J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Does it Matter What Bloggers “Do?”

Posted by chanders on July 20, 2006

The easy answer, is, "of course it does." And indeed, it would be foolish to say otherwise. Nevertheless, I still argue that "of course it matters what bloggers do" is an easy answer, and that there are things that matter as much, if not more.

OK, so I started this post in the middle of my train of thought. Lets back up to the beginning. The most recent Pew Poll, "Bloggers: A Portrait of the Internet’s New Storytellers", merited mention in a number of blogs in my blogroll– Buzzmachine, CJR Daily, Cyberjournalist , Dan Gilmor’s blogThe Editors Weblog, and the Beltway Blogroll— as well as an article in the New York Times. The Times sums up the report  as a "study of the blogosphere," relying on two telephone surveys that asked a representative sample of bloggers about what they do online and what they think about what they do.  Much of the reaction to the report is framed in terms of "bloggers don’t do what we always thought they did– they don’t see themselves as journalists, and they don’t do journalism, either in a formal or informal sense." The Editors Weblog sums it up this way:

US: Most bloggers don’t consider themselves journalists– We’ve been hoping for some time that the "bloggers vs. journalists" debate would just go away. We finally may have reached that point. A report done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 66% of people maintaining blogs don’t label their acts as journalism. The other 34% considered their blogging as journalism because they engage in journalistic functions like fact-checking and linking to sources.

Or, as the Washington Post put it on the front page of its website: "’The average blogger is a 14-year-old girl writing about her cat,’ said Alexander Halavais, an assistant professor of interactive communications at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut."

Behind all of this there seems to be a general sense of relief: "At last! Data! Hard numbers through which we might glimpse reality rather than endlessly engage in speculation!" I must admit to some sympathy with this perspective– after all, one of the vices of the (quasi) social scientist is a love of a cold, hard "social facts." But this is only part of the story, and the results of the survey represent only one facet of how the importance of blogs and bloggers get figured out by society. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that the release of this survey itself — and the way it has been picked up, filtered, and discussed by bloggers, academics, and the mainstream press– is far more important than the data in the actual survey. Blogs and bloggers acquire meaning through social processes, of which "social facts" form only a small part.

Here’s what I mean: while what bloggers do matters, what bloggers think about what they do matters more, and what other powerful, reality framing institutions think about blogs matters just as much, if not more, than any of them. In other words, as long as mainstream journalism continues to primarily discuss blogs in terms of their journalistic content, it won’t matter that  only 34% of bloggers think of themselves as journalists (and actually, as an aside, that seems like quite a lot). Rather, the social perception of bloggers as journalists is affected more by journalism treating blogs as journalism than whatever bloggers think about themselves. And as long as blogs continue to play a major role in the shaping of politics, it wont matter that 11 percent focus on politics, or that the Democratic netroots actually appears to be rather small.

Blogs are what people think they are, are what people treat them as– and what powerful people and institutions think they are matters, to be blunt, more. Reality matters, of course, but in a secondhand sense, it matters  to the degree it impacts  other things. The social definition of blogs depends more on how they are treated by schools of journalism, how they are regulated by the government and the courts, and how (and if) they establish their "base of knowledge" in conjunction with networks of other knowledge producing actors (including academics, think-tanks, and Pew Surveys) than the very real and empirical fact that the average blogger is a fourteen year old girl blogging about her cat. What blogs "are" matters more than what they are.


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