How did blogs and citizen journalism provide commentary on the Obama Health Reform act?

By Shelley Stevenson

In the absence of more articulate discourse on American Health Reform by traditional media, blogs filled this relative void in the following ways:

  1. Providing information traditional media did not cover
  2. Providing a discussion forum – highlighting problems with the current Health Reform legislation and creating a dialog about them
  3. Linking to alternative views

Background

Access by citizens to traditional media news in the United States has been declining for the past twenty years.  The internet has affected most traditional news sources, especially print, by providing an alternate way to access information.  This compounded with the migration of advertising to the web, and with the 2008 -09 recessions in the United States, led to an especially large number of newspaper closures, and ‘contractions in news operations’ (Curran 2010: 102).  The Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Post ceased to exist in print at all, choosing to have only a web presence.

The Pew Research Centre estimates (in Curran 2010: 102) “nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone” in the United States.  This severe restriction of  perceived ‘expert’ opinion in print, especially during a crucial time when citizens needed assistance to understand the complications of the Obama Health Care Reform act, led to many confused citizens wondering whether to support, or not to support the measure purely on hear say.

The print industry’s response to the changing face of news consumerism and the introduction of new media is slow, and in some places, they appear to be more than reluctant to have an interactive presence.  Newspapers attempted to have blogs and web pages, but their use of the new media was sketchy.  Many print outlets did not and do not have blogs with comments enabled for fear of responsibility for the commenter’s potential libellous content.  The majority of American newspapers choose to replicate their print paper in its entirety on a web page, using the internet as a form of print.  Not utilising the best part of the web, the interactivity. George Thurman in 2008 said that “…news organisation’s adoption of interactive publishing technologies is often assumed to be uniformly shallow and slow.”  (Thurman 2008: 108) Katz (in Thurman 2008) criticised US news papers for “remaining insanely stagnant in an interactive age.” (ibid)

The presentation of the news is not the only problem facing the United States consumption of news.

American interest in hard and soft news

The United States’ interest in hard news has been declining since the 1950’s, and is being replaced with more emphasis on ‘soft’ entertainment style news.  (Aalberg, van Aelst and Curran 2010: 4)  The liberal media models of the United States and Britain, with their commercial stations, and in the case of the United States, very small number of public service outlets, leads their population to be ‘less informed about politics and current affairs than citizens in countries with strong public service broadcasting regimes” (Aalberg, van Aelst and Curran 2010: 4)

It is uncertain whether this is due to the timing of the television news in the United States.  The main news stations, ABC and NBC have their main news on at 6.30pm, the very fringes of prime time.  This shows its lack of importance to the commercial television networks.  In European states with the state owned public broadcasting and relative lack of commercial stations, news is paramount, on across Europe at 7 pm.  This is considered prime time viewing and in the United States, the commercial value is huge.  “American television is directed toward maximizing revenue and is oriented toward serving the consumer.  By contrast, European television gives greater relative priority to serving the needs of democracy.” (Aalberg, van Aelst and Curran 2010: 9) British television news, considered to be in the same category as American news with no state owned station (BBC is a trust and independent of the state), is broadcast at 6 pm and at 10 pm; again outside the ‘prime time’ viewing  Television has also been affected with a growing number of the many local American TV channels choosing not to provide their own news at all.

The American lack of interest in ‘hard news’ and the declining number of print outlets has led to a ‘news hole’ that could only be filled by the internet.  Bloggers, fringe groups and organisations chose to create their own alternative news sites to highlight what they felt to be the dangers or the benefits of the Obama Health Care Reform, or as some bloggers call it Obamacare.

Filling the gap

‘ The Health Care Blog’ (Laszewski 2010), has a particularly good response from the public.  A good blog invites  interaction with the reader.  Public reaction to the news is not a new thing.  Journalism has never been just a one way communication.  Traditionally, a writer, later called a ‘journalist’ would report their views, espouse their opinions and the public would respond.  Sometimes with letters, sometimes with their own papers espousing their own views.    As communication developed, so did the way in which the audience would respond.

