News flash: Digg headlines not “real” news

If there’s one thing that really drives me around the bend, it’s when people misinterpret academic or quasi-academic studies and draw all kinds of ludicrous and sweeping conclusions. It’s something the traditional media love to do with opinion surveys (most of which are completely unreliable), and the blogosphere has a tendency to do it as well. And we can see a prime example with a recent study by The Project for Excellence in Journalism.

I have no problem with the PEJ looking at the headlines on and and and comparing those with the stories that appeared either on television or in mainstream media outlets. The project looked at stories over a period of seven days at the end of June. Not surprisingly — at least for anyone who has ever been to any of those sites — there was very little overlap with the stories that traditional media found important.

And what are we to gather from this research? Well, according to people like Nick Carr, it apparently shows that the “people formerly known as the audience” are thick-headed numbskulls and mouth-breathers who are only interested in a narrow slice of tech or other stories, and don’t care about the issues of state or the other topics that right-thinking people pay attention to. In classic Carr fashion, he concludes:

“When you replace professional editors with a crowd or a social network, you actually end up accelerating the dumbing-down of news. News becomes a stream of junk-food-like morsels.

The people formerly known as the audience may be more accurately termed the people formerly known as informed.”

The first problem with Nick’s approach is that it uses Digg and as representative of the entire phenomenon known as “social media” or “citizen journalism,” which is like watching two television shows and reporting that the entire landscape of TV as we know it is an insipid swamp (an argument that would actually be a lot easier to win — but I digress).

As James Robertson notes on his blog, one of the reasons why sites like Digg and Reddit aren’t filled with the top-most important and newsworthy stories on Iraq or the flooding of Texas is that every other news site was filled with those things. To me, one of the main things that makes Digg and Reddit valuable is that they allow people to promote stories and links that aren’t getting enough attention — not the ones that are.

Danny Sullivan notes that “to draw any definitive conclusions about the future of news would be premature and foolish given the limitations and short duration of the study.” But people like Nick are happy to do so anyway. Dan Gillmor has some brief thoughts on the topic here, and there’s a good look at the study at SFGate as well. My friend Scott Karp has his take at Publish2.0.

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