Friday, March 1, 2013

Mitchell's Summary and Assessment of Cenite et al. (2009)

Cenite et al. (2009) essentially try to ascertain three things in this article: First, if there is a difference between what they call personal bloggers (people essentially compiling an online diary of their lives) and non-personal bloggers (everyone else, essentially; people who are commenting on things other than their own lives). Second, whether these two sets of bloggers respect and follow the journalistic ethics of truth telling, attribution, minimizing harm and accountability. Third, whether the two sets of bloggers see a need for a blogging code of ethics.

To answer the question, the authors administered a Web survey (1,288 were completed) to English-language bloggers found through a combination of author invitations and referrals from respondents (snowball sampling).

Centite et al. found that personal and non-personal bloggers differed significantly on a range of demographic items, with, among other things, non-personal bloggers more likely to male, older and more educated. The two groups' approach to blogging were also significantly different in a range of fields, including that non-personal bloggers were more likely to write about government and politics and news, write for an audience of people not known to them, and blog more frequently and for bigger audiences.

As for blogging ethics, the authors found that "personal bloggers valued attribution most, followed by minimizing harm, truth-telling and accountability respectively. Non-personal bloggers valued both attribution and truth-telling most, followed by minimizing harm, then accountability. For both groups, attribution was most valued, and accountability least valued" (p. 586).

Finally, Centite et al. found that both personal and non-personal bloggers were in favor of a code of ethics, though not that strongly.

One of the key takeaways from this study is that, as the authors write, it did not find a "shocking lack of ethics" (p. 589). Instead, the respondents took seriously the importance of truth telling, attribution and minimizing harm, although the two groups weighted these ethical principles in line with the kind of work they were doing. Non-personal bloggers, who were operating in similar ways to journalists in providing information and commentary on the news, highlighted the need to be accurate, while personal bloggers, who were covering their personal lives for readers they knew, prioritized minimizing harm over telling the truth. Interestingly, they both put attribution at the top of the list of priorities.

I noted two weaknesses with the study that, for me, tempers the authors' findings. While a survey may be an effective way to ascertain the beliefs of the bloggers (that is, what they think the ethical principles of blogging should be), self-reported behavior is far less reliable in a survey, as respondents may feel social pressure to report positive conduct (that is, whether they are actually following the ethical principles they have identified). As such, I was somewhat skeptical of the way the study operationalized the idea of bloggers following journalistic ethics. A qualitative textual analysis of the blogs would have been a really useful supplement on this question.

I also was not convinced by the authors' claim that the respondents supported the idea of a blogger code of ethics. The study uses a seven-point Likert scale to measure the bloggers' opinion on this question, and the authors make the decision to judge anything over the neutral response (4) as being support. The means for the two groups were barely above 4 (4.5 for personal bloggers, and an even lower 4.39 for the non-personal bloggers, who are operating in a manner closer to journalism than their counterparts). I think Cenite et al. made a mistake in choosing such a low threshold for their definition of support. To me, those mean scores represent indifference (a lot of scores around 4) or polarization (lots of very high and very low scores) depending on the spread of the responses, but certainly not support. Setting the barrier at at least a mean of 5 (that is, "somewhat" in favor of a code of ethics) would have been more accurate.

But these two measurement issues aside, the article does provide some useful data on how bloggers see what they do. I was especially interested in the findings on how the non-personal bloggers did (and did not) see themselves as performing journalistic functions, and how that reflected in the data.

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