USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Kevin Sites and the Blogging Controversy
CNN war correspondent was told to shut down his popular site, touching off an ongoing debate on blogging as a legitimate form of journalism.

Are Weblogs one more tool in the arsenal used by online journalists to report the news?  Or does a blog?s typically individualistic voice and unfiltered attitude place it outside the journalist?s palette?  These rhetorical questions have exploded into a raging debate among online journalism watchers following CNN?s decision to force war correspondent Kevin Sites to stop posting items to the popular blog he created while on assignment in northern Iraq.

To blog or not to blog?  The controversy has helped blogs jump up on the public?s radar screen, but it has also divided the working press into separate and distinct camps.

Some big media companies -- notably MSNBC, Fox News, Knight-Ridder and Advance Publications -- believe that blogs are a new and exciting form of journalism. These companies are actively bringing new blogs by reporters and columnists onto their Web sites.

 ?Weblogs are journalism,? says Joan Connell, executive producer for Opinions and Communities at MSNBC.com. ?They can be used to great effect in reporting an unfolding story and keeping readers informed.?

Other companies, including AOL Time Warner  properties CNN and Time magazine, Tribune Media Company, Gannett and The New York Times, are not embracing blogging as a useful form of  journalism.

?CNN.com prefers to take a more structured approach to presenting the news ... We do not blog." -- CNN Spokesperson

Some of them are strongly against it. At CNN.com, for example, a spokesperson says that  its news executives do not believe in blogs. ?CNN.com prefers to take a more structured approach to presenting the news,? the spokesperson said. ?We do not blog. CNN.com will continue to provide photo galleries, video clips, breaking stories and interactive modules as ways to involve readers in learning about the war.?

For some journalists, the value of blogs is that they are unfiltered, gritty and authentic. Others point out the need to include editors in the process. Paul Grabowicz, new media program director at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, said in a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that having an editor provides a blog with a vital safety net. ?Make sure you get it right,? Grabowicz said. ?If there's not an editor reading it before it goes up, it's taking away a safeguard that's a sensible one in journalism.?

Connell concurs. ?Unlike many Weblogs, whose posts go from the mind of the writer straight into the ?blogosphere,? MSNBC?s Weblogs are edited. Our editors scrutinize our Weblogs for accuracy, fairness and balance, just as they would any news story.?

Much of the media coverage Sites? blog received emphasized his refreshing and powerful accounts of  wartime experiences.

A look back at the creation of Sites? blog and CNN?s response to it offer a revealing perspective on how these differences of opinion are playing out.

Boy Meets Weblog: Building  Kevin Sites? Blog

Back in February, Sites was in Kuwait covering the war preparations of American and British troops. He was a seasoned television reporter known for his skill as a ?sojo? -- a broadcast journalist who works alone with portable equipment to shoot and transmit stories from the field. He stayed connected with family and friends back in San Luis Obispo, CA, by e-mailing essays and notes, much as he had done during previous overseas assignments in Kosovo, southern Mexico and Afghanistan. At the same time, he was writing and posting articles on CNN.com, in an area entitled ?Behind the Scenes.?

Sites e-mailed one of his pieces, ?Canaries in the Coal Mine,? about using parakeets to detect poison gas, to a friend.  The friend forwarded it to John Parres, a digital music executive and avid blogger in Los Angeles. Parres says that Sites? stories and descriptions of the troop buildup were fascinating, and written with a style and depth of insight that he thought made them particularly special. He thought it would make a great blog, so he called Sites and offered to help him start one from the frontlines of the oncoming war.

?Kevin is a good person, an authentic voice with something unique to say,? Parres says. ?He offered a connection to the human story behind the events of the war that moved me. I told my partner, Xeni Jardin, that helping Kevin get his blog up on the Web might actually turn out to be one of the most important things we?d done in a while.?

Long-distance publishing: Kuwait to California

Once she had Sites? OK, Jardin, a writer and media conference organizer who is a co-editor of the blog BoingBoing, moved quickly to get the site up. Aware that Sites wouldn?t have reliable access to the Internet, Jardin made sure he had access to recently launched blog publishing tools that allowed him to send audio files via telephone, and posts by e-mail.
 
