Traditional media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have begun to use some of the tools of social media — blogs, Facebook pages, even Twitter accounts. But they seem a lot less eager to adopt some of social media’s core principles, including a commitment to the two-way nature of the medium and all that it represents. This means a lot more than just talking about “the conversation” and how great it is to get links or comments. It’s about taking those comments seriously, responding to them regardless of whether they are positive or negative, and incorporating that approach into the way you do your job. It’s about looking at “journalism,” broadly-speaking, as a process rather than an artifact.
This is something that most of the blogosphere, or at least the part of it that cares about accuracy and integrity, does pretty well. Sites like GigaOM and others update their posts when information is added or corrected, and in many cases link to critical or differing opinions (and if they don’t, they should). In that sense, truth — to use a loaded word — is not absolute, nor is it something that a single entity has a monopoly on, particularly around a developing or complicated issue. The most we can hope for is that an outlet of any kind, whether it’s a blog or a traditional newspaper’s web site, does its best to represent an issue fairly and completely, and that requires additions, updates, links and discussion.
The WSJ arguably failed that test on Monday, with its story on Google and how its position on “net neutrality” had allegedly softened.
There has been, and will no doubt continue to be, debate about whether the Journal’s perception of Google’s behavior is correct. Some believe that Google is actually giving itself a benefit that others can’t match (except, of course, other large web companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, etc.). Others see it as a natural move by a large Internet company, and no threat to net neutrality at all. Whether you agree depends on what you think net neutrality is supposed to mean, and what Google’s role in it is. If you want to understand more about the issue and the way the Journal described it, read some of the links in David Weinberger’s post.
What isn’t in dispute, however, is that Google completely disagreed with the implications in the article, as company representatives made clear in a blog post written not long after the story went up on the Journal site. It’s understandable that Google might take issue with the story, of course, since it paints the company’s behavior in a negative light. But that’s not really the point.
What is important is how the Journal responded to these criticisms, both from Google and Lawrence Lessig (who was also quoted in the Journal story and noted, in his own blog post, that the description of his views was simply not accurate), and from other sources. Was the story itself updated? No. Were any links to the blog posts in question included, even as supplementary material? No. There was a blog post on the Journal site that mentioned how the story had “gotten a rise” out of the blogosphere, which included a couple of links, and then on Tuesday there was as second one, also with links to additional posts at Wired and elsewhere, as well as a description of what “edge caching” is.
No response to Lessig’s factual assertions about his views and the way they were described was provided. There is no acknowledgment of it apart from the Journal’s second blog post (which someone reading the original story might or might not even find). To any self-respecting blogger, this seems like a failure. Why not put all of that information, whether they be links to critical blog posts, updates on factual errors, or something else that is relevant, inside the original story? Why not allow those responses to help expand the way people look at the story? They’re going to do so anyway, once they come across them on their own. Is the Journal simply hoping that they won’t, and the story will remain pure and unsullied by criticism?
That’s an old-media approach. It’s a way of saying, either directly or by implication, “The truth is whatever we say it is.” Any critical responses, even from two of the major players in the story, are relegated to a blog post that gloats about the reaction the story got, but does little to treat it as valid or worthy of inclusion. As Scott Rosenberg of Salon points out, online media provides the tools for a real conversation, one that changes the way people look at an issue, and for a real “journalism as a process” approach to the news. It’s a pity the Journal couldn’t spot — or take advantage of — such an opportunity when it presented itself.