Via Reason Online I learned of a discussion about blogging entitled Ask the expert: Should old media embrace the new? going on over at FT online. Included were some comments about a couple of blogs you may have heard of:
… the idea that there are hundreds of thousands of “niche experts” blogging away (or ready and willing to blog) lacks empirical evidence. I’m very impressed with scienceblogs.com – read the surgeon/scientist “respectful insolence” and you get a real sense of how the mainstream need to upgrade their medical reporting.
And yet at the same time, I see scienceblogs.com as a sort of rearguard action against a blitzkrieg of rubbish on the net rather than the vanguard of an expert army. The “collective intelligence” of the blogosphere is nothing more than a virtual Maginot Line against bad information, which often begins in the mainstream press and, thanks to the immediate parasitical nature of blogging, invades and permanently occupies the Internet.
Consider the furor over vaccination and autism. Last year, the mainstream press (Rolling Stone and Salon) published an extraordinarily flawed story by Robert F. Kennedy on how the American government was supposedly covering up data linking a mercury-based preservative in vaccines to an “epidemic” of autism. This was picked up the Huffington Post, which, inter alia, damned ABC news for radically changing a story based on Kennedy’s claims. It was a big bad corporate pharma pile on.
Yes, the original story was negligent journalism of the highest order, but the frontlines of blogging simply amplified it. Bloggers such as Skeptico and Respectful Insolence did a terrific job of analysing and pointing out why Kennedy’s claims had no merit, but they lacked the impact of the Huffington Post or Salon or Rolling Stone. And given that the elite blogging circles are dominated by journalists, established pundits and their dauphins, I don’t see how this kind of expert network can leverage its intelligence to inoculate the public against bad information.
The moral of this story is that mainstream news organisations need to look at this kind of event, and figure out what is best for the public interest. Co-opt science and medical expert bloggers into their news model? Maybe. Do a better job of covering this kind of story? Definitely. Re-evaluate what constitutes news and how it should be presented? Absolutely. It’s no good patting yourself on the back because your organisation knew better than to swallow Kennedy’s anti-vaccine Kool Aid if a rival publication ends up propagating misleading and potentially deadly information.
(My bold, shamelessly added.)
Good to know not everyone in the mainstream media swallowed Kennedy’s anti-vaccine Kool Aid.