Are Bloggers Killing Traditional Journalism?

The influx of technological innovations and rise of the blogosphere in recent years has prompted alarmists to proclaim that society is facing the ‘death of journalism’. This is simply not the case as a complex and dynamic industry such as journalism is not something that can be conclusively dismantled. However, in light of these developments, journalists have been forced to adapt to reaffirm their relevance within society. No longer can journalists be regarded as the gatekeepers of information, as the fences of traditional journalism have gradually deteriorated. The cacophony of information that we are inundated with on a daily basis, coupled with the rising influence wielded by bloggers and citizen journalists, has all but completely negated the ability of the mainstream media to control and dictate the news (Singer 2006, p. 265).

The traditional perception of journalists as gatekeepers of information was derived from the power they possessed when dictating what was newsworthy to the general public. According to Pamela Shoemaker and Tim Vos (2009), gatekeeping is a primary function of the media and involves the “process of culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited number of messages that reach people every day…This process determines not only which information is selected, but also what the content and nature of the messages, such as news, will be” (Shoemaker & Vos 2009).  However, as a result of the advent of technology in the modern era, and the extensive inter-connectivity it is has ushered in, the archaic structure of traditional journalism has crumbled, and the way news and information is delivered has changed drastically (Fernback 2002, p. 162). Originally, the media model of operation consisted of a vertical flow of news, where mainstream journalists passed down information to passive consumers. At present, the industry has adopted a new horizontal media model, which places consumers at the heart of a constant flow of information arriving from a number of seemingly equal sources (Fiedler 2008). Long gone are the days when journalists merely competed with a neighbouring local paper or TV station. Media accessibility has blossomed to a point where individuals can attain news from a seemingly endless selection of blogs and media sources. However, the sheer number of bloggers and citizen journalists prevents media outlets from dictating what information is presented to the public, as they previously did in their role as gatekeepers of information.

A fundamental issue that has contributed to the downfall of the role of journalists as gatekeepers is the noticeable lack of control that media organisations have over bloggers and citizen journalists. Before the rise of technology, journalists, in their roles as gatekeepers, were able to decide what information would be beneficial to the public and what should remain private. According to Ben Bradlee (Shepard 1999), the former Washington Post Executive Editor, this principle extended to the publication of sensitive and potentially harmful stories. For example, the infidelities of a politician, if known to a particular media organisation, would only be published if it was adjudged that it would affect their job performance. The focus was primarily on the wellbeing of the populace as opposed to the modern day media’s proclivity for sensationalist headlines (Ramanunni 2009). The rise of the internet and blogging has diluted the quality of journalism and seen the deterioration of its ethical standards, making the association of journalists as gatekeepers seem outdated (Kurtz 2010, p. 1). It can be said that we now live in a world without gates to keep, as the modern media landscape is rife with avenues that allow salacious stories to infiltrate the public consciousness (Shepard 1999).

Despite the relative informality of bloggers and citizen journalists, in comparison to traditional media organisations, the power that they wield in influencing public opinion has gone from strength to strength in recent years (Kiely 2003, A. 01). Where traditional media outlets in the past have dictated what news stories are reported to the masses, bloggers and the collective power of the internet are now wielding greater influence. This once again reinforces the failure of mainstream journalists to act as the gatekeepers of information, as they possess a decreasing control over distributing news to the populace and deciding what information is newsworthy. There have been numerous cases over the last year that have highlighted this growing trend, as major news stories have been dictated by the public and forced upon the mainstream media, in a complete role reversal of traditional journalism.

A prime instance of the media responding to pressure from bloggers and citizen journalists came with the unfortunate passing of Trayvon Martin. The teenager’s death, one of the most highly discussed stories of the past year in the United States, was at first disregarded by the mainstream media (McBride 2012). The story itself was highly controversial and involved the murder of an unarmed, minority high school student and an apparent miscarriage of justice. However, despite the merits of the event it wasn’t deemed newsworthy and only appeared in a small capacity within a local paper, The Orlando Sentinel (McBride 2012). It was only after the Martin family and numerous bloggers extensively covered and scrutinised the story that it made its way into the national forum. From this point onwards, the public demand for information regarding the subsequent murder trial ballooned significantly, forcing traditional media outlets to take notice and provide the story with adequate coverage.  What followed was intense media saturation surrounding the event, through numerous high-profile newspapers and constant circulation on major news channels, as the mainstream media played catch-up (Asia News Monitor 2012).

