Are bloggers journalists? Certainly they can be. Several journalists keep Weblogs, although only a handful of them actually get paid to do so by their news organizations. The vast majority of journalists do not blog. Over the past few years I’ve asked a number of them why they don’t, and the most prevalent responses are that it is not in their job description and doing so would not serve their purpose. They use their best reporting in the stories they write. What is left over for a blog?
When I mentioned on a panel once—speaking to a group of veteran journalists—that I spend an average of two hours working on my Weblog each day, an audible gasp could be heard throughout the room. Who could afford to take two hours from their reporting tasks every day? It’s a reasonable question. I’m a freelancer now, so I can do this, but I know from 25 years as a full-time reporter that there would have been no room for blogging in my daily workload.
On the flip side, most of the million or so bloggers (it’s a tough crowd to estimate) would not call themselves journalists. Many are teenagers, working through their own identities and connecting with other like-minded kids. The majority of blogs are simply personal Web sites, posted because blogging software automates much of the HTML coding needed for Web publication. This convenience appeal has led some to predict that the medium will fade once the even greater convenience of real-time, word processorlike editing of any Web site becomes the norm.
Perhaps a better question to pose would be, “Is blogging journalism?” Does the Australian hip-hop laddie’s categorization of his favorite local bands qualify on some level as reporting? Is the blog posted by a corporate information technology manager for internal staff consumption serving as a journalistic venue in some sense?
Though reportorial contributions have been made by the Web generation, it is fair to say the vast majority of blogging does not qualify as journalism. If journalism is the imparting of verifiable facts to a general audience through a mass medium, then most blogs fall well short of meeting the standard. Many blogs focus on narrow subject matter of interest to a select but circumscribed niche. And the blogs that do contain bona fide news are largely derivative, posting links to other blogs and, in many cases, print journalism. The top “news” blog, Jim Romenesko’s Poynter Online site, is composed almost exclusively of linked references. Consider Google searches: When you search on current news topics, you get established journalism sites. By contrast, searches on abstruse topics are often headed by blog links.
Without the daily work of print journalists, one wonders if even the news-conscious blogs would contain any real news.
Blogging’s Effects on Journalism
Yet I believe that blogs—in tandem with another much-underestimated medium, the e-mail list—are transforming the ways in which journalism is practiced today and perhaps are giving impetus to new journalistic venues that have not yet clarified themselves. Author Elbert Hubbard once said editors separated the wheat from the chaff—and then printed the chaff. Bloggers print, link and comment on the wheat. In doing so, bloggers often nudge print media to richer and more balanced sourcing outside the traditional halls of government and corporations. A recent example is the potential for touchscreen voting machine fraud— an issue that bloggers and e-listers have aired for months but that is just beginning to get attention from mainstream media. Just as importantly, blogs serve as a corrective mechanism for bad journalism—sloppy or erroneous reporting. To the extent that a blogger knows something about a particular topic, he or she can take a news report into a more detailed and illuminating realm. And the personal viewpoint tailored to Weblogging has always played a vital role in journalism, from standing columns to the op-ed pages.
So where’s the disconnect? If bloggers can be journalists and blogs contain aspects of journalism, why aren’t more journalists bloggers? And why isn’t more blogging journalism? As with any human pursuit, there’s a difference in skill and expertise between paid and nonpaid practitioners. Bloggers, in general, know little about independent verification of information and data. They lack the tools and experience for in-depth research. They don’t know how to fact-check. Assigned to do an investigative report on, say, police corruption, a typical blogger would not know where to begin. Calling a typical blogger a journalist is like calling anyone who takes a snapshot a photographer. Could a blogger “cover” the D.C. sniper or report on Congress? And a Weblog would hardly provide the appropriate vehicle for full-fledged investigative journalism.
Journalism implies that a disinterested third party is reporting facts fairly. To do that job well requires considerable training and the cooperative work of many minds. The process can be corrupted, as the Jayson Blair imbroglio confirmed. And in general, blogs cannot supplant the work that journalists do. But there are occasions when Weblogs can be ahead of news reporting.
In the spring of 2002, when I passed by a San Francisco peace demonstration at the Golden Gate Bridge, I witnessed an act of police aggression. Without any observable provocation an 11-year-old girl was roughly grabbed, thrown to the ground, and handcuffed. I took photos of the incident and posted a written report on my blog. As far as I know, my reporting was a scoop. I saw nothing about this incident on TV that day or the next morning in the local newspapers.
But then, video of the incident surfaced from someone with a camcorder. A San Francisco TV station used the video along with interviews with the girl and her parents and testimonials from onlookers. An investigation was launched, and the story was pursued for several days.
My blog was the first to report this story—and what I did was journalism in the sense that I brought forward verifiable facts about an actual event. But it required a mass medium to give the story enough notoriety for an investigation. I know, too, that if I’d been covering the event for a news organization, I would have gathered more information, including the girl’s identity, a comment from the police, and several eyewitness accounts. But even if I’d done such a complete report for my Weblog, it’s doubtful my account of the incident would have prompted a police investigation.
Blogs can serve also as catalysts to journalism. In the early hours of September 11, 2001, blogs became the best available source of eyewitness reporting. And late last year a Weblogger picked up Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond from a C-Span broadcast and ignited an online firestorm that, in turn, prompted mainstream news organizations to become involved in reporting the story. Online information sharing has pressured the Bush administration into several retractions and has even led to key resignations, as in the case of Richard Perle’s resignation as chairman of the Defense Policy Board and the State of the Union retraction concerning African-supplied uranium to Iraq. In both situations, it should be noted, print media provided the initial investigation and reporting. But whether the outcome would have happened without the online feedback cycle is open to debate. By widening the disclosure circle through information sharing, Weblogs have contributed to the truth-finding process. But so have e-mail lists, personal Web sites, community Web sites, and other Internet mechanisms that no one would confuse with journalism.
During the Iraq War, a blog from inside Baghdad got considerable attention for its street-level portrayal of daily events. Although the blog initially was questioned as possibly bogus, eventually reports surfaced that the blogger, Salam Pax (not his actual name), was authentic. In any case, his blogged observations from Iraq provided some of the best eyewitness reporting during the war.
The Iraqi’s Weblog succeeded largely because U.S. news organizations either could not or did not tell the “inside Baghdad” part of the story. Many American reporters were embedded with military units, unable to break free and do independent reporting. In Baghdad the movements of the few foreign reporters who remained there during the war were closely monitored by Iraqi officials, which made street reporting all but impossible to do. Mass-media coverage of the war that most Americans saw was so jingoistic and administration-friendly as to proscribe any sense of impartiality or balance. In this context, a pseudonymous blogger’s reports from Iraq took on more credibility than established media institutions.
The Iraqi’s blog and my experience as a journalist who blogs tell me that there is something unique to blogging’s contributions, but it is discrete and separate from what we think of as journalism. The Weblog does not lend itself to factual documentation as much as to observation, analysis, background—the kinds of amplitude that lend greater interpretations and understanding to raw information. And blogs, because they offer instant interactivity, are much better at engendering dialogue and exchange. In the sense that many minds contribute to greater understanding, blogs can take journalism’s who-what-where-when and how pyramid better into the realm of why.
It might be that mass media of tomorrow will evolve further toward the blogging paradigm and journalism will expand from a centralized, top-down, one-way publication process to the many-hands, perpetual feedback loop of online communications. For now, to the extent that bloggers’ efforts prod journalists to be better at what they do, they are a valuable adjunct to—but not substitute for—quality journalism.
Paul Andrews writes a weekly column on technology for The Seattle Times and is a technology correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His Weblog is at www.paulandrews.com.