February 13, 2006

Effects of Blogs on Mass Media

A few fellow learners in the Master of Arts in Professional Communication program at Royal Roads University have asked to see a paper I did on blogging, so I've decided to post it here. (Newsdaily Canada has linked to this paper.)

The Effects of Blogs on Mass Media
From a Media Theory Perspective

by Paul Cipywnyk

Introduction

This paper explores the effects of Web logs, or blogs, on traditional mass media with reference to media theory. It covers the evolving relationship between blogs and mass media since the first blog was set up at the end of 1997 (Lyons, 2005), and how the blogging medium may face the imposition of regulation in the future.

The premise of this paper is that this simple, yet powerful communication medium has already had a significant impact on traditional mass media. While this impact will increase in the future as this technological change challenges traditional social discourse in a post-modern fracturing of the social equilibrium, there are also signs that normative effects may tame this publishing free-for-all to some extent over the next decade, along with the possibility of increased legal constraints and attempts at greater corporate control of the medium.

The Rise of Blogging Technology

Blogs have become an increasingly prominent means of communication on the Internet, and continue to proliferate rapidly. "A hundred thousand new blogs are created every day, more than one new blog per second, says Technorati, a firm in San Fransisco that tracks the content of 20 million active blogs" (Lyons, 2005, p. 131). Many companies, including major Internet players such as Google and Microsoft, offer free blogging services that allow users to easily post text, photos, and audio and video files to a blog simply by using forms through a Web browser, without having to know the underlying markup languages. Blogs typically present a series of chronological posts with the latest at the top of the page, with earlier entries being pushed downward, and eventually archived onto separate pages. Bloggers usually provide links to news or events or products that they write about, and commonly include RSS feeds that enable readers to monitor new posts to blogs they are interested in through automatically updated aggregators on their computers, or through Web sites that offer such aggregation services.

Blogging's Impact on Traditional Mass Media

The free-wheeling, personalized phenomenon of blogging exemplifies a post-modern world driven by technological change. "According to Marx, the capitalist class ? the bourgeoisie ? control the 'production and distribution of ideas' because of their control of the 'means of material production'" (Williams, 2003, p. 37), yet these days, anyone with access to the Internet can have a free or inexpensive printing press. The blogging phenomenon was enabled by technological change, and in turn is forcing mass media to modify long-standing journalistic practices. While Internet access is far from universal, technology has enabled individuals to challenge traditional mass media in ways that were impossible as recently as a decade ago.

The development of blogging has enabled individual reporting on events from a personal point of view, and when masses of bloggers question or directly confront reporting in traditional mass media, their collective power can be persuasive. For example, bloggers focused attention on racist remarks by former U.S. Speaker of the House Trent Lott, elevating a back-page story to a campaign of criticism that forced his removal (Kahn & Kellner, 2004). In another case, bloggers created "a media frenzy over the dishonest reporting that was exposed recently at the New York Times? (and) set upon the newsprint giant, whipping up so much controversy and hostile journalistic opinion that the Times?s executive and managing editors were forced to resign in disgrace" (Kahn & Kellner, 2004, p. 92).

According to post-modern media theory, audiences have the power to passively or actively resist media messages, and they cannot be fooled or manipulated by the mass media (Williams, 2003). Now, with the interactivity and personal publishing of blogging, mass media are facing a "community (that) is far from shy about going after journalists for offenses real and imagined, shocking thin-skinned journalists unused to being scrutinized the way they scrutinize others. Everything? is now subject to public analysis, comparison and fact-checking" (Singer, 2005, p. 180). Williams (2003) writes that the liberal theory of press freedom posits that "the smooth operation of the political system depended on the free expression of public opinion" (p. 39), and that the press acts as the voice of the people, and is accountable to them, as the fourth estate. Blogging is to some extent removing this intermediary function, and is putting the power of the press into individual hands. Blogs go beyond the structures of traditional journalism, drop much of the gatekeeping and filtering done by mass media, do not rely on corporate sponsors, and are even scooping the mainstream press (Wall, 2005).

