|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
And what about those Americans who perused their favorite blogs on May 11? Did they find there something different from what was in mainstream media? What did they learn about the big news stories that did not make it to the other outlets?
To find out, we examined seven blogs, selected to offer a range of types, so as to closely examine the subject matter discussed, the places bloggers get their news, the level of reporting that exists, and the relationship with readers and with the mainstream media.
What we found, generally, is that readers of those blogs learned of some of the same stories that were in the traditional media that day, but often from a different angle or different source. They also heard about many items not found in the other media, such as a scholarly debate over the concept of a “living constitution,” a recent blogger convention in Nashville, a controversy at Commonweal Magazine over the dismissal of the editor, thoughts from a group of Iranian bloggers who met with one of their presidential candidates, and the blogger Wonkette’s “Bushfish” logo. In this regard, the bloggers are adding not just opinion to the media mix, but also new items to the agenda. Those new items can vary widely. Unlike a news organization where a group of minds is behind the selection of stories and the editing process, blogs are truly one-person shows, as is apparent in the topics that sometimes receive focus.
Bloggers are also not simply reacting to what they have read in the mainstream media. The posts themselves have the feel of a small circle of friends talking to each other, often with their own language, and without a good deal of background explanation. Many of the blogs linked back and forth to each other or to other blogs through the course of the day. Very little of what a journalist would call actual reporting was evident. There was also an implicit expectation that readers were familiar with the places linked to and had been following the conversation among them. Some of this insider feel and internal code is doubtless due to the shorthand nature of the way blogs are written, but it goes beyond that. One also gets the sense the insider feel is part of the appeal of blogging and blog reading in the first place.
For our Day in the Life study, we examined six different traditional text-driven blogs that offer a mix of ideology and formats. We first looked at the most popular blogs by average daily traffic and included the one at the top.1 Moving down that list, we then picked the next most popular blogs that offered a mix of political ideology and geography. Then we added a seventh blog of another type called a video blog, or vlog, to see how that approach differs from more traditional, text-based blogs. The blogs are as follows:
Entries and Timing
Blogs may be the one medium we found in our sample that could be described as genuinely operating 24 hours a day. Among the seven blogs, posting for the day began as early as 12:13 a.m. EDT (Eschaton) and ended at 12:01 a.m. the next day (Power Line). All blogs offered at least an 11-hour time span in the posts for the day.
Number and Timing of Posts, May 11, 2005 (EDT)
By the numbers, the topics bloggers covered were not all that different from the mainstream press.
What differed primarily were the subtopics and the information offered about them. The bloggers talked about some of the same stories as the mainstream press that day, but often in ways that were quite different.
Five of the seven blogs wrote about Iraq that day, often mentioning the slew of car bombs the night before. Crooks and Liars and Eschaton both mentioned the outbreak in relation to a New York Times op-ed that day by John Tierney, who called on journalists not to be so fixated on such attacks. Both blogs disagreed with Tierney. Crooks and Liars also linked to a Yahoo story on the bombings as well as to comments from Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who blogs on the Middle East, history and religion. Eschaton followed the initial post with one two hours later that linked to a Louisville Courier-Journal opinion piece by the American journalist Molly Bingham, suggesting that her essay “could have been” a reply to Tierney. He then also linked to a blog by Richard Cranium that “has more on Ms. Bingham” — namely Cranium’s reaction to the op-ed.
The Daily Kos offered the most multi-tiered post. It began with a link to an Associated Press story that he pulled from NYTimes.com. Kos picked up on an interesting element missed in the mainstream press coverage we examined — the practice of having new police force recruits line up together outside before they are searched. “Umm, why do they still do this? . . . Why don’t they search people before they stand in line? That much explosive can’t be easy to hide from the most cursory search,” Kos wondered. He also linked to and reran a portion of comments by the blogger DHinMI on a GAO report about “the mess in Iraq.” DHinMI (whom Kos did not identify, but who is a contributing blogger to thelasthurrah.com), linked directly to the GAO report. That was followed by another rerun except with a full link, introduced only as “this.” It was a Washington Post piece on the bombings. And then, “Update: Armando has more [LINK] on the ‘reputation’ of the insurgents.” Again it was up to the reader to know who Armando was, or to figure it out.
