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Six Months Later: Bloggers vs Mainstream Media

RedcrossIt's been six months since the deadly tsunami struck 11 countries and killed 200,000 people. At that time, I challenged the viability of blogs in providing perspective, and just maybe getting aid to places after the mainstream media has decided to shine the spotlight elsewhere. 

So what's the latest?

As far as actual aid, a Boston University survey revealed that 46% -- nearly half -- of US adults gave an average of $174 per household for a sum of nearly $1.5 billion in private aid.

Looking through the blogoverse, the last update on leading blog South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog was on June 10, when there were five new entries. There are fifty different contributors listed, which seems to provide some contrast. Typical entries focus on graft, updates on early warning systems, and human interest stories. There is a wikipedia entry, but one gets the sense that even with more contributions, the description there today will not change much over time.

Reviewing mainstream media in comparison, there are a variety of recaps including a summary from Reuters and an assessment from President Clinton published in the New York Times (registration required). As the special envoy for tsunami relief for the United Nations, President Clinton mentions his efforts to get tsunami relief workers to agree to a four step agenda, centering on (1) the need to coordinate efforts, (2) finance reconstruction efforts to restore livelihoods, (3) move people from tents into decent transitional shelters (not even real homes yet!), and (4) ensure that all affected parties have a voice, especially those groups who have little political representation.

The difference between the two accounts is like night and day: a summary of the situation, followed by an action plan; or a series of missives describing misdeeds by junior level bureaucrats and feelgood stories about aiding the elderly. It seems the ability of the collective blogoverse to apply critical thinking to the tsunami problem is mirrored by the site traffic to the Red Cross website, shown above.

Scanning through blog entries, no matter how many, will not lead to understanding. Even Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media, acknowledges that blogs are "much better at tearing things down - people, careers, brands - than it is at building them up."

Newsrooms aren't given the charter to wreck lives (although coverage of certain issues often makes it seem otherwise). Newsrooms are composed of professionals who are chartered with making issues of the day understandable to their audience. In this vague new world of net journalism, these professionals are increasingly faced with novel challenges of how best to cover issues, free from conflicts of interest.

No one has a monopoly on the truth. Blogs like Zeyad's HealingIraq, Frederic Joignot's opposing views in his Journal of Ideas, and Debka's militant viewpoints provide ammunition for just about any argument, and indeed, help keep the mainstream media honest.

But like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the presence of both US media and Al Arabiya in the Middle East provide citizens with the perspectives they need to understand issues that cannot be reduced to sound bites. Former CNN journalist Riz Khan cited the need to "provide a complete picture on global issues" as a major reason for his move to Al Jazeera International.

My take: put fifty blogging monkeys in a room full of typewriters, and after a hundred years you still won't get the kind of real thinking we need to keep this Republic of ours alive.

Link: Alexa.com analysis of Redcross.org traffic

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