Tanni Haas. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.
A weblog (or blog) is a webpage format that allows people, either as individuals or as part of larger groups, to discuss issues and events by posting hyperlinks to and commenting on other Internet-based materials, including other blogs. Generally speaking, a blog consists of the author’s (or authors’) entries, arranged in reverse chronological order, as well as hyperlinks to other Internet-based materials mentioned in those entries. Blogs usually also feature an additional list of more permanent hyperlinks to other sources that the author believes to be relevant to potential readers (commonly referred to as the blogroll). Since the early 1990s, when blogs first appeared, three different types of journalistic significance have emerged: (1) those produced by individual citizens, such as Bluye Blog and Jon Swift; (2) those produced by professional journalists, such as Behind the News by Elisabeth Donovan and First Draft by Tim Porter; and (3) news media-hosted blogs produced by professional journalists, such as Ask the Editors by the Spokesman-Review and WE Blog by the Wichita Eagle. Given that most of the claims about the journalistic significance of blogs have centered around those produced by individuals, the following sections will briefly describe the two other types of blogs, followed by a more comprehensive discussion of citizen-produced blogs.
Private Blogs Produced by Professional Journalists
By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, hundreds of professional journalists began to produce their own blogs, which they use, among other things, to publish the complete transcripts of interviews with sources, invite fact-checking of given stories, and solicit suggestions for future stories. Moreover, many professional journalists use such blogs to further comment on the topics of published or broadcast stories. This latter practice has not been without its problems, however. Indeed, a number of professional journalists have been reprimanded, or even fired, for crossing the line between news and views on their private blogs. For example, Steve Olafson, a longtime journalist at the Houston Chronicle, was fired after he had used his private blog to criticize local politicians he was assigned to cover at the Chronicle.
News Media–Hosted Blogs Produced by Professional Journalists
By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, dozens of mainstream news organizations around the world began to host blogs produced by professional journalists, notably in the form of so-called editorial blogs and editorial board blogs. Such organizations as the BBC, CBS, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times have added editorial blogs to their online sites where senior editors explain editorial decisions; invite questions, comments, and feedback from readers and viewers; and respond to their concerns. Similarly, many newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News, the Sacramento Bee, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Spokesman-Review, and the Wichita Eagle, have added editorial board blogs to their online sites where members of the editorial board, either individually or as a collective, outline their ideas for upcoming editorials, discuss those ideas with interested readers, and respond to their comments on published editorials. While some papers, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, announce topics being considered for the next day’s edition following their editorial board meetings each day, other papers, including the Dallas Morning News, invite reader comments as editorial topics are still being discussed by the editorial board.
While a growing number of newspapers use their editorial (board) blogs to make their editorial decisions more transparent as well as to hold themselves more publicly accountable for those decisions through direct interaction with readers, there are reasons to question their broader journalistic significance. First, many of these efforts began after newsroom scandals at such high-profile news organizations as CBS, CNN, Newsweek, The New York Times, and USA Today. To take just two prominent examples, CBS’s editorial blog, the “Public Eye,” was created after a controversy on the disputed authenticity of documents presented on 60 Minutes, concerning President George W. Bush. Similarly, The New York Times‘ editorial blog, the “Public Editor’s Journal,” appeared following a scandal surrounding journalist Jayson Blair’s dishonest reporting. The reactive nature of these and other editorial (board) blogs makes one wonder whether the underlying motivation is to truly make editorial decisions more transparent or whether the motivation is to enhance newspaper and broadcaster credibility with citizens. Indeed, once the scandals fade from memory, some of the current initiatives might be abandoned. While editorial (board) blogs have yet to inspire scholarly research, the little research that does exist shows that such blogs leave much to be desired. Most notably, few such blogs address or acknowledge the commercial interests of media owners and advertisers, organizational pressures and work routines, and information-gathering and news-reporting conventions. Similarly, despite discussions between editorial board members and readers about editorials and editorial topics, few discuss what members of the editorial board are trying to achieve in a broader political sense as reflected in those editorials.
Private Blogs Produced by Ordinary Citizens
If there is reason to question the significance of news media–hosted blogs, this is even more so the case for blogs produced by ordinary citizens, the type that continues to be the focus of scholarly and journalistic speculation. Citizen blogs gained rapidly in popularity in the late 1990s with the appearance of easy-to-use, freely available software like LiveJournal and Blogger. Indeed, from an estimated 30,000 citizen-produced blogs in 1998, the number of such blogs grew exponentially to about 60 million by 2007. Content analyses suggesting that about 17 percent of citizen blogs deal with public affairs would put the number of journalistically oriented, citizen-produced blogs at around 10 million.
