Citizen Journalism


by Carolynne Burkholder

The internet has created a new sphere where everyone can be a journalist; all you need is a computer and an opinion – no training necessary.

A blog, short for weblog, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “a frequently updated web site consisting of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, etc., typically run by a single person, and usually with hyperlinks to other sites; an online journal or diary.”

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, whose blog site is considered to be one of the most popular Iranian sites.. Photo: Nazila Fathi, New York Times

The internet is home to almost 10 million blogs, ranging from rants by teenagers to loosely disguised product advertising, from political commentary to news reporting.

Blogging is a very new form of journalism. Beginning in the 1990s when personal computers became readily available, digital communities began to develop. Email lists, bulletin boards, and forums were the early forms of internet communication. Bloggers or journallers, as they were called, began claiming their place on the internet in the late part of the decade. Blogging has been growing in prominence, scope, and influence ever since.

Ethical questions arise when blogs are read as news and in turn create a new wave of online journalists – intentional or not. “New technology and delivery systems make it necessary for journalists to develop new, more sophisticated, ethical decision-making skills,” said Jay Black, the editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

Journalism's first obligation may be to the truth, but are bloggers journalists? Do they need to abide by the same rules as traditional, professional journalists? This question has been hotly debated within academia, journalism and the blogging community.

Ethical Issues in Blogging

But are they journalists?

Any discussion of ethical issues in the blogosphere begins with the question of whether bloggers are journalists. In March 2005 there was speculation that the courts would answer this question. Apple Computers filed a lawsuit against several California bloggers who had revealed company secrets on their websites. As journalists in California (and about 30 other U.S. states) have “shield laws” to protect them from revealing their sources, the question was whether bloggers too have this right. In his ruling, the judge side-stepped the question of whether bloggers were journalists, but the issue will probably return in the future in some legal forum.

In “The Role of Blogs in the New Media,” Brad Badelt wrote: “Today’s audience want to be part of the media, rather than passive receivers. Not only do they want to comment on the news, they want to be part of creating it."

"It isn’t whether bloggers ‘are’ journalists. They apparently are, sometimes,” wrote Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. Rosen believes that defining bloggers is not as important as looking at their ethics.

Some primarily mainstream journalists and news organizations, in fact, have been using the new technology to report on developing stories and capture a greater audience. A notable example was during Hurricane Katrina, when reputable newsrooms, such as CNN used blogging technology to provide up-to-the-minute news.

‘Reporting’ in the Blog World
A concept that many journalists would find shocking, but is important nonetheless, is that people may trust the commentary and news written by ‘Joe Average’ in the blogosphere more than what is written by a professional journalist. The annual Public Trust barometer, put out by the Edelman global public relations firm based in the United States, found that, after doctors, people trust people ‘just like us’ above all others. Journalists rank sixth on the list, just ahead of CEOs.

“It's a pretty shocking piece of research that shows we trust people who we feel are like ourselves and are not out to promote something. That is why blogs have such power. We trust them, and if we disagree with an opinion, we normally have the option of adding our say," said Clare Hart, CEO of Factiva, a media-monitoring agency in an interview with Sean Hargrave.

With trust in journalists so low, it is not surprising that the public is going elsewhere to get their news. But this puts much power in the hands of bloggers.

If we consider blogs as a personal diary, then publishing unsubstantiated information is not really a problem. If we consider them a form of journalism, however, this becomes a major concern. In reality, very few bloggers do their own original reporting. Most rely on other news sources for their information and then provide commentary and analysis.

Rebecca MacKinnon, Berkman Fellow and former CNN-TV reporter, believes that the ‘war’ between bloggers and traditional journalists is not a “zero-sum game.” “The two can co-exist,” she said. “Blogs are really a conversation about events and facts that journalists are reporting about.”

Citizen Journalism
Many bloggers consider themselves ‘citizen journalists’ and believe they are better suited to provide the diversity that today’s democracy needs than traditional journalists. By moving away from the established news sources, they weaken the control of major mainstream gatekeepers. They pride themselves on being the ‘watch-dog’ of the traditional watch-dog media.

According to the report, “We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information” by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, citizen journalism aims “to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires."

Accuracy and Verification
According to a survey put out by the Canadian Internet Project in 2004, 37 per cent of people believe that most or all of the information obtained online is reliable or accurate, and 81 per cent believe that at least one half is reliable. Although citizens invest a degree of trust in online information, the accuracy of blogs is questioned by many scholars and mainstream journalists.

In an academic paper, “Minding the Gap: An Ethical Perspective on the Use of Weblogs in Journalistic Practice,” Andrew Morozov of the United States writes that bloggers may not be as accurate as mainstream journalists because of the lack of a structured verification process. This is due to “the absence of the traditional editing process, which is linked to the apparent inability of weblogs to maintain the same standards of truthfulness, verifiability, fairness, and completeness, as are presumably manifest in most of the traditional journalistic output.”

