Six weeks have now passed since I filed my first report on riverScrap.com - the latest, perhaps boldest manifestation of my unwavering commitment to cast aside the shackles of a 9-5 working week (shackles to which, I reluctantly admit, I had only been tethered for some 15 months).
Over the course of the past month-and-a-half, this endeavour has provided me with much cause for optimism. Last Sunday, for example, my blog counter tallied a whopping 5,033 unique visitors. Admittedly, 80 per cent of those hits stemmed from one particularly wretched story that appeared to strike a chord with various viral communities. But there were other positive signs too.
riverScrap.com has already been visited by residents of six of the world's seven continents (shame on you, Antarcticans). Some of the more exotic countries to have turned to this blog for news include Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Zimbabwe, Mali and Brunei Darussalam. What's more, the majority of my articles are being generously voted up on Reddit - my news-sharing community of choice.
And yet in spite of these early signs of encouragement - and indeed my growing belief that the meritocracy of social media websites will continue to spell success for riverScrap.com - one criticism has consistently been raised. Longstanding friends and new acquaintances alike have both levied a disturbing charge at my feet: namely, that my blog lacks opinion. That my voice is suffocated by journalistic propriety.
In this editorial, therefore, I tackle the question of whether or not riverScrap.com has a perspective of its own. The answer: a resounding and indignant cry of YES! Of course it does! But it is an opinion free of the crass and blundering pontification of The Sun, The Telegraph, The Independent and all those other rags who seem to take their readership for such fools.
A topical case study: The Gaza assault
In order to frame a convincing defence of my approach to blogging, I will now contrast my ostensibly objective handling of the current situation in Gaza with the more fervent, rhetorically charged and - as I would argue - damaging perspectives espoused by other newspapers and blogs.
Foundation: Establishing the 'facts'
Because riverScrap.com repels the urge to plaster my personal opinion about important issues such as this over its headlines and articles, my blog naturally lays itself open to charges of indecision and sitting-on-the-fence.
Why on earth would anyone visit this blog simply to obtain the "facts" about what is happening in the Middle East, when a plethora of more legitimate news agencies and hacks-on-the-ground do a far better job of dispensing them? Surely my audience is capable of establishing these details elsewhere in the media, and it turns to blogs like riverScrap.com not to hear such facts banally reiterated, but to unearth individual commentaries on them?
A fair argument, but one that I reject on two grounds. Firstly, I contend that my opinion is actually instilled in each and every article I write - namely through my selective focus on contextual and topical detail. And by that same token, I would argue that news agencies such as CNN, AP and Reuters do equally as unconvincing a job of focusing on the "facts" as I do.
Blinkers: Context and selective focus
Let's begin by looking at an article I posted on December 26, entitled Israeli PM makes indirect threat to Palestinian children. This piece was written the day before Israel launched its all-out assault on Gaza, and as the headline suggests it proffers a chilling prediction which - even if I say so myself - did a far better job of foreboding the looming carnage than most other news outlets, many of which ignored the story altogether. Consider my opening paragraph:
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, has inflamed international opinion by making comments that appear to justify inflicting collateral damage on Palestinian children.
In that sentence, as in the title, riverScrap.com made it abundantly clear what aspect of the story it was focusing on. When writing about a conflict as drawn-out and complex as the Middle East crisis, I had an absolutely massive pool of historical context from which I could report on. Would I talk about how Hezbollah's rocket onslaught in 2006 presaged a violent Israeli response? Would I consider the political significance of Israel's looming election? Would I delve way back into history and explain the roots of the conflict?
All these slants would make for compelling articles, but after reading Mr Olmert's threatening and deeply disturbing remarks I made a conscious editorial judgement to set aside those (entirely legitimate) agendas. Instead, I unravelled a story - and that is what journalists do: the events may exist in the real world, but our words do not - about how Israel was on the verge of launching a brutal attack on Gaza. Look also at my selective use of quotes:
"I am telling them now - it may be the last minute - I'm telling them stop it," Mr Olmert thundered. "We are stronger."
