Update (Dylko): It is interesting how the recent popular revolutions and protests across the globe (Egypt, Tunisia, etc.) have been characterized by the same multi-mediator process, as the CBS scandal, described in the article below: (1) some event happens, which leads to this: (2) alternative (i.e., social user-driven) media allow thousands of people (including members of the traditional press) to learn about the event, which then leads to this: (3) traditional or mainstream media cover it, all of which lead to these: (4a) more and similar events, (4b) more ordinary people learning about those events, (4c) more reports coming from the traditional news media, and (4d) provoking reaction from political power establishment. The this cycle of 1, 2, 3, and 4 repeats again, than again, and again... ultimately creating tangible political change. Step # 2 appears to be novel, most likely an outcome of today's media environment, whereas steps 1, 3, and 4 are as old as any traditional democratic institutions. This step # 2 is the focus of the present work.
Abstract: This essay examined implications of the blogosphere for the sociology of news, on the extra-media and media-routines levels. A case study of the CBS 60 Minutes segment about George W. Bush’s military service in Texas Air National Guard was used to demonstrate that traditional journalists heavily relied on information from the blogosphere in their reporting on this controversial story and that blogs could break stories faster than traditional media and successfully push them onto media’s agenda. General implications of news blogosphere for journalism and journalists are discussed.
Technological progress has changed many social processes, including the way we get news and the way this news is constructed. Technological innovations (e.g., optimization of the printing process, the invention of radio, etc.) often had an effect on older media, forcing them to adapt to new circumstances (Rodman, 2006). The development of radio, television, and the Internet have in particular impacted the content of the news and led to a transformation of older media in various ways, such as going back to the specific medium’s fundamentals or adopting some new features (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2000; Shaw, Hamm & Knott, 2000). For example, when television started dominating the media industry, radio managed to stay competitive after it improved sound quality with the invention of the FM frequency, became portable after the invention of the transistor, and began to sound more personal than ever before (Fang, 1997; Rodman, 2006). Radio also had to change its focus from prime time to “drive time” (Fang, 1997: p. 150), because television has effectively muscled radio out of the lucrative prime-time evening entertainment market.
The introduction of the Internet posed similar challenges to many older media because of the Internet’s multi-platform capabilities that facilitated the combination of text, sound and video. One online tool - blogging, is also becoming widely embraced by news media organizations (Thurman, 2008) as a way to engage citizens and encourage the expression of opinions. Blogs are enabled by the creation of easy-to-use web-based tools that help create journal-style web pages that are typically arranged chronologically, personal in nature, and updated frequently. Blog creators have the option of allowing readers to add their own original material to the blog or merely comment on material already there (Benkler, 2006), often facilitating interaction not only between blogger and readers, but between fellow readers as well. Thus, blogs are a kind of highly flexible group writing project. The availability of easy-to-use software enables writers and other content providers to concentrate on their content and not have to be very concerned with the software or hardware that makes it possible. Many popular blogs today can attract advertising revenue. Indeed, some blogs that started as the efforts of a single individual have been sold and continued in a more business-like manner. Examples of this include the various sites operated by Gawker Media, an online media firm that operates at least a dozen popular blogs and is estimated to have advertising revenue of several million dollars a year.
The purpose of this article is to examine how weblogs or “blogs” (the term “blog” in this paper refers to primarily political news blogs) redefine our understanding of journalism and how the blogosphere (the universe of blogs) transforms the news media products. Other forms of collaborative writing or social production such as wikis are beyond the scope of this effort. However, form- and content-related transformations are only some of the influences put upon traditional media by blogs. Specifically, this paper answers Nisbet’s (2008) call for examination of intermedia influence of blogopshere on news agendas of the traditional press.
History. The history of blogs is short but very rich. When the first blogs emerged in the late 1990s (e.g., Jensen, 2003) they were primarily web pages that contained many links and offered mostly “personal information” (Dearstyne, 2005: p. 39). One of the first manifestations of how powerful blogs would become was a 2002 scandal involving U.S. Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi). The then-Majority Leader of the Senate, Lott gave a speech at Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, in which he praised the Dixiecrat platform of Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004). Unlike media elites who started paying attention only about a week later (e.g., Fasoldt, 2003; Kaye, 2005), bloggers quickly recognized the importance of the story and kept relentlessly researching and covering it. These efforts lead to significant traditional media attention and subsequent public opinion pressure for Lott to step down as Majority Leader (Kahn & Kellner, 2004; Kaye, 2005). In this case, as well as in several others (Jeff Gannon and CNN’s Easton Jordan) it can be argued that it was not the blogosphere but traditional media’s1 attention and subsequent public opinion pressure that ultimately forced several individuals to step down or resulted in some other outcome. We argue that blogs played a direct role in getting these stories on the agenda of the traditional media, but also were significant forces that helped shape and define the stories. As such blogs played a critical and immediate role in forcing public figures to suffer the consequences of their behavior.
Today, blogs are becoming more and more traditional as Americans increasingly turn to the Internet and discover these fun and engaging information outlets. A recent Gallup Poll found that in 2005 about 20% of online Americans used blogs frequently or occasionally and another 13% used blogs rarely (Gallup Poll, 2006). By 2008, the number of blog readers grew to over 40% (Technorati, 2008). Traditional media also no longer just report on blogs, but they either host their own, mostly in opinion sections of their websites, or their reporters start individual blogs officially or unofficially (Singer, 2005; Cyberjournalist, 2005).
