Blogs and investigative journalism, Part 2

So the Washington Post hiring of a RedState blogger, Ben Domenech has played itself out as of 1:17pm today. As was becoming obvious as soon as the plagiarism charges came out, Domenech has had to resign.

In case you've been under a rock this week, here is a brief timeline:

Tuesday March 21, 4:01pm: WaPo hires Domenech
Friday March 24, 1:17pm, WaPo announces Domenech resignation

What happened in between? I'd call it investigative journalism which turned up the fact that Domenech repeatedly committed plagiarism (passing someone else's work off as your own) in college and afterwards. This was a serious embarrassment because Domenech, beside gaining the imprimatur of the Washington Post, was a well-connected Republican, who had edited Michelle Malkin's book (she issued a pre-resignation distancing post), was an editor at Regnery Publishing, and had founded RedState, . The investigation was carried out by the blogosphere however, not by the paper, whose credibility is now somewhat tarnished, especially considering the Deborah Howell flap not too long ago.

As someone put it, why couldn't the Post have done the checking that half a dozen bloggers in their pajamas could do with Google?

The Post's credibility is also damaged because they issued mixed messages about why they hired Domenech; with the Washingtonpost.com's Opinions Editor saying he wasn't hired because of his political beliefs, and then Jim Brady Executive Editor saying he was hired to overcome an underrepresentation of conservative voices (sort of a political quota?).

What can we learn from this?

1. The blogosphere is more capable and more willing to use investigative tools such as Google and Lexis-Nexis, not just to find articles but to compare them. I mentioned this factor in my earlier post when I talked about comparing how people's statements change over time and holding people accountable for what they said earlier when they want to rewrite history.

2. The old media still hasn't grasped what blogs are and can be

3. One example of IJ does not mean it's all over for the MSM or that all bloggers do good investigative journalism. What it shows to me, coupled with the decline in readership of hard-copy newspapers (WaPo down 4% from last year), is that a shift may be going on. Chomsky pointed out ages ago in his book Manufacturing Consent that it was dangerous for news media to be owned by so few companies because it narrows the range of political speech, and I think certainly today we see that the USA's major newspapers have abrogated their role as independent voices (the WaPo and NYT in particular are basically conservative small-c establishment voices).

4. Papers are still capable of the week-long series of stories into an issue, usually aimed at garnering the Pulitzer (the traditional meaning of IJ), but I'm talking about the day-in and day-out critical attitiude that doesn't just swallow talking points and White House spin (whoever's in there). Whether it's due to inside the Beltway received wisdom, laziness, lack of resources (WaPo just reduced its newsroom by 80 staff) I don't know. But newspapers are no longer "critical" whereas political blogs are increasingly so.


Two fantastic web 2.0 like resources

I found two fantastic resources that perhaps leverage a bit of the style of web 2.0 today.

The first is ArchiveGrid, an integrated location to search across historical archives. The archives it searches are in the thousands, including major ones like the American Philosophical Society, Johns Hopkins university, Yale University and so on. I did a few test searches of archives I'm familiar with using people's names and it found them just fine (also a new series of papers I wasn't previously familiar with!). This is invalubale.

The second is CiteULike, a web-based service to organise your papers and citations. I already use EndNote, the well-known citation library software and have the library on a jump drive so it travels with me. What's interesting about CiteULike though is that it is a web-based service that integrates with the major online providers of journals (JSTOR, Ingenta, etc.). I still have to see if this service will be useful enough (currently you can export to EndNote but not import from it). You can share your articles with others, or see what others are reading.

Both are free, though ArchiveGrid may go pay if they don't get funding after May.


One of the most powerful blog entries I've ever read

.... from georgia10.

I can't write as well as that and maybe it's a bit long, but for a 23 year old to be feeling this is just intense.

Sac. Bee: "The entire country should take note of this cartography"

The Sacramento Bee writes that FEMA is about to release new flood zone maps for New Orleans:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which the Bush administration has turned into a bureaucratic albatross, possesses enormous leverage in this process. Next month, FEMA is expected to finally release new flood maps that will determine where and at what elevation New Orleans homeowners can rebuild. The entire country should take note of this cartography. Billions of dollars in federal relief dollars hinge on FEMA's decision.

FEMA needs to release these maps without delay.


Where did the journalism go? To blogs

I will confess that I don't subscribe to a hard-copy newspaper, nor do I watch tv. I do listen to the radio, but I don't donate to NPR. How do I get news?

Mostly, I read political blogs. I guess starting around last year I started a new phase of relationship with blogs. I've read them on and off since 2002 and my work has involved some study of them, and I've even written about them in a 2003 book. But last year marked for me the emergence of political blogs as active, investigative journalism--not just repeating or linking to stories in the mainstream media, but digging up information and discussing topics the MSM wouldn't touch. In short, they report and investigate. Blogs even combat the MSM (eg., the Washington Post, NYT) over their inherently lazy and establishment stance, as for example this typical post does.

