Truth's the blues but lies have fun

9 August 2005

There has been quite a debate in blogworld about the difference between bloggers and journalists. One of the latest arguments comes from David Berlind at ZDnet who put both on a continuum between fact-checking everything and fact-checking nothing. For some, it is truth at all costs; for others, the odd lie is not a problem.

As the Internet extends its reach, bloggers and journalists are getting lumped together. And I don't see much of a problem with that, although it is going to cause some chaos in the short term. Right now there are some obvious differences, but they are gradually disappearing. There is a good argument that journalists seek out new sources for exclusives, but so do some bloggers. Conversely, a good many stories that appear on news websites are largely quoted from other, possibly competing sources. And the bloggers who comment on stories are doing much the same thing as newspaper columnists, just with more hyperlinks and, on average, smaller audiences. The difference, it would seem between those two extremes of truth versus spin, is one of credibility.

Credibility is something that concerns bloggers very much, it seems, given all the arguments over whether Technorati classifies the top 100 correctly, or whether journo-bloggers should have their phone calls or emails answered by PRs. Grassroots Media, which includes Dan Gilmor among its number, came up with the idea of getting bloggers to put "honour tags" on their posts to identify to readers what the blogs are meant to achieve. Their dream was a self-regulating network of bloggers who would do exactly what their tags said.

None of these things will do much to distinguish one writer from another one in the long term, which is just as well. Link farmers were hardly going to attach HonorTagPokerSpam to fake entries in their bids to hit the top of the Google rankings.

All that counts is what audience has chosen you. Notice that I did not write, the audience you choose. People write things to get read. They might be happy to know that only one person will read the text while they are alive or unhappy that only 10 000 happen by the blog in a month. But they cannot do much to achieve their chosen aim except to try to write things that get them an audience they are comfortable with.

Credibility as measured by the ability to report facts is important in many cases, but it is not necessarily the route to success in either blogging or journalism. Many surveys have pointed to increasing distrust in the stories that newspapers carry. Yet people continue reading them. True, circulations have dropped off but at nowhere the rate you would expect if people felt that what they were reading was of no value. They might not believe stories, but they continue to read. Part of this you can put down to the human need for gossip and rumour. Columnists and bloggers who pander to that can expect to do as well if not better than those writers who fact-check assiduously, just as long as they are entertaining. It is only if they start to get things badly wrong or misread their audience that things will go sour.

The same goes for Technorati's ratings. If people find that its top 100 does not give them what they want to read, they will go and find some other rating system. Natural selection will ensure that audiences continue to get the media that they deserve (and secretly want). And writers, of whatever form, will be there to serve up the raw material.