Read this article in Spanish here.

Freedom of expression is a basic human right and the founding value of ROOSTERGNN. In this Special Series, ROOSTERGNN explores the state of freedom of expression around the world. Follow the complete series here.

From travel writing to news releases, blogging has become a widespread source of information on the internet and a vital means of promoting freedom of expression. This internet phenomenon allows individuals to publicly express their views without facing editorial restrictions or individual identification. In this interview, ROOSTERGNN spoke with Paul Bradshaw, the founder of the investigative journalism crowdsourcing site Help Me Investigate and publisher at the Online Journalism Blogabout the world of online blogs.

Do you think that bloggers can be regarded with the same authority as professional journalists?

In terms of gaining access to events or requesting an interview, bloggers do not have the same authority as professional journalists. If a journalist belongs to an organization then essentially that organization is vouching for them in a way that an independent operator, whether that be a blogger or someone else, isn’t able to tap into.

However, from an audience point of view I think many bloggers have more authority than professional journalists, although it really depends on the individual. The same reason that perhaps organizations give professional journalists more authority, contributes to the lack of authority from the audience. A professional journalist can rely on and take for granted to some extent the authority of their organization and can benefit from that. For many bloggers, obviously bloggers are an enormously varied body of practitioners, this cannot be taken for granted and they have to prove their authority at every turning point. They cannot rely on a brand or business card, so they have to assert their authority by showing the evidence for their analysis, by linking to sources, and by trying to give an as deep analysis and be as informed as possible on their subject matter.

Bloggers also often cover perhaps a more specific niche than a professional journalist might cover, so journalists might be stretched more thinly and might have to report on a subject that they don’t understand as deeply. In addition to this, in many cases blogging is a personal passion, they might be working professionally, as an analyst, an employee or an executive, for example, so they might again have more experience and more insight than a lot of professional journalists in the area that they are reporting on. We are talking about the difference between a specialist and a generalist.

Having said this, that is a very broad generalization because obviously they are individual journalists who are extremely specialized, well informed and conscientious as well as bloggers who are the opposite. The general concept lends itself to bloggers having to prove their authority more than perhaps journalists have to.

What advice would you give bloggers who wish to further their credibility and professional authority, without having to work for corporate institutions?

Like I said, it is important not to be transparent and to link sources and evidence. Authority and credibility often come from publishing consistently and having multiple sources is one thing that makes a big difference. Looking at the things that journalists don’t look at such as documents and data and speaking to people at the cold face of industry who are affected by the issues you are writing about. These are things that professional journalists don’t often have the time to do; they are very reliant on press releases, official sources, senior sources and they don’t always have the time to verify information, check documents, look in depth, look at data, check claims, or find people affected, because they have got to fill space and hit deadlines. The big advantage that a blogger has in credibility and authority is not being a slave to those deadlines and being able to tell the stories that matter.

How can new bloggers increase their readership?

They need to look at the three core sources of traffic: Search, Social and Direct traffic – people going directly to their site. A blogger starting out can assume that most people aren’t going to go directly to their site. Ranking well on search engines takes time, my advice would be to stick at it, to keep going, and give it a year or two of regular publishing before the search engines start to pick up the site. They will not have very high website views in the first year because they are not going to have a very high page rank, which is what google uses to rank content. There will be a point at which that changes.

In the first year the main traffic will be social, so in that sense, new bloggers should make sure that they are engaging online with communities that are affected by their content. Interacting and making sure people are aware of their blogs, being curious, writing and creating content that makes sense socially speaking are all important factors. They should use headlines that work on twitter, and videos and images that work well on social media – multimedia generally attracts more views on Facebook.

In the broad terms of search engine optimization, making sure that headlines make sense in search engines, that images have alt tags, to use tags and categories in the article, to link frequently, and to have useful headings, are all aspects that will increase readership in the long run.

Do you think that blogs can play a significant role in the release of important information/events/ issues worldwide?

