As a long-time blogger, I have been a great believer in the positive impact they can have on the news narrative. I have always believed that they can be a force for good, drawing people’s attention to the stories that the mainstream media overlooks. The growth of the blogging community could (finally) ensure that the stories that are normally ignored by the mainstream media would finally get the exposure they deserve. They also had the potential to create stories in a new and exciting way. In my opinion, blogs had great promise as providing a distinct news narrative from the mainstream media. At least, that was my opinion, until the events of the past couple of weeks.
The revelations concerning the proposed establishment of a website designed to smear opposition politicians grabbed a great many of the headlines recently. What made this story unique was that a well known blogger (Paul Staines, otherwise known as ‘Guido Fawkes’) was key to these revelations getting into the public domain. Cue much excitement in the media about blogs coming of age and actually dictating the news agenda. But was this such a great revelation? Was there actually any real difference between these revelations and countless other similar such revelations in the tabloid press over the past twenty years? Not really. The blog at the centre of the revelations has hardly caused a revolution in terms of the style of reporting. It has merely repeated tactics that have been used by the tabloid press for sometime. The fact that it was on a blog rather than in the print media was the only thing particularly unique about the story. The real story over the past few weeks has been much more interesting than that.
When Ian Tomlinson died during the G20 protests, there was initially very little coverage of the incident in the mainstream press. When it was mentioned, it was usually framed to imply that protesters had been the main cause of his subsequent death. The central accusation that they had thrown bottles at members of the emergency services who were trying to resuscitate him. The story was sidelined by most of the media and little or no attempt was made to investigate the incident any further. The version of events that was presented to the media was taken to be fair and accurate representation of events on that day, and there appeared no need to investigate the story further. This was pretty much reflective of how the mainstream media have operated in recent years. Investigative journalism is time consuming and, therefore, expensive. In these times of increased competition, costs need to be kept low to ensure that the organisation is competitive. Consequently, investigative journalism is a rare feature of the modern media (although obviously it still happens from time to time). This is not a good thing for democracy as a whole. As one professor in journalism has put it:
Investigative journalism matters because of its many contributions to democratic governance. Its role can be understood in keeping with the Fourth Estate model of the press. According to this model, the press should make government accountable by publishing information about matters of public interest even if such information reveals abuses or crimes perpetrated by those in authority. From this perspective, investigative reporting is one of the most important contributions that the press makes to democracy. It is linked to the logic of checks and balances in democratic systems. It provides a valuable mechanism for monitoring the performance of democratic institutions as they are most broadly defined to include governmental bodies, civic organizations and publicly held corporations.
The decline in investigative journalism means a decline in quality information ‘about matters of public interest’ – a concern for anybody working in the information sector.
Despite the failure of the mainstream media in investigating the incident in question, the story did still develop over the following weeks. However, this was not due to traditional investigative journalism techniques. Whereas the media had failed to fully investigate the death of Mr Tomlinson, the public and modern technology stepped in. Shortly after the initial reports had emerged, a witness had approached The Guardian with filmed footage of what appeared to be an assault on Mr Tomlinson by a police officer shortly before he died. Needless to say, this caused a media storm and suddenly questions were being asked when before a blind eye was turned. Over subsequent days, more evidence began to emerge about what really happened during the G20 protests. Photos such as this one were posted on Flickr. Video footage emerged on YouTube that also suggested that the police were less than even-handed in their dealings with protesters. Suddenly, the media agenda was being led by developments on web 2.0 technologies. Ordinary citizens armed with cameras were able to do what journalists had failed to achieve. This was radically different to anything that had happened before. This was providing a new, distinctive narrative separate from that pursued by the mainstream media. Whereas ‘Guido Fawkes’ was essentially repeating the tactics of many a red-top over the years, this was something new and different and highlighted the potential that sites such as FlickR and YouTube in disseminating information.
The funny thing is that, over the past few years, blogs and the mainstream media have become ever closer. The media mimic some aspects of blogs in order to maintain an audience (see the number of articles that now have comment threads) and blogs (such as Guido Fawkes) have mimicked typical tabloid tactics. In the near future, you will barely be able to distinguish between the high-profile blogs and the mainstream media, such will be the similarities between the two. The consequence of this (particularly in terms of decreasing funds in the mainstream press) is a distinct decline in the standard of information in the public domain. This would, in turn, lead to an ill-informed electorate without the information required to exercise their democratic rights. It could just be that web 2.0 technologies will become an even more important informational tool than was first thought.