From today I’ll be blogging parts of a book chapter on ‘Blogs and Investigative Journalism’ which will form part of the next edition of ‘Investigative Journalism‘. The following is the first part, which introduces blogging in general and its relationship with journalism. I would welcome any corrections, extra information or comments.
Blogging and journalism
To ask “Is blogging journalism” is to mistake form for content. Blogs – like websites, paper, television or radio – can contain journalism, but may not. They are a platform, albeit – like other media platforms – one with certain generic conventions. Like all conventions, these have advantages and disadvantages for journalism, which this chapter aims to address.
As a platform, blogs are a type of website built (normally) using content management software to a template where entries are dated and arranged with the most recent entry uppermost. Despite their extraordinary range and number, the technology and history of blogs has lent the medium some generic qualities. These include: a most-recent-post-top structure, a ‘blogroll’ of related sites, an often personal or subjective writing style, brevity, and – related to brevity – a tendency to link to any source mentioned (which the user can click to find out more).
When they first began to spread in the late 1990s, blogs tended to be lists of links to similar sites (this ‘blogroll’ element still remains in many blog systems and templates today). Blog posts, meanwhile, often hinged around a single link, where:
“An editor with some expertise in a field might demonstrate the accuracy or inaccuracy of a highlighted article or certain facts therein; provide additional facts he feels are pertinent to the issue at hand; or simply add an opinion or differing viewpoint from the one in the piece he has linked. Typically this commentary is characterized by an irreverent, sometimes sarcastic tone. More skillful editors manage to convey all of these things in the sentence or two with which they introduce the link … Their sarcasm and fearless commentary reminds us to question the vested interests of our sources of information and the expertise of individual reporters as they file news stories about subjects they may not fully understand” (Blood, 2000)
Although the first blogs were programmed by their authors, it was the launch of free content management systems such as Pitas, Blogger and Groksoup (all in 1999) which facilitated an explosion in blogger numbers as the barriers to entry were lowered to those without HTML coding skills. Rebecca Blood (2000) argues that this change, and Blogger’s interface and culture in particular, resulted in a change in the medium itself, in favour of more diary-like blogs, with accompanying cults of personality. It was during this time that blogs received much of their initial exposure in the mainstream media.
The years since, however, have seen a number of supplementary technologies develop that have brought the blog further into the orbit of journalistic enterprises. One is the rise of RSS as a distribution method. RSS (Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary) – now routinely included in blog services such as Blogger and WordPress – is a technology which allows readers to subscribe to a blog through an ‘RSS reader’. This removes the requirement for readers to check the blog itself for any new postings, and means they can instead include the blog feed as one among a number to form their personal news service. It also means feeds can be aggregated by publishers or journalists.
A second factor is the rise of linkbacks (also known as trackbacks, refbacks or pingbacks). These ‘ping’ a blogger to notify them when another blogger has linked to their post, while a brief extract of the referring website and a link is often included as part of the comments on a particular post, enabling the blogger to address any response or debate, as well as allowing readers to follow disussion that took place on other blogs after the original post was written. This combination of reverse referencing and notification adds to blogging’s conversational nature, making bloggers aware of their readers’ identities and opinions, and allowing them to correct errors or clarify and refine arguments. Notably, articles which are not written on a platform using trackback technology – i.e. most traditional news websites – do not get included in this discussion.
Thirdly, because of the tendency for blogs to link frequently, and because of the importance of incoming links to a webpage’s ranking on search engines such as Google, blogs have become a major factor in the profile of particular stories. A story that is heavily blogged benefits from a high visibility on search engines – particularly blog-specific search engines which monitor popular terms and sites. Economically, the advent of services such as AdSense and BlogAds meant some journalistic bloggers who began as amateurs were able to commercialise their operations and employ full time staff, as popular blogs such as Boing Boing and the Daily Kos enjoyed visitor numbers higher than most mainstream news organisations.
Perhaps partly as a result of the significance of blogs to search engine ranking – and therefore readers and online advertising revenue – and partly because of the threat that blogs pose in taking away their audiences, the blog format has been increasingly adopted by news organisations, who have either coopted the technology for their own journalists, employed bloggers on their staff, or teamed up with blogging and citizen journalism operations (Gant, 2007). With this shift into the mainstream media, the preexisting generic qualities of blogs have, in many cases, been diluted, with some journalists writing blog entries in the same way as a column, disabling comments or linkbacks, or failing to link to their sources. The blog, in these cases, simply becomes a new platform for traditional print content – or, put another way, ‘shovelware’. In other cases, however, “They are now achieving what Gans called for in an ‘indirect sharing of responsibilities’ with journalists [and] represent the multi-perspectival news that will end up setting more and different agendas as desired by Gans” (Robinson, 2006: 80).
Part two of this chapter – The Amateur-Professional Debate – is here.
Have I missed something? Included an error? If you want to make changes directly, this section is available as a wiki at http://blogsinvestigativejournalism.pbwiki.com/blogsandjournalism. Click on ‘Edit page’ and log on with the password ‘bij‘.