Archive for January 31st, 2005

Citizen Journalism is On the Case

2

One of the myriad projects gestating under the wing of
the inexhaustible Sooz, of recent front-page
fame
, is a workgroup to
describe, explore and promote the concept of "Citizen
Journalism
". What
exactly is a Citizen Journalist? Other than the starting point that they
are most decidedly NOT Professional Journalists, not much is know about
this elusive species.

In an attempt to address this issue and to contribute to Sooz’s effort,
we have been thinking about these questions, about what makes a Citizen
Journalist different from the other strange creatures constituting
the food chain of the news stream, and what a potential Citizen Journalist
should and shouldn’t aspire to. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far:

First, what the budding CJ should NOT try to do:

  • Citizen Journalists cannot replace the traditional press as a source
    for history’s raw material. Instead they must augment and ameliorate
    conventional journalism, offering roe perspective, depth and humanity
    to the tone and commentary.

  • Citizen Journalists cannot pretend to be neutral and unbiased. Reflecting
    the hallmarks of their origin in the Blogosphere, CJs are bold and
    biased, but wear their biases up front and center for all the world
    to see.

  • Citizen Journalists cannot count on the backup of a highly trained
    and paid team of editors, fact-checkers and lawyers ready to back
    them
    up in a
    crisis
    or confrontation. Conversely, they cannot hide behind the anonymity
    of an organization.

  • Citizen Journalists cannot take advantage of a network of state-of-the-art
    studios, cameras, equipment and in-house experts. Their entire
    operation is home-made, seat-of-the-pants, spare-time and intensely
    personal.

  • Citizen Journalists do not have access to high-ranking officials,
    get invited to press conferences, speak personally and privately
    with high-profile
    news makers or get embedded with US military forces in Iraq.

  • Because of the above, Citizen Journalists cannot be bought, bribed
    or threatened with loss of employment or access, or with promises
    of money
    and power. Of
    course, given the trickledown dynamic of the blogosphere, it is inevitable
    that players will try to influence or "buy" power bloggers. The recent
    controversy involving the Dean campaign’s relationship with certain
    bloggers is an early example of this. There are bound to be more.

But of course, this is nothing new and in no way different that the
way players, corporate or governmental, have been in bed with (i.e. screwing)
conventional journalists for decades. We need look no further than the
Bush administrations’ payments to Armstong Williams and other columists for examples of how this game
works.

So, given these limitations, what exactly can Citizen Journalism contribute
to our evolving media infrastructure? Is there enough of a need that
CJ can carve out a niche in the information ecosystem? Here are some
possibilities:

  • Because of their ubiquity and distribution, Citizen Journalists will
    often be the first on the scene and provide eye-witness 1st person
    accounts of
    news events around the globe.

  • Citizen Journalists can provide a diversity of opinion sorely lacking
    from the mainstream media. As anyone who has lived abroad in a
    country with a truly free press knows, a normal range of journalistic
    opinion
    makes the differences between CNN and FOX look like the differences
    between Greyhound and Peter Pan.

  • Citizen Journalists can provide the insight that only a real human
    being whose life has been directly impacted by an event can give. Diametrically
    opposite to the "unaffected-unbiased" sham of the mainstream media
    this perspective holds that we cannot really understand any event
    outside
    of our personal experience without seeing how that event affects
    and is
    perceived
    by someone like us.

  • Citizen Journalists can make connections the mainstream press misses.  By
    reading widely and collating and cross-referencing, the CJ
    can often generate insights by relating diverse sources and streams
    that would otherwise go unappreciated.

  • Citizen Journalists can encourage and engage in discussions, critiques
    and dialogs, via comments and cross-postings, which the mainstream
    press has neither the time nor the format nor the inclination to include.

  • Citizen Journalists can provide instant expert analysis.  With
    a potential data bank of millions of working experts in every imaginable
    field of human endeavor, the CJ can often confirm or reject news from
    the mainstream media faster than they can check on each other. The
    work of the font experts on the Dan Rather Texas Air National Guard
    letters is a case in point.

  • Citizen Journalists can create a cumulative groundswell of coverage. Often
    more powerful than one or a few loud voices are hundreds or thousands
    of quieter voices raised in unison, especially if they are not clones
    of each other but individually distinct. The on-line Dean for President
    story is a good example of this.

  • Citizen Journalists can keep a story alive that otherwise would disappear
    via the 24 hour news cycle. The strange case of Trent Lott eulogizing
    Strom Thurmon is the most quoted example.

  • Citizen Journalists can, by following and cross-referencing individual
    mainstream media writers and stories, function as a much-needed oversight
    on these self-appointed guardians of public opinion and awareness. Logically,
    the mainstream media hate the idea of anyone checking up on them,
    pointing out their inconsistencies and biases, which is why they
    are so upset
    and parochial about the whole concept of Citizen Journalism. Although
    they don’t like to admit it or write about it, professional journalists
    in America today are a privileged class and
    increasingly feel removed from and superior to the average man in the
    street, the consumer of their product. The position and importance
    of the Fifth
    Estate in our society is incontrovertible, and enshrined in the very
    documents which give our democracy life. However, the role of the
    media as a check on governmental power has grown so complex and important
    that we must ask the question: Who will watch the watchers?

Of course, in the end, it is the marketplace which will decide wherever
there is a desire and demand for the Citizen Journalist in Brave New
World of total information access. People will vote with their modems
and their eyeballs, and, in the opinion of the Dowbrigade, it is those
who most successfully meld insight and entertainment who will have
the biggest impact and success in the future.