Journalists versus bloggers: the difference is fact checking?

I had the pleasure of being involved with a seminar on �Ethics in cyberspace � how to do bloggin� right” cosponsored by The Society of Professional Journalists and the Denver Press Club. Bloggers in attendance include Rebecca Blood, Amy Gahran, David Thomas, Chris Cobler from the Greeley Tribune and my pal Gil Asakawa from the Denver Post. The discussion was interesting and engaging, but what most struck me was the distinction that journalists made between bloggers and journalists.
Specifically, us bloggers are writing opinion pieces, basically, subjective op-ed type of works, while journalists are trained professionals and one of the distinct differentiators is that real journalists do fact checking. Specifically, Rebecca shared her belief that bloggers don’t want to be journalists because journalists need verifiable facts and reproducible results. Note: I originally had the last seven words in quotes, erroneously indicating that it was a directly quote from Rebecca. Read the comments to see how two incorrectly used punctuation marks can set off a firestorm of discussion and debate.
Which is why the last two days of reporting in our local Scripps paper, The Daily Camera, have been so darn amusing…


Front page story in the Daily Camera, 29 April, 2005: Middle School bans hugs: Centennial students not keen about new rule on ‘PDAs’ in which reporter Brittany Anas writes:

Administrators at a north Boulder school on Thursday banned hugs in the hallways, which has some middle school sweethearts complaining that blooming spring love has been nipped in the bud.
Centennial Assistant Principal Becky Escamilla said that some concerned sixth-grade teachers asked the administration to spell out policies surrounding “PDAs” � jargon for public displays of affection.
“There was some sixth-grade romance going on,” she said. Escamilla said the school is not anti-hug. “We just want our kids to be appropriate at school and focus on academics,” she said.
No students were punished on Thursday for hugging at school, Escamilla said. It is unclear what the punishments for public displays of affection will be.
Ellen Miller-Brown, the Boulder Valley School District’s middle-level director, said most schools have rules about showing affection. “At academic institutions, principals do their very best to keep students focused on school,” she said.”

That was Thursday. Friday, 30 April 2005, front page news in the Daily Camera, reported by the same Brittany Anas: Centennial Letter – Hug Ban a Rumor: Note says principal trying to address tardiness issue. But it’s the first sentence in this follow-on story that is most entertaining in light of the “journalists check facts” argument:

Sixth-graders at Centennial Middle School spread a rumor that hugs were banned at the school, administrators said in a letter they sent to parents Friday.
“We do not have a no hugging rule or policy,” the letter says.

The story continues, and I’ll get to that in a second, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with a story that’s spread by children, picked up by an alert reporter, then reported as fact in the community newspaper of record. That’s not fact checking, that’s not professional journalism at all, in my opinion. It’s rumor-mongering.
The story continues…

Centennial Assistant Principal Becky Escamilla, however, had told the Daily Camera on Thursday evening that boys and girls are not allowed to hug at school, and she said there was some “sixth-grade romance going on.” She said that administrators talked with students about inappropriate displays of affection at school.

I read this as backpedaling from the newspaper. They reflected on the actual quote from the Assistant Principal and realized that there was a second possible interpretation, that she’d talked with students about inappropriate displays of affection, but, um, err, never actually stated that the school had instituted any new ban, rule or requirement that students change their behavior. If anything, it’s quite likely that there’s already a rule on the books regarding student decorum, but that’s not news, is it?

“Many sixth graders picked up on the hug portion of the conversation and began to spread a rumor that Centennial was banning hugs,” the letter says. “In the lunchroom on Thursday, students began to sign a petition they called ‘Hugs, Not Drugs.'”

What’s most fascinating to me is that there’s no mea culpa on the part of either the reporter or the newspaper. But it’s clear that they got it wrong. Perhaps they fact checked — as all good journalists do, regardless of medium of publication — but their fact checking process failed to catch the rather significant nuance between an administrator talking to students about the inappropriateness of public displays of affection during school hours and an actual new rule instituted by the school district.
I may be one person working with my own journalistic rules, but if I hear about something unusual or extraordinary, I check my facts and ensure that I’m getting the story right. And if I do mess up, I admit it and post a correction.
What would be really nice would be if Brittany Anas, City Editor Kevin Kaufman, Editor Susan Deans or Daily Camera Publisher Greg Anderson can explain to those of us in the blog world what broke down in the newsroom for this sequence of events to occur? And then perhaps one of these journalists can reiterate how bloggers are the ones that play fast and loose with the news?