Thirty-six hours after Parres and Jardin approached Sites, Kevin Sites? Blog went up. ?This post marks the beginning of my blog,? Kevin posted on March 9, less than two weeks before U.S. and British forces would begin their incursion into Iraq.   By the following day, Sites had posted five more items, including the original ?Canaries in the Coal Mine? and a new piece about the integral role technology would play in covering the war. 

Notes from Jardin and Parres to friends such as Doc Searls and Dave Winer, who host their own Weblogs, led to posts on influential mailing lists, such as Online-News, the Pho list, and Unwired, and a first wave of visitors.  A featured placement on BoingBoing as their ?guest blogger? brought another wave of readers.

Once a critical mass was exposed to the site, traffic caught fire. Suddenly, the blog was hot.  Between March 14 and March 17, visits to KevinSites.net doubled. By March 18, KevinSites.net had climbed into Technorati and Popdex?s lists of the Top 100 most linked-to blogs. The buzz was so great that reporters from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post called Jardin about doing stories.

As e-mails and reaction to his posts began to pour in, Sites held discussions with the broadcast side of CNN about the site. After all, it wasn?t clear whether Sites was doing this on CNN?s dime or not.

 ?We all realized that CNN might feel the work was theirs, and not want Kevin to post, or that they?d want to move the Weblog onto the CNN sites,? says Noah Glass of Audblog, makers of an audio blogging tool. ?His bosses might want him doing other things.? 

?We left all the communications with CNN up to Kevin,? Jardin adds. ?He wanted to carefully manage the communications with the broadcast side and get their support -- maybe even have CNN.com link to him.?

Colleagues say that on March 18, Sites told them that his CNN supervisors had given him the OK to continue the blog; he had only to add a disclaimer stating that he was a CNN correspondent, and this was a personal Web site not affiliated with, endorsed by, or funded by CNN.

On March 20, Sites got the word that CNN brass wanted him to discontinue posting.  ?Covering a war for CNN and its 35 international networks is a full-time job, ? said CNN spokesperson Edna Johnson.  ?We?ve asked Kevin to concentrate on that for the time being.?

The following day, Sites posted a note on his blog saying that he was suspending his war blogging for a while, and thanking everyone involved with the site. Between March 22 and March 24 , as stories broke in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other papers, traffic to Sites? blog hit an all-time high.

As new readers came to the page and read Sites? posting about suspending the blog at CNN?s request, a larger discussion began to build.  Several bloggers, including law professor Glenn Reynolds and ?technologist? Anil Dash, characterized CNN as backward and ?old media.? 

Others, including writer Rebecca Blood, said that CNN was justified in needing to control the flow of news on the Web as tightly as they did in their broadcasts. ?Kevin is in Iraq as a member of the press corps at the behest of his employer, CNN,? wrote Blood. ?Does Kevin's contract ... specify that any and all work pertaining to his field, performed by Kevin while in the employ of CNN, is the intellectual property of CNN? ... If so, Kevin's war blog is in direct violation of his contract.?

Although Sites stopped posting on his blog almost two weeks ago, the debate shows no signs of abating.  Sharpened by the quest for new and authentic ways to tell the story of the war, many journalists are exploring the new medium for the first time.

Live From the Front

Meanwhile, the subject of all this intense discussion is smack in the middle of the war.  These days, Sites is reporting from Chamchamal, in an area of northern Iraq not far from the fighting around Kirkuk.  On camera around the clock, he continues to send e-mails to his friends, and hopes to gather his experiences into a book.

?This is war,? Sites wrote to his former student, The Tribune News/San Luis Obispo reporter Ryan Huff, a few days ago. ?Your best protection is to be smart about how you operate.?

It?s an observation that?s equally true in the world of online news, an arena where there is no one answer about whether journalists should blog.  

Susan Mernit, a former VP of Content Programming for AOL and Founding Editor of New Jersey Online, is a writer and consultant. Her blog is at susanmernit.blogspot.com.