J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Is There Journalism on the Internet?

Posted by chanders on January 14, 2008

There’s a general feeling out there that we live in a world that’s awash in user-generated digital content; but that little, if any of it, is serious, political useful or particularly journalistic. But speculation is one thing. Is there any way to know for sure whether or not people are committing acts of journalism on the Internet?

As always, it’s the Pew Internet and American Life Project to the rescue. A 2006 survey [pdf], “Bloggers: A Portrait of the Internet’s New Storytellers,” provides some hard data on exactly what bloggers are doing online, both in terms of their motivation and their actual behavior. According to the report, “bloggers themselves generally do not think of what they do as journalism. Only a third of bloggers (34%) say that their blog is a form of journalism, while two-thirds (65%) say it is not.” Beyond self identification, Pew also asked bloggers whether they engage in typically journalistic practices.

Overall, the most frequently reported journalistic activities are spending extra time verifying facts included in a posting, and including links to original source material that has been cited or in some way used in a post. Just a bit more than a third of bloggers (35%) say they have done these two activities “often.” Another 22% say that they “sometimes” engage in these practices on their blog. Verification of facts was more likely to be reported by bloggers over age 30 and those with a college degree. Those with greater levels of education were more likely to link to original source material than those with less formal education.

Just one in seven (15%) bloggers say they quote people or other media directly on their blog “often,” and another 12% of bloggers say they often seek permission before posting copyrighted material to their blog. Conversely, more than two in five bloggers say they “never” quote sources or other media directly in their blog. Women who blog, younger bloggers, and those with less education are more likely than other groups of bloggers to report “never” quoting directly. Just 11% of bloggers often post corrections on their blog.

There’s more to being a journalist than engaging in typically journalistic practices, however. Do bloggers act like journalists at a deeper level? Part of the answer depends on how you define “journalism.” One useful definition can be found in The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, where they argue that “the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” An alternate definition has recently been advanced through Congressional legislation, where journalism is defined for “press shield” purposes as

the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.

So, the key phrases in this second definition are (1) “local, national, or international events,” (2) “public interest,” and (3) “dissemination to the public,” and here again, blogger practices fall short. “37% of bloggers cite “my life and experiences” as a primary topic of their blog. Politics and government ran a very distant second with 11% of bloggers citing those issues of public life as the main subject of their blog,” the survey notes. These numbers were more even pronounced among the young: “three in four bloggers (77%) told us that expressing themselves creatively was a reason that they blog. Younger and lower-income bloggers were more likely than other groups to give this as a reason to blog. Similarly, most bloggers (76%) say that they blog to document their personal experiences and share them with others. Younger users were among the most likely to say that they blog to document and share their lives.”

What’s more, rather than looking to disseminate news to a wide audience, most bloggers are happy to share their creativity with a small group of friends. “When asked whether they blogged for themselves or for their audience, more than half of bloggers (52%) responded that they blog for themselves … [and] these bloggers report lower numbers of daily hits than other bloggers.”

It’s important to note that this survey doesn’t even take into account newer, less text-based forms of self-generated media, like Youtube. Obviously, the presence of these sites would probably decrease the amount of journalistic content still further.

The upshot– producing journalism online is something that has to be both encouraged and taught — despite the fact that it is still fairly easy to do.

Update: My own study, “Analyzing Grassroots Journalism on the Web” documented that even in projects specifically labeled as “participatory journalism,” there was little actual journalism going on. [Analyzing Grassroots Journalism on the Web]

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