In recent months, this scenario was once again evident, as citizen journalists and bloggers were directly responsible for the highly publicized rise to prominence of Ugandan warlord Josef Kony. In the past, issues regarding African politics have been noticeably absent from Western media, due to their perceived lack of proximity and influence over Western culture (Stirling-Anosh 2004, pp. 32-33). In particular, the genocide and turmoil in Darfur can be cited as an example of this apparent branding of African affairs as not being newsworthy to Western audiences (Stirling-Anosh 2004, pp. 32-33). However, a viral campaign targeted at exposing the crimes of Josef Kony to galvanise charitable aid for Uganda, led to a string of coverage from bloggers and citizen reporters. The wave of public support for the campaign and extensive citizen reporting forced prominent Western news outlets to cover the issue, as it became a hot-topic in Western culture (Muhumuza & Straziuso 2012). This example clearly demonstrates the new-found power wielded by citizen journalists through the use of the internet to dictate what information can be considered newsworthy. The overwhelming support garnered for the issue ensured mainstream outlets were left with no choice but to cover something that would have been previously disregarded due to its lack of direct geographical and political significance.

The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement provided a clear demonstration of traditional news organizations losing grip on their roles as gatekeepers, whilst also highlighting the increasing influence of bloggers on established media organisations. In late 2011, large demonstrations took place on Wall St in the heart of the financial district of New York City (All Africa 2011). Despite the significant scale of the protests, they received absolutely no mainstream news coverage for over 5 days (Stoeffel 2011). This anomaly was partly due to the vehement condemnation of multi-national corporations by the protesters. These corporations were the very ones that happened to own and dictate the content published by the media outlets. This conflict of interest directly reflected the hesitance of media outlets to publicise the event, which drew heavy criticism from the general populace (All Africa 2011). It was only after the protests gathered momentum amongst bloggers and citizen journalists that the mainstream media was forced to react. After the conclusion of what was dubbed a ‘media blackout’ by protesters, mainstream outlets flooded the masses with news stories relating to the Occupy movement (Grant & Sanders 2011). What is significant about this particular feat is that bloggers not only managed to bring attention to a neglected event, but they pressured the mainstream media to cover an issue that directly conflicted with their core business interests.

At present, the flow of information is simply too constant and overwhelming for any organisation to think they can control it. No matter how many resources they may pour into presenting a filtered and carefully presented version of the news, bloggers and citizen journalists will always be on-hand to provide alternating and polarizing points of view. Stories that are not deemed newsworthy by mainstream journalists now have a plethora of alternative avenues to gain widespread exposure and previously taboo or neglected topics are gaining attention in the blogosphere. The unprecedented connectivity in society brought on by the internet has made it impossible for journalists to uphold the insular notion that they can control and mediate the news as a gatekeeper.

Sources

All Africa 2011, Occupy Protests – Wests Double Standards 2011, Al Bawaba, United States, Washington D.C.

Asia news monitor 2012, ‘United States: Social Media Drives Publicity in Trayvon Martin Case’, Asia News Monitor, May 1, Thailand, Bangkok.

Fernback, J 2002, ‘Journalism and New Media / Reshaping Communications: Technology, Information and Social Change’, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 162-164.

Fiedler, T 2008, Bloggers Push Past the Old Gatekeepers, Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, viewed 4 May, < http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/100023/Bloggers-Push-Past-the-Old-Medias-Gatekeepers.aspx&gt;.

Grant, D & Sanders, A 2011, Media Coverage: Must Reads, New York Observer, viewed 3 May, <http://www.observer.com/2011/09/media-coverage-on-occupy-wall-street/&gt;.

Kiely, K. 2003, Freewheeling bloggers are rewriting rules of journalism, USA Today, 30 Dec, United States, McLean.

Kurtz, H 2010, ‘In journalism’s crossfire culture, everyone gets wounded’, Washington Post, August 2, p. 1.

McBride, K 2012, Trayvon Martin story reveals new tools of media power, justice, Poynter, viewed 4 May, <http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/making-sense-of-news/167660/trayvon-martin-story-a-study-in-the-new-tools-of-media-power-justice/&gt;.

Muhumuza, R & Straziuso, J 2012, Web star born, Spartanburg, United States.

Ramanunni, J 2009, Sensationalism is Breaking News, Diligent Media Corporation, India, Mumbai.

Shepard, A 1999, Gatekeepers Without Gates, American Journalism Review, viewed 4 May, <http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=530&gt;.

Shoemaker, P & Vos, T 2009, Gatekeeping Theory, Routledge, United States, New York.

Singer, J 2006, ‘Stepping back from the gate: Online newspaper editors and the co-production of content in Campaign 2004’, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, vol. 83, no. 2, pp. 265-280.

Stirling-Anosh, M 2004, ‘Some thoughts about why we tend to ignore Africa: Media outlets should rethink the way they cover the world’, Canadian Association of Journalists, Fall, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 32-33.

Stoeffel, K 2011, Occupy Wall Street’s Media Problems, New York Observer, viewed 4 May, <http://www.observer.com/2011/09/occupy-wall-streets-media-problems/&gt;.

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