December 27, 2008 | Graham

Bloggers exist because of “safety first” – Rosen

Jay Rosen says on Twitter: “You know why there are bloggers, @Newshour? Because there is “safety first” reasoning in news. People get sick of it and take up their pens.”
Not sure that I totally agree.
Why do I blog? I’m a statistically inadequate sample of one, so this is not a rebuttal of the statement but rather an exploration using the material that I know the best – me.
I blog because of the lack of depth in the reportage of that part of the news that I understand the best – news and current affairs. Is that because of “safety first” reasoning amongst journalists?
If by “safety first” Rosen is referring to a herd mentality, then I think there is something in that, but it only goes so far as an explanation. My hypotheses may feed into a tendency to prefer the herd view but they also stand on their own.
The first hypothesis is that most journalists lack real experience of the political process and as a result a real understanding of what they are reporting. As a political strategist I’ve invested real money and real time in trying to achieve a superior result in elections and also in government. I have experience as a participant and demonstrated expertise.
As a result of this lack of experience and expertise journalists have only a partial understanding of what is happening and they are more susceptible to the lines they are fed by others, and also their own self-delusions as to how the process should or could work.
The second hypothesis is that most journalists on most stories lack the time to research the issues properly. So they go to sources that are believed to be “reliable” and write stories that are obvious and conform to established narratives. Yet much of what is happening in politics that is really interesting is not obvious and is an innovation on an established narrative. The people prosecuting these successful strategies have a vested interest in hiding them from everyone, frequently even their friends and allies. Journalists are the last to be told, and secondary sources the last way that they will find out. Which leads to the third hypothesis.
Journalists do not have the tools to research politics and current affairs stories properly – which is to say independently of secondary sources. Much modern politics is directed by polling (although not as much as many would have you believe). That’s why I started online qualitative polling – to get access to the same information that the protagonists have. Otherwise you end up just retailing gossip. It’s good to see newspapers in Australia investing more in polling, but they are still a long way from investing enough in the right places.
A final hypothesis is that the quality of journalists is simply not good enough. There are two arms to this hypothesis.
One is that it is the fault of the education system – that is training. I think that journalism ought to be a graduate, not an undergraduate, degree and that preferably journalists reporting on higher end issues ought to have some non-academic experience in that area, and demonstrated skill. I also think that there is not enough independent thinking taught in educational institutions. As a result many journalists hold down a job because of their presentational rather than analytical skills.
The second arm is that there are too many journalists today, which mathematically must lower quality on average – that is aptitude. Less should mean more, within bounds. For example, there is only one Laurie Oakes, so all the other analytical positions must be filled by someone else. Laurie is arguably the best political journalist in the country, and one who sets rather than follows the agenda. But on the assumption that he is the best, and given that most of us, for reasons of programming, convenience, habit etc. listen to someone else, then we are listening to second best, which is what we get.
The crisis in print journalism might actually be a blessing in disguise. Paring the number of journalists back because of cost pressures should tend to leave only the best there.
So, a consequence of lack of experience, lack of understanding, lack of resources, lack of tools, lack of proper training and lack of aptitude may well be that journalists end up practising “safety first”. Or it may just be that journalism is a social activity and we tend to herd in social activities, which looks like “safety first”.
If Rosen’s hypothesis is true, then I think we should expect to see scuds of bloggers who disagree with each other, but in my observation that is not the case. What tends to happen is that bloggers herd together in mutually reinforcing circles. There may be more points of view than are represented in the MSM, so there is less uniformity and more niches, but as there are more bloggers than journalists I doubt whether this represents a real increase in the risk profile.
In which case, perhaps the urge to blog is driven not so much by the tendency of journalists towards “safety first”, but because journalists are by and large socially homogenous and don’t reaffirm the views of most bloggers, who in reaction create their own social networks.
Which is not why I blog at all, but then, I am an statistically inadequate sample, and this post is pure speculation on which I hope to get some feedback from other bloggers.

Posted by Graham at 3:23 pm | Comments (1) |
Filed under: Media

1 Comment

  1. Many bloggers, like myself, write primarily because we want to communicate, we feel a need to communicate, and in my case to provide an alternative perspective on important environmental issues.

    Comment by Jennifer Marohasy — December 29, 2008 @ 10:56 am

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