Bloggers are journalists who play by different rules

April 11th, 2013


Reproduced with permission from Kirsten Han’s Spuddings blog. Kirsten is doing her MA in Journalism, Media and Communications at Cardiff University on a Chevening scholarship.

Whenever discussions over whether bloggers can be considered journalists arise, there are those who will be quick to point out all the differences: while professional journalists have established codes of conduct to adhere to, bloggers are generally not bound to any specific set of ethics that would govern their behaviour (Knight et al. 2008, pp. 122). Bloggers are often painted as freewheeling mavericks untrained – or even uninterested – in the rules governing content production (Lasica 2002, para. 5), while journalists are seen as trained professionals producing accurate reports adhering to a high standard. Another distinction between bloggers and journalists is made by saying that bloggers rarely produce original reporting, seen as “the heart of all journalism” (Blood 2003). By pointing to these differences, it is then proposed that bloggers are not journalists, and should not be considered as such.

While I do not deny that there are many differences between a blogger and a journalist dealing in hard news, in this essay I argue that the exclusion of bloggers from consideration as journalists fails to recognise different traditions of journalism such as partisan or advocacy journalism where different practices and goals are prioritised. When we recognise that the concept of journalism encapsulates much more than professionals in a newsroom, we begin to see similarities between bloggers and some journalists, and to consider bloggers as a type of journalist. Taking my examples from the Singaporean blogosphere, as well as drawing on my own experience, I will show how bloggers can – and should – be considered journalists, especially in a country where the lack of independent mainstream media leaves a gap in society.

Of course, one needs to recognise that although there are a huge number of bloggers in Singapore, not every blog is relevant to this essay. Like others have observed with blogs around the world (Andrews 2003; Blood 2003; Domingo and Heinonen 2008), most Singaporean blogs publish non-journalistic content ranging from personal diary entries to lifestyle advertorials to cat pictures. Some of Singapore’s most popular bloggers do not engage in journalism, but nevertheless there are a significant number who can be considered to “commit journalism” (Lasica 2002, para. 34-36). For the purpose of this essay I will be referring to those who write “journalistic blogs”, defined by Domingo and Heinonen as bloggers who provide commentary and analysis on current issues for a large readership (2008).

The 2012 Press Freedom Index by Freedom House ranked Singapore alongside Qatar and Angola in the 150th position, describing the press as “not free” (Karlekar and Dunham 2012). It was not the first time; Singapore has consistently scored badly in press freedom rankings, having ranked 136th in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2010 (2010) and 135th in 2011/2012 (2012). These reports show that although Singapore is often seen as a success in terms of economy and development, major concerns remain with the state of the press in the island nation.

Singapore’s mainstream media is either government-owned (as in the case of MediaCorp, which runs the radio and television stations as well as certain print publications) or seen as government-influenced (as in the case of Singapore Press Holdings, which mainly deals with print publications). Legislation such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act gives the government the power to issue or revoke licenses for publications and to restrict or influence media ownership and distribution. Defamation suits have also been used against journalists and publications. In his book Freedom From The Press, Cherian George (2012) writes that the methods used by the government to control the media has managed to “distort the relationship between the media and public, making accountability to government more salient than accountability to people in editorial decision-making.” This can be seen in the way the mainstream media often echoes the official line in national issues, even going as far as to edit forum letters to reflect more favourably on the establishment (The Online Citizen 2011).

What Singapore lacks in free press, it makes up for in terms of connectivity. A Nielsen report (2011) revealed that with 67 per cent Internet penetration and 70 per cent smartphone penetration, Singaporeans are the heaviest users of the Internet in the Southeast Asian region, clocking in an average of 25 hours online per week.

This connectivity has given Singaporeans opportunities to set up their own platforms and many have seized the chance, either singly or in groups. Socio-political blogs like The Online Citizen (TOC) and TR Emeritus (TRE) are operated by teams of bloggers who provide not only commentary and analysis but also original reporting. Both platforms have cultivated large followings.

