News on the Net: A critical analysis of the potential of online alternative journalism to challenge the dominance of mainstream news media
There is growing concern in Australia, as in other western societies, that the public sphere as a space where ‘the people’ come together and participate in inclusive discussion and debate is in decline. While proponents and critics alike have long recognised the public sphere as an idealised concept, it serves as a strategic ‘benchmark’ for the state of public communication: current concern is that long-established trends towards commercialisation, trivialisation and a highly concentrated media ownership are accelerating.
A touchstone of this is the press, the public sphere’s ‘pre-eminent institution’ whose distance from state and civil society allowed it the independence it needed to provide citizens with disinterested political information (Habermas 1989). Max Suich, a past editor-in-chief of Fairfax, wrote during his coverage of the 2005 Australian federal election campaign that today's news pages are "mostly, an unobstructed conduit of “news events” and official statements - both from government and opposition". The emerging trend, he argues, of ‘sexed up’ opinion articles from “look-at-me” columnists and commentators is replacing serious journalism (Suich 2005).
Suich’s alarm that Australia’s media deliver little more than the official line is echoed by Robert Manne (2005: 97). He argues that Rupert Murdoch, whose company News Ltd. owns almost 70 percent of Australian newspapers, has an audience reach that extends beyond his newspapers, to setting the agenda for commercial talkback radio helping “determine the way millions of Australians determine their world”. In a survey conducted by Roy Morgan Research for The Reader in August 2004, 73 per cent of journalists surveyed said that media proprietors use their outlets to “push their own business and or political interests to influence the national debate”. Reinforcing these findings is Reporters Sans Frontieres' 2004 press freedom index that rates 167 countries noting Australia’s decline from 12th position to 41st place in just 2 years (Sydney Morning Herald 2004). Not surprisingly, the report is concerned with anticipated changes to cross-media ownership laws arguing that easing these restrictions poses a threat to press freedom and diversity.
A highly concentrated Australian media has been the subject of ongoing debate, with unease escalating now that existing media players will likely have the wherewithal to tighten their grip when legislation changes. Coupled with this are concerns that the ABC, whose funding and independence have been severely compromised by an interventionist government, will be commercialised and privatised, an event expected to be ignored once anticipated changes in media ownership take place.
The internet features as part of this debate, with those clamouring for relaxation of cross-media rules offering the internet’s reach and diversity as compensation and reason for change. Its proponents call the internet a counter public sphere (Salazar 2003: 19) that has the potential to revitalise citizen-based democracy and reinvigorate a compromised media (Meikle 2004: 85). It is also claimed that online alternative journalism is transforming traditional models of journalism to imagine a more democratic community based on equality, participation, pluralism and empowerment.
But how significant are these shifts and how realistic is it to think that online alternative journalism can challenge the might of entrenched media interests? This paper will focus on the promise of alternative journalism or ‘native reporting’ (Atton 2002), ‘citizen’s media’ (Rodriguez 2001), ‘grassroots journalism’ (Gillmor 2004) and claims about its potential to transform social and political communication. It will do so by examining claims about audience participation, interactivity, the role of the gatekeeper and the discourses that accompany them.
First, I will begin with a claim of my own: that investigation of the internet’s potential to enhance diversity and independence must begin with political economy.
The Need For A Political Economy Perspective
“The primary task of mass communications research is not to explore the meanings of media messages but to analyse the social processes through which they are constructed and interpreted and the contexts and pressures that shape and constrain these constructions” (Golding & Murdock 1978: 72). If their argument provoked widespread criticism in the 70s and 80s – with media studies working to disentangle itself from reductionist Marxist political-economic assumptions – emerging reconsiderations of the importance of the political economy of media in the 90s ran into new contenders as to research priorities – from the focus on digital technology. Yet, this political economy is imperative given the way ‘civic utopianism’ about the internet has aligned itself with the interests of media owners, neo-liberal governments and agendas, and alternative social and political organisations from the ‘left’ of politics. These groups are often in furious agreement that convergence, and the new tools it makes available to ‘ordinary’ people, are enabling a “producer revolution among the formerly consuming classes in media” (Rosen 2005: 54). It is this kind of rhetoric that pinpoints what Burchell (2003: 12) claims is a “kind of wide-eyed civic utopianism that sees the internet as heralding a new renaissance of ‘participatory democracy” and as such needs to be considered carefully.
