Blogging the Meltdown: Comparing the Coverage of the Economic Crisis in Journalistic Blogs vs. Economic Blogs

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By Michael Sheehy and Hong Ji

WJMCR 35 (August 2011)

Introduction | Literature Review | MethodFindings | Discussion

Abstract

This content analysis examines coverage of the U.S. economic crisis of 2008-2009 by 25 economics blogs. The study sought to identify differences in the coverage by bloggers of different professional backgrounds. The study found that journalist bloggers wrote more often about government/regulator topics than did bloggers without such a background. The study also found differences in the way that journalist and economic bloggers cited sources and hyperlinks.

Introduction

The practice of journalism is being transformed by the evolution and increasing sophistication of new media. One important component of new media is the weblog, or “blog,” which conveys news, information and commentary to a mass audience via the Internet. The popularity and ubiquity of blogs, many of which are published by a single author, have continued to raise questions about the blog’s role in mass media and how it relates to the practice of journalism. Critics have speculated about the relationship between blogging and journalism, and some studies have analyzed the practices and philosophy of bloggers in a journalism context. However, disagreement exists about the nature of blogging content and whether it can be considered journalism. From the perspective of many professional journalists, bloggers are not journalists because they do not follow the information-gathering processes, writing styles and ethical standards of traditional journalism. Some bloggers, however, perceive themselves as “citizen journalists” and their medium as a democratized form of journalism because of the relative ease in publishing a blog.

Mass communication research has not examined how bloggers with and without professional backgrounds in journalism gather information and frame a major ongoing news event, such as the economic crisis that emerged in the United States in September 2008. This content analysis makes such an examination by focusing on how 25 economics-oriented blogs, identified as noteworthy by the Wall Street Journal and written by bloggers of varying professional backgrounds including journalism, covered the economic crisis. While this study does not conclude whether or not blogging is journalism, it further identifies blogging’s role in mass media and the journalistic parameters of the blogosphere, the cyber-environment of the world blogging community.

Literature Review

Blogging and journalism: With the convergence and divergence of weblogs and journalism, journalists’ use and perception of blogging are two-folded. On one hand, many journalists consider that “blogs are poorly written, self-absorbed, hyper-opinionated and done by amateurs.”1 Blogging is different from traditional professional journalism, such as that practiced by conventional newspapers, and most of it is not qualified as “professional” journalism because it is well “short of meeting the standards.”2

On the other hand, blogging is applauded as “participatory journalism.”3 Some journalists and news organizations have acknowledged the positive influences of blogging on journalism. Blogging can be ahead of news reporting and enlarge media’s agenda by finding ideas, and serve as catalysts to journalism.4 Blogging helps build relationships between journalists and readers by offering dialogue and interactivity with informal and personalized style.5 As a “reporter’s notebook,” blogs can provide insights into the reporting process, give journalists more freedom to gather and report news and information, and also trigger readers’ interest.6 The extensive links to sources provide access to divergent information and strengthen the transparency.7

Web-savvy news organizations believe that blogs can be important for their news packages, and they launch editorial blogs, opinion blogs and beat blogs, while others are still experimenting.8 With blogging entering the newsroom, two major challenges are raised. First, blogging’s nature of “personal opinion” and informal and freewheeling format can conflict with newsroom’s norm of credibility and objectivity.9 Another connected aspect is the journalist’s role of gatekeeper. Having unlimited sources of information and options online, professional journalists face the challenge to make fast news judgment to decide what materials to be disseminated. Without proper gatekeeping practices, fact can be mixed with opinion, reporting can be mixed with advocacy.10 In the web environment, Grabowicz argued that traditional norms such as honesty, integrity, accuracy, fairness, inquisitiveness and thoroughness still need to be valued, but the basic principles for bloggers would be offering “ ‘factual’ information that was ‘thought provoking’ and would invite a ‘conversation’ that will increase understanding.”11

