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April 14, 2009, 12:43 p.m.

Defending Gina Chen and her journalism “rule-breaking”

Gina M. Chen, a veteran journalist and editor who works at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., writes an excellent blog called “Save The Media,” which is aimed at helping journalists get used to some of the new tools in social media.

Chen’s recent post, titled “10 ‘Journalism Rules’ You Can Break on Your Blog,” caused a stir in my newsroom at The Globe and Mail. One of my colleagues, for example, suggested that the post was irresponsible and that such rule-breaking is one of the reasons there is a “credibility gap” between bloggers and mainstream journalists.

You can read Chen’s post for the full list, but among other things, she suggested that bloggers should:

  • Use partial or fake names because “there are times on a blog that what a person says as an indication of public sentiment is more important than who said it.”
  • Tell only part of the story because “the beauty of a blog is you can update immediately as more details become apparent or earlier reports are disputed.”
  • Insert an opinion because “I think readers appreciate knowing that journalists have feelings, opinions, lives that shape how they view the world.”
  • Link to the enemy because “with blogging, you can give your readers the best — even if it’s not from your staff.”
  • Get personal because “you’re creating a community; that community wants to know you’re a person, not a robot.”
  • Answer your critics because “blogging is a conversation with readers. If someone criticizes your post or raises an opposing point of view, you should respond.”
  • Fix your mistakes because “I still don’t want to make any mistakes, but if I do, I can fix it in real time, not just run a correction the next day that few may see.”

So is this list an invitation to be careless, cut corners and risk your credibility as a journalist, as my colleague suggested? Hardly. I would argue that nearly every suggestion on Chen’s list makes perfect sense. Breaking these so-called rules not only isn’t bad, it could improve the practice of online journalism.

Linking to reports or releases, and to competitors, is a service to our audience members, and I wish newspapers of all kinds (including mine) did it more often. Chen’s point about linking to the enemy is very similar to Jeff Jarvis’ mantra to “cover what you do best, and link to the rest.” Getting personal or inserting opinion just makes bloggers a bit more like columnists, who do that routinely in print and other traditional media. They’re still considered journalists.

My favorites from the list are telling part of the story and fixing your mistakes. I agree that bloggers should get away with telling part of the story. In fact, journalists of all kinds need to get used to doing that more.

We need to realize that journalism and the telling of a news story is a process, and we don’t have to wait until we have everything before we publish. That doesn’t mean we should stop at telling just part of a story, of course; but it is fine to publish something short, then update, edit and correct. That’s what wire services do, after all.

The rule about fixing your mistakes is a particularly interesting one. Newspapers, of course, don’t like to admit they’ve made mistakes. They have half a dozen editorial checks to prevent that from happening, and running a correction is an admission that those various defenses failed. In blogging, however, there is an understanding — readers know that a blog is just one person, and that in return for getting faster information, they may get less accurate information. But they also know that a good blogger acknowledges mistakes and corrects them.

The one bit of advice that I take exception to is the need for full or verified names. It’s useful to quote people (without knowing their real names) from a social network or site such as Twitter, but I would still prefer to have an actual, verified source. Chen advises bloggers to only do this sparingly, but not doing it enough could lead to significant gaps in credibility.

POSTED     April 14, 2009, 12:43 p.m.
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