New media has opened the way for an almost immediate response, causing the comments and response to the news and the news itself to be more fluid, growing, and even sometimes uncontrollable.  Although many have hailed the internet as the ultimate machine for social justice, (Gillmor 2006) it also means that anyone anywhere can say anything with little or no control.  This can be a concern for editors of the online newspapers who oversee their publication blogs.  Editors have expressed concerns about “…the ways in which non-professionally produced content challenges journalism’s professional norms.” (Turman 2008: 144).   The fear is that untrained citizens/grassroots journalists will produce content that the “standards of spelling, punctuation, accuracy and balance” and the bloggers perception of news values will influence the mainstream news media.  There is a fear from some mainline journalists that citizen journalism will spell the end of the profession.   There may be some basis for that fear.

Rise of the citizen journalist

The Drudge Report, a blog that started as an email newsletter in the early 1980’s by a self proclaimed ‘citizen journalist’; has ended up a much visited blog that “Nielsen/NetRatings has clocked three million unique visitors to the site over the course of a month, and the Drudge Report said its users clicked onto the site a combined 16 million times in the course of a single day last week.” The fact that The Drudge Reports influence, “has survived the proliferation of blogs” (Rutenberg 2007) is due to fast news ‘turnaround’ and his divergent news offerings.

Drudge rose to prominence when he broke the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal.  He is not a journalist, but started his e-newsletter while working in Hollywood at a studio where he passed on insider gossip.  Ironically, Secretary of State Clinton now passes on insider information to Drudge to maintain a good connection and to ‘keep him sweet’. (Rutenberg 2007)

Drudge himself appeared to be a ‘test case’ for the internet libel and defamation laws.  The blog belongs to one person, and that person, the publisher, can be sued.  As with any publication, bloggers need to ensure that they check their sources – and monitor the responses of those who choose to comment on the blog.  Drudge had claimed that a Clinton White House aide, Sidney Blumenthal, was a spouse abuser.  When Drudge realised that his information was false, he corrected it and retracted his post and apologised, but Blumenthal still sued him for defamation of character in 2001.  The case was settled, and Blumenthal ended up paying Drudges lawyer’s costs.

As with any medium, not all blogs were created equal.  Some blogs relating to the Health care reform had an agenda that, in some cases, originated in Capital Hill.  Other blogs were outlets for interested people in the proposed health care reform.  Orac, the blogger behind ‘Respectful Insolence’, tackles many health issues that drive debate in the United States; vaccination, alternative care, and ‘Obamacare’.  “Orac is the nom de blog of a (not so) humble pseudonymous surgeon/scientist with an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent’s posterior about his miscellaneous verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few will.” (Orac 2010)

Interactive news community

One case study:  Orac’s response to Mike Adams the ‘Health Ranger’ and what he feels is an unscientific attack on the new health care reform is not only informative, but entertaining.   Orac’s original blog was his view of Mike Adams’ mistaken, in Orac’s opinion, belief that as he eats healthily and takes care of himself, he will never need health insurance.   Adams also stated that if he did need health care, he wanted alternative care, rather than “surgery pushing” doctors paid by Obamacare to care for him, so why should he pay for it.

Orac’s response was biting and quoted each of the anti-health reform campaigner’s points with his own counter point, backing his information up with direct quotes from the health reform act.  Then it was opened to the public.

What is most interesting, though, is not his blog about Adams, but the 145 responses to the blog at the current count.  Some were agreeing with his blog, others disagreeing, and some filling in the gaps of information.    Though some of the responses are knee jerk reactions, a few from the ill informed, there are those that have insider news.  Some were thoughtful responses by experts who take the time to explain, expound or refute what the blogger had initially said.

