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To blog or not to blog?

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

As the blogging phenomenon gains momentum around the world, the debate on its impact on professional journalism, impartiality, and its reliability as a source of information rages on. From the emergence of blogging in both democratic and authoritarian countries, a set of tricky questions arises: how is blogging used in different countries? Is blogging gaining new ground at the expense of traditional newspapers or complementing it? Is blogging by journalists affecting journalists' impartiality, or is it a conduit for their unpublished opinions about certain issues?
The answers to these questions, of course, vary from one country to the other, given the different journalistic backgrounds and the popularity of blogging, or lack of it, in each country. Blogging, as it turned out during a round-table discussion between twelve journalists at the Reuters Institute, takes various shapes in each country, depending on the extent of government intervention, journalistic traditions, and the purpose of using it.

In countries where freedom of expression is more constrained blogging is arguably playing an important role in exposing human rights violations and exposing government intervention in elections, issues that traditional, state-controlled media are unable to tackle for censorship reasons. In Egypt, for example, vibrant blogging emerged five years ago to contribute to raising the ceiling of the freedom of expression to unprecedented highs. As a matter of fact, Egyptian bloggers are tackling sensitive political, social and human rights issues rarely broached either by the state-controlled or even independent media. They are proving to be a powerful source of information, capable of reaching a few hundred like-minded activists, or of rallying international attention to a cherished cause. Blogging crept into popularity in the last five years and is now relied on to bring news made by citizens to citizens.

In another country like Vietnam, blogs are used to fill the gap in information provided by state-owned media. Many journalists publish information that they can't publish in the mainstream media in their blogs, within a certain limitation to avoid trouble with the authorities. In fact, a few numbers of journalists go further by publishing critical stories that are unable to print. Sometimes they publish original stories in blogs in comparison with edited versions that they do not necessary agree with. It is also used by journalists as a way of gathering information, sources and reaction of readers to a topic that the journalist is researching.

In other tightly controlled societies, like China, bloggers tend to discuss social problems and political issues in very tactical ways. For example, a growing number of Chinese journalists are now blogging either under their real names or pseudonymously. They have greater autonomy writing online than they are able to have in their official news outlets. Their blogs normally provide a greater variety of information and analysis and some of them are the hard facts being conceived by their editors as sensitive and unsuitable for publishing in the mainstream media. Likewise, other popular bloggers who write in a journalistic or literary vein for large audiences intend to engage in irony, parody, and innuendo, and encourage their readers to ‘read between the lines’ about the blogger's real point.

While blogging in South Korea is a journalistic activity, in Israel and Yemen, for example, it's still largely irrelevant. But despite the fact that Israeli newspapers don’t copy or quote anything from blogs, big newspapers, like the highly respected "Haaretz", encourage journalists to write their blogs by putting links to their blogs on its online edition.  And while it is true that in rare instances American bloggers create the news, their primary function has been to comment on it. American bloggers are contemporary opinion leaders. The best bloggers are able to stimulate conversation around key news stories, steer public attention towards underexposed issues and, importantly, generate new readers for professional journalists through hyper linking (something that the opinion leaders of yesterday didn't do).

In Finland, blogging is increasingly popular and used by politicians for partisan ends. Politicians have been aware for some time that blogging is a good way to bring ordinary people closer to them. Many of the blogs are in turn closely monitored by news media, which often pick their newsworthy statements and make observations about opinion fluctuations inside party elites.

Nevertheless, it's crystal clear that in countries with narrow margin of freedom of expression, like Egypt and Yemen, bloggers are harassed, threatened, detained and even sent to prison. The Vietnamese government was less harsh towards bloggers, having asked newspapers to control its journalists' blogs by issuing internal regulations to restrict journalists' blogs. The authorities' reaction to bloggers and intervention in the blogosphere, however, could shape the content of blogs. Despite the fact that the Chinese 'blogosphere', for example, has grown rapidly during the last ten years to the extent that by the end of 2008 China has had around 70 million blogs, government censorship and surveillance of the Internet rendered the nature of the Chinese blogosphere highly apolitical.

Can blogging pose a real threat to professional journalism? And to what extent can professional journalists count on blogs as a source of information?

