of bloggers (obviously), but from the way the internet allows falsehoods to be exposed with ruthless speed and efficiency.

    As for the MSM's supposed reputation for diligent accuracy, it's crap. remember Rathergate?

  4. I appreciate that you’re saying we should be accurate and that we should substantiate what we say. But that said… mistakes will be made.
    The difference is…
    We are not still insisting it’s all true weeks, months, years later… long after any rational basis for believing it has been shown to zero.
    Nor do we demand that our opponents prove us wrong instead of us bothering to prove ourselves right – as the Right is want to do.

    I don’t think we can argue that there is any equivalence between the excesses of Progressive or Liberal bloggers and those of many on the Right.
    Our side does not live in an alternate universe where compassion is stupid, secularism evil, or gays are taking over the world. For starters.
    We get specific points of detail wrong, sure, but these are just mistakes requiring correction… factual corrections… not sprawling delusions and fantasy.

  5. @T H E: Thank you.

    @Murr: I've often said I learn so much from my fellow bloggers who stop by to comment. I must have "chilblains" in the brain because I had to look it up as I'd never heard of it! It doesn't sound like much fun, especially in the tushie.Keep it warm.

    @SW: I totally agree with you about being willing to wait for further development but I think some of us are sometimes more interested in being the firstest with the mostest than we are in weather or not it's factual.

    I also agree about the fact that most bloggers don't attempt "citizen journalism", but movements like OWS certainly become very attractive as a proving ground. I'm not totally dismissing it, either. As Pence says and as you indicate, the videos of the cops over-reacting with their clubs and pepper-spray and the criticism of the MSM have had a huge impact on media outlets getting off their duffs.

  6. @Infidel: I wish we were all that responsible and I think most of us are. It's the 1% - the amateurs, the folks who just like to get people riled up, those who don't care whether or not the story is accurate because "all cops are evil" - who cause the problem.

    The one story I ever deleted because it was completely fabricated was one I found at FDL by the Hamster.

    Yes, I remember Rathergate quite well, but I don't think the entire profession can be written off because of the poor judgement of a few; that's like saying 'all cops are evil." I worked side by side with reporters and editors at three newspapers on four different occasions, sometimes staying up with them into the wee hours when a big story was breaking, such as the Columbine shooting. In all honesty, I can't think of a single reporter in all that time who wasn't diligent in digging for facts - some more so than others, of course. I never came across a case of "manufactured news," either.

    Whether a reporter gets a hot tip from John Q. Public, or he comes across one on his regular beat, or an editor assigns it, in the end it is the editor who makes the decision whether or not it runs. Sometimes the publisher or someone from the business side will step in and kill a story, which I'm afraid has become the rule rather than the exception.

    As much as I criticize the MSM, I have a lot of respect for most of the working press. I can totally appreciate why some of them have become "lazy" and more than a little calloused as they watch the "business side" destroy their work because it tilts the wrong way and steps on the toes of advertisers.

  7. @magpie: Hey, I'm the queen of mistakes. We all make them but not all of us "fess" up.

    @ALL: There are those few who deliberately miscue, as in the articles that went viral about Scott Olsen. This, in my find, was nothing short of fabrication and a gross misrepresentation of the facts, a form of rewriting carried to an extreme, if you will. This was not a case of making a mistake.

    The Boehner story was based on a notoriously unreliable source but it was just too juicy to resist, whether or not it was factual.

    The story about the pregnant protester in Seattle was a case of jumping the gun - before having more info and it illustrates another problem with bloggers who try to be firstest with the mostest. They simply do not have the resources that the media has to police records or old newspaper files, etc., in order to check background info. The WaPo piece was on their blog - not in the paper itself. It serves as a perfect example of what Pence is talking about when things go wrong with relying on citizen journalists without checking their sources.

    Maybe because of my professional life, the video of the so-called journalist being "harassed" by the cops stunk to high heaven the first time I saw it on FB, a cesspool of rumors and rank amateurs, if there ever was one. The whole thing was obviously manufactured - just look at this guy's body language. "Squirrely" comes to mind - always looking around to make sure HE was being filmed. The cops were smart to not fall for his b.s. about being a journalist. Ten to one, they know more about press passes than this character; no wonder that big fellow with the glasses was smiling.

  8. Way back up there in a comment to SW: "weather or not it's factual." errrr. Correction Should be "whether."

  9. Leslie, I think I got this link from you via fb. I hope people take the time to read it, since it speaks to what you have posted here.

    A blogger is not a journalist, but some journalists are bloggers.

    I think of myself as a bloggerist. I do have my own liberal bias, and I admit that--in fact most people who blog do as well. I try to be accurate, and if I mess up, I admit it.

    One way to avoid making mistakes is to never use FAUX NOOZ as a news source. I look at that cable "news" station the same way I look at The Daily Show: it's a satire of the real news.

    Their news readers are really hilarious in their parodies of empty-headed, fact-free cable news readers.

    However, I much prefer Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They're funnier. And better looking.

  10. Well stated! It's been going on for years amongst the Right (viral letters, then emails, then interlinked and cross-referenced rightwing blog stories which all stem from the single and oft times non-primary source.

    It's de rigeur at most rightwing blogs, but it's bad to see it creep into the Liberal ones.

    John Stauber, from The Best War Ever, calls it incestuous amplification. It's a process of creating Internet "facts".

    I'm glad to see my blog on you roll, that means I'm good!

  11. @Shaw: I don't think you got that article from me but it is well worth the read. Thanks.

    I think we all have our own biases and opinions and there's nothing wrong with that at all. That's one of the main reasons why we do this - to share these opinions and to get feedback from others who do, or don't in some cases. Most of us here back up our arguments with authoritative sources and don't deliberately mislead others. Unfortunately, not everyone is as reliable and I'm becoming increasingly concerned about some the content I see on the left.

    @Grung: You are very "good." Actually, there are thousands of bloggers who obviously aren't here but not because they're bad, per se. There's just so much room and I really do like showing updates and what the latest articles are about.

    "incestuous amplification" - I've never heard that one but I'll make a point of remembering it. Perfect description.

  12. Nice post Leslie,

    Shaw, nope, we are not journalists...

    I've had a few ministry items published, but that makes me a paid writer, nothing more...

    I hate the other guy does it so it's alright for me to do it argument...

    Comes from both sides and is load of crap...

  13. @Dave: Yes it is. If anything, we need to bend over backwards not to do it.

  14. High standards, Les, and we need the reminder. These days, I think many of us have news-onset PTSD; we jump every time we see a talking head. We'll have to raise the bar on ourselves.

    I'll be right back. I'm following the link to see if I can fake a press pass for Michele Bachmann's book tour in SC. I feel a Mic Check coming on.

  15. @nance: Ha - just don't use "incestuous amplification." ; )