Political economy examines the relationship between communication systems and society focusing particularly on the influence of economic factors as well as considering issues of ownership and government policy and their impact on the “production, distribution and consumption of communication” (McChesney 2000: 110). A number of communications theorists (Mansell 2004, Garnham 1996, McChesney 2000) have called for a renewed interest in political economy although it has been broadly criticised for its too narrow approach and accused of reducing “complex social processes to economic questions” (Sinclair 2006: 19). With this criticism in mind, a non-reductionist political economy of the internet is needed: one that recognises communication as not superstructural or symptomatic, but as having an integral role in forming and maintaining particular kinds of economic arrangements (Hamelink 1996). Understanding the social embeddedness of media technologies and those who use them avoids “… overly deterministic arguments: instrumentalist, technological determinist, and social determinist … to take into account the complex interplay between multiple constituting elements” (Dahlberg 2004: 2, 5) of the internet.
Robyn Mansell (2004: 96, 97) writes that while there has been “interest in new media from almost every possible social science perspective the political economy of new media has been relatively neglected”. Mansell suggests that rather than accepting power distribution as a given, “a more holistic account of the dynamics of new media production and consumption” will expose the “way in which articulations of power are shaping the new media landscape”.
The present political economy of the media ensures that wealthy mainstream media outlets are best positioned to invest in the internet (Turner 2005: 140). Recently released figures tell the story: Ninemsn, born of a merger between Microsoft and the Nine network, is Australia’s most visited website while News Interactive, News Ltd’s online newspapers, is the fifth most popular site. ABC Online comes in at tenth position (Goggin 2006: 267). Compounding Ninemsn’s ascendancy are downloads that exceed 2 million per month with a large percentage of these downloads being Channel Nine’s nightly news (McIntyre 2005). The internet has provided opportunities for News Ltd. and PBL to significantly expand existing media interests as well as to address the drift of audiences and advertising away from print and electronic media, the internet extending their dominance rather than curtailing it. Papacharissi’s (2002: 20) warning that new technologies “cannot single-handedly transform a political and economic structure that has thrived for centuries”, is borne out by figures cited by Alan Kohler (2006) in The Age: “Three main traditional media companies, control more than 70 per cent of the internet news sites – Fairfax (35 per cent), News Corp (25 per cent) and PBL (13 per cent)”.
The lack of interest in the “social and economic dynamics of the production and the consumption of new media” that Mansell identifies is likely due in part to the sense of abundance afforded by the internet that Communications Minister, Helen Coonan claims “is resulting in the emergence of new players, new content, new services and new platforms” (Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts: 2006). Sherman Young points out a number of worrying trends, however: the end of free web-hosting with fees increasing proportionate to the popularity of the site with subscription becoming an increasingly frequent demand from the online corporate world, as well as the growing expense to small but popular websites struggling to pay costs of web-hosting and bandwidth services. Young predicts that the cost of searching will rise with search engines giving premium placement in search lists in return for premium payments, creating a major impediment to smaller, independent websites. Another barrier to ‘non-commercial voices’ are pricing policies that encourage consumption rather than production. Finally, a highly concentrated Internet Service Provider (ISP) ownership that attempt control through home pages and portals will more hinder than encourage diversity (Young 2002: 78-79), confirming Mansell’s (2004: 97, 98) thesis that scarcity, more associated with broadcast media than new media, is reproduced as a result of power relations.
Alternative media that emerged in the munificence now associated with the early days of the internet enabling new forms of news production, dissemination and reception to flourish are under some threat. What was once a non-commercial medium that hosted a ‘gift culture economy’ is now highly commodified, a potentially hugely profitable borderless space where existing power and influence is likely to be duplicated. Indeed, market research conducted by AdRelevance, part of the Nielsen//NetRatings group, found that the online advertising market in Australia grew to $620 million in December 2005, translating into 961 million online display ad impressions in October and peaking at 1.5 billion in December (Real Estate, Finance and Travel – Key Leaders of Australian Online Advertising Growth 2006). Young’s (2002: 80) anticipation that the “internet is ripe to propagate consumer culture” was prophetic indeed. Nevertheless, utopian claims made for the potential of the internet have to some extent been realised with new spaces hosting content, discussion and debate not found in traditional media. If we are, however, to ignore the forces that dominate existing media then it is likely we will see these virtual spaces diminish in number, if not disappear altogether.
