February 21, 2005

Blogs vs. Mainstream Media, round 8 bajillion

Bloggers often like to deride the existing major media sources and upraise the blogosphere. Vodkapundit (Stephen Green) raises a good point - any individual blogger is likely as prone to inaccuracy or bias as any individual reporter. The structure of blogs is what makes it a superior method of reporting (in some ways).

1) Rise Quickly, Fall Quickly - there is a very low threshold for entering the blogosphere (a few minutes time to register), so it's easy to start. You don't need millions in seed money, contacts with editors, journalists and publishers, and you don't need a complex marketing strategy to make it self-sustaining. It's really simple: you write, people read (or don't read).

Since the same factor makes blogs rise and fall, it is a lot simpler for blogs to replace existing, inferior blogs and to be replaced by newer, superior blogs. While it is of course true that "experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed," in the end people will stop reading bad blogs and replace them with better ones (or no blogs at all). Most blog-readers have at least a few blogs they frequently read, and if one gets the facts wrong, provides inane rants or simply boring content then it will be read by fewer and fewer people - and be replaced by blogs that are chosen to fill the gap.

In broadcast news, you basically have NBC, CBS and ABC for national news. Cable news gives you MSNBC/CNBC, the CNNs and FNC. In both situations, you have only a few choices (especially since CNBC, CNNhn and CNNfn are somewhat specialized and not likely to fill the same role as MSNBC, CNN and FNC try to fill.

With blogs, the number is difficult to estimate but certainly the number of blogs with at least a few entries each week has got to easily be in the hundreds and more likely thousands. That's a lot of competition - and a lot of incentive to give, honest

2) Instant Interaction - unlike the broadcast networks and cable-news networks, there is a high degree of interaction and direct communication between bloggers. This has a number of effects, the most important being instantaneous double-checking of your facts. A well-read blog with a bad fact or report will get caught very quickly, sometimes in minutes, and either e-mail or other blogs will point it out. In newspapers and so forth, this process takes at least a day.

3) Update Feature - when a magazine, newspaper or TV news outfit makes a mistake of any caliber, it is ALWAYS run later (because the laws of physics - if they knew the mistake when they reported the initial story, they would've fixed it then). Since blogs are usually linked at individual postings, a blogger that makes any sort of mistake can put an UPDATE in big letters, or even CORRECTION and fix the mistake in the exact same place and time that many people are first reading it. The story can be seen by readers but still controlled by the blogger at the same time, unlike almost any other medium (except online message boards).

4) Group Culture - okay, so this one isn't really structural (except in that it's an 'outsider' medium). The attitude of bloggers toward mainstream coverage is a big factor in shaping the reaction of bloggers to poor, false or irresponsible reporting among each other. The desire to be consistent is a strong motivator for calling out mistakes anywhere.

At the same time, the mainstream media relies on its status as sort of an elite group of gatekeepers. More mainstream sources have less of an interest, since they aren't in the habit of calling each other out and have more of a gentleman's agreement to not point out when the emperor has no clothes. They have an interest in not calling each other out, so that they themselves won't get called out.

It's probably also not-insignificant that journalists lean so far to the left of things. Putting a group of similarly-opinionated people into a room and asking them for an edition is going to come out different than a group of differently-opinionated people. I notice it myself - when I speak to someone of a certain view that I consider my friend or at least positive acquaintance, I will be less likely to simply flame his or her view. If he or she mentions that what I've said is biased then I will respond to their point differently than if it's someone I dislike. It's largely human nature to do so, I'd wager.

5) Open Bias - this one is one of my favorites because it's widely applicable. Blogs are usually pretty open about biases, and the links to the side give you an idea of what they think on things. Knowing that a person or group comes from a certain position allows me to think "of COURSE you would argue X" or "hmm, very fair-minded of them to admit Y." When the person or group is questionable as to bias and pretends it can somehow maintain an unbiased or 'balanced' position then it simply hides their pre-arrived positions. If Dan Rather just got up and admitted that he was a Gore-voting, Kerry-loving Democrat and that oftentimes this affects his reporting then I would care much less about his bias. It's when the bias acts as the elephant in the room that it becomes a real problem.

Think of it like this: if a journalist held some above-average financial stake in a company but reported on the company without disclosing that fact, then it would be unethical; you need to know that he MIGHT have an ulterior motive that you could have to correct in your observation. If a journalist wrote about a political group that he or she supports, contributes to and votes for, then you ought to be told about at least the gist of their views before reading their editorials or articles.

Well, overall it's largely a structural thing - put one person into a blogging atmosphere and she'll be more likely to gain the advantages and disadvantages of blogging. Put her into mainstream journalism and she'll take on the advantages and disadvantages of that occupation. The biggest non-structural factor (which is still structurally-influenced) is the way so many mainstream journalists see themselves as both exceptional and elite.

The royal attitude is also the most easily mockable aspect of the MSM. If those at fault could work to drop that, then it would get easier all around.


Blogger nopundit said...

Dear Neo (how Matrixy!),

Great post!

I just wrote a quick article on the interrelated concepts the blogosphere, MSM, and change:


Beginning graph

"For those of you who got through high school math and chemistry, you will probably be familiar with a concept know as delta. It is represented as a triangle (Δ), and is always associated with a variable, typically x. The two symbols are conjoined (Δx) and are pronounced "delta x".

"Δx stands for the change in x over a specific time period or event. The change might be in temperature (during an exothermic chemical reaction), or in Cartesian space (Δx is one of the bedrock concepts used in differential and integral calculus).

"So if x stands for what a fair person could conclude as a factual accounting of an event, and Δx stands for the (less than factual) position espoused or reported on regarding x (usually by the legacy media, but it could be academia, government, political parties, celebrities, etc), the "job" of the blogosphere is to expose and correct the Δ. The greater the Δ, the greater the blogosphere rush to expose it."

Kenneth Greenlee

February 21, 2005 8:04 PM  
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