Another Misguided Anti-Blog Study by Clueless Academics

Last Updated Jul 13, 2009 11:13 PM EDT

An academic study titled "Tracking the life and death of news" published earlier today does no such thing. Under the auspices of Cornell, this study purports "to track and analyze the 'news cycle' (defined as) the way stories rise and fall in popularity."

The first thing I must object to is this definition of the news cycle. We journalists traditionally used this phrase to describe the deadlines we had to hit to deliver the news, which therefore confined when news emerged, not "the way stories rise and fall in popularity."

This may be the age of user-generated content (UGC), but that doesn't necessarily mean that popularity absolutely determines a news cycle. Many factors are involved, too many to explore here. Be that as it may, our academic friends attempted to "(track) 1.6 million online news sites, including 20,000 mainstream media sites and a vast array of blogs, over the three-month period leading up to the 2008 presidential election -- a total of 90 million articles, one of the largest analyses anywhere of online news."

Congratulations. You did your work admirably. You developed algorithms that tracked the appearance of quotes in blogs and on mainstream news sites.

But, as a former professor, I have to object that your assumptions were flawed.

Next, the third thing I must object to is the time frame you chose -- the three-month period leading up to the 2008 presidential election. (More on that in a moment.)

First, let's quote from your PR.

"Watching how stories moved between mainstream media and blogs revealed a sharp dip and rise the researchers described as a 'heartbeat'," Bill Steele reported today on Cornell's website. "When a story first appears, there is a small rise in activity in both spheres; as mainstream activity increases, the proportion blogs contribute becomes small; but soon the blog activity shoots up, peaking an average of 2.5 hours after the mainstream peak. Almost all stories started in the mainstream. Only 3.5 percent of the stories tracked appeared first dominantly in the blogosphere and then moved to the mainstream."

Actually, what the Cornell researchers appear to have captured, I suspect, is quite another phenomenon, one those of us with experience in covering political campaigns have long since become accustomed to. It's the "message-of-the-day" phenomenon.

Political strategists determine these messages as dawn breaks, and everyone associated with the campaign is instructed to stay on message. Thus, tracking the kinds of political quotes the Cornell researchers studied in the time-frame selected tells us precious little about the actual relationship between bloggers and traditional newspaper sites, though it does tell us a lot about the giant echosphere that is all media has become in this age of lazy reporting, whether online, offline, or simply lined up to take the bait.

That bloggers are 2.5 hours late, compared to the mainstream, may in fact show which group is more skeptical about the PR crap that flows out of the candidates' camps. The study I'd like to see would compare which group of reporters took this stuff as gospel, and which took the time to do more work and call BS by its right name.

The latter group would probably need, by my calculation, about 2.5 hours to do so.

(I am indebted to Michael Cader, for his comments on the Read20 List that helped to inspire this post.)

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.