The political economy approach then is crucial to any discussion of media, traditional, new or as is more often the case, convergent. McChesney (2000: 109, 110) contends that the political economy tradition can help analyse “the most pressing communication issues of our era”.
The Not So Alternative Public Sphere
Alternative media are so often hailed as having the potential to enhance democracy and citizenship that this has become something of a catchcry. However, the mythology that democratic potentials are inherent to the medium “is an easy lapse into technological determinism” (Redden, Caldwell, Nguyen 2003: 71). Celebratory accounts of the internet as a network that guarantees an enriched public sphere fail to consider the “economic, political, and cultural forces” that shape the deployment of communications technologies (Jenkins & Thorburn 2003: 5). Furthermore, claims of politically transformed individuals and communities ignore the lack of political engagement identified by social researcher, Hugh Mackay (2005) who says that Australians are more interested in lifestyle programs than news and current affairs. Such indifference tends to suggest that “a change in political will is more important than a change in the technologies of communication” (May 2002: 92). The apathy Mackay talks of is a significant challenge to the conception of an alternative public sphere that imagines reciprocity, engagement and active citizen participation.
While the notion of active participation as a beneficial attribute of media usage is important, it is worth remembering that active participation, while dependent on access needs to move beyond that to issues of literacy. This is particularly significant when participation in an online context demands high levels of social, cultural and critical literacy if citizens are to become “produsers” (Bruns 2004: 184) of alternative news. ‘Becoming the media’ is often the preserve of the privileged well-educated elite who recognise the tools and have the know-how to deploy them, a reminder that the virtual public sphere is much like its bourgeoisie ancestor, “not fair, representative and egalitarian” (Papacharissi 2002: 14). It may be that issues of marginalised groups achieve more prominence in alternative media, but as in mainstream media, that discussion will be mediated by articulate spokespersons rather than those directly affected. One such example is the alternative website, Online Opinion, that claims a ‘democratic space’ for all citizens by allowing a wide spectrum of views to be published. Participation of ‘ordinary people’ is for the most part, restricted to no more than a response, and while there is a guarantee that all comments will be published as long as contributors are civil, participation is otherwise as limited as ‘letter to the editor’ forums in mainstream newspapers. While the internet does provide a space for more participation, the social distribution of cultural capital or know-how that discriminate against full participation rather than ameliorated is reproduced online.
The promise of the internet as a domain to foster dialogue and produce the spirited debate that emerges from a diversity of opinion is also lost when conversations are limited to those who share similar world-views, risking a “ghettoization of political opinion” (May 2003: 93). Rather than the imagined “technologies of freedom” (Pool 1983), Meredyth & Thomas (2002: 5) warn that the “majoritarian domination and faction” that is part of liberal democracy may be exacerbated by new technology rather than be removed by it.
Getting Alternative Online
The democratic promise of the internet has been in circulation since its earliest inception echoing the optimism often associated with new forms of media with online alternative media emerging from and responding to a perceived need for a more pluralist and inclusive media with claims that it can effect social, political and cultural change.
There are contesting definitions of alternative media. Atton (2003) sees journalistic practice as emerging from and reflecting the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens, Couldry (2001: 7) defines it as “practices of symbolic production … which contest the concentration of symbolic power in media institutions” whereas Downing’s (2001) definition refers to “radical media”. In following Rodriguez’s definition, Atton and Couldry (2003: 580) agree that whatever terms are used what is “at stake in the whole range of alternative media practices is the issue of citizenship”.
An example of alternative media that tests out the scope of definitions is the “brash and noisy upstart” (Turner 2005: 144), Crikey, an online news organisation that delivers to your inbox (for a fee), what it claims is alternative news. Yet, it is very much a part of the market, indeed represents it, in its advocacy for shareholders. Crikey asserts its contribution to the democratic process with its aim “to point out theft, corruption, deception and collusion” calling big business, including media entities, to account often publishing stories that the mainstream either skirt around or avoid. Crikey has however been an outstanding success that “[i]n 2004 had about fifteen thousand subscribers to its daily bulletins, 140 of them with parliamentary addresses” (Turner 2005: 143); these numbers fade into insignificance when comparisons are made to Murdoch’s Herald-Sun that sells more than 4 million newspapers each week.
