Wikipedia dates the first blogs around the year 1994. But it is not only for this reason that one could say that blogging is now finally approaching legal age. Indeed, the debate on whether blogging and bloggers are to be differentiated from journalism and journalists currently seems to be reaching a head. Three observations in particular contribute to this impression:
- New York University’s Jay Rosen has triggered a very rich online discussion about the psychology of the still-prevailing journalists-bloggers divide and drawn his conclusions;
- Amid several initiatives aiming at finally allowing bloggers the same access to political institutions and events of the European Union that is granted to legacy media, a pilot project has sprung up that for the first time accredited selected bloggers to a meeting of the Council of the EU;
- Work on the EU-supported research project SYNC3, focusing on the opinion-forming capacity of the blogosphere in relation to mainstream news media, suggests that blogs may not actually be as derivative from the legacy press as popular belief holds.
Among other things, SYNC3 is based on the assumption that the majority of blogs refer to news events as reported by traditional news outlets, and then add their own point of view. If that were true, news events could be used as keys to identify pertinent blog posts and to structure the blogosphere. Accordingly, SYNC3 aspires to render the blog-based discussion around any given news topic easily accessible, and to present it in a nice synoptic overview to interested users. (Disclaimer: I am involved with the SYNC3 project.)
But when the project team started to try and find blogs offering clear-cut opinions about news events, it turned out that this task was not at all easy. There is one category of blogs that merely repeats the news, but does not really add anything besides context. For instance, if a blog focusing on environmental issues were to feature a news item related to nuclear energy, this alone would give the news certain slant – even if the post refrained from making any comment of its own. Such blogs basically aggregate news for a specific target group.
Another category of blogs, however, actually does provide original coverage of current affairs, but only scarcely refers directly to news events in the first place. Rather, such blogs elaborate on the background and/or specific aspects of themes of mid- to long-term interest. As a side effect, their content has a much longer shelf life than legacy news media reports, which typically fall into oblivion in the course of one news cycle. Such blogs are actually highly conducive to the expression of opinion, but they often do so in a carefully weighted, argumentative style, or in an indirect fashion.
I have suggested earlier that the blogosphere appears to be undergoing a process of professionalization. This is perhaps because the decision to write a blog and to keep at it presupposes a vested interest in a certain subject matter – an interest that ever more frequently goes with a substantial amount of expertise. An increasing number of conventional journalists turn to blogging so as to liberate themselves from the institutional voice of the media organisation employing them, to delve deeper into topics they feel passionate about, and to offer an educated opinion they are obliged to suppress in their regular coverage.
Tenets of journalism
As a matter of fact, some of the glorified virtues of proper journalism – balanced reporting, thorough research, diligent fact-checking – are necessary primarily because many journalists are amateurs with respect to the subject matters they cover. By that I do not mean to denigrate journalists; they are experts for the speedy delivery of dependable information, which is an extremely valuable public service. However, if you are not a genuine expert in the first place, you are obviously well advised to appropriately familiarise yourself with your topic before reporting about it. And while you are at it, you better also explore the current spectrum of different points of view on the matter, if only to be on the safe side.
Yet if you cover an area where you actually are an expert in your own right, a good deal of all this researching and double-checking is dispensable. You are even entitled to your own educated opinion from the get-go. And from where I sit, this rule is applicable to as many specialised and experienced journalists as it is to conscientious bloggers – at least in today’s media ecosystem, where hardly anyone consumes just a single news source anymore that they consider representative for current affairs as a whole.
Such bloggers may be amateurs with respect to the journalistic profession, but once natural selection has separated the wheat from the chaff (and I concede that there is quite a lot of chaff around in blogging, too), they are certainly anything but amateurs with respect to their chosen topics. Even a passing glance at the EU-related blog posts conveniently aggregated at bloggingportal.eu shows an amazing variety of voices from outside and inside the institutions, many of which combine careful attention to detail with lively and honest coverage, and feature well-argued expressions of opinion.
In all, a great number of non-journalists of all stripes essentially provide coverage in no lesser quality than the traditional journalists. In fact, they add variety, competence and new perspective to a public sphere that used to be under the control of a limited number of news organisations. Nonetheless, bloggers still have to fight for recognition as more than “just” bloggers, no matter what quality they deliver.
Ironically, by the way, one of the most frequent pieces of advice I hear these days being given to aspiring journalists is: Get deep into whatever else you are interested in first, and only then try to break into the profession. To me, this sounds very close to giving a blessing to bloggers who may lack journalistic training, yet are competent writers regardless.
At the same time, bloggers who would like to be taken as seriously as journalists might want to consider this acute observation by Corinne Grinapol, also in a comment to the Rosen debate mentioned above:
“If the collective psychological profile of bloggers continues to be of that of a group that exi[s]ts outside the mainstream, the culture of reacting to what [mainstream media] creates is maintained. Bloggers’ sense of empowerment is thus derived from being as outspoken as they wish about news streams that have already been created. Continuing to inhabit this space prevents bloggers from generating alternate streams of news, to bestow themselves with the authority to decide what is newsworthy, as that could put them in the place of institutional power they are trying to avoid.”
In the light of the abovementioned SYNC3 observations, this process might actually be under way already. In fact, I would prefer to just refer to reporters and commentators and do away with the increasingly obsolete distinction. Reporters should receive accreditation based on merit rather than on occupational (self-)attribution, and to my mind, the public sphere is set to benefit from the greater variety of coverage that is bound to ensue.
Media pluralism depends on an enabling legal and constitutional framework and in many cases requires public support to fully unfold – just think of the rationales for Public Service Media. But achieving great quality (and professionalism, for that matter) also requires opportunity, and given that opportunity, many bloggers will end up on par with the much longer-established workers in the attention economy.
Hence, public authorities such as the European Union act in their own best interest when they accredit so-called bloggers alongside so-called journalists on an equal footing. Transparency is of the essence for public institutions, and so is getting people to explain them in as many illustrative and tangible ways as possible. It is therefore particularly commendable for public organisations to spearhead the process of actively overturning the journalists-bloggers divide and of nurturing innovative approaches.
Like so many things in our current media environment, doing this is more difficult, requires more effort, and entails more risks than sticking to the old ways. It will be hard to get the balance right when it comes to the political spectrum represented among the selected few, to circumvent conflict of interest, to alleviate officials’ fear of losing control of their message, and, not least, to make an informed and just decision on merit in the first place. (This is, by the way, one of the reasons why the European Journalism Centre felt the need to launch a discussion about a unifying Code of Media Coverage Ethics.) It is worth the while, though.
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