Media Legitimacy: The Core Responsibility of the Media

The ideal of journalism is to be responsible to the truth. Whether individual journalists or publications meet that ideal is often debated, but they all, at a basic level, have a definitive responsibility– to their readers.

There is a common belief that blogging can meet this challenge. “Blogging puts journalists in closer contact with their readers,” Wall Street Journal technology reporter Jeremy Wagstaff told ReadMe, an NYU student publicaiton, two years ago. This may be so for small audiences (though only one person commented on Wagstaff’s blog in the last two weeks). And it is certainly true that someone who doesn’t have to leave their computer– to go into the field, to go on television– has an easier time interacting with readers via email. It helps to have good public forum software to do so; most newspaper and magazine websites picked forum software in the late 1990’s that is still cumbersome to use, and discourages the actual people in the media from using them.

Conversations… or Contracts

The news has turned “from a lecture to a conversation,” former San Jose Mercury-News columnist Dan Gillmor wrote in to We the Media (and Jay Rosen repeated. But it’s far from clear that every reader has the wherewithal to participate. And at larger scales, it’s impossible to handle it all. Instead, what is constant with the media is that there is a contract of expectations between reader and writer.

Consider a statement from the introduction of We the Media, “You might write us a letter; we might print it.” This is a contract of expectations. The smaller the circulation, the less letters that come in, the greater the chance that the expectation would be fulfilled. In the case of a large and influential newspaper like the New York Times, the contract may simply allow for somebody else’s letter would get in. Similarly a number of the large blogs do not automatically post public comments either (see this handy chart); it is not inherent in blogs to do so at all, and, as with the Times, it is up to the whim of the editors.

This gets to the core of the core of the media contract– how do you treat your most devoted readers, whether they are the one who send in valuable tips, or those that put up a good argument?

The Tipping Points

While researching my report on inclusiveness at the “webcred” conference, I got to talk over email with several people who felt that none of the invited fifty conference attendees represented them at all. A number of the attendees, like Gillmor and Rosen, claimed to be the blogging champions of the little guy, but a vocal group of “little guys” didn’t see it that way.

One of them was Ron Brynaert, a liberal advocate, who a couple of weeks later began producing evidence of regular plagiarism in the “Talon News Service,” home of the infamous “Jeff Gannon” reporter (in the span of the investigation, this was on February 6th, a couple of days before the story broke nationally). Ron felt he never got enough credit for this, and two weeks later to sent a nasty missive to leading liberal blogger Atrios (alias of Duncan Black) which began “since writing emails to you is obviously a waste of time…I might as well write to you in gobbledy-gook” (and then proceeded with such vitriol that he knew it would get posted) Atrios dutifully obliged without comment, though the next day he articulate his suggestions for what he looks for in reader tips.

Another correspondent, Paul Lukasiak, has been a regular critic of Jeff Jarvis, the well-known blog promoter. Paul wrote me and others last week to inform us that any mention of his name in a comment on Jarvis’s blog is flagged as questionable content (I didn’t see this when according to I tested it). But I do sympathize with Paul, having corresponded with him numerous times, and agreeing that the ideas we share are not being voiced at the higher levels. Jarvis responds at times– he did to Paul once, and also responded to a question I had. He’s the President of Advance Net, online divisions of Advance Media, which owns Conde Nast, and thus The New Yorker— so why had he been losing his lunch over future of the Times? Jenny D, a former magazine editor, asked about Advance Net’s slowness in there doing any citizen’s media in her Midwestern college town. His response: “I don’t discuss my employer’s policies here because it’s not the proper forum for it.” But he did visit Jenny’s blog and leave a friendly comment a few days later. That’s conversation, but we didn’t learn very much.

“The media has one set of gatekeepers. The blogosphere has a different set of gatekeepers,” Seth Finkelstein wrote to the readers of David Weinberger’s blog. He’s asserted that point many times. And there’s been no counter-argument from Weinberger, Jarvis, Rosen, or Gillmor.

What to Do

Just who is legitimate to their readers? It’s not obvious. I’d like to believe that a software technology can help facilitate legitimacy, but it’s not out there today. Blogs, as a technology, don’t do it.

I do have a suggestion to help get us there: I wrote up a survey of about thirty questions that should shed light on this: How legitimate are you to your readers? The hypothesis is that those press institutions who are able to forge the strongest bond with their readers will be most apt to succeed in the long run.

We may find that the well-known blogs of the “A-list,” those often cited by the media, vary widely in how legitimate they’re seen by their readers. And we also may find that blogs are not automatically more legitimate than traditionally media. But we have to do some research first in order to draw any solid conclusions.