Did blogging lead Ben Smith down the road to error? Or did he err because he was trying to do real-time reporting on a rapidly unfolding story?
Smith, as you may already know, is the blogger for Politico who reported that John Edwards would suspend his campaign — “and may drop out completely” — because of Elizabeth Edwards’ recurrent cancer. Smith wrote a heartfelt mea culpa later in the day, and Howard Kurtz has the complete rundown this morning in the Washington Post.
Smith had what he says was a reliable anonymous source and a chance to make a splash. He made a mistake that anyone could make, and the attacks to which he’s been subjected are unwarranted. Still, I find it curious that he blames his error, at least in part, on blogging itself. Smith writes:
Though I’ve spent the last several years at major newspapers — the New York Observer and the New York Daily News most recently — I’ve done much of my reporting on blogs, and have developed an instinct to let my readers know whatever I know, as soon as I know it. The medium typically allows you to refine and update a story as it changes — including saying, “Well, my original source had it wrong.”
But the scale of this story was simply too big to report that way, to share information with high but imperfect confidence — and without making that level of confidence crystal clear. I should have waited for a second source, or hedged the item much more fully. Or simply waited for the news conference like everybody else.
Smith also quotes his editor, John Harris, as telling him: “I believe a blog item is different than a story — not in standards of accuracy or fairness — but in the ability to report and reveal a breaking story in real time: You write what you know when you know it. BUT, and here’s where you went wrong and we let you go wrong, you can not write more than you know.”
Well, now. It strikes me that what Smith did was not qualitatively different from what radio and, especially, television journalists have been doing for years: Reporting live from the scene, offering something no newspaper can match, but sometimes getting it wrong because the story is still unfolding.
To screw up as a blogger is to link to a bit of news that has already been proven wrong (see this and this), or to a site that you should know lacks credibility.
Once you pick up the phone and start calling people, though, you’re acting not as a blogger, but as a reporter who has a blog. And the normal standards of verification apply.