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Duets Blog: Is a blogger a journalist?

In many ways, this debate is purely academic. Some talk about the line separating the revered act of journalism from the pedestrian pastime of “just blogging” as if it might simply have some bearing on the way reporters do their jobs in the future. You know, carry a Flip camera and shoot more video and tweet your face off and whatnot.

Others talk about how blogging has ushered in a new era of journalism, one in which publication – in ink, airwaves or pixels – is a hell of a lot closer to the beginning of the journalistic process than the end. Phrases like “fractured audiences” and the “myth of objectivity” are thrown around like peanuts at a Twins game, and the discussions can be fascinating.

Ultimately, though, they are of little consequence. Usually.

The “I know it when I see it” standard for defining journalism is sufficient for most folks, in most cases. As an everyday consumer of information, I hardly care whether the information I’m consuming was dragged out of the darkness by a “traditional journalist” or a “new-media reporter” or a “blogger” or even a “kid with Twitter.” But when the long arm of the law gets involved, such as when journalist shield laws are invoked or when the FTC weighs in on cases involving its endorsement and testimonial guides, squishy pseudo-definitions don’t get us very far.

(If you’re interested in shield laws, read about the lost/stolen iPhone prototype Gizmodo got its hands on or just ask Josh Wolf. Meanwhile, I’m going to blather on about the FTC…)

The FTC’s revised guides on endorsements and testimonials – a sweeping update to the guides that only in part addresses bloggers – treat bloggers differently than journalists, and it’s more than a purely academic distinction. In a review of the comments the FTC received in response to the proposed changes (before they become officially published guidelines), the commission responded to some concerns:

The Commission acknowledges that bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media. In general, under usual circumstances, the Commission does not consider reviews published in traditional media (i.e., where a newspaper, magazine, or television or radio station with independent editorial responsibility assigns an employee to review various products or services as part of his or her official duties, and then publishes those reviews) to be sponsored advertising messages.

Accordingly, such reviews are not “endorsements” within the meaning of the Guides. Under these circumstances, the Commission believes, knowing whether the media entity that published the review paid for the item in question would not affect the weight consumers give to the reviewer’s statements. Of course, this view could be different if the reviewer were receiving a benefit directly from the manufacturer (or its agent).

In contrast, if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an “endorsement” – i.e., as a sponsored message – due to the blogger’s relationship with the advertiser or the value of the merchandise he has received and has been asked to review by that advertiser, knowing these facts might affect the weight consumers give to his review.”

In short: If you’re writing for a traditional media outlet, the FTC assumes people know you’re trustworthy and not shilling for the resorts or car manufacturers or theaters you’re reviewing. But if you publish your work via WordPress or YouTube, you lack that institutional legacy of trust, so you’re held to a higher standard. You might have started writing years before some kid who was just hired by the New York Times, but the kid at the Times has earned, by way of successfully strutting through the paper’s hiring process, the ability to trade on the paper’s reputation for journalist quality. (Side note: Anyone remember Jayson Blair?)

Again, the underlying distinction is that the FTC assumes an audience knows a newspaper writer didn’t get a free trip to the resort she’s reviewing, but no such assumption can be made, according to the commission, with regard to bloggers. I’d argue, however, that people don’t know that about a newspaper writer. Newspapers and other long-standing media institutions have earned the trust of their audiences, and that’s valuable, but that doesn’t mean an outlet’s freebie policies are public knowledge. After all, only half of us can name all three branches of government, for god’s sake. You think the inner workings of a newsroom are common knowledge?

The FTC’s guidelines apparently don’t allow for a blogger who has been respectably and intelligently covering the mobile-technology market for a decade to rely on a policy of not taking freebies and a track record of fair and honest reviews. He must declare as much in each writing because he doesn’t work for Wired magazine. It’s not enough that he has developed an audience who trusts his work just like Wired’s readers trust it; he’s publishing on those new internets, and the FTC needs to protect every single person who could stumble on by.

True, the requirement to disclose isn’t debilitating. Including a disclosure in each post that could be construed as an endorsement or testimonial won’t prevent a blogging journalist from doing his or her job (and it is indeed a job for many). But any policy based on such a faulty distinction, based on the form in which a message is distributed rather than the function of that message, strikes me as a short-sighted solution.

The FTC seems to view bloggers as second-class citizens of the journalism community, but the bloggers will survive. My concern is more with the way in which the FTC views traditional journalists.

They’re given a pass based on an assumption of trustworthiness and an assumption that internal policies are widely known. It’s comparable to exempting an incumbent politician from campaign-finance laws in her fourth reelection campaign because she didn’t screw anything up her first three campaigns. Or perhaps a better analogy is exempting her because she’s a Republican or a Democrat while holding Independence and Green Party candidates to a different standard – because they’re not from a “traditional” established party.

What do you think? Does the distinction between does journalist and blogger matter? Should they be treated different?