Power Line didn’t blog about the car bombs but had two entries that related to Iraq. The first excerpted text from an Arabic paper that said the jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been wounded in fighting. That, the blogger wrote, supported his earlier view that Zarqawi was still alive and well. The second entry linked to a Washington Times story asserting that the war in Iraq is the “last stand for al Qaeda.” The blogger agreed.
The focus of Little Green Footballs, the West Coast conservative blogger, was entirely international on May 11. It did not directly address the bombings either, but concentrated on one of the other major stories in the print media this day, about the riots in Afghanistan that stemmed from reports of desecration of the Koran by U.S. soldiers. The site linked to Roger L. Simon’s blog, which said the Newsweek article that first reported the incident was based on an anonymous source. Then at 1 p.m., Green Footballs touched on Operation Matador, the American military’s weeklong hunt for insurgents along Iraq ’s Syrian border, by linking to another blog’s post on the matter.
What about coverage of the story that ate up so much of the cable TV day, a small plane’s violation of D.C. air space? It was largely absent from the blogs. Just two of the seven we monitored addressed it at all. One of those two wasn’t so much focused on the event as what it considered the hyperventilated tone of the media coverage. At 12:28 p.m., just minutes after the evacuation ended, Eschaton offered this assessment of the coverage:
“Our quality media . . . just on the Tee Vee! *pant, pant, pant* — ‘The White House and Capitol Building are under attack by enemy aircraft!’ . . . .’Sorry, just a Cessna that lost its way, all clear given.’ STOP HURTING AMERICA!
Update: [Never Mind]“ — which linked to a Yahoo story that day.
At 2:46 p.m. EDT Instapundit linked to Andy Cochran’s Counter-Terrorism Blog and his brief, blackberry account from the scene, commending the Capitol police, as well as to a timeline at ABCnews.com that was put out by the White House. Then at 7:51 p.m. there was a link to the blogger David Corn’s report, again with a lighthearted tone.
The topic that most frequently popped up across the blogs was the ongoing Senate fight over the potential for the use of the filibuster in the judicial-nomination process — a subject that was a minor issue in the media over all this day, and largely restricted elsewhere to the major national papers we studied. Not only was the debate in process in the Senate that day, but a group of students from Princeton were in Washington “filibustering” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to preserve the practice. Kos , Talking Points, and Eschaton, the three liberal blogs, supported the right to filibuster, and all linked to the Princeton student blog. In addition, Kos, at 11:46 a.m., noted that no vote was held the previous day, “and we all know darn well that Kitten Killer Frist would’ve done the vote if he had the votes.” Kos also ran comments from DavidNYC, who met with the Princeton students that day. Joshua Marshall, at 11:26 a.m., criticized the Tribune reporter Jill Zuckerman for her use of the term “Nuclear Option” in describing the Republican plan: “Tell Zuckerman no more nuclear-backsliding!” And Eschaton, at 2:42 p.m. reran and linked to comments on the matter from a blogger named Digby.
Posts About the Senate Filibuster Rule Debate
The other liberal blog, Crooks and Liars, reran portions of a blogger called the Carpet Bagger Report, which quoted the Christian Coalition founder James Dobson’s explanation of why the debate over the filibuster had become so heated.
Power Line was the only conservative blog of the group to weigh in on the matter this day. It led with the topic at 6:54 a.m., but from yet another novel facet — the legal angle. It ran the views of a lawyer named Michael Schwartz (whose comments were dated May 10) on the constitutional legitimacy of the filibuster and asked him a question; his response was added later. Then at 9:14 p.m. the blog came back to the issue, picking up what was apparently a continuing discussion on the blog about Federal Judge Priscilla Owen with comments from an appellate lawyer.
