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Louisiana blogosphere having impact on political news?

I’m a bit surprised that “old media” journalist Jeremy Alford didn’t go to the horse’s mouth when he wrote his latest piece wondering whether “new media” bloggers were having an impact on Louisiana political reporting – me (he admitted in a rare moment of weakness when truly bored that he reads this space sometimes). I write one (as one might gather, reading it right now) and I’m a political scientist and, as it turns out, I’m familiar with the work my colleagues in the profession that assess this very issue, on a theoretical level. But that’s why I started this enterprise, trying to fill in the gaps left by the mainstream media (that’s why it’s called “Between the Lines”), so I’ll fulfill my end here and now.

The payoff question is whether blogs make any significant difference in information disseminated about Louisiana politics. The generally accepted theory is that blogging, given that any single blog is read by only a tiny portion of the population (for example, I average about 92 hits a posting day here and almost as many on the mirror of this blog at PoliticsLa, and have a mailing list of just little over a dozen, meaning about 175 direct readers a typical posting day), follows a two-step communication process. In this instance, they are read by elites (disproportionately, as I can tell by posted comments, e-mail messages, and the names on my mailing list) who actively engage in politics, who then fan that information out.

In fact, it becomes circular to some degree because much of what is blogged about comes initially from mainstream media reports – it’s just that the blogs may give a different opinion on it or alert readers to a story’s connection with others. Rarely do they provide original information of which the media is totally unaware or which it might be unwilling to disseminate.

How well done is the dissemination? According to the research, unless you are among a handful of top national blogs, pretty poorly. (There’s not even been a study at the state level – the only one I’ve seen which mentions state politics explicitly excluded blogs because the authors felt there was next to no transmission from them that otherwise did not come from the mainstream media.) Several things condition the ability of a blog’s message, independent of any other source, to make it into the mass public with traditional media help:

  • When key weblogs focus on a new or neglected issue, blogs can socially construct an agenda or interpretive frame that acts as a focal point for mainstream media, shaping and constraining the larger political debate.
  • During periods of elite consensus, criticisms from bloggers are more likely to be marginalized, while during periods of elite conflict, journalists are more likely to incorporate the views of bloggers as legitimate interpretations of events.
  • Ordinary political blogs do sometimes act like echo chambers for mainstream media messages and sometimes do not. Ordinary political bloggers, it appears, seem more likely to echo media messages when they relate to the substance of politics rather than the developments of political campaigns.
  • The long-standing norms and constraints of traditional journalism still present a formidable barrier for activists seeking sustained coverage of an off-the-table issue.

    To summarize, there has to be an explosive, yet essentially uncovered issue by the mainstream media, for a blog to punch into the traditional media’s consciousness and receive coverage of its contents. Or, the issue must be hot with plenty of elite conflict, prompting journalists to find ready-made opposing views from bloggers.

    There’s also a related question about who is a “pure” blogger and what their impact is. For example, myself and C.B. Forgotston are classified as “pure” bloggers because almost any opinion contribution we make is via our blogs. (I do news interviews dozens of times a year – last year from media outlets across the country because of the disasters – but those are not opinion pieces so they don’t count for this purpose.) People like Emily Metzgar and Jeff Crouere are “blended” bloggers because their blogs are auxiliaries to their mainstream media contributions (columns for the former, radio and television for the latter). And The Dead Pelican’s Chad Rogers and PoliticsLa’s Charlie Davis are not so much bloggers as “aggregators” because their sites mostly reprint mainstream media stories (although The Dead Pelican occasionally links to blogs such as mine and others’ and Rogers does provide some of his own commentary and occasionally original news, and PoliticsLa does provide some original content). As best as political scientists can tell, pure bloggers have the least dissemination on a regular basis of the bunch.

    So, does this mean bloggers of any stripe in Louisiana do have an impact with their blogs, with views and information often transmitted by political elites, especially media reporters? We don’t know for sure, but probably not often. But it doesn’t mean they are “kooks,” either. Because if Gov. Mike Foster felt he had to publicly label them as such, it meant he acknowledged they were visible enough to have, at the very least, an intermittently significant impact that worried him.
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