In 2008 TOC published a post (Chan 2008) about the abandonment of 179 Bangladeshi migrant workers, a story that had not received any attention from the mainstream media. They continued to run stories on the exploitation of migrant workers, drawing attention to problems like substandard living conditions (Chok 2009) and the practices of repatriation companies (Wham 2009). The blog has also highlighted issues such as homelessness (Yong 2010), the death penalty (Loh 2010) and the Internal Security Act which allows for detention without trial (Teo 2011). TOC’s work grew to such prominence that it was gazetted as a political association by the Prime Minister’s Office in 2011 because of its ability to “shape political outcomes in Singapore”.

Outside of group blogs like TOC and TRE, individual bloggers in Singapore have also acted as reporters and watchdogs, monitoring not only the government but also the mainstream media. During the 2011 General Election, bloggers provided their own coverage of events  and kept a close eye on the mainstream media. Yawning Bread, a popular blog run by Alex Au, featured firsthand accounts of procedures at a nomination centre (2011a), commentary on the rhetoric used by the ruling party (2011b) and analysis of election coverage by Singapore’s only English-language broadsheet The Straits Times (2011c).

I myself have had experience of providing alternative accounts to the mainstream media as a socio-political blogger. Halfway through the 2011 General Election, popular tabloid The New Paper reported that Chee Soon Juan – an opposition politician who had been bankrupted through defamation suits and thus banned from standing in elections – had attempted to start a protest march at his party’s rally. In a country where protests are outlawed, it was a serious allegation and the paper branded him as a “loose cannon”. However, I had been at the same rally as a volunteer photographer for TOC and had seen no such thing. My blog post (2011) with my account of the rally received over 20,000 page views and encouraged more eyewitnesses to come forward to share their versions of the story, which eventually led to The New Paper publishing a clarification explaining their claims. Before the advent of blogging, it would have been very difficult for Singaporeans to find alternative accounts or to rebut stories from the mainstream media, and such a story might have been spread widely without correction or clarification.

The significance of bloggers and their work has been acknowledged not just by a mainstream media who has had to change the way they cover events (Au, 2011c) but also by the government. In October 2012 the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim said that it was necessary for the government to change the way it communicates to take the new media practitioners like bloggers into account. Ang Peng Hwa, the chair of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, then suggested that press accreditation be granted to certain bloggers to gain access to official events (Sreedharan 2012). This had already been demonstrated in some way during the presidential election in August 2012: when Tony Tan (who eventually won the election) held a press conference to announce his candidacy, bloggers were invited to cover the event even as foreign journalists were excluded (George 2011a). All this serves to highlight the impact that bloggers made on society, so much so that establishment figures are beginning to consider them on a level similar to professional journalists.

That said, there is still much to set bloggers apart from mainstream journalists. A blogger with TOC or TRE is usually a volunteer with a day job, unable to devote his or her full time and attention to news gathering in the same way a journalist from The Straits Times does. Although bloggers do some original reporting, it is only in the odd occasion where they have the time and opportunity to do so. The bulk of the content in blogs are still commentaries, analyses and opinion pieces coming from individuals (even when it comes to group-run blogs). This echoes Andrews’ (2003) point: although bloggers have pushed print journalism towards richer coverage, they lack the training and collaboration with other professionals that many journalists have in the newsroom. Blogging is also usually different from his description of journalism as “a disinterested third party… reporting facts fairly”.

Objectivity and impartiality are often identified by both scholars and journalists themselves as core principles of journalism and the hallmarks of professionalism (Schudson and Anderson 2009). However, it has been pointed out that this has not always been the case. In fact, partisan journalism has actually had a much longer history than objective journalism (Allan 2004). The concept of objective journalism is also a very Anglo-American-centric one, and does not necessarily relate to traditions of journalism elsewhere in the world where journalists were often also clear advocates of certain issues. George (Knight et al. 2008, pp. 129) observes that Malay-language journalism traditionally saw “little distinction between the journalist, the writer, the poet, the activist and the public intellectual”, and that even Singapore used to have a vibrant media landscape that did not shy away from partisan views.

When we widen our scope to include different forms of journalism, we begin to find more similarities between bloggers and journalists, and to see a space for bloggers in journalism. We could, for instance, compare blogging to advocacy journalism, and identify shared beliefs and goals.

