Bloggers and journalists

The Columbia Journalism Review has triggered a fascinating debate about the ever-blurring lines between journalism and blogging.

In an article, "Blogging in the Middle East: Not Necessarily Journalistic", Lawrence Pintak (American University in Cairo) and Yosri Fouda (al-Jazeera) start by pointing out that few bloggers in the Middle East are journalists in the usual sense: they are very often activists who regard blogging as part of their activism.

Does this matter? Pintak and Fouda think it does. In the Middle East, they say, the distinction between journalism and blogging “can be a matter of life and death”:

Lately, well-meaning western journalism rights groups have been invoking “freedom of the press” to defend Arab and Iranian online activists who have been jailed or harassed by the authorities. By doing so, they are undermining journalism.

Pintak and Fouda acknowledge that journalists and bloggers are all in the business of freedom of expression, but argue that protecting bloggers is “a job for Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch”, not the Committee to Protect Journalists or Reporters Sans Frontieres. They add that “other western free-press groups also conflate the persecution of online activists and political Twitterati with the persecution of journalists”.

Then they drop their bombshell:

To lump [bloggers] in with brave journalists who are being jailed, harassed, and even murdered for reporting facts – not rumour or innuendo – about government corruption, official malfeasance, and corporate misdeeds undermines efforts to bolster a free and professional media in the Arab world and Iran. And it’s an insult to those who are sacrificing themselves for that goal. 

This strikes me as a very elitist argument. Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists replies in the same issue of the CJR:

If, in the context of an authoritarian regime, you take the view that a blog is nothing but a vehicle for those who deal in opinion, rumour, innuendo and invective, then you are standing at the top of a very slippery slope … The attempt to distinguish between “real” journalists who report facts and bloggers who peddle opinion is misleading. Print journalism and broadcasting have always been replete with political and social commentary. 

The main problem with Pintak and Fouda’s article, I think, is that they assume a very rose-tinted picture of print and broadcasting in the Arab world and of the supposedly objective “professional” Arab journalist.

For a start, large swathes of the non-governmental press are either owned by political parties or represent the interests of a particular faction. Is that really so different from the “activism” of bloggers?

Secondly, it can be very difficult to define a journalist. In the poorer Arab countries, where independent newspapers are hopelessly under-resourced, “journalists” often have other jobs and minimal training. Just because their words appear in print, does that make them any more or less worth protecting than bloggers?

Finally, portraying the dividing line between old and new media as the boundary between rumour and innuendo on the one hand, and hard facts, exposure of corruption, etc, on the other, just does not make sense. Print, broadcasting and blogging all have their own highs and lows.