Holding the watchdog blogs to account

Bloggers wield increasing power against established institutions, but not all are practising what they preach.

This week, the 40 millionth blog will come to life, giving voice to another person we never knew existed. Number 40,000,000 could be a Japanese teenager, a political activist in Kabul, a spammer from Palm Beach or a disgruntled worker drone in Canary Wharf. No matter how profound, inane or intrusive we find it, the blogosphere is growing at a rate – doubling every six months, says Technorati’s Dave Sifry – that has made it a formidable force in communications and mass media.

Bloggers have exposed untruths and cover-ups that traditional watchdogs in the mainstream media have missed; one blog scoop famously cost the American newsreader Dan Rather his job. They’ve also kept consistent heat on companies for neglecting customers and lying to shareholders, forcing boardrooms to make swift decisions. Radio Shack’s board sacked CEO David Edmondson earlier this year after a blog swarm erupted over revelations that he lied on his CV. (The board acknowledged the ire of bloggers in the decision to dismiss Edmondson; Wall Street analysts believe the slumping share price more likely did him in.)

Bloggers are also changing the face of spot news coverage. At last week’s E3 Expo, the annual video game conference held in Los Angeles, bloggers were given press accreditation to cover the event. Handing out press passes to select bloggers is nothing new, but E3 organisers dramatically relaxed the old line, giving bloggers at, say, Blues News (with the memorable tag line “All the carnage that’s fit to post!”) access equalling that of the Washington Post. The coverage was exhaustive. There are more than 25,000 photos of the expo on Flickr alone – many are incongruously entertaining shots of bloggers posing with booth babes.

Blogs can and do take on more serious subjects too. Iraqi bloggers featured on Global Voices report on the heart-wrenching conditions of life in some of bloodiest parts of Baghdad and Mosul. Already on the inside, their posts take you on to the streets of the Amiriya neighbourhood where mainstream media seldom tread to report on lethal sectarian clashes.

Salam Adil, an editor of Global Voices’ Iraq coverage, told me recently that there are a hundred blogging news correspondents whom he profiles on the site. They are dentists, engineers, doctors and some Iraqi journalists. Adil says they consistently scoop the likes of the BBC, CNN and the news wires, citing the bloggers’ exclusive coverage of militia groups effectively shutting down local newspapers with threats of violence to the staff and on-the-ground dispatches that often debunk official US Army reports. “The established media has to listen to local people,” Adil advises. “Otherwise, they risk getting the story wrong. And if they get the story wrong, how are policymakers going to understand the issues?”

Scalps are mounting in the West too, and the bloggers are reloading with bigger targets in their sites. Watch for a bloody skewering on message boards, fan forums and in blogs should the national squad limp out in the early rounds of the World Cup next month. Take heed, cable company. The next time you leave a customer waiting without explanation it could land your brand in a spotlight of ignominy. And big media, don’t for a second believe blogger scrutiny will die down any time soon. Any one of us journalists could wake up one day to see our words being dissected with attorney-like precision by a pack of agitated readers.

I, for one, welcome the post-analysis, comment and critique blogging affords. Every citizen should have the ability to hold accountable elected officials, chairmen of the board and, yes, news columnists. The citizen journalism revolution may be our best shot of cleaning up our collective spotty record. A near daily supply of scandals has badly eroded the public’s faith in government, big business and media. According to a recent poll financed by Reuters and the BBC, 52 percent of those surveyed trust what the government has to say, while 61 percent trust the media. Among the ten nations surveyed, Britons were most sceptical, with 51 percent believing the media and just 47 percent trusting the government. Hardly encouraging.

Can bloggers save the credibility of these once-proud institutions? Can their probing analysis of every utterance keep public officials, journalists and CEOs honest and accountable?

Sadly, the answer is no. Well, not yet at least. According to the same poll, bloggers suffer the biggest credibility gap of all with just one in four surveyed regarding them as a trusted source of information. Bloggers bellow that it is illogical and unfair to lump all bloggers into a single category, but, I respond, you could say the same about media and government and business. Welcome to a club where we are all held to the highest standards. Bloggers also contend that blogs are by their very nature more transparent because they invite feedback and commentary at the end of each post. Some bloggers may make use of services offered by firms similar to Victorious and alike to ensure that their blogs reach out to the maximum population. However, if a blogger’s original post is poorly sourced or misinformed – in short, bad journalism – all the comments in the world will not smooth out the original tone and somehow make it a well-rounded discussion.

No matter how unappealing it may sound, the blogosphere is duty-bound to adopt the basic tenets of journalism – identifying your sources, checking facts and never sacrificing accuracy and fairness for the sake of a “good” story. The role of watchdog demands you be fully identifiable and accountable. (Full disclosure: we journalists need you.