The Good, the Blogged and the Ugly

Let’s talk a little bit about blogs for a moment. OK, a long moment…

I’ve written recently about some specific examples or blogs using questionable sourcing and misleading headlines. Soon after, observant reader Justin McElroy sent me a link to a Joystiq piece that manages to have both (they later followed up with this piece correcting the initial story).

This led Justin to ask what exactly was the point of blogs:

“I understand that bloggers don’t really see themselves as journalists per se, but what, exactly, is their role? Is it aggregation? Is it the reporting of fact? Opinion? I simply cannot find a standard to reasonably apply to blogs that they don’t consistently fail in some regard.”

After a bit of thinking and an extremely illustrative example, I think I can answer Justin’s question…

Making generalizations about blogs is like making generalizations about newspapers — anything you say would have to cover the Washington Post, the New York Post, the Podunk (Neb.) Times and the paper the Lyndon Larouche fanatics out on the corner hand out. In other words, generalizations are not very useful. But, in general, blogs have two major advantages and two major disadvantages over traditional media (and even traditional web site news sections). Here they are, in chronological order:

Advantage 1: They can post news much faster (and can post more stories more quickly than other outlets).

Disadvantage 1: They are often wrong because of advantage 1 (and the lack of fact-checking it often necessitates).

Advantage 2: They can update immediately when they are proven wrong (and often do, if they’re good).

Disadvantage 2: Users don’t always see the correction (and don’t know whom to trust… yet).

If journalism is the first draft of history, blogs are the first draft of journalism. You can look into the sausage factory and see all the swirling rumors, competing theories, and developing bits of conventional wisdom that go into making a delicious story, in close to real time. This is one main reason why they’ve beome so popular so quickly — people love taking a peek behind the curtain to see the emperor, um, making sausage.

As I said above, there are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Personally, I think the benefits outweigh the problems, as long as two things are true: the reader is aware of the problems and the blog is clear about the status of each post.

By “aware of the problems” I mean that the reader understands the inherent limitations and advantages of blogging before they go in. This is currently a problem, but one that will go away with time. Most newspaper readers generally know how to judge the information they read in the paper, based on their own experience and the general track record of the paper. Blogs, on the other hand are so new now that most people don’t know how to judge or use them. But just as people have learned over time to trust major dailies like the Washington Post more than tabloid rags like the New York Post, blogs are quickly developing reputations that are the best way for readers to protect themselves from questionable reporting.

By “the status of each post,” I mean that blogs should make it abundantly clear where any and all information they are getting is coming from, and how reliable they think it is. This is a huge problem currently, but one that is getting better on most of the bigger blogs. Explicitly mentioning the name of a person who wrote something (and linking their name to the original source, if possible) is good sourcing. Posting the word “link” at the end of a post without further explanation is not good sourcing. Using words like “rumored,” “reportedly” or the name of the source in headlines and first sentences (not buried!) is good sourcing. Implying something questionable is absolutely true by using strong declarative headlines or vague, leading questions is not good sourcing. The better the sourcing, the more useful your post is to the reader, and the more likely the reader will come to find your blog useful.

So let’s take these recommendations and look at a real life example of how news works in the gaming blogosphere. Recently, a post appeared on Matt Casamassina’s personal blog, that the long-time Nintendo correspondent will soon be covering other systems. Kotaku (who I have written for in the past) quickly picks up the story and mentions it in a short post (advantage 1).

Notice all the attribution Kotaku uses in their story. “Matt ‘Nintendo’ Casamassina … announced today,” “He writes that,” “the post on his official blog.” AND they provide a link back to the original post (which has since been removed). For the reader, there’s no question where this information is coming from — Matt’s blog (and therefore, supposedly, Matt).

The wrinkle here: Another post soon pops up on Matt’s personal blog implying that the initial post was just a joke played on Matt by some co-workers. Kotaku’s original post noted that they had followed up with Matt for confirmation, but had not received a response before posting the story. This is important because it’s a big difference from traditional journalism. On any story of even minor importance stories of major importance, most newspapers would insist on direct confirmation from the source or at least two outside sources before even printing the story. (Update: Upon reflection, most papers will only insist on this high standard for highly important stories. See comments). With blogs, the post can be more immediate, but also more succeptible to inaccuacy. (disadvantage 1)

Upon hearing that they had been pranked, Kotaku posts a somewhat snarky follow up post correcting the story (this highlights another general feature of blogs — opinionated name calling). This is where advantage 2 comes into play — any regular reader of Kotaku will see the new post and immediately have the correct story. Yes, the readers had the wrong story for a matter of hours, but like I said, blogs are a first draft, and readers should come into them knowing this. What’s more, thanks to the accurate sourcing on the original story, parts of it were still technically right (i.,e. a post on Matt’s blog did actually say he was leaving, even if Matt didn’t write it).

But disadvantage 2 is also in play here. If a read was simply directed to the original post by an outside link, they will end up with outdated, inaccurate information. Kotaku can limit the damage by posting a prominent update to the story on the original post itself, with a link to the updated post (something they have not done as of yet). If this happens, subsequent people coming across the story will haev the correct version and eventually the word will get out that the original story was wrong.

What you do NOT want to do (and some sites DO do this) is post a rumor and/or questionable story and then forget about it, totally ignoring any new or contradictory information. Not only is it a disservice to your readers, but trying to hide the fact that you were wrong will eventually come back to bite you in the ass. Most readers use a multiplicity of sources on the web, and if everyone but you has corrected the story, the readers will begin to question your credibility. As readers begin to realize they can’t trust anything you write to be accurate, even eventually, they will stop coming to you for news of any kind.

Which brings us back to IGN and what I said earlier about building reputations being the great divider in blogs. Taking down the original joke and putting up a cryptic allusion to it might fly on April Fool’s day, but not in the middle of June. Who is going to trust anything out of IGN now that they’ve proven that they will post knowingly false things on their blogs just for a laugh? Already comments are coming in on another IGN blog post about people canceling their IGN accounts because they are tired of this (see that? That’s an unconfirmed report based on an anonymous message board comment. Yay blogs!).

In short: Posting something you’re not sure is true, labeling it as such, and updating it when it’s shown to be false is OK (if not traditional, overcautious journalism). Posting something you know is false, implying that it is true, and hiding it when it is shown to be false is definitely NOT OK (and the defense of “everyone should have known it was a joke” does not hold water unless the satire is MUCH more obvious than it was in this case).

So congratulations, IGN and Kotaku. In a matter of a couple posts you have managed to illustrate almost everything that is good and bad about blogging. Justin, I hope I answered your question.

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