Ground zero for credibility in blogging and journalism

Ground zero for credibility in blogging and journalism

Summary: This blog entry originally started as an e-mail to media academicians (ie: John Palfrey, Jay Rosen, and David Weinberger), media revolutionaries (ie: Dave Winer, Jason Calacanis, and Dan Gillmor), public relations/marketing mavens (ie: Andy Lark and Steve Rubel), and media researchers such as Forrester's Charline Li.  Then I realized, why not share it with everyone.

TOPICS: Browser

This blog entry originally started as an e-mail to media academicians (ie: John Palfrey, Jay Rosen, and David Weinberger), media revolutionaries (ie: Dave Winer, Jason Calacanis, and Dan Gillmor), public relations/marketing mavens (ie: Andy Lark and Steve Rubel), and media researchers such as Forrester's Charline Li.  Then I realized, why not share it with everyone.

If you didn't follow the vociferously argued debate between me and Microsoft's Robert Scoble (in our blogs) about fact checking, then you can start here and work your way back through it. But you really don't have to to get the gist of what I'm about to say. What started as a disagreement (over the how the service Technorati should be evaluated) shifted into a discussion of journalism and blogging and finally landed on an important point that really sets the stage for the next big mind meld on blogging, journalism, and credibility. 

That stage might not have been set had Dave Winer not chimed in with the phrase "taking a chance." Whether he knew or not, his usage of that phrase may have pinpointed ground zero for those still struggling to articulate the difference between bloggers and journalists in the context of credibility. As many have written or implied before, these aren't two mutually exclusive realms with a portal between them that when crossed, magically changes one's credibility. Here's why.

Across the spectrum of those who think of themselves as journalists, you'll find some taking more chances than others. On the right end (appropriately so because it is ultra conservative behavior) of the spectrum are journalists that cross every single t three times, dot every single i four times, and double check every single fact they've asserted even though they may already know it to be true. They don't take any chances.   

As you look left, you'll find journalists (in fact, the bulk of them) that take some chances. The more you move to the left on the spectrum, the more chances those journalists take  (less and less fact checking). If the spectrum is the x-axis on a graph and the y-axis is the number of all journalists, you wouldn't see many so-called journalists at either extreme and you might see a big hump closer to the fact checking end. Likewise, based on that dialog with Robert Scoble and Dave Winer, you'd probably see the number of bloggers taking chances rise steadily as you move from right to left.  With the transluscent wedge representing self-proclaimed bloggers and the beige-ish area representing self-proclaimed journalists, the graph might look something like this.

source: me (I'm positing this.  It's not actual data)

A few measurements are noteworthy on this graph. First, while the number of bloggers that purely fact check their work shrinks as you move to the right, it never goes to zero. I'm guessing that there are at least some people out there that think of themselves as bloggers that take no chances. Also noteworthy is that there is no such thing as a journalist that doesn't take big chances. They exist.

Also of import is that  the spectrum from purely fact checked on the right to big chances on the left is not, by itself, a guaranteed gauge of credibility (although some may use it that way).  Other factors can affect credibility.  For example, just because something isn't fact checked doesn't mean the writer doesn't know it  to be true because of his or her expertise. But, given this information, another factor that could help gauge credibility might be a writer's agenda.  While it can be argued that all writers have an agenda, I think that as you move left across the spectrum, the likelihood that you'll encounter highly agenda-driven writing (the type that draws credibility into question) goes up. If you really wanted to, you could overlay one more wedge on this graph to represent the range of writers that might have an agenda. It would start somewhere above zero way off to the right (there are plenty of heavy fact checking writers with a agenda) and grow from there as you move to the left.  

You should also note that the labels "bloggers" and "journalists" are purposely left off the graph and the y-axis is simply lableled number of writers.  That's because the two areas shouldn't be overlayed as they are in the above graph.  They should be stacked. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether people think of themselves as bloggers or journalists.  They're all writers, all taking chances. Some less than others. Some more than others. And, as has been proven in multiple instances -- depending on how many writers glom on -- a greater degree of chance-taking can sometimes flush out the truth in a heartbeat. Dan Rather took a chance and wasn't long before the truth was out.  Whether or not a particular writer arrives at the truth through chance-taking or fact checking is not a matter of what he or she calls himself. 