Unique Characteristics of Blogs. The widespread popularity of blogs suggests it is one creative outlet for the “cognitive surplus” that many people have as a result of shorter work weeks and increased leisure time (Shirky, 2008). Blogging is a creative outlet and can be engaged in by almost anyone who enjoys writing. Other types of “crowdsourcing” efforts to create user-generated content have also been popular and have created products of considerable commercial and practical value – such as “open source software.” This is a particularly good example of how volunteer efforts harnessing the talents of thousands of people worldwide create useful and valuable tools and products. Premiere examples of open-source software products in widespread use include OpenOffice, a project devoted to the creation of desktop productivity programs mimicking the proprietary Microsoft Office, Project R for statistical software, and the Mozilla Project, creators of the popular open-source browsers Netscape and Firefox. In the realm of content creation, worldwide there are a number of multilingual projects such as Wikipedia, and sites devoted to journalism such as OhMyNews.com and other examples of “citizen journalism.” A common element in blogging and the above-described technologies is that they are fun to engage with. One thing that differentiates blogs from traditional media news sites and allows them to attract large audiences is that for many people blogs are fun to read and write. Millions of people blog as a hobby, expecting no compensation for their efforts (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2006). Others blog in order to express their ideas, launch a career in writing, attract attention to their ideas, or earn revenue through advertising. Some other characteristics of blogs are:
Interactivity. Besides email, audience members can usually interact with the blogger and each other online through a “comments” option, although this is done at the discretion of the person who creates and maintains the blog (Woodly, 2008). Available on many blogs (see Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2006), the option allows “audiences to blend with producers” (Wall, 2005: p. 167) of the content, turning audiences into an army of volunteer citizen journalists and researchers. Because of the increased interactivity and specialized knowledge base, blogs may be capable of engaging active audiences far more effectively than traditional media can. This might be one reason that traditional media’s online operations now routinely incorporate blogs as ways to engage readers and viewers. In this regard blogs are similar to talk radio, in that they allow audiences to talk back and possibly even feel more efficacious (e.g., Davis, 1997) by linking people electronically into a single ‘public sphere.’ This aspect of blogs can be compared to “other opinion activities, most notably discussing public policy issues in face-to-face settings” (Pan & Kosicki, 1997: p. 373).
Makeover of journalistic norms. Similar to political talk radio, blogs do not have to abide by such journalistic norms as objectivity or even civility (Davis, 1997; Woodly, 2008), although most traditional media use a form of mediated blogging in which they attempt to control what is posted on their sites. Some bloggers and talk radio hosts use offbeat tactics to attract large audiences from the extremes of the ideological spectrum. For example, prominent blogger and media consultant Jeff Jarvis made a post on his blog in which he called CBS “an ass” (Jarvis, 2006) after the company sued Howard Stern. Such practices are possible because bloggers are less susceptible to advertiser pressures.
Also, if the audience considerations based on geography play any role in traditional media news product creation, such considerations may become less important in the blogosphere, which is not spatially bound. Blogs may have more latitude in “choosing” their audience than do traditional media and as a result, their content may be much less reflective of the cultural and ideological norms of some particular geographic area.
Finally, blogs often contain openly opinionated commentary. Similar to political talk radio, these opinions often determine what stories are mentioned and how they are framed by the bloggers. Such opinions may also determine who reads the blog by attracting like-minded individuals, receptive to bloggers’ slanted and often extreme perspectives (Eveland & Dylko, 2007). Somewhat surprisingly, at least from a traditional journalism perspective, this explicit bias may be advantageous for blogs. Blog readers know about this bias and it is believed that the awareness of such bias allows blog readers to make accurate judgments about what bloggers say, unlike traditional media where the bias may still exist, but in a more subtle form (e.g., Davis, 1997; Johnson & Kaye, 2004). Those who do not share the bias can still effectively use the information by making various mental adjustments for the bias that they see (Fredin & Kosicki, 1989; Kosicki & McLeod, 1990). One question in connection with this decoding, however, is whether and to what extent the nature of the ideology, financial or other commitments being espoused is adequately disclosed. This is, of course, an issue for both blogs and traditional media content
Transparency. Two types of transparency are manifest in the blogosphere. On the one hand, hyperlinking capability allows blogs to connect news stories to their original sources (such as official speeches, governmental reports, and any other information available online). This has also become a staple of traditional media’s online sites. On the other hand, any errors made by the bloggers become immediately apparent to numerous people because blog readers can quickly and easily bring even minor mistakes to light in the blogosphere, as often happens (Singer, 2005). Transparency might also include disclosure of commitments, funding and other structural matters.
Accessibility. Availability of free and easy-to-use online software allows individuals without any technical skills to become bloggers, resulting in an abundance of information and diversifying the pool of available perspectives (Coleman, 2005; Sunstein, 2006). However, some blog research indicates that bloggers and blog readers are a relatively elitist group, resembling classic early adopters of new technologies: White, male, well-educated, high-income earners (Johnson & Kaye, 2004; Technorati, 2008) – results challenged by others (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2006).
Effects on News Media Product. Scholars have identified many factors that can affect the news media product. Shoemaker and Reese (1991) argued that news could be affected on different levels: ideological, extramedia, organizational, media routines, and individual level (see Figure 1).
