A More Forceful Fourth Estate

Balancing journalism and advocacy in the ‘new media’

Successful journalism is a business based on public trust, and the quest for objective reporting is why papers like this one have conflict-of-interest policies. In the big leagues, reporters on the political beat don’t participate in advocacy efforts, they don’t give money to campaigns, and many of them don’t even vote.

I have to say, I’ve never been completely sold on the idea that the best way to deal with conflicts of interest is to pretend that they don’t exist. That said, I’ve always been partial to the rather sappy notion that the truth can change the world, and “the truth” is a lot more believable when it’s offered sans agenda.

But what happens when journalism and advocacy mix? I’ve been mulling this question over during the last week while watching the Undergraduate Council (UC) restructuring debate. Crimson coverage notwithstanding, the discussion took place largely in the “new media,” over blogs and e-mail lists, and now that the dust has finally settled, I’m not sure if I should be thrilled or concerned.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I think the campus blogs provide a valuable forum for discussion. And if nothing else, their work over the last week has proved that if you’re willing to put in a little effort, you can actually get a significant number of students to care about the UC (actual student government representatives, please take note).

That said, I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that somewhere in the middle of the dealmaking, the petitions, and the unfortunate ad hominem attacks, the broader student body was never really all that informed about what was going on. They knew that one plan was bad (self-involved UC’ers trying to save their seats and shirk their responsibilities) and that the other plan was good (a more effective UC), but largely because a few people on campus who actually follow this sort of thing told them so.

If that was the end of it, I really couldn’t complain. After all, I spent a good number of years helping The Crimson Staff tell people what to think (and as anyone who’s ever eaten dinner with me can attest, it’s a bit of a personal weakness as well). But the new media is different in two important ways.

First, they aren’t bound by the same standard of accuracy. Traditional media has to draw a very distinct line between fact and opinion—interpretations are explicitly designated, conflicts of interest are expressly named. In contrast, live-blogging reports and online analyses carry the semblance of factual objectivity without any sort check to personal bias, and when they’re the public’s primary information source, this semblance can be mistaken for authenticity.

Second, traditional media limits itself to the power of the pen. Whatever journalists believe, however ardently they believe it, they let other people start the initiatives. As counterintuitive as it appears, it’s this decision that gives their arguments merit—if you really know what’s best for other people, you should trust that your words alone will inspire them to act accordingly. New media sources facilitate agreement; they collect signatures, spam representatives, and organize rallies, sometimes before their audience knows that another side exists.

This second dimension isn’t so bad on its own; on the whole, political advocacy and grassroots organizing should be lauded. The problems arise if you claim objectivity while pushing a platform. And that’s what worries me about the past week: not the politics or the pettiness, but the potential of the new media to motivate people to act before they’ve had a chance to consider if what’s being sold to them is in their interest—or really in someone else’s.

I have a great deal of respect for a number of the proponents on both sides of the UC reform debate, and at the end of the day, I believe that the vast majority of them were acting in what they earnestly believed were the best interests of the student body. So it left a bad taste in my mouth when walking out of the deciding UC meeting on Tuesday night, I happened to overhear a victorious blogger telling an opponent to get over the fact that “we” won. I’m going to hope “we” meant the students or the pro-reform camp; I have to admit that in the context it sounded a lot like “we” meant Team Zebra.

Which brings me to the question that’s been bothering me all week. The restructuring debate wasn’t really just a power struggle between a dozen bored seniors and a handful more self-important members of the student government. But what’s to say it would have been treated any differently by the campus blogosphere if it had been?

Perhaps someday, public demand for reliability will create heightened expectations of journalistic integrity to balance the ideals and the advocacy of new media writers much in the way it once did with the traditional press. This process is likely to be hindered by the ease with which new media voices can establish and reestablish themselves—long-term authenticity can be more painlessly sacrificed for short-term gains. In the meantime, bloggers should by no means dampen their passion for the issues. Rather, they should be conscious of the claims they make and how well they adhere to them. And we, as a responsible public, should do the same.

Hannah E. S. Wright ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears regularly.