It's a matter of personal style and their comfort level with the chosen approach and all that goes with it (eg: impact on audience perception). When Robert Scoble decided that the time may have come to do more fact checking, he didn't go from being a blogger to a journalist. He went from being a writer that took more chances to a writer that took fewer. You'd be hard pressed to find a self-proclaimed journalist that hasn't also moved in one direction or another for whatever reasons.

This is a good time to draw the public relations community into the discussion.  Much the same way writers find themselves wanting to do more or less fact checking, a lot of that has to do with how quickly we can get a response. Before recently writing a blog about how Bank of America was falling short on an advertised IT- guaranteed promise, I called the company for comment.  I found a warm body to talk to and if she herself wasn't the person who could get me the answers to my questions, she clearly knew who that person was (based on my conversation). I called on a Monday.  She asked if it was OK if someone got back to me on that Friday. "Um, no" I said. "I was thinking like the next 30 minutes."   We were miles apart on what a reasonable time frame might be.   Right now, as I write this I'm working on another blog and am trying to find out exactly what "unacceptable potential risks" Continental's free Wi-Fi access points at Boston's Logan International Airport pose to the communication gear used by the Massachusetts State Police and the Transportation Security Administration. So far, of the people I've contacted, only the State Police have gotten back to me and all they did was refer me back to MassPort (the state agency that runs the airport). 

Last week, I received a letter from Siebel CRM OnDemand CRM Bruce Cleveland that was worthy of further exploration.  Earlier this week, I asked Siebel's public relations folks for some of Cleveland's time. I was offered another a briefing with another executive.  Next Wednesday. [Update: Now, I've been offered Monday.  Accepted but still wish it was yesterday.]

Thanks to the blogosphere, on relatively short order, I went from writing twice a week to 10-15 times a week and sometimes more. There are plenty more where I came from that are feeling and responding in-kind to that same pressure. But, as the established media community picks up the pace, there are those of us in it who would prefer to keep constant the number of chances we're taking.  But if the PR community doesn't also reinvent itself to keep pace with the media revolution by responding to the fact checkers on blogopshere time, it will leave those writers with no choice but to take more chances. I don't know about you, but if I were a PR professional, I sure wouldn't want to be the guy that blew that one opportunity to contain the story that snow-balled into a disaster for the company I represent.

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime  - Eminem

Topic: Browser

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  • Good Post!

    Things move faster, companies (execs, pr) need to's
    internet time.
  • Wondering about the graph...

    Are you graphing data?

    The reason I ask is because the graph debunks my own observations. If you take just one fact reported by conservative authors - Al Gore claimed to invent the internet - I would have to say very many of them failed to checked that fact.

    So, if there's a body of data that says conservative authors nearly always check their facts and liberal authors nearly never do, as the graph suggests, then I would like to see those data.

    If the graph does not represent a body of data, then its use in an article about author credibility suggests that you, Berlind, have scant appreciation for journalism and credibility. I hope that's not the case.

    So - source the graph.

    none none
    • Liberal / Conserative not always about political ideology

      My take on the blog is that the term "Conservative" and "Liberal" are not necessarily referring to one's political ideologue, but rather to conservative being more cautious and liberal being more willing to take chances.

      By the way, the Gore comment that was taken to be claiming credit for inventing the internet was [i]But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I've traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.[/i]

      According to the internet was invented in 1973 and the paper was published in 1974.

      According to Gore was first elected to congress in 1976.