Scholars interested in how media agendas are built identified many external factors that influence news construction, such as: the elite press, type of media, access to information, intermedia conformity and competition, notable events and real-world indicators, newsworthiness criteria, government regulation, public officials and elites, popular movies, public relations campaigns and political advertising, special interest groups, advertisers, and unique sources (Cronkite, 1998; Danielian & Reese, 1989; Dearing & Chang, 1991; Dearing & Rogers, 1996; Ku, Kaid & Pfau, 2003; Lang & Lang, 1983; McCombs, 2004; Nisbet & Huge, 2006; Reese, 1991; Rogers & Reisner, 1992; Shoemaker & Reese, 1991; Sigal, 1973; Soroka, 2000). Two of these factors are particularly important for our discussion: media types and conformity.
Media types. Researchers have shown that, because of the inherent characteristics of different media, certain types of media are more influential than the others for construction of the general media agenda. Broadcast media have been shown to play the role of an agenda-setter for a major print outlet (Reese & Danielian, 1989). Today’s newspapers emphasize thorough investigative reporting and deeper analysis, which in turn allows them to break stories, and indeed there is evidence of print media leading broadcast media’s coverage of different issues (Cronkite, 1998; Ku et al., 2003; Reese & Danielian, 1989).
Blogs are transforming into another unique type of specialized media that heavily relies on traditional media and which in turn, can be successfully utilized by traditional media. Several unique characteristics of blogs, especially accessibility and interactivity, encourage fast and intensive exchange of information between blog readers and bloggers, facilitating creation of a rich collaborative news product. It is plausible that sometimes this product can be created by the blogosphere quicker and with less effort than by the traditional media outlets that generally value individualism and where large-scale collaborations are rare (Mnookin, 2004). As a result, traditional media can benefit from turning to blogs for leads, story ideas, and sources (Kempner, 2005; Reese et al., & 2005; Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004). In other words, certain well-known blogs seem to be treated by some journalists as if they were specialized print publications that have been the staples of news coverage for decades. In this paper, we investigate this claim empirically.
Research Question 1: Do traditional media rely on information found in the blogosphere?
Conformity. Intermedia conformity, which often characterizes traditional media coverage, gives blogs an advantage in breaking stories. Traditional media often have to balance their need for exclusive coverage and a desire to bring information to audiences faster than the competition with the necessity to provide accurate information. It is reasonable to suspect that reporters often solve this dilemma by becoming more cautious and restrained, fearing that if they are wrong, their individual reputations, as well as reputations of their organizations will be damaged. With the exception of investigative reporting, this balancing act often results in coverage that is uniform in terms of topics across different media outlets (Shoemaker & Reese, 1991) and homogeneous in terms of frames used in coverage of these topics (Danielian & Reese, 1989).
Although this may shrink their audiences and damage their credibility, the bloggers appear not to be troubled by this limitation, because occasional mistakes are expected in the supersonic environment of the blogosphere (Matheson, 2004; Singer, 2005). In addition, a blog can be maintained by a sole individual using a laptop and an Internet connection from his or her home, which means that blogs are not characterized by bureaucracy inherent in traditional media. All these factors might encourage bloggers to take more risks and as a result break more news stories than traditional media (as well as to err more frequently than traditional media). It might also result in different types of stories being pushed to the fore of public debate than what the traditional media are accustomed to providing.
Research Question 2: Are blogs capable of pushing stories onto the traditional media agenda?
Research Question 3: Are blogs capable of breaking news faster than traditional media?
Method. To answer the research questions, we chose to study one high-profile case that is complex enough to illustrate how the blogosphere influenced the news creation process. Several potential cases were considered and examined, including the terrorist attacks in September 2001; resignation of Trent Lott; the resignation of Howell Raines, editor of The New York Times; CBS documents scandal; Gannon scandal; and several others. We settled on the CBS documents scandal for several reasons. The case was characterized by developments typical of many recent scandals that originated in the blogosphere - it started when a public figure did something wrong and shortly thereafter bloggers and their readers unearthed some relevant hard-to-find evidence; subsequently, traditional media picked the story up and made it widely known, which resulted in a number of high-profile resignations. Another consideration that guided our selection of the case was that the scandal received a lot of coverage from the blogosphere and the traditional media and that the role of blogs was thoroughly documented.
In order to recreate the precise timeline of events and identify the principal players in the CBS scandal, we relied upon inductive and deductive approaches to analyze news content, scholarly articles, professional investigative reports, books written by individuals intimately involved in the controversy, and other sources. The analysis of the relevant blogs’ posts was possible due to a standard practice of blogs to archive all the content with permanent URL addresses online. Snow-ball-like reference search also enabled us to precisely recreate the key events of the controversy.
Case Study. The presidential election campaign was at its peak when CBS prepared and aired the infamous report about the service of President George W. Bush in Texas Air National Guard. The 2004 campaign was similar to the one in 2000 in that both highlighted the military service records of the major party candidates. The 2004 election was marked by a particularly strong emphasis on patriotism and military experience by both parties because of public concern about security, the extensive post-9/11 government activities directed against terrorism, and because of the wars being conducted by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, in September 2004, the Air National Guard documents story (analyzed here) was competing with such stories as: the Iraq war, the possibility of military draft, the protection of civil liberties in context of anti-terrorism efforts, and the doctrine of preventive war (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2005; The Urgent, 2004; Wilgoren, 2004).