All in the Family
If cable programs itself as if viewers are going to watch relatively passively and take in what the cable teams have to offer, bloggers treat their audience as equal partners in the information exchange. There is a sense that the audience has already been a part of the ongoing dialogue, that they know the background of each topic or issue and that they will click through several layers of links to make a complete picture. That may make it a bit difficult or intimidating to join in. Once in, however, participants are part of an inner circle, a family, or clan. Indeed, one of the most prominent features of the blogs we studied was that they refer continually to one another, and treat their readers as if they were bloggers too.
Of all the blog postings for the day, most — a full third — were spurred by another blogger’s post. In other words, those doing the posting saw something on another blog that they then commented on and linked to on their own blogs. Bloggers looked to their comrades more than to actual events (21%) and twice as often as to mainstream press accounts (15%).
Trigger of Blog Posts
Instapundit was particularly prone to such posts. Fully 15 of its 25 that day stemmed from another blog, including links to:
Sometimes the practice comes full circle, in a way reminiscent of the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, where the stream of links always comes back to him. On Crooks and Liars that day, for instance, one post was about comments that the comedian John Stewart made on his show the night before about blogs (something several other blogs posted about as well). The post links to the Stewart video, blogger Ed Cone’s post on the matter and a related post on BuzzMachine.com that links back to the video link on Crooks and Liars.
Level of Original Reportage
We found little of what would be considered journalistic reporting done by these bloggers, as in examining public documents, conducting interviews, or acting as a direct witness to events. In more than three quarters of all the posts (79%, 88 posts) the highest level of reporting offered was a commentary from the blogger. Just 5% (5 posts in all) involved some original research.
The highest level of reporting we found on May 11 actually came from a reader’s post rather than the main author of the blog. The Daily Kos carried a post from DavidNYC, who that morning went to the Capitol to talk with the Princeton students who were “filibustering” Frist. DavidNYC then blogged about it when he got back. In a little bit of reporting himself, Kos contacted the Columbia Journalism School professor Steve Ross, asking him to remove a question on a survey that suggested that bloggers supporting Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy in 2004 were paid to support him. Ross, according to Kos, refused.
Similarly, in a post on the Iraq car bombs, Crooks and Liars said it e-mailed the New York Times columnist John Tierney (whose op-ed had urged journalists not to give so much space to such incidents) “to ask him if it was okay to report on today’s suicide bombers.” We would have to take his word that he did e-mail the writer, but either way no response was on the blog by the end of the day.
Highest Level of Reporting in Posts
Follow the Links to Connect the Dots
One result of basing posts on other posts is that it puts a bigger burden on the reader to follow the links through to put the pieces of an event together.
A post on Daily Kos titled “Jonah Goldberg yawns while kids die,” for instance, was about the blogger Jonah Goldberg’s response to an earlier Kos critique of him over his support for the war in Iraq . The post began with a reader’s comment about an e-mail the reader sent to Goldberg on the matter and Goldberg’s response. Then Kos gave his response to Goldberg’s. Next Kos ran another reader’s comment on the matter followed by a link to more comments by The Cunning Realist blog about the exchanges. Whew!
Another subject discussed this day had to do with a blogger’s appearance on the Michael Medved Show. (We’re told nothing about the show itself, but by following a number of links, someone unfamiliar with it could learn that it is a nationally syndicated, conservative radio talk show.) Power Line posted a link to Joshua Marshall’s post on the matter on his Talking Points Memo. When you got to Marshall ’s blog, it linked to the Rock the Vote blog post by the person who went on the show as well as a post by someone referred to as The Count — which was an earlier post by Marshal about someone who is mentioned on the show.
The Missing Link
What all this means when it comes to sourcing is quite interesting. In one sense, blogging is all about transparency — embedded link upon embedded link. But if one is looking for sourcing in a journalistic sense — an original source — there is a lot missing. Bloggers link to others but tell readers very little about who those fellow bloggers are, their backgrounds or what if any expertise, relationship or bias they may have on the subject at hand. And if the original blogger who raised an issue is passing something along second hand, by the time it may get to the fourth reference it requires some diligence to realize the absence of a direct source in the first place.