Another issue of blogging is sourcing. Blogs can immediately link readers to raw materials, sources and commentaries, a digital interactive process that is not possible with the print editions of traditional newspapers and magazines.12 As a partial means of transparency, links have been broadly used by journalistic blogs.13 However, should blogs have the same souring standards as print media? How to make a selection of links? Many newsrooms have been working on blog guidelines,14 but literature shows that journalistic blogs prefer linking to the mainstream media site. For example, Calame asserted that the New York Times’ DealBook blog provides links to other news media and to stories in the Times.15 Singer found that political journalistic bloggers offer links primarily to other mainstream media.16

“Done right, weblogs require an extraordinary combination of skills not usually demanded of any single journalist in the newsroom – reporting, writing (including headlines), editing and news judgment, to name a few,” according to Mitchell.17 Many news organizations have set rules in terms of journalists’ blogging and distinguished blogs from traditional news content, but technical problems in editing still exist in the newsroom.18 And many argued blogging is different from conventional reporting and does not aim to replace the original, in-depth reporting.19

Journalistic blogging vs. non-journalistic blogging: Although the discussion of whether blogging is journalism is still ongoing, cooperation and interaction between old media and new media has been seen, and more news audiences have participated in producing news and disseminating news and information.20 However, do these “participatory journalists” perform the reporting in the same way as traditional professional journalists do? In particular, do bloggers without traditional journalism backgrounds produce content the same way as journalistic bloggers?

“‘A blog run by a newspaper…as opposed to a blog run by somebody named Earl in a basement somewhere’ is different,” says David Holwerk, editorial page editor of Sacramento Bee.21 According to Palser, “the best news bloggers are articulate, independent thinkers. In some ways, they are the antithesis of traditional journalists unedited, unabashedly opinionated, sporadic and personal.”22 But in some news organization, such as MSNBC, blogs were not edited thoroughly. And news sites’ blogs can focus on some major issues or events, and also summarize and link to various coverage.23

Scholars have studied the journalistic and non-journalistic blogging practice respectively. In her content analysis of 20 political journalistic weblogs, Singer suggests that the majority of j-blogs contain personal opinions (61%), most journalists remain in gatekeeper roles when normalizing blogs, and in the interactive and participatory format including using the extensive hyperlinks to sources and mostly to other media sites, they enhance the accountability and transparency of traditional journalism norms.24 Studying 74 news blogs, Chung asserted that blogs published in news sites often focus on general news stories and have not fully used the capabilities of the Internet.25 Studying five top non-journalist weblogs, Xie found non-journalistic political weblogs retain editorial independence from mainstream media, having different agendas, using non-mainstream media sources and often criticizing mainstream media’s news reporting.26 Sheehy and Ji did a study on webloggers’ perceptions of the relationship between blogging and journalism. They found that there is no significant relationship between the blog author’s professional status and their perception of blogging as journalism, nor significant difference among author types in sourcing practices.27 These findings suggest bloggers with and without traditional journalism backgrounds perceive the relationship between journalism and blogging similarly, which might lead to similar blogging practices, and that they use hyperlinks similarly, at least when addressing the relationship between blogging and journalism. Robinson, in her examination of journalists who blog, argued that mainstream journalism blogs tend to support traditional journalism norms at a time of changing values in the media landscape.28 Among other blogging research in mass communication, studies have focused on how blogging is perceived by politically interested Internet users and how blogs are used as tools of political communication.29

The research questions for this study are as follows:

  • RQ1: What topics are featured in blog posts about the financial crisis, and do the topics differ based on the bloggers’ professional background or type of blog site?
  • RQ2: How are hyperlinks used in the blog posts, and are there differences based on types of authors and blog sites?
  • RQ3: How are citations or source attributions used in the blog posts, and are there differences based on types of authors and blog sites?
  • RQ4: What is the overall subjective or objective orientation of the blog posts, and are there differences based on types of authors and blog sites?

