News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What do blogs actually do?

Questions about whether bloggers who presume to say they are reporting news on politics--and in some cases culture--should receive press credentials from the South Dakota government have unearthed an infinite reservoir of ignorance and presumption.

First of all, some folks keep assuming that the state's media are part of the Mainstream Media, as bloggers like to label the corporately-run news organizations. Even though a few newspapers occasionally emulate some of the standards of the epitome of MSM (The New York Times and Washington Post), all South Dakota media conforms to the preferences of the insular and provincial audience they try to serve. They are not "mainstream."

Secondly and most disturbingly, South Dakota political bloggers constantly resort to the argument that what they do what is identical with what, say, David Kranz does in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. There is some truth to that. David Kranz is most known for his columns in which he reports some events and writes his analysis ABOUT them. He writes columns. When he does put his name on a news story, different criteria of reporting, verification, and precision are applied. The news business used to enforce a stringent distinction between reporting and opinion. Today, many news organizations edit and display and often write news--and other features-- to incorporate their political orientation. We do not live in a time when there is much interest, respect, or ability for people in the information industry to refine the dross from the facts. Our age is in the process of snuffing out any of those vestiges of light that linger from the Age of Enlightenment.

Bloggers write columns. Sort of. Their entire motive is to envelop events in some partisan or personal bias, or to rub their febrile and erectile little egos up against some audience out there that, in their fantasies, is lying on its back, panting, knees akimbo, to await the moment of release that only bloggers can provide. And most political blogs are written with such presumptive diction that only the most inexperienced readers can miss the ego-bound language. Sometimes blogs are entertaining. Sometimes they are even informative, but not about happenings.

Bloggers do not write news. In the study of semantics and grammar, it is generally recognized that language has two forms: the language of reports and the language of judgments. Straight news stories are supposed to be in the language of reports. Columns and other opinion pieces are generally written in the language of judgments. Judgments define the near-total purpose of blogs. And the judgments are ill-formed.

That is not to say that judgments are not necessary and important. They are the basis for the attitudes we hold. But there is a vital difference between attitudes shaped from facts processed through competent, disciplined experience and reason and facts created from attitudes.

My concern is not about blogs in general, but about blogs on government and politics. After the election of 2004, a group of professors, journalists, and other concerned citizens found the money to sponsor the Press Project, which studied the communication about the campaign appearing in the various media from the northern plains. The main purpose of the Press Project was to gather clippings and video clips of news stories, political ads, and pamphlets. Then it set about doing some intensive fact-checking, content analysis, and rhetorical analysis of the materials. Initially, the Project was not intended to include blogs on government and politics. But blogs received enough mention, usually at their own instigation, that the advisory board of the Press Project decided they needed to be placed in the context of the campaign. The problem was that none of the personnel doing the research wanted to do blogs. The Project director ended up doing the task largely himself.

The primary function of the Press Project was to fact-check and sort out information that was deceptive and misleading from information that attempted to portray accurate, verfiable facts.

However, a portion of the Project involved a rigorous survey of where people in the region obtained their political information and how much that information influenced their opinions. The raw data from material gathering and categorizing of the information was summarized in a report. It was turned over to other writers for the purpose of putting the material into narrative form of the events of the election campaign of 2004.

At the same time the preliminary materials were released in early 2006, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released its study on blogging. It was a national study and produced the following statistics:

  • 57 million, 39 percent of those surveyed, reported reading blogs.
  • 12 million, or 8 percent, report posting on blogs.

  • Of the 12 million who blog, 11 percent said their blogs dealt with government and politics.

Here is more from the Pew Project:

  • 34% of bloggers consider their blog a form of journalism, and 65% of bloggers do not.

  • 57% of bloggers include links to original sources either “sometimes” or “often.”

  • 56% of bloggers spend extra time trying to verify facts they want to include in a post either “sometimes” or “often.”
  • The main reasons for keeping a blog are creative expression and sharing personal experiences.
  • Only one-third of bloggers see blogging as a form of journalism. Yet many check facts and cite original sources.

The Pew Project focuses on people who use the Internet and those who consult blogs or write them. The Press Project focused on the general population of the northern plains and surveyed how many people read, listened to, or watched political information and where they encountered it.

The Press Project found that few people study political information in making political decisions. They either vote the party line--even if they don't know what the planks and agendas of their party are. Or they form impressions from friends and neighbors, churches and other organizations, and large political ads. (The group working on the detailed analysis of the Project Project information has a proprietary interest in the study and has embargoed detailed information. It has made available to sponsors of the study some general information. )

Very few of the voters in 2004 (only slightly more in 2006) were aware of blogs or consulted them if they were.

Most political blogs in the northern plains that were in existence for more than three months repeated their official party line. Much of what they did were attempts to cast news of political opponents in a negative light.

The readers of political blogs tended to be other bloggers of the same political persuasions.

A major impetus behind the Press Project was the defeat of Tom Daschle by John Thune. Blogs claimed to have played a major role in that defeat. However, the Press Project found the blogs were largely publishing information that was in circulation in other forms. In other words, the blogs were "attenuations" of larger campaigns taking place within the Republican Party, churches, many special-interest organizations, and organizations, similar to the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry, set up to promote a particular mode of attack.

Some of the issues that seem to have led to the defeat of Tom Daschle were not prominently featured on blogs, while others such as his home in Washington, D.C., and his familiarity with national power figures were constant fodder. Blogs played a role in perpetuating the attacks, but they were not the motive force that they claimed. They were a minor factor in the dissemination of negative information. Some Thune-sponsored blogs assumed the roles of character assassins but they only did scattered sniping while organizations did the real combat.

We see that blogs can be used to raise the level of thought and discussion. But the Internet is going the way of television before it. Much on the Internet has formed another vast wasteland.

Our position on blogging is not in opposition to them. Our position is that they are untrustworthy and not valuable because they indulge in so much misinformation, scurrility, and --of course-- self-sucking. We think that blogs need the kind of criticism that press reviews give to the major media. We also think that if people were re-introduced to critical reading skills in our educational institutions, they would be aware of the deficiencies of blogs as information sources.

We do not have a vital media in our country anymore. News professionals have been displaced by investors who are looking for lavish bottom lines, not bare-boned facts. While the technology for delivering information is flourishing, the information itself is atrophying. And the collective mentality is undergoing a commensurate enfeebling.

You want to refute that? Just read the comment sections on blogs and discussion boards, and then try to make a case that our nation is in good mental health.

1 comment:

Jake said...

If we tried to intelligently refute it, would you at least attempt to respond?

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States