Conversely, according to Joe Trippi, an Institute of Politics fellow, blogs by nature are self-corrective and therefore more accurate than traditional news forms. When a blogger makes an error, “thousands of people immediately [begin]criticizing them, and they need to correct it within minutes. That’s something the New York Times can’t do,” he said.

However, bloggers’ claims that they are the true citizen-journalists and that they can self-correct their errors is questioned by journalists and ethicists as self-serving rhetoric. Critics note cases where rumours were circulated by blogs and they were not proven to be false until much damage had been done to the reputation of career of a person or group. Self-correction by blogs is an imperfect process. Other critics accuse blogs of hypocrisy by claiming they believe in accuracy but they do not believe in editorial controls on postings prior to publication. Bloggers are also accused of wanting freedom without responsibility -- of reaching thousands of readers but rejecting calls for ethical codes and standards.

Blogs and commerce

Tracking blogs
Ethics aside, blogs are becoming so influential that corporations are taking note. Several companies are now surfing the blogosphere in search of comments about their own businesses. When comments are false, the company corrects them. When comments are negative, companies claim to try to remedy the situation. According to a Ford spokesman: "The real value of searching the net, including blogs, is that you get a live picture of what people are thinking about certain issues. It means that you can predict if there is going to be an issue that's going to grow and become something you need to respond to before it gets to the mainstream press,” quoted in the Guardian newspaper, London, August 9, 2004.

Commercial Messages Hidden in Blogs
As more people turn to the blogosphere for news and commentary, they provide a key market for advertisers. Marketing teams have begun hiring bloggers to promote their products. As blogger gain the trust of their readers, they can be very effective in promoting a product.

Olympus, a prominent American electronics company, uses blogs as a form of advertising. Sean Hargrave, a new media reporter for the Guardian (London), writes, “Whenever a new camera is approaching its launch, details are passed on to prominent blogs, a spokesman reveals, because the sites are crucial to getting interest ahead of the launch as well as getting early feedback on what the public thinks of the new model.

Three blogger codes of ethics
If blogs are being read as news, making bloggers journalists, should they be required to abide by a code of ethics, similar to traditional journalists? This idea was once considered ridiculous since the blogosphere was a medium of free spirits. However, because of increased social and political impact and greater readership, the call for a code is now more plausible.

One of the earliest ethical codes for bloggers was published in the Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood in 2002:

1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true. If your statement is speculation, say so.
2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it. Linking to referenced material allows readers to judge for themselves the accuracy and insightfulness of your statements.
3. Publicly correct any misinformation.
4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
5. Disclose any conflict of interest.
6. Note questionable and biased sources.

Another influential blogger code of ethics was created by Jonathan Dube, editorial director for and also an award-winning print journalist who created The principles were adapted from the code of ethics used by the Society of Professional Journalists with its principles of fairness, accountability and minimizing of harm. See

Martin Kuhn from the University of North Carolina suggests that Dube’s code does not address the human dialogue and interactive nature of blogs. In his paper, “Interactivity and Prioritizing the Human: A Code of Blogging Ethics,” Kuhn includes promoting interactivity, promoting free expression, and promoting the ‘human’ element in blogging. His code is:

1. Promote interactivity
• Post to your blog on a regular basis
• Visit and post on other blogs
• Respect blog etiquette
• Attempt to be entertaining, interesting, and/or relevant

2. Promote free expression
• Do not restrict access to your blog by specific individuals or groups
• Do not self censor by removing posts or comments once they are published
• Allow and encourage comments on your blog

3. Strive for factual truth
• Never intentionally deceive others
• Be accountable for what you post

4. Be as transparent as possible
• Reveal your identity as much as possible (name, photo, background info, etc.)
• Reveal your personal affiliations and conflicts of interest
• Cite and link to all sources referenced in each post

5. Promote the human element in blogging
• Minimize harm to others when posting information
• Promote community by linking to other blogs and keeping a "blogroll"
• Build relationships by responding to e-mails and comments regularly

Books on Blogging

Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World
Hugh Hewitt

The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog
Rebecca Blood

Essential Blogging
Benjamin Trott, Mena G. Trott, Shelley Powers, J. Scott Johnson, Rael Dornfest, and Cory Doctorow

Quagmires and Quandaries: Exploring Journalism Ethics
Ian Richards

Articles about bloggers and blogging

“Tainted love in Blog Land: Paying bloggers to buzz about products. Ethical?”
Carrie-May Siggins, The Tyee, July 25, 2005

“Google launches search engine for blogs”
CBC News, September 14, 2005

“Nothing to Blog About: The hype behind Internet weblogs is more thrilling than the reality”
Steve Maich, Macleans, August 19, 2005.

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