Also testing the definition of alternative are ‘alternative’ news websites, including Crikey and Online Opinion, that are supported by sponsorship and advertising. Margo Kingston’s much- heralded Webdiary survived only a short time following Kingston’s split from the Sydney Morning Herald. The financial costs that were apparently a significant factor in Webdiary’s failure to stand alone have now been addressed (Kingston is no longer at the helm) by selling advertising space to support its activities. If we are to accept Atton (2002) and Forde’s (2004) wider definition of alternative media, as media which is produced outside the forces of market economics, how then do we argue the independence of alternative websites that raise revenue from advertising? Young (2002: 78) recognises the commercial potential to influence if not dominate content arguing that “…the same old powerful entities…” will run the new media show and as a consequence “the non-commercial … will be at best marginalised, at worst disappear”. News Corp’s recent $580 million purchase of Intermix Media which owns the social-networking site, MySpace, reinforces such concerns.
Rupert Murdoch says there is a “revolution in the way young people are accessing news … they want their news on demand … they want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it” (quoted in Coultan 2005). The increasing number of people turning to the internet for news and current affairs indicates a growing dissatisfaction with traditional formats. New platforms though do not necessarily mean new content. While people are attracted to the internet they do not travel far accessing their news from traditional providers. Surveys of hit-rates find that mainstream media organisations receive the most visitors (Turner 2005: 139) suggesting the shift of audiences to the internet signals more a desire to customise the media experience rather than a search for alternative content.
What is often forgotten in the buzz surrounding online alternative media is that alternative media is nothing new, though it never sat on newsstands next to the Herald-Sun at your newsagent. Like today, you had to go looking for it. It’s interesting then, that virtual spaces are identified as more liberating than the traditions of dissent already captured in community media. Whether offline or virtual, forums that dissent from the mainstream, encourage free speech, are pluralist and inclusive, are likely to enjoy the patronage of the already converted rather than attract new audiences. There are many claims made about the active, productive, empowered audience of online media who are portrayed as wildly different from the Frankfurt School’s passive consumers of Enzensberger’s (1974) “mind industry”. While there are a number of assumptions made about the ‘internet audience’ as a whole, very little is understood about that part of the audience who seek out alternative media. The problem of understanding and locating the audience, how they are reached and empowered, demands further research as does determining the impact of alternative media: are they defined by popularity, contributors, subscribers, hits or ability to mobilise citizens to action?
Build It and They Will Come
Interactivity is the sine qua non of empowerment online, enabling voices to be heard, contributing to diversity and enriching democracy. Yet, the mantra of interactivity needs closer examination. There are questions to be asked of the quality of interactive when many claims to it resemble little more than a one-way response to articles or postings rather than the two-way conversation imagined. Is online interactivity any more democratic than talkback radio that allows a range of people to express a view or the much-lauded interactivity now boasted by reality television? How interactive is the online alternative when compared to newspapers that after a slow start have co-opted the interactive formula appealing to a more youthful audience who are invited to have their say though often on a nominated topic. Does interactivity create a democracy-seeking politicised audience? Not according to Bimber (1998: 2) who argues that flows of information and instantaneous access do not necessarily produce more informed citizens. Indeed, he raises the point that haste produces errors and leaves little time for reflection with few of us able to ‘swim the rapids’ of information.
Much of the “The Gates Come Down” (Gillmor 2004) rhetoric surrounding democratised flows of information relate also to the perception that its flow is uncensored. The trope is that the role of gatekeeper is limited if not vanquished in the online world of communication, creating “pure avenues of information pathways” (Gitelman & Pingree 2003: 4). Gatekeepers, or “knowledge elites” (Lippmann cited in Bimber 1998: 7) are surely needed to filter and interpret “to reduce complexity, help users make judgments about what is important, and build shared beliefs” (Schultz 2000: 207). This then perhaps why the role of gatekeeper, while diminished, is alive and well online, with Indymedia and Slashdot good examples of alternative sites that abandoned their open publishing policy (Haas 2005: 393). There are many forms of gatekeeping, however. The equality promised by free flows is also challenged by “a hard core of individuals” (forum participant quoted in Schultz 2000: 215) intent on dominating the discourse. Online Opinion and Webdiary prove the point.
So what of the impact of discourse in an online world where information flows “farther, faster and with fewer intermediaries” (Bimber 1998: 19)? Does it lead to politicised citizens who are ready-set-go-to-wrest power from media barons, enhance diversity and independent thought? Or does it merely work to increase the individualism and self-interest associated with communication technologies (May 2003: 85)?
