Political Blogs: Teaching Us Lessons about Community: In the Mediascape of Blogs, People 'Want the News Delivered to Them in the Context of Their Attitudes and Beliefs.'

By Kennedy, Dan | Nieman Reports, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Political Blogs: Teaching Us Lessons about Community: In the Mediascape of Blogs, People 'Want the News Delivered to Them in the Context of Their Attitudes and Beliefs.'


Kennedy, Dan, Nieman Reports


The rise of blogging as both a supplement and a challenge to traditional journalism has coincided with an explosion of opinion mongering. Blogs--and the role they play in how Americans consume and respond to information--are increasingly visible during our political season, when our ideological divide is most apparent. From nakedly partisan sites such as Daily Kos on the left and Little Green Footballs on the right, to more nuanced but nevertheless ideological enterprises such as Talking Points Memo, it sometimes seems there is no room in blogworld for straight, neutral journalism.

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The usual reasons given for this are that reporting is difficult and expensive and that few bloggers know how to research a story, develop and interview sources, and assemble the pieces into a coherent, factual narrative. Far easier, so this line of thinking goes, for bloggers to sit in their pajamas and blast their semi-informed opinions out to the world.

There is some truth to this, although embracing this view whole-heartedly requires us to overlook the many journalists who are now writing blogs, as well as the many bloggers who are producing journalism to a greater or lesser degree. But we make a mistake when we look at the opinion-oriented nature of blogs and ask whether bloggers are capable of being "objective," to use a hoary and now all but meaningless word. The better question to ask is why opinion-oriented blogs are so popular--and what lessons the traditional media can learn from them without giving up their journalistie souls.

Perhaps what's happening is that the best and more popular blogs provide a sense of community that used to be the lifeblood of traditional news organizations and, especially, of newspapers. Recently I reread part of Jay Rosen's book, "What Are Journalists For?," his 1999 postmortem on the public journalism movement. What struck me was Rosen's description of public journalism's origins, which were grounded in an attempt to recreate a sense of community so that people might discover a reason to read newspapers. "Eventually I came to the conclusion ... that journalism's purpose was to see the public into fuller existence" Rosen writes. "Informing people followed that."

Rosen's thesis--that journalism could only be revived by reawakening the civic impulse--is paralleled by Robert Putnam's 2000 book, "Bowling Alone," in which he found that people who sign petitions, attend public meetings, and participate in religious and social organizations are more likely to be newspaper readers than those who do not. "Newspaper readers are older, more educated, and more rooted in their communities than is the average American," Putnam writes.

Unfortunately for the newspaper business, the traditional idea of community, based mainly on geography, remains as moribund today as it was when Rosen and Putnam were analyzing its pathologies. But if old-fashioned communities are on the decline, the human impulse to form communities is not. And the Internet, as it turns out, is an ideal medium for fostering a new type of community in which people have never met, and may not even know each other's real names, but who share certain views and opinions about the way the world works. It's interesting that Rosen has become a leading exponent of journalism tied to these communities, both through his PressThink blog and through NewAssignment.net, which fosters collaborations between professional and citizen journalists.

Attitude First, Facts Second

This trend toward online community-building has given us a mediascape in which many people--especially those most interested in politics and public affairs--want the news delivered to them in the context of their attitudes and beliefs. That doesn't mean they want to be fed a diet of self-reinforcing agit-prop (although some do). It does mean they see their news consumption as something that takes place within their community, to be tit into a pre-existing framework of ideas that may be challenged but that must be acknowledged. …

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