      At best Gore's comments are extremely self-serving and a distortion of reality. Even if we assume that he's not claiming that he created, er invented the internet but merely financed it's creation in congress.
    • The source is me... so it's open source. Change it (if you want)

      None none:

      I think I said right below the graph that I was guessing on few items. I meant I was guessing about the data in coming up with the graph, not guessing on what the graph meant. Everything on the graph is a guess. I'm positing that if you had to graph chance taking amongst writers, this is sort of what it would look like. I think it's very much open for discussion what the graf might look like and whether it could actually change from issue to issue (this is more about writers on average [across all stories], not necessarily writers on one story). But, if you wanted to apply it to one issue, if everybody is writing about how Gore invented the Internet (something he never said he did), then on that particular issue, you'd probably see the big hump of journalists move to the left. But you'd also have to ask yourself why they didn't check that fact and re-read my thoughts on a third wedge regarding agenda. Why would a journalist take that at face value without checking it? You'll also notice that I keep saying "self-proclaimed." That's because, at the end of the day, who is that says someone is a journalist vs. a blogger? Our employers? Some special agency that certifies people as being one or the other? I'm positing that it's us, the writers who decide what to call ourselves? What am I? I called myself a journalist for 13 years. Suddenly, what I do shows up in a blog format? Should I now call myself a blogger? Or, have I not earned that right because I happen to check some facts? The distinction is silly. We're all writers. Regardless of the format, how we write comes from who we are and our heart, not the format of the page or the navigational tools around our words. Some of us take more chances than others. Some have more of an agenda than others. At some point, the audience figures these things out (like what happened with Armstrong Williams) and must decide if they're comfortable with their favorite writers or not (regardless of what those writers think of themselves to be, or what others think of the writers to be).

      So, here's my permission. Take the graph. Modify it. Do what ever you want. Come up with your own hypotheses, versions, derivatives whatever. I'm just trying to help people understand why the distinction between bloggers and journalists is not a distinction worth making based on fact checking, editors, brands, employers, web page design or whatever. As the graph suggests, there's plenty of overlap between the two based on each writers approach to what they do (and it's the approach that counts) at which point, it doesn't matter what you call them.
      • Gore did make a stupid comment regarding creating the internet

        [i]...Gore invented the Internet (something he never said he did)[/i]

        Did Gore say [i]But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I've traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, [b]I took the initiative in creating the Internet[/b]. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.[/i] (emphasis added) as reported by

        While I wouldn't interpret his statements as meaning that he spent long hours in the computer room, wouldn't his comments at least mean that he supported the creation via legislation? Even though it was invented before he ran for congress the first time?

        At best Gore is a self-aggrandizing idiot for his comments ? and while he might try to spin his comments afterwards, it is reasonable to conclude from his comments that he is trying to take credit for the creation of the internet. Which is what people are lampooning him for.
        • Subject to interpretation

          I think "creating the Internet" is a loaded phrase. You could break it out and say, that means "inventing the Internet" which Gore clearly didn't do. Or you could look at what Gore did with respect to the Internet and ask if he was out of bounds in referring to that as taking "the initiative in creating the Internet."

          Clearly, by the time Gore ran for President, the Internet had come a long long way since it's very early days. In the 70's, the Internet was more the internet (lower case "i"). It wasn't the entity it was today, but rather an network of other interconnected networks all based on the same protocol. Today, the pronoun "Internet" conjures up an image that's way different from what the term conjured up 30 years ago (admittedly, it may not for some). I think this is best summarized in a paper on the media debacle and Gore's actual connection to the Internet when Richard Wiggins wrote "There were too many significant milestones in Internet history to allow for a sound-bite length description of that history."

          The paper is available at:

          and, although Gore could have done a better job articulating his involvement in the evolution of the Internet as we know it today, he was trying to prove something that was true: that has the sort of vision that other politicians do not. He was in fact very much alone as a politician championing the need for high-speed, interconnected networks. But don't take my word for it. Take TCP/IP inventors Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn's who said "Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development."

          So, I agree with Wiggins when he says "Gore is guilty of somewhat sloppy terminology, not a bold-faced lie." Mind you, that sloppy terminology surfaced when most such sloppy terminology surfaces ... during a live television interview in front of an International. Not that it's an excuse (Gore probably went "off-script" when he said that... a no-no for any politician and an art that Bush demonstrated his mastery of during the last round of presidential debates). But, having been in that situation myself numerous times, it's really easy to let the wrong word slip out.

