Anne Kilkenny – citizen journalism heroine

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Guest post from Jon Greenberg of New Hampshire Public Radio

On Sunday, August 31, Anne Kilkenny wrote an email about Sarah Palin’s track record in Wasilla, Alaska, where Kilkenny lives. By Friday, there were over 3,000 results on Google for Kilkenny and her email. That night, Kilkenny was being interviewed by National Public Radio and everybody else.

This is another moment that proves the power of the internet to carry a message from a very small point to the entire world. For those of us who like the idea of democracy with a small “d”, it is a light in the darkness of mass media consolidation and it affirms the role of the citizen observer in the complex process that generates popular news.

Three factors sent Kilkenny’s note on its rocket ride to prominence. First, Palin is a major political figure who is largely unknown. Her own jet-fueled ascendance to the national scene created a public that is hungry for any information about her. As a Wasilla resident, Kilkenny was in an unusual position to provide information.

Second, Kilkenny’s email, while even-handed, ultimately was critical of Palin. The bloggers and groups that oppose McCain had an incentive to spread it around as widely as possible. It furthered their political goals and it played off of the emotional energy of deeply held belief.

Third, and perhaps most revealing, Kilkenny’s email was based on a large number of verifiable facts. It discussed the debt burden of Wasilla before and after Palin’s term in office. It contrasted investments in a sports center, which Palin supported, with investments in waste water treatment, which Palin did not. It showed nuances in Palin’s position on abortion and creationism. Kilkenny was doing the work of a reporter.

At the same time, she spoke clearly about her bias. She praised Palin’s strengths and criticized what she saw as her weaknesses. She is no fan of Palin and acknowledging that added to the general sense of authenticity.

Kilkenny gave every reporter and news reader a leg up; a place to begin doing research on Palin and a starting point in forming an overall picture that might or might not match Kilkenny’s conclusions.

She also affirmed an emerging role for citizens in the journalism process. It is a role that lies between objective reporting and pure opinion. Non-journalists can be invaluable when they use their own eyes and ears to report what they see; they rarely deliver on that promise, generally for two reasons. I have found that most citizens worry that they are not up to the task of producing objective journalism. Worse than that, they believe that if they are going to throw their words into the public arena, they must be an advocate for something. It often seems that what they know best is the glib certainty of the Op-Ed page or the stridency of a letter to the editor.

Kilkenny took a third route. She provided many clear facts that can be verified or disputed by others. She attempted to be even handed. And she acknowledged her biases. These are the qualities in citizens that newsrooms ought to nurture and develop. It’s in their own interest to do so.

Kilkenny represents a huge opportunity for newsrooms working on hundreds of stories in hundreds of communities. All they have to do is take two steps: 1. Identify the kind of stories for which citizens are positioned to offer useful reporting. 2. Adapt themselves to take in that citizen material and use it in a way that fits with longstanding journalistic traditions. If newsrooms pull this off, they will establish a new social contract between themselves and the public – a new social contract that can breathe new life into the news we all rely on.

Image: caribou barbie, via flickr
originally uploaded by Sterin.

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