Monday 12 October 2009

In the Brussels bubble (4): Blogging and the closeness trap

Being in the Brussels bubble has been a particularly interesting experience as you may have noticed by my coverage - here, here (re-published in this week's "New Europe" (PDF), page 47), and here - and I wanted to reflect on how being in the bubble might affect the blogging process, in particular since I think about moving there next year.

Let me start with a quote from Kristine Lowe's very recommendable article "How blogs transformed and challenged mainstream media coverage of the credit crisis" (found via Benteka on Twitter):
"[T]he vast majority of bloggers are private persons who start blogging for personal reasons. That means there are no time limits, no word limits and rarely any close ties to sources or public relations operators to pay heed to. This may also be a key to why specialist blogs often offer more thorough, in-depth coverage of issues."
One of the the most important characteristics of this blog, I have noticed, is the lack of close ties to sources. The sources I usually use are either original documents, public news sources, or content provided by persons who I mostly know through blogging or the use of Twitter. What is common to all these is that they are inherently public, although they might in many cases not be very visible to a wider audience.

So although some of the sources are based on social ties, they are still based on publicly visible relations, most of which are even grounded on the explicit open exchange of information or discussiosn about issues of joint interest between bloggers or Twitterers. Referring to such kind of information - even in a critical way - is an expected and well-established behaviour that characterises the spirit of the blogosphere/twittersphere.

What I experienced in Brussels is that while talking to people, while entering the "informality sphere", you get access to information that are not or only vaguely public. However, as a blogger used to publish most of what he finds interesting I realised that I lack the grid to classify which kind of information I may regard as public and which have to be kept as background knowledge.

Can you quote sources when you receive information through real-life social relations, and do I have to make it explicit before talking to somebody that anything said could find itself in my blog? Can I publish hearsay, or do I need to cross-check it journalistically? How does talking about what you heard in a not explicitly public meeting influence the future relation to the persons you were talking to?

Let me give you a true example:

I was in a bar speaking with journalists. A Commissioner enters, joins the round, and is then interviewed by one journalist, who is writing down the answers into his notebook. At some point, the journalist asks a question that the Commissioner does not want to answer. The journalists puts away his notebook, and the Commissioner is then answering the question, assuming that it is not quoted then.

The answer to this question would have been quite interesting for readers of this blog, but standing there I was not sure whether the two others were actually aware of the fact that I might have other standards than they assumed. Do I put away the notebook in my brain, too, or can I write it down virtually to make it public later on?

I was not sure whether writing about the situation would in some ways interfere with the work of the journalist, whether it would violate the (assumed) informality of the situation, and whether writing about it would influence the future behaviour of both, the journalist and the Commissioner, regarding third persons or even regarding the exchange of information among themselves.

And there were more situations in which I got to know extremely interesting things that I would like to write about but where I realise that the social nature of the information is somehow making me feel uncomfortable to blog about it.

What I conclude from my days in Brussels is that being in the bubble exposes you to much better information than you might ever find in public sources (including social media). However, getting this kind of information is not necessarily making your blogging better, because it is much more difficult to judge how to publish this kind of information compared to re-publishing what is already public.

I had the impression that blogging feels less transparent when you don't write about interesting things you get to know. But I realised that I still cannot write about everything, especially not as long as it is not absolutely clear that I regard everything I hear as public. And the latter might rather scare off those sources that could provide the most interesting information, reducing the added value of the presence in the bubble, at least for the blogging process.

Altogether, I think that there is a real advantage of not having close social relations to sources, of relying on public documentations, because you cannot spoil these. This seems to contradict what Mathew describes as the added value of the "European Offline Public Space", but being in the bubble and interacting with people in the city incorporates you into the "informality sphere" - and when being a part of it you might quickly lose your distance that is so desperately needed to critically follow the process, because very few people actually seem to do this in Brussels.


Ralf Grahn said...

One of the problems is the gap between public information and information withheld from the public.

European Union affairs concern 500 million people, a tiny fraction of them stationed in Brussels.

The paradigm of diplomacy keeps even trivial information and positions outside the public sphere for ages, where different viewpoints would stimulate debate and shed light on alternatives.

Eurosocialiste said...

I think bloggers, just as journalists, should respect the "offline" rule. When you socialise you find yourself saying a lot more than what you would like to be made public. Because a trust relation is created, it's between two people, sharing a beer. You can keep the information in the back of your mind, but not quote the source without their prior consent! That would break the rule of informality, and could have as a consequence that these people don't tell you as many interesting stuff as they could. I'm all for transparency but not everything has to be out there!

Julien Frisch said...


I agree, but where is the line between a private chat and a semi-public discussion in which you get to know something that would be of value for the public?

What are "open secrets" that are known by so many people in the bubble but that are not transported to the outside?

And what would be the difference between blogging and professional journalism in these cases? Has it any value to be on the spot as a blogger if everything you get to know in a chat remains "secret"?

Eurosocialiste said...

