I spent my summer as a reporting intern for the Bloomberg Bureau of National Affairs, covering international trade and health-care. Being at the bottom of the totem pole, I got the less interesting and more tedious assignments. While I spent time on Capitol Hill covering hearings and committee meetings, a large portion of the stories I wrote resulted from the work of political observatories, as defined by Michael Schudson’s. Schudson divided political political observatories into three groups: academic research, internal government audits and non-profit advocacy groups. I did not write many articles based on the findings of research journals, but there were a couple of scientific articles related to my health-care beat that led to articles. Where many of my articles did come from though were internal government audits, like reports from the Government Accountability Office or Office of Inspector General, or non-profit advocacy groups, like the Heritage Foundation or Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. These reports, depending on the specific issuer, are generally seen as good unbiased primary sources for an article. While I generally added other sources through interviews and press releases, because of the nature of our publication, I was sometimes able to simply publish a short story on the findings of the report or study.
The training we receive in journalism schools prepares us to interview, review documents and compile information. We are not trained to research to the level of these reports and studies. Even if we were, a reporter in the mass media would not have the time necessary and so they turn to these political observatories to do that job. The primary job of the media is to serve as a watchdog of the government, but in some ways these organizations are better suited for that role than the mass media. As Schudson noted, the mass media’s greatest impact in this area may be to spread the findings of these reports and studies. If the media’s main role is then to merely convey information compiled by others, what level of journalism schooling is truly necessary?
A Nov. 25 article in the New Yorker by John Wolfson details the work of teenage reporters breaking big news stories through Twitter. With the sports media focused intently on the baseball free agent period and possible destinations for top stars, a 14 year-old boy from St. Louis got two of the biggest scoops of the offseason by finding out that Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were headed to the Red Sox. Another pair of teenage boys were able to break the news on Billy Butler through Twitter. These boys were able to best hundreds of seasoned reporters by using Twitter and their online connections. They do not have the level of journalism training of the seasoned reporters, yet they were the ones with the scoop. These boys in large part mimicked the work of bloggers.
Lasica’s journal article studies the recent fast rise in blogs and contends that they fill important niches in the media. Blogs do not adhere to the traditions and values of classic journalism, so they are looked down upon by those in the mass media who have formal training in journalism. However, Lasica argues blogs are able to provide subjective points of view, colorful writing and places for informal conversation. While traditional journalists often trash blogs as unfit journalism, Lasica believes that blogs do not compete with traditional journalism, but rather complement it. They are able to take clips of news from the mass media and comment on it, providing an editorial function. In a sense, these blogs take the news, add something and then redistribute it to a new audience. This is essentially the same work I was doing, and that many news outlets do, with the reports and studies of political observatories. So if bloggers are able to perform their function without formal training, would journalists, like me over the summer, be able to write those stories on the reports and studies without training?
I do not believe so. Blogs are merely expected to add some sort of angle, opinion or slant often times, whereas the mass media is expected to add context. The mass media is expected to interview the relevant parties for their take on the report or study and to provide the history and possible future surrounding the finding. These are skills developed through training in journalism schools, where we are taught how to develop contacts and compile legitimate unbiased information. Additionally, when writing about the work of a political observatory, the audience would generally be well educated and have a certain expectation for the quality of the work and writing. Without the formal training I have received, my work on those stories would have risked being dismissed as irrelevant in the face of a more trustworthy source. Even in the case of the teenagers who broke the scoops in baseball’s free agency, the boys were reliant on the help of professional journalists. They tried to break the stories, but were forced to turn to well known professional journalists, like Ken Rosenthal, who had large followings and could command the mass media’s attention. Journalists with formal training will always have that advantage over bloggers and twitter users because they will be viewed by the journalism community and the public to be a more legitimate source of news. They will be the ones hired by the trusted sources of news because they have the skills to appeal to the desired audiences and to add the desired insight, not just colorful commentary and opinion.
Lasica, J. (2013). Blogs and journalism need each other. Nieman Reports, 57(3), 70-74.
Schudson, M. (2010). Political observatories, databases & news in the emerging ecology of public information. American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.mitpressjournals.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/doi/pdf/10.1162/daed.2010.139.2.100
Wolfson, J. (2014, November 25). Baseball’s Teen-Age Twitter Reporters. The New Yorker.