By William B. Ketter
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — In this age of the blogosphere, journalists need a clear eye and a sure foot to walk that narrow line between reporting the news and advocating about it. There's increasing temptation to cross the line, given the proliferation of cyberspace commentary camouflaged as news.
Nearly everybody, of course, has opinions about the news. That includes reporters and editors. But they are trained to set aside their personal sentiments and play it straight. Fairness, balance and accuracy are supposed to be their guiding principles.
In cyberspace, that's the exception instead of the rule. Blogs and other forms of conversation on the Web, by their untamed nature, tend toward partisan speculation, assumption and bias. Credibility doesn't seem to matter.
Yet blogs are growing in popularity, reports James Gentry, dean of journalism at the University of Kansas. He told a seminar I attended at the Society of Professional Journalists convention in Chicago last week that a new blog is created almost every second.
The aggregate number of blogs on the Web is now in the 30 million range, reports Gentry. That compares with about 10,000 daily and weekly U.S. newspapers, and a like number of radio, television and cable outlets that provide at least some news.
"The business is changing right before your eyes," said Gentry. "Ordinary members of the public are turning into photographers and reporters. It is a world of mine, yours and ours."
This do-it-yourself journalism is practiced with camera phones, digital recorders and keyboards connected to the Internet. Everything from pet pictures to the sounds of the war in Iraq can be found on blogs. The vast majority are simply stream-of-consciousness text ramblings on general and special-interest topics.
Academics have labeled it "citizen journalism," and warnings that it could further fragment the media market have moved many news organizations to create their own blogs. They are seen as another way to provide news and improve communication with the communities they seek to serve. A newspaper in Madison, Wis., for example, even allows its readers to select stories for the next day's front page.
Starting a blog is easy. No expensive newsprint, press or federal broadcast license is required. Only a computer and software that permits instant interactivity. Search engines can attract participants, especially if the blog is easy to use and features clever information.
The problem is the quality of the information. Much of it is second and third hand, and has not been checked out. It is also usually presented with a point of view.
That worries veteran journalists like David Broder, the national political correspondent and columnist for The Washington Post. Speaking recently at a public affairs conference in upstate New York, he said blogs and stories that spring up on them are often not verified.
"It is very easy to convince yourself that when you are sitting at the desk, punching keys on your computer, you are reporting. But you have to remind yourself that's not what reporting is," said Broder.
"Reporting involves getting up off your chair, getting on your feet, going out to where things are happening, looking with your own eyes, listening with your own ears, asking your own questions, forming your impressions, and then coming back and trying to collect (make sense out of) what you have gathered. And then put it together in story form. That's what reporting is."
Surprisingly, there is an informal code of ethics for bloggers. It was created by the Web site cyberjournalist.net and modeled after the Society of Professional Journalists code. It implores bloggers to be "honest and fair," and when publishing questionable information, "make it clear it's in doubt."
But how do you get bloggers, most of whom have no grounding in journalism, on 30 million sites to comply?
You don't. That's why it is important that professional journalists who blog not get co-opted by the colorations of this form of communication. For the good of the news business, we need to hold the line between fact-based news and sensationalized speculation. And we need to do more of the kind of reporting that David Broder recommends.
William B. Ketter is editor-in-chief of the Eagle-Tribune newspapers. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.