Method

Sampling: Content analysis was used to examine economics blog posts published during the United States economic crisis of 2008-09. Data were collected from a group of 25 economics blogs identified by the Wall Street Journal’s economics bureau as the top economics blogs. The Journal’s top 25 economics-oriented blogs were selected for the sample because of the newspaper’s prestige and expertise in financial and economic journalism. The top 25 economics-oriented blogs ranked by the Journal included:

The time frame studied was September 15, 2008, through the following year to September 14, 2009. The beginning date represents when the economic crisis began, with the bankruptcy filing by the Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers and the ensuing collapse of the stock market. A one-year timeframe was selected for the study because the crisis was ongoing and carried into 2009. The sample was drawn from two constructed weeks that were randomly selected to represent a year’s worth of blog posts.31 To draw the sample, one post was randomly selected from each of the 25 blog sites for each of 14 dates of the two constructed weeks (Certain blog sites had no posts for some dates of the constructed weeks). All posts were captured from the archives of the 25 blog sites. In total, 251 posts were randomly drawn for content analysis.

Variables and operational definitions: The unit of analysis was each blog post. The variables coded include: the post title, date posted, blog site address, author’s name, type of blog site, type of post author, dominant topic of the post, type of hyperlinks included in the text, use of citation/source and overall post orientation. The key variables’ operational definitions are as follows:

Type of blog site referred to the general background and professional orientation of the blog site. This variable was analyzed because of the possibility that background and professional orientation might influence the framing and information-gathering processes. Coding options were 1) journalistic, if the blog site was hosted by a news organization or a professional journalist formerly associated with a news organization; 2) economic, if the site was hosted by people who research or work professionally in economics for an academic, research or financial institution; and 3) other.32

Type of post author referred to the author’s professional background. This variable was analyzed because of the possibility that background might influence blogging practices. Coding options were 1) journalistic, an author who works or has worked professionally for a news organization; 2) economic, an author who researches or works professionally in economics for an academic, research or financial institution; and 3) other.33
Dominant topic pertained to the post’s overall content focus. The coding options for topic included:

  1. Financial, such as banking, stock market, investment, flow of capital, institutions in financial system and related issues, etc.
  2. Corporate and (un)employment/jobs.
  3. Government and regulator, including the actions/issues relating to the president, Congress, Federal Reserve and financial regulators.
  4. Consumer perspective, including purchasing power, income, consumer credit card, debt/consumer loan, housing, etc.
  5. GDP/economy in general.
  6. Other.34

Hyperlinks in the post text were coded because they are fundamental to blogging and reflect sourcing patterns and sourcing transparency with references to online resources.35 The number of links in each post was not counted. Instead, the presence of a particular type of link was coded (yes/no), including 1) at least one link to the same blog site; 2) at least one link to an outside blog site; and 3) at least one link to a traditional news site.36

The variable “use of citation/source” measures if the post has at least one instance in which a source of information is cited (yes/no), which reflects the transparency of the reporting and credentialed viewpoints.37

The variable “overall post orientation” measures the post’s overall subjective or objective orientation. The coding options were 1) analysis/opinion/commentary, in which content is mostly subjective; 2) fact reporting, in which content is mostly objective; and 3) other.38 Coding was completed by the authors.

Inter-coder reliability: 10% of the sample of 251 posts was selected for inter-coder reliability testing by randomly choosing one post from each of the 25 blog sites. The two authors who performed the coding participated in the testing. The inter-coder agreement was 100% for type of blog site; 96% for type of blog post author; 88% for dominant topic; 88% for the use of at least one hyperlink to the same blog site, 88% for a link to another blog site and 84% for a link to a traditional news site; 100% for the use of a citation or source; and 84% for overall post orientation.

Findings

Significant findings were observed regarding dominant topic and type of author, use of hyperlinks and type of author and type of blog site, and the citation of sources and type of author.

Dominant topic and type of author or blog site:RQ1 asks about coverage topics based on types of authors and blog sites. It was found that authors with a professional journalism background wrote more often about government/regulator topics than did authors without such a background. Government/regulator topics accounted for 43.7% of posts by journalistic authors and 22.8% by economic and other authors combined. It also was found that economic and other authors combined wrote more often about financial topics than did journalistic authors. Financial topics accounted for 16.7% of posts by economic and other authors and 8.5% by journalistic authors (See Table 1).

