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Jan 30 2012

Where does the Journalist End and the Blogger Begin?

A fascinating debate erupted this weekend between blogger Richard Silverstein and Journalist-blogger Dimi Reider, over a piece of news in the Israeli media saying Israel’s most advanced drone crashed in test flight

In his blog Tikun Olam, Silverstein, quoting an Israeli source inside the military, argued that the drone was in fact an Iranian drone launched by Hezbullah, and that the drone story is a fictitious version spread by Israel to avoid being committed into an to attack on Iran as a response. Silverstein takes the precaution of  regarding his own story as “likely” and attributing it to the unknown source, yet in his analysis he seems to take it pretty much on face value, and comments on the “Iranian thesis” as if it was a proven fact.

Some of Silvesrein’s readers on Facebook and Ha’aretz correspondent and editor of the prestigious +972 blog, Dimi Reider, challenged Silverstein’s story.

Reider argues, in essence, that relying on a single unnamed source for a story could give the Israeli government the pretext it awaits for attacking Iran. In this he implicitly joins an insinuated allegation, phrased in less uncertain terms by other commentators, that Silverstein might be used inadvertently by powers that be in Israel’s security services.

Over the last two years US based Silverstein had a few impressive exposures, many of which were corroborated and aired later by Israeli and international media. The biggest of them was probably the arrest of Anat Kam, a journalist and whistle blower who has now been trial for 9 years and is in prison for leaking 2000 military secret documents to journalist Uri Blau.

His reputation is beginning to precede him, but there is a big difference between breaking a story like the Kam affair, the details of which were known to all Israeli journalists whose hands were bound by military censorship and court orders, to breaking an exclusive story relying on the word of an insider. While insisting on his faith in his source and fending off accusations of being used, Silverstein makes a clear distinction between his role as a blogger and the role of a journalist. In response to GRN’s question he said “Dimi approaches this matter much more from the perspective of a traditional journalist than a blogger (though he is both). But it’s one thing to try to disprove my story and another to prove the IAF version. I’d like to see you authenticate or attempt to. Or to present a theory that is more credible than mine or theirs. Can you?”

When asked to qualify his view of the difference between the commitment of bloggers or journalists to the traditional codes of ethics in journalism Silverstein says: “I face several conditions Israeli bloggers and journalists don’t face. Some are helpful and some hinder my work. The fact that I am not subject to Israeli censorship or gag orders frees me to report stories no one in Israel can or will report. But not being in Israel is a drawback in that I can never meet my source face to face or carry on a direct conversation. Also, because of legal threats & vulnerabilities it’s important to maintain a wall between myself & my source (to protect him). So these are the constraints under which I work. I can’t for example go to Sdot Micha or the moshav where the alleged drone crash happened to check it out. I can’t go to my source and engage in careful discussion about all the parameters of the story. So if you were an editor, you likely could never publish any of my stories because they don’t offer the sort of journalistic verification that would be required for mainstream journalism. In a sense, much of this (the opportunities and constraints) is caused by Israel’s peculiarities as a national security state in which military intelligence is held under lock and key and parcelled out only to those who are favoured recipients such as approved journalists and the like. If Israel were more like the U.S. I would likely be a less valuable resource. All this by way of saying that journalists don’t have different standards of ethics than bloggers, but they sometimes have to act as their own editor and make judgements about standards of proof and evidence that are different than a blog editor might make.”

Silverstein goes on to explain how his role as a journalist sits with his interest as a peace activist: “unlike a newspaper, I view my blog as a source of both reporting and activism. Obviously, if I’m ever proven wrong (and I don’t believe that this has happened regarding my reporting of this story despite questions some may have about it) my political credibility diminishes. So it’s clearly in my interest to be accurate. But in the case of Iran Israel war, my overarching goal is to prevent one. So if my source offers a story that elucidates the danger of such conflict and I’m confident in his credibility, I will report it though I may not have the level of proof a mainstream media story would require.”

