*Adapted and updated from an essay I wrote way back in February (remember life pre-lockdown? What a time that was)*
Over the past few decades, digital technologies have given birth to a whole new range of creative forms: social media posts, YouTube videos, podcasts and, of course, the humble blog.
For anyone born in the late-90s/early-2000s, blogging and its influence on contemporary writing and journalism is probably something you take for granted. You’ve maybe never even questioned it before. For most of us, the concept of random people (hello!) sharing their thoughts and experiences online is just a part of life in the 21st century: everyone seems to have some sort of outlet and something to say.
But, considering that blogging is still a relatively new phenomenon in comparison to the novel or the newspaper, its pretty impressive how quickly its managed to transition into the mainstream. Its had a massive influence on contemporary journalism, a fact that’s only been reinforced during the on-going coronavirus pandemic, news coverage of which has been relying on the contributions of bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’.
The Rise of the Digital Citizen Journalist
The Early-2000s, Blogging and War
First of all: a (sort of?) history lesson. Let’s look at the origins of blogging and its relationship with journalism and traditional publishing.
As Jill Walker Rettberg explains, when blogs emerged in the early-2000s they were ‘emblematic of a shift from uni-directional mass media to participatory media, where viewers and readers become creators[.]’ Which basically means that instead of a set group of people and/or publications producing most of the news, blogging offered a platform for anyone with an internet connection to contribute. It also allowed for more direct engagement between the blogger and their audience, for organic conversations and comments. Whilst this was a novelty at the beginning of century, by 2020 its just the norm. We expect to be able to source news from various people, publications and platforms (Twitter, Instagram, news apps, etc.), and a lot of us never read physically published news from papers or magazines. In fact, the only people I know who still regularly buy a physical newspaper are my grandparents.
This distinct change in news media production and consumption coincided, as Suman Gupta explains, with the US invasion of Iraq and arguably influenced the news coverage of the war. This can be seen through the 2003 blog Baghdad Burning, created by a young Iraqi woman under the pseudonym of Riverbend. Writing in English, Riverbend provided an Iraqi perspective to people in the US and UK who were otherwise accustomed to getting their news about the invasion from traditional media sources. As Perri Campbell and Luke Howie point out, Riverbend’s blog provided ‘an alternative narrative of events in Iraq’ and created a platform that challenged ‘established channels through which Iraqi women’s lives [were] understood.’
Through blogging, Riverbend was able to critique mainstream news. In a 2004 blog post, Riverbend discussed the introduction of Shari’a law in Baghdad and the absence of any comprehensive coverage by ‘Western or even Arab media[.]’ She critiqued Western assumptions about women’s rights in Iraq, disparaging a report in the Financial Times by stating that ‘unfortunately, the writers of the article apparently have no background on secular Iraqi law beyond what the GC [Iraqi Governing Council] members have told them.’ (15 January 2004). Riverbend was using blogging to disagree and challenge claims and opinions put forward by mainstream media sources, providing her own insights into Iraqi politics and culture.
Riverbend’s international popularity resulted in the attention of certain Western publishers. In 2005, Baghdad Burning was adapted into a book by The Feminist Press and positively reviewed by the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. And Riverbend wasn’t the only Iraqi blogger adopted into mainstream literary culture around this time. In 2003, Salam Pax’s The Baghdad Blog was published by Atlantic Books and he also worked with the BBC and Guardian (Rettberg, p.97).
What we see between 2003-05 is traditional publishers and news organisations starting to try and adopt blogging and bring it into the conventional mainstream. And this process wasn’t restricted to blogs dealing with the Iraq invasion. As Teresa Pepe notes in her analysis of Egyptian blogging, the form also generated ‘a boom of literary publications written by young emergent writers’ across a variety of genres, many of which have gone to become Egyptian bestsellers.
