Wednesday 2 June 2010

On the traditional media 'stealing' stories from blogs

In this post, Danny Sullivan explains how he broke a story on his blog. He says it was a 'tasty story' about a woman suing Google for providing her with poor directions.

He then traces how his story was picked up and usually not attributed by various media outlets. Unsurprisingly a number of media organisations simply 'stole' the story.

Sullivan was demonstrating that while bloggers use material from traditional media sources, the opposite is also true. He wants better attribution from bloggers and traditional media alike; "a lot less finger-pointing and much more acknowledgment that the origin of news is a messy business".

I can't think of anyone who could possibly be against "less finger-pointing", but there is considerable intrigue around the origin of news stories both for cultural and economic reasons.

Much research has attempted to look at the extent to which blogs break original news.

Only the other week the Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study suggesting that original reporting on blogs is more or less non-existent. In this case, Amy Gahran pointed out that the methodology of the study was flawed as it looked at a specific section of the blogosphere that talked about mainstream media news organisations.

Sullivan's story highlights another methodological problem. Much research in this field so far focuses on content analysis. For those of you not up with academic terminology (and believe me you won't be alone) studies based on content analysis will look for and count references, mentions, quotations or citations of blogs in traditional media output.

Sullivan's story shows us that blogs get written out of traditional media stories. This is no different, in fact, to the way in which media organisations follow up stories written by their traditional competitors and often do not credit them either. So it is nothing particularly new.

But unfortunately it renders a content analysis rather problematic. If blogs and indeed other sources of other news are written out of media reports how can we accurately measure their influence? It seems to me that relying solely on content analyses to assess the impact of blogs on the traditional news media is highly unreliable.

Of course, it is interesting to hear stories like Sullivan's and I have a few of my own from my research. The use of White Phosphorus by the US Army in Iraq in 2004, for example, was broken a year later by a blog. But that piece of information did not make it into the BBC's initial reporting.

These stories do provide a healthy caveat to studies based on content analysis, but they do not give us all the answers either. In particular, it is difficult to know how common or otherwise they are.

Sullivan says "the origin of news is a messy business". Untangling the mess won't be easy.


JoLynne Lyon said...

It's an interesting discussion. When I worked at a small-town paper, a lot of news tips came in by word of mouth, and it would have been hard to track down where it originated. To me the more important issue is that so many reporters in both small and large publications will do so much of their work without ever leaving the office or talking to a primary source. It seems to me that building a story from the ground up is becoming a lost art.

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