Table 1: Dominant Topic by Type of Blog Post Author

JournalisticEconomic and other*Total
Financial8.5%16.7%         14.3%      
Government/regulator43.7%22.8%28.7%
Consumer perspective7.0%6.1%   6.4%
Corporate/(un)employment/jobs11.3%7.2%   8.4%
GDP/economy in general5.6%12.2% 10.4%
Other23.9%35.0% 31.9%
Total   71 (100%)180 (100%)    251 (100%)
*The categories economic and other were collapsed to facilitate the chi square test.
Chi-square=15.290, df=5, p=0.009

There was no significant relationship between the dominant topic and the type of blog site. (The categories economic and other were collapsed for variable “type of post author” and variable “type of blog site” to facilitate the chi square test.)

Use of hyperlinks and type of author or blog site: RQ2 asks about the use of hyperlinks based on type of authors and sites. It was found that economic authors linked to their own blog sites more often than did journalistic authors (32.7% vs.14.1%) (See Table 2).

Table 2: Contains Links to Same Blog by Type of Blog Post Author

YesNoTotal
Journalistic14.1%85.9%71 (100%)
Economic32.7%67.3%165 (100%)
Other  13.3%86.7%15 (100%)
Total26.3%73.7%251 (100%)
Chi-square=10.285, df=2, p=0.006

A similar trend was observed in comparing types of blog sites. Economic sites linked to themselves more often than did journalistic sites (31.7% vs. 17.3%). Regarding use of other types of hyperlinks, journalistic sites more often included links to another blog site than did economic (25.9% vs. 23.0%) (See Table 3), and there was no significant difference between type of authors in the use of links to another blog site. The majority of authors and sites included links to traditional news sites, but there was no significant difference between types of authors and sites in links to traditional news sites.

Table 3: Contains Links to Other Blog by Type of Site

Yes     NoTotal
Journalistic25.9%74.1%81 (100%)
Economic23.0%77.0%161 (100%)
Other  66.7%33.3%9 (100%)
Total   25.5%74.5%251 (100%)
Chi-square=8.574, df=2, p=0.014

Citation of sources and type of author or blog site: RQ3 asks about the use of citations and attribution of sources by types of authors and sites. It was found that economic authors cited at least one source in their posts significantly more often than did journalistic authors (94.5% vs. 87.3%) (See Table 4).

Table 4: Use of Citations/Sources by Type of Blog Post Author

YesNoTotal
Journalistic87.3%12.7%71 (100%)
Economic94.5%5.5%165 (100%)
Other80.0%20.0%15 (100%)
Total91.6%8.4%251 (100%)
Chi-square=6.193, df=2, p=0.045

There was no significant relationship regarding use of citations and attribution of sources and type of site.

Overall post orientation and type of author or blog site:  RQ4 asks about the subjective or objective orientation of posts by types of authors and sites. There was no significant relationship with regard to post orientation and type of author or site. Journalistic and economic posts were largely of the orientation of analysis/opinion/commentary. However, it was found that posts identified as analysis/commentary/opinion included internal links more often than fact reporting posts. Internal links were observed in 29.4% of analysis/commentary/opinion posts and in 20% of fact reporting posts (See Table 5).

Table5: Contains Links to Same Blog by Post Orientation

YesNoTotal
Analysis/commentary/opinion29.4%70.6%197 (100%)
Fact reporting20.0%80.0%35 (100%)
Other  5.3%94.7%19 (100%)
Total26.3%73.7%251 (100%)
Chi-square=6.059, df=2, p=0.048

Discussion

This study illuminates how bloggers with journalistic and economic backgrounds used different approaches when covering the ongoing story of the U.S. financial crisis that began in the fall of 2008. These findings help identify the journalistic parameters of the blogosphere, thus defining further the evolving nature of the relationship between blogging and journalism in new media.

Dominant topic and type of author or blog site:Through the one-year study period encompassing the financial crisis beginning September 15, 2008, bloggers with journalistic backgrounds focused more on government/regulator topics, while those with economic and other backgrounds combined focused more on financial topics. This variance may reflect differing philosophies of the purpose of journalism and blogging by authors with and without traditional journalistic backgrounds. Reflecting the longstanding role of the press as the Fourth Estate in American society, journalists often frame stories in the context of government and other powerful institutions exercising their control and influence. By contrast, economic bloggers may perceive their role as simply communicating their expertise about the financial system and not attempt to hold government accountable.

