Dependent on a Dinosaur? The Partisan Political Blogosphere’s Reliance on Canada’s Parliamentary Press Gallery for Information and Commentary

By Curtis Brown

About the Author

Curtis Brown holds a Master’s degree in Political Studies (University of Manitoba, June 2010). He is a former journalist and political columnist who currently works in the market research industry in Winnipeg.

Abstract

A great deal of media and academic commentary on the Internet has characterized this medium as potentially ushering in a pseudo-Habermasian public sphere, with traditional mass media playing a reduced role in providing information and commentary to citizens. With mass media outlets facing significant challenges due to audience fragmentation, this paper considers the extent to which Canadian partisan political blogs might challenge traditional forms of media as alternative sources of original reporting and commentary on Canadian politics. Drawing on the academic literature examining the role media outlets play in setting agendas for political discussion and framing political issues, this paper considers whether blogs perform these functions for journalists or the broader public. Based on surveys with English-speaking Parliamentary journalists and the authors of partisan political blogs, this paper analyzes the extent to which bloggers continue to rely on the mainstream media as sources of information and commentary as well as how Ottawa-based political journalists utilize and perceive blogs about Canadian politics in the course of their professional duties.

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Introduction

The obituaries for traditional media outlets are being written and re-written online. At a moment when anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection can share observations with the world, the “death knell” is being sounded for professional journalists, who have long been the traditional gatekeepers of information (Bird, 2009, p. 293). No longer forced to rely on journalists and media outlets to create “the pictures inside our heads” (Lippmann, 1965, p. 18) about such important matters as whom to vote for or how we are governed. A changing of the guard has been heralded, as citizens demonstrate they are “no longer content with being spectators” but are “seizing the tools, finding our voice, exploring mediums, building communities” (Zuniga, 2008, p. 9).

New communications technology allows new ideas and perspectives to emerge free from the media filter—at least in theory—and blogs are one of the specific manifestations of this new technology. These web pages, which are self-published, diary-like websites written in reverse chronological order and containing links to other websites (Wallsten 2005, p.2; McKenna & Pole, 2004, p. 2; Drezner & Farrell 2004, p. 5), have been in existence for less than a decade, yet they have had an immediate impact on both political and media institutions. Bloggers have exposed inaccuracies and biases in journalists’ reporting and drawn additional attention to controversial remarks made by public figures (Drezner & Farrell, 2004; Ashbee 2003; Bloom 2003). Collectively, bloggers have prompted criminal investigations, triggered resignations (Chu, 2007; Brown, 2009) and have worked to mobilize support and raise money for political candidates (Perlmutter, 2008).  Meanwhile, media outlets have struggled to adapt their business models for increasingly digital information environment, with journalists throughout North America losing their jobs as media outlets’ audiences and revenues shrink (Downie & Schudson, 2009; Weaver, 2009).

In Canada, political blogs emerged midway through the first decade of the 21st century, with some of these authors organizing themselves into partisan communities that supported the major national political parties (Jansen & Koop, 2009). These blogs gained some degree of notoriety in mid-2005 when one U.S.-based political blogger successfully circumvented a publication ban during a judicial inquiry (Brown, 2009).  Blogs also drew public attention during election campaigns to (unproven) allegations of financial wrongdoing (Chu, 2007) and the controversial views of a particular candidate for office on the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Kay, 2008). In each of these cases, the impact of blogs was augmented by the fact that media outlets focused attention to the issues raised on these websites. Therefore, it is fair to pose the following rhetorical question: “If a weblog is sent out into the vast Internet forest but no one reads it or comments on it, has that blog made any sound in the greater public discourse (Dailey et al., 2008, p. 54)?”

This paper attempts to address this question by examining the impact of partisan blogs on political debates in Canada. It focuses specifically on bloggers’ relationship with the journalists that have traditionally covered political institutions like the federal Parliament. It argues that even though blogs have had a modest impact on the political process, they continue to rely heavily on the information reported by traditional media outlets and lack the institutional legitimacy these outlets have established during their history as the principal watchdogs of political and governmental processes.

Background

Independent mass media outlets play an important role in any modern Western democracy. They have been referred to as the “fourth branch of government” (Cater, 1959), acting as a conduit between the government and the governed by providing information about political institutions and processes to citizens. Media outlets are part of the means for particular interests to resolve political conflicts and debates through the process of “publicity” (Habermas, 1989, p. 235) in a large society where more intimate forms of political dialogue are not practical. While Habermas described mass media as one of the symptoms of the death of his conceptual public sphere, in the past century mass media outlets have played an important political socialization role by teaching citizens “the norms and rules, structures, and environmental factors that govern political life” (Graber, 2002, p. 225).  In Canada, one of the most important media institutions is the Parliamentary Press Gallery, the association of journalists who cover the federal Parliament and the federal government. These journalists are essential “for the very operation of parliamentary democracy” (Fletcher, 1981, p. 49), informing Canadians about political debates and government policies that impinge on nearly every aspect of their life (Murray, 2007).

