Once upon an elitist time the now-deceased journalist Walter Lippmann argued that Joe and Jane Average needed the guidance of their betters to run the world. They needed gatekeepers in professional media to filter the news, expose the public to some issues but shielding them from stuff that went over their heads. As Wikipedia reports:
Lippmann said the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” This class is composed of experts, specialists and bureaucrats.
Lippmann was wrong. Although Americans as a whole do many stupid things anyone who works for a corporation, academic institution or any large bureaucracy knows that incredible stupidities are perpetrated daily by the people whose titles suggest they should know better. Their foibles are grist for our gossip and the raw material for Dilbert and Doonesbury. king fun at the big shots. Lippmann was counting on the wise to lead. OK. Look at the melting icebergs and soaring gas prices. Our betters could hardly have done worse at running the world.
But I am optimistic because I do believe that regular people can understand complex issues — provided journalists play the role they should which is to translate the official jargon into plain English and to create the metaphors or find the examples that reveal the often simple ides at the heart of the most complex events. For instance I covered the biotech industry for years but one of the best briefings I ever got was from a garbage man from Brooklyn who explained the science behind the cloning of Dolly the sheep. He had heard a good summary on TV and he passed it on to me.
Imagine, he said, holding his palm in front of him, an egg with the yellow yolk showing. That yolk is the nucleus of the cell they used to clone Dolly. The cloners “scooped out dat yolk and dey trew it away,” he said the way Brooklynites talk. But he understood the process — thanks to a metaphor that hints at the delicacy and difficulty of the procedure.
So if you believe that the journalist’s job is to discover and reveal the simple truths behind the seemingly complex it is encouraging to see a new gatekeeper landscape arising in which the mass media looks to blogs for story ideas. Not the silly blogs where people merely comment on headlines but the small but vital fraction of expert blogs that are sprouting. Because the experts are blogging about their passions and their interests and some of them are good writers. The sharper journalists are reading those expert blogs for story ideas. Not long ago Wired Magazine editor Nancy Miller did a guest lecture before a class of feature writing students at an adult education class I was teaching. She told us that her editor, Chris Anderson, regularly read blogs for ideas. He did not wait to read them in other mass media.
An article in the web zine eMarketer found a similar process underway when it summarized a study of how journalists use blogs:
In a survey of US journalists by PR Week, PR Newswire and Millward Brown, 57.7% of respondents said they used blogs to measure sentiment, and 51% used them to gauge how their competitors were covering stories. Fewer journalists—less than 30% of respondents—used blogs as a mechanism to dig up sources.
I wish the last statistic were higher than the other two but it is a start. Blogs are a good way to look for early occurrences of trends or to find individuals who are not only expert in some field but have some desire and ability to write about it. Journalists have to get smarter at finding these thought-leaders and giving their ideas a larger audience.