Unlike mainstream journalism, advocacy journalism does not make claims to objectivity or neutrality. Rather than assuming the role of the “disinterested third party”, advocacy journalists unabashedly champion causes important to them, seeking to address problems or imbalances in society (Waisbord, 2009). Advocacy journalists believe that their work plays a crucial role in bringing about important changes, and reject the belief that journalism can ever be truly objective (Berman 2004). Instead, they prefer the concept of transparency, and believe in gaining credibility by being open and up front about their views and stances (Careless 2000).

Like advocacy journalists, bloggers do not pretend their posts are objective – readers are aware that blog posts reflect the views of the blogger. Bloggers also do not shy away from championing causes, arguing their points and seeking to persuade their readers through their posts. Yawning Bread blogger Alex Au is also an advocate for gay rights and labour rights, and writes extensively on these issues. Similarly, TOC has taken a stance on issues such as the mandatory death penalty and the Internal Security Act that allows for detention without trial in Singapore, and has from time to time embraced the label of “blogivist” – bloggers who are also activists.

Some features and practices of blogging also allow for the transparency valued by advocacy journalists. Blood (2003) refers to the practice of hyperlinking – where bloggers are able to provide links to other content they refer to – as being able to provide “a transparency that is impossible with paper”, while Hermida’s (2009, pp. 278) case study of the BBC adopting blogging highlights the comments feature on blogs as a way for content producers to connect with and be more accountable to their audience. These features, also prevalent in the Singaporean blogosphere, show us how bloggers can be held to account by their readers, and to be transparent about their sources. The personal and subjective nature of blogging also allows readers to get to know the writer and understand his or her stance in a way that is similar to understanding the motivations of an advocacy journalist.

Scholars have also suggested other terms to describe blogging. Lasica (2003) refers to it as “participatory journalism or journalism from the edges”, highlighting the ability of bloggers to enter a domain previously reserved for mainstream journalists. Wall (2004) invokes economic theory to talk about blogging as “black market journalism”, arguing that bloggers represent an “informal economy” of news where the domination of mainstream journalism is challenged.

The popularity of blogging has often been seen as a danger to mainstream media. Keen (2006) suggested that the democratisation of media production on the Internet – including, of course, blogging – presents a threat to mainstream media and the work of professionals. Lasica (2003) disagrees with this view, arguing that bloggers can be seen as engaging in journalism of “a different sort” and that the relationship between blogging and mainstream media is “symbiotic”.

It’s an argument that can be clearly illustrated by Singapore’s situation; the bloggers are unable to compete with the resources (in terms of funding, access and manpower) of the mainstream media, and therefore still rely on newspaper coverage of events like parliamentary sittings and press conferences. However, once the reports are out, Singapore’s bloggers are able to pick up and analyse stories, asking questions that may have been left out from the official narrative, or to even question the professed neutrality of the mainstream media. The expectation that bloggers will replace the mainstream media is unrealistic, but what bloggers can do is provide alternative viewpoints that enhance audience understanding and enrich public discourse. Although the bloggers may sometimes be ideologically opposed to views promoted by the mainstream media, the relationship between bloggers and mainstream journalists in Singapore can also be seen as more complementary than competitive.

Rejecting many of the practices and rules that form the core of mainstream news production, bloggers have very little interest in becoming identical to mainstream media practitioners, but this is in no way an indication of whether they can or cannot be seen as journalists. As this essay has shown, journalism is not restricted to just one set of rules and practices, but includes a range of journalists adopting different priorities, styles and principles. In this large, complex field, blogging has simply emerged as a new form of journalism, one that borrows the attributes of other forms such as advocacy and partisan journalism and has served to enrich media landscapes previously dominated by mainstream, traditional news production. Using Singapore as an example I have demonstrated how bloggers can make a significant impact by giving the public perspectives beyond that of the establishment-influenced narrative. In this way, bloggers are consistently fulfilling a similar role in society to journalists, even when they refuse to play by mainstream rules.

After all, as TOC editors Andrew Loh and Joshua Chiang said, “We never claimed to be ‘balanced’. We are the balance.” (George 2011b)

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