A content analysis of newspapers and blogs covering the Iraq War illuminates differences, and similarities, in sourcing.
By David Vaina
Back in the mid-1850s, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that a citizenry could not, would not, flourish unless it was nourished by the full spectrum of voices that exist among the people:
It is, however, obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining either [side or sides of the debate], while opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case, condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candour, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own; and giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell in their favour. This is the real morality of public discussion.
Well over one hundred years later, the blogosphere came into our lives, allowing us, in the words of Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, to "hear voices that had been shut out of the corporate media outlets."
These old "corporate media outlets," refusing to fade away, have held their ground. According to William Dietrich, a writer with the Seattle Times Sunday magazine, the sacred purpose of the newspaper reporter "is to fulfill an essential function of our democracy not just by disseminating information but also by analyzing it, detecting patterns, spotting trends, and increasing societal understanding." Indeed, bloggers may generate a more democratic Public Square, but can they facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of how political events are most likely to evolve, the Old Guard worries and wonders. In other words, Mill might not be enough.
To contribute to this Great Debate, I decided to conduct a content analysis of how blogs and newspapers covered the Iraq War during one week in late March 2007. By looking at how the two media have sourced their news stories, I hoped to offer insights into what exactly the American public "hears" from newspapers and blogs.
More specifically, my research, by examining five major newspapers and six popular political blogs, sought to answer three questions:
* Which media platform uses more sources?
* Which offers a more diverse range of sources?
* And which types of sources are more prevalent in each platform?
Overall, the data showed that blogs included a higher number of total sources and a slightly wider range of sources.
Blogs included an average number of nine sources per blog posting, compared to an average of just six for newspapers stories.
The gap between newspapers and blogs was considerably narrower when evaluating the types of sourcing. Still, blogs were slightly more diverse in their sourcing, with four sources per posting compared to an average of three in newspaper stories.
Digging deeper, which types of sources were the two media most likely to use?
Both blogs and newspapers were likely to include traditional Washington sources, both political and intellectual.
But blogs and newspapers did diverge in several key ways. Compared to newspapers, blogs were considerably less likely than newspapers to include official Iraqi sources.
And perhaps as a tell-tale sign of what the mainstream press really thinks of the blogosphere, just two percent of newspaper stories used a blog as a source. Not surprisingly, bloggers used other bloggers as sources at almost the same frequency as they used the mainstream press.
Sourcing in Blogs
Seven in ten (69%) blog postings included a mainstream media outlet (e.g. Washington Post, AP, The New York Times) as a source and 64% used other bloggers as sources.
Political Washington was well represented. Thirty percent of all stories had a source from a Democratic politician or party strategist, 28% included one from a Republican or GOP operative, and 23% included a source from the White House.
Meanwhile, a quarter (25%) included sources from the Pentagon, a soldier fighting in Iraq, or an immediate member of a soldier's family. Ten percent of all blog postings had a source from other government officials, such as analysts from the State Department or the American embassy in Iraq. Furthermore, 16% of all postings included a government document as a source, such as a hyperlink to a PDF of a legislative bill or the complete voting results for a particular bill from the Office of the Clerk at the U.S. House of Representatives.
Considerably fewer blog postings, however, included sources from Iraqi government officials (11%), such as local police and security forces and hospital administrators, and an even smaller number offered sources from Sunni or Shiite politicians (five percent). And only two percent of all postings included a source from the Iraqi insurgency.
Five percent of posts included sources from Iraqi civilians, and eight percent had sources from U.S. civilians.
Finally, a quarter (25%) offered a source from a non-partisan, non-governmental entity, such as a think tank, polling organization, or university.
Sourcing in Newspapers
Turning to newspapers, the most frequent source was a U.S. military official or family member. Over half (53%) of all newspaper stories included a source from this cohort—more than double the percentage in blogs.
The second most common source was a Democratic one; more than three in ten stories (32%) offered a Democratic source.
A quarter (24%) included a source from the Bush Administration, and another 16% had a source from other Republican politicians or strategists.
Another 22% included a source from other government officials outside the halls of Congress, the White House or the Pentagon.