We’re all Journalists Now
A popular reading of the internet is that it has taken journalism from the pens of professionals employed for the most part in commercial organisations where content is largely decided by its capacity to maximise audiences and advertising and handed the tools of production to “the people”. This dramatic shift in news production and dissemination rejects notions of truth, objectivity, credibility and distance from its audience with platforms that foster dialogue rather than monologue, is non-hierachical and privileges unmediated narratives that emerge from the lived existence of its audience. Citizens’ media would seem a long way from the Galtung and Ruge (1965) model where elite voices and elite nations dominate news-gathering, news content and news discourse.
Matheson (2004: 446) cites Bourdieu, to draw attention to the “symbolic power of news language within journalism”, an authority that is recognised by both journalists and audiences. That symbolic power, now challenged by alternative journalism, is by the people for the people and about the people. While on the topic of ‘the people’, the audience and producers of alternative media are regularly referred to in the literature as “ordinary people”. Who then are these ordinary people, who are included in or excluded from such a category? As Rowse points out, a constituency of ‘ordinary people’ can only be created if “the fantastic status of ‘ordinary people’ remains unexamined” (cited in Greenfield and Williams 2001: 35). ‘Ordinary’ has of recent times been hijacked by neo-liberal politicians (Howard’s ‘battlers’, Latham’s ‘aspirants’) as a way of rallying opposition against so-called elites (Sawer and Hindess 2004), elites being a category that ‘produsers’ of counter-hegemonic content might well be deemed to fall into. It seems timely then to further articulate what exactly is meant by ‘ordinary people’ in the context of alternative journalism and in the wider project of alternative media.
The pluralism expected of the media when reporting on issues of political and social significance has been compromised by a small number of elite voices whose sanction by traditional media outlets has shaped and constrained the diversity expected of public discourse. It has been much anticipated that the use of the internet for alternative news would make way for the voices of ‘ordinary people’. Communication technologies – telegraph, radio, television - have historically fostered imaginings of more democratic communities with ‘the assumption that each new medium actually mediates less freeing up information and making it more transparent (Gitelman & Pingree 2003: 3). Yet, recent research into sourcing practices finds that the tools and platforms available on the internet do not necessarily translate into a shift from traditional models of news-gathering practice. A study of UK activist newspaper SchNEWS demonstrates that while at first glance the paper appears to privilege ‘ordinary’ voices closer examination reveals a ‘counter-elite’. These voices are depended on, as they are in mainstream media, for “expertise, authoritativeness and legitimacy” (Atton & Wickenden 2005: 347). Sourcing practices that determine who is “included or excluded as news actors in the media” (Deuze 2005: 453) can work to silence the very voices an alternative public sphere claim to amplify.
Nevertheless, alternative journalism does represent a “radical challenge” (Atton 2003: 267) to mainstream media with journalistic practices shifting from a producer-consumer relationship (Dueze 2005: 451) to “hybrid forms such as the activist-journalist and the native reporter” (Atton 2003: 269). Binaries of alternative and mainstream media are further challenged by research that builds on scholarship that is lately questioning the two models as isolated entities (Atton 2003b, Downing 2001). Harcup’s (2005: 370) study of alternative journalism reveals a movement of individuals between alternative and mainstream media. Indeed, the study suggests not just a crossover of journalists but of ideas, content [and] style. Harcup, while acknowledging the hegemonic tendencies of the media marketplace does not see this meeting of the ways as problematic but rather as constructive. It is likely, however, that mainstream media will co-opt alternative practices when this suits their own populist ends while alternative media risks betraying their ideological origins. While Deuze (2005: 447) points out that all journalists across all media carry an “ideology of journalism” there are important differences. Objectivity, arguably the cornerstone of journalistic practice, is replaced in alternative media by “overt advocacy” (Atton 2003: 268). Claims to objectivity are difficult to sustain as journalists emerge from and reflect the values of their culture and so cannot be detached or value free, whereas advocacy, where bias is declared and agendas openly pursued, is more transparent, though not without its problems: pursuit of individual causes is more likely to produce fragmentation producing a diluted rather than unified public discourse, with a myriad of small interest groups vying for attention.
