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Friday, February 10, 2006

Bloggers: an army of irregulars

For many in the "mainstream media", as bloggers call us, weblogs are at best a nuisance and at worst dangerous.
They are seen as the rantings and ravings either of the unbalanced or the tedious.
My experience over the past few months has led me to an opposite conclusion.
I regard the blogosphere as a source of criticism that must be listened to and as a source of information that can be used.
The mainstream media (MSM in the jargon) has to sit up and take notice and develop some policies to meet this challenge.
Most big organisations, whether in news or in business, have no policy towards blogs.
They might, as the BBC has, develop a policy towards their own employees setting up such sites (no political opinions etc), but they have nobody monitoring the main blogs and have little idea how to respond to any criticism on them.
Alternative sources
First, here are a few examples of how the bloggers have, for me, become a useful source.
Only this week, they tracked down the origin of a fake cartoon which has been fuelling the furore over the characterisation of Muhammad in a Danish paper.
One of the pictures being circulated, a very fuzzy, grey photocopy, apparently showed the prophet Muhammad with the face of a pig.
It was quickly pointed out, by bloggers and others, that this was not one of the 12 Danish cartoons.
Nobody however knew the origin of this portrayal.
Then I received an e-mail from a reader passing on a link to a blog called neandernews.
And there it was.
The picture had nothing to do with the prophet. It was a photo of the winner of a "pig-squealing" competition held last summer in the French Pyrenees. It had first been published on the MSNBC website in August.
Another example came after Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans.

Survivors of Hurricane Katrina used blogs to tell theirs stories There was a lot of discussion about who was to blame for the failure of the relief effort.
Then someone sent me a photo that had been circulating on blogs of yellow New Orleans school buses inundated in their parking lot.
They had clearly not been used for evacuation as they should have been according to the city and state plan.
This showed that the mayor, praised without much stint until then, had something to answer for.
It was part of the evidence upon which I concluded that blame should be shared at all levels of government.
I also benefited from the Daily Kos site when the issue of the use of white phosphorus by the US military in Iraq was under discussion.
The Pentagon initially denied its use as a weapon but the bloggers were able to link to an article from an embedded reporter who had watched marines using it as such and to a report in an army magazine about its use in Falluja.
The examples show the collective strength of blogs.
They have an army of what Sherlock Holmes called his "Baker Street Irregulars," that is an almost unlimited number of people around the world, many of them expert on the subject under discussion, scouring sources and sending information in to an easily accessible central site which can disseminate it instantly.
Power of blogs
The other role of the blogs is to criticise and attack.
And here they have shown their power in a way that ought to make big media organisations also take notice.
Bloggers have already helped to bring down or damage two very important media figures in the United States.
One was Dan Rather of CBS News, who came a cropper after a report on "60 Minutes Wednesday" in September 2004.
The report, compiled mainly by producers with Rather in the role of the front man, alleged that President Bush had been given special dispensations when he served as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard.
The allegations were based on supposedly original documents.
However, the first crack in the case came when a blogger (from freerepublic.com according to a subsequent inquiry set up by CBS) questioned the typeface used in those documents.
It had not, he said, been available on typewriters at the time.
(Update: this claim has caused its own mini blogswarm with two readers saying that there was such a typewriter and that freerepubic was not the first. I will have to leave that to history. But the case illustrates how a vulnerable story can be unpicked.)
The whole story unravelled.
The other major scalp was the Chief News Executive at CNN, Eason Jordan.
He had made some remarks at a discussion in Davos in January 2005 about journalists being possibly targeted by US troops.
There was a semi-official blogger at the session (i.e. one invited by the organisers) and he set a ball rolling which gathered pace as other bloggers then accused Jordan of blaming the military unfairly.
It ended in Jordan's resignation. He was the victim of a "blogswarm".
Opinion varies as to whether this was justified or not.
Blog agendas
Of course, one has to remember that most blogs have political agendas. Many of them are on the right of the spectrum. But it is not that hard to discount the opinionating and pick out the facts.
The photo of the unused school buses in New Orleans came by way of a site called the USS Neverdock, so-called because it is always in action, I suppose.
It is run from Scotland by Marc Landers, who once served in US Naval Intelligence. He still fires with all guns.
"My motivation is to expose the bias in the BBC's reporting," he told me. "We are at war unlike any we've been in before and facing an enemy who wants one thing - to wipe out western civilization. The BBC, through its biased reporting, has sided with the enemy."
USS Neverdock is one of three main sites in the UK that monitor and usually attack the BBC from the right.
Another is called, simply enough, Biased BBC. One of its leading lights, Andrew Bowden, says that one of his major complaints is "the politically-correct institutional group-think (and sometimes plain ignorance) that comes across in a lot of the BBC's news and current affairs output."
He also opposes the compulsory licence fee that funds the BBC.
A third site, which specialises in detailed textual analysis of BBC and other media reports, is called The American Expatriate, who is Scott Callahan, a banker living in London.
"Since moving to Britain I've noticed that coverage of America is especially poor, not just in an opinionated way (eg America is an ignorant place, full of bible bashers etc) but even at times in a strictly factual sense. As an American living in Britain with a rather different take on Americans, American life and American politics than that of the media here, I thought that I was in a position to provide some corrective commentary," he said.
There are some leftwing sites, the main one perhaps being Medialens whose motto is "correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media."
Run by journalists David Cromwell and David Edwards, Medialens has "media alerts" on the big issues of the day as it sees them. A recent one concerned the reporting of climate change.
It criticised, among others, The Independent [British newspaper]: "The Independent is feeling the heat from public criticism of its adverts pushing foreign travel, cars and endless consumerism."
In fairness, it also quoted an Independent editor who dismissed such critics as "a curmudgeonly lot of puritans, miseries, killjoys, Stalinists and glooms."
So, unlike some sites, it does seek debate.
I have taken to intervening in some of these sites if and when I am personally criticised and sometimes to defend the BBC in a general way.
Otherwise the comments go unanswered. I found that one rapidly develops a very thick skin and I can now understand how politicians can cope with criticism.
If the mainstream media does not respond, it will suffer. The same is even truer of businesses, whose products can be disastrously damaged by web-based attacks.
The principle is: the broader the attack, the less the effect.
It is when the criticism is detailed and pointed that it can hit home.
And with the growth of blogs, such detailed criticism is being made more and more often as the sniper fire from the bloggers targets individual stories and interpretations.
If the MSM does not respond, it will suffer. The same is even truer of businesses, whose products can be disastrously damaged by web-based attacks.
If the criticism is fair it must be answered, directly to those making it. Remote, computer-generated responses are counter-productive.
And mistakes must be quickly corrected. If the criticism is unfair, then the MSM has to know about it early on and develop defensive tactics.
Richard Sambrook, head of the BBC World Service and Global News Division (who runs a blog himself) accepts that the BBC needs to do more.
"The BBC should proactively engage with bloggers. This is a new issue for us. Some departments look at blogs, though haphazardly. But it pays dividends. The BBC is a huge impersonal organisation. It needs to come out from under its rock," he says.
As for using blogs as a source he says: "The key is careful attribution. It would be a big mistake for the MSM to try to match the blogs, but they can teach us lessons about openness and honesty. The MSM should concentrate on what it can do - explain, analyse and verify."

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