A post by Bill Thompson last month triggered an interesting debate. One of the controversial bits:
Unlike amateur bloggers who can rant, comment, express bizarre points of view or promote their latest acquisitions and obsessions with no concern for conflict of interest or even internal consistency, we are not mere citizens in the world of the blog and the MySpace profile, and it is about time we stopped trying to act as if we ever were.
Read also an interesting follow-up by Jeff Jarvis, with lots of good comments.
In my view, the key point here (which Bill may or may not share) is that what journalists say is not just opinion or 'information' (whatever that hideous term means). Their utterances are examples of what JL Austin called speech-acts: real-world, binding actions that just happen to be performed through words.
The archetypal case of speech-acts is that of the "declarative" or "directive" utterances of (respectively) juries or judges, as in "we find the defendant guilty" or "I sentence you to 10 years in prison". These are not just "constative" statements (which can be true or false): they are actions, and the world changes when they are performed successfully. Among the factors that are key to their success (or 'felicity', in Austin's parlance) are that the speaker have the necessary role (e.g. be a judge) and that the utterance be made at the right time in the right conventional setting (e.g. the passing of sentence at a lawfully-convened trial).
Bill Thompson's point, then, is that journalists can never escape their role (they are always journalists) even when they are outside their traditional setting (e.g. a newspaper). The truth of this is debatable, but it is certainly not altogether lacking. Imagine a judge giving a press conference after passing a sentence, saying "I'm not quite sure I should have condemned him... but so be it". It just wouldn't do. A person can't be completely divorced from her role, and a role can't be completely divorced from its official setting.
So what kinds of speech-acts is it that journalists make? At least three:
1. They make "comissive" statements of fact: they promise that something is true, and stake their reputations on this
2. They (at least editors) make the "directive" recommendation that you should be aware of what is being said (see my post on aggregates)
3. They (at least mainstream-media editors) make the "declarative" utterance that this story (as distinct from countless others that could have been written about countless other events) is from now on "news" and part of the national conversation.
Two questions remain:
First, do you have to be a journalist to make a valid speech act about current events? Certainly not, but unless you own a powerful aggregate (like the Daily Kos) your statement doesn't have the force of (3). Most bloggers' opinions even fail at point (1).
Second, are blogs changing the conventions that dictate what makes a valid journalistic speech-act? Certainly, but exactly in what way is something that escapes me.
If these arguments seem persuasive, you will agree with me that people like Adrian Holovaty who claim that journalism is about "gathering", "distilling" and "presenting" "information" are either hopelessly miguided or being generic to the point of meaninglessness.
Later: See this post by Clay Shirky (18/09/06)