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Technology

Newspapers beware: watchblogs are watching you!

Online surveillance of another kind: Watchblogs monitor media, companies and political parties - and they like to stick the boot in. In Germany, their most popular target is the "Bild" newspaper.

It's no secret that we're all somehow being watched. Even the employees of Germany's largest daily newspaper "Bild" are not safe. But it's not the secret services doing the watching. It's bloggers and Internet "watchers."

The watchblog BILDblog has been going for almost 10 years now. And in all of that time, it's put the newspaper under a microscope by constantly checking for factual errors and posting its findings on the Internet for all to see.

"A lot of what they do is not okay," said BILDblog's Ronnie Grob, "We want to let people know."

BILDblog is a perhaps the best known German example of a very special kind of blog - the watchblog.

"Watchblogs are dedicated to one particular subject and they monitor it with a highly critical eye," said Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, a sociologist at the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research at the University of Hamburg.

BILD newspapers hanging out of letter boxes (Photo: imago/teutopress)

Watchblogs like BILDblog are giving readers a new perspective on the popular "red top" BILD

Watchblogs don't just keep their eye on the press, they can also focus on a company, an individual or a political party.

Taking a closer look

But why would anyone want to sacrifice their time to monitor a newspaper, for example, to criticize its practices or product, and post the results publicly on the Net?

"Some people just feel that certain things have gone awry," Schmidt said, "or that there's a need for more transparency."

There are quite a few active, German-language watchblogs.

"NSU Watch" for instance has been monitoring legal proceedings against the right-wing organization, the National Socialist Underground (NSU). "Schwarze Blog" ("black blog") aims to expose prejudices against people of African heritage.

Most often, though, watchbloggers watch the media.

The watchblog "topfvollgold" ("pot of gold") focuses on the yellow press of weekly magazines obsessed with celebrities and royal luminaries.

"They are always publishing false articles," according to a statement on the topfvollgold Website. "They orchestrate scandals, twist the facts, or simply invent stories."

The British Royal family (Photo: AFP PHOTO/HUGO BURNAND/CLARENCE HOUSE)

On celebrity stories, the watchblogs say some journalists can let their imaginations run away with them

Then there's the Social Media Watchblog, which takes care of Facebook, Google and others - regularly checking the companies' Terms of Service and informing its users of any pitfalls and traps.

The Internet's made it possible

Checking facts and raising awareness is nothing new. But it used to take a lot longer for journalistic mistakes to come to light - and perhaps even longer for a correction to appear in small print at the bottom of an inside page.

The Internet has changed that. The process is much quicker and simpler. Watchbloggers can post their observations within minutes and distribute them without limitations via social media.

In the case of the newspaper "Bild" - it's almost standard practice for it to be criticized. Its brand of journalism has often garnered harsh words from the German Press Council - the industry's self-regulator. Often, it's alleged to have violated people's personal rights.

Screenshot of the Twitter logo Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire URN:17170392

Social media has made it possible for watchblogs to spread their comments faster than ever before

"But other media make mistakes too," said BILDblog's Grob. "It's worth discussing them as well. There are factual errors that get taken at face-value and are re-published or re-used elsewhere, and all manner of things that have very little to do with journalistic standards. For instance in dealing with spree killers, or unscrupulous behavior when interviewing the relatives of people who have died."

Watchful impact

What can the watchblogs actually achieve? Grob said he is convinced they can change things.

BILDblog's clicks may be a lot lower than those on bild.de, but Grob says a single story on BILDblog can have an impact.

"Especially when users re-distribute the content via the social networks," he said.

The media sociologist Jan-Hinrik Schmidt also said watchblogs possess a certain amount of influence.

"Journalists are well aware of watchblogs like BILDblog," said Schmidt. "You can tell because errors that are picked up by BILDblog do get corrected very quickly."

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