Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sketching Out My Personal Political Blogger Guidelines

First, a disclaimer. I'm not claiming any moral high ground. I'm not saying anyone besides myself should follow these guidelines. I'm not saying this is complete or that there shouldn't be exceptions now and then.

Second, a WARNING: I am NOT an attorney and this is NOT a list of what is legal or illegal. Rather these are my guidelines for myself. With blogging and the easy availability of digital images and cutting and pasting, the law itself is evolving. It's being reinvented. But just like downloading audio, you may be breaking the law and you may find yourself in trouble. I'm going on the assumption that if I'm not doing this for profit, my intent is educational and informational, I'm reasonably fair and decent about how I treat people, and if I immediately respect requests to take down photos and videos that someone else owns, that my risk is pretty low. That said, it's also true that people have died doing low risk activities.

Third, I want to identify some of the common reasons why people have political blogs.
  1. To change people's ideas by
    a. offering facts about issues, candidates, etc.
    b. discussing logic of various political positions, philosophies, ideologies
    c. raising people's awareness of the underlying stories or narratives (or theories or whatever you want to call them) that shape the interpretation of events, to help people 1) begin to articulate their own stories 2) recognize others' 3) recognize how politicians and pundits attempt to sell stories that help their cause

  2. Inform, encourage, rouse those who share their perspective by
    a. giving them information about what is happening - news they might not get in the mainstream media (msm) about what politicians are doing, about investigations, about protests and other gatherings of interest
    b. showing them that there are others out there who share their views and that they can have an impact if they work together
    c. stirring up their anger and joy at events to get them more politically active
    d. supporting policies and politicians of their persuasion and attacking those they see as threatening the world as they know it or want it

  3. To Vent by
    using their blogs to release their emotions, to express those things that societal norms generally cause them to suppress

Most political bloggers do all three, though some spend more time on some than on others. And we could even get into what a 'political' blogger is. I think most people who talk about political blogs, really mean partisan blogs - blogs that support particular candidates, parties, or points of view, rather than blogs that deal with the distribution of power in society. But that's another post or two.

These guidelines are aimed at those bloggers who want to change people's ideas basically through logic and information; who recognize that democracy works because there is a free and honest attempt at solving differences through discussion. But I also recognize that emotions tend to trump logic when things get close to home, and that logic without emotion can be empty. (Sorry Data.) The public must also be able to distinguish between honest, well intended and dishonest, deceptive bloggers and all the flavors in between.

So here are some guidelines - incomplete for sure - that I try to follow when writing this blog.

1. Labeling/Name calling - Name calling tends to turn off the intellect and turn on the emotional defense team. Sometimes it is useful to name or label someone or some action as a way identifying it. Don Mitchell's calling Palin "a celebrity" rather than a politician is an example of trying to clarify the role she plays. But calling people nasty derogatory names, while causing the partisans to giggle, makes the open exchange of ideas that much harder. Extreme partisans on either side aren't likely to change their views, but there are lots of 'independents' who may shift when they see reasonable people consistently presenting useful information and ideas.

The Labeling - - Insulting continuum

Bloggers should be aware of the verbal tools they use. I'd propose a continuum of types of labeling. At the left end, the tool is useful to public discourse. As you move to the right they become less useful. Individual instances have to be evaluated in context.


A. Using names or labels to try to identify what someone is doing. This is like trying to figure out what class of plant some wild flower you just found belongs to. You look at the characteristics of the species in the field guide and then you see if the plant you found fits those characteristics. The more explanation for why the blogger thinks the label fits, the more useful the discussion.

B. Categorizing someone as this or that - often with mildly positive or negative connotations.

C. Using snarky labels that readers generally understand are tongue-in-cheek jabs at the target. If the target and shooter have a general respect for each other (minimally they acknowledge the other as having the best interests of the state/country at heart), the target is likely to take this as intended and to lob a barb back in the same vein. But if there isn't respect, such barbs are seen as partisan attacks based on irrational hatred. These can range from playful puns to mean spirited nasty terms lacking any wit at all.

A and B could be all over the continuum depending on things like
  • amount of evidence provided if any
  • level of wit and originality
  • tone and groundedness of the rest of the discussion (by groundedness I mean how well it seems to match the world people know. Facts help ground things for example.)

D. Using carefully thought-out Newspeak terms to intentionally poison the debate and demonize the target. While the left has done its share of finding terms with which to spin issues in their favor, the right has mastered the art of toxic framing - terms like 'feminazi' and campaigns like the swiftboat attack on John Kerry. This can amount to political assassination and set the mood for attempts at physical assassination. We're seeing this happen in the health care debate.

2. Corrections

  • It's ok to go back and correct typos that don't change the meaning.
  • If I make a factual error, I should strikeout the part I am replacing and put [brackets around the new part.]
  • Dating updates and corrections is most helpful.

