As an interesting little side-note to the latest whine-fest about how the intarnets are destroying journalism, this article at Newsweek whingeing about how bloggers aren't willing to give interviewers carte-blanche on their terms sure is a treat. Now, Winer is notorious for being touchy and tough to deal with, and Calacanis is not known as the nicest guy on the web either, but still, they have good reason to be suspicious. Most bloggers who have dealt with the media at all do, because they have in many cases learned from hard experience. Now that they have enough power to have some degree of control of how the media represents them, they're certainly justified in using it.
"The interviewer used to be in charge, but that's no longer the case," says media blogger Jeff Jarvis. "I can decide how long the quote is, I can make sure the context is accurate."
All this can be unnerving to someone (like, um, me) who has spent a career conversing with people on the other end of the phone line or lunch table. A live interview allows me not only to follow up quickly but to sense the verbal cues that direct me to more fruitful topics. In e-mail, people talk at you; in conversation I can talk with subjects, and a casual remark can lead to a level of discussion that neither party anticipated from the beginning. I am more likely to learn from someone in a conversation than in an e-mail exchange, which simply does not allow for the serendipity, intensity and give-and-take of real-time interaction.
We in the journalism tribe operate under the belief that when we ask people to talk to us we are not acting out of self-interest but a sense of duty to inform the population. It's an article of our faith that when subjects speak to us, they are engaging in a grand participatory act where everyone benefits. But these lofty views don't impress bloggers like Rosen. "You have to prove [you represent the public]," he says.
Yes, we do. But every time we lose the priceless knowledge from those essential, real-time interviews, our stories are impoverished, to the detriment of our readers: you.
There is a reason that bloggers feel like reporters have to prove that they represent the public and are acting in good faith. And that is primarily that almost all of us, or at least someone we know, have at one point or another naively and in good faith given an interview about blogs or online culture to some traditional media outlet, and upon reading the end-product, found it to be a total misrepresentation of the content of the interview given and the terms under which it was given.
Over and over again, I've seen reporters come into stories about blogging and other geeky lifestyle stuff with a pre-written thesis that they're seemingly determined to cram whatever their interview subjects say into, regardless of whether said thesis stands up to the reality of the people they are supposedly trying to learn about. In just the most recent of many, many examples that I know of, a friend of mine was interviewed about fantasy hockey. The reporter pitched it as sort of an expository/anthropological lifestyle piece, and said he just wanted some info on the appeal and mechanics and what have you of online fantasy sports. The finished piece focused almost entirely on gambling and addiction, which scarcely came up in the interview itself, and it had a real "look at the freaks!" feel to it, further reinforced by the photo (now gone, retrieved from archive.org) they published with it, which almost seemed calculated to make him look like a pathetic loner or something, which he (and most of us who are thriving in the online world) is decidedly not.
Seeing this kind of thing play out over and over again has made me increasingly suspicious that this happens constantly on much more serious subjects as well. Some of it may be simple ignorance, but ignorance is no excuse for how some of these things come out. More like incompetence that is in effect indistinguishable from malice, if we are going to be generous about motives here.
Isn't the job of a reporter to go out and find the facts, and then write a story, instead of pre-writing a story and then cherry-picking facts to flesh it out? Sure, to even have the idea of a story you may have to have an angle in mind, just like scientists have to have a hypothesis to work from, but when the facts don't bear your hypothesis out, you're supposed to rethink it. If you're not doing that, you're not seeking the truth, you're creating it from whole cloth. Insofar as their mission is to turn out journalists with the tools and mentality needed to seek the truth, journo schools are not doing their job, if the often laughable coverage of any of the subcultures and technological changes that I've been a part of and am semi-expert on is any indication.
Now, there are plenty of ways to begin to earn back that trust. Some reporters, (but not nearly enough of them) are doing a very good job of using the interactivity of the web to turn these things into a public dialogue, which eventually results in them getting it mostly right by the end of the discussion. Another way to do this would be to use these tools to provide much greater transparency to the whole newsmaking process. Frontline, for example, does a very good thing, in that they still make and edit down their show as they always have, but they then post the full interviews and lots of the other background that went into making it to their website, so anyone who wants the extra context can easily get it, and anyone who feels they have been misrepresented by the finished product can point to the original sources by way of defense and correction.
In the absence of the limitations and costs of print, this should be fairly trivial for newspapers to implement. It would increase trust immensely, and it would allow bloggers and others to dig around in the source material and find new angles and connections, and ultimately help the journalists to do their job and uphold their civic obligations. This is just one of many ways in which newspapers are failing to grok the potential of the new mediums and technologies available to them, and in doing so, endangering their own survival and failing the people they claim to work on behalf of.