By now we are all quite familiar with the upside of blogging — free, easy-to-use software and the powerful network effects of the web have enable thousands of people who might never have had a voice back in the days of scarce publishing resources to have their voices heard far and wide. But you rarely, if ever, hear talk of the downsides or the liabilities. What happens when you have thousands of people wielding the power of the press without any shared principles or standards?

You get the Kathy Sierra mess.

I have been watching in silent horror for days as this drama has unfolded — horror not only at Kathy Sierra’s traumatization, but over the total unrestrained free-for-all in the blogosphere. This is a case study in hearsay, innuendo, rumor, defamation, libel, jumping to conclusions and every other negative consequence of unrestrained publishing that the principles of journalism are intended to prevent, and notwithstanding some notable failures, generally do prevent when applied with some seriousness of purpose.

I read dozens of blog posts on this incident, and I still had NO CLUE who might or might not be guilty of what. Each new post I read tangled the web further, layering misinformation on top of disinformation. There was precious little “WHAT do I know” and a whole lot of “WHO do I know and how do I feel about them.”

Then I read this article by a JOURNALIST at the San Francisco Chronicle. I can’t say for sure whether all of the fact here are straight, but this is the only place I came across that actually attempted to ascertain through a coherent process what the facts might be or to lay out a coherent sequence of events. AND, you’ll notice that the only names of those (alleged) to be directly involved in the incident that the article mentions are Chris Locke and Kathy Sierra, both of whom the journalist interviewed and quoted. In the blogosphere, naming names was all about shoot first and ask questions latter.

Does this mean bloggers are incapable of acting like journalists or that they are without principle? Of course not. The best bloggers are typically very principled. But even the best have a tendency to break down and just spew what’s on their mind, without restraint, without editing, and often with deeply unfortunate results. (I’m as guilty as all the rest in this.)

Tim O’Reilly is calling for a blogger code of ethics, which is largely about how to play nice with others, which we all should have learned in Kindergarten — but once people feel the rush of the Publish button on a blog post or comment, they apparent forget everything they learned. What’s really need are some crash courses in libel law, fact checking, source checking, and an editor for the whole darn thing.

Let me be clear — I am NOT saying that journalism is without faults and that journalists don’t make mistakes. I’m NOT saying that the practice of journalism doesn’t need to evolve in a networked online media world filled with “citizen journalists.” I’m not even saying that journalists didn’t make any of the same mistakes that bloggers did in covering this story. (Jeneane Sessum makes reference to her family name being “raked over the coals across the web and in mainstream press.”)

What I AM saying is that without clear and consistent principles, there is no chance for trust, and without trust, you’ve got nothing — or worse still, the downside can exceed the upside.

So, yeah, it’s great that blogging software has empowered so many people, but with power comes responsibility. If bloggers want Journalism to get down off its high horse and take them more seriously, they need to demonstrate that they can first, do no harm.
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UPDATE
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Many thoughtful comments with many valid points have been added below.

There is much anger — justifiably — regarding the failure of mainstream media to confront the Bush administration, which has been a master at trading access for silence. Independent publishers (e.g. Bloggers) clearly have an advantage over corporate-owned media, and they have exploited that advantage to some degree. But the failure of media in this case should not be equated with the failure of journalism as an ideal.

AND — the failure of SOME media outlets to hold the government accountable should be extrapolated to mean that all journalists have failed.

I work with many journalist who spend hours, days, weeks and months slogging up to their necks through the slimy muck of our government, with the hope that government can be made better — journalists like Murray Waas, Corine Hegland, and James Fallows.

The reality is that bloggers and journalists employed by media companies can and do complement what the other lacks. But what journalists often lack is independence, a factor not always in their control. What bloggers often lack is an adherence to guiding principles — something very much in their control.