The responses to the blog covered the whole gamut of care in the world, some commentators defending the NHS that Adams had said had ‘death panels’ and chose who was worthy to live and die; the US/France healthcare flaws, Obamacare, its flaws, information, corrections of information; links and the final practical thought: that even those who live right can get hit by a bus.  (Orac 2010)

‘Respectful Insolence’ is just one of the thousands of blogs that were generated in the United States by citizens having their say.  As with any information source, it is important to check on the validity and their ‘bona fides’.  “…one of the most crucial exercises is to consider the source.  Good journalists know this as a matter of practice.  We don’t pick a random bystander and assume he’s an expert on, say nuclear power.” (Gillmor 2006: 179) In this case, looking at the blog history, the responses and trying the links that Orac provides makes his blog one of the most popularly accessed health blogs in the United States.

Anti-Obamacare blogs also provide interesting content and information.  The Health Care Blog provides the alternative view on the US Health reform.  Again, what is interesting is not so much the original post, though very thought provoking, simply entitled “The President’s Health Care Plan”, but the many responses to his view.  (Laszewski 2010)

The bloggers, and the comments from the public have created an interesting forum in which to discuss the ins and outs of a very complicated reform act.  There is the “immediacy and interactivity of the internet” (Fenton 2010: 35) that contrasts with the mainstream news lumbering response and sometimes its “gatekeeper” mentality, “undermining the idea that there are discrete gates through which political information passes” (Williams and Delli Carpini 2004: 1208).   The new, convergent, multi platform approach to news gives an unlimited number of perspectives and opportunities for research and discussion as well as debunking of what was previously thought as fact.  Nowhere has this been as evident as with The Health Care Blog  (www.thehealthcareblog.com).  It is top of the Google list when searching, with at least five different entries.  Those searching for information and interested in the health care debate would go there first.

Linking to alternative views and different forums

As mentioned earlier, blogging is a multimedia platform, sometimes reproducing snippets of information, TV shows, podcasts and video and selecting them for the blog audience.  Because blogs by their nature are biased and sometimes specific homes for particular information that interests the blogger, they can be used as a pulse check and platform for the interest of the viewer.  Health reform can not only be the basis for the whole blog, but a ‘tag’, or sub-interest of the blog.

What is found to be most interesting about the ‘blogosphere’ is the interest in alternative opinions, and the links to different blogs on the page and a ‘blogroll’ of others whose opinion or observation could make a difference to the reader, viewer or listener.

With hyperlinks and subcategories, one can follow a thread (or discussion topic) or links into very divergent territory.  One may start at one part of heath care reform, and end up discussing homeopathy on an entirely different forum that had a hyperlink because of the Obamacare plan that does not recognize some alternative medicines.  From homeopathy one can be taken further to science free health retreats, discuss isolations tanks and re-birth therapy; and all beginning with one link.

Community of Bloggers

Blogs, when they create a following, become by their nature a community. Sometimes the community is small and can lead to a feeling of friendships.  Twitter is a micro-blogging software system whose groups of followers do that very thing.  Followers, or friends, have ‘Tweet-ups’ to meet people in real life that they might not have.  When the blogs or followers grow and develop in their interests enough, they can form political groups that can, as in the case with health reform, aid passage of a particular law, or help to delay it.  Citizen journalists have the grassroots power to motivate people to action.  Facebook, a social networking site, is used often to create groups to aid political reform.   Whenever citizens are informed, they have the opportunity for action.

Conclusion

Although the internet is used primarily for entertainment, a new and vibrant use is creating news and interest communities in the digital age.  The web with micro blogs, blogs and social networking give the average citizen a chance to publish their views on all aspects of their life.  This can threaten existing traditional news organisations if they are unwilling to respond to the evident desire for the opportunity and interactivity of the web.

