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By mgieva • October 19, 2009

Do blogs constitute original journalism?

On Dec. 5, 2002 Mississippi Senator Trent Lott outraged bloggers when he gave a startling speech at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party. Lott wished that Thurmond, known for his pro-segregation platform, had won the 1948 presidential race. Bloggers like Joshua Marshall and Duncan Black held Lott responsible for his statement and prompted the critical response of the mainstream media. Fifteen days later, Lott resigned as a Senate majority leader.

This story illustrates that professional journalists are no longer alone in watching the public sphere and reporting the news. As the cost of communication tools collapsed, bloggers have joined them in this endeavor. Citizens are covering local events and unearthing stories underrepresented in the mainstream media. They have assumed the journalists’ role of bearing witness and spreading news. They haven’t, however, accepted, the journalists’ responsibility of fully investigating and verifying their stories. Do blogs then constitute original journalism?

This question has long busied Big Media and sharpened its interest in the blogosphere. Traditionally, media has supported a one-to-many broadcasting model in which readers act as consumers of information. Now that the community wants to collaborate in the newsgathering and production process, however, Big Media feels threatened. “CNN.com prefers to take a more structured approach to presenting the news. We do not blog,” a CNN spokesman told the Online Journalism Review in 2003.

Despite this resistance to innovate, mainstream media has recognized the increasing role of blogging. It reinforces democratic values as it enables new voices to contribute a richer set of news stories. While Big Media lacks the resources to cover many local and smaller-scale events, citizen activists gladly accept this task. “My newspaper,” wrote Gillmor in We the Media, “does the best job it can in covering local news, but we can’t do it all.” Amateurs equipped with new media tools can bear witness and tell the world about their community activities. On the Web, publishing space, broadcasting time and editorial judgment cannot restrict them.

Nor do bloggers face the challenge of the standard news cycle. After Lott delivered his speech, for instance, bloggers kept the story alive until the mainstream media picked it up. Once the 24-hour lifetime of the story had passed, it became old news for the press. In the blogosphere, however, it remained just as important. “The bloggers kept researching the story. Over time, more and more instances of the same ‘misspeaking’ emerged,” wrote Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessing in Free Culture. Eventually, Lott responded to the accusations and gave Big Media the news-worthiness it needed to take up the story.

Lott’s speech wasn’t the first story bloggers brought to the traditional newsroom. In 1998, Matt Drudge broke the news of the affair between then-president Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. While Newsweek held the story to verify last sources, Drudge posted it on his news aggregation site The Drudge Report. Three days after he had written about the affair, Newsweek published the story and prompted other media to follow suit. The Lewinsky scandal demonstrates the changing dynamics between technologically empowered communities and professional reporters.

Yet, the story raises some serious ethical questions in journalism. While it follows a bottom-up model of news dissemination, blogging also overlooks the importance of source verification. In 2004, in his attempt to break news, Drudge spread rumors about a non-existent affair between John Kerry and intern Alexandra Polier. Mainstream media outlets like Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press had investigated the story and dismissed it as untrue. Drudge, however, ran with it without verifying the accounts of his source, a computer programmer known as Stephen VanDyke.

Thus, producing and disseminating news is not enough to make a reporter out of the blogger. In order to constitute true journalism, blogging needs to inherit all journalistic elements, including a standard ethics code.

Image credit: Kristina B