Search Engines Level the Playing Field for Bloggers

Google introduced Blog Search beta in mid-September of last year. It includes any blog that publishes either an RSS or Atom site feed. Google is not the only engine to deeply incorporate blogs, but what does it mean to the reader when independant blogs and professional journalism are presented together? What does it mean to these websites?

Google defines blogs as sites that use RSS and other structured feeds and update content on a regular basis. On their Blog Search FAQ page, they describe this service as, “Blog Search is Google search technology focused on blogs. Google is a strong believer in the self-publishing phenomenon represented by blogging, and we hope Blog Search will help our users to explore the blogging universe more effectively, and perhaps inspire many to join the revolution themselves.”

While Google’s web search has included blogs for some time, and Google News lists some blogs as news sources, they limit their choice of blogs in their News Search to what they consider reputable blogs. Google has excluded news sources from the results in the blog search, except in rare cases, so there is little overlap between Google News and Google Blog Search. (Side note: I have yet to find information on what Google considers to be a reputable blog.)

On September 14, 2005, Chris Sherman of Search Engine Watch said, “Now that Google has launched blog search, expect the other major search engines to follow suit fairly quickly. All have been feverishly working on blog search over the past year, and now that Google is first out the gate the others will likely move quickly.” He was indeed right.

We heard some time ago that MSN began quietly testing blog search capabilities after partnering with Moreover Technologies, but that was clear back in January of 2005. There’s been a good deal of speculation since then, but there is no formal word yet on what is going on over at MSN in regard to the blogosphere search, even though MSN held the “MSN Search Champs Camp,” with a primary focus on integrating blogs into its search results.

Yahoo stepped up to the plate, however, and quickly followed suit behind Google and launched their blog search in mid-October. But Yahoo is taking a different approach to its blogs and news searches, which has the journalistic community in an uproar. According to Reuters, Yahoo News, one of the world’s most popular Internet media destinations, has begun testing an expanded news search system that includes not only news stories and blogs but also user-contributed photos and related Web links. Yahoo said its move to “…combine professionally edited news alongside the work of grassroots commentators promises to enrich the sources of information on breaking news events.”

“Traditional media doesn’t have the time and resources to cover all the stories,” Joff Redfern, product director for Yahoo Search said. “It really does add substantially to what you are looking at when you are looking for news.”

The new Yahoo searching system for finding news has essentially three levels. The first level of search results starts with the links to top ten stories and related images from mainstream news organizations on the main Yahoo News site. Then, they diverge from there. Readers searching for further details will be taken to a second-level news site, which splits the page between news from 6,500 professional sources and links to the hundreds of thousands of blogs available from its syndication service.

It is in this level that professional journalists have the ethical issue, because the expanded search just stops short of blurring all lines between edited news and self-publishing. One could even go so far as to say that professional journalists are almost outraged at this blend of what they consider reputable news and the-average-Joe’s weblog.

“We do try to demarcate what is mainstream media and what is user-generated content so that there is no confusion there,” Redfern said. But for the professional journalist, this may not be enough. To the untrained eye, searchers may not understand the subtle difference. They also may simply not care.

There are two valid drastic views for either side that I want to point out. One is from the voice of the professional media, and the other is from the bloggers. These same bloggers feel that it is the same school of thought that has prompted Yahoo’s approach to blending blogs with and news sources.

What is Journalism?

Journalism is defined as, “the profession of reporting or photographing or editing news stories for one of the media, or a style of writing for presenting bare facts to describe news events.” Journalism is also considered a discipline of collecting, verifying, reporting and analyzing information gathered regarding current events, including trends, issues and people.

To be honest, there is really nothing in the definition of journalism that states that someone who doesn’t write for money, or have edited content, or even receive a particular qualification, is not a journalist. In short, there is nothing which dictates the difference between the professional and the blogger. In fact, blogging can certainly qualify as journalism.

The Professional’s View of Journalism

From the point of view of the professional journalist, though, putting blogs side by side with news is a flat-out insult.

A media studies professor at Syracuse University, Robert Thompson, said it was “important to preserve the distinctions between professional journalism and personal commentary.”

His definition of professional journalism is “reporting which adheres to standards of accuracy and writing subjected to an editorial process, and all done with an eye to journalistic ethics.” He then added that journalism often falls short of these goals.

“There is a distinction between something that has gone through an editorial process as opposed to something put up by someone that has been through none of those processes,” Thompson said. Perhaps, then, it the issue of accountability that Thompson feels distinguishes true journalism from someone’s blog opinions.

Professional media people that support Thompson’s view aren’t simply being prudish, but in their opinion, why should the bloggers receive just as much credit for their fact-or-fiction opinion, as those that have worked hard in the industry to make a name for themselves, and use a set of standards and ethics to do so? Should the long hours of study, education, blood, sweat, and tears fly out the window with this approach to journalism made by the blogosphere, only to become deprecated or diluted because anyone can report on the news? I can understand their frustration in a way. Why should someone and their opinions (whether fact or speculation), without the same qualifications in the field, be given possibly more weight with the community than the opinion of someone who has to be accountable for their factuality?