13 comments on “Journalists versus bloggers: the difference is fact checking?

  1. And of course, the major “big-time” story was the CBS story about Bush and the missing memo. As a story from a professional media outlet, we all assumed that the information and facts had been verified and checked before running it. BZZZZ! You lose!
    🙂
    People who claim that bloggers play fast and loose with the truth lose a lot of credibility in my eyes. Both sides (professionals and bloggers) need to be taken with a grain of salt these days, as it’s hard to tell if an agenda is being pushed. But to say that bloggers are not to be trusted because they are not professional journalists is just plain wrong.

  2. Dave,
    I absolutely checked my facts, and with a number of sources. I’m somewhat reluctant to respond to your message, however, because it seems that you have prematurely reached a conclusion. Before you posted the item about the hug debacle did you talk with me, any of the people I quoted in my story, or any administrators at the school?
    Here is how the story unfolded, and the number of fact-checking steps that I took:
    A parent at Centennial Middle School on Thursday afternoon/evening called our newsroom and said that there was a ban on hugs. I would never run with a story with just one source.
    I drove to the school that evening, where there was a musical going on, and talked with Assistant Principal Becky Escamilla. She told me that sixth grade teachers asked administrators to talk to students. She said that there were “romances” going on in the sixth grade. She said boys and girls were not allowed to hug. She was hesitant to talk to the media, because she had not received approval from Principal Cheryl Scott. She told me she was going to be in trouble more than twice during our conversation. That same evening, I talked with about 8 or 10 kids from different grades and cliques at the school. They all gave the same account: They weren’t allowed to hug the opposite sex. They were supposed to give high fives and call it the new “Centennial hug.” If girls wanted to hug their other girl friends, they said, they had to do so by patting one another on the shoulder and it couldn’t last more than a couple of seconds.
    The following day (Friday) I received several calls from parents upset about the rule. Some of them said that they were also going to call the school. Friday afternoon Principal Cheryl Scott and Assistant Principal Becky Escamilla sent a letter home saying it was a rumor, so I reported what the letter said, even though the day before Escamilla said hugs were not allowed. How did I back peddle? The day before Escamilla said hugs are not allowed, the next day she sends out a letter with Scott saying they are allowed. I do not see how that is back peddling on my behalf.
    I hope that gives you a better understanding into how this story was reported, Dave.
    You say: “I may be one person working with my own journalistic rules, but if I hear about something unusual or extraordinary, I check my facts and ensure that I’m getting the story right. And if I do mess up, I admit it and post a correction.”
    I did check my facts, Dave. The school recanted on what they originally, possibly because they received a deluge of calls from upset parents, or, maybe because Escamilla got in trouble, as she worried earlier.
    How did you check your facts before posting this item about the hug story?

  3. I appreciate your response, Brittany. Thanks!
    The more I think about this situation, though, the more I wonder about the credibility of your source and about how the credibility of a source is assessed. Further, I don’t believe that you were in the wrong, given your explanation, but I’m still quite curious how this sort of story got through the editorial filter in the first place.
    In your notes, did you communicate to your editor that Escamilla told you twice that “she was going to get in trouble for talking with you”? Seems like a big red flag to me.
    Further, your sources were a parent, a bunch of students, and a member of the school administrative staff who was telling you during the interview that she didn’t have approval to speak to the media on this subject?
    There’s a fascinating follow-up story here for the business desk about how organizations interface with the media, and why they need to ensure that there’s a single, coherent, consistent message from a company in all situations.
    Finally, one more comment. You ask whether I checked my facts before posting, and I’ll respond that I took as a given that your reporting was accurate and credible, and that was the basis of my original article. It’s very much a part of the blogging culture that inaccuracies are pointed out in comments and the give-and-take here helps everyone understand the evolution of a story, step by step. Engaging in a dialog here is a great part of transparent reporting and authentic journalism, in my opinion, and I again thank you for participating!

