Media Writing

Give onto Harvard that which is Harvard’s

According to the Wikipedia article on citizen journalism:

Citizen journalism usually involves empowering ordinary citizens — including traditionally marginalized members of society — to engage in activities that were previously the domain of professional reporters. “Doing citizen journalism right means crafting a crew of correspondents who are typically excluded from or misrepresented by local television news: low-income women, minorities and youth — the very demographic and lifestyle groups who have little access to the media and that advertisers don’t want,” says Robert Huesca, an associate professor of communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

The phrase, Citizen journalism usually involves empowering ordinary citizens is, I think the key to this statement. I doubt there’s a one of the those in the forefront of the new citizen or ‘grassroots’ journalism efforts in weblogging that wouldn’t agree with this, and most likely enthusiastically. Yet it is the demographics shared among these supporters that casts doubt on the nature of our new journalistic corp. One only has to look at those representing weblogging at the Harvard conference on Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility to see the truth in this. Of those who have been weblogging for any appreciable time, most, if not all, are white, affluent, generally male, and usually middle-aged. In addition, all but two, as far as I can see, have been or are professional writers and/or journalists.

Additionally, rather than help to empower those who have little voice, the majority of these people of the new ‘citizen journalism’ tend to link to each other more frequently than they do the misrepresented among the rest of the weblogging population. A search of Jeff Jarvis’ weblog finds mention of David Weinberger 964 times, while a search of David’s site shows a mention of Jay Rosen 81 times, while a search of Jay Rosen’s site… well we could go one. Even with Dan Gillmor’s new weblog, which just started in January, I found seven references to Dave Winer.

This perpetuation of a specific norm among participants isn’t unusual, though. I remember from my own studies in sociology that we are most comfortable with those whom we share the greatest number of important characteristics, such as economic status, color, nationality, and religion. So it’s not surprising that white males from a similar socio-economic background read and hence link to those who are similar. When discussions about the imbalance of sex in regards to exposure is raised in weblogging, and the men say, “But this is an equal environment, and I don’t let sex impact on who I read and why”, this is probably very honest: the men don’t let sex impact on them. Consciously. But who better understands and knows how to write for the white, middle or upper class, intellectual mind than a member of the same group?

This understanding of the inherent pull of ‘like to like’ is really what forms the basis of affirmative action. It isn’t that we think everyone is an active bigot or racist or sexist; it’s that people tend to view those who share a sameness more comfortably over those who do not. In our professional or social lives, which can include weblogging (and that’s fascinating when you think about the virtual nature of this environment), comfort extends to more favorable impressions, and hence can influence hiring, linking, as well as other positive social actions. It takes an effort, an actual breaking away of natural preference, to cure this bias in our viewpoints. Even with increased exposure to the other sex or other races or religion, the tendency to ‘like’ remains.

Within professional journalism, editors and publishers are aware of the influence of ‘like to like’ and have made efforts to bring in at least token representatives of the underrepresented–for economic reasons if not for reasons of fair representation. For instance, if a journal on Linux has 97% male readership, while 20% of Linux users are women, and it wants to increase the number of readers, it wouldn’t be unusual for a publication in this position to seek out women and get their viewpoint on the issue; or even actively recruit more women in editorial or writing positions. Why? Because all things being equal, there could be more bang for the buck going after a ‘group’ of people, rather than the ragtag among those non-participants in the dominant group.

So it’s not surprising, though perhaps is ironic, to see that there is actually better representation of women and blacks and other racial minorities in the professional journalist circles than there is in the so-called ‘citizen journalistic’ ranks of weblogging, because there is no economic or social incentive for the citizen journalists to look outside of their ranks. At least, not at the moment.

An odd thing about all of this is that the practice of ‘like to like’ is so entrenched in business and journalism that it also forms part of the sphere of comfort even to those who are adversely impacted by the effect. For instance, women grow up to see primarily white, male journalists, politicians, and business and community leaders. Though some women may applaud seeing women in any of these roles, others may actually be made uncomfortable–it upsets what is known and what the women have reaffirmed about the role they perceive for themselves in their environment. Because of this, you’ll find women among those who speak out against affirmative action or acts such as the ERA. Or, since we’re discussing weblogging, who speak out against those who make an issue of the lack of representation of women in most weblogging and other like events.

(Based on this perception of role conflict, when women do appear as journalists, they tend to be co-anchors rather than lead anchors; and cover more social rather than political or economic events. However, as my favorite sports reporter and weather forecaster demonstrate — times, they are a changing.)

To return to the conference: ultimately, it is primarily a celebration of ‘like to like’ even though ostensibly it is bringing together ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. However, this type of seemingly ‘open but not’ event isn’t unusual for Harvard; it is a bastion of ‘like to like’, as witness stories in the recent past of wealth influencing grades and admission, as well as claims of discrimination in hiring practices. I’ve always found Harvard to be mildly fascinating with its ability to get away with the most outrageous ‘good ole boy’ club practices, as demonstrated so beautifully with the current flap from a recent conference having to do with lack of women in the sciences and engineering. In this case, the President of Harvard told to be ‘provocative’, does make a mistake that could have negative reprecussions–not so much by encouraging the myth that women are inherently not as good with math and science, but by ignoring the many studies, which have proven this to be false. You are allowed bias at Harvard, but not public ignorance.

As for Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility, what comes out of the conference, this position paper that has been touted, will be heralded as an important document by some, of mild interest by others, and with indifference by the majority of webloggers. Why the latter, especially considering that it represents many who are dominant within this environment?

The reason, in my opinion, is because the conference is so specific as to audience that even those who support the status quo won’t be able to find a common point of reference. Though we may be comfortable with the dominance of white, affluent, males, we are less so with the sheer, rather overwhelming scope of dispassionate intellectualism inherent in the roster. There are, literally, too many 5+ percenters in the crowd. We can’t identify, except for perhaps feeling as if we’re being placed into an inferior position, i.e. “this here group of really smart people are going to tell all of us how we’re supposed to do things, and it pissed me off.”

Case in point: Zephyr Teachout has received much press about her recent writings on the (failed) Howard Dean campaign. I have no problem with what she wrote on her experiences and perceptions of what happened during the (failed) Dean campaign, because a) I wasn’t there, and b) it’s old news. However, I am interested in one statement she made in her FAQ:

I started this blog recently because of an upcoming conference on blogging, journalism, and credibility at Harvard’s Berkman Center. I wanted to write about my own experience, to illustrate some of the thornier issues that come up with conflicts of interest, consulting and blogging. My continued purpose is to engage in the broader debate about how to build a credible medium.

This is where I take issue with Zephyr: she comes into this environment via a political weblog originated during a political campaign–an exception, not the norm for this environment–with no prior exposure to weblogging before, or frankly after, and then she wants to tell us all how we should do what it is we do. Frankly, in my opinion–writing as one of the outsiders who really make up the majority of the webloggers, though we don’t know it yet and lord help the rest of you ‘insiders’ when we do–Zephyr doesn’t know blogging from beans.

If one were to extrapolate from Zephyr to the rest of the attendees, one could say the same about all of them: even the other webloggers, who are, perhaps, too caught up in the mystic of being the new ‘journalism’ to remember that rebels move against the flow, not with it.

On which note, I conclude this first, and last, post on Harvard’s Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility.

Archived, with comments, at the Wayback Machine

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