It’s the same frustration I felt when I found out that a good friend of mine, who barely knew how to turn on a computer, announced she was going to start building websites. Because she was able to make an investment in an out-of-the-box developing program, she suddenly became a web developer? After all, it was I that attended the classes and worked hard to understand web languages, yet here she is, completely unqualified, and now making a nice living at it. And even though she still doesn’t even know what HTML stands for, it makes no difference to her. It feels like she cheated, in a way. And that’s how these professional journalists feel about bloggers. The mere fact that someone has an opinion on something and writes about it, in no way makes them a journalist; but to categorize them all in with the actual journalists is a very upsetting idea.

The Other Side

On the other hand, you have those same bloggers, who may or may not be qualified to report on what they consider news, feel that this view is nothing more than a symptom of jealousy. They think the professional journalists are acting like spoiled children, who petulantly stamp their feet and declare, “It’s not fair!” Because they’ve gotten their way for so long, and now the tables are turning, it probably does feel unfair.

What may bother these journalists the most is the idea that many bloggers, who are not motivated by money or fame, may actually be writing better articles and news stories than the paid journalists are. The big fear here could be that blogging may make the career journalist obsolete.

When reading the news, it does occur to me that there is almost always a biased slant to the story, as it is difficult for humans to be objective on any subject. Many might disagree with me here, but how many times do you see a news story where facts make up about 20 percent of an article, and the rest is fluffed with opinion and hearsay? What makes a paid journalist more qualified than you or I to report on the same issues? What makes his or her opinion more important that ours?

In the Reuter’s article, they reported on talking to media critic Jeff Jarvis, author of the blog Buzzmachine. He had stated that he felt like major sources of news sites such as Yahoo and Google patronized bloggers and treated them as if they were secondary sources of news. Most of your paid journalists, I’m sure, would agree that they are secondary.

Jarvis, who is a former TV critic for TV Guide and People magazines, scoffed at the notion that journalists have some sort of a shared set of professional standards, or code of ethics, if you will, and that they are better trained or more trustworthy than bloggers.

He said, “What made the voice of the people somehow less important than the paid professional journalist?” he asked. “You don’t need to have a degree, you don’t need to have a paycheck, you don’t need to have a byline,” Jarvis said. “If you inform the public, you are committing an act of journalism,” he declared.

In fact, it is often that paycheck and byline that might motivate the journalist’s bias on the story in the first place. What motive does a blogger have for introducing a bias? No more motive than anyone, I suppose. But you will time and time again hear arguments that only the pros have a handle on what is really newsworthy.

While it seems an unspoken code of ethics in the media industry to carefully separate out the “news” from the “newsworthy,” it is certainly not the way we as humans think and interact. When we talk or think about something that is interesting to us, we don’t separate our knowledge of factual information from our other impressions. So what really makes the news newsworthy? And further, who decided it to be such?

I think it’s important to point out the difference between news and newsworthy. The definition of news is “information about recent events or happenings, especially as reported by newspapers, periodicals, radio, or television,” or “a presentation of such information, as in a newspaper or on a newscast.” The definition of newsworthy is “of sufficient interest or importance to the public to warrant reporting in the media.” The mere definition of newsworthy is indicative of someone’s, or a group of someone’s, opinion. After all, what is of interest or important to you may be an entirely different matter to me.

In media trends, it seems that only the bad news really gets the attention. Unfortunately, the media’s emphasis on bad news is intrinsic to journalism: the attitude that if nothing is going wrong, it’s not really newsworthy doesn’t fly with a lot of people. It really is rare that you seen breaking news in which a good thing is happening. Throw in rampant bias based upon political, religious, or racial views, and suddenly, it really ceases to be news at all, even if it may be considered newsworthy.

In Yahoo’s own blog, they give a poignant example: “During Hurricane Katrina millions of people came to Yahoo! News for authoritative information. At the same time thousands of bloggers were posting first-hand accounts, photos, personal stories, and opinions. But without mainstream exposure, many important voices went unheard.” The professional media somewhere along the way decided that this simply wasn’t newsworthy. I ask you: who gave them the authority to decide this for the rest of the community? Is the media the ultimate expert on what I consider newsworthy? Or did our need, as humans, to be shocked and distressed, determine that for us? I honestly believe that it boils down to what really sells.

I can see both sides of the argument, and can agree with each on its own merit. But what is clear to me is that we have indeed moved closer towards leveling the playing field a little bit between journalists and bloggers, at least where the search engines are concerned. The voice of the community should be heard. It is, after all, the community’s voice that is the driving force of what is of particular interest, and therefore newsworthy.

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