Silverstein challenged his critics to “prove the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) version” of the story. However, it is not necessary to believe the IDF story in order to question the extent to which Silverstein has proved (or not proved) his own story in this case.

Reider, too, is an activist as well as a journalist, but he does not see a difference between the codes of ethics he is committed to as a blogger and as an activist. “if anything, when I blog for +972 I use even higher standards, because I know that there’s no one to check my work or watch my back if I screw up”.

This concept of trust and reputation is one that is strong in the freelance news community too, we are only as good as our last story. It takes a long time to build up credibility, but it’s very easy to loose, very quickly.

So here at GRN we have to address these questions in the rare cases in which we bring bloggers onto our books as correspondents. We tend to prefer bloggers who are, or who were in the past, journalists, and in any case our vetting process involves verifying their commitment to a journalistic codes of ethics. The importance of the whistle-blowing blogger as a source has been beyond question for a long time, but our commitment to professional journalism binds all our correspondents.

3 comments

1 ping

  1. Richard Silverstein

    Clearly Dimi is wrong when he claims to use higher standards in reporting for 972, because he made substantial errors in conveying my own version of the Israeli drone story nor did he correct his version as far as I know to reflect my corrections, something I would’ve done if I were reporting/critiquing a story of his.

    I also believe you’re making an artificial distinction in raising the issue of journalistic ethics since these issues have nothing to do with ethics. When I report a story that you wouldn’t it doesn’t mean I fail an ethical standard. It means I have different standards. There is a notion I find pernicious that bloggers are unethical or have lower standards than journalists.

    We have different standards because our goals are different. They overlap for sure in some ways. But they are different.

    Also, keep in mind that I’ve published in Haaretz, The Jewish Forward, Seattle Times, Truthout, Comment is Free, and Foreign Policy in Focus, all sites upholding journalistic standards. They wouldn’t have published my work if I didn’t uphold ethical standards in my reporting.

  2. Richard Silverstein

    The fact that GRN would not publish my work only indicates that you follow strict journalistic standards and will miss out on the Anat Kamm, Dirar Abusisi, Ameer Makhoul stories that I publish. It means you will miss out on all the prisoners I identify who disappear into Israeli prisons. It means you will not hear about the identity of incoming Shin Bet and Mossad chiefs because Israel censorship prohibits publication of their names.

    It means you follow the news rather than making the news as far as the stories I cover. And in that you are missing out. There is a price the MSM pays for its painstaking conservative approach to news. And I think you’ve exemplified this in the last paragraph of your post above.

  3. Daphna Baram

    Thank you for responding Richard, as it helps me qualify our position more accurately. GRN is not, primarily, in the business of “publishing” news, we mainly refer our clients to our correspondents on the ground for live news report. Therefore, the question is not whether we’d “publish” your work. I have no difficulty, while linking in our news alert to the story in the established media, linking to your site with a reference to the effect of “Blogger Richard Silverstein, known for previous exposures, quotes today an unnamed Israeli source who says the drone in question is Iranian, and that it has been launched by Hezbullah”. I also have no difficulty going on air while reporting for one of our clients (or have one of our correspondents do so) and say the very same thing. What I would have a problem with is putting you on air for one of our clients knowing that you would, as you did in your blog, treat this story as the more likely truth, without a satisfying proof by traditional journalistic standards. This is to say, I treat you as an interesting source of good reputation, but I cannot use you as a reporter. I do not think you’d necessarily have a quarrel with this.
    As far as comment and analysis goes, you are perfectly qualified (and you hardly need my approval for that, your record really does speak for itself) to do that, but this is not the product that we sell at the moment.
    And yes, journalists miss out, or at least are often behind bloggers and whistleblowers, because of our insistence in verifying our stories to higher standards. What we lose in speed we gain in the public’s trust, but there’s no doubt that journalism today would be severely crippled without both types of media.

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