So, through traditional publishers and news outlets taking notice of and even adapting certain blogs for physical publication, the early-2000s sees the start of blogging crossing into mainstream culture and news coverage. What’s interesting is how these initial instances of transition almost seem to be trying to disrupt the independent and democratic roots of blogging: its like traditional publishers and news organisations were seeking to regulate and legitimise blog writing as credible journalism through making it look more like traditional modes of writing and news coverage. But blogging as a medium has managed to remain true to its digital origins: its often multi-media in format, its a more democratic medium in terms of access than traditionally published work, and many blogs out there also seek to be radical and/or subversive, whether in their style, tone or content. Blogging has, over the past fifteen years, increased in popularity and evolved in creative and innovative ways, becoming integral to our media coverage of major events, from natural disasters to elections to global pandemics…
2020: Vlogging and Coronavirus
The precedent set by writers like Riverbend and Pax moved blogging into mainstream media culture and, in 2020, the role of blogging and citizen journalism within our news coverage is unquestionable. Today, a large sub-category of blogging is found on YouTube through vlogs, which, if you’re somehow unfamiliar with the concept, are basically public video diaries which chronicle the lives of everyday people as well as influencers and celebrities.
And, just as traditional blogging coincided with the US invasion of Iraq, this form of blogging has also become intertwined with current international crises: Vlogging is an essential component of the news coverage surrounding the on-going coronavirus pandemic. From The New York Times to the BBC, Western media outlets have been using the insights of ‘citizen journalists’ and their vlogs to document the virus.[7/8]
Just for context: when I originally wrote this piece as an essay for university, it was February; here in the UK, we were a month out from lockdown and blissfully ignorant of our own impending quarantine. So, at the time of initially researching this piece, I was focussing on examples of vlogs that media channels were using to cover the lockdown in Wuhan, China.
Due to tight internet restrictions in China, posting information about the Wuhan lockdown on an international platform like YouTube was pretty dangerous for the citizen journalists who did it. Such vlogs are seen as subversive, challenging established media sources in China. This is highlighted through the work of journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, who, after uploading vlogs about life in quarantined Wuhan, have both attracted international media attention and subsequently disappeared under suspicious circumstances.[9/10] During the initial spread of coronavirus, their videos were used by media outlets abroad to try and provide more authentic and honest information about what was happening,
This was a start of a pattern for coronavirus media coverage. Vlogging has become an expected form of journalism for various lockdowns across the world, in part due to social distancing restricting the movements of regular journalists, film crews and gatherings in general.
Most recently, I watched a video by Vice that documented the aftermath of a riot and prison take-over in a Colombian jail, published to YouTube on July 19th. The Vice journalist facilitating the documentary is in contact with a Colombian prisoner named ‘Boris’ via mobile phone. Through FaceTime-ing and sending videos, Boris is able to share with Vice – who then share with their YouTube audience – the events unfolding in the overcrowded prison during the on-going coronavirus situation. Again, it’s an example of how the medium of blogging/vlogging is used to challenge traditional news sources and how, especially during coronavirus, it’s become an accepted and necessary part of journalism.
In two decades alone blogging has rapidly evolved as a medium: from eye-witness accounts of war to live video coverage of quarantine, the humble blog has infiltrated contemporary journalism and altered news coverage, including where/who we get our information from.
And while this has many benefits – like giving a platform to people who would struggle to be published by traditional means or giving us more access to ‘on-the-ground’ coverage of historical events from the people who are there – it’s important to also consider the role blogging and other digital sources like social media play in spreading misinformation and fake news.
Blogging has fundamentally changed journalism; we now need to change our expectations and assumptions about what ‘news’ now means in the digital era and how we can engage critically with it.
 Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2008), p.1.
 Suman Gupta, Imagining Iraq (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p.8.
 Luke Howie and Perri Campbell, ‘If You’re a Female, You Risk Being Attacked’: Digital Selves, Warblogs and Women’s Rights in Post-invasion Iraq’, The Legacy of Iraq, ed. by Benjamin Isakhan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), pp.138-151, pp.139-141.
 The Feminist Press, ‘Baghdad Burning’, https://www.feministpress.org/books-a-m/u4ggteq85r3w75bitqvfuicpjgpj7j
Teresa Pepe, Blogging from Egypt: Digital Literature 2005-2016 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), p.4.
Vivian Wang, ‘They Documented the Coronavirus Crisis in Wuhan. Then They Vanished.’, The New York Times, 14 February 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/business/wuhan-coronavirus-journalists.html
 BBC, ‘Coronavirus: Why have two reporters in Wuhan disappeared?’, 14 February 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-51486106
 Chen Qiushi, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCv361SF6FKznoGPKEFG9Yhw
 Vice News, YouTube, ‘Colombian Prison Taken Over by Inmates’, 19 July 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omBXPWuyhMI&bpctr=1595957526 [YouTube has a CONTENT WARNING on this one]