Little Green Footballs, for example, posted about Afghan riots that broke out over the supposed desecration of the Koran by American solders there. The post re-ran a portion of a Yahoo story on the event (and links to the entire piece) and then added,
“Roger L. Simon points out that the Newsweek report that triggered these deadly riots was based on an anonymous source.”
There is no explanation of whether Roger is a journalist, a blogger or a soldier or why we should believe his account. And this post, “For news about Operation Matador, the anti-jihadi offensive near the Syrian border, The Adventures of Chester is the place” gives no information on the blog it links to, the author of the blog or what the author’s stance is on the Iraq war, jihadi or anything else.
In another example, Instapundit posts on a comment on democratization made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Community of Foreign Ministers meeting in Santiago , Chile . The quote is picked up from a post on another blog —John McCaslin’s — but Instapundit offers no context whatsoever about the speech, about where McCaslin got the quote or about the quote itself.
Readers can usually — eventually — figure out what the blogs linked to are about or who the authors are, but it is up to them to do the digging. If they don’t, there is a risk that what is occurring is an electronic version of the children’s game of telephone.
Talking the Language
Along with the inside-the-family ethos of the blogs we examined comes a certain lingo and nomenclature that only those familiar with the blogs may understand. It can be confusing or even intimidating for a newcomer. Daily Kos , for example, ends one of his posts with “Cheers and Jeers sips tea in There’s Moreville. . . [Swoosh!] RIGHT NOW! [Gong!!]”
Senator Bill Frist is referred to as “Kitten Killer Frist,” Rep. Tom Delay as a (R-Sugardaddy). And Little Green Footballs ends most posts with a “(hat tip)” to the blog or person that provided information.
It’s Us vs. Them, Sort of
Some critics have argued that the blogosphere mostly involves bloggers reacting to what they have read in the mainstream press, and that rather than offering an alternative to the so-called “MSM” (mainstream media), they are entirely dependent on it. The Day in the Life suggests that the charge may be overstated, though not entirely wrong; the relationship may be more complex than that. Most original posts on this day were triggered by a fellow blogger (33%) or from specific events (21%). Just 15% came from the more mainstream press accounts and 6% from statements made by journalists. But if one follows the trail of links deep enough, it can often lead to some original sourcing from a news outlet — but not always. It is a mix that also varied among the particular blogs that day.
Whether bloggers need the MSM or not, they do often seem to harbor a certain animosity toward the old media. In most posts that refer to a journalist or a news outlet — liberal or conservative — the blogger is far from a defender.
Daily Kos bashed the Wall Street Journal story that suggested that bloggers for Howard Dean were paid to promote him. (It also then bashed the Columbia Journalism School’s survey question that suggested the same thing.)
The conservative blog Instapundit linked to TaxProf’s assertion that the New York Times ran a misleading chart on marginal tax rates. And in a link to RawStory’s account of the U.N. nominee John Bolton’s divorce records, the liberal blog Eschaton wrote: “Maybe this will interest the media? Oh, never mind, no Democrats involved.”
At the same time, these bloggers often ended up linking back to an account in the mainstream press. Sometimes it was the second or third link in the stream and many times the use was not acknowledged. But the pattern does suggest that much of the original material does stem from mainstream reporting.
Let’s Hear From Me
One consistent element across the blogs was their personal style. Readers learned about those things that the author or authors found significant, or at least interesting. And the vast majority of the time, the personal element included the blogger’s own views. Of all the posts that had some commentary from the blogger (as opposed to just a link to other work with nothing more than the slightest contextual language added) the vast majority — 78% — included the blogger’s view.
And on each blog, there were at least twice as many posts with opinions as without.
Blogger Opinion in Post Narratives
1. The traffic rankings were taken in April of 2005 from a blog portal, www.truthlaidbear.com , which ranks blogs according to its “Blogoshpere Ecosystem.” According to TTLB, its “Blogosphere Ecosystem is an application which scans weblogs and generates a list of weblogs ranked by the number of incoming links they receive from other weblogs on the list.”