Communications scholars have long been concerned with the potential effects of the mass media on political processes and decision-making. Some early discussions focused on the potential for media outlets to directly and indirectly shape the political choices of voters (Lazarsfeld et al., 1948; Key, 1961; Klapper, 1965). These studies could not demonstrate that media outlets directly influence public opinion, but they tended to conclude that journalists could be “stunningly successful in telling (audiences) what to think about” (Cohen, 1963, p. 13). Journalists can do this by engaging in “agenda-setting,” or focusing attention on certain issues and not others (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, 1994; Soroka, 2002, Wanta et al., 2004); or by “framing” political debates by focusing on particular images and symbols in order to create a specific narrative about an issue (Gitlin, 1980, p. 7; Entman, 1989; Edelman, 1985; Popkin, 1991; Iyengar, 1991). These agenda-setting and framing processes, as well as other media “cues” about the relative importance of information (Graber, 1984, p. 82), can “influence how individuals evaluate other concepts and ideas” (Domke et al., 1998, p. 51). Those who follow politics particularly closely can be said to influence their peers with this information—these “opinion leaders” facilitate a “two-step flow of communications” (Lazarsfeld, 1948, p. 151) by acquiring information from the media and using this information to influence their peers’ opinions about politics.

For much of the 20th century, mass media outlets have been an integral part of these processes. But with the economic foundations of media outlets “severely eroded as the Internet draws millions of advertising away from daily newspapers” (Weaver, 2009, p. 396) and electronic media outlets, there has been a reduction in the number of full-time journalists (Downie & Schudson, 2009; Weaver, 2009; Bird, 2009).  In Canada, media outlets laid off an estimated 1,200 full-time employees in the last three months of 2008 (Canadian Association of Journalists, 2009).  While this has been happening, new types of media have stepped into the breach. Thanks to blogs and other digital media, it is no longer true that in a democracy, “far fewer people express opinions than receive them” (Mills, 1956, p. 304). Unlike media outlets, blogs “provide non-elites with an easy and relatively inexpensive way to set out their opinions” (Lawrence, Sides and Farrell, 2010, p. 142) and provide information to citizens. By practising a form of “quasi-journalism” (Schiffer, 2007, p. 1) that does not strive to be necessarily balanced or objective, blogs play an active role in disseminating information—a “task once reserved almost exclusively for the news media” (Lasica, 2003, p. 71). Bloggers may be potential opinion leaders between a traditional media and political elite and the wider citizenry, identifying issues and influencing the issues that form general political discourse (Wallsten, 2008, p. 6). Within the blogosphere—that is, the “intellectual space shared by writers and readers of blogs” (McKenna & Pole, 2008, p. 100), Wallsten argues that bloggers can influence one another, as well as the journalists, elected officials, policy-makers and citizens in a “multi-directional, two step flow of communication” (Wallsten, 2008, p. 22). Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that journalists and politicians regard blogs as a source of political information (Woodly, 2008; Chu, 2007; Sroka, 2006; Dautrich & Barnes, 2005; Roth, 2005) and early interpreters of public opinion (Rose & Kiss, 2007, p. 340).

In performing this role, however, are bloggers taking over the function performed by media outlets for much of the last century, or do they remain reliant on these institutions for information? What role do bloggers see for themselves, and how is their newfound role perceived by the journalists they may compete with? What is the effect on traditional journalistic norms such as non-partisanship (Singer, 2005), when bloggers not only eschew these conventions, but also deliberately organize themselves along partisan lines (Jansen & Koop, 2009)?  This paper attempts to answer these questions with a survey of Canadian political journalists and partisan bloggers regarding how these two groups utilize blogs and the media to get information and to explore attitudes regarding the role blogs play in Canadian political debates.

Methodology1

There are several methodological challenges associated with the study of political blogs, with the greatest being that there is no standard way of distinguishing political blogs from non-political blogs. As Wallsten notes, “no single population list of political blogs exists and, as a result, there is no way to generate a truly representative sample of political blogs” (Wallsten, 2005, p. 11). There are a multitude of websites that track the tens of millions of blogs in existence as well as a number of community-created blog lists that attempt to measure the potential reach of influential political bloggers. But as some observers have noted (Karpf, 2008; Raynauld et al., 2009), there are a number of potential flaws associated with relying heavily on one of these measurement tools to develop a reliable sample of political blogs and political bloggers.

