Opinions expressed in this article are solely mine and do not reflect any opinions Kennedy Kachwanya, the chairman of BAKE, may have. Read his views here
Early this week some bloggers were on NTV to give their opinions on whether it is necessary to regulate blogging. Almost all bloggers who watched the show and shared their opinions on Twitter about whether it is necessary to regulate blogging were of the contrary opinion. Being a blogger, I am tempted to fall on the side of those against regulation but sentiments expressed for the need to regulate blogging are stronger. Before we delve into the three points that should make all of us support the need to regulate blogging, let us have a look at some definitions and background information.
Blogging, foremost, is being separated from main stream journalism but that’s wrong. I agree, the two professions seem separate but a little bit of dictionary definition will help. Journalism is being defined by Wikipedia as “gathering, processing, and dissemination of news and information related to the news to an audience.” But one thing that’s clear is that journalism is derived from the word journal. Journal by itself is from the French equivalent of day or daily – basically a chronological write up of daily activities/transactions. Let me quote from the Online Etymology Dictionary:
journal (n.)mid-14c., “book of church services,” from Anglo-French jurnal “a day,” from Old French jornel, “day, time; day’s work,” noun use of adjective meaning “daily,” from Late Latindiurnalis “daily” (see diurnal). Meaning “book for inventories and daily accounts” is late 15c.; that of “personal diary” is c.1600, from a sense found in French. Meaning “daily publication” is from 1728. Initial -d- in Latin usually remains in French, but according to Brachet, when it is followed by an -iu-, the -i- becomes consonantized as a -j- “and eventually ejects the d.” He also cites jusque from de-usque.
A step further we go to synonyms of the word journal that are given by Google Dictionary as “diary, daily record, daybook, log, logbook, chronicle”, etc. Important synonyms from that list are log, and logbook. These two synonyms are important because the word log is present in the words blog (b-log where b is from web), blogging, and blogger.
As a verb, log has been defined by Google Dictionary as “an official record of events during the voyage of a ship or aircraft” and “a regular or systematic record of incidents or observations”. On the origin of the term blog, Wikipedia explains:
The term “weblog” was coined by Jorn Barger on 17 December 1997. The short form, “blog”, was coined by Peter Merholz, who jokingly broke the word weblog into the phrase we blog in the sidebar of his blog Peterme.com in April or May 1999. Shortly thereafter,Evan Williams at Pyra Labs used “blog” as both a noun and verb (“to blog”, meaning “to edit one’s weblog or to post to one’s weblog”) and devised the term “blogger” in connection with Pyra Labs’ Blogger product, leading to the popularization of the terms.
I hope now we are on the same page, technically bloggers are journalists. I want to provide my own explanations using an analogy:
There people who are called chefs. These people undergo years of training to perfect the art of cooking and always prepare meals by inputting professional expertise, experience and/or talent. They normally work for high end restaurants and hotels. What they do, though, is to cook food.
Then there are cooks. Allow me to call everyone who cooks without professional training a cook. For the purposes of this article, I will compare chefs to journalists and cooks to bloggers – journalists get professional training while bloggers do the same thing without training; but just as cooks, they perfect the art and science of blogging through experience.
There are a number of other professions that have both experts and everyone else do the same work – and in some instances the “everyone else” perfect themselves to a point where they become even better than the trained experts.
Regulating the media industry
It is taken for granted that the media industry must have a form of regulation, and all the stakeholders agree. It is also accepted that government oriented regulation is in contradiction to freedom of expression, media freedom, and other freedoms related to acquiring and disseminating information hence the settling for self regulation mechanisms. In self regulation, mostly done jointly through a body established by the players themselves independent of the government, the practitioners do adhere to codes of conducts that are in line with laws, rules, and regulations enacted through parliament and related legislative bodies.
Following the definitions above, it should be obvious that blogging is part of the larger media industry; after all, bloggers also do acquire and disseminate information for public consumption – and essentially should be governed by the general laws, rules and regulations enacted by the legislative body for the good of the public. The question should not be whether blogging should be regulated but how the regulation should be implemented. Before I give my two cents on “the how”, let me explain further why it is necessary to regulate blogging.
Point One: Content on blog posts should be reliable
When I decided to be a full time blogger a number of friends advised me not to as “it is a waste of time without income”. To convince them, I had to share with them the secrets of how bloggers make money. Let me take this opportunity and share with you too.
Bloggers make money from the content they create, like this one. The content created foremost generate audience, advertisers take note of the audience, and place ads on blog sites.
The audience also become loyal to specific blog sites because the blog sites provide information they can rely on – whether be they news (gossip, politics, sports, business, etc), reviews, or opinions. In PressPass on NTV, it was argued that the mainstream media can longer be relied on to give accurate information as they have gone to bed with politicians and the government. To bridge the gap, bloggers have taken it upon themselves to provide information from diverse sources including first hand sources some of which are accurate and reliable. As more and more people trust the reliable blog sites for information, especially information on products and services, advertisers talk nicely to the bloggers so that the bloggers can write positive reviews of their products and services.