Citation of sources and use of hyperlinks by author or blog site: The citation of sources and use of hyperlinks reflect the desire of bloggers to achieve transparency and strengthen the credibility of their work. The findings of this study suggest that journalistic and economic authors hold different approaches to achieving blogging transparency. Economic bloggers cited sources more often than journalistic bloggers. These sources were often government agencies that provide raw economic data as well as the economic blogger’s previous work. Moreover, the higher degree of citations and attribution of sources among economic authors may reflect their exposure to and familiarity with the rigorous requirements for citation that are found in scholarship. While journalism typically is concerned with transparency and citing sources, the use of unnamed or partially identified sources is accepted practice among many journalists and may be reflected in the trends found in this study.

In addition to the general citation of sources, the use of hyperlinks can reflect differing sourcing philosophies of bloggers. This study examined the types of hyperlinks found in blog posts, including links to the same blog site, to other blog sites and to traditional news sites. Significant differences were observed in how blog authors, as well as particular types of blog sites, utilized links. Economic authors cited their own work more often by including links to previous posts in their blogs. This appears to reflect a greater willingness on their part to cite their own work as a source. By contrast, journalists are trained to consult and cite external sources, not themselves, which might explain the relatively low percentage of links to their own blogs and a higher percentage of links to external blog sites. The extensive use of links to traditional news sites in journalistic posts is consistent with the literature.39 This indicates that journalistic bloggers consider traditional news sites to be credible sources. There was no significant difference in the use of links to traditional news sites between journalistic and economic sites, which suggests that economic bloggers also perceive traditional news sites as credible sources.

Other significant findings involved how hyperlinks related to post orientations. Links to the same blog site most often appeared in posts with the orientation of analysis/commentary/opinion. These findings suggest that bloggers in general are less inclined to cite external sources when producing subjective blog posts.

In conclusion, the findings of this study begin to illuminate the muddled boundaries of journalism in the blogosphere. Journalism certainly exists in the blogosphere, but the question remains as to precisely where journalism begins and ends in the new media landscape. The findings of this study suggest that a blogger’s professional orientation is strongly associated with the type of content appearing in the post. Economic and other bloggers appear less likely to produce material that would be defined as journalism by the traditional processes and standards of the journalism profession. However, the boundaries of journalism in the blogosphere are blurring. This is not to say that people without professional journalism backgrounds cannot produce journalism with their blogs. But the framing decisions and information-gathering processes of non-journalists may be influenced by their personal expertise about a subject and their familiarity with academic routines. These factors do not necessarily reflect American journalism’s emphasis on objectivity and its traditional information-gathering processes and ethical standards.

One question that arises from this study is whether or not economic blog authors are functioning as citizen journalists. The argument can be made that they do function as citizen journalists, as they often gather information and report it to a mass audience. However, much of their blogging involves subjective analysis and interpretation, which reflects the role of commentator rather than reporter. Certainly economic bloggers can function as citizen journalists, but the characterization of their role depends on the content they are producing.

This study is important to mass communication research because it helps to further define the boundaries of journalism in the blogosphere and how those boundaries are delineated. However, one weakness of this research was the subjective nature of the sample. The 25 studied blogs were based upon a list of top economics blogs as determined by the Wall Street Journal. Although the Journal is a respected news organization, especially for economic and financial journalism, and its list of blogs is credible, the 25 blogs nonetheless are a subjective grouping and not selected at random. If it were possible to select 25 economics blogs at random, a stronger sample might have been obtained for this study.

Future research can continue with the themes addressed in this study. For example, the relationship between blog authors and the framing of topics could continue to be studied in the context of other ongoing news stories, such as the health care reform debate or political conflict in Washington. Such research would build upon the findings of this study and further delineate the boundaries of journalism that exist in the blogosphere.

Michael Sheehy is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Cincinnati, and Hong Ji is a senior methodologist in the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

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