Blogging Accessibility, Veracity, Tenacity

Dan Gillmor’s We the media – which chronicles the evolution and influence of new media, particularly blogs – is both an easy read and chock-full of amusing and thoughtful anecdotes that even a technological novice can appreciate.

Gillmor extols the virtues of blogs “as acts of civil engagement” that can instill a sense of excitement even in those who have remained on the periphery of political discourse; nevertheless, he buries in his Epilogue and Acknowledgments some worthwhile analysis regarding the “viral” quality of blogs described within the book. In this ending section, Gillmor quotes his friend and editor Tom Stites, who cites “the blog elite” in surmising that “democracy is doomed.”  Stites is not referring “business/government power,” Gillmor quotes him as stating. Rather, this so-called blog elite is “a highly educated deeply curious insider group centered among the technologically proficient. The sad truth is, most people are passive consumers of news who, because of the insider jargon blogs tend to be written in, couldn’t decipher most blogs even if they signed on; the segment of the citizenry that are savvy and proactive news-seekers is very small, and I don’t expect that to change much.”

            Given that blogs have the potential for broadening the conversation, their predominant use by a niche group is disheartening. How can the breadth and depth of dialogue expand if blogs are primarily a tool for the educational and technological elite?  And by using language that average folks cannot interpret, are bloggers creating their own “walled garden” that effectively shuts out diversity? From a policy perspective, there is something really wrong with this picture.  If blogs have the ability to influence public officials and public policy, will a significant portion of our citizenry continue to be voiceless despite a medium that purports to give voice to anyone with an Internet connection? Of course, not everyone has access to an Internet connection that would allow for this expression. Instead of ending with Stites’s prediction that the status quo will remain, I would have liked to read about ways we could bring about needed change.

            Gillmor rightly points out that the “growth of grassroots journalism has been accompanied by serious ethical issues, including veracity and outright deception.”  He notes that anyone with Photoshop skills can manipulate images to distort reality. But such lapses have occurred in the mainstream media as well. Some three years ago, a Reuters photographer was discovered to have manipulated images. And according to Poynter Online – Visual Voice, such practices continue: see “Inauguration Photo Manipulation Raises Questions,” http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=47&aid=157631 .

 

            Bloggers play an important role in exposing this type of fraud, but a prerequisite to true transparency is a blogosphere built on the kinds of credentials Gillmor himself seems to possess:  He tells us that he verifies information, quotes credible people, avoids anonymous sources wherever possible. But how many bloggers actually engage in such scrupulous fact-checking? Is it naive to expect such a high standard?

            Gillmor offers a caveat to consumers of blogs:  “take information on the Internet with a proverbial grain of salt… verify the claim before reacting.”  I share those sentiments, but would like to believe there is a place for building an ethical framework, given the power of bloggers to expose important stories that our mainstream media miss, or choose to ignore. For example, Gillmor relates that an Iraqi blogger was a key conduit of information regarding a massive march on the streets of Baghdad in December 2003 involving “thousands of Iraqis” who protested bombings by insurgents. “For all practical purposes,” Gillmor states, “The New York Times and other major media outlets missed the march and its significance.”

Bloggers can play a powerful role, but if the editorial standards are impeccable and a diverse audience is accessible.

 

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