Yet traditional mass media are not going away, and are not losing their influence. Bloggers often cite, and link to, material provided on Web sites run by huge media conglomerates. Research about war blogs that mushroomed after the invasion of Iraq in spring 2003 shows that nearly half of all links were to "mainly mainstream news outlets, primarily from the USA and the UK. In the USA, this included outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, etc." (Wall, 2005, p. 164). As for blogs run by mass media outlets, of 20 sites examined in one study, only three allowed direct commenting from readers, indicating they were unwilling to give up their gatekeeping role, so "it is still about vertical communication, from journalist to user, rather than horizontal communication that positions the journalist as a participant in a conversation" (Singer, 2005, p. 192).

Wall (2005), however, points out that the popularity of the war blogs arose at least partly because "mainstream media, as is historically its pattern during war, became less critical of the government and military actions and more prone to repeating propaganda?. leading increasing numbers of Americans to turn to the Web" (p. 153).

Are Blogs a New, Post-Modern Journalism?

Is blogging a new form of journalism? Are bloggers changing how mass media report the news? Wall (2005) argues that blogs are post-modern journalism:

This analysis suggests that these blogs represent a new genre of journalism ? offering news that features a narrative style characterized by personalization and an emphasis on non-institutional status; audience participation in content creation; and story forms that are fragmented and interdependent with other websites. Ultimately, these shifts suggest that some forms of online news such as blogs have moved away from traditional journalism?s modernist approach to embody a form of post-modern journalism (pp. 153-154).

Traditional journalism is supposed to be objective, or at least fair, yet the "voice of the typical current events blogger is personalized, opinionated, and often one-sided. Indeed, an opinionated voice is a hallmark of blog writing and those mainstream journalists who fail to reflect this are criticized as not being true bloggers" (Wall, 2005, p. 161). Readers of newspapers and watchers of TV tend to be passive; however, "on blogs, audiences are often invited to contribute information, comments, and sometimes direct financial support. In effect, audiences sometimes co-create content and also serve as patrons" (Wall, 2005, p. 161). While journalists are taught the inverted pyramid of story writing, "with blogs, the story form has changed into a fragment, one that is often incomplete without following a link and, thus, is seemingly never closed" (Wall, 2005, p. 162). All of these hallmarks of blogging make for a very different experience than reading or watching the packaged stories provided by mass media.

Kahn & Kellner (2004) propose:

Bloggers have demonstrated themselves as technoactivists favoring not only democratic self-expression and networking, but also global media critique and journalistic sociopolitical intervention?. blogs make the idea of a dynamic network of ongoing debate, dialogue and commentary central and so emphasize the interpretation and dissemination of alternative information to a heightened degree (p. 91).

While mass media may be retaining their influence and their audience, the post-modern fracturing of the mostly one-way communication of traditional media into the millions of inter-linking blogging voices has created a new openness and the ability for individuals to share their personal interpretations of the world to potentially global audiences. Bloggers are providing alternatives to mass media. "Large political events, such as the World Summit for Sustainable Development, the World Social Forum, and the G8 forums all now have wireless bloggers providing real time alternative coverage" (Kahn & Kellner, 2004, p. 93).

Blogs Surpass Mass Media in Raising Political Consciousness

In addition to offering an alternative to corporate mass media, blogs are raising political consciousness in a manner traditional media have been unable to do. Because blogs are personal, they have an ability to attract readers in a way that traditional media do not. This is shown by the experience of Blog for America, the blog that helped galvanize Howard Dean's campaign in the U.S. primary race starting in March 2003.

Alternately informative, cheesy, silly, self-absorbed, innovative, and brilliantly effective, Blog for America turned tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people into political activists and united them in collective action that extended beyond cyberspace?. This is something mainstream journalism could never accomplish (Kerbel & Bloom, 2005, pp. 20-21).

Blog for America may be viewed as a revival of the public sphere described by J?rgen Habermas. "Central to the operation of the public sphere is the free flow of information and communication, and media institutions are essential to its effective working" (Williams, 2003, p. 68). Williams (2003) goes on to say that eventually "the public sphere became corrupted by the growth of the power of the state, the emergence of corporate capitalism and transformation of the media into commercial operations" (p. 68). Blog for America became a forum to foster and harness the free flow of information in the public sphere, revitalizing the political process.

However, here too, there are cautionary notes.