But even with the new media and new response, traditional media and news brands have not entirely gone away.  “Dominant newsbrands are still overwhelmingly dominant across technologies” (Curran 2010:108) at the moment.  This is partially due to aggregate websites bringing them up as our trusted brands when a search is put in.  But advertising is moving to the internet and not just to the dominant news media machines.  News is a consumable, and news makers need to make money.

What we do not know is what will happen with the reduction of the established news media organisations and their demise.  What will arise in the “space in which progressive green shoots will rise up and take over? Dominant news organisations will decline, as audiences and advertisers decrease, leading to a falling off of investment and quality”.  (Curran 2010: 108)  But the end is not here yet.

References

Aalbeg, T.,van Aelst, P, Curran, J. (2010) ‘ Media Systems and he Political Information Environment:  A Cross-National Comparison’  The International Journal of Press/Politics {Electronic} xx(x) 1-17 SAGE Publications DOI: 10.1177/1940161210367422

Curran, James (2010) ‘Future of Journalism’ Journalism Studies, [Electronic] first published 06 April2010 (iFirst) DOI:10.1080/14616701003722444

Fenton, Natalie (ed) (2010) New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age, London: Sage

Gillmor, Dan (2006)We the Media:  Grassroots journalism by the people, for the people, Sebastopol: O’Reilly Media

Haas, Tanni ((2003) ‘Importing Journalistic Ideas and Practices?  The Case of Public Journalism in Denmark’ The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics [Electronic] vol. 8(2): 90-103 Available http://jij.sagepub.com DOI:10.1177/1081180X02251049

Hall, Jim (2004) ‘Editorial’ Convergence:  The international Journal of Research into New Media Technologies [Electronic] vol. 10: 5 Available http://sagepub.com  DOI: 10.1177/135485650401000401

Hodfetts, D., Chamberlain, K., Scammell, M., Karapu, R. Waimarie Nikora, L. (2007) ‘Constructing health news:  possibilities for a civic-oriented journalism’ Health: An Interdiciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine vol. 12(1): 43-66 Available at http://hea.sagepub.com DOI: 10.1177/1363459307083697

Iorio, Sharon Hartin (ed)(2004) Qualitative Research in Journalism: Taking it to the Streets, London: Erlbaum Associates

Laszewski, Mark (2010) The Presidents Health care plan, The Health Care Blog (25 February 2010) – http://www.thehealthcareblog.com/the_health_care_blog/2010/02/the-presidents-health-care-plan.html – accessed 19 May 2010

MacGillis, Mac (2009) ‘The Unwitting birthplace of the ‘death panel’ myth’ Washington Post (9 April 2009) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/03/AR2009090303833.html – accessed 18 May 2010

McNair, Brian (2006) Cultural Chaos: Journalism, news and power in a globalised world, London: Routledge

Orac, (2010) ‘The “HealthRanger” Mike Adams takes on Obamacare with hilarious results’ Respectful Insolence (25 March 2010) – http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/03/mike_adams_takes_on_obama_care_with_hila.php-Accessed 19 May 2010

Papacharissi, Zizi (ed) (2009) Journalism and Citizenship:  New Agendas in Communication,  London: Routledge

Rutenberg, Jim (2007) ‘Clinton finds way to play along with Drudge’ The New York Times (22 October 2007) – http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/22/us/politics/22drudge.html?_r=1&ei=5065&en=8e8c56803a2a987c&ex=1193630400&partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print accessed 19 May 2010

Thurman, Neil (2008) ‘Forums for citizen journalists? Adoptoin of user generated content initiatives by online news media’ New Media & Society vol. 10(1):139-157 Available at http://nms.sagepub.com DOI: 10.1177/1461444807085325

Williams, B. , Delli Carpini, M. (2004) ‘Monica and Bill All the Time and Everywhere:  The Collapse of Gatekeeping and Agenda Setting in the New Media Environment’ American Behavioural Scientist, [Electronic] vol.47 No 9 1208-1230 Available http:sagepub.com  DOI:  10.1177/000276402362344

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