As you can tell, I’m not in the habit of posting about the blogosphere itself, but I’ll make an exception in response to an over-the-top post by Robert Scoble. If read literally, it suggests that nobody should ever post anything in a blog unless it’s also suitable to appear in the news section of a credible publication.
As is obvious from his own blog, Scoble doesn’t really believe that. A blog is a medium for news or analysis or anecdotes or random blatherings or any combination of those things (and that’s not an exhaustive list of the possibilities). On the other hand, if one deletes the bolded part, Scoble may well believe the rest — and I may well agree with him.
Opinion columns, and other kinds of analytic publications, are tricky things. My first post-academic job was the most heavily regulated kind of opinion writing there is — stock analysis. Everything we published in those pre-Web days went through two rounds of editing. The first editor was a normal copy editor like any publication might have. The second was a special “supervisory analyst” who had taken a special SEC accreditation examination, to ensure that we didn’t violate any rules. Sometimes I’d argue with her for 10 minutes about one phrase, or to get her to leave in one joke.
But for all that expense, concern, and process, it seemed those rules really boiled down to two commandments:
1. Thou shalt not express an opinion that is not well-founded in your factual research. (In particular, don’t make anything sound like a fact unless you’ve really verified it to that level.)
2. Thou shalt not rely upon forbidden sources of information. (That’s an insider trading prohibition fairly specific to the investment arena.)
I think these rules, or just the first one, should apply to almost all reporting and commentary. Do they? Of course not. Just consider Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, for example, or the mercifully cancelled CNN show Crossfire, or for that matter Fox News (which has as its president Republican political operative Roger Ailes).
Many columnists fail to live up to these standards. Some of the most famous firings from large newpaper staffs have been of columnists, not ordinary reporters. Scoble’s bashing of Andrew Orlowski is — er, it’s well-founded. Newspaper sports sections often assign reporting and analytic duties to the same person, who may supplement his income by doing radio or TV gigs; such people are often entertainers much more than they are serious analysts or honest reporters (as some readers may have already guessed, I’m thinking most specifically of Ron Borges of The Boston Globe). Other columnists manage to combine analysis, expert wordsmithing, and high-quality reporting. Political columnist (and former partisan Republican speechwriter) William Safire, for example, won a Pulitzer Prize for what amounted to reporting on the subject of Billy Carter.
Now that I’ve meandered for a while, let me mosey on back toward the question raised in Scoble’s post. What tests of credibility should we impose on bloggers in the area of (enterprise) technology? I think what Scoble proposes about sourcing, linking, etc. are way too restrictive, and in some cases even silly. One should never post anything unless one has a named, on-the-record source?? C’mon. Some of the best investigative reporting is based on anonymous sourcing, very carefully confirmed. (Here’s an example of me taking this route.) Indeed, sometimes a reviewer or analyst is able to come to an informed conclusion based solely on his or her own judgment or experience, without contacting anybody else to be told what to think. Analysis may overlap with journalism, but it’s not the same thing.
Here are some of the tests I apply, implicitly or explicitly, to make sure I’m comfortable with my own work:
- Did I state or imply stronger conclusions than my evidence and analysis support? (That’s really just Rule 1 from above.)
- Did I acknowledge or indicate why somebody might disagree with me? Or, if I didn’t, do I think a halfway intelligent reader should be able to figure it out for herself? If I’m sufficiently clear in my writing, the latter criterion should automatically be met. And if it’s clear why somebody would disagree with me, I can rightfully be more opinionated and passionate than might otherwise be prudent.
- Have I disclosed my major (real or apparent) biases or conflicts of interest?
- Do I appear to claim credit for somebody else’s ideas?
- Is it clear what I’m saying, and why?
And I guess those are the criteria I apply to other bloggers and columnists as well.
By the way — Robert Scoble generally passes my tests. But Andrew Orlowski does not.