Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blogging standards

There has been a recurrent discussion about whether bloggers are journalists, and thus should be held to journalistic standards. That discussion has been frequently derailed by pointing out the obvious differences between a blog and a newspaper. You can't confuse this blog with the Washington Post, thus blogging and journalism are totally different, thus journalistic standards don't apply. The disadvantage of that approach is that blogs come across as "less than" journalism, and bloggers as wannabe journalists who failed to live up to the journalistic standards of independence, truthfullness, accuracy, and fairness. I think a more helpful approach would be to say that the methods, purpose, and resources of a blog are fundamentally different from that of a newspaper; and from that to conclude that blogging has its own standards, instead of being held accountable to the standards of a different medium. In this post I would like to explore what those blogging standards should me in my personal opinion, and in how far they are similar or different to journalistic standards. Warning: This is going to be long!

To thus develop blogging standards from journalistic standards, we first need to look at how the role of a blog is different from that of a newspaper. A newspaper, as the name says, is there mainly to report news. The principle concern, and the reason that journalistic standards exist, is that the facts have to be accurate and truthful. The worry is that a newspaper writes something that isn't true, either because the journalist was too lazy to check the facts, or because he deliberately writes something untrue, to either advance his own agenda, or the agenda of somebody he is beholden to.

A blog is fundamentally different, because they are not media to report facts, but outlets of opinions. Reader don't come to let's say a game blog because they want to know facts about when a game is released, or what the retail price is; they come to read an opinion about whether the game is any good. By definition for opinions there is no absolute truth, an opinion can't be right or wrong (although the arguments supporting an opinion can be). To get back to the game example, even for a game most people consider bad, there are always some people who like that game. And their opinion is just as valid as the opinion of those who hate that game.

In view of these fundamental differences, let's have a look at what I would consider good blogging standards, starting with accuracy and truthfulness: As I would not expect readers to use a blog as their one and only source of facts, I do not consider fact-checking as essential for a blogger as for a journalist. In most cases bloggers don't even have the same means and resources to check facts: A journalist can for example call a company to check facts and get their side of a story, but a blogger simply wouldn't get an answer if he tried that. I wouldn't even consider it necessary for bloggers to always be truthful. Sometimes writing for example "fake news" can be a good style tool to get a point across. Persiflage often contains deliberately exaggerated untruths.

In many cases the facts are simply unknown, or there are only approximate numbers available. But on a blog the validity of the arguments does often not depend on having exact numbers. It is a cheap trick of trolls and people who disagree with a blogger's opinion to pretend that exact numbers matter, and declaring an opinion for "wrong", because it is impossible to get the real numbers. Just look at the eternal discussion about MMORPG subscription numbers, you'll find many examples there. But facts are simply not the main purpose of a blog, and are therefore not an important part of blogging standards.

The next blogging standard I would like to talk about is being "fair and balanced", which is linked to being independent and not beholden to a company or other special interest group. As already the classic media fall way short of this, I don't think it is reasonable to demand balanced reporting from a blogger. Blogs are about opinions, and to write a good opinion one has to take sides. A completely balanced opinion ends up not being one at all, is bland, and doesn't inspire a lively discussion. Although only a fool never changes his mind, bloggers tend to be associated with their repeated stance on similar issues. Thus readers know how to interpret a one-sided opinion in light of the previous form of the blogger. Good bloggers tend to at least cite possible counterarguments, or to admit both good and bad points in a product they review, but that is more a sign of the quality of the blog than of ethical standards for blogging. Claiming that a successful game is the worst game ever and has no redeeming features at all just doesn't sound believable, and ends up coming across as an insult to many readers. Much better to admit what a game does right to explain it's success, and then criticize it's weak points, if you want reasonable people to listen to you.

The dangers of a lack of independence of bloggers are often exaggerated. It isn't as if companies had huge budgets to bribe bloggers. The recent argument that some game bloggers dream of working for a game company one day and would therefore be biased towards writing only nice things about those is completely spurious. In the few cases where bloggers actually became developers, they didn't get there by saying nice things about games, but by criticizing games harshly, but precisely. Just look up Lum the Mad if you don't believe me. Opinions on blogs tend to be far more honest than those on commercial sites and print media, which live from the advertising money paid by the companies whose games they review. Bloggers might receive freebies, like free product to review. I believe the best ethical blogging standard here to be to require bloggers to disclose the fact that they received those freebies. Readers then have to decide themselves how far lets say a free game would be likely to influence the opinion of a blogger. This stance on blogging standards is shared by US law (which presumably (IANAL) applies if your blog is readable in the USA, not only if you live there).

If classical journalistic standards don't apply to bloggers, that doesn't mean that blogs shouldn't be held to some standards. But as it is opinions, and not facts, that are at the heart of blogging, these standards have to do more with the ethics of exchanging opinions.

One important standard for blogging in my mind is that opinions should be supported by arguments. Saying "game X sucks" helps nobody, unless it is followed by arguments about which features of game X the blogger considers to be so bad.

Another important ethical standard for blogging is to mention where principal ideas come from, and where appropriate to link to them. That is not to demand the impossible task of citing every blog which ever talked about a similar subject; but if a blogger is inspired to write about a subject because he read about it on another blog, it is only proper to cite that source of inspiration. It is that interlinking which ultimately creates the blogosphere as a virtual space for the exchange of ideas and opinions.

Finally, and in somewhat of a combination of the previous two, are the ethical blogging standards on the discussion between blogs. It is because blogs are talking opinion rather than facts, and because different opinions on the same subject are valid, that a discussion evolves between blogs and creates a large whole than the sum of its parts. That is a wonderful thing, because it often allows readers to see different points of view, and from the various arguments form an opinion for himself. But that only works if the responding blogger makes the effort to actually argue his opinion, bringing forth his arguments for his different point of view, adding new ideas, and pointing out potential weaknesses of the arguments of the other blogger.

It is this blogging standard where the blogosphere still needs to make progress. Far too often a disagreeing blog posts main argument is that the other blogger is an "idiot" or "moron", with supporting arguments being other insults questioning the integrity of the other blogger. That is both unethical, and counterproductive. Such a response not only makes the writer look like a bad blogger, it also makes neutral readers more inclined to believe the other blogger, who made his point with arguments instead of insults. "You're an idiot" is short for "I don't agree with you, but I can't come up with a good counterargument". That not only makes for poor blogging, it also is an admission of intellectual poverty.

I think that more or less covers the main points. What do you think about blogging standards? What points would you add, and where do you agree or disagree with my blogging standards?

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