  4. An interesting additional note: today the Wall Street Journal is reporting that “Circulation numbers to be released today by the Audit Bureau of Circulations probably will show industrywide declines of 1% to 3%, according to people familiar with the situation — possibly the highest for daily newspapers since the industry shed 2.6% of subscribers in 1990-91.”
    Their analysis includes the following note: “The losses come at a time when Americans have many news outlets that didn’t exist 20 years ago, including cable-television news channels and Internet sites, as well as email and cellphone alerts. Many newspapers have substantial and free online sites offering much of what is in the printed paper. These sites might not hurt readership overall, but they can erode a newspaper’s paying audience.”
    And, most salient of all given our discussion: “At the same time, many newspapers have undercut the print product itself, trimming staff and coverage. They also have failed to figure out how to attract younger readers to their pages.”
    http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB111499919608621875,00.html [sub required]

  5. just a quick correction, dave: you quote me as saying that bloggers don’t want to be journalists because “journalists need verifiable facts and reproducible results”.
    that’s sort of a conglomeration of many things I said pushed into one sentence, but it doesn’t actually convey my meaning – and I never actually said the phrase you quote.
    I did say that I believe verifiable fact is key to any definition of journalism. and I did say that journalism is similar to the scientific method with it’s reliance on reproducible results. and I did say that I don’t think most bloggers consider themselves to be journalists, and I that I certainly don’t.
    but I didn’t say what you have posted here.

  6. Thanks for your clarification, Rebecca. Here’s one of those interesting situations though: when I look through my notes from the SPJ event, I do have, quoted, the phrase “journalists need verifiable facts and reproducible results.”. Did you say it word for word, or did I edit/modify as I was jotting the note down?
    I’ll defer to your memory of the event since you were the speaker, but I believe that the gist of my quote is accurate and consistent with your message — with what I heard you say — that almost no bloggers want to be journalists because journalists need “verifiable facts” and “reproducible results.”
    Do you concur?

  7. no, I didn’t say that, you paraphrased. (I don’t give talks on the fly–I have them written out, so I know exactly what I said.)
    you’ve conflated several things there: the sentences I quoted in the comment above plus my discussion of the difficulty in constructing a code of ethics for bloggers (since all of them have different purposes). one of the things I mentioned in connection with that difficulty was that any code had to be easy, since I didn’t think most bloggers would be willing to adhere to a cumbersome process.
    I did say that most bloggers don’t consider themselves to be journalists, but I didn’t give a reason why. (fwiw, I think most of them just don’t think in those terms, but I didn’t ascribe any reason during my talk.)
    “verifiable fact” and “reproducible results” are from my attempt to define journalism, as part of the larger discussion of whether – and when – weblogs are journalism. but that was a separate portion of the talk.
    so no, your representation isn’t accurate and consistent with my message. I guess it accurately records your thoughts during my talk, but it’s such a mishmash of several separate ideas I presented, that it misrepresents all of them.

  8. Based on what you’re saying, I still don’t see that I’m misrepresenting what you said. You said that bloggers don’t consider themselves journalists. You said that journalists engage in fact checking. You said that journalists seek a standard that’s based on the scientific method, to wit “reproducible results”. I merely put them all together as a synopsis of your statements.
    Nonetheless, it appears that we’ll agree to disagree about what we in the audience heard and took away from your talk, Rebecca.
    I’m okay with that.

  9. This whole discussion really illuminates the distinction between bloggers and journalists.
    Journalists don’t rely on secondary sources, such as a newspaper account of something — they get their facts from the primary source. Journalists don’t blend a bunch of quotes together into one quote that suits what they are trying to say. They quote someone accurately. Paraphrasing is ok, but you don’t put quotes around it. (Personally, I’ve always used a tape recorder when doing interviews.)
    These practices are the basics that people learn in journalism school (at least we did at NYU).
    Perhaps the difference IS fact checking.
    Blogging is great, don’t get me wrong. But I think people should recognize that they are primarily opinion pieces, and not news stories.
    In the larger picture, I think there is a real danger in people coming to rely on bloggers as sources of news. They simply aren’t subject to the checks and balances that most journalists are — such as editors, and fact checkers, and the tenets of journalism.
    Cathy