Newspapers were also likely to offer an Iraqi point of view. Thirty-one percent of all stories included sources from the Iraqi authorities. Two in ten (20%) stories included sources from either Shiite or Sunni politicians. An additional seven percent was from sources coded as insurgents.
At the non-political level, newspapers were more likely to quote an Iraqi civilian, with ten percent of all stories offering this point of view. Half that percentage (five percent) included sources from U.S. civilians who were not family members of an American solider fighting in Iraq.
Twenty-three percent used a poll, statement from a non-partisan think tank, or academic as a source.
Finally, eight percent of stories used a mainstream media outlet as a source, and just two percent included blogs.
Much of the current debate in journalism that centers around how sourcing is used in blogs concerns the issues of verification of information not reported in the mainstream press. But for now, this doesn't appear to be their raison d'etre. The function of blogs may be an equally important one, however, offering a more nuanced, synthesized perspective not found anywhere else on the Web.
Perhaps what's most at stake for blogs is to evaluate which voices are being synthesized. According to the data for this study, an admittedly limited one, bloggers may be missing perhaps the most important piece of the political puzzle when we acknowledge the realpolitik of Iraq.
Both the American and Iraqi people are growing increasingly weary of the American military presence in Iraq, according to public opinion polls in both countries. If there is one point Democrats and Republicans can agree on it is that Iraq's future success rests on the further strengthening of Iraq's political institutions.
Right now, it may be that the traditional press—represented by newspapers here-has picked up on this better than blogs. The data shows that roughly four times as many stories in newspapers included sources from leading Sunni and Shiite politicians as did blogs. Where blogs excelled, with more bloggers, media sources and original texts as sources, is perhaps more easily to duplicate for newspapers on their websites. What cannot be mimicked so easily is the ability to discern which way the political winds are blowing in Baghdad and Washington.
One might dismiss this conclusion as an elitist, Lippmanian one. Regardless, it begs the question of whether or not the public most benefits from a traditional journalist sensibility that, despite its flaws and declining commitment to foreign affairs, can still be found at the country's best newspapers. Perhaps all those years of having boots on the ground overseas still colors, positively, newspaper coverage.
However, one should keep in mind that only a third (34%) of all bloggers considers their blog a form of journalism, according to a study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. So my insights may be a case of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Furthermore, until the mainstream press can better understand that media consumption and production are increasingly conversational, collaborative activities—where bloggers and citizens talk to each other—perhaps the best advice I can give is to take the time to read a newspaper and a blog or two.
About the Study
For this study, I counted the number of sources over seven days in late March 2007 (March 23-March 29). Only stories with the war in Iraq as the dominant story (50% or more of the story) were coded. Overall, 172 newspaper stories and blog postings--the units of analysis--were coded.
Sources did not have to be original. For example, a blog that quoted an interview from Senator John McCain that originally appeared in the Washington Post would be counted as a source, even though the actual reporting was not done by the blogger. Original sources, though in small numbers, could be found in blogs, most notably in Greg Sargent's postings on Talking Points Memo.
First, I looked at five major newspapers: Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wire stories that appeared in newspapers were included. A total of 111 newspaper stories were coded.
Second, I conducted an analysis of three major blogs from the left and three from the right. They included: Talking Points Memo, Political Animal (the Washington Monthly blog), Daily Kos, Michelle Malkin, Powerline, and Hugh Hewitt. A total of 61 blog postings were analyzed for the research.
For blogs, a source was defined as those that were available either on the homepage posting or those on secondary pages within one mouse click from the original blog posting. Then, sources within these secondary pages were coded as well (e.g. links to other news sources, bloggers, and government documents). This methodology was employed in order to measure—as much as possible—the total available number of sources that are consumed by the typical blog reader, and not just those that appear in the original blog posting. Sources within tertiary pages (and beyond) were not coded because I felt that only a small number of blog readers would actually read this deep into a blog posting. Nevertheless, these tertiary (and beyond) pages theoretically expand the number of potential sources and should be kept in mind before forming any firm conclusions about the nature of sourcing in blogs.