The impact, be it positive or negative, brought on traditional newspapers by blogging varies from one country to another. In Egypt, for example, both traditional journalism and Internet blogging are believed to complement each other to give the audience a fuller picture of the news. Blogging sometimes provides journalists with news from areas traditional media cannot reach. However, there is one major drawback to information found on blogs – verification of veracity.

The case in China is more or less the same, as blogging and professional journalism in many cases are complementary. The former uses the latter as a channel for the amplification of the debates, and the latter uses the former as a source of stories. There has been visible traffic between bloggers and professional journalists, since some journalists leave the mainstream media to start blogging, while some bloggers are recruited as professional journalists.

However, while blogs in Vietnam seem to affect the circulation of newspapers, they can help improve professionalism of journalists, gaining more readers and sources. Some Vietnamese journalists' blogs attract more page views than the journalists' own newspapers' circulation.

Blogs also give Finnish journalists ideas of new trends and interests of public, but they do not count as a source of trustworthy information. Reporters read "citizen journalists" with more than a pinch of salt. However, Finnish editors in big media organisations encourage journalists to write blogs. Therefore, blogging has also become part of the work of journalists. Several big media outlets have blogs on their websites, mostly kept by their own staff writers.

The same goes in Yemen, where there are few occasions that Yemeni media used the materials published in blogs due to the inability to verify the authenticity of their content. In some countries with lower Internet penetration like Yemen and Armenia, blogging cannot pose a threat to journalism at the moment. Therefore, blogs in these two countries remain to be a collection of news from other conventional media, spaces for debates on politics, life, social and economic issues. It is possible though that the popularity of blogs will increase in Armenia with the increased penetration and access to the Internet as well as the increased professionalism of bloggers.

American bloggers, in fact, play a vital role in helping professional journalists perform their avowed civic functions, as blogs have the potential to create new readers for newspapers.

As long as the impact of the rise of bloggers on professional journalism is concerned, some journalists believe that the blogosphere isn’t as big as we think. It could be argued that anybody can start a blog and thus the threshold for the 'quality' of opinion leaders has fallen. A great deal of the panic about blogging is fuelled by incredible statistics about the number of new blogs started each hour. While this is true, it is also the case that the majority of blogs in the United States, for example, are never read (except, perhaps by family and friends...if the blogger is lucky). Therefore, many believe that journalists should avoid positioning bloggers against professional journalism in a simple binary opposition.

Perhaps journalists should develop a more nuanced approach to blogging that extends beyond the rather abstract notion of a blogosphere. One approach would be to construct a rudimentary typology of blogs (the activist blog, the journalist's blog, the accredited expert’s blog, the anonymous blog, the politician’s blog, etc.) and gauge the relative impact of these different sorts of blogs and that of a professional journalist.

But is blogging by journalists really affecting their impartiality?

While some editors openly want the journalist bloggers to follow their newspapers guidelines, which makes the journalists withdraw from active blogging, as is the case in South Korea, participants from other countries (of whom seven admitted to have blogs either carrying their names or borrowed names) disagreed on blogging by journalists. Some journalists think blogging affects the impartiality of a journalist, for when a journalist writes his/her opinions on their blog, then readers might question their impartiality.

Some journalists argue that there is a conflict of interest between blogging and professional journalism as reading a blog of a journalist makes people more critical of his/her professional skills. Other journalists argue that a journalist can be just as opinionated in newspaper articles as in their blogs. In UK, for example, some of the best respected journalists are employed precisely to write opinion pieces. Hence, there is a distinction between newspaper opinion writers and blogs. Others suggest that a journalist might blog under an assumed name to avoid the risk of being seen not top be impartial in their professional journalism. But this cannot guarantee a journalist’s anonymity: "Even if you write under a fake name, readers will know your identity," one journalist argued.

The discussion was moderated by Dr. David Levy, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Participants: Mohamed El-Sayed, Laura El-Tantawy (Egypt), Amel Al-Ariqi (Yemen), Annikka Mutanen, Salla Nazarenko (Finland), Chris Finlay (U.S), Firas Khatib (Israel), Haiyan Wang (China), Sang-Kil Hwang (South Korea), Suren Musayelyan (Armenia), Toshiya Kaba (Japan), and Thi le Thuy Tran (Vietnam).

This report was written by Mohamed El-Sayed with assistance from Alejandro Ribo Labastida