          • "Creating"

            You said:

            [i]I think "creating the Internet" is a loaded phrase. You could break it out and say, that means "inventing the Internet" which Gore clearly didn't do. Or you could look at what Gore did with respect to the Internet and ask if he was out of bounds in referring to that as taking "the initiative in creating the Internet." [/i]

            I think you're reading more ambiguity into his phrasing than is actually there. While it's true that he never said he invented the Internet, even within the context of his speech, it's very clear that he tries to take credit for "creating" it through legislative initiatives. This shows a level of arrogance typical of politicians: Funding something and creating it, contrary to what Gore or other politicians might think, is not the same thing. If he said he "supported" the Internet, or "championed" the Internet, he wouldn't have sounded quite so insane (the insane part being anyone above the age of 5 [i]knows[/i] he never invented [b]or[/b] created the Internet.

            On the whole, it was a minor gaffe, but it's an interesting window into the psyche of a typical government official, who can't differentiate the difference between funding a technology and creating it.
          • Thank you David


            Thank you for defending Gore as creator of the internet via legislation. It was what I was looking for. Which illustrates that none-none's comments regarding "conservative journalists not doing their homework" is false. One can reasonably argue that Gore's comments were regarding creation of the internet and lampoon him for it -- and it should not draw one's credentials into question as "not checking the facts".

            [i] art that Bush demonstrated his mastery of[/i]

            Interesting binary world: the assumption that because one thinks that Gore was an opportunistic, self-aggrandizing idiot that one must support Bush.
  • getting it right (or not)

    I suppose that you hit it on the head when you said that people would decide for themselves whether or not they would trust the person writing the blog (or whatever) From a purely personal perspective, I make those kinds of calls every day, judging the worth of information recieved, deciding on whether or not to trust an individual, or how much trust they are worth. I have to assume that this is human nature (or that I'm an alien)

    That said, I judge publications in the same way, those which I trust, and those that I do not or some area in between. The trust of a publication (even though I realize that there is a lot of pressure to say good things about the advertisers, so if it's a tech publication, it goes without saying Microsoft)influences my decisions in purchasing products, and picking name brands and technologies to trust, based on the articles I read, since (especially in the tech sector) there is a dearth of informed perspective on "happenin stuff" in the libraries, and what is on tv is too brief for any real study.

    The rub for me becomes when a person who writes for a magazine, checking facts, doing the right thing (journalistically) suddenly changes to a blogger, and lo and behold, he becomes a different person, suddenly out from behind the curtain, and shows his true colors as human, fallable, and not nearly as trustworthy as he was (or seemed) when writing a column in a magazine. I beleive to be a great blogger (that is to live without an editor between you and the publication) is probably more difficult than writing a column, since you have to draw more on personal knowledge, contacts, a sense of humor and irony to get past the limitations of time. If you blog, you reveal what you know, or think you know, and if you know the difference (which for me is the ultimate measure of a person's trustworthyness, if they know what they don't know)

    Too many "journalists" fall into the trap of one sided diatribes, instead of a conversation on the relative merits of an idea, developing a greater personal understanding of what it is that they are writing about (and somehow humbling themselves, as one should in the face of greater, more credible knowledge)or just keeping it light, and allowing the discussion to lead itself without re-stating their position that they stated in the beginning post. Bloggers like everyone else could use just a drop (or a river)of learning how to listen, and process the information that they are recieving.

    the part of the graph that seems to be missing is the reader's perception of truth/honesty about a subject when being blogged or written in a publication. Real time journalism has its limitations.
    • You've hit it right on the head

      What you're saying about how a writer's trustworthiness changes when they go from being a "blogger" to a "journalist" is right on. When it comes to facts, "haste makes waste".