As a third-tier candidate with few resources, Dean had little to lose by doing things unconventionally, and as we noted, discussion on the Dean blog became more conventional as the candidate started playing for keeps. For blogs like Blog for America to become routine, future campaign managers will have to weigh the obvious benefits of cultivating a loyal, active following against the potential loss of message control inherent in a decentralized campaign structure where anyone can participate. What is clear is that without some degree of decentralization, blog communities cannot thrive. It is the nature of the technology to buck centralized control, and it is the thing that generates feelings of empowerment (Kerbel & Bloom, 2005, p. 24).

Post-Modern Blogging

So while on one hand it appears that blogs are impacting mass media by providing alternative forums for shared self-expression, by confronting and challenging conventional journalism, and by enabling public discourse in a global manner heretofore unheard of in history, on the other hand it is also apparent that at least so far mass media are retaining much of their authority. Yet blogging may just be getting started, and has the potential to further spread its influence in the future as more citizens around the world come online and share their individual, unique perspectives. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, for as with any technology, it cannot simply be assumed that blogging will only lead to greater good. Overall, however, the benefits could outweigh the drawbacks.

Today, blogs embody the contradictions of postmodernity ? they may balkanize interest groups and cater to partisan audiences but they may also encourage the creation of a multitude of virtual communities in which ordinary people feel free to participate and discover their own political voices. That is, blogs may ultimately pull more people into public conversations and perhaps provide opportunities for collective problem-solving. Those who fear the demise of the great society created in part by national media are perhaps overly nostalgic for a media that rarely reflected the entire community or allowed ordinary people much of a voice (Wall, 2005, p. 167).

Conclusion

While blogging's Wild West milieu has already had an impact on traditional mass media, and will continue to require mass media corporations to adjust to the onslaught of individual voices, there are doubts if the medium's free-wheeling nature will last forever. Blogs may undermine societal equilibrium, and to take a page from functionalism, "all components of society including the media are organized and structured and operate to maintain social stability" (Williams, 2003, p. 50). While blogging may fundamentally be of an individualistic, fractured, post-modern nature, in five or ten years some of the regulations that apply to traditional mass media may be extended to cover the Internet, and bloggers.

Indeed, Lyons (2005) describes the anonymous slander of individuals and corporations by packs of bloggers, and cries out for means to control them:

Google and other carriers shut down purveyors of child porn, spam, and viruses, and they help police track down offenders. So why don't they delete material (from blogs) that defames individuals? Why don't they help victims identify their attackers? Because they are protected by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which frees a neutral carrier of Internet content from any liability for anything said online (p. 136).

Lyons (2005) goes on to cite a victim of a concerted smear campaign who "argues that Yahoo and other carriers should step up: 'They make money selling ads on these message boards, and the controversial material generates the most traffic. So they're benefiting from this garbage. I think they should take responsibility for it'" (p. 138).

While millions more blogs will be created over the next decade, and Web sites run by mass media corporations will gradually offer more interactivity and more opportunities for reader feedback, pressure from corporations and political forces that fear the libertarian blogging environment will likely lead to the imposition of regulatory restraints on the Internet, and by extension the blogging medium. There will be bloggers who will continue to resist any attempts at control, and a technological war will continue for decades between those who attempt to impose restraints, and those who will seek ways to outflank them.

References

Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2004). New media and internet activism: From the ?Battle of seattle? to blogging. New Media & Society, 6(1), 87-95. Retrieved November 17, 2005, from Communication Studies: A SAGE Full-Text Collection database.

Kerbel, M. R., & Bloom, J. D. (2005). Blog for america and civic involvement. The Harvard International Journal Of Press/politics, 10(4), 3-27. Retrieved November 17, 2005, from Communication Studies: A SAGE Full-Text Collection database.

Lyons, D. (2005, Nov. 14). Attack of the blogs. Forbes. 128-138.

Singer, J. B. (2005). The political j-blogger: ?Normalizing? a new media form to fit old norms and practices. Journalism, 6(2), 173-198. Retrieved November 17, 2005, from Communication Studies: A SAGE Full-Text Collection database.

Wall, M. (2005). ?Blogs of war?: Weblogs as news. Journalism, 6(2), 153-172. Retrieved November 17, 2005, from Communication Studies: A SAGE Full-Text Collection database.

Williams, K. (2003). Understanding Media Theory. London: Arnold.

Posted by Paul at February 13, 2006 09:41 AM