Those remarks are drawn from a much wider transcript of speech, but I singled them out - in addition to the phrase "thousands of children and innocents who will be in danger" - because they were most supportive of the picture I was painting. Also note the word thundered - a small stylistic tweak, but something that speaks volumes when compared with 'said' or 'commented'.
riverScrap.com does not make overt statements telling its readership how to think, as I believe my audience is capable of forming its own opinions. However, just because I didn't holler from the rooftops - ISRAEL THREATENS TO KILL PALESTINIAN CHILDREN!!! OH THE HUMANITY!!! - that does not mean I am incapable of expressing those sentiments. Whilst being careful to present both sides of the coin (my article concluded by listing recent terror attacks within Israel), I deliberately contrived to depict my own personal perspective of the events that were unfolding.
Read the article in length; note my selection of particular details and contextual groundings that reinforce my argument; and I believe you cannot fail to grasp the thrust of what I was saying. I painted a picture of an aggressive and dangerous Israel, which I believed was about to unleash an illegitimate wave of violence on the Palestinian territories that would only serve to inflame regional tensions and further worsen the conflict.
I don't mind saying boldly - given that this is an "editorial" piece - that I believe Israel is in the wrong. Though it has legitimate grievances, the Jewish state is in my opinion guilty of reacting unduly harshly to the Palestinian rocket attacks. The difference between my approach and that of most other blogs, though, is that I express my views subtly, calmly and without breaching the formal constraints bearing down on more high-profile media correspondents.
Just because I am a blogger, that does not mean I have a license to patronise and pontificate to my readers. I was a journalist before I was a blogger, and I believe that serious news organisations generally do a better job of presenting reasoned and well thought out perspectives than this new breed of writers. Even so, both routinely fall foul of the charge of crudeness.
Bloggers, journalists, news agencies… we all just tell stories. Some of us latch onto sensationalism and grandeur in projecting our personal interpretation; others, however, are happy to let the events speak for themselves.
Journalist superstar: Words as swords
My stance on issues relating to media constraints and the role of the journalist-cum-blogger should be fairly clear by now. But for anyone who doubts how sharp-edged a carefully worded report can be, let me draw your attention to another paragraph in the article:
Pundits frequently accuse Israel of unleashing disproportionately harsh military responses to Palestinian rocket attacks - the vast majority of which are amateurish and fail to cause any Israeli casualties.
This is a classic example of a journalist paradoxically adhering to his duty to remain objective - serving as a mere conduit of information for public discourse - whilst simultaneously expressing his own heartfelt beliefs. Who are these pundits I speak of? Who cares! They may be many millions of people (as is the case), or they may be a small group of radicals. Regardless of the source, by attributing this perspective to an unknown third party I am able to express my opinion, without directly stating it. It's not me that's suggesting Israel often responds disproportionately - it's those darned pundits!
The purpose of writing this editorial was not simply to rebuff those critics who have suggested that my blog lacks character, though I am glad to have done so. Rather, I sought to elucidate my own well-versed opinions on journalistic responsibilities by scrutinising my writing in detail.
As I alluded to briefly in my riverScrap.com profile, this blog walks an uneasy tightrope between functioning as a serious source of news and a one-man band in the blogosphere. I express my opinion, and yet I pretend not to do so - and this quite rightly lays me open to charges of hypocrisy and subversion. But I do not believe such charges are any less applicable to those newspapers whom you might personally regard as being "impartial", or those bloggers whom you from time to time find yourself agreeing with and viewing as "fair".
I have always maintained that objectivity is a paragon - it is something to be aspired to, not something we will ever attain. Our friends at Fox News, the BBC and elsewhere might steadfastly insist they have cracked the code, but trust me, they have not. And they never will.
When all is told, I sincerely believe that Israel's attack on Gaza is wrong. Indeed I have strong opinions on all the issues I write about on riverScrap.com (less so the Bizarre ones - they're just funny). But as a student of language, I have a wonderful array of tools at my disposal to impart these perspectives in a formally appropriate and ethereal manner. So if you simply want to be told how to think, and you wish to have your opinion 'validated' or 'endorsed' by media pundits, I would suggest riverScrap.com is not for you.
If, on the other hand, you want a place to read well-informed news about the most pressing matters of the day - and you are also happy to be gently nudged in your commentator's direction - well then, I welcome you aboard :)