That’s where the problem begins. For instance a blogger would be paid handsomely to heap praises on a crappy product, but since his audience trusts him, the audience will go ahead and use the product or service. This scenario is not yet very popular in Kenya but it is gaining ground and soon a body charged with consumer protection (Cofek?) will need to go the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) way as was reported by Fox News in October 2009. From Fox News we read:
The Federal Trade Commission will try to regulate blogging for the first time, requiring writers on the Web to clearly disclose any freebies or payments they get from companies for reviewing their products [since] Bloggers have long praised or panned products and services online. But what some consumers might not know is that many companies pay reviewers for their write-ups or give them free products such as toys or computers or trips to Disneyland. In contrast, at traditional journalism outlets, products borrowed for reviews generally have to be returned
Next time you read a highly positive review on a destination, a car, a clothing line, a restaurant, a new service by the big wigs, whether on any of the mainstream media sites or on a blog site, be aware that it is highly likely such content was paid for. I am not saying that it is bad for vendors to promote their products/services by paying for blog posts, but rather the objectivity of a paid posts would generally be questionable. It is important to note that a reputable blogger would only agree to be paid to positively review a product that has been tested and found to be great, but since most bloggers have turned blogging into pure business enterprises (which is not a bad thing), they will take the money and use their gift of words to heap praises for products and services that are actually wanting.
Given that most bloggers (including professional journalists) will likely take money to write misleading reviews on products and services, it would be prudent for a framework to be put in place where misleading content can be reported and authors of such misleading information penalized.
For related but contrary argument read Kachwanya’s piece on Understanding Blogs and Blogging Culture in Kenya- Why Kahenya Missed the point
Point Two: Free speech, defamation, curse words and hate speech
I really don’t know how to answer this question as it is a moral one, “should we be allowed to speak freely what is actually in our minds?”. There are bloggers who have been arrested for spewing hate speech on their Facebook and Twitter timelines, some of the arrests being supported by friends given the contents of their updates.
If a blogger posts information that defames a character, should such a blogger be let be simply because the medium used is Internet and not TV, Radio or Print Media? Would you love that scenario as a recipient of the defamation? But issues get complicated when online attacks in the form of cyberbullying and anonymity are taken into consideration. I’ll leave that to another day.
Then the other question:
Should we allow bloggers to use curse words and insults at will? To get traffic, there are bloggers especially the gossip types who create content to insult a section of the society or individuals. When comments against such articles are made, the bloggers or those who enjoy the insults and the curse words are always ready to reply, “If you don’t like it, don’t read it”. But last night during PressPass I got myself thinking, “Would I be allowed to freely speak my mind, including spewing insults at will, by shouting out loud in down town Nairobi?”
Point Three: Blogging should not be synonymous with gutter press
You must have at least ones clicked on a link because it had a great and compelling heading. Content creators are perfecting the art of putting up flashy headlines to the articles they write in order to attract audience but the articles themselves contain nothing of substance. As a blogger I understand the hunger for traffic, but again giving people heightened expectations to end up reading gibberish is unethical.
Political blog sites are culprits. One can click on a political article hopping to find out exclusive information on how a certain politician has been screwed or plans to screw the government only to end up reading a shoddy compilation of recent political news. These political bloggers are the ones that make the rest of us be classified under gutter press.
The need to be the first to publish a recent happening also plays a big part. Those in the showbiz business are the worst culprits. In their attempt to be first in revealing how a certain socialite has changed her skin colour or bought artificial enhancements, slept with some celebrities or are sported wearing lingerie, they normally posts two sentences that lack material facts that would make their content trustworthy. It is really in bad taste that a blog site will be shunned because of undoing by another blogger.
But ironically the short sentence oriented blogs that lack material facts are the preferred destinations by majority of Kenyans, given the rankings the blogs have on Alexa and other ranking sites. This is where I strongly recommend for their regulation in terms of content quality. By many Kenyans preferring half baked or zero baked information sources, the citizenry is growing to become half baked in their reasoning. Try sustaining a conversation with some of the Kenyans that love our showbiz sites; I assure you your brain won’t be given work to do and you would learn nothing new from them. Sadly, the main stream media is following suite by launching products like The Nairobian and now the defunct Nairobi News. Kenyans have been accused of not reading – but they like reading online – it is important for bloggers to provide quality content to make Kenyans start feeding their brains with precious gems and not garbage.
This point was discussed by a friend on his Facebook page where he contended that although the media outlets argue that the market’s demand for half baked gossip news is forcing them to provide for what is demanded, the market demand can be changed by ensuring that information provided to the public are well researched content backed with relevant facts. A public fed with only properly researched news and analysis, he said, will be an informed public. I agree.
Free market and government regulations
Up there I mentioned that I would provide my two cents on how to regulate blogging. There are three levels of regulations that can be implemented. The first one that is already taking place is free market regulation. This is where the audience reject blog sites that do not satisfy their needs. Blog sites with misleading titles and poorly written content will likely be shunned.
But it seems Kenyans are not that discerning. I at times take a look at some of the blog sites prone to coming up with misleading titles yet the same sites continue to increase their audiences exponentially. This basically means, on average, Kenyans are not actually informed and as such are incapable to discerning quality from crap (don’t condemn my choice of words, this is a blog site).
To give Kenyans the capacity to discern, they need to be forced to access quality information and this is where both the government and self regulation come into play. Bloggers already have an association in BAKE that should expand its scope to also regulate content created by members. After all, one of the core functions of BAKE is to syndicate content and one definition of syndicate is to control or manage by a syndicate (group/association).
Government regulation should be limited to monitoring hate speech, defamation, consumer protection (ensuring product reviews are true) and cyberbullying.