Their wider visibility and claims about their journalistic significance owe much to several highprofile cases of their alleged ability to force topics onto mainstream news agendas and thus to inspire changes within both politics and journalism. For example, many observers claim that the concerted publicity of thousands of ordinary blog writers forced Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) to resign as Senate Majority Leader following his racially insensitive remarks in 2002. Lott’s remarks initially attracted little attention in the news media. It was only after Lott’s remarks appeared on the popular blog TalkingPointsMemo as well as on numerous other citizen-produced blogs that the mainstream news media began to devote coverage to the event. Similarly, many observers claim that the negative fallout from the aforementioned newsroom scandals was largely due to citizen-produced blogs. Among other incidents, the concerted publicity of thousands of ordinary blog writers has been credited with leading to the firing of CNN executive Eason Jordan in 2005, following his remarks at the World Economic Forum that U.S. troops had deliberately targeted American journalists during the war in Iraq.
Observers argue the journalistic significance of citizen-produced blogs is based upon their capacity for independent, original news reporting. In contrast to the centralized, top-down approach to news reporting of most mainstream news media—based as it is on elite sources of information—blogs facilitate a decentralized, bottom-up approach by turning traditionally passive news consumers into active news producers. One of the most widely cited examples of citizens engaging in independent, original news reporting is Salam Pax, an anonymous Iraqi architect. During the war in Iraq, Salam Pax used his blog, Where Is Raed? to file regular eyewitness reports on life in Baghdad before, during, and after the 2003 allied bombing. Pax juxtaposed what he and relatives witnessed with what was reported in both Western and Arab news media.
Finally, some observers suggest that the interactivity of blogs, and especially the practice of linking to and commenting on other Internet-based materials, gives rise to a radically different kind of news discourse than found in mainstream news media. Specifically, the practice of juxtaposing news reporting and commentary from a wide range of sources, which has been referred to as an act of “consumptive production,” is seen to facilitate a multifaceted news discourse. By juxtaposing reporting and commentary from many sources, blog writers not only challenge the narrow range of topics and sources featured in mainstream news media, but also allow their readers to compare numerous competing truth claims. Taken together, these features have led observers to characterize citizen-produced blogs as amateur journalism, folk journalism, grassroots journalism, personal journalism, and public journalism.
While critics claim that citizen-produced blogs signify the dawn of a new public journalism, empirical research tells a very different story. First, although it is possible that at least some political and newsroom scandals were brought to wider public attention through the concerted efforts of thousands of ordinary blogs, there is little evidence that citizen-produced blogs forced those scandals onto the mainstream news media agenda. The Trent Lott scandal, for example, which remains one of the most widely cited examples of the ability of ordinary blog writers to steer mainstream news media coverage, owes much to the influence of other mainstream news organizations. While Lott’s remarks were initially publicized on the popular, left-leaning blog TalkingPointsMemo, they were reported by the online magazine Slate and The Washington Post, before they gained widespread attention elsewhere. Indeed, many early hyperlinks to the story were to the Slate article rather than to TalkingPointsMemo. Similarly, while CNN executive Eason Jordan’s remarks were initially publicized on http://Forumblog.org, an independent blog devoted to coverage of the World Economic Forum, they were also reported by a number of mainstream news media, including the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, before they gained widespread attention on other news media.
More generally, aside from the example of Salam Pax, and the ordinary blog writers invited to cover the 2004 Democratic and Republican Party conventions, there is little evidence of any independent, original news reporting. Ironically, even Salam Pax is no longer an independent reporter; having been located by the Guardian in May 2003, he now writes for its online counterpart, the Guardian Unlimited, as well as for the BBC.
The vast array of alternative news providers available on the Internet could afford ordinary blog writers the opportunity to cover a wide range of topics using an ideologically diverse range of sources, thereby facilitating more varied news discourse. Yet research shows that ordinary blog writers rarely challenge mainstream news media’s narrow range of topics and sources. In much the same way that the topics discussed in other popular, citizen-based media of communication like electronic bulletin boards follow the agendas of traditional mainstream news media, many studies have confirmed that topics discussed on citizen blogs parallel the narrow agenda featured in mainstream news media. Even more problematically, these same studies make clear that most blog writers simply repeat accounts from a narrow range of elite news organizations, notably The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
The same pattern of news media influence on citizen-produced blogs has been found with respect to so-called warblogs, those blogs devoted to the U.S. War on Terrorism. Two content analyses of selected warblogs found that their primary sources of news reporting and commentary were such elite news organizations as the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Times. Only about 5 percent of hyperlinks were to alternative news providers, of which only a handful was to alternative news media in the Middle East. Similarly, other studies have found that warblogging is based upon remediation of mainstream news media content. While warblogging would lose relevance if it departed too far from agendas of broad social concern, the heavy reliance on mainstream news is problematic. Like blog coverage more generally, warblogs’ remediation of mainstream news perspectives serves to strengthen, as opposed to challenge, the views of their elite sources, notably U.S. government officials. Indeed, considering the strong influence of mainstream news media on warblog coverage, and their general support of the U.S. government’s war in Iraq, it should come as little surprise that most warblog writers have been found to be supportive of the war. Given the influence of mainstream news media on blog coverage, it is ironic that so many blog writers cultivate a sense that they are outsiders from mainstream news organizations.