3. Time Stamp

  • It's ok to change the automatic time stamp on posts to
    a. reflect more accurately when you really are posting [blogspot sets it to when you started writing, even if you don't post it for a week.] [Update 2/14/11 - Blogspot changed this a while back to date posts when you hit the publish post button.]
    b. to set the post to go up at a certain time when you think it is most appropriate
  • It's not ok to change the time to make people think you posted something earlier than you did - like a prediction of what is going to happen which you write after it happened, but time stamp so it appears as though you posted it before it happened.

4. Photos

Your own original photos - The main issue for me now is photos of people

1. Photos taken in private should not be posted without the permission of the subject of the photo. Minimally this means that the people know you have a blog and know you post pictures and know that you might post this photo you are taking of them, and they don't object. Preferably - so you don't incorrectly assume one of the above conditions - you would ask, "Is it ok if I post any of these pictures?" This also helps to maintain good relations with friends and family.

2. Photos taken in public.
People taking part in political or other demonstrations - These people are exercising their first amendment rights to free speech. They are trying to influence public policy. There should be no problem taking their pictures. There are some caveats:
  • Outing someone. If someone might face retribution if their action is publicized one has to weight the subject's responsibility and your own. I met someone across the street from an anti- prop. 8 demonstration. He said he was a teacher and it would do him serious harm if he were seen demonstrating. But he had already made the choice not to demonstrate. Not to publicly take part. Putting up his photo would have been a clear violation. However, when I took a picture of someone demonstrating - a close up of one person - his comments caused me to ask this person for her permission before posting it. The crowd shots, well, people decided to demonstrate in public. They should know there's a possibility of their pictures showing up somewhere.
  • Children. Basically, the same rules should apply, but with reason. The parents have allowed (presumably) the children to demonstrate publicly. If it is just one child in the picture, I'd probably not post it without at least verbal permission from the kid's parent. Under ten is touchier. I'm still not sure and I haven't found any guidelines that address this clearly. "Do no harm" should be the motto, and if you aren't sure your published photo will not cause harm, don't use it.
  • People just out in public doing their normal business. Crowd shots not a problem. If you've got someone clearly identifiable alone or with just one other person, it's nice to ask permission if you can. Photos of cars running red lights is fair game in my book.
  • Public officials or newsworthy folks - no problem. But personally, I'd feel uncomfortable shoving my camera into someone's face who doesn't want to be photographed. One day Judge Sedwick walked into the Federal Building lobby. I don't recall seeing any pictures of him anywhere. When I lifted up my camera, he clearly indicated his preference not to be photographed and I put down my camera. It didn't feel right. Nor did I take pictures of defendants in similar situations. I had no problem taking pictures of the photographers. I figure if they take other people's pictures, they have no basis for complaint if the tables are turned.
Some Fledgling Photo Principles:

1. Pictures should help tell the story. If Rev. Prevo buses lots of kids to demonstrate against gay rights, that's part of the story. If the picture is unrelated to telling the story no need to use it.

2. Pictures shouldn't cause people unfair harm. I know what it means, but I don't know how to give normal examples. Extreme examples are the fear that any picture of a child automatically exposes that child to potential kidnapping or other harm. Well, kidnappers can walk down the street and snatch kids without having to use your pictures to track them down. But if the kidnapper is caught with a picture from my blog. . . Someone who is at an event with a person who isn't the spouse, and the spouse sees the picture on your blog, well, sorry Charlie, you were out in public, how was I to know? If someone has just had some terrible thing happen to them, well, let them deal with it privately and don't post it if you think it will make things worse.

Balancing is not always easy. Pictures of auto crash victims or of war casualties may be painful to the next of kin of the individual, but they also tell a bigger story (community traffic fatalities, war) in a way that words almost never can. [Update: September 4: Here's a New York Times article that is precisely this dilemma.] Sometimes an important story [that informs the public] takes precedence. (And I'm sure there are times when the next of kin appreciate the attention.)

Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should. Someone who has to post a picture against someone's will just to prove their power to do it, well, that person has personal issues to resolve.

Other People's Photos

If it says permission required to use the photo, don't post it if you can't get the permission. Period. It's stealing. I can think of some great photos I didn't post because of this. (That sounds more certain than I actually feel. But I'm trying to live by that. And I expect others to respect my photos. See how we get more sensitive when it affects us too? The Golden Rule works.)

If it doesn't say anything about needing permission, or if it gives permission to anyone, use it, but identify the source and link back to the source. Sometimes it isn't so easy. What about a picture that some other blog took without permission. How do you know?

Back to no permission. If the picture itself is the story (was a picture of Palin holding Trig, but with Eddie Burke's face photoshopped over Trig's sacrilegious?) what should you do? I didn't show the picture, but linked to it. In other cases, I've taken my own picture of the picture, but I've used a bigger frame of reference to change the circumstances of the picture - on a poster on a wall or in a newspaper with print around it.

Or if you are going to make a political statement by spoofing the picture, you can doctor it so you are not simply using the picture but you have significantly changed it. But you should be doing this because you are making an important point, not because the picture will jazz up your post.