      What is the difference between a "blog" and a piece of journalism posted on a Website somewhere? The difference is that a blogger has no editor, no corp of fact checkers, no boss saying "go look into this story", etc. In other words, it's a one-person show. In addition, as Mr. Berlind mentions in this post, time is a factor as well. He complains that the PR people he deals with work in terms of days or weeks and he is working in hours. There is a reason for this. A journalist writes a small number of lengthy articles, and as such has the time to wait three or four days for an executive to meet. A blogger is writing "10 - 15" items a week (Mr. Berlind's numbers for himself, your milage may vary) and if a blogger waits those days for a contact to respond or have a meeting, the blog post will be considered irrelevant.

      The fact of the matter is, time is money. If an executive at a company was willing to discuss things with journalists/bloggers at a moment's notice, that executive would never be doing their job, which is running the company. I'm sure that VPs at Microsoft have better things to do with their time than spend 15 minutes to a few hours making sure that every blogger who writes about them has their side of the story. No offense to you Mr. Berlind, but you simply are not that important. Your blog is not worth an executive of a major company dropping everything immediately to meet your deadline, which based on your numbers is conservatively 4 hours per post (10 posts per week, 40 hours per week, 1 post every 4 hours). As you've noted, it isn't that these people are not willing to meet with you; it is that they do not have time to meet with you.

      At the end of the day, what makes blogs useful and interesting is their timeliness. What also makes them my last resort in terms of acquiring information is that as well. I don't have time to waste. Spending 5 minutes reading a blog where much of the information (not data, information) is the opinion of the writer that was either pre-judged or based upon information gathered in a few hours (often from sources of dubious quality), quotes from "experts" with a financial or emotional stake in the matter, or gathered around the Internet (anyone who quotes from Wikipedia is just begging to be ignored) is much less useful to me than spending 15 minutes reading an article that was properly researched.

      Again, it is a matter of trust.

      I have been a reader of ZDNet publications for quite some time, about 12 - 15 years. I remember when Mr. Berlind wrote those handful of long articles each week. Quite frankly, he has lost all credibility with me since he moved to the blog format. His blog posts (such as his ongoing tirade regarding Centrino, and the Scoble flap up) show the man underneath: quick to judge, prone to misunderstanding, and fearless in the face of criticism. His older articles show someone who was methodical regarding facts. I prefer 1 - 2 beleivable, useful articles to 10 - 15 steaming piles of dog poop each week.

      Accurate reporting is, unfortunately, a victim of the perceived need for quick reporting. The Jayson Blair situation at the New York Times is a perfect example of this. He produced articles that someone said "OK, that sounds right", no one fact checked, and next thing you know one of the most prestigious publications on the planet is the object of redicule.

      I do not beleive that quick is necessarily best. Seymore Hersh (from The New Yorker) is a great example. The New Yorker is published once a week. Mr. Hersh seems to write once a month. Yet Mr. Hersh blew open the Abu Gharaib prison scandal. More recently, he was the first to report (unless you count publications reporting about his upcoming article) about potential election rigging in Iraq. Mr. Hersh has a long history of being first to press with this types of stories. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, other recent examples of how one can still be first to print despite meticulous fact checking, source verification, etc. Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" is the definitive piece of writing on the events it covers, despite is amounting to being a book-length newspaper article.

      Blogging and other slapdash journalism may be useful or attention getting or important for events that will not matter beyond "current events", but for things that are truly important, we need better. I dread the idea that ten years from now, someone may be writing a book about, say, the election of 2004 and be using archived blogs as a credible source.

      I think blogs will survive and thrive amongst people for whom "the truth" is much less important than timeliness, confirmation of existing opinion, and rumor mongering. Traditional journalism will probably decline in popularity but continue to be favored by people who look for objectivity in their journalism. Personalyl, I read a handful of blogs (Mr. Berlind's amongst them) because I find the raw, "stream of conciousness" writing to be a useful foil for my own thoughts on the subject, but I also still read traditional journalism for its tendency to be more accurate.
      Justin James
  • Fact checking isn't required if it makes headlines.