As a result of such an extraordinary interest in the military backgrounds of both candidates, many traditional and alternative news outlets were competing for scoops related to these topics. When CBS obtained documents that raised serious questions about Bush’s military service on 2 September 2004, the news organization quickly put together a story using them as primary source materials. After several days of trying to verify the authenticity of the documents and their content, a segment was aired on September 8 (CBS, 2005). The story appeared during the “60 Minutes” program on CBS and offered a highly negative account of the president, describing how Bush received preferential treatment during his service because of his family connections. A story with a similar angle was pursued by CBS during the previous presidential election campaign, but was never aired (CBS, 2005).
The segment centered on information obtained from several previously unpublicized copies of documents allegedly obtained from a personal file of Bush’s squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. The documents provided evidence for the following claims: Bush’s commanders were pressured from above to evaluate him positively and Bush performed unsatisfactorily and disobeyed orders during his service (CBS, 2005; Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2005).
As Figure 2 shows, while the exceedingly sensitive segment on Bush was still being broadcast Wednesday evening, several conservative online political enthusiasts began questioning the documents used as primary evidence in the segment. One of the first attacks came from a conservative blog Free Republic just two minutes into the segment, when a blog reader with a screen name “Howlin” wrote: “And the lead in, ’Breaking his silence after 30 years…’ What a lie.”(Footnote 2). Another reader, named “tapatio” wrote a few minutes later at 8:15p.m.: “Don’t you like the way all these ‘new papers’ come from a dead man?”(Footnote 3). At 8:19p.m. a blog reader named “TankerKC” posted a comment with some technical details on Free Republic, which suggested that the documents might be fake:
"They are not in the style that we used when I came in to the USAF. They looked like the style and format we started using about 12 years ago (1992). Our signature blocks were left justified, now they are right of center…like the ones they just showed." (Footnote 4).
In the early morning of the next day, September 9, writers of a prominent conservative weblog, PowerLine.com, put up a post titled “The sixty-first minute” (Footnote 5) that linked to the information from freerepublic.com and also offered new insights into technical discrepancies of the CBS report. After a total of 14 updates to the original post that contained scans of signatures (borrowed from a group-citizen blog called The Command Post) and disputed documents, Power Line bloggers moved on to make other posts on the topic. By the end of the next day on September 9 numerous bloggers including Blogs for Bush, War Blogging, and others hyperlinked to the original post on Power Line further publicizing the doubts about the disputed documents and drawing even more audiences (and potential fact-checkers) to the original posts. After many popular blogs, such as Instapundit, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, and others began examining the CBS report on September 9, “the onslaught of attacks on the authenticity of the Killian documents was unrelenting” (CBS, 2005: p. 153). The resulting pressure from new and traditional media forced Dan Rather to apologize on September 20 for airing the questionable report and later resign from his anchor position at CBS (CBS, 2005; Reese, et al., 2005). On 19 September 2007 Rather sued CBS claiming that by ousting him the company succumbed to political pressure and compromised fundamental principles of independence in journalism, as well as broke the terms of his contract and tarnished his reputation (Gold, 2007).
The authors of this manuscript do not take any sides in this controversy, however, our research showed that the disputed memos could not be proved to be accurate (Mapes, 2005; Thornburgh & Boccardi, 2005). This point is important, because it shows that despite the partisan fervor that fueled a lot of research effort on this issue inside the blogosphere, the conservative online army of fact-checkers and activists did have a valid reason to disagree with the CBS story that implicitly and explicitly represented the documents as authentic.
During the day right after the segment was aired traditional media showed little agility in reporting on the controversy, while the blogosphere “was abuzz” (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2005: p. 20). One of the first traditional media outlets to report on the segment was ABC News that broadcast a story on the evening of September 9 questioning the content of the documents and their font style (CBS, 2005). But, it was not until September 10 that traditional media gave the controversy deserved coverage, with The New York Times and The Washington Post jumping on the story (Seelye & Rutenberg, 2004; Dobbs & Allen, 2004). An article that appeared in The Washington Post on September 10 raised authenticity questions and used Killian’s widow and typing experts as sources. The article also briefly mentioned the role of the blogs in questioning the authenticity of the documents (Dobbs & Allen, 2004).
