Monday, March 05, 2007

more on bloggers and journalists

Tim Lee, who is obviously better at checking the links to his articles than I am, has a couple thoughtful responses to my critique.

The second article tackles my criticism of the difficulty blogs have in making sure their reporting is accurate. Lee describes the process this way:
[A]ny given reader doesn’t read “the blogosphere.” They read 10-100 specific blogs. And they tend to read the same blogs, day in and day out, for months or even years. So every blog with a non-trivial readership does have a significant number of people tracking its reputation.

Moreover, bloggers read each other, creating a web of trust that’s an important part of vetting information on the blogosphere.
I don't know the original source of the web of trust concept, but I first encountered it in cryptography. Let's suppose you want to make sure that the person I am in real life is the same person who posts on this blog. If you know me, it would be easy enough to know for sure. You could simply ask me ahead of time to put something distinctive in a blog post and then check to make sure it showed up. But suppose you don't know me, but you know one of my friends. You could trust that friend to make sure it's me. And so on through friends of friends.

Of course, you might not trust that friend 100%. Or you might think there's a chance that friend, even acting in good faith, will simply make a mistake. So if you're a goodly distance away, you might check with two or three friends and hope they know me through independent paths, so that a mistake up-stream--a screw-up by a common friend somewhere close to me--doesn't throw off your results. But that increases the effort you have to expend to find out if the information is good or not. In other words, it increases your transaction costs. And checking the facts of a news story is more involved than the simple yes/no question of whether X is me.

Now, that's not to say reporters don't have the same problem. They definitely do, especially in an age where they seem to insist on interviewing other reporters rather than going to primary sources. However, one thing a newspaper is able to bring to the mix is that it shortens the web of trust. The reporters who work for a newspaper have a strong financial incentive to follow whatever tone the newspaper's leadership sets for fact checking. And the newspaper puts out a lot of news articles. So even if an individual reporter writes rarely, if you assume that reporter is generally following the newspaper's lead, then you have a lot of data with which to build a fairly complete picture of the newspaper's overall tendency to report accurately and carefully (its quality) and the distortions it routinely introduces (its slant). It's the same process that happens with blogs, but you're playing the game of telephone with fewer links in the chain. Note that these are essentially the same ideas Lee expresses:
[M]ost of the contributors to a newspaper are not widely known by their readers. In those cases, all of the vetting is put on the shoulders of the paper’s editorial staff. You have to take it on faith that the editor of the paper has good judgment in choosing reporters.
We're just interpreting the impact differently. Lee rightly points out that if you conclude that certain reporters at the paper (or at Reuters or AP, for that matter) are not trustworthy, you don't have many options but dropping the entire paper. I agree, but I don't think that's a problem as long as you have enough papers and other news sources to turn to.

I agree with Lee that the comments section of a blog is a major improvement over a newspaper's editorial page. So is the fact that one blog can so easily link to another, and that the search engines will index all those links. And based on Richard Kuttner's piece, I think he would agree as well. I certainly hope to see either more news organizations allowing reader comments, or the spread of technologies that allow readers to comment on web pages regardless of whether or not the page itself has a comment feature.

My Monday schedule is, as usual, a total mess, and I want to give Lee's other article some careful thought before I respond. I'll hopefully have something up about it later today or tomorrow.

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