watchingwatchdog.jpg Watching the Watchdog
Bloggers as the Fifth Estate
by Stephen D. Cooper

Early in the year I was contacted by the author of this book. He wondered if it would be okay for some material from my site to be used in the book on blogging and the media that he was working on. Of course I agreed, and the book was recently released.

Here’s the blurb:

Who’s Watching the Watchdog, Anyway? Just ask CBS News. In 2004, the network came into possession of allegedly authentic National Guard documents which claimed that President Bush had failed to perform his duties when he was in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. But the documents were forged, and bloggers, not the mainstream news media, broke that story. From the Introduction: The metaphor of watchdog has long been popular as shorthand for the structural role of the free press in a representative democracy. … But what of that watchdog’s leash? If the people need a watchdog to make sure the institution of government does not abuse the power they have granted it, would there not be a need for a comparable check on the press, as a social institution with power in its own right? … This little book is not intended as either an endorsement or a criticism of the ideological or political views of any bloggers … Instead, this work is intended as an exploration of the distinct types of media criticism which have evolved in the blogosphere … . [W]e might now be seeing the emergence of a Fifth Estate in our social system, a watcher of the watchdog. In one sentence, the thesis of this little book is that the blogosphere is in the process of maturing into a full-fledged social institution, albeit a non-traditional one: emergent, self-organizing, and self-regulating.

The author is an associate professor of communication at Marshall University.

Since yours truly is in it, you know I had to order myself a copy.

In the chapter ‘Blogs as Alternative Media’, he notes that independent web publishers are not constrained by the standard format that virtually all of the mainstream media uses, and that that freedom can sometimes allow bloggers to more-accurately or more-thoroughly tell a story. The traditional inverted pyramid format of the regular press can often work against a telling that communicates well enough to impart some understanding of the big picture to readers.

A similar thought applies to photoblogging: news industry conventions about the visual quality of images — lighting, composition, focal length, depth of field, for instance need not constrain a blogger in the way these attributes are a concern of professional photojoumalists. Freelance writer Shelby Murdoc made good use of blogs’ ability to include visual images in a pair of Murdoc Online posts showing the damage from Hurricane Katrina. Both contain very little text; the content is the images themselves, as is the case with mainstream media pictorial features. In terms of visual aesthetics, they are snapshots taken with consumer-level equipment through the window of a small airplane flying over the area. The first post (Pictures From the Air, 2005) showed the extensive damage to the towns of Pass Christian, Gulfport, and Biloxi immediately after the hurricane passed; as is often found in photoblogging, it opens with a brief explanation of the provenance of the images and why Murdoc chose to post them.

While almost all of the attention has been on New Orleans. the fact is that Hurricane Katrina (thankfully) turned and didn’t hit the city directly. While this was fortunate for the 100,000 residents stranded in the city, it didn’t bode well for those in the other cities and towns along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama. They took a direct hit, and it’s important that we don’t forget about them. These pictures were sent in by a reader who works with the spouse of the photographer, who is in the Air Force Reserve.

The balance of the post is a series of about two dozen images. Murdoc added a brief caption to each, indicating its location and sometimes noting something of particular interest about it. For instance, he followed a picture of a totally destroyed highway bridge with this terse comment:

This is Highway 90 east of Biloxi. No relief coming that way.

This post contains an interesting example of the value-added process noted in the preceding chapter. Murdoc explained that he had identified the locations shown in the pictures by comparing them to Google Earth satellite images of the region. He was able to match a Google Earth image quite closely with one of the aerial pictures, and created a before-and-after juxtaposition of the marina in Pass Christian.

Several months later Murdoc posted a followup about the damage to the area in “Gulf Coast Photos” (2006). He explained that another reader had sent him a number of current pictures taken from the ground; these were of debris which had not yet been cleared. Again, he indicated that his motivation for posting the images was to provide a sense of the severe damage in an area which had gotten less mainstream press coverage than New Orleans.

Even though the plight of the residents of Mississippi and Alabama who were hit by Hurricane Katrina never received a lot of attention while everyone watched New Orleans, even though what little coverage there ever was has faded away, the wreckage is still there and there are still people in a bad way.

Don’t forget them.

“Terse”? Since when is Murdoc ever “terse”? (Ahem.)

I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but it looks good. A lot of bloggers get mentions (many of them far more prominently than Murdoc, and rightfully so) and it seems to be a good overview of the state of things today when it comes to the blogosphere and mainstream media.

I’ll have more on the book if and when I get to it.