Blogging without a license

At the PCIJ blogging forum yesterday, I adverted to the "metaphysical unease" I sometimes felt in keeping a blog. (The term had readily suggested itself to this student of philosophy because earlier in the day I had left the house without my driver’s license; it was naturally a disconcerting experience, but in the course of the morning I realized it paralleled my blog-writing, at least on those occasions when I paused before clicking on the Save button and wondered, Do I have the license to do what I am about to do?)

I gave three examples of possible conflicts of interest, phrased as questions: Should I "break" a story online or offer the story first to the newspaper I work for? Should I refrain from criticizing other media (even with the best of intentions)? And should I blog about something that I will eventually write for the newspaper in another form, possibly in an unsigned editorial?

My own blog-writing has rather limited objectives: to think through the events of the day, to offer a necessarily limited personal perspective on issues (some large, some positively minute) that have engaged my interest. For all that, I am still (and only) a journalist who happens to keep a blog on the side; I would like to keep to, and be judged by, the same journalistic standards I try to meet (not all too successfully) at work.

Should journalists follow "looser" standards when they blog? Of the questions that were raised in the session I was a part of, this I think was the central one. I offered my answer, but I am under no illusion that it is necessarily the right one.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Blogging without a license

  1. Now you’ve got me thinking again (a dangerous thing, as you very well know 🙂 ). I suppose one of the main differences between being a blogger and a journalist is that with the former, you can write what you think or feel about an issue, event, or person. You can’t really qualify or quantify your emotions, and you don’t always have to lead up to your thoughts with a series of facts explaining why. Sometimes it just is what it is, we feel what we feel.

    For instance, I don’t trust De Venecia at all, but I can’t print my reasons or facts in any newspaper because my (credible) sources would never agree to be quoted. But can I state I simply don’t trust him (just as I did now) in my blog? You betcha. I still would be somewhat careful about what I write (I’m not familiar about libel laws and blogs, but I simply assume they apply), but I can say that much in my blog. Never in a news story, though.

    OK, I admit YOU may not have as much freedom as a non-journalist like myself has — because you still have to watch out that you’re not pegged as being biased for or against someone/something and have that affect the credibility of your work. But you do have a little room to wiggle around in your blog. Here you can write that GMA looked a “little tired/weary” during a press conference — but you couldn’t really write the same in your paper because that’s pretty much a subjective observation (although I see that being done all the time, tsk tsk).

    What I’m trying to say is I feel that your blog gives you space to let the “you” come into a story — which as a good journalist, you always have to keep out. Now is that “looser” standards? Hard to say when you’re comparing apples and oranges.

  2. Hi G. I agree that in blog posts the “you” comes into the story — but in my view it is the same “you” that comes into a column, or a point-of-view feature. It still has to labor under the rules of journalism, such as they are: verification, attribution, and so on.

    Let me hasten to add, however, that I am talking merely of a rather small subset of bloggers, those who happen to be journalists. It’s a professionalism thing, I suppose, for a profession that is still very much in the making (with, ah, some professionals disastrously on the make).

    I guess that, other things being equal, the same thing applies to other professionals — lawyers who blog, for example. They can of course write about anything under the sun, but I would assume they still follow their own canons of ethics.

    Back to “looser” standards. There’s actually more wiggle room these days for personality to enter the picture, even in mainstream journalism. The successes of the New Journalism in the 1960s and 1970s, and the growing interest in narrative journalism since the 1990s, have added new colors to the journalist’s palette. But I think the ethical standards have remained the same.

    Perhaps somebody like Jay Rosen would disagree; he thinks old-fashioned journalism has reached the status of a faith, a religion, and what the new century needs is more heretics against that faith. That may be the case in the States, but I would think that in the Philippines the opposite is true: We need more believers.

  3. I suppose I was referring specifically to journalists who report the news as opposed to columnists or point-of-view/feature types — I should have stated that more clearly. I read the news only for the facts, and then I read columns and feature stories to “flesh out” the story — to seek opinions, perspectives, etc.

