The Blogger vs. Journalist Debate Rages On
The blurry line between bloggers and journalists reared its head again last week when All Things Digital’s reigning doyenne Kara Swisher outed fellow tech blogger Michael Arrington, editor in chief of TechCrunch, for not disclosing financial investments in companies that he regularly covers for the publication. While a lot of people might think that Swisher making a stink is just an example of bad blood between competing writers, her questioning of the ethics of investment policies at media properties owned by AOL is an important one. Furthermore, she’s absolutely dead-on right to call out Arrington for his investments, and to question his boss Arianna Huffington for allowing it.
As I see it, the underlying issue here, in addition to the ethical investment debate, is that blogging has blurred the lines of journalism and continues to do so, for better or worse. Blogging has proved to be both a disruptive and positive form of media in many ways, but here’s where the problem often lies: while many journalists may be bloggers, most pure-play bloggers do not come from a journalism background.
Why is that potentially problematic? Because journalists have been trained as reporters—either by having attending journalism school or by receiving on-the-job training as reporters. As a former newspaper reporter myself, I can say without a doubt there is no substitute for the learning that goes on in a newsroom or, I presume, in a J-school class. (I was an English major who got my training as a reporter on the job.)
Part of the training that you receive as a journalist is that you learn—and are expected to adhere to—a code of ethics for how you cover the news. Some of these ethics may be dictated by your own publication’s standards, others are generally accepted guidelines for the profession (such as the libel guidelines set forth by the Associated Press). Providing any disclosure of a potential conflict of interest (financial, personal, etc.) is a generally required practice among journalists. Journalists are also not allowed to receive gifts—financial or otherwise–from companies. These guidelines have been practiced for years for good reason—reporters are supposed to be objective when they cover the news. How can you be objective if you have a vested interest in what you’re covering? Particularly when that interest is financial.
Objectivity has long been the hallmark of journalism and what journalists are supposed to do. (I’ll refrain from getting into the debate about whether or not anyone can actually ever really be objective and leave that to the realm of literary criticism where it belongs.) That’s why magazines and newspapers have news and features pages and also opinion pages. Traditionally, the only place where a journalist was allowed to express an opinion openly was on the opinion page. Opinions were left to the editorial board or to columnists. But blogging has changed all that.
Blogging is often more opinion than reporting. And what’s more—anyone can do it. Anybody can decide to be an Internet blogger, and they can write about any topic they want. That is indeed both the beauty and the curse of Web journalism and why the lines between journalism, blogging and their related ethics are blurring. Independent bloggers can effectively set up shop, hang out a shingle and call themselves “experts” without being beholden to a set of ethics determined by years of practical professionalism. For some, this has brought with it a cowboy mentality when it comes to journalistic ethics because they are ultimately only beholden to themselves.
Many bloggers don’t have someone looking over their shoulders telling them they can’t accept gifts from or invest in companies they write about—journalists do. Although the blogging format has certainly allowed journalists to become more creative and expressive in their writing (which I think is a good thing), journalist bloggers are still employed by companies that usually (obviously not in the case of AOL—which is a corporation wearing the hat of a media property, not the other way around) expect them to adhere to ethics.
Some bloggers, on the other hand, often blur the lines between objectivity, promotion and good, old-fashioned patronage. That’s why the FCC put disclosure rules into effect for bloggers and Tweeters who advocate on behalf of products they’ve been given or asked to promote. My Twitter profile clearly states that I work in public relations—and I often tweet on behalf of clients as well as myself. But how can you objectively “review” a product that has been given to you gratis without expectation of return? If you’re a mommy blogger with an infant at home and Pampers just gave you a year’s supply of free diapers to write positively about them, how easy will it be to stay completely objective in your comparative review against Huggies?
Which brings me back to the Arrington/Huffington/Swisher debate. That Arrington and Huffington seem to think that it’s OK to skirt the issue of investments and disclosure should come as no surprise to anyone. Both are bloggers first, self-appointed journalists second. Neither has come to their current “journalistic” professions from having any journalism training whatsoever. Arrington was trained as a lawyer, Huffington was a socialite. This is not to say they can’t write or that they haven’t aspired to become journalists in their own rights or that they aren’t running decent publications. But, that ingrained code of journalistic ethics that anyone who’s grown up in newsrooms knows is clearly missing here.
Ultimately granting special dispensation to editors or bloggers allowing them to skirt given ethical practices within a profession is dangerous to the free press and to the future of quality media. Kara Swisher (who has a very lengthy disclosure on her own blog) is not only practicing great journalism by investigating this matter, but she should also be lauded for keeping the code of ethics alive and well within the profession. You simply can’t be a legitimate member of the Fourth Estate if someone’s buying or funding your own estate behind the scenes.
Full Disclosure: I am an unabashed fan-girl of Kara Swisher, but I own no investments in her whatsoever.