Where did investigative journalism go? Into blogs. Sure, occasionally the MSM will pull out a major investigative piece such as this NYT piece revealing persistent torture by a secretive US task force (h/t Daily Kos). But the day-in, day-out performance of the MSM reveals that they are no longer the go-to source for news in this country.

I'm excited by blogs. They're a major presence. Some get a million visits per day. Most entries get hundreds of responses and follow-up discussion among readers. One thing confused me when I first started reading them: the "open thread" link. This is an automated post (by a "threadbot") containing no content to which you can post comments. Why on earth, I thought? Answer: simply because readers are so participatory that they need openings in which to post discussion. Can you imagine a situation in your own workplace where people need special automatically created openings because they are begging to participate? Can you imagine a college classroom like this?

There are several mistakes you can make about blogs. The first is to ignore their importance. Recently, members of my professional organization sent out a listserv message advertising a meeting in which people would talk about the relevance of our work and its involvement with the public. This group is very interested in connecting and working with the "people." No bloggers or even discussion of blogging was included, and I got no response to my suggestion for this. Let's see, technorati currently indexes 30.8 million blogs. This political blog has had 26.3 million visitors since April 2004. This blog has 3.7 million unique visitors this week and is one of the most-read websites in the world. Etc. Relevance? Try 39,763 links from 8,345 sites for this blog.

A second mistake is to imagine blogging as some kind of raucous, boiling mass of shouting. On the contrary, the best blogs provide new information, often reading documents, proposed bills, laws, small print of regulations, looking back at what people said in 2003 and what they say now (ie., research and investigation), even muckraking sites with full-time staffs, that is not done anywhere else. And it's not just opinion, but professional insight. Glenn Greenwald's amazing site for example, focuses on First Amendment issues, the FISA and NSA controversy and related issues. Why? He has over ten years experience in First Amendment litigation.

A third mistake is to characterize bloggers as people from the political extremes. Yes you can always find that (you can find anything in 30.8 million blogs) but the top blogs, the ones that make an impact are not extremist (well, apart from Michelle Malkin!).

Looking over the blogging landscape then we see a tremendous uptake in citizen participation of the political process. We're also seeing a marked decline in newspaper subscriptions and a shift to newspaper websites (some even have blogs that allow comments).

The point of all this? There's a couple of bills before Congress that seek to equate blogging with campaign finance, rather than the evolution of the press. MyDD explains here. Sure it's seemingly boring but the last thing we need right now is to squelch this political participation (of any stripe). As I understand it, one bill, supported by bloggers, would leave things as they are for the moment (HR 1606). Another bill, fronted by so-called campaign finance reformers like Nancy Pelosi, who are working on a pre-internet mentality, would say political blogs are political campaigns because they link to candidates and often endorse them (never mind that newspapers do that too).

We need to clearly state here at the transition of journalism from MSM to the internet that low-barrier citizen entry into politics is a good thing that shouldn't be regulated as campaigning.

Should we Collect Race Data?

Here's a question: should we collect race data and use it in mapping and GIS? That is, should the government or the states have data categories in things like the census in which information on race is collected? Currently the Unites States does collect this kind of race-based data. The Census Bureau, for example, has categories in which respondents designate both their "ethnicity" (meaning whether they are Hispanic or not) and their "race" (see sample forms from 2000 Census).

So what would happen if we stopped collecting this data? We could look at France for an answer. Since 1978 they have barred the collection of race data without permission:

Unlike the United States, Britain, or even the Netherlands, France maintains a "color-blind" model of public policy. This means that it targets virtually no policies directly at racial or ethnic groups. Instead, it uses geographic or class criteria to address issues of social inequalities.
Race is a pervasive problem in this country and several professional organizations that deal with racial issues, such as the American Sociological Association and the American Association of Anthropologists, have issued statements on race data collection. Perhaps not surprisingly they come to different conclusions. Anthropologists, citing their research since WWII which indicates there is no biological reality to race, are generally quite sceptical about it, and careful to reject the notion of clear and natural categories of humans. Race was invented in the 18th century in order to put some people above others:
How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The "racial" worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth.
There's also a good discussion on this site called "Is race real?"

The sociology statement agonises over the issue before coming down squarely in favor of the need for race data collection. The sociology profession believes it is necessary in order to combat social inequalities, although they don't explain how a country like France can do so without using race data.

The issue is that racial categories have more variation within them than between them. We know from genetics that the vast majority of physical differences, about 94%, occurs within racial groups. That means that only about 6% of genetic differences occur between the typical races.

So the grouping has internal variation that is very meaningful. This is much like the ecological fallacy, or ecological inference problem which makes it a mistake to infer individual properties based on aggregate level data. The EIP is one of the most fundamental problems of the social sciences, given that our data is often at group level (eg., Census data tracts).

"Race" is another instance of this common problem. The internal and continuous nature of the variation is masked by the discrete category. Both professional associations are of course anti-racist and seeking to end racism. But it's worth remembering that in order to have racism you have to speak, deal with, and refer to... race. It is the very racial categories and their constant reproduction in our discourse and datasets that allows for racism.