The continuum, suggested by Harcup (2005: 371), in considering the crossover between alternative and mainstream media is further confirmed by Atton’s (2003: 267) contention that alternative journalism is reworking the populist tabloid newspapers to recover a “radical popular style” of reporting that is more inclusive. Yet, the tabloid is more often associated with conservative agendas, prioritising the private over the public, sensationalist headlines and biased coverage of news. Can the adoption of tabloid models of journalism be justified by alternative journalism on grounds that it shuns objectivity to feature the narratives of ‘ordinary’ citizens who would otherwise be ignored or excluded? While notionally everyone gets to have a say, is what they are saying worth listening to? There is a need to be wary of an alternative journalism taking up the least celebrated practices of mainstream journalism, even though for a worthy cause. Aside from possible allegations of hypocrisy, a tabloid approach, whether ideologically driven by left or right, may ultimately inspire the same disillusionment that has presumably seen the audience of alternative media fleeing its mainstream counterparts.
Blessed is the Blog
Online diaries or journals, otherwise known as weblogs or blogs, have excited both public and scholarly interest with utopian claims they can transform passive media couch potatoes into active media producers. Lance Knobel (2005: 27) claimed 8.5 million blogs in 2004 while Technorati puts 2006 blog numbers at more than 27 million. Blogs now attract 50,000 postings per hour and 75,000 new blogs are created each day (Sifry 2006). Further complicating the ‘blogosphere’ are claims that ‘just over two-thirds of blogs are declared “dead” if having no posts for two months, with 40 per cent of those “one-day wonders” (Brown 2005: 2). Yet despite (or perhaps as a consequence of) these remarkable figures, “it is still to be seen how much symbolic power blogs wield in the wider social field” (Matheson 2004: 446). The question of symbolic power is signficant particularly as claims made for blogs, and alternative media in general, are often categorical about the challenge they mount to mainstream news agendas. Such assertions, however, need closer examination to determine the level of impact and influence as well as to consider the content of and audience for blogs.
How an audience is attracted to any one of the millions of blogs on offer is not quite clear. Turner (2005) argues, of online journalism in general, that it lacks sufficient audience reach to have any real impact. His contention is well-supported by figures that show that only 25 per cent of Australians access the internet on a regular basis with 90 per cent of that figure accessing websites associated with traditional media providers. Furthermore, it is estimated that just one per cent of Australians access alternative media providers for news and current affairs (Downie & McIntosh 2006), hardly a figure that supports claims of a grassroots challenge to traditional journalism. Rather, it is already committed political individuals and groups that are taking advantage of the communication spaces that blogs make available and not ‘ordinary’ citizens who are unlikely to have any more interest in online political activity than they do in its offline equivalent.
Bloggers are poorly resourced when compared to professional journalists employed by mainstream publications. It is also unlikely that all bloggers have the skills or time to do their own research or investigations “rarely publishing anything that amounts to first-hand reporting or information” (Brown 2005: 2). There are of course outstanding exceptions: Trent Lott’s racist remarks were outed by a blog, resulting in his resignation, and Iraqi, Salam Pax, blogged eyewitness reports of the bombing of his homeland. There are more instances of bloggers challenging the hegemon but the frequency with which only a handful of examples are trotted out tends to suggest the blogosphere’s counter-hegemonic activities are novel because they are so rare. Yet claims that blogs “are at the centre of media democratisation” (Knobel 2005: 28) persist in spite of research that suggests that link-dependent news-gathering serves to lock bloggers into responding to the main news of the day rather than blogging all the news that isn’t fit to print. Bruns (2004: 182) takes a quite different position arguing that links to news material creates conversation and debate with ‘gatekeepers’ guiding readers to ‘best of’’, different from the more censorious role of gatekeepers deployed in traditional models of journalism to set up a “radically different kind of news discourse” (Hass 2005: 388). Nevertheless, it remains that no matter how alternative the dialogue, it is mainstream media that define what is and makes news, with bloggers following their lead rather than shaping alternative news agendas. Indeed, the opportunity to change mainstream consciousness by taking on issues largely ignored or shunned by traditional media, one example the appalling neglect of Africa (Lewis 2005), has for the most part been missed by the blogging community.