  10. I appreciate what everyone is saying here. In fact, I just stripped the erring quotes out of the original article, with an editorial note explaining why I was modifying the piece.
    On the other hand, Cathy, consider what’s transpiring here: the Camera had some poor reporting and then we had the opportunity to use the blogosphere to engage in a healthy and informative discussion. I made an error in, um, punctuation in my original blog posting and, again, we have had a valuable and interesting discussion here on the blog.
    Meanwhile, nothing about the reporting, the confusion of two contradictory stories, and the difficulty of reporting on the local school district when unauthorized school officials are willing to go on record, appeared in the Daily Camera, to my knowledge.
    And yet you say that it’s newspapers that are better because they’re subject to the “checks and balances” of journalism? Seems to me that it’s exactly the opposite. With a newspaper, I can write a letter to the editor, but how often do they print letters pointing out errors in reporting or unintended bias or skew? Sometimes, but not very often.
    By contrast, my weblog is open for everyone to participate, and I’m pleased that the debate has included the Camera reporter, Rebecca, and other journalists and commentators. Surely that’s what checks and balances, the flow of discourse, the evolution of a story, and the ability to disassemble a story and put it back together are ultimately all about?
    I haven’t been to journalism school, you’re right, but, as the saying goes (yeah, I’m mangling this quote) “I know good journalism when I see it.”

  11. This is a very interesting thread because it illuminates social/communication changes that are happening given the advent of cheap web publishing, ie blogs.
    The old ( ie 10 years ago) system involved expert communicators, ie journalists, collecting facts, writing stories and making them available for us in the audience to read or watch. A few journalists with excellent creditals influenced many people. Creditials were earned, usually, by studying the field at University and working their way up.
    The blog system allows anyone to publish anything. And they are. And at this state of the technology, we are all intrigued by the volume of personal opinions and challenged by which blogs to believe.
    This same sort of process has also happened in my field – computer science – which has moved from an elite, highly paid cadre of professionals with extensive traing and exlusive access to expensive hardware who could build highly priced software to today where Open Source/GPL systems connected by the Internet which allow anyone to be a programmer. And what is amazing, GPL/Open Source does work. There is a synergy there, once effective communcation/organizing frameworks are set up, along with gatekeeper processes, to develop HIGH QUALITY FREE software systems.
    What are the best frameworks for coordinating and ranking blogs that correspond to what software developers pioneered?
    Where we are at now, with blogs, it seems to me, is discovering the effective frameworks to help us discern which blogs are to be trusted. Journalists say fact-checking is required to determine trust. What I see in this blog evolution ( and in Open Source development) is that “many eyes” can be effective in establishing trust and doing the fact checking. These new processes are based not so much on creditials but on performance. And synergy. And so journalists now have a run for their money, having to establish trust and credibility not just vs. other journalists, but vs. anyone who blogs!
    It happened to programmers, now its journalists turn.
    As we all know, this sort of thing has happened before. In the 16th centurym the invention of the printing press dropped the price of publishing a book 200x. This in turn led to completely unpredicted consequences such as everyone being motivated to read ( universal literacy), social changes such as the Reformation, the Rennaissance, political democracy, public education and even the emergence of concept of childhood and and the effect that has had on the development of nuclear families.
    So I believe the outcome of this discussion and this redefining of who journalists are reflects a significant change in how we communicate and learn. And the consequences can be significant, and by the definition of synergy, completely unpredictable.
    Ian

  12. I’m not really saying that newspapers are better than blogs. But they *are* different, and they do (at least for the moment) have some different operating standards. I think my main point is that people should not be mistaking one for the other.
    I agree with you — I think it’s great that blogs open up the discourse to everyone. This discussion is fun. And certainly, newspapers don’t always get it right the first time.
    But one drawback I see to thinking of blogs as news is how many people will read all the comments to find the corrections? How many people might have their reputations damaged by a blog that doesn’t do any fact checking up front? Yeah, it might be corrected later, but by then, the cat is out of the bag. There is a very big value to getting it right the first time — whatever media you are publishing it in.
    Cathy Dold

  13. Sure, Cathy, but almost every newsmagazine I get, from BusinessWeek to WIRED, Newsweek to Macworld, has a permanent “errata” fixture at the end of their letters section or elsewhere in the publication. What surprises me is that I don’t know where newspapers print their errata, because surely the pressures of daily deadlines make it even *more* likely that they’d be having glitches and hiccups?
    This reminds of a revelatory review I got from an early book of mine. The reviewer said “this is a really good book, but I’m always skeptical when the author doesn’t have an errata section on their Web site. All books have errors.” Since then, the errata section is a prominent feature of my book sites (see http://www.intuitive.com/wicked/ for example).
    So I agree with you that if people don’t know to scroll down to the comments, they don’t see them, but that’s all the more reason for there to be some sort of credibility measure, just as we need that with newspapers too. We can call this the “FNCR” (Fox News Credibility Ranking)! 🙂

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