The Blog Mob

Information is more conveniently disseminated, and there’s more of it, because anybody can chip in. There’s more “choice”–and in a sense, more democracy. Folks on the WWW, conservatives especially, boast about how the alternative media corrodes the “MSM,” for mainstream media, a term redolent with unfairness and elitism.

The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps. —Joseph RagoThe Blog Mob  (Opinion Journal)

Well, yes… some blogs that focus on critiquing (or just ranting about) what the mainstream media produce certainly do piggyback upon the accomplishments of, and rush in to fill the gaps left by, professional journalists.

Just a few years ago, it was not at all uncommon to find local TV news outlets and local papers spreading spoof stories as if they were true. (See “Onion Taken Seriously, Film at 11“) And then there is Dan Rather’s reckless defense of suspicious documents related to George W. Bush’s National Guard service — suspicions which were raised by bloggers.

I don’t intend to repeat a litany of important stories that were ignored by the mainstream media until bloggers had already waded into the fray. That’s because doing good journalism is time-consuming and costly. No matter what the big news organizations decide is worth covering, somebody somewhere will have the time and the inclination to sift through stacks of documents or make enough phone calls or simply be in the right place at the right time. In the past, the local amateur historian or neighborhood sleuth would have to call up a reporter in order to get an audience and the reporter would get credit for breaking the story. Now, those people can put their work in front of an audience. And sometimes that work is shoddy, ridiculous, malicious, and a waste of time.

But not always.

In every class that I teach, I try to make the point that anybody can post whatever they want online. It is easy for the naive reader to be fooled. Bloggers who think critically and link critically actually affect Google’s results for other internet users who may not be sophisticated or diligent enough to be skeptical about what they read.

That’s why I spend so much time teaching basic research practices (citing your sources, checking for good sources before you cite, understanding that the first amendment doesn’t make it legal to lie about people, to expose their private affairs, or to slander their character or professional competency). My students are, of course, free to blog about whatever they wish, but I evaluate them based on whether they actually include a quotation from the material they are writing about. I like to see it when they link to people who agree with them, disagree with them, or have done extensive background research on a subject.

I am glad to see Rago’s observation that blogs are better at transmitting opinion than doing reportage, since at the very least he is at that point recognizing that there are more ways to evaluate a blog than how well it does the job that professional journalists are supposed to be doing.