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January 25, 2006

How is Internet media held accountable?

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On January 19 The Washington Post put an abrupt end to one of the components of the latest experiments in this grass roots democracy dynamic we call blogs – the real-time, live “comment” section.

The Post blog saga is a complicated and tortured story. Jim Brady, the executive editor of explained the decision in 500 words that day in a blog post titled, “The Editors Discuss Site Policies, Design and Goals – Comments Turned Off.”

The New York Times wrote a good synopsis the next day: “Paper Closes Reader Comments on Blog, Citing Vitriol,” by Katharine Q. Seelye, saying:

“The Washington Post stopped accepting reader comments on one of its blogs yesterday, saying it had drawn too many personal attacks, profanity and hate mail directed at the paper's ombudsman. The closing was the second time in recent months that a major newspaper has stopped accepting feedback from readers in a Web forum. An experiment in allowing the public to edit editorials in The Los Angeles Times lasted just two days in June before it was shut because pornographic material was being posted on the site. The Post's blog, which had accepted comments from readers on its entries since it was first published on Nov. 21…”

Now that we have that as a starting point of sorts, let’s dive in. This will take awhile in an attempt to give an increasingly serious issue – media accountability, transparency, decency and obscenity – some context for a discussion that will probably rage for quite sometime.

First – What is a blog?

Drill into this cyberspace we call the Internet and you’ll find yourself in the blogosphere. It is a relatively new frontier; it’s the wild, wild west on steroids.

For the most part, blogs are relatively new phenomena, which seemed to really start getting attention in 1999.

Numerous sources give Jorn Barger credit for the first use of the term “weblog” on December 17, 1997, and the term “blog” is credited to Peter Merholz in May 1999.

There are many good definitions of the term “blog,” which essentially say the same thing. Perhaps as good as any (and certainly convenient) is Wikipedia’s:

“A blog is a website in which journal entries are posted on a regular basis and displayed in reverse chronological order. The term blog is a shortened form of weblog or web log. Authoring a blog, maintaining a blog or adding an article to an existing blog is called "blogging". Individual articles on a blog are called "blog posts," "posts" or "entries". A person who posts these entries is called a "blogger". A blog comprises hypertext, images, and links (to other webpages and to video, audio and other files). Blogs use a conversational style of documentation. Often blogs focus on a particular "area of interest", such as Washington, D.C.'s political goings-on. Some blogs discuss personal experiences.”

According to numerous sources, the first blogs appeared on the Internet in 1992. Anton Zuiker wrote on February 27, 2004, in an introduction to a University of North Carolina class “Blogging 101 – An Introduction to reading and writing a weblog:”

“In 1992, Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee created the first ‘What’s New page;’ later, another pioneer, Marc Andreesen, put up a similar page. Each had ‘hotlinks to the new pages’ springing up on the Net… Justin Hall started his ‘filter log’ in 1994.”

Many sources refer to a pioneering ‘weblogger’ by the name of Rebecca Blood, who is considered an authority on blogs and is consulted regularly about the collision of blogs and journalism.

Ms. Blood has maintained a blog since April 1999 and published a book, “The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog” in July 2002. Ms. Blood asserts that there were only 23 known weblogs in existence at the beginning of 1999. “The original weblogs were link-driven sites. Each was a mixture in unique proportions of links, commentary, and personal thoughts and essays.”

Why should anyone really care?

Last Friday an article on “Poynter Online” titled “Blogs are becoming more respectable,” quotes George Washington University (GWU) professor Henry Farrell: “People are beginning to figure out that blogs do have real impact."

GWU law professor Daniel J. Solove adds: "For a long time, it seemed that if the mainstream media didn't cover [a story], that was it. ... What we're seeing now is, it's possible for the blogs to put an issue out before the public, and the mainstream media are not the only gatekeeper."

Furthermore last December 29, Editor’s Weblog wrote a lengthy piece titled: “Eight 2005 newspaper trends that will continue in 2006.”

The eight trends mentioned were: “(1)Print/Online integration becoming the norm; (2)Threats against investigative journalism growing; (3) More transparency needed; (4) Breaches appearing in the free news ideology; (5) News agencies competing with newspapers; (6) Social networking: advantages for newspapers; (7) Mobile TV threatening mobile news; and (8) News organizations becoming entertainment companies.”

The several “trends” that are in play with this particular column are the continued shift of traditional hardcopy newsprint newspapers to the Internet, increased demands for transparency and the integration of mobile TV and radio information dissemination into territory currently being explored by online Internet newspapers.

Here’s the rub: if Internet media and “blogs” want to be on the vanguard of addressing and holding accountable the accepted or perceived wrongs of traditional mainstream media – it may very well start cleaning up its own act and start introducing concepts such as the very thing it rails about in the mainstream media – accountability. Who watches the watchers?

Read many weblogs these days and – for whatever reason – in their collective outrage about contemporary politics or the mainstream media, there is no hesitancy to use the foulest of language, practice misinformation dissemination and the craft of unbridled personal destruction.

As print/online integration becomes the norm for newspapers and various forms of information dissemination (TV, radio and newspapers) merge into “internet media,” many issues such as acceptable language, accountability, credibility, decency and obscenity will have to be addressed. But how?

I’m just asking.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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