    I can't help but remember how the "Press" covered the story on breast implants. The entire nation was convinced via the "Press" that implants caused every form of illness ever known to humankind and the result was multi-million dollar settlements that eventually bankrupted one of the US's largest chemical companies. After all, everyone just "knew" it had to be true...

    Fast forward a few years and the real facts begin to come to light and those facts showed there was never a case, not one, where the facts supported these claims. In fact after getting real facts the FDA re-approved use of the implants.

    Point being, the "Press" has a tendency to jump on anything that they think will generate readership and facts have little or nothing to do with it. Headlines sell, and selling the news is big business. (If I ever hear another article on Lacy Peterson or Jon Bennet I think I'll gag.)

    One could also point out how headlines in ZDNet are very often misleading if not right down inflammatory. The facts are placed on the back burner until the reader reads the entire article. A case of "we turn a blind eye when it comes to headlines as long as the facts are mentioned *somewhere* in the article".

    In the end, it really does come down to who the reader, viewer, listener places his or her trust in. (Can't help but think of Walter Cronkite, the man America trusts for the news.) Have they built a track history of being right? Are they willing and able to step up and say they have made a mistake? When mistake is made do they admit it publicly or is the admission buried where no one will read, see, hear it?

    Along those lines, I find it interesting that ZDNet does not and to my knowledge never has published a retraction section. I guess it's editor believes they never make mistakes so it's not needed. Hmmm, now doesn't that say volumes about their credibility???
    • Only up to a point

      Where are Laura DiDio and Rob Enderle now? In the last year, both have generated lots of headlines. Trouble is, they went from writing about the news to writing [b]as[/b] the news.

      Put another way (as the OA does) they gave up checking their facts to taking chances that they wouldn't get caught making them up. Karma can be a real bitch, especially on the "comes around" part.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Occassionally corrected

      I agree with the vast majority of what you wrote. The line [i]Along those lines, I find it interesting that ZDNet does not and to my knowledge never has published a retraction section.[/i] isn't completely fair. Occassionally I've seen a note at the beginning of an article indicating that it has been changed and at the bottom what the correction was.
  • you like 2c, I like 2b

    Main Entry: jour?nal?ism
    Pronunciation: 'j&r-n&l-"i-z&m
    Function: noun
    1 a : the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media b : the public press c : an academic study concerned with the collection and editing of news or the management of a news medium
    2 a : writing designed for publication in a newspaper or magazine b : writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation c : writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest
  • Journalistic Bloggers, I Think Not !!

    There is a Huge difference between a Blogger and a True Professional Journalist.
    You don't have to be Einstein to figure it out. But I'll spell it out anyway.
    A Blogger is a person with an opinion, Period. That's it, that's all.
    He has no credentials, no real Journalistic expertise or journalistic credibility. Although some would love to have some.
    I have an opinion, I formulate my article, do my research and write it down. This doesn't make me a Journalist.
    It makes me a blogger. [ A person with an Opinion] It takes a little more to be a Journalist.
    I don't have to tell you the Required Credentials and Disciplines of Journalism, you already know them, suffice to say that Bloggers are nowhere near the lever of Expertise of True Journalism.
    Now we have a situation whereas just because a few people can put a couple of thoughts together succinctly, they think they are Journalists. They think the have Journalistic rights. WRONG !
    I've got a flash, thy are not, they are just bloggers, just like me.
    I have no expectations or delusions of grandeur, I simply have an opinion. "Which is mine and mine alone."
    The Big difference is that One is an Opinion, the other a Professional Report.
    So for "Bloggers" to go after recognition that they don't either by their experience or education deserve is ludicrous.
    Just be glad to glad to have an outlet for your point of view and call it a day.
    But no matter how you cut it, Bloggers are just Bloggers and definitely Not Journalists.
    They are "Bloggers", plain and simple and as such should have no Journalistic Expectations and/or Special Journalistic Considerations of any kind. I've written many articles, I don't feel special and I'm certainly no Journalist.
    Thank you
    For your attention
    Aaron A baker
    Not a Journalist,
    Bloggin away.
    Aaron A Baker