I think at some point you know it instinctively, you develop some kind of radar that makes you understand what you can publish and what your informator wouldn't want you to make public. If you're note sure, I think it's best to ask the people who give you the information whether they mind if you blog about it.

Julien Frisch said...

I suppose so.

I just saw that while being in Brussels and getting to know things that I was not able to blog about I felt absolutely intransparent.

And I fear that such kind of feeling - the "closeness trap" as I have titled - might harm the beauty of blogging.

Insideur said...

Julien, I think you can always assume that a Commissioner will not talk to journalists in a public bar, even "off the record", if he or she is really nervous about giving answers to questions. If the notebook goes in the back pocket, the Commissioner can nevertheless assume that his or her opinion will make it into the press, although without quotation marks.

I would feel quite comfortable publishing the information, although I'd be discreet and respectful about how I do it. But then I prefer being discreet and respectful to all the people I blog about. Even Vaclav Klaus...

npanayotopoulos said...

Julien, I so agree with the last paragraph of your post.

Mathew said...

Actually, journalism (at least anglo-saxon) has quite formal systems for codifying how 'on the record' a conversation is - there are the 'Chatham House Rule(s)', briefings under 'lobby terms', 'deep background', etc. Worth looking up, maybe.

In my post that you reference, I start by noting how refreshing it was to talk to someone from outside Brussels, so I agree that outside perspectives are essential. But I was not actually talking about the sort of 'insider' information flows you are referring to here.

What I was trying to get at is quite different. My point was that if we are to build some sort of European online public space, using social media to pierce the Brussels bubble, there'll probably need to be the occasional face-to-face, as in any community of practice, to build the trust and relationships.

Such meetings don't have to be held in Brussels - this is not about getting inside information on the latest dietary habits of some deputy chef de cabinet.

Unknown said...

Thoughtful post Julien, and definitely more of an issue for bloggers than "traditional" journalists. However, I'm sure you will easily and naturally find a way to manage this challenge.

Anyway, prompted me to post a few thoughts on the subject:

Dick Nieuwenhuis said...

I did read your story with great interest, especially after what you had said during our Twunch in Brussels about some of us being the "real" spokesperson for an EU institution because we Twitter with a frank and open mind. I tend to disagree with Grahnlaw about information held outside the public sphere as being a problem. Too much blabla from Brussels is never good. In fact almost all relevant info finds its way to the outside world, in one way or another. Brussels is/can be extremely transparent. But frankly speaking a lot of what we do is just part of the mechanics of the process and pretty uninteresting. Do you want to know which screws were fastened when your car was in the garage? Or what the exact status will be of the Commission staff that will end up in the new European External Action Service. I don't think so.
Most of what really matters in the EU is happening outside Brussels.
Coming back to using your sources I would say that if you feel/think it can harm your source use the info careful so that your source is "hidden". Anyone of use in the EU institutions can talk about issues, even tricky or sensitive ones. But most of us don't want to see their name associated to a quote.
Yet you can use it as background info to make your story.
If you want quotes on the record go to a spokesperson or member of the European Parliament.
And please continue your blog the way it is, frisch und fertig!

Julien said...

The problems begin when you are building networks with people about whom you would like to report as soon you meet them... ;-)

On a more serious note: I agree that we need to build relations among ourselves to get things done, that we cannot only rely on digital relations.

Yet, this can still create problems when it comes to objective reporting.

The examples you are addressing are only covering the more obvious situations. It's more the unclear situations that I am speaking of, those where the rules have not yet been fixed.

This is more difficult for the blogger than for the journalist, because the journalist can hide behind the facade of professionalism and professional distance even in a close relation, the citizen blogger is private in whatever he does.

So building private, trustful relations can be helpful for many things, especially to get concrete projects done, but those relations are usually not very open to the outside, they tend to be exclusive, and what is shared in trustful relations is hardly to be shared in a public blog.

Altogether, I suppose there won't be a clear answer to how blogging should be or how it can be when it goes local - but if you look at what is actually coming from inside the bubble you will witness that the amount of original, critical reporting is rather limited, which might well be because it is hard to keep the necessary distance as long as you are inside or too close (no matter what the geographical distance).

Julien said...

@ Dick

In fact, I am not so much interested in the minor details, but if a minor detail is the only authentic information I can get, I still prefer to write about that than to blog about speculations.

Mathew said...

It all depends what you're doing. I'm primarily interested in establishing and stimulating conversations about EU policy and programme, rather than reporting on them journalistically, for example.

These are two different activities, although a decent code of conduct for both would be useful. Will the EU Institutions draw up social media guidelines in time, or will they wait for someone to poison the well?

PS If mainstream media has any future at all, it's because it will be seen as a high-quality gatekeeper and provider of high-quality verifiable information. The reason 'citizen journalists' exist is that the mainstream media has become part of the establishment and regularly shows itself to not even pay lip service to journalistic integrity. Citizen journalists and other bloggers don't have to set themselves higher standards, but it would help.