Several days after the questionable broadcast some traditional media began acknowledging the active role of blogs in their coverage of the CBS controversy. For example, in its September 12 article, The Washington Post reported that bloggers were on the story about documents almost immediately, pointing out that the “document experts began questioning their authenticity almost as soon as they were published on the Internet” (Dobbs, 2004: p. A1). In its September 16 editorial, the San Antonio Express-News wrote that bloggers’ handling of the CBS controversy was a clear manifestation of their power, later becoming a story in itself. What the newspaper wrote in its editorial on that day became a leitmotif in numerous subsequent articles and books (see Sunstein, 2006; Dorroh, 2005) on the blogosphere:
"As with any medium, bloggers include purveyors of meaningful information and enlightening commentary, as well as recyclers and garbage dealers. What has become clear is that serious bloggers are now helping shape the public debate and driving issues that the mainstream media might otherwise ignore." (There’s No, 2004: p. A1)
Mary Mapes, the CBS producer of the Memo segment who lost her job after the controversy unraveled, addressed the case in her memoir (Mapes, 2005) more thoroughly and with more insider knowledge (but, also more passionately) than many other sources, identified by the researchers. She concedes that traditional media, especially large CBS competitors, relied extensively and, in her opinion, unjustifiably, on the research efforts of conservative bloggers and were influenced by these online news outlets. Mapes’ conclusions in this regard seem valuable, because, having lost her job and having suffered a very serious blow to her professional reputation, she should be expected to be unlikely to openly acknowledge the influence of blogs in shaping news media agenda or in guiding conventional journalistic thinking. Mapes expresses a deep disdain for conservative news blogs numerous times throughout her book (p. 7, 13, 195, 196), but at the same time she concedes:
"I was incredulous that the traditional press – a group I’d been a part of for nearly twenty-five years and thought I knew – was falling for the blogs’ critiques. (p. 13).… many reporters quickly and unquestioningly accepted the bloggers’ arguments." (p. 199).
Discussion and Conclusion. This case study allows us to answer affirmatively all three of the research questions raised in this article. First, whether they used blogs to get concrete evidence or just to generate story ideas, some traditional journalists definitely used blogs to assist their reporting. Second, blogs were indeed capable of pushing the CBS story onto the traditional media agenda. Third, in this particular instance blogs were capable of breaking the news faster than the traditional media. However, before addressing research questions more thoroughly and discussing implications, several limitations of the study should be mentioned.
Some scholars define a case as “an instance of a class of events” (George & Bennett, 2004: p. 17). The phrase “class of events” can mean any phenomenon of scientific interest that an investigator examines with the goal of developing theory or generic knowledge regarding the causes of similarities or differences among cases of that class of events. The case-study method is inherently effective at detailed exploratory description of some process or new phenomena (e.g., Gerring, 1998), and therefore, it was appropriate for the purposes of this investigation that examined a process of intermedia agenda-setting involving the political news blogs (see Schiffer, 2006) who successfully utilized case-study approach in a similar inquiry). Looking in-depth at the process by which news was made illuminates the unique role of blogs in ways not seen before.
We did not undertake this case study to make generalizable comments about all news stories or all blogs. Generalizability is not the point of most case studies (Stake, 1978), because cases tend to be chosen for their distinctive characteristics, not their typicality. Generalizable knowledge, however, can accumulate over the examination of multiple case studies. We acknowledge that the CBS scandal described here – like most cases involving important stories – in many ways is unique (e.g., it happened close to voting date, it involved several prominent public figures and one of the nation’s most famous journalists, etc.). However, in some regards this scandal is comparable to other high profile political and media scandals of recent years, such as scandals involving Trent Lott, Geff Gannon and others (e.g., revolving around political issue(s) or where traditional media was lagging behind the blogosphere in uncovering the story). The scandal, which resulted in one of the world’s most prominent television journalists stepping down as anchor and may have affected the outcome of the presidential election, is interesting and important in its own right.
Grassroots vs. Astroturfing (Footnote 6) We tried to be impartial in our investigation, and we should stress that the blogosphere by no means should be idealized. It may not always be a pristine environment where citizens deliberate on public issues and where honest ideas trump attempts at manipulation. The blogosphere attracts different individuals for different reasons (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2006) and while it does engage numerous individuals into a public discourse and help speed up the process of correcting traditional media’s mistakes or breaking stories, it may also be a convenient propaganda vehicle. Our case again may provide some insights.
The CBS scandal energized numerous political activists and political operatives, with cyberspace anonymity providing convenient disguise to their real identities. One of the most prominent figures in the scandal was a Free Republic reader with a username “Buckhead,” who was one of the first “netizens” to raise specific questions about the authenticity of the disputed CBS documents (Baxter, 2004). After several days of online and offline media frenzy over the documents, “Buckhead” turned out to be Harry W. MacDougald, an Atlanta lawyer who was involved in disbarment proceedings against former President Bill Clinton (Kurtz, 2004a, 2004b; Mapes, 2005). Was it significant or surprising that a key figure in the CBS scandal was a Republican Party activist? Or more importantly, could it make any difference if “Buckhead’s” identity was fully revealed from the start? The answer to both questions is: It is not clear. In normal reporting, journalists need to be aware of their sources biases or conflicts of interest, and this type of information might be weighed heavily in the interpretation and use of information. And journalists would certainly want to characterize the source of information. However, in the Memogate case, the identity of a key source was obscured behind the anonymity conventions of the blogosphere. The initial anonymity did not flag MacDougald’s words as partisan, and the ambiguity did give his words more authority because they had an air of credibility and minimum objectivity associated with communication coming from an ordinary citizen. The point we are making is that motivations of bloggers should undergo close scrutiny, especially considering anonymity and speed that characterizes much of the blogosphere.
