Dismantling the bloggers vs journalists debate

internet2.jpgBy Mykel Yee

“[If] you read something in the Straits Times or on CNA, you must know that it’s real, it’s quite different from reading this say on Talkingcock.com.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, (National Day Rally Speech, 20 August 2006).

“Where blogging falls down is in its very origin from amateurs. As I have said elsewhere, because bloggers are non-professionals, they are likely to stumble into the pitfalls of writing. That is, bloggers are likely to get into trouble because of the lack of training.”

Ang Peng Hwa, Dean of the School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, (The Straits Times, 22 August 2006).

Since the completion of my undergraduate thesis on local contentious blogs in April 2006, many events have swept through the media-scape of Singapore and were not captured in my academic exercise. For instance, in the General Elections of 2006, where the field reporting of election rallies using videos and pictures, including the iconic shot of the massive turnout at a Worker’s Party rally (by Alex Au of Yawning Bread), as well as individual citizens providing their own analysis of the polling results, truly marked the beginning of the blog’s ascendancy into citizen journalism.

These events in the blogosphere stirred up the excitement of many media studies enthusiasts (including myself) as the threshold of the liberalization of political communication in Singapore and have sparked debates about the medium’s future role in society. Interestingly, the government has also been quick in reminding us of the negativities involved in engaging in unbridled free speech on blogs in the post-election period; Char’s brush in with the police regarding his Jesus cartoons in June 2006, and the recent “mrbrown affair” at the local paper Today, which clarified the government’s distinction between journalists and bloggers, are just two incidents that complicate Singapore’s growing history on the use of the Internet as an arbiter in local state-society relations.

Internet’s role in local politics in a state of perpetual flux

It comes as no surprise then that the government’s unclear position regarding the Internet’s role in local politics has left the democratic role of the blog in a state of perpetual flux. Who can use the blog, for what purposes, and with what restrictions or support, are all questions individual citizens, companies, political parties and civil societies in Singapore are trying to answer at the moment.

Indeed, there are often no clear answers to these broad questions and the various groups in society have divergent and often conflicting interests in a technology, and will struggle to control its implementation in accordance with their attendant interests. For the government of Singapore, they have not placed clear legal guidelines that could potentially help citizens navigate this difficult e-terrain, but have instead put into place a discourse on “responsible blogging” which is in tandem with its current communitarian project of “Asian Values”. Underlying the views espoused by Prime Minister Lee and Associate Professor Ang above is thus a general conception of bloggers as a category that is starkly different and perhaps inferior from our mainstream journalists, as well as a need to manage blog content and educate bloggers to write sensitively and responsibly to protect national interests.

The themes underlying their position are issues concerning the professionalism, respectability and responsibility of the supposedly polar opposites of mainstream and alternative media. Predictably, bloggers stand at the losing end of this battle they do not wish to be part of, with the government’s communitarian discourse and the professional ethos of “objectivity” winning the debate for mainstream journalism in Singapore as the more trustworthy reporter of news.

Even within the local blogosphere itself, politically inclined blogs that are insufficiently “professionalized” have become stigmatized as unworthy flag bearers of the citizen journalism, as an informal and satirical style is perceivably lacking in the rigorousness and intellectual depth needed to examine complex social and political issues.

Blogs as alternative media?

But to accept the state’s discourse would be essentially denying the possibility of conceiving local blogs as a form of alternative media that can exist amicably alongside mainstream press, without the antagonism exaggerated by a “bloggers versus journalists” dichotomy. Can we not problematize the relationship between the two then? Jay Rosen, the chair of Journalism Studies at New York University, would probably agree with me on this. In a media conference held in 2005 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rosen declared that the “bloggers versus journalists” debate has outlived its usefulness and should be dismantled. His argument is simple:

“The question now isn’t whether blogs can be journalism. They can be, sometimes. It isn’t whether bloggers ‘are’ journalists. They apparently are, sometimes. We have to ask different questions now because events have moved the story forward. […] That’s why we’re conferencing: to find the deeper pattern, of which blogging and journalism are a part.”

Rethink the role of the media

Rather, we should start by asking how both forms of journalism can be appropriated under one diverse media system in Singapore, with mainstream journalism serving a distinct sector of society, and alternative media like blogs catering to other sectors of society. It is time to rethink the role of the media in contemporary democracies. As James Curran, Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths College would suggest, Singapore can start by understanding the strengths of different journalisms in the local media system so that each of them can be employed to serve niche segments of society they are identified as suitable for:

“Perhaps the first step […] is to break free from the assumption that the media are a single institution with a common democratic purpose. Instead, different media should be viewed as having different functions within the democratic system, calling for different kinds of structure and styles of journalism.”

Where mainstream media is still relevant in, such as hard news reporting, bloggers should be less prominent there. But in exercising the media’s ombudsman role as a check on the centers of power in society and as a platform for subaltern groups, citizen journalism and social commentary, bloggers have shown that their non-institutional and particularistic character can help them comment on issues ranging from faulty Dell laptop batteries to opposition party rallies, more effectively than journalists; views which the mainstream media have problems publishing because of various institutional pressures particular to their social and political context, as well as the impetus to maintain a moderate viewpoint to capture a large readership.

This is precisely why I personally find it ironic that the premise of “professionalism” has taken up such a large space within local debates on blogs, without taking into account how the deprofessionalized, decapitalized and deinstitutionalized character of blogs account for much of the its popularity in the first place.

It is afterall the blog’s promise to allow for instant web publishing without the requisite professional values of news objectivity, substantial startup capital, and an institutional presence (all of which are endemic to the professional news media), which provides many of these politically inclined blogs we see today the space needed to pursue their journalistic ends. To deny bloggers this advantage inherent within the medium would be to effectively dilute any potential benefits the blog may offer towards the creation of a more democratic media system in Singapore.

There are therefore, multiple forms of journalisms for Singapore that are untapped, and a “one size fits all” approach as with our current system, may not adequately address the needs of the bulk of the Post-65 generation who embody rather different conceptions of democracy from the nation’s founding fathers.


About the author:

Mykel is a postgraduate student with the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore. His interest lies in the study of alternative media and local state-society relations. Besides his scholarly pursuits, Mykel also tutors the course, SC2214 Mass Media and Society, at the Department of Sociology, NUS.

Mykel co-maintains a blog with Cherian George here:

Photo courtesy of Free Range Stock

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