Posting USA: Separating Signal From Noise on the Web

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By: Dennis M. Wilkins

My few, fleeting seconds of fame occurred on March 12. Anyone flipping to that page of the 2007 Freedom Forum First Amendment calendar will see a quote from me: “Without journalists, others without a sense of the journalistic mission — such as unscrupulous advertisers and political charlatans — will be telling the stories.”

That appeared in a commentary I wrote for Editor & Publisher almost two years ago. Boy, has figuring out who’s a credible storyteller changed.

Nowadays, everyone’s got something to say — or show. That’s what the Web has given us: a platform to offer information about anything to anyone for any reason. Blogs. MySpace. Friendster. YouTube. Everything anyone wishes to tell the world gets posted as stills, video, audio and text.

It’s not just those “unscrupulous advertisers” and “political charlatans” I should have accused of muddying the waters of clarity. Wherever a significant number of eyeballs converge, piranhas who seek to prevaricate or obfuscate can be found. Even the “news” media constantly feed their Web sites minute by minute without, perhaps, sufficient reflection before they post. As a former student wrote to me: “It’s post first, fix later.”

Some people provide information to make money; some provide it to connect with others for reasons noble or ignoble; some provide information to try to make sense of others’ information (or mis- or dis-information). Presumably the journalistic mission lies somewhere in the last.

But there’s mucho grande noise surrounding any useful signal emitting from those asserting such a mission. Even as I read with interest what my colleagues post in the online communities I inhabit, I wonder: How much of our work as presumably thoughtful bloggers is noise rather than signal? Do we shoot from the hip too often?

Or do we defend ourselves as proud bearers of the mission of the late David Halberstam? David Shribman, editor of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, recently wrote of Halberstam: “Halberstam himself had power, influence, and wealth. But he used them in the service of his twin passions: to understand the world he inhabited and to tell the truth about the world he saw. At a time when journalism is losing so much of its soul, it was a twin tragedy to lose one of its greatest avatars.”

As I reconsider the issue of who will be telling the stories worth hearing, reading or seeing in diverse media, I return to the basic questions I was taught to ask in my early newsroom days. When supposed storytellers are pushing their blandishments at me, I ask:

— What are their qualifications?

— To what audiences are they appealing?

— What motives have they not revealed?

— What is the purpose of their storytelling?

— Do their arguments make sense?

— What do they offer to suggest they are credible?

— Am I encouraged to think for myself?

Defining who’s a journalist and who isn’t won’t be resolved anytime soon. Am I one? I think so. Got the background. Got the motivation. I’m pure of heart (okay, okay, you can laugh here).

But if someone’s reading my posts and is not asking these questions of me, then I’ve got ’em by the short hairs. It’s not just “question authority” anymore; it’s question anyone with an online bully pulpit who wants to tell you how to think or behave or believe.

Even me.

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