    You can say I’m an old-fashioned news journalist, regardless of movements or changes through the decades. I’ve always maintained there’s no “I” in “news” and I’m suspicious of any newswriter who sneaks in subjectivity or personal opinion into a story.

    I enjoy reading blogs by journalists such as yourself for many reasons: the “behind-the-news” stories, to get a sense of the person behind the pen (or keyboard, as it were), the issues/struggles he/she faces to get the story, and even just to glimpse a bit of the writer’s personality.

    But I’m going to mull over your points, and we can talk about them over coffee (or shrimp) next year when I visit. We sure have a lot to discuss, I can already tell. 🙂

  4. i am convinced, john, that journalists who blog about their work (their beat, the people they cover — and not about what happened last night at the party) should observe even more religiously the rather rigorous standards of journalism. true, blogging is liberating but, for journalists, that is precisely the problem. when a journalist blogs about his work, he’s not supervised by an editor (that is at least the case so far in the philippines). even the most experienced journalist would be wary about publishing something that didn’t go through the usual editorial process. you’d have to be an extremely competent journalist (such as yourself and the people at the PCIJ) to be able to sidestep that process.

    in short, editorial competence is a requisite if you’re a journalist who blogs about the people and events you cover.

    perhaps journalists should think of blogging as a gun. it’s empowering and liberating to hold one because you think you control the darn thing. but handled, well, loosely, it can shoot you in the foot.

    i am perturbed by all this talk about blogging becoming the new journalism only because of my fear that, as more people use the medium journalistically (non-journalists as well as journalists who use “looser standards”), it might undermine the basics of journalism.

  5. Rey Deang

    Hi John,

    This discussion about looseness strikes me as odd because in my opinion news reporting in our country is already loose. This applies to print and especially to broadcast.

    This is not to put you on the spot, but I get more sense from the news reading your blog than from the broadsheets. Your blog displays how a news editor ought to think and treat reports.

    So I urge journalists of your kind to blog to get the news straightened out and the issues put under scrutiny from the point of view of internal consistency and relevance to the welfare of the nation, instead of, as it happens, from the perspective of the latest quarrel among politicians, and what will extend and exacerbate that quarrel. Ok, that’s probably too harsh, but…..

    Your blog comes closest to news as I expect it. It contributes to sanity, where the main stream media contributes to confusion.

    Thanks, John for caring to do your work well.

    Rey

  6. I agree, Caloy. Journalists who blog need to consider the issue at hand not only from the perspective of bloggers but also from the point of view of journalists. I don’t know about the central metaphor you propose, though: blogging as a gun. That would make it even more restrictive! We would need not only a license but also a permit to carry.

    Again, other journalists may come down on the other side of the issue; they may see the blog primarily as a liberation. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but the laws of professional reputation still apply. As Alan Robles did point out in the forum last Saturday, our conduct carries consequences.

    Thanks, Rey. You are too kind. And while you (and Gigi) do have a point about understanding the news better because you know a little more behind-the-scenes information, the important thing remains the news stories and opinion pieces themselves, as they actually come out in print or on air. Just one other point: I do realize that standards in mainstream media are perhaps more honored in the breach. That sorry fact, however, does not invalidate the standards themselves. That’s what I meant when I said, tongue partly in cheek, that we need more believers in media. But, hey, that’s just me.

  7. footvoter

    That is so true what you said about needing more believers in the media. Sadly, there are too many news articles nowadays, both in print and broadcast, where journalistic and (dare I say?) even editorial biases creep into the text. This is all the more insidious because we do not expect opinions when reading news articles or watching the broadcast, and if we have to keep on taking these with grains of salt, we’d all end up hypertensive.

    I don’t mind reading opinions, even those I violently disagree with, as long as they are clearly presented as such, and not disguised as ‘news’ or ‘facts’. After all, it is useful to know once in a while what the opposition is thinking or talking about.

    When I browse through blogs, I assume they already carry the biases of the author, be that person a journalist or not. I don’t treat the blog as a source of objective news coverage, since most don’t claim to be. Those that do, though, should be held to a higher standard — the same standard we (should) judge more traditional news outlets by.