Effects on Journalism. The conclusions of this case study are indirectly supported by the results of several surveys that show traditional media journalists as extensively relying on news blogs in their journalistic work (The University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy, 2005; The Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2005; Euro RSCG Magnet, 2005). This case study also illustrates broader impact of blogs on journalism, whose normative aspects are being challenged by the new media. Blogs in particular have been called the new form of journalism by some scholars (Robinson, 2006; Wall, 2005). The new media environment challenges traditional understanding of journalism in at least three ways. First, a significant portion of journalism practitioners seem to be returning to the historical roots of their profession – ideologically tainted reporting (Davis & Owen, 1998; Singer, 2005). Some journalists and media scholars regard the presence of personal bias and values to be less of a problem and pure objectivity to be a very complex notion that is rarely or even hardly achievable (Gamson, 1984; Gans, 1979). Historically, during the selection of stories for the front page of a newspaper or first minutes of a broadcast, reporters and editors made newsworthiness judgments that were based on personal values and understanding of what was important, and not on some objective standard (Tuchman, 1978). As a result, even the best efforts to avoid subjectivity may fail. However, some argue that objectivity can be achieved (Abramson, 1991). Still, the commercial successes of Fox News, political talk radio, and much of the blogosphere support the view that objectivity may be losing its long-held status (Davis, 1997; Davis & Owen, 1998; Rodman, 2006).
Second, journalism is becoming more open and transparent (Singer, 2005). In 1948, Paul Lazarsfeld argued that media organizations regarded criticism to be vital to our democracy, yet fervently resisted criticism directed at themselves (Lazarsfeld, 1948). Journalists often feel uncomfortable when the tables are turned and someone examines their work in a manner similar to the way that journalists examine the various institutions they cover. Historically, media organizations were able to remain a “black box” (Singer, 2005: p. 179) in terms of the ways their internal workways were presented to the outside world, in part because they were (and still are) successful and profitable businesses and until recently had few incentives to become transparent (Rodman, 2006). However, the blogosphere is changing this situation by the institutionalization of criticism directed at traditional media (Johnson & Kaye, 2004; Reese, et al., 2005), which, coupled with several recent high-profile journalistic scandals and other factors may have encouraged elite news organizations to create ombudsman positions and enact other measures to examine the in-house journalistic practices and investigate reported errors.
Third, blogs are part of the “new media” technology that according to Kovach and Rosenstiel (1999) forces journalists to put out allegations rather than properly vetted out information. The two former reporters convincingly argue that the current media environment, characterized by never-ending news cycle, where traditional media compete with websites and blogs for scoops, encourages reporters to put speculations and innuendos out to the public, often compromising on such basics of journalism as source identification and fact checking. This assessment is supported by recent survey data, which showed that today’s reporters cover stories they deem unimportant more often than thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes & Wilhoit, 2007).
Finally, it is important to consider another issue in conjunction with the CBS case study – timing, which is crucial during the major election campaigns. In this instance, the CBS report was broadcast several weeks before the actual voting took place, and therefore, the fact that blogs broke the story a day before the traditional media may seem inconsequential. However, had there been no blogs and had the story aired several days before the voting, what would have happened? Hypothetically, some traditional media organization could mobilize to quickly and thoroughly question the report. However, it is also plausible that by the time their questioning could reach the needed levels of publicity, it would be too late to make any difference.
In conclusion, this study has sought to raise questions about the shifts in today’s media environment. Specifically, we argued that the blogosphere has the potential to affect (if it hasn’t already) the news-creation and news-delivery processes. Whether through original ideas or dredging up of evidence to support bold claims, blogs have found a receptive audience among journalists. At this time it is difficult to say exactly how important blogs will be, or what aspects of the sociology of news they may influence more than others – all of that is contingent upon such factors as technological development, consumer adaptation of new technology, and governmental regulation of mass media. What is clear, however, is that blogs are capable of affecting the news-creation process and it is up to future researchers to answer the questions of exactly how much, why, and how that happens.
1. We use the term traditional media to refer to traditional corporate news media typically organized for a commercial purpose and supported by advertising, following norms of ethical behavior and balancing various sides of the story, often referred to by journalists as ‘objectivity.’
2. The address to this thread is http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1210516/posts?q=1&&page=51 (accessed, March 2006).
3. The address to this thread is
http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1210516/posts?q=1&&page=101 (accessed, March 2006)
4. The address to this thread is http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1210516/posts?q=1&&page=101 (accessed, March 26, 2006).
5. The address to this thread is http://powerlineblog.com/archives/007760.php (accessed, March 26, 2006).
6. UrbanDictionary.com, a leading compendium of Internet and other slang phrases, refers to “astroturf’ as “creating the impression of public support by paying people in the public to pretend to be supportive. The false support can take the form of letters to the editor, postings on message boards in response to criticism, and writing to politicians in support of a cause. Astroturfing is the opposite of ‘grassroots,’ genuine public support of an issue. Astroturfing is typically done by sending the same letter to every newspaper one can find. A certain number of newspapers will be duped into thinking that the letter is original and heartfelt when it is neither.”
Abramson, Jeffrey B. 1991. “Four Criticisms of Press Ethics.” In Democracy and the mass media, ed. Judith Lichtenberg. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.
Althaus, Scott L., and David Tewksbury. 2000. “Patterns of Internet and Traditional News Media Use in a Networked Community.” Political Communication 17: 21-45.
Baxter, Tom. 2004. “Atlantan Challenged CBS Documents First.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. p. A1.
Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.
CBS. 2006. On the September 8, 2004 60 Minutes Wednesday segment “For the Record” concerning president Bush’s Texas Air National Guard Service. CBS. (Consulted 18 March 2007).
