Another in a series of citizen journalism guru Dan Gillmor’s columns for the BBC. He doesn’t like differentiating between citizen contributor, citizen witness. citizen journalist and professional journalist. I do.
Update: Gillmor also blogs on this at the Center for Citizen Media blog
Gillmor opened his April 6 column by describing how blogger Josuah Micah Marshall kept the pressure on Republicans in Congress who voted to first to neuter a rule requiring those in House leadership positions to resign if indicted.
Marshall did so by asking readers in districts represented by Republicans to ask their Congressman or woman how they voted on what became known as the DeLay Rule.
Marshall and another blogger then reported the tally.
The process, asking readers to help report the story, fit into a category I have been calling “distributed journalism.” Mr Marshall was one of the first to see the potential.
If they are smart, journalists at major media organisations will recognise that their readers can be major contributors to tomorrow’s journalism.
The idea isn’t entirely new, of course. Traditional journalism organisations have used photographs from freelancers for decades and, more recently, have been soliciting pictures and videos from their audiences.
Typically such images have come from breaking news events where a passer-by with a camera captured the scene, most famously in the immediate aftermath of last July’s London bombings.
The moves to involve citizens in journalism come amid a perverse backlash against citizen journalism by some in the traditional, professional media.
The latest attack appeared last week on the CBS News Public Eye blog, where one of America’s most prominent journalism organisations discusses how the news is made.
A journalism professor and New York Times education columnist Samuel Freedman blasted citizen journalists as, among other things, mere producers of raw material rather than finished product, and opinion-givers in an echo chamber of like-minded amateurs.
Citizen journalism and professional journalism are not mutually exclusive concepts.
We’re actually heading toward an ecosystem that will support a variety of journalistic endeavours. As author and blogger Doc Searls has said, the logic we should adopt is “and”, rather than “or.”
Striking images of the 7 July bombings were taken by amateurs
When professional journalists ask their audiences for pictures, they are taking a useful step.
They can, and should, go considerably deeper, however, by giving audiences the tools to participate more fully in the emergent global conversation of which journalism is a vital part.
Local publishers and broadcasters should be aiming to help their communities engage in that conversation, via blogs, podcasts, discussion boards and all of the other conversational tools.
They can also emulate the Talking Points Memo method. Find a topic where thousands of people can ask a single question and report the answer back to a central person or database. The results become journalism.
Why does Mr. Gillmor believe that everyone’s motives will be pure if taking part in a citizen journalism project like the one mentioned above?
That’s like saying if everyone plays by the rules, group wikitorials are possible, yet we know some jokers will put porn spam in if they can.
In any event, let’s first revisit Mr. Freedman’s blog posting. Here’s some excerpts:
To its proponents, citizen journalism represents a democratization of media, a shattering of the power of the unelected elite, a blow against the empire of Big Brother. Citizen journalism does not merely challenge the notion of professionalism in journalism but completely circumvents it. It is journalism according to the ethos of indie rock ‘n’ roll: Do It Yourself.
For precisely such reasons, I despair over the movement’s current cachet. However wrapped in idealism, citizen journalism forms part of a larger attempt to degrade, even to disenfranchise journalism as practiced by trained professionals. As I said before, I appreciate the access that citizen journalism provides to first-hand accounts of major events. Yet I recognize those accounts are less journalism than the raw material, generated by amateurs, that a trained, skilled journalist should know how to weigh, analyze, describe, and explain. …
… The concept of an educated, skilled journalist, who goes out into the field to report what he or she finds there, arose only in the last century, as Michael Schudson points out in his indispensable book Discovering The News. So with the advent of cable television’s hundreds of narrowly niched channels, with the explosion of the Internet and its mantra that “information wants to be free,” traditional journalism makes a ready and appealing target.
Instead of providing the ultimate marketplace of ideas, however, cable TV and the Internet have become the ultimate amen corner, where nobody ever need encounter an opinion, much less a fact, that runs counter to what he or she already believes. To treat an amateur as equally credible as a professional, to congratulate the wannabe with the title “journalist,” is only to further erode the line between raw material and finished product. For those people who believe that editorial gate-keeping is a form of censorship, if not mind control, then I suppose the absence of any mediating intelligence is considered a good thing.
I would stand with Freedman in saying that what many citizens do is supply raw material about events, either by capturing images or video or by telling their own stories to news organizations. I prefer in my own mind to consider those folks as citizen contributors or citizen witnesses.
Journalism isn’t just information-gathering; it’s taking a bushel-basket full of information, some of it conflicting or unclear, and weaving it into an informative, interesting whole that meets craft standards for fairness and accuracy.
Now, some people without a journalism background are producing quality journalism and distributing it through podcasts, blogs and other distributive media. That’s entirely cool by me. More people may well attempt to become bona fide citizen journalists in the years ahead, and that’s a good thing.
Here’s more from Gillmor’s column:
Most people don’t care to be journalists, but many of us can and will occasionally commit an act of journalism, and it would be useful for people to understand some of the principles that have served the professionals, and their audiences, so well for so long (Gillmor thinks the pros should do more to train and educate the ams).
Citizen journalism won’t replace the professionals, at least I hope not. We need the best of what the pros do.
Let me say that I’m not addressing the business issues here that are undermining the pros’ business models. That’s a separate but important topic, which I’ll be addressing in an upcoming column.
But we are going to have to all recognise that the old systems are expanding. We are learning new ways to gather, sift and recombine what we know and learn together.
We can all win in that game.
With all due respect, Gillmor does need to work on his terminology. If you commit a once-in-a-lifetime act of journalism, does that really make you a journalist?
If I replace a washer on my kitchen faucet, does that make me a