Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Do journalists or bloggers inspire confidence?

The End of Journalism poses an interesting question about bloggers, journalists, and the public trust. If journalism is one of the least trusted professions, and people are keenly aware that you can't believe everything you read on the internet, especially blogs, where does that leave readers looking for information?

The truth is, you can get plenty of useful information online. You just have to take it with a grain of salt. For example, the other day I was looking into hiring movers for our upcoming migration from Princeton to Brooklyn. I found a site that lets you sign up for 6 free estimates from moving companies, but I'd never heard of any of the companies. So I typed their names into Google Blog Search to see if anyone else had used them. There's little reason for any legitimate bloggers to lie about their moving experiences, and it's pretty easy to spot a fake blog entry.

Unfortunately, most of the companies hadn't really elicited any blog entries at all, but between Google Blog Search and a couple of user forums, we decided that our best bet was just going to be renting a truck ourselves. The one company that had offered us the best deal (less than half of what some other companies had quoted), had dozens of complaints on various internet forums.

So while you may not be able to trust any one source on the internet (say, the company's website), having access to the wealth of information online is awfully useful.

The same is true with bloggers. In many cases, you can trust a blogger more than a journalist, because most bloggers are willing to share their biases with the world. If you want unbiased information read several blogs about a topic and determine the truth for yourself.

But most of us don't have the time to do this for every topic we're interested in, so we turn to journalists, who have a long track record of striving for objectivity, fairness, balance, and depth.

I've spent a number of years covering politics in a major metropolitan area. And I can tell you, politicians love to accuse journalists of getting the story wrong, twisting their words, digging up trouble, or furthering their own biases.

Sometimes they may be right, but in most cases, if a journalist is reporting on something they've dug up (say, corruption in city government), it's because there's something there.

But as this whole flap over email interviews from last week shows, politicians who may be hiding something or fear a drop in their approval ratings aren't the only ones who mistrust journalists motives.

Sure, journalists are people. And as such, they have personal biases. And there are bad reporters out there who let those biases get in the way of a story. But there may be a larger issue, which is that we also have professional biases. We want to get to the bottom of things so much that we'll always consider a story better if it's got some dirt.

Right now, I'm covering the Philadelphia Mayor's race. And to be honest, it's been a bit boring. There are five candidates. They're all qualified. And until recently they hadn't really been slinging mud at one another. I was speaking to a Philadelphia political historian the other day, and as he pointed out, this is the race that we've always said we wanted. It's focused on the issues. And it's not clear that people are paying as much attention as they had in prior years. Or maybe that's just the journalists.

Still, I wandered around for a while yesterday doing person on the street interviews, and in my highly unscientific poll, there seem to be a fair number of people who haven't yet decided who they'll vote for. And that's with election day just two weeks away.

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