Coleman, Stephen. 2005. “Blogs and the New Politics of Listening.” Political Quarterly 76(2): 273-280.
Cronkite, Walter. 1998. “Reporting Presidential Campaigns: A Journalist's View.” In The politics of news: The news of politics. eds. Doris A. Graber, Dennis McQuail and Pippa Norris. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Cyberjournalist. 2005. J-Blogs: Ongoing. Cyberjournalist. (Consulted 5 June 2007).
Danielian, Lucig H., and Stephen D. Reese. 1989. “A Closer Look at Intermedia Influences on Agenda Setting: The Cocaine Issue of 1986.” In Communication campaigns about drugs: Government, media and the public, ed. Pamela J. Shoemaker. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
Davis, Richard. 1997. “Understanding Broadcast Political Talk.” Political Communication 14: 323-332.
Davis, Richard, and Diana Owen. 1998. New Media and American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dearing, James W., and Everett M. Rogers. 1996. Agenda-Setting. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Dearstyne, Bruce W. 2005. “Blogs the New Information Revolution?” Information Management Journal 39(5): 38-44.
Dobbs, Michael. 2004. “Gaps in Service Continue to Dog Bush.” The Washington Post. p. A8.
Dobbs, Michael, and Allen, Mike. (2004). “Some Question Authenticity of Papers on Bush.” The Washington Post. p. A1.
Dorroh, Jennifer. 2005. “Eye on CBS.” American Journalism Review.
Euro RSCG Magnet. 2005. Great thoughts: Turning information into knowledge. Euro RSCG Magnet. (Consulted 6 October 2008).
Eveland, W. P., Jr., & Dylko, I. (2007). Reading political blogs during the 2004 election campaign: Correlates and consequences. In M. Tremayne (Ed.), Blogging, citizenship and the future of media. New York: Routledge.
Fang, Irving. 1997. A History of Mass Communication: Six Information Revolutions. Newton: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Fasoldt, A. 2003. “The Mighty Blog; Lott Saga a Milestone for Online Pundits.” Times-Picayune. p. 3.
Fredin, E.S. & Kosicki, G.M. (1989). Cognitions and attitudes about community: Compensating for media images. Journalism Quarterly, 66, 571-578.
Gallup Poll. 2006. Blog readership bogged down. Gallup Poll. (Consulted 3 March 2007).
Gamson, William A. 1984. What’s News. New York: Free Press.
Gans, Herbert J. 1979. Deciding What’s News. New York: Pantheon Books.
George, Alexander L., and Andrew Bennett. 2004. Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Gerring, John. 1998. “What is a Case Study and What is it Good for?” American Political Science Review 98(2): 341-354.
Gold, Matea. 2007. “Rather’s Suite Singles Out CBS Executives.” Los Angeles Times, p. A1.
Hardy, Bruce W. 2006. “Rethinking Time in Political Communication Research: A Case Study of the 60 Minutes Wednesday Controversy.” Manuscript submitted for publication.
Jarvis, Jeff. 2006. CBS is an ass. BuzzMachine. (Consulted 7 March 2007).
Jensen, Mallory. 2003. “A Brief History of Weblogs.” Columbia Journalism Review 42(3): 22.
Johnson, Thomas J., and Barbara K. Kaye. 2004. “Wag the Blog: How Reliance on Traditional Media and the Internet Influence Credibility Perceptions of Weblogs among Blog Users.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 81(3): 622-642.
Kahn, Richard, and Douglas Kellner. 2004. “New Media and Internet Activism: From the 'Battle of Seattle' to Blogging.” New Media & Society 6(2): 87-95.
Kaye, Barbara K. 2005. “It’s a Blog, Blog, Blog, Blog World.” Atlantic Journal of Communication 13(2): 73-95.
Kempner, M. 2005. “CNN Executive Resigns Over Iraq Comments.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. p. 1A.
Kosicki, G.M. & McLeod, J.M. (1990). Learning from political news: Effects of media images and information processing strategies. In S. Kraus (Ed.), Mass communication and political information processing (pp. 69-83). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. 1999. Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media. New York: Century Foundation Press.
Ku, Gyotae, Lynda L. Kaid, and Michael Pfau. 2003. “The Impact of Web Site Campaigning on Traditional News Media and Public Information Processing.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 80(3): 528-547.
Kurtz, Howard. 2004a. “Rather Defends CBS over Memos on Bush.” The Washington Post. p. A7.
Kurtz, Howard. 2004b. “After Blogs Got Hits, CBS Got a Black Eye.” The Washington Post. p. C1.
Lang, Gladys E., and Kurt Lang. 1983. The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lazarsfeld, Paul F. 1948. “The Role of Criticism in the Management of Mass Media.” Journalism Quarterly 25(2): 115-126.
Mapes, Mary. 2005. Truth and duty: The press, the President, and the privilege of power. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Matheson, Donald. 2004. “Weblogs and the Epistemology of the News: Some Trends in Online Journalism.” New Media & Society 6(4): 443-468.
McCombs, Maxwell E. 2004. Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Mnookin, Seth. 2004. Hard news. New York: Random House.
Nisbet, Matt.C. 2008. “Agenda Building.” In The International Encyclopedia of Communication, Volume 1, ed. Wolfgang Donsbach. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Nisbet, Matt C., and Mike Huge. (2006). “Attention Cycles and Frames in the Plant Biotechnology Debate: Managing Power and Participation Through the Press/Policy Connection.” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics.
