Ruled by rumour?

Article published on April 4, 2005
community published
Article published on April 4, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

You only have to have a computer connected to the Internet to publish anything. This is the first time that not just a select few have the right to say whatever they like. But doesn’t it seem like we are drowning in a sea of information?

The conservative writer Tom Wolfe said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País that the best thing to happen to journalism in recent years has been blogs. Wolfe told how the mere fact that bloggers are circulating information is a positive thing. He recognised that the majority are rubbish, but that some are sources of interesting material, especially when you consider their ability “to publish rumours that the press don’t publish.”

There are also other optimists who say that with blogs we have seen the birth of a third era of journalism. If the first was the passing from analogue to digital, the second would be the creation of online journalism and the third would be the ability to socialise it… But aren’t we being overly ‘cyberoptimistic’?

It is certainly true that blogs bring us information that we didn’t previously have, but of the millions that are online, how many are actually worth reading? Unfortunately, the majority are usually what information analysts call ‘noise’: misleading or unmonitored information. To give a ‘cyber example’, why do we need 200,000 Google entries for one word when 80% of them are of no use to us?

More speculation than fact

Herein lies the main problem associated with blogs, and many other forms of digital communication: the fact that they pour out information in such a way that the sole result is an even more complicated worldwide web. In this sense, the worst of all are the frequent rumours, which surface more in difficult times, and which end up being everyone’s worst enemy. Well, not everyone’s, as this confusion gives some companies the occasion to profit from speculation as a communication strategy by testing the waters to announce a new product. An example of this is so-called ‘vaporware’, products which are announced and, suspiciously, never make it onto the market. This is no joke, Wired magazine publishes an annual list.

One of the problems with blogs is that the objective of being strict with their information is relegated to second place. Instead, their revolutionary aspect is prioritised, which is based on the idea that even people who don’t know how to produce websites are able to publish, but which overlooks many other considerations that seem to remain the peculiarities of journalists. As many say, bloggers believe they have invented the world of the internet.

Yes to participation, no to substitution

There are Spanish newspapers, such as the free Que!, which include a page dedicated to the comments, photos, and blogs of its readers. Printed media has also opened its doors more widely to the public. But there still seems to be too much optimism surrounding this issue. This is demonstrated by the American study by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis entitled ‘We Media’ which describes the concept of participative journalism and assimilates the participation of Internet users in online journalism. It would seem necessary to study this in more depth and to be more particular. If we are talking about people who collect, contrast, screen, edit and verify the news there would not be a problem, but in practice it is often very different.

Journalism should always be participative in the sense that it should give everyone a voice, that many people should feel involved and that it is essential to have critical readers. However, we should not forget that we need professionals in order to prevent complete chaos. During the invasion of Iraq, blogs captured the attention of many readers. But who did these blogs belong to? They were written by professional journalists who published, in a more relaxed format, what their own medium would not allow them to. Is this participative journalism? It is halfway there, but perhaps it is more akin to news spread via an unconventional means.

The conclusion, as shown by these examples, is that we are a long way from defining the limits of meaning of the term ‘participative journalism’. It is fantastic that a website should set aside space for readers to comment on and polish an article, but to hope that news is written by everyone and that it turns out well just because it is a popular activity… this seems unrealistic. There is a reason we have professionals who have the right to select what we want. What we should really do is interpret participative journalism in the way that Rusty Foster, creator of the collective website, explains in the ‘We Media’ study quoted above: that the information is only a starting point, not an end product. What is needed is that the readers express their opinion, act, and that they stop being passive. That they control the media (mediawatching) but not that they are the media. If not, we are on the wrong path.