With a Grain of Piquant Salt:
There is this issue which I keep on stumbling over and which seems to be agitating so many people who are in the publishing business. There seem to be two camps, the first camp is the journalist camp and the second seems to be the bloggers camp. And boy, do these two camps fight or do they? They fight over who is right and who is wrong, who is going to survive and who is going to die. But for what It's worth, here is my take on this rather interesting debate in one corner of the world.
Let us define some words which will be used in this essay and are related to this area. And this is where I already started finding issues. A journalist can be a reporter who writes for a journal but also a person who keeps a journal or a diary, which may or may not be published. A blogger is a person who blogs (writes) about his thoughts on various topics in an online medium. A reporter is usually employed by a media house to report on daily or periodic going ons in the world. This reporting can be online, radio, TV, magazine, newspaper, etc. The reporter is also required or may create a blog or further discuss his/her story online.
Confused? Let me carry on, What about an essayist? Somebody who writes an essay which is usually longer than 800 words (the sort of word count which generally is more than a news story but is less than an essay which can be anything more than 1.500 words or upwards). How about a pamphleteer? It is a word which is not usually used that much these days, but it is also a type of writing on a particular topic. How about a columnist? A columnist is a person who usually has a brand name, writes on some particular topic on a regular basis in a newspaper, magazine, online and/or in print.
What about an author who can write fiction as well as non-fiction? So what's the boundary between fiction and non-fiction? Very confused boundary indeed. Say a reporter is trying to explain the settings of a particular event such as the state of the nation address by the US President, George Bush. And he talks about 'the swirling wintry blowing snow' which he uses as a metaphor to describe the challenges facing the US president. Now what is fiction and what isn't? I strongly recommend this book which talks about the difficulties that a poet faces in a newspaper. (W. Dale Nelson. "Gin before Breakfast: The Dilemma of the Poet in the Newsroom". Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007).
Do you see where I am going with this as to how difficult it is to categorize people? Or how about commentators? People who comment on particular aspects? Say a cricket match? Or the results from a conference? Or following a political campaign? Now the only difference I can see is that the person could be commentating online, on radio, on TV, in a newspaper, in a newspaper online, real-time' Now I have thoroughly managed to confuse myself. The only common thing that I can see in all these definitions is that they write for some medium with some expectation of being read. So no, I am not clear about the definitions at all.
Let me get my personal biases exposed. Well, for what it's worth, I have been on both sides of the fence, and still am. A purist would say that I am not, I am still writing op-eds, so that's not pure journalism, but then which reporter does not write facts with a bias or which columnist does not opine with some facts? Then there is the other debate around reporters and historians and I straddle that fence as well. Goodness, all that straddling fences and my backside is becoming numb. Blogging is something that I have recently picked up and it is an interesting experiment that I have been engaging in, but more about that later on. I also write essays, magazine articles, academic papers, commercial papers and have reported sometimes on certain events. Oh! I am also planning on writing some books. So I am afraid the fence is now dangerously looking like a bed of nails, well, with my heritage, I should be perfectly comfortable, no?
While debating this topic with a journalist friend, it suddenly heated up and she said that journalism requires passion and that I do not have this passion and more importantly I would not understand this passion. This puzzled me, what exactly is this passion and why is this passion different? And why on earth can I not understand or appreciate it? I write about terrorism, history, military science, politics, children, humor, media, business, technology, etc. etc. Now I don't have a passion for dung beetles, so I do not write about them. I also have a very small readership and I do not charge them to read me, but I am very grateful to them for devoting time to read my ramblings!
Is this passion a desire to report facts? Then I have that. Is this passion to communicate? I would be a poor teacher and writer if I did not have the desire to communicate. Is this a passion to search for facts? Well, I think I do like to check and read up on facts. Me and my sister spend hours debating and delving into the strangest things which nobody else seems to understand or care for. Now besides making us strange, it also makes us passionate. Or is this passion solely restricted to people who work as newspaper reporters? Do TV people not have this passion? How about radio people? How about people who write for charities? Or how about special investigators who investigate war crimes or development agencies who help in the development of famine stricken or medical problem infested areas? Or does this relate to the use of printers' ink, but surely the use of printers ink is sort of outdated anyway. Sniffing glue I have heard, but sniffing printers ink? How about Rudyard Kipling who is famous for his books and stories, but was also a great journalist of his time?
So you might well ask, what DO I think about the future of the media? Well, I have written about this before. Also, here's a classic debate about bloggers and journalists. At a recent Business Week Conference, I heard one of their senior editors say that the line is blurring between the journalists and bloggers. Previously, a story would be filed and they would forget about it. But now, they are expected to defend their stories online in a rollicking debate. So where does one draw the line? And if I am submitting my blog entries to a site like DesiCritics which have an editorial process, is that site a news-site or a bloggers site or what? Life is changing, my friends!
I am also not so sure about this passion for facts. In a debate about MEMRI, I already talked about how none of the media outlets are actually thought to be totally fair and balanced. Even the doughty BBC frequently gets accused of getting its world famous journalistic independence and 'lean' wrong. Somebody once did an analysis of the political leanings of the BBC group on Facebook and found that the number of left liberals is vastly and overwhelmingly greater than the conservatives. Take the Middle East Reporting for example, whether you are talking about MEMRI, Jerusalem Post, NY Times, CNN, FOX, BBC or Al Ahram, each and every one of these media outlets have made spectacular howlers in reporting.
I mean, when you have a mainstream media outlet publishing howlers such as saying that President Sarkozy of France is a Zionist agent, then one seriously wonders. So while both bloggers and journalists go for facts and figures, both make mistakes and while one has an editorial process to trap mistakes, the line is blurring as bloggers may and do get some comments and feedback about obvious mistakes and different opinions. Where is this desire for facts and freedom of speech when the US Media actively collaborates with the US Government to suppress facts in the name of national security (which I can understand, btw)?
Bill Keller, executive editor, New York Times, delivering the 2008 Memorial lecture at the Chatham House in London talked more about the challenges facing journalism from new media and Web 2.0, how they have so many reporters on the ground in Iraq and along with the strong sense of standards, that distinguishes between reporters and bloggers. Well, agreed. But how come that this does not explain how most of the reportage which we have recently started to see like Typhoon Sidr, Glasgow and 9/11 Terrorist Attack and the Christmas Tsunami were from bloggers who were using their blog sites, video cameras, YouTube and even uploading into mainstream media sites such as BBC? He talks about how Google never reported from a riot or never stood in the middle of a tsunami. Well, neither did he nor his band of intrepid men. So he isn't so right about the reporters on the ground bit and not so right about the standards bit (he himself admitted for example that his newspaper ignored the Holocaust as it was happening!!) so I am not very sure what is the difference he is claiming.
Now that I have come to the end, I am even more confused about the difference. Is it the money? I mean, if you get paid and received a fixed salary to write stories, do you become a journalist? How about people who make money out of writing stories online such as through Ad-Sense or some other advertising medium? Or those who are independently wealthy and do not need the money but write as a second career? I just had an amusing thought. Would the ancient world's town crier and the stone column carver have had a similar debate three centuries ago? So no, this debate is facile, the mediums are changing, the fact remains is that we are all communicating and being social animals. To concentrate on the means of communicating to the exclusion of the content is wrong and misguided.
All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!