Apr 1, 2007

Everyone's An Expert

There's a backlash going on in the world of journalism these days, as more and more amateurs join the ranks of experts by virtue of an internet connection and an opinion. And, perhaps because of its accessibility and familiarity, food and beverage seems to be hit particularly hard. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle skewered bloggers for their armchair commentary on local restaurants, demonstrating how negative blogging can quickly smother a hard-working restauranteur's baby.

The article echoes the broader questions raised by News War, a recent Frontline series on the changing nature of the press in America, and I think they're questions that every one of us beverage writers needs to address (if not in public, than at least in the privacy of our own local watering hole), if we're to maintain any credibility at all.

The questions are simple: What is journalism? Should it be qualified by citizen- or blogger- or professional-? and What is the value of these different types of journalism? The answers get very foggy when talking about the world of drinks (and any non-hard news), because it just doesn't matter as much, does it?

But of course, for the sake of all our jobs, it does matter to some degree. The constant of journalism has always been credibility: the credibility of the publication as a whole, the credibility of the individual writer, the credibility of their sources. But credibility is up for grabs on the web, where anyone can hide behind a keyboard. This was made glaringly apparent in a recent Beer Advocate thread, where an online reviewer had posted the private email he received from a brewer after writing a particularly critical review. Brandonc, a homebrewer himself, ended his review of Watch City Brewing with "I hope this place closes down soon and stops giving brew pubs a bad reputation. Then they can sell their brewing equipment to someone who knows what they are doing."

This particular review and the resulting thread highlights one of the most common arguments for professional journalism: professional journalists both understand and adhere to a specific code of ethics when reporting that builds credibility for the profession as a whole. This includes such ditties as "If a place with a generally decent reputation really sucked, you might either try it again later, or find out if something specific was going on." This tenet of journalism—cover the whole story, not just your own knee-jerk reaction—seems to generally be lost on most food and beverage bloggers.

And I do say most. Not all, but certainly most. And herein lies the crux of the matter. Because in fact, the counterpart is also true: most journalists seem to have lost their ethical cheat sheet as well. So where does that leave us beverage writers, those of us who do this for a living and those who do it for fun? Do we owe a certain level of credibility to our readers? Are there different standards for different types of writers? Or should we feel just fine throwing our words around as we see fit, letting the drops fall where they may? I see some of us include biographies by way of explanation, some offer sarcastic justifications, and still others provide their own code of ethics. Is this the best we can hope for? Should hope for?

Like I said, the questions are obvious, the answers less so. I want to agree with the SF Bay Guardian's Tim Redmond when he argues that "the typical blogger, who comments on other news reports and does some citizen journalism while holding down a day job or going to school, isn't going to fill the role of full-time reporters. It's not that the bloggers aren't smart or good writers or, frankly, better reporters than a lot of the pros out there. It's just that this job can't be a part-time gig." [SFBG, 3/28/07]

But Redmond boils it down to resources (specifically, time devoted to reporting), which is too simplistic an approach. Again, it begs the same question being asked all along: What the hell is an expert? Do you have to be paid for your opinions to be considered an expert? Do you have to be doing it full time? Must you have undergone formal training? Or do you merely need to have worked in the biz to earn your cred? Maybe I am mingling the concepts of "expert" and "reporter" and "writer" too much but, ultimately, they all overlap and the resulting blur is what we're now all arguing about.

So what's your take? As a consumer, what do you expect from your information sources? Who do you trust and why? If you're a writer, how do you maintain credibility in your audience's eyes? And, of course, how should these various terms be defined, if at all?

Further reading:
Lew Bryson's take on beer criticism.
Appellation Beer's conversation on beer writing ethics.
A Good Beer Blog's conversation on the subject of professional vs. non-professional drink writing.
SFBG article on the value of content, by David Lazarus.
Association of Food Journalists' Code of Ethics and Food Critics' Guidelines.
Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen.
Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.
Pointer Online's section on ethics.
Jay Brooks' stance on beer blogging.


jimmyp said...

Interesting post. I haven't read through all the links yet, but I'll give my .02 anyway. (Why not? I'm a blogger!) I've seen plenty of bad info in blogs AND in the mainstream media. Let's face it, if you ARE an expert in some area, and you read an article in the paper about that subject, you'll probably be cringing by the time you finish reading. At least the blogger gets to choose her focus, and concentrate on her area of "expertise." Can the stringer at the paper do that?

Jessie Jane said...

Well there are certainly advantages to both sides:

Journalists often get better access, editors (there is a lot to be said for editors), and sometimes budget.

Bloggers get the freedom to be unedited (unmuzzled, many would say, but this can also lead to misdirection).

But then lets look at the notion of "expert." Journalists are experts at providing the news (gaining access to sources, framing discussions, supposedly being objective, etc). They are also experts at reporting on complicated subject matter that requires additional experts.

Most bloggers are not experts at writing (as a formally trained writer and someone who's been doing this a long time, I find that many dismiss the idea that there is a craft and skill to writing). Many are not even true experts at the subjects on which they write. Take booze, for example. Does being a drinker make you an expert in drinks? I would say it doesn't. Does reading a lot about the production process make you an expert on distilling or brewing? I don't think so.

Being book-smart and vocal about a subject is not the same as being an expert. An expert has advanced info on a subject, yes, but they also know how to analyze and apply that info in a useful way (and not just by sharing it).

I think there is a reason that "amateur" and "professional" are two different words. But the flexibility and anonymity of the tech medium has blurred the lines.