SAN FRANCISCO: In the run-up to the Iraq War, media organizations spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading their portable equipment, providing satellite phones, mini-DV cameras, and other high-tech gear for war correspondents. Despite the entrenched media's electronic arms buildup, some of the most entrancing coverage of the war has come from non-journalists keeping personal weblogs, or blogs. Their required equipment? An internet connection and a desire to share first-hand experience.
Blogging breakthrough: Increased internet access, as in this Iraqi cybercafe, unlocks a global audience for amateur commentators.
Bloggers have become part of the media ecosystem, reporting independently with fresh voices and fact-checking mainstream stories. Traditional journalists are both horrified and excited by the bloggers; like them or not, bloggers have a low cost of entry and can use their growing community to amplify points made my mainstream reporters. And in an era of media conglomerates and corporate downsizing, the bloggers have carved out a necessary niche.
The most prominent of the Iraqi bloggers, known as Salam Pax, is a Baghdad resident who described the early US "shock and awe" bombing campaign from the Iraqi capital. Due to his command of English and his unique viewpoint as a gay Iraqi architect caught in the crossfire, his blog dispatches attracted a global audience. And Pax gave a view of the war zone unattainable by journalists "embedded" with coalition troops.
Salam Pax eventually became a columnist for the British Guardian newspaper and published a book of his weblog posts. Pax led the way for a blossoming Iraqi citizen brigade of bloggers, now numbering more than 80, according to a new blog called Iraq Blog Count.
US soldiers stationed in Iraq also started blogging to keep in touch with family and friends, and to kill time while waiting at bases. Soon enough, these "milibloggers" made their mark with first-hand accounts from the front. One soldier/blogger known only as CBFTW gave a detailed, gritty report on a firefight in Mosul. After his report was quoted by the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, his Army superiors figured out his identity: Army Specialist Colby Buzzell. Deciding that Buzzell had broken rules for keeping operations a secret, the Army censored his blog – leading to many more media reports on his experiences.
Both Iraqi citizen bloggers and US military bloggers have had to rely on pseudonyms. The Iraqis first feared retribution from Saddam Hussein's regime, and then from the various warring factions and terrorist groups that might have misinterpreted their writing. The soldiers, worried about censorship from commanders, want the freedom to report events – and their thoughts – as they happen.
Of course, reporting anonymously raises credibility issues among skeptical readers. When Salam Pax first gained prominence, the public and media questioned whether he was a CIA plant, or just some hoaxster living in the US. But his eyewitness accounts, occasional photos, and mountain of details left little doubt that he was in Baghdad.
One of the biggest weaknesses of citizen journalists is also one of their biggest strengths: independence from media organizations and the editorial process. They lack the inherent public trust given to reporters at established media outlets. But then, the recent series of scandals related to false reporting at The New York Times, USA Today, and CBS News have damaged these sources' reputations. Blogs happen in real time, posted in the moment, in the heat of battle, lending them an immediacy often lost in an editing regimen – although that immediacy may lead to errors.
I recently convened a special "virtual roundtable" for the Online Journalism Review, which featured Iraqi citizen bloggers and US milibloggers, including Buzzell. We discussed topics completely over email, with the participants suggesting questions and responding to each other as we went along. I posed the question of pseudonyms, and asked whether a third party should verify their identities. The bloggers thought this was a bad idea and figured that a hoax would be quickly revealed and bring little reward to the perpetrator.
While soldiers gave eye-opening views of combat, Iraqi bloggers reported events that the mainstream media – caged in hotels for fear of being kidnapped – could not. Omar, one of three brothers who write the "Iraq the Model" blog, noted that his blog had reported on crucial events, an anti-terror demonstration in Baghdad last year and Paul Bremer's speech at the turnover in power, long before the media did.
The interconnected global nature of the internet also brings a support network of fellow bloggers and readers. When Iranian blogger/journalist Sina Motallebi was arrested by the hardline Iranian government last year, bloggers around the world rallied to his cause, petitioning and garnering media attention until he was released. When Iran recently cracked down on bloggers and reformist news sites, dozens of bloggers renamed their sites "Emrooz" after one of the shut sites.
One of the pioneering Iranian bloggers, Hossein Derakhshan, estimates that there are more than 70,000 Persian-language blogs. In a repressive society such as Iran's, where the government controls most media outlets, one survey recently showed that citizens trust weblogs more than any other medium.
In the US political sphere, boundaries are again being erased. Bloggers have led the charge to "fact check" the media, gaining prominence for pushing stories such as the questionable documents used by "60 Minutes II" in a report on President Bush's National Guard service. In one case, Australian blogger Tim Blair unearthed a fabricated source in a Chicago Tribune story, leading to the reporter's dismissal.
In these cases, bloggers have filled gaps in mainstream journalism. When corporate profits took center stage at media companies in the '80s and '90s, most news organizations cut back on fact-checkers and proofreading. A citizen brigade of thousands of interested readers checking controversial stories bolsters these strapped organizations. Consider it the new open-source method of fact-checking.
Despite the media rhetoric about bloggers being uninformed ranters in pajamas, and bloggers who deride the content of mainstream media (shortened to "MSM"), the two camps actually have a symbiotic relationship. The media needs bloggers for fact-checking, expert opinions, and for pushing stories on the edges. And the bloggers need the media as grist for their mills – and for all-important media mentions to attract wider audiences.
Of course, bloggers and journalists are not entirely distinct. Several major media sites, such as MSNBC.com and CNN.com, have launched blogs, and many journalists write personal blogs on the side. Perhaps the most interesting blogging experiment during the Iraq War was by American journalist Chris Albritton, who had previously reported for the Associated Press and the New York Post. He soliticited donations from his blog readers to fund his trip to Iraq during the war, and his readers suggested story ideas while he was there.
That dynamic, while rare, shows that blogger/journalists can potentially bypass traditional media distribution sources, allowing readers to support and direct reporters in the field.
This is truly a time of change for the media business. It has been merged and downsized to death, and now citizen journalists are filling the void, reporting from the front lines, fact-checking suspect stories, and making news less a lecture than a conversation with readers. As the internet blurs physical borders, the smallest blog can break the biggest news.
Mark Glaser is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes a regular column for the Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.org), produced by the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Nieman Reports, and Conde Nast Traveler.