Bloggers & New Media [Part I]

Over the past few days I’ve managed to write (here and there) some of my reflections on the recent BBC debate I was able to take part in. Since the topic is so vast and I have a lot to say about it, I decided it was best to categorize my thoughts into two or three separate posts. So this is the first of a series of posts, which was actually written nearly a month ago, before the debate, but is nevertheless essential to the issue at hand. It is unapologetically long. So if you do survive it, I applaud you. And you should too.

The other day I was listening to the commentary of an episode from the West Wing DVD. It’s the end of the sixth season and the episode is all about the democratic convention and the struggle to find a nominee, of course all the events depicted are naturally what’s supposedly occurring back stage. As the story line reaches a desperate third ballot with no nominee in sight, all the candidates get a mysterious fax of a medical report showing that the wife of one of the candidates suffers from depression. Desperation leads the campaign managers going to their own candidates to suggest the information should be leaked to the press in order for them to get ahead.

John Wells who wrote the episode had an interesting commentary during this scene on the influence and ethical standards of bloggers. Allow me to quote him as best as possible:

“…There’s a whole undercurrent here to what’s actually happening in the story, which is how do you actually use the information you discover about your candidates and about your opponents. If you can use it for your advantage what is and isn’t off limits with your opponents families?

And that’s increasingly difficult because there’s so many people looking into your opponents families which is something that didn’t happen. There was a decorum to this 30 years ago.

The next thing that will happen in the next round of electioneering I think is the influence of the blogs which have zero ethical standards and are prepared to put all that stuff into the public eye. Increasingly what’s happened too is that once it’s appeared on the blogs the networks then feel that they can report as news without actually suggesting that they’re approving of the journalistic techniques necessary to gain that information on the blogs. And I think everyone’s going to have to step back and look at what they’re going to have to do with the media.”

Now outside the journalistic umbrella of the western hemisphere I don’t think there’s much concern that journalists, say in Jordan, would ever resort to quoting and/or publishing the work of bloggers for serious stories. Blogs are viewed with a sense of illegitimacy and probably even a little inferiority; in the sense that journalists would never degrade themselves by using non-credentialed illegitimate bloggers as a source for anything. And who knows, maybe they’re right.

But then this also begs the question of whether bloggers have no ethical standards. They are certainly not lawfully bound to any. A blog is the average man with the ability to speak to a limitless audience.

The U.S. as John Wells points out is starting to go through its own reevaluation of how this all breaks down; the extent of influence blogs have and should be allowed to have.

For us I see it as possibly heading in a different direction. The Arab world as a whole suffers from individual and specific yet similar problems all at the same time. Most Arabs share common viewpoints regarding issues such as foreign policy. Most Arabs share common viewpoints regarding corruption. And most Arabs share a common perception with regards to their governments and local politics. Some of the symptoms may differ but roughly speaking the same plague afflicts us all.

This is all a preamble to some inevitable posturing, where Arab bloggers will use technology to complain, criticize, analyze and think out loud.

As I said before while this may not bother anyone at home given that bloggers are shunned by the local journalism community thus the somewhat apathetic approach by some of our governments that don’t view us as a threat (yet), here’s where I think it will get interesting:

Our region is a hotbed of international current events and conflict broadcast everyday for 6′o clock appetizers in the average American household. But American and foreign networks have massive limitations when it comes to reporting from the Middle East or any Arab country for that matter. Government restrictions are one. Language barrier is another. Access is yet another. And more importantly a general understanding of how things work that can only be fully comprehended through the average engaged citizen. To top this off never has the world been more interested in the salient details of individual lives. From reality tv to diaries to blogs, the world no longer speaks or thinks in broad concepts but rather specific targeted ones and this is something network tv and international news has been pandering to for well over a decade.

All of this is something Arab bloggers provide for free by definition of them being bloggers and I think it’s something the international media is going to utilize as best as possible. Not only because of all the problems reporters face or their limitations but also because there is a race to get the story. The evening news in America will tend to have personal accounts by Iraqis for example, affected by a raid or a bombing. This is something unheard of in any previous American war.

This has already started to happen with bloggers in the Arab world and international journalists and I see it increasing to a point where it becomes so institutionalized in the journalism and media field that local journalists might eventually be forced to pick up on it in the same way local style and form has been copied by trailblazers of the industry, which of course tend to be western.

I think where it will get more interesting is once both trends take place and there is the issue of language. Arab bloggers who blog in Arabic and those that blog in English will likely have local/regional and international journalists respectively as potential customers.

That being said, once we do catch up with the western hemisphere on this one, we’re going to face much of the same problems they’re facing now with regards to legitimacy and ethics. Although I should also note that the relationship between bloggers and traditional media in the west is almost always reliant on scandalous material, which is something western audiences tend to consume a lot more of than our own.

So it’ll be interesting to see how the relationship between Arab bloggers and all types of traditional media evolves over time and the considerations that come with that such as the boundaries of ethics and such as the shape and form it’ll come packaged in: be it a political scandal or regional war.