As some Canadian political bloggers are organized in partisan groups (Jansen & Koop 2009), this study focuses on Canadian bloggers who write about national politics and who are self-declared supporters of a particular national political party. A survey was developed and sent to bloggers who openly support the three major national political parties—the Blogging Tories (Conservative supporters), the LibLogs (Liberal supporters) and the New Democrats Online (NDP supporters). After visiting each blog affiliated with these three groups, I gathered available contact information to be included in the sample of potential respondents, developing a list of 194 blogs with visible email addresses.  The authors of these blogs were sent an invitation to participate in an online survey. An initial invitation to these bloggers was sent on Aug. 27, 2009, with three reminder emails sent between Aug. 27 and Sept. 16, 2009.  In total, 77 bloggers fully or partially completed this survey.

Because these partisan blogs are almost all written in English and because French-language partisan blogs are dealt with in other studies (Giasson et al., 2009), this research focused on the perceptions of English-language bloggers and English-language journalists regarding the Canadian political blogosphere. Using a list available on the Parliamentary Press Gallery website and contact information published by each media outlet, journalists affiliated with English-language media outlets were invited to participate in the survey. Nearly one in five who received invitations to take the survey (49 out of 247) took the opportunity to do so.

The survey was developed during the summer of 2009 and subjected to several pre-tests. It includes a number of questions taken from two similar American surveys (Dautrich & Barnes, 2005; Sroka, 2006)2 that explore the impact of blogs on journalism and politics.

Results

Bloggers were asked to indicate which sources of information they rely on when seeking news and opinion about Canadian politics. As the following graph illustrates, two of the three main sources of information for partisan bloggers are media outlets, including newspaper websites (90% read these at least once per week) and broadcast media outlet websites, such as CBC.ca or CTV.ca (80% use these once per week or more). Bloggers also turn to other blogs for information about politics (86% use these at least once per week), as well as to other web-based tools for information about Canadian politics, including websites that aggregate blog posts (74% visit these sites once per week or more), social networking websites like Facebook (59%) and video sharing websites like YouTube (55%). However, partisan bloggers are almost equally as likely to get their political news from what might be considered traditional or “mainstream” forms of media, including the print editions of newspapers (67% used this at least once in the previous week) and cable news networks (59%).

In addition to this, bloggers were asked to explain the sources they rely upon when formulating a blog post. As the following graph shows, newspapers are the type of media most often used to write a blog post, with two-thirds of partisan bloggers (67%) explaining that they comment upon something they read on a newspaper website or a printed edition at least once per week. Broadcast media outlets are also an important source of information, as more than two-in-five bloggers (42%) used broadcast media news stories to write a blog post within a given week. It was more common for bloggers to rely on a variety of other types of online media when seeking material for a blog post. The most common of these included information found online during a web search (56% used this at least once per week), blog posts by other authors (51%), online video (39%) and information on social networking websites (38%). Approximately one-in-five generate blog posts based on information from the readers of their blog or other blogs: either from email tips sent to them by their readers (21%) or from comments posted on their blogs (18%).

As for journalists, the majority of those who participated in the survey said they read blogs at least once per week, with several reading at least one blog post per day (85%, including 54% who read blogs “daily” or “several times per day”). While these Parliamentary journalists do read a number of blogs (74% report they read four or more blogs per week), these journalists do not think that highly of the information they come across on blogs—less than one-in-five (18%) rated the information on blogs as “good” or “excellent.” Furthermore, the majority of these journalists (63%) said that they are “less receptive” to the information they find on blogs than they are to facts and opinions put forward by other sources.

Mutual Perceptions of Blogging

Both surveyed Parliamentary journalists and partisan bloggers shared the view that the Internet has improved journalism. A significant proportion of those in each group also felt that bloggers have provoked major changes in the practice of journalism in recent years.

