Blogs and Journalism

By | March 23, 2008

“The invention of the Weblog has shoved journalism into a reformation, perhaps a revolution,” wrote Joseph Rago, an assistant editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal[1].

The majority of blogs on the Internet are simply personal web sites — sites that exist because blogging software is free, readily available, and automates much of the HTML coding needed for web publication[2]. But for many of these “bloggers,” the motivation to use these tools is frustration with the traditional media. Now that the publishing tools are at the people’s disposal, blogs are “giving voice to those who, in the pre-Internet era, may have felt voiceless” [3].

So mainstream journalists and their traditional news organizations can hardly ignore the exponential proliferation of blogs. Blogs are challenging the news industry to embrace new ways of practicing journalism, one that places value on collaboration as a way to re-establish credibility with readers.

There is a line to be drawn between the short-form, diary-type information presented in the average blog and “journalism.” Most weblogs do not provide verifiable sources or original reporting. Most weblogs do not present news of interest to the broader public or adhere to an ideal of objectivity and fairness. Rather, the typical blog is personal, laced with a tone of informality, aimed at a niche audience and deeply opinionated.

“We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought – instead panics and manias, endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendencies to substitute ideology for cognition,” criticized Rago of Wall Street Journal[1].

But despite the news industry’s displeasure with blogs and typical bloggers, almost all major news organizations now feature professional journalist-driven blogs of their own. Seasoned journalists are using blogs to expand their own writing repertoire in the days of shrinking news hole. Others use the self-serve publication software to expand on their regular news stories, provide live ‘breaking news’ updates or eyewitness accounts, to express opinions, start conversations, and, for those who know how to blog well, build community.

Blogs are able to break down many of the existing barriers between journalists and the public because they propel journalists into a larger community where “a posting is picked up and passed from one blogger to the next, each adding community and expanding the discussion”[4]. Instead of following the highly-structured narrative of print journalism, blog writing style is more informal and approachable, inviting the reader to participate [5].

Hyperlinking is a fundamental aspect of blogging, and it is being done by journalist bloggers. Good journalists weave together information from many sources to make a bigger whole and to provide perspective. Hyperlinking allows journalist bloggers to directly link to online resources. Linking to numerous primary sources allows writers to give context to complex stories. Hyperlinking provides a level of transparency that is impossible with a printed news story. Willing readers can determine for themselves whether the subject matter has been accurately represented[6].

According to Rebecca Blood, author of “The Weblog Handbook,” “Bloggers who reference, but do not link material that might, in its entirety, undermine their conclusions, are intellectually dishonest.” Not surprisingly, blogs serve as a corrective mechanism for bad journalism. Sloppy reporting and mistakes are likely to be quickly publicized and passed around the blogosphere. The ever-watchful eye of the blogosphere is nudging the print media to pursue more balanced sourcing outside the traditional halls of government and corporations[7].

“By widening the disclosure circle through information sharing, Weblogs along with other Internet mechanism, have contributed to the truth-finding process,” observed Paul Andrews, a columnist and blogger at the Seattle Times[8].

Journalist bloggers are also taking on the role of “conversation leaders.” A blog entry is a “stub for conversation,” according to Vincent J. Maher, lecturer in new media studies at Rhodes Univ., S. Africa. News reports, generally, also start a lot of conversations. Blogging allows that conversation leader role to become more explicit. Because they offer instant interactivity, blogs engendering dialogue and exchanges[9]. Journalist bloggers can guide their conversations by being active in the dialog, linking to additional sources, sifting through new information, aggregating, encouraging good contributions, discouraging bad ones, and highlighting smart ideas from the public. What the public has to say about what’s being written on a blog is regarded as just as important as what the professional journalist wrote. Readers opinions, posted publicly, add value to the blog as a whole.

“Journalists bloggers can essentially work with citizen journalists to enrich news stories with the perspectives of “everyday Joes and Janes, who offer more voices, more texture to public debate,” wrote Jose Vargas in a Nov. 2007 article in the Washington Post.

Some mainstream journalists have even used blogs to “float” story ideas before the public and get reader input on how to pursue them[10]. Andrews, the Seattle Times blogger, observed that “in the sense that many minds contribute to greater understanding, blogs are helping journalism expand from a centralized, top-down, one-way publication processes to the many-hands, perpetual feedback loop of online communications”[11].

Journalistic blogging is taking on new forms, too, such as microblogging. Some mainstream news organizations are now using a social networking website called Twitter to text message 140-character-maximum reporting ‘updates’ from the field.

“One of the things were are supposed to do a journalists is take people where they can’t go,” John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate, told the New York Times[12]. “[Microblogging] is much more authentic, because it is really from inside the room.”

Microblogging often amounts to about two sentences of information, presented with typos and incomplete sentences. But it has been called “genuine” and at times “enlightening” because it takes advantage of the immediacy of the web and mobile information and communications technology (ICT), and taps into the curiosity and impatience of modern information consumers [13].

But blogging by professional journalists does not come without problems, and risks. Bloggers can’t help but thrive on their opinions and the medium is fast and furious. Less rigorous editing, if any at all, is the norm because of the web’s immediacy. Readers will not perceive a difference between a news organization’s online blog post and a story that is printed. Weblogs maintained and written by professional journalists at traditional news organizations will be judged as “journalism” if they uphold the same standards as the entire organization[14].

‘Behaving in a manner that safeguards the integrity of the news institution and avoids real or perceived conflicts of interest is central to the compact between a journalist and his employer,” wrote Brian Toolan, former editor of The Hartford Courant[15]. “Journalists should operate in ways that don’t display bias or predisposition. These are ethical considerations, not legal ones, but they are central to the conduct of journalism.”

References:

1. Rago, Joseph. The Blog Mob. Wall Street Journal, (December 20, 2006). Eastern Edition.

2. Andrews, Paul. Is Blogging Journalism? Nieman Reports. Vol. 57. No. 3 (Fall 2003): 63-64.

3. Vargas, Jose Antonio. Storming the News Gatekeepers; On the Internet, Citizen Journalists Raise Their Voices. The Washington Post. (November 27, 2007).

4, 5, 10. Grabowicz, Paul. Weblogs Bring Journalists Into A Larger Community. Nieman Reports. Vol. 57. No. 3: 74-76.

6. Blood, Rebecca. Weblogs and Journalism: Do They Connect? Nieman Reports. Vol. 57. No. 3 (Fall 2003): 61-63.

7. 8, 9, 11. Andrews, Paul. Is Blogging Journalism? Nieman Reports. Vol. 57. No. 3 (Fall 2003): 63-64.

12, 13. Cohen, Noam. Campaign Reporting in Under 140 Taps. New York Times. Jan. 21, 2008, Late Edition. C3.

14. Howell, Deborah. A Blog’s Blast Damage. The Washington Post, (February 11, 2007). Final Edition. http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed February 2, 2008).

15. Toolan, Brian. An Editor Acts to Limit a Staffer’s Weblog. Nieman Reports. .Vol. 57. No. 3 (Fall 2003): 92-93

*Note: This essay was written by Marie K. Shanahan for a graduate level course at Quinnipiac University in Spring 2008. A collaboratively-edited version of this essay is included in a Wiki called “The New Communication Professional” at http://newcompro.halavais.net.


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