State Dept. Blogging One Year Later (Part 2): Themes and categories

By Edward T. Palazzolo and Dawn Gilpin (with analysis support from Nick Brody, Jesse Herrera, Krista McNaughton, and Jordan Wolff)

DipNote

This post builds on the previously summarized meeting between Steve Corman and Angela Trethewey (COMOPS Faculty) and Heath Kern and Luke Forgerson (DipNote’s Editors). We reviewed roughly one year’s worth of DipNote posts and reader comments for a content analysis to identify the principle themes throughout the blog. Below we present some of our findings along with some conclusions drawn from the data. However, we tried to reserve suggestions for improvement and overall recommendations for the final post in this series.

In reviewing the configuration of the DipNote blog, one of the first things we noticed is that each post is assigned to one of thirteen predefined categories. Interestingly, about half of these categories are geographical, identifying the world region addressed in the post content. We assume this convention was designed to help readers quickly identify posts related to a region of the world in which they might have a vested interest or a curiosity.

Since only one category is assigned per post, a reader interested in travel to Asia, for instance, can read the Travel posts, but this option would also deliver posts about travel to other world regions. The alternative is to read one or more of the four Asian categories, which include Eurasia, South and Central Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and the Near East and Asia in addition to the countries of actual interest; the posts is all these categories, however, would also include topics not specifically related to travel. Thus, the reader will either be overwhelmed by too many posts or not realize to check the other categories and miss out on relevant information.

The non-geographical categories are topical in nature. For these categories, the reader is guided to topic specific information. Again, however, as each post is assigned to only one category the reader may not locate all the information for which she is looking. Table 1 below shows the number of posts that had been made in each category from when DipNote went live September 25, 2007 until September 12, 2008 when we downloaded the year’s worth of posts.

Table 1 – DipNote Categories

Category #posts
Today’s Top Issues 99
Behind the Scenes 53
Question of the Week 43
Near East & Asia 26
Policy 24
Africa 23
Western Hemisphere 13
East Asia & the Pacific 11
South and Central Asia 10
UNGA 9
Europe & Eurasia 8
Travel 6
Uncategorized 0

While no formal descriptions exist of the categories and their contents, the names are clear and descriptive: Today’s Top Issues are posts containing daily links to leading news stories about U.S. diplomacy and international affairs; Policy posts address specific issues of United States foreign policy; Question of the Week is a popular feature judging by the number of comments on those posts, inviting readers to comment on some aspect of foreign policy, diplomacy, or international affairs; Travel posts cover matters from passports and visa to accounts of specific travel adventures; the Behind the Scenes category covers the inner workings of the State Department and embassy life; while UNGA refers to matters of the United Nations General Assembly. Any posts that do not fit into the above classification system are marked as Uncategorized.

Leaving aside the Top Issues and Question of the Week categories, which are special features of the blog that may be seen as separate from regular posts, Table 1 shows the largest number of posts are categorized as Behind the Scenes entries. This finding suggests one of the primary functions of DipNote has been to offer readers a look into the inner workings of the State Department in its various facets. We imagine this is a welcome finding for Heath, Luke, and others at the State Department as one of the driving forces behind the creation of DipNote was to provide the general public with information regarding the inner workings of the State Department.

Another top category is Policy. Again, this finding is in line with the another driving force behind the blog, which is to increase communication with the U.S. citizens and become a leading source of information about public diplomacy. So, according to their own classification scheme, the blog appears to be fulfilling its mission.

For more insight into the range of topics covered by DipNote, our team of coders, Jordan Wolff and Jesse Herrera, studied the content of the posts and developed their own list of 10 themes which emerged from the data. These were identified without referring to the DipNote categories, so any overlap is coincidental. Table 2 below shows the number of posts identified as belonging to each theme; as with DipNote, each post was assigned a single thematic label based on its overall content.

Table 2 – COMOPS Themes

Theme #posts
Diplomacy/Foreign relations 101
Top Issues 100
Personal Stories 36
Humanitarian Aid 28
Iraq 20
Holiday/Celebration 19
Internal Operations/Domestic Affairs 18
UNGA 12
Blackwater 2
Other 8

Top Issues and UNGA themes are identical to the ones adopted by the DipNote staff. The Holiday/Celebration category includes posts describing cultural, national, and religious holidays or rituals, and Humanitarian Aid covers topic ranging from disaster recovery efforts to fund raising events to address global health concerns. Iraq and Blackwater are identified as distinct themes, since the Blackwater affair was a specific incident that stands out against the more generalized topic of reports on the current situation in Iraq. The Internal Operations/Domestic Affairs theme addresses public affairs matters within the United States, as well as matters internal to State Department operations, while the Foreign Relations/Diplomacy theme applies to posts that address public diplomacy and international affairs in general. Posts that did not fit into any of the above categories, or that were no longer available (to be explained in another post), were coded as Other.

Table 2 shows that the COMOPS themes are less concerned with geographical boundaries than the categories established by DipNote, so that Iraq is the only territorial label. Many DipNote posts are first-person accounts of daily life as experienced by State Department employees in the United States and around the world; these posts have been coded as Personal Stories when they do not focus primarily on topics addressed by other themes such as Humanitarian Aid or Iraq. While there may be some overlap with the Behind the Scenes category in Table 1, the latter also included posts about the internal technical workings of the State Department or self-referential (“meta”) discussion of DipNote itself (see for example this post on State Department reactions to the AFSA survey).

The distribution of themes also shows a different emphasis compared to the DipNote categories in Table 1: here, the function of the blog as a vehicle for information about U.S. public diplomacy and international relations prevails over the “insider’s view” function of the Personal Stories theme. The fact that COMOPS coders perceived these posts differently than the DipNote editorial staff who assigned the post categories suggests that readers in the general public may also have a somewhat different impression of the blog’s focus. Also, it appears as though the editorial staff created these categories before they started writing the blog, which may explain why geography is more of a focus because they could not have foreseen the range of topics that would eventually be discussed.

Clearly there is a lot more to be said regarding DipNote. This initial analysis is only a brief summary of the findings based on our first review of DipNote’s contents. The next post in the series will provide an overview of the content analysis of the reader comments in response to DipNote entries. We will also be conducting more in-depth analysis of the blog as a whole, and the particular role of blogs in public affairs communication, to be published in a COMOPS White Paper.

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  1. [...] Dipnote blog. In Part 1 we focused on reviewing DipNote management and processes. In Part 2 we looked at what the State Department bloggers were writing about. In this post, we focus on our [...]