Pan, Z., & Kosicki, G. (1997). Talk show exposure as an opinion activity. Political Communication, 14, 371-388
Pew Internet and American Life Project. 2005. Buzz, blogs, and beyond: The Internet and the national discourse in the fall of 2004. Pew Internet and American Life Project. (Consulted 8 September 2007).
Pew Internet and American Life Project. 2006. A portrait of the internet's new storytellers. Pew Internet and American Life Project. (Consulted 11 October 2008).
Reese, Stephen D. 1991. “Setting the Media's Agenda: A Power Balance Perspective.” Communication Yearbook 14: 309-340.
Reese, Stephen. D., and Lucig H. Danielian. 1989. “Intermedia Influence and the Drug Issue: Convergence on Cocaine.” In Communication campaigns about drugs: Government, media and the public, ed. Pamela J. Shoemaker. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
Reese, Stephen D., Lou Rutigliano, Kideuk Hyun, and Jaekwan Jeong. 2005. “Mapping the Blogosphere: Citizen-Based Media in the Global News Arena. Paper presented at Communication Technology & Policy Division at the 2005 Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication Annual Convention, San Antonio, TX.
Reisner, Ann E. 1992. “The News Conference: How Daily Newspaper Editors Construct the Front Page.” Journalism Quarterly 69(4): 971-986.
Robinson, Susan. 2006. “The Mission of the j-Blog: Recapturing Journalistic Authority Online.” Journalism 7(1): 65-83.
Rodman, George R. 2006. Mass Media in a Changing World: History, Industry, Controversy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rogers, Everett M., James W. Dearing, and Soonbum Chang. 1991. “AIDS in the 1980s: The Agenda-Setting Process of a Public Issue.” Journalism Monographs 126: 1-47.
Schiffer, Adam. J. 2006. “Blogswarms and Press Norms: News Coverage of the Downing Street Memo Controversy.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 83(3): 494-510.
Seelye, Katherine Q., & Rutenberg, Jim. 2004. “Commander’s Son Questions Memos on Bush’s Service.” The New York Times. p. A17.
Shaw, Donald L., Bradley J. Hamm, and Diana L. Knott. 2000. “Technological Change, Agenda Challenge and Social Melding: Mass Media Studies and the Four Ages of Place, Class, Mass and Space.” Journalism Studies 1(1): 57-79.
Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
Shoemaker, Pamela J., and Stephen D. Reese. 1991. Mediating the Message: Theories of Influence on Mass Media Content. New York: Longman.
Sigal, Leon V. 1973. Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking. Lexington: D.C. Heath.
Singer, Jane B. 2005. “The Political j-Blogger.” Journalism 6(2): 173-198.
Soroka, Stuart N. 2000. “Schindler's List's Intermedia Influence: Exploring the Role of 'Entertainment' in Media Agenda-Setting.” Canadian Journal of Communication 25(2): 211-230.
Stake, Robert E. 1978. “The Case Study Method in Social Inquiry.” Educational Researcher 7(2): 5-8.
Sunstein, Cass R. 2006. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.
Technorati. 2008. State of the blogosphere: 2008. Technorati. (Consulted 3 October 2008). <http://technorati.com/blogging/state-of-the-blogosphere/> .
The Annenberg Public Policy Center. 2005. About one American in four considers Rush Limbaugh a journalist, roughly the same share as identity Bob Woodward that way, according to Annenberg Public Policy Center Survey. The Annenberg Public Policy Center. (Consulted 18 June 2007).
The University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy. 2005. National polls of journalists and the American public on First Amendment and the media. The University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy. (Consulted 18 June 2007).
Thornburgh, Dick, & Boccardi, Louise D. 2005. “Report of the Independent Review Panel: On the September 8, 2004 60 Minutes Wednesday.” CBS. Consulted 23 March 2006.
Thurman, Neil. 2008. Forums for Citizen Journalists? Adoption of User Generated Content Initiatives by Online News Media.” New Media & Society 10(1): 139-157.
Tuchman, Gaye. 1978. Making News. New York: The Free Press.
Wall, Melissa. 2005. “Blogs of War.” Journalism 6(2): 153-172.
Weaver, David H., Randal A. Beam, Bonnie J. Brownlee, Paul S. Voakes, and G. Cleveland Wilhoit. 2007. The American Journalist in the 21st Century: U.S. News People at the Dawn of a New Millenium. Mohwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Wilgoren, Jodi. 2004. “Truth Be Told, the Vietnam Crossfire Hurts Kerry More.” The New York Times. p. A24.
Williams, Bruce A., & Delli Carpini, Michael X. 2004. “Monica and Bill All the Time and Everywhere.” American Behavioral Scientist 47(9): 1208-1230.
Woodly, Deva. 2008. “New Competencies in Democratic Communication? Blogs, Agenda Setting and Political Participation.” Public Choice, 134: 109-123.
Last Updated: 12/18/11
APA Citation: Dylko, I. B., & Kosicki, G. M. (2006, August). Sociology of news and new media: How the blogosphere transforms journalism and changes news. Paper presented at the 2006 meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, San Francisco, CA.
Copyright 2006-2009 by Ivan B. Dylko & Gerald M. Kosicki