5. Movies 

Using bits of video to illustrate movie reviews. The posting of the video - short snippets as part of a review - seems to me to be no different from a book reviewer quoting from the book she's reviewing to make her points. Just as the reviewer can choose any citation for the review, a movie reviewer shouldn't be limited to the shots the film producer wants the reviewer to use. How one gets the video is another story. Theaters have the right to ban people from taking video in their theaters. Their biggest concern is not reviewers, but pirates trying to get video of first run movies to sell. I understand that in places like LA, technology that disables video cameras is being used in some theaters.

Another issue is that many film festivals prohibit any the film if even a part of it is online, so your video could disqualify the film maker, though I think this will become increasingly difficult to enforce fairly. [Update Nov. 28, 2009: I've learned that Festivals are lightening up on this because so much is now online.] Too much is up somewhere. This is a long topic that I can't do justice to here, but I did want to raise it.

YouTube and other posted video that has an embed code (code that when placed on a blog or website, essentially posts the video) is fair game. Credit and links should be included.

6. Other Issues - There are plenty of other issues such as not knowingly writing falsehoods, not 'unknowingly' writing falsehoods because you didn't check the truth of reports, etc. I take those things as so obvious, and fairly well debated, that I haven't included them here. There's also probably a good discussion to be had about how long the snippets are that you repost from another blog or website. And again, credit and links are mandatory in my book. And I haven't even gotten to the subject of commenters and how to handle them. Though I have talked about that extensively here and here.

Concluding Comments

All this said, blogging is an experiment that shouldn't be hampered by rules. (OK, Steve, what if someone is copying your photos and selling them? Now that's pretty hypothetical, but yeah, there should be a rule against that. So no, I'm not 100% on any of this. And as new situations surface, I'll probably have to adjust my positions to accommodate them.)

My underlying issue is the impact on the open public discourse necessary for a democracy to work. Blogs are available to everyone with a computer and internet and, because of Google, easy to find by readers. Unlike traditional print media, radio, and television, everyone can play. Thus my no-rules preference. Let's see, for a while whether the openness of blogging means that 'bad' blogs will be exposed by other bloggers better than externally imposed rules. Except for stealing photos. :)

So these are my personal guidelines. They've emerged through my blogging and reflect situations I've come up against and my values and intent. I'm writing them down so readers here can understand how I try to make these decisions. And maybe people can help me think through these things.

Ultimately it is a constant tension for me among
  • striving for a version of the truth that is as grounded as possible
  • doing as much good and as little harm as possible
  • making time for my non-blogging life.


  1. Dealing with politics is a very sensitive thing indeed. Often in news people ask for anonymity in Hungary because of that. That's why I am not really discussing politics with friends, maximum I ask how they voted.

    However politics has tremendous impact on civil life so let me be a bit personal here. My great-grandparents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were quite optimistic because it was the fastest developing empire on the globe in terms of earnings and living standards. Too bad that the military wasn't so strong.

    After the First World War the system changed and we became Hungarian Soviet Republic for a year and then it was changed to Kingdom of Hungary. After the war living standards decreased rapidly and there was starvation. In the mid 1920s the situation got better until the Great Depression when my grandparents were born (except one of my grandmothers). After the Second World War we became People's Republic of Hungary until 1989 and my parents were born in that era and their future seemed to be prosperous because in the 1970s the communist Hungary was developing and I was born in 1990 in the Republic of Hungary. My great grandmother had a long life and she lived in all of those systems. What I want to say is politics is rather about human lives than theories and ideas. So far you have read many numbers but these system changes were quite slow and I can say that we are still changing the system from communism so even I am effected by communism (for example I got always the same as my brother regardless what we have done differently) and I have been always taught not to have private property and share my things if necessary. So I think politics should be rather focusing on personal lives and not on election results, mud throwing and so on because civils show the success or the failure of politics. Unfortunately I don't see this tendency.

  2. Ropi, thanks for that history. Lots happened to Hungary in the last 100 years.

    And just so you don't feel too mistreated, kids in the capitalist USA are taught to share their toys too.

  3. "1. Photos taken in private should not be posted without the permission of the subject of the photo. Minimally this means that the people know you have a blog and know you post pictures and know that you might post this photo you are taking of them, and they don't object."

    Are you thinking of an opt-in or opt-out system? It seems to me that an opt-in system has a better chance of making sure people are comfortable with it. - M

  4. The next sentence is:
    "Preferably - so you don't incorrectly assume one of the above conditions - you would ask, "Is it ok if I post any of these pictures?" This also helps to maintain good relations with friends and family."

    So yes, I prefer opt in.

  5. Steve,
    Your well thought out writing is why I enjoy your blog so much.

  6. SouthernMiss, I think Steve actually drafts and re-writes his posts until they do make sense! (thank you). Too many bloggers rely on cleverness or emotion as a substitute for sound argument. Steve might err on the side of reason given his past life at university, but isn't that a nice change?

    Logos, ethos, pathos--three words that still lay out criteria for a yet sound system to observe life when writing about it.


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