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October 13, 2006
Web writers: What are we? Journalists? Marketers? Information Providers? Opinion makers? Scholars?
One of our bloggers wrote me this week with some questions regarding the choices we make in the content we include and the responsibilities that may affect those choices. As I was responding to his questions, it occurred to me that these choices are really determined by the goal of our Web site or blog, and the role we play as writers. Today I would like to explore the different types of writers that may be posting content online, and what their roles or responsibilities may be. In a future entry I'll discuss how these roles can impact our content decisions.
As you read this keep in mind that most of us will take on multiple roles in the course of our online writing.
When we think of journalists, we think of people who go out into the world, gather facts, and then present them to the reader via newspapers, magazines, online venues, television and books. Our sense is that a journalist should be accurate and objective—not influenced by personal bias. For some reason, many today think that objectivity requires some sort of "balance of coverage" in which equal time is given to opposing viewpoints, even if one side deserves more weight than another. I find that odd because often times "balance" can take us past the facts and into a world of opinion.
For example if I were writing an article about the Holocaust, I would not try to balance my story with input from both a WWII historian and a neo-nazi historical revisionist. The facts of the holocaust are well-documented, so to bring in an opposite opinion would only serve to undermine the accuracy of my story. In August, Mano Singham wrote about the problems of balance in regard to science reporting. His entry may give you more insight into this issue.
When reporting news and information on Web sites and blogs, I think it is important to keep in mind the distinction between objectivity and balance. Yet, if you focus on carefully researching the facts, you probably won't even have to worry about it.
Additionally it is important to consider the editorial slant of your site. For example, the BBC and Yachting Magazine both report news, but they have very different editorial goals. In addition to straight reporting, each publication may also choose to offer opinion pages. Whether this is someone's opinion on the Iraq war, or another's thoughts on the best way to trim the mainsail, these articles can offer additional insight into a topic—so long as they are clearly marked as opinion rather than fact. For more information you may wish to review Wikipedia's entry on journalism.
Marketers and Copywriters
The role of marketers and the copywriters who write their advertising, direct mail and Internet marketing pieces is to get the reader, listener or viewer to make a decision and act upon it. Back in my previous life as a direct marketer, my role was to sell legal research materials to attorneys and others through direct mail, print advertising, telemarketing, catalogs, and the Web. In doing this, either in directing a campaign or writing my own copy, I would focus on understanding the features of my products and explaining how those features would benefit my intended buyers.
Features such as indexes, tables, annotations, author experience, accuracy, timeliness and price might allow my buyers to reap the benefits of reduced research time, professional insight, easier ways to understand an issue, cost-savings, etc. You see the feature/benefit focus in most consumer advertising ranging from side-impact airbags making safer Volkswagens to user-friendly software that lets Macintosh users become their own video producers.
But marketing isn't all about commerce. A student's personal blog may serve to market her communications skills to a potential employer. My American Music Masters Web site should help you decide to attend the Roy Orbison conference on November 4th. For only $30 you get a day's worth of insight and entertainment—learning about Roy Orbison through his colleagues and associates in a way you never would through books and music alone. And if you are a Case student you can attend for FREE!
As you can see, we all have something to promote, whether it be a favorite event such as AMM, an academic program or your personal political opinions. When writing in this fashion, you should still stick to the facts, but you will also add additional information that will help your reader to make a decision appropriate to his/her needs.
I break this out into a separate category from journalism, because it is a bit more basic, and something that we all do. It's just about the facts and nothing more. Examples of this would include posting your office hours, your location, directions to your building, the syllabus for your class, a list of courses you teach, your departmental policy on lawn ornaments, meeting schedules, your e-mail address, etc.
"Last week when I got on the elevator in Adelbert, the car went down instead of up. Given that I'd entered on the ground floor, I found this rather strange; but that wasn't anywhere near as strange as the Purple Polar Bear who grabbed me when the door opened into a subterranean cave. Giggling all the while, the bear led me to a cozy chair in front of a bowl full of Gummi People. He then explained that I wasn't allowed to leave until I had removed and eaten all the purple ones. (Being the same shade as his own fur they apparently creeped him out.) Finally, with my tongue a bright shade of indigo, I was allowed to return to my office."
In other words, fiction requires little explanation; just make something up. But if you are going to post fiction online, make sure that your reader can tell that it is fiction. While we can easily infer from the absurdity of my polar bear tale that it isn't true, many stories can sound real. If that is the case for your site, just post somewhere (on the same page) that the work is fiction. Otherwise you may find your composition becomes the stuff of urban legend or some other form of misinformation.
Whether you just finished high school or have a Ph.D., you are all probably quite familiar with this form of writing. As more faculty are encouraging their students to blog, or contribute to the Wiki, it is worth remembering that you should maintain the same care in research, hypotheses, composition and grammar as you would if writing for a scholarly journal or class paper.
As different procedures apply under different circumstances, I would foremost recommend that you follow the guidelines of your instructor, department, advisor, publisher, or whatever other entity may be applicable. That said, I have noticed two areas in which we as Web writers are sometimes lax.
- Inconsistencies between premise, text and conclusion. If we're deeply mired in our subject, we may forget that the reader, be it a professor or someone else online, is not privy to our thought process. Explain your premise up front, present your reasoning for this premise in the text, and bring it all together again in the conclusion.
- Lack of supportive materials. While your opinions and reasoning ablility play a key role in your discussion, don't forget to include supportive materials. Readers need to know what facts, data, critiques, and other materials influenced your reasoning, and where you got them. Mano Singham's article on citing other people's work offers more information on this issue.
Academic writing often covers gray areas, such as philosophical issues that are not clearly right or wrong, or scientific inquiries that we are still exploring. This makes it especially important to present a clear hypothesis and well documented support for our arguments. The SAGES Peer Writing Crew offers additional resources on this topic.
Are their other types of writing that I have missed? Could they fit into some composite of the above? How do you think these distinctions affect our content choices? I'll discuss such choices more in a future entry.
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