Monday, June 29, 2009

No news is bad news

Wow. This is what I get for getting busy and leaving a blog entry in draft mode for a couple of weeks, without doing a final edit and posting it.

2 weeks ago (the draft is dated 6/16), I started a blog entry which, among other things, mocked our local newspaper for what I call the "Baptist Of The Day story." If it keeps the paper alive, I said, then OK, but I think this dumbing down and pandering is killing it, not increasing revenue.

Today the paper took it further, with a new policy to give over the Monday front page to a feature topic.
The entire front page. Guess what topic they started with. (It's not featured as heavily on their website : here's the Sun News site.)

You'll need to zoom these, I'm afraid.
OK, these articles really could be good explorations of our community and our society, in an appropriate part of the paper. But ... the front page? The whole front page??

My 2-week-old blog entry follows:


The local newspaper keeps shrinking and TV news gets stupider, and I watch the changes and the debates about how the public can get the information it needs, but I tend to stay out of them since I have no solutions. But then a related topic that I've always been vocal about pulls me in anyway.

I ran across this kind of nifty website the other day. It's called Banned Books Online, and has links to some (but only selected) famous censored books that are now available, full-text, online. Most are easy to get anyway these days, but I thought it was a great example of what's good about access in the world we live in. And not everything about it is good.

Then I spotted the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Blue Ribbon Campaign button, there at the top, and clicked it.

Library school turned a lot of us into ardent anti-censorship banner-wavers, and in 1981 it was a very cool thing to be a near-absolutist about it. Back then almost anything could be published by somebody somewhere, but access points (libraries, bookstores, mainstream media, any entity that selected what to offer) had more gatekeeper-type control over availability. People had to work a lot harder to find out on their own whether a book, a point of view, an idea, existed, much less to get it in-hand. They were more dependent on our judgment, and it was drummed into us fledgling librarians that libraries had a particularly heavy responsibility to understand and apply the difference between being selective, and censoring.

Once upon a time I would have jumped onto any "anti-censorship" bandwagon that rolled by. But as I read through the Electronic Frontier Foundation site, something stopped me in my tracks.

The first item reads:
You Have the Right to Blog Anonymously. EFF has fought for your right to speak anonymously on the Internet, establishing legal protections in several states and federal jurisdictions, and developing technologies to help you protect you[r] identity. With your support, EFF can continue to defend this right, conducting impact litigation to establish strict standards to unmask an anonymous critic in more jurisdictions.
OK, if bloggers are to act as "citizen journalists" they need to be able to expose corruption and post material that offends, without getting Molotov cocktails thrown through their living room windows. So I read this and I thought, Cool! I can get behind tha--

Wait a minute.

The ability of journalists to protect sources has always been important. But there it is. Are bloggers sources, or are bloggers journalists??

Kind of both (See Item 2), and the question that comes to my mind is: isn't this a conflict of interest? "I can publish allegations like a reporter does.... but I get to hide my identity for my own safety, like a source."

The accuracy and value of information from sources, anonymous or otherwise, depends on their coming through an identifiable, accountable source. "You have it from [Joe Reporter; The Daily Observer; Cable Spews Network] that this isn't just a claim, it's verified." Or, "This is only an allegation, it is NOT verified at this point."

I live in, o gawd, South Care-o-lina. Where, when you find Harlequin [TM] romance readers, you've found active minds.

(See? I'm not a journalist, so I can stereotype to my heart's content. There are educated people and a university and everything around here. You can buy Richard Dawkins and D. H. Lawrence in the bookstore down the road, but if I make this area sound like The Republic of Gilead, some readers really could get an impression that's way-exaggerated, though not entirely falsified.)

I had a talk with a couple of locals the other day as I paid for a sackful of books at a thrift shop. "You must love to read," smiled one very pleasant lady, leaning on the counter. "Yes, I do," was my noncommittal response, since, though I keep too many, I really do list most of them for sale.

The checkout lady contributed: "I hate to read. I quit when I got out of school."

"Me too," agreed counter-leaning lady. "I don't like to read. Except my Bible. I do read my Bible every day."

Larry quietly exited the building, to resist expressing himself.

"That's right," said checkout lady. "I read my Bible."

These are the people who probably still get the newspaper (See? If I were some kind of Citizen Journalist, I'd have thought to ask!) because it's still on the list of Everyday Things People Do. And these are the subscribers whom the Sun News tries to keep by dumbing itself down and down-er, with a Giant Color Picture of Something Unimportant, which takes up most of every front page, and with its pandering to Christianity by means of what I call the Baptist Of The Day story. You can just hear the newsroom briefings: "Got to feature a Christian doing something Christian in every issue! FIND something!"

If these were just smart tactics to keep the paper selling, I'd applaud them, because the paper also puts things that those subscribers will not seek out, but that they very much need exposure to, in front of them every day, and persists in running both points of view on issues. Even as the staff undoubtedly wince when another "You pinko liberals!" cancellation comes in.

But the tactics are not working and the paper keeps shrinking. I mock it, but I shudder to think what we'd do without it.

Because if blog journalists take over the job, my Bible Ladies won't be reading them, but they still vote.

And because there will be a verification problem. Even the smartest, most proactive local reader who seeks out independent online reporting about what our officials and business moguls are up to, will have no way of sorting the good self-appointed journalists from the bad. Some obviously incompetent writers will fall away, but those who can craft prose like a pro will be judged as responsible and trustworthy, unless someone could really call them on facts.

And what the bleep will we do then? The issues this raises go way beyond the blog Bill of Rights, but on that facet of blog journalism, I have to voice serious qualms. Doesn't the top layer -- the user-interface layer -- of news publication have to have a known name and address? If you're going to be a journalist, don't you need to be willing to allow oversight by somebody? If you're a lone self-appointed journalist, even a responsible, truth-seeking one, to whom do you answer?

Liberals and conservatives alike have crossed the line, have believed that getting the public to hold the "right" opinion on some issue was vital, and suppressed or fabricated evidence to make it happen. If other investigators expose your story as fake, how do we find out about it and "fire" you?

These issues are there even if anonymity is not granted to blog journalists, but if it is granted, accountability becomes that much harder. If you won't identify yourself, how much more abuse of reporting power does this allow?

Yet it's undeniable - blog journalists are vulnerable, and can risk every harassment, from having the local Founding Family quietly arrange for a rotation of Sheriff's Deputy nephews to follow them 24/7 and ticket every gum wrapper they drop, to mailbox bombs. But how can we guarantee them safety and freedom to investigate, and still guarantee the readership some accountability? The EFF statement seems to acknowledge that unmasking is sometimes necessary and urges only "strict standards," but that's one heckuva hard standard to set if you want truth maximized.

All I've got is the questions, no real answers.

1 comment:

Christy said...

That cannot be the front page of your paper... Makes me embarrassed to say I'm from the South. (Well, almost!)