Table 1.1 Views Regarding the Effects of the Internet on Journalism
Bloggers Journalists λ
Do you feel the emergence of the Internet has made journalism better, worse or has it not made much difference?1 .691 .738 -.165
Thinking about weblogs, or “blogs,” how much do you think blogs have changed the profession of journalism in the past few years?2 .355 .327 .008
  1. 1. % reporting that journalism is “better” as a result of the Internet)
  2. 2. % agreeing that blogs have had “a lot” of impact on journalists

*Significant at the p=<.05 level

**Significant at the p=<.01 level

While there was a high level of agreement among bloggers and journalists regarding the effect of blogs and the Internet on the practice of journalism, there was a pronounced disagreement regarding the role blogs should play in informing citizens. To summarize the results of Table 1.2 below, bloggers are significantly more likely than journalists to agree that blogs deserve the same legal protections as journalists, that their authors should enjoy accreditation privileges similar to those enjoyed by journalists, and that blogs are better than media outlets at identifying national political problems and debates. As well, most bloggers agreed that their role is to act as a “watchdog” of the mainstream media, while fewer than half of the journalists (47.6%) agreed that bloggers perform this function.

Table 1.2 Views Regarding Bloggers and Journalism1
Bloggers Journalists λ
Bloggers adhere to journalistic standards. .139 .043 .519**
Blogs are a legitimate source of news. .726 .511 .387*
Blogs tend to be more partisan than mainstream media outlets. .849 .894 -.200
Blogs are more useful than mainstream media outlets for identifying current national political problems and debates. .562 .085 .742**
Bloggers should have the same legal protections as other journalists. .808 .386 .722**
Bloggers should have the same level of access that accredited journalists have to events and public institutions like Parliament. .589 .191 .719**
The blogosphere acts as a “watchdog” of the mainstream media. .887 .426 .813**

  1. 1. % Who Agree (Strongly or Somewhat) With The Statement

*Significant at the p=<.05 level

**Significant at the p=<.01 level

Where there was agreement, bloggers and journalists were likely to concur that bloggers do not adhere to journalistic standards, with a tiny but statistically significant minority of journalists (4.3%) saying they felt that bloggers hold themselves to the same professional standards as journalists. Members of both groups also overwhelmingly agreed that blogs tend to be more partisan than mainstream media outlets.

Discussion

Are journalists and media outlets dinosaurs in a digital age where anyone, not just a chosen few journalists, can report a fact or share an opinion? The evidence presented here suggests that even for those partisan bloggers potentially at the forefront of this new media revolution, the old-media dinosaurs continue to serve a very important purpose. While bloggers turn to one another and to their readers for political information, they continue to rely upon news reported by newspapers and broadcast media outlets for a significant proportion of their political intelligence. Some types of traditional media may not be used as much as others for bloggers seeking political information, but media outlets—especially in their modern online form—continue to play an important role as sources of information for these Canadian partisan bloggers. While a number of journalists have incorporated blogs into their weekly and even daily information-gathering routine, significant numbers of these journalists hesitate to fully embrace the information found on the websites.

There is a mutual recognition that the Internet generally, and blogs specifically, have changed the way journalists do their jobs and how the public gets information. In spite of this, however, there are very different views regarding the role blogs play in informing Canadian citizens about political events and issues. While acknowledging their departure from conventional journalistic norms of neutrality and non-partisanship, partisan bloggers regard themselves as deserving of the same rights as journalists, including legal protections and the right to cover Parliament as journalists do. Furthermore, they see themselves as playing a dual role in the political process as both facilitators of political debates and as watchdogs of the media. Yet this interpretation, which fits with what Wallsten (2008) and McKenna and Pole (2004) describe as the potential agenda-setting role of blogs, is strongly disputed by Canadian journalists, who reject not only the notion that blogs monitor their activities and stimulate political debates, but also the suggestion that bloggers should be granted the same rights and privileges that journalists currently enjoy.

The place of bloggers within the Canadian political communications landscape is contentious, and will likely remain so for some time. Bloggers have periodically demonstrated that they can steer the news agenda, especially during election campaigns. However, it seems that even as they become a more entrenched part of the political process, they continue to rely heavily on journalists to supply them with the information they need to comment on the news and shape debates; media outlets’ routines “have proven resilient in the face of blogger pressure” (Schiffer, 2007, p. 1). These amateur pundits may wield some form of agenda-setting power, but their ability to do so relies on overcoming a certain degree of skepticism on the part of current political journalists, who generally regard blogs as having less legitimacy than other sources of information. This may change as the blogging genre becomes more entrenched and as “the media environment continues to shift towards Internet-based sources of information” (Lawrence, Sides & Farrell 2010, p. 152). For now, it would seem that the new media ice age has not completely killed the old dinosaurs of the print and broadcast era, even if the long-term survival of these institutions remains in doubt.

Notes

  1. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the University of Manitoba’s Duff  Roblin Fellowship.
  1. Some of these comparisons can be found in my M.A. thesis. See Brown, Curtis (2010). “Canadian Political Blogs: Online Opinion Leaders or Opinionated Followers?”  Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 2010. URL: http://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/handle/1993/3879

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