While only a few studies have looked at the commentary that ordinary blog writers attach by means of hyperlinks, available evidence suggests that commentary also serves to further amplify the views of mainstream elite sources of information. While one study found that ordinary blog writers simply link to given news stories without attaching much evaluative commentary, another found that the commentary falls within the narrow parameters of political elites.
This lack of originality on the part of citizen blog writers also shows in their resistance to engage in genuine deliberation across ideological divides. Research on inter-blog linking patterns shows that ordinary blog writers primarily interact with those of similar political persuasions: conservatives link to other conservatives, liberals to other liberals. In the rare instances where conservative and liberal blog writers do link to one another’s postings, their commentary most often puts up straw-man arguments so that the political positions of others are repudiated as being fundamentally flawed.
If mainstream news media dominate the blogo-sphere, a small number of blog writers have become highly influential. Indeed, in much the same way that elite news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the major television networks set the agenda for numerous smaller news organizations and, apparently, also for citizen-produced blogs, a phenomenon commonly referred to as inter-media agenda-setting, these highly influential blog writers function as what could be called inter-blog agenda-setters. Three studies of inter-blog linking patterns found that a small number of blogs receive a highly disproportionate number of all incoming blog links.
The highly skewed distribution of inter-blog links, a phenomenon that has been found to characterize the distribution of hyperlinks on Internet websites more generally and politically oriented websites in particular, suggests that an internal hierarchy has emerged within the blogosphere. Indeed, it shows that the topics discussed in the blogosphere do not arise more or less spontaneously through interaction among thousands of ordinary blog writers or, as many observers claim, that blog discourse is the result of many simultaneous, distributed conversations, but rather that those conversations are initiated by a select few blog writers. And to the extent that these take their cues from mainstream news media coverage, rather than vice versa, they serve as intermediaries (or opinion-leaders), channeling information from the mainstream news media to the blogosphere at large. Put differently, empirical research suggests that the agenda-setting process runs from mainstream news media, through certain influential blog writers, to the blogosphere at large.
While it is difficult to determine, in the absence of large-scale surveys, why so many ordinary blog writers link to so few blogs, it is certainly possible, as some speculate, that they do so to enhance their own visibility and credibility. Though prevailing netiquette requires ordinary blog writers to link back to those who link to them, the highly skewed distribution of inter-blog links shows that these influential blog writers do not usually reciprocate.
The influence of mainstream news media on blog coverage is certainly strengthened by the fact that some of the most highly linked blog writers are professional journalists rather than ordinary citizens. According to blog counts such as Blogdex, Blogstreet, Daypop, Technorati, and Truthlaidbear, such highly linked blog writers as Mickey Kaus (KausFiles), Joshua Marshall (TalkingPointsMemo), and Andrew Sullivan (AndrewSullivan), also write for such elite news outlets as Newsweek (Kaus), The New York Times (Marshall), and the Sunday Times in London (Sullivan). As media employees, these blog writers might be even less likely than ordinary citizens to juxtapose the reporting and commentary of an ideologically diverse range of sources for fear of upsetting their employers.
Given the disproportionate influence wielded by a few blog writers, it should come as little surprise that few professional journalists read a variety of citizen-produced blogs to gauge public opinion. A survey of more than 140 journalists found that, although the respondents collectively read more than 125 different blogs, the 10 most read accounted for more than half of the blogs mentioned. Among journalists working for elite news organizations, this skewing was even more pronounced: the 10 most read blogs accounted for three-quarters of the blogs mentioned. For all respondents, the blogs maintained by Mickey Kaus, Joshua Marshall, and Andrew Sullivan were among the five most read. Considering that a small number of blog writers wield a strong influence, professional journalists need only to attend to these blog writers to obtain a relatively accurate impression of the distribution of opinions on any given topic.
Blogs have become a prominent component of the contemporary news media landscape. While private blogs produced by professional journalists are used to offer citizens a more comprehensive understanding of the basis upon which journalists construct their stories, news media–hosted blogs produced by professional journalists are used to enhance the transparency of news decision-making processes and to render the outcomes of those decision-making processes more publicly accountable. Citizen-produced blogs generally cite the news reporting and commentary of mainstream news media and, by implication, their elite sources of information.