Yes, I believe they do. Blog are a part of the media food chain. There is often information which first breaks on blogs and then is picked up by local media, specialist media, or national media, in the same way that a local story might be picked up by a national newspaper or a specialist magazine. All these different parts of the media feed off each other and blogs are a well-established part of that. There are many cases of data-analysis, leaks, announcements and individual insights done by blogs, which has then been picked up by media with larger audiences.

What are your views on the issues attached to inexperienced/under-qualified bloggers publishing un-proven facts/defamatory information? Would you say bloggers are at all responsible for the vast quantity of unreliable information on the internet?

My views about that are the same as professional journalists publishing un-proven facts or defamatory information. The positive and the negative aspect of blogging as a platform is that it broadens the range of people who are able to publish their ideas. The positive aspect of that is that you get a wide range of information, for example in relation to the last question, there have been a number of cases where blogs have created a focus or drawn attention to something which is significant but which news organizations have overlooked. There is a broader range of content and larger number of eyes, and yes, you get people who are inexperienced or underqualified, but ultimately everyone needs to get experience somewhere and blogging is a good way to get that. Equally, a significant number of professional journalists are underqualified to report on certain matters, for example, there are journalists who report on science stories or health stories who really don’t have any sort of understanding of things like methodology or statistics, which leads to a big issue of journalists publishing things that they haven’t been proven or verified.

Defamation is the one area where there is the biggest difference because there is a legal framework for journalists, whereas bloggers don’t necessarily have such a framework or education.

As for bloggers being responsible for the vast quantity of unreliable information on the internet, we are all responsible. It annoys me when journalists say there is something wrong on Wikipedia, yet they have not edited it. If you see something wrong on Wikipedia and you do not chang it then you are responsible for that. You cannot just moan about it. There are also many people paid to blog as a form of public relations, so we need to separate blogging from publishing. Are publishers responsible for the unreliable material on the internet? Yes. Bloggers are just publishers, newspaper agencies are publishers, in the same way that public relations professionals are publishers, so lots of people are publishing but not all of them are doing journalism. Blogging is not about the content, blogging is about the platform.

Do you believe that bloggers should always be granted anonymity?

I don’t believe anyone should ALWAYS be granted anonymity. But equally I don’t think there is a case for saying no-one should be anonymous.

When people are trolling anonymously, being abusive or making negative comments on the internet, there is a tendency to blame anonymity and to see the solution as getting rid of anonymity. In my opinion, this is an easy way to avoid taking responsibility yourself for ensuring that you can have a civilized discussion. If there are abusive messages being posted by individuals, simply banning anonymity is counterproductive and doesn’t necessarily tackle the issue. There are lots of techniques for insuring a healthy discussion.

On the other hand, anonymity is very important, in terms of allowing people to pass on important information, without necessarily losing their jobs. When talking about anonymity you have to think about whistle blowers and issues like sexual health, abuse and other areas where people are not necessarily going to be comfortable having their name attached. Someone might want to talk about their experiences in terms of sexuality or crime and not want their friends and family to know about their feelings. It is a big part of privacy.

One of the big issues with online communication is that everything we do online is permanent. Obviously there are moves toward things like the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ but you have got to put that alongside things like the surveillance revelations. We have to assume that, even if at some point in the future we will be able to delete some of the things we have said, there will always be a record in some security agency like GCHQ, and it can always come back to bite you. I think we must assume that anything we say online is going to be available forever. In that context, anonymity is even more important. I wouldn’t want my child to have to be linked by name to everything they’ve ever said at 16 or 18 and that to be accessible when they’re 25. I want them to be able to have conversations anonymously with other people about private issues that they don’t want their family or friends to know about or about which they only want to talk to a support network. We have different identities in different circles, and as soon as you get rid of that anonymity you remove the ability to have privacy and to open up about insensitive areas without fear of repercussion.

To summarize, any talk of bloggers is always going to suffer from the issue of definition and the variety of different kinds of bloggers. We always need to make the distinction between journalism and journalist, and blogging and journalism. You can do journalism on a blog but you can also do other things.