Yesterday, I called the Wall Street Journal on its shoddy reporting about blogging as a profession.

As fortunate as I am to call myself a ‘professional blogger‘ and as much as I believe blogging has a very bright future, the WSJ’s article claiming that there were more people earning a living as bloggers in the United States than there are firefighters, CEOs, computer programmers or bartenders was just plain wrong.

The data on which the author’s conclusion was drawn was so misinterpreted and flawed that it was disappointing to me that one of the world’s most respected print publications would even publish it in the first place.

That the WSJ would put out dubious information was bad enough. But one of my biggest beefs was that the article presented a table that gave the impression that the numbers presented were sourced from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:

More troubling: that the 452,000 blogger figure is included in a table that cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics as its source, giving the impression that the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that there are more professional bloggers in the US than firefighters, CEOs, computer programmers or bartenders. It doesn’t say any such thing; the figures for all the other professions were provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the blogger figure was inserted by Penn.

I personally believe that the Wall Street Journal needs to issue a correction and apology. Publishing an article of dubious value is forgivable as everyone is entitled to make a poor argument; misrepresenting sources, on the other hand, is not forgivable because it deceives readers.

Mark Penn, the author of the article, posted a response to the criticism he’s been receiving. He offers up a lacking defense for his fuzzy math as it relates to the 452,000 blogger figure and also brushes off the difference between ‘mean‘ and ‘median‘ when it comes to revenue metrics.

Penn is of course entitled to further diminish his credibility but the bottom line is that by creating the impression that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the source of the 452,000 professional blogger figure, he and the Wall Street Journal fooled readers into believing that the number is legitimate and ‘official‘ when it is not.

Proving my point, Silicon Alley Insider, a popular business/technology blog published a post titledU.S. Now Has Almost As Many Paid Bloggers As Lawyers“, which stated that the dubious professional blogger number from the WSJ was “pumped out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics“. It wasn’t of course.

The post’s author, Henry Blodget, a former Wall Street analyst and founder of Silicon Alley Insider, apparently didn’t take the time to read the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, which makes no mention of bloggers. He even included an image of the deceptive WSJ data table in his post.

While Blodget fortunately later updated his post and linked to an article demonstrating some skepticism, it’s clear that Blodget simply assumed that the WSJ would never provide a deceptive source attribution so he didn’t bother to check on his own.

He wasn’t the only one who took the WSJ at face value. Sarah Lacy of Yahoo’s TechTicker spread the word that “425,000 say blogging is their primary source of income” while Jeff Jarvis, a prominent new media proponent and associate professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, didn’t really question the number either, although he did express skepticism on the revenue side.

On Twitter, the news that there are now nearly as many professional bloggers as attorneys traveled fast. To many, it is now fact that there are nearly half a million professional bloggers in the US. Even though there aren’t.

The incident demonstrates two things in my opinion.

  • Neither new media nor old media has a monopoly on bad reporting. Unfortunately, there is a key difference: when an old media institution like the WSJ promotes misinformation, it is given a higher presumption of credibility, which leads to that misinformation being spread further, faster.
  • So long as we in all walks of the media world (bloggers, print journalists, professionals, non-professionals) collectively fail to our own due diligence and apply healthy skepticism to everything we read, the people who consume ‘the news‘ we produce or ‘share‘ will end up paying the cost for our failure.

When Mark Twain wrote “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes“, he certainly never envisioned the internet.

Tragically, thanks to the otherwise wonderful power of internet distribution, a lie can travel around the world while the truth is still looking for its shoes. That means that journalists of all types have a greater moral obligation today than they ever have.

There’s no doubt in my mind that civilized society can’t thrive without the institution of journalism. But flimsy reporting, weak editorial oversight and a ‘report first, think last‘ mentality aren’t going to cut it, no matter which ‘media‘ carries the torch of journalism forward into the 21st century.

Photo credit: ktylerconk via Flickr.