    But then, there’s not much point in trying to duplicate traditional news outlets, since the main reason people read the blogs is for the ‘juicy stuff’ — the story behind the news, the scoops, the incisive analysis, the caustic opinions, and yes, what Manolo Quezon amusingly calls ‘scuttlebutt’. None of these, except for the scoops, is strictly news. And scoops don’t come by often enough to be a compelling reason by itself.

    Most blogs worth their salt, then, would carry this ‘juicy stuff’, and I think (I hope) their readers are intelligent enough to recognize that. Journalist-bloggers should be able to put anything on their blogs (within the bounds of libel laws, of course) as long as they don’t try to pass off their opinions and biases as news.

  8. Hi John,
    The apparent “looseness of blogs” is a statistical optical illusion–Imagine what the apparent level of quality of print media would be if there were 100,000 daily broadsheets instead of 5 or 6 in Manila because it somehow became almost free to publish one? Most of them would be crap too…

    But there is one curious phenomenon that definitely marks blogging as a different animal all together from “main stream journalism”. It has to do with the matter of attribution and authorship, sacred rubrics in professional journalism. Yet look at the list of A-list bloggers and you will find that many of them either started out as Anonymous Writers and still are. One of the most famous unknown Filipinos blogging, Wretchard the Cat of the Belmont Club, got his first 8 million visitors in one year without revealing to anyone who he really was. Just pure great writing that a lot of people somehow couldn’t get enough of. How long would it take to do the same in a mainstream column?
    DJB

  9. Gej

    When you first told me you were starting a blog, I was quite intrigued. While I knew it would be an excellent blog (so this is where all the volunteer writing for our class annual wound up)-and I wasn’t wrong-, I thought that as a journalist and blogger, you would have to “walk the tightrope” often.

    No one could have described better the possible conflicts of interest that a journalist blogger could face, as you had expressed in those three questions.

    Another possible risk would be : If you had written something in your blog, but not in your paper, did it mean that you just thought the piece did not merit space in your paper, or that you were not allowed to write about it?

    And yet, who else would be better in keeping a blog than a journalist? Specially one of your caliber.

    Borrowing a little from art, I find some similarity between a journalist keeping a blog, and an artist who creates finished works of art, and maintains a sketchbook. The sketchbook contains the “studies” but the final product is supposedly more polished than the “looser” study.

    The sketchbook may seem the unfinished work , or the germ of many ideas, but let me tell you this. Artists can more willingly part with even their masterpieces, but they’ll guard their sketchbooks with their life.

    The sketchbook certainly is the fresher of the two, and perhaps even more honest.

    As for your blog, as well as the blogs of others I stumbled into while reading yours (special mention goes to another greatly written blog – Gigi Goes Gaga ), I prefer your fresh perspectives in your blog, the many nuances (oo nga ano, that’s one way of thinking about it!). Better than the usual opinion page, as far as I am concerned.

  10. Thanks, Gej. I very much like the idea of blogs as artist’s sketches (I suppose because it is flattering to compare one’s self to an artist). But as with my own, very limited, view about the journalistic blogs that journalists keep, I understand your idea to also labor under the same limitations. That is to say: It may apply to some, but not to others. Indeed, for some (zoom out to include the vast majority of bloggers), the blog IS the work of art. (Or blogging is the art form.)

    Not in my case, of course.

    As for “honesty” in art, I do share your assumption that a more honest work recommends itself, but I also realize (as I think you do too) that an artist’s sincerity or honesty may have nothing or very little to do with his art. (Unless we reduce art to simple expressiveness, of course.)

    But I hope I haven’t dulled the edge of the one point I am trying to make: Journalists who keep journalistic blogs must still conduct themselves as journalists. That’s all.

  11. Gej

    Why did you have to reply? Now it will take me another two days to write a reaction.

    Seriously, thanks for the perceptive and gentle reply.

  12. punching bag

    blah blah blah blah blah blah

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