The Iraq war ought to have been a call to arms for bloggers to log the stories of war that ‘embedded’ and other mainstream journalists were less free or inclined to. However, aside from the celebrated Salam Pax, so-called warblogs, differed little from mainstream news reports. While issues of access no doubt robbed many people of the chance to participate, bloggers’ dependence on mainstream news outlets served equally to block alternative reports of a highly controversial war. Indeed, “only about 5 percent of bloggers links were to alternative news providers, of which only a handful were to alternative media in the Middle East” (Haas 2005: 390). Bloggers, rather than contesting the US government’s control of information, only served to reinforce and magnify that government's version of the truth. It is ironic that while it is claimed that blogs are gatekeeper and filter-free the links they provide are to news organisations whose content has been managed by all manner of gatekeepers, which in this case, included the US military.
It is also somewhat misleading to present blogs as forums committed only to spreading the democratic word as most blogs do something quite different. According to Ian Fogg of Jupiter Research political blogs make up only 5 per cent of blogs (The Rise and Rise of Vlogs: 2006) so while some blogs are exposing corruption in the upper echelons of power most bloggers are logging the minutiae of dull lives, spreading gossip or talking celebrity: Turner (2005: 137) suggests blogging is “among the most self-indulgent publishing practices available”. Rather than being a “truth squad” (Gillmor 2004), Redden (2003: 74) argues that bloggers are not “committed to truth, accuracy, objectivity and fairness” or known for “checking their facts” (Turner 2005: 137). Cory Doctorow, co-editor of Boing Boing dismisses such criticisms:
Blogs have different ways of writing news and breaking news … Newspapers can’t go to print saying ‘we’ve heard something but we’re not too sure’. With blogs, this is not only possible but desirable. You say: ‘I’ve noticed something, what do you think?’ People add to the story, you update it (Griffin 2006).
The tenet that journalists must at all times strive for credibility and truth is not always practised by an alternative journalism populated with citizens keen to tell ‘their stories’ or their version of ‘the truth’. It does not necessarily follow that truth is abandoned by blogs but rather a new truth is told. Boing Boing claims to have been the first to expose ‘a truth’ that emerged from hurricane Katrina: ‘“black people loot, white people find” groceries’ (Griffin 2006). Paradoxically, it is the “rapid decline of media credibility” that has given rise to the weblog (Andrews, cited in Redden 2003: 74) with the outing of highly-respected journalists who admitted to fabricating stories a recent illustration of journalism’s fall from grace. Nevertheless, there are questions to be asked of the content produced by blogs and equally of other forms of alternative media. Is it enough that a blog is politically interested, do we expect alongside that a level of literacy and inquiry, or is an alternative view, no matter how uninformed, a contribution to public discourse?
While there are competing figures on the number of blogs, and especially on the number that are politically committed, there is no doubting their popularity. The surge of interest in blogging is more attributed to their entertainment value than rising political or social awareness or bands of citizens demanding an alternative to mainstream media. Nevertheless, blogs do typifiy the promise of the internet as a non-hierarchical network that promotes access to vast flows of unmediated information and enables dissemination of alternative content that empowers citizens and fosters participatory democracy. And in many ways this is true. Brett (1994: 2) asks however, that we “…look through the beguiling suggestions of openness and reciprocity carried by the image of the network to the real inequalities it masks”. Rather than jump on utopian bandwagons, claims for the democratising potential of blogs ought not to ignore the “social embeddedness of technology” (Dahlberg 2004: 7) if they are to be “consistent with what we know about the media, political participation, social structures and especially, the political individual” (Bimber 1998: 16).
While the decentralised, non-hierarchical medium of the internet has renewed and sustained hope of news and current affairs that is radically different from that produced by media oligopolies there is some evidence that this optimism may be short-lived. The power relations present in an offline world are increasingly articulated online and the “promised revolution … a myth” (Young 2002: 79). Undisputed are the possibilities for public conversation yet that dialogue while less interrupted by gatekeepers, and more interactive, is little different from the chatter overheard in most public spaces. The tools of the internet have been put to individual rather than collective use, and not unlike the potential of radio and television, are being deployed for their entertainment value rather than their democratising capacities. Relaxing cross-media rules only hands increased power and influence to existing media interests to deliver more of the same, further reducing independence and diversity in Australia’s media. Alternative journalism, rather than a radical departure from traditional models of journalism is more a continuum that is often contingent on mainstream news media with its reach limited to the few who seek it out. What is needed to enable adjudication of competing claims, even though the more measured claims are in general more plausible, is empirical evidence that tests and develops theories about the reach, use and audience of alternative media.
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This is a revised and expanded version of a paper presented at the 2006 ANZCA conference in Adelaide.