Fall of the gatekeepers, rise of bloggers

Blogging is an increasingly important way for the public to learn about science and culture. Bloggers fill in the information gaps, as traditional publishers slash jobs for science and arts journalists. More important, for good or bad, bloggers remove the gatekeepers (editors, press officers) which previously stood between experts and the public.

Fall of the gatekeepers

“As a generation comfortable with blogging comes of age, I believe we will see more and more people who expect to hear about science (or any other topic) from the people who do that work,” says Dr. Pascale Lane, a Professor of Pediatrics, and co-founder Scientopia, a blog network which debuted in August, 2010. Dr. Lane continues, “Gatekeepers can provide only so much information, and even they sometimes miss the actual point. As shown by the arsenic life episode, we have gone from a cycle where a new study hits the main stream media but the ensuing letters and official discussion never get heard, to one where the public can observe or even partake in that discussion.”

Often bloggers are experts and professionals in their fields. Edward Michaud, founding editor of the science blog network Field of Science, thinks this is an advantage, and that the public has a thirst for smarter content. He says, “I think every scientist should have a blog. Even if they only use it once in a blue moon.  The reason is simple.  Everyone is online, so even if the segment of humanity interested in the science you are doing is infinitesimal, that’s still thousands of people.” He thinks that communicators should not assume that “general public needs it dumbed down or is too lazy, inept, disinterested to meet the scientists where they play.” Rather, much of the general public has the “capacity and desire to understand the world in which we live.”

In the arts, bloggers can bring depth and sincerity to their writing. Richard Kessler, director of the Center for Arts Education, and blogger at AJBlogCentral, says, “I don’t like blogs connected to institutions, for they tend to limit personal expression and have too much of a PR approach, which ultimately makes them boring! I think the most interesting blogs are highly personal… For the most part, I see my blogging, which is almost exclusively about arts education, as an opportunity to give voice to issues related to the field. I see it as an interesting way to reach people and communicate issues that have meaning to me, in a highly personal and fairly informal way.”

Henry Fogel, professor of the arts at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, and a former blogger at AJArtCentral, also notes the benefits of experienced bloggers, saying, “An insider/professional can bring the benefits that come with experience. One problem in music journalism is that articles about the business or policy side of arts organizations are often written about by music critics who have no training in or understanding of the business basis of the arts.”

Blogging also puts more of a face on the profession. David Shiffman, a grad student in South Carolina studying shark conservation, and blogger at Southern Fried Science says, “I believe that science blogging is a wonderful tool for public outreach, and I wish that more scientists wrote blogs. Nothing challenges traditional stereotypes of science and scientists better than direct communication with a scientist. It is both practical and important for scientists to directly reach out to the public instead of going through ‘traditional gatekeepers.'”

The gatekeepers of old

Prior to blogging, society mostly relied on the media to keep us informed. Television broadcasting has been commonplace since the 1950’s, and radio since the 1920’s. Newspapers trace back 4 centuries, since the printing press made wide-scale printing possible. Starting in 1594, the first newspaper was published twice a year, and was distributed throughout Europe. The first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, started in 1702. Freedom of the press spread through much of the world, with the first Freedom of the Press Act by Sweden in 1766. All the while, what we saw and read was filtered through journalists and their editors, and in the case of television, through a vast apparatus of reporters and production staff.

Blogging and other social media have reshaped these channels. (And are reshaping dictatorships as well.) Blogging as we know it started in the 1990’s, rapidly gaining popularity as more people went online, and software became easier to use. The initial use of blogs was personal diaries. By 2005, blogs were a key part of online culture, and Pew reported that 8 million American adults had created blogs; blog readership was 27% of internet users. Now, other social media is gaining popularity, as the NYT covered last week in, “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter,” since it’s easier to document one’s thoughts and life on social media sites. But blogging remains a major force, and it is maturing.

A bias of another color

Both bloggers and journalists bring biases, and there is no clear line in the sand that differentiates one from the other. Aside from where they publish.

Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, and a blogger at AJBlogCentral says, “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell a journalists from a blogger, and vice versa… Each have highly competent and thoughtful writers. Each have hacks and attention seekers… Some are objective and committed to evidence. Others are subjective and lazy, or purposely misleading to make a point. Some are paid. Some are not.” Moreover, professional training is not a clear differeniator, Mr. Taylor says, “Their professional status or training doesn’t necessarily make journalists any better or any worse. Many bloggers are professionally trained journalists. And many journalists are not professionally trained.”

The same is true in science blogging. Andrew Thaler is a grad student in marine biology at Duke, and cofounder of the blog network Southern Fried Science. Mr. Thaler says, “I know there are a lot of bloggers out there who are journalists, and approach their writing as such, but that’s not the entire show, and it shouldn’t be.” He continues, “I personally consider myself an activist for science and conservation, and recognize the inherent biases that that entails.”

Dr. Lane of Scientopia says, “Bloggers may not have the training to be unbiased and present balanced views,” but she emphasizes that journalists are not always pure, and many major media outlets routinely promote mistruths. She says that a commitment to impartiality “hasn’t stopped Fox News from succeeding.” Moreover, “web sites out there support all sorts of nonsense, and completely bogus information can be presented in a compelling, attractive format that draws in readers and makes them believers. I hope those of us presenting science and medicine on the web are good enough to counter some of these cranks.”

John Perreault is an artist and art critic, past president of the American Section of the International Association of Art Critics. His blog Artopia is on the artsjournal.com site. He says, “arts journalism to me means ‘the facts, just the facts’ which, of course, is the ideal and actually nearly impossible.” To Mr. Perreault, traditional media is rife with biases. He continues, “Newspapers tend to be directed by the same kinds of persons that control the cultural institutions, big corporations, and real estate. This does not mean they are all bad people, but once you realize this overlap it is easy to see that disinterested news or even arts journalism is nearly impossible in newspapers or any of the usual print vehicles. You cannot bite the hand that feeds you.” He continues, that an excessive effort to present balanced views can be misguided. “On the one hand this, on the other hand that. If this is arts journalism, I am against it… Some issues do not have two sides.”

Mr. Fogel echos that bias is always present, saying, “It is crucial for readers to learn and understand the background of bloggers, and how their views are formed. There is no ‘license’ required for blogging, and all one can do is read a blogger over time and form a judgement as to whether they are balanced nor not. But isn’t that true of all journalists? Slants from NY Times and Wall Street Journal reports are very different too.”

Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, and music blogger, says, “I don’t think being a blogger rules out being ‘objective,’ whatever that means, any more than it rules out writing well. Journalists often have training in research and sometimes a wider perspective than people who come out of the arts and believe they have something to say of interest to the larger public. But for a professional journalist who happens to be blogging instead of working for a print publication, the thing the print employee does better is pay the rent.”

So bloggers can bring more expert knowledge, and are not necessarily more biased than journalists. How broad is the impact? In a future post, we’ll look at the size (in terms of traffic) of the blogging force.

2 comments on Fall of the gatekeepers, rise of bloggers

IDEA » Don’t confuse the channel and the audience (in social media)

30 Mar 2011, 5:06 pm

[…] Before the Internet, the gatekeepers of public information (journalists, editors and producers) considered the needs of audiences for you. These gatekeepers would filter a fire-hose of information in press releases and technical publications to deliver a digested slivers of information via television news, tv, print, and trade press. Other kinds of technical information was discussed at conferences, at meetings, in journals or in private. (See my post about “Fall of the gatekeepers“)  […]


IDEA » Science museums are disconnected from new science research

25 Apr 2011, 3:19 pm

[…] The good news is that museum and educational staff increasingly rely on open access journals and blogs for access to new information about scientific advancements & research, as well as social science research about learning. (See my recent articles about open access journals; and rise of blogging.) […]


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