This post was originally published on the Duets Blog by Mike Keliher, of Fast Horse.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Bill Roehl on 05/25/2010 - 09:30 am.

    Please note: I have a “blog” and you are free to take what I write cum grano salis.

    Everyone takes bribes in one way or another:

    1. Free access to data that the public cannot get without paying for as when the Star Tribune requested MVTA transit data and they handed it over to them no questions/money asked and then thought it was completely acceptable to charge me (a MVTA rider and taxpayer), not a member of the media according to them–which is true but irrelevant in this context, for a completely different request because I was given what the Star Tribune received.

    2. Leaving out key details of an independent audit which outed a Burnsville City Council member of possible conflict of interest violations. Any good journalist would have poked and prodded this until the story unfolded but it was left alone. Why? We probably will never know but theories such as keeping up good relationships with the councilmembers for quotes is a likely possibility.

    But when I post about something I did tit for tat, I am mandated by the FTC to announce it. Personally I would love for journalists to come out and say, as part of their introductory paragraph, “I have to kiss the asses of the politicos I deal with on a regular basis and because of that relationship you get to read the following fluff piece which makes up for the one last week where I actually acted like a journalist.”

    At some point in time the playing field will be evened. It has happened in the monetary sense already. Journalists are just like bloggers they just get paid more and have more time to do their work. Hopefully eventually people will catch on that there are good bloggers just like there are good journalists and we can cease the charade where just because you’re writing for the New York Times you get a free pass.

  2. Submitted by Ann Freeman on 05/25/2010 - 09:33 am.

    Excellent post! I think the world of global information created by the 2.0 Internet, blogging, and social media enhances but does not supplant quality journalism. My understanding of the world is made richer by reading “all the news that’s fit to print” (or broadcast, or post), the opinions of many good bloggers about that news, tweets that point me to information and opinion, and more.

  3. Submitted by Debbie Lyons-Blythe on 05/25/2010 - 09:40 am.

    I have to agree that bloggers do not carry the same connotation and expectations as traditional journalists. But I do think that blogs can be a great source of information that can be even more reliable than print and broadcast media. Just because a journalist works for a traditional media outlet, does not make them an ethical reporter. Many have their own pet topics they report on and they often skew information in their reports. They may not have accepted a free trip or product, but on some level they benefit by having their own views propagated by the story.

    Journalists these days are not the fully trusted source of unbiased news that they once were. I wish we could go back to the days of two sides to every story being reported within the story. But we won’t. In the meantime, Bloggers are filling that need for “the rest of the story.”

    Keep up the good work, bloggers! We are the watchdogs of the former watchdogs–that the press used to be!

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 05/25/2010 - 11:11 am.

    Not every story has two sides — some have 20. That’s where blogs and other Internet sides can really flesh out information for people keenly interested in a topic.

    On the other hand, the he-said she-said kind of reporting that’s so often practiced in the mainstream legacy media does a real disservice to readers. Professional journalists, with the advantage of time and money, should immerse themselves in stories and try to discern the truth, insofar as that’s possible.

    Instead, we too often get the most extreme views of one side followed by the most extreme views of another. We need skilled journalists to give us the facts and lay out the situation as clearly as possible. They need to be the experts and tell us what their research and reporting show.

    Unfortunately, with staff cutbacks and the 24/7 news cycle, even the professional journalists often have little time to do the kind of deep dive this would require. Instead, they’re filing update nuggets for the website four times a day.

  5. Submitted by Mike Keliher on 05/25/2010 - 06:32 pm.

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    I have to agree with John Reinan’s comment (John, by the way, is a colleague of mine here at a Fast Horse and a contributor of a great weekly business column here on MinnPost). It’s rare that a story actually has only two sides, and the he-said, she-said reporting style only gives us, as an audience, a bit of value. More valuable, in most cases, is the writing done by the likes of MinnPost’s Eric Black, who dives head-first into a story reporting what Side 1 said, what Side 2 said, what’s likely true, what’s likely BS, and why it all matters anyway.

    But that takes time and costs money.

  6. Submitted by Mark Palony on 05/26/2010 - 08:31 am.

    Great post Mike.

    There’s another side to this that hasn’t been explored: Government (at all levels) is always playing catch-up. I wrote for my first blog – now defunct – more than seven years ago and am willing to bet most of the folks who had a hand in making this decision rarely, if ever, look at one. I realize I’m making some sweeping generalizations and jumping to conclusions, but it’s easier to regulate something than take the time to really understand it.

    In time the FTC will probably loosen its grip, but not until the commission goes through its natural turnover process and is populated by people who truly understand digital communications in general and blogging specifically.

  7. Submitted by Mike Keliher on 05/27/2010 - 09:32 am.

    Thanks, Mark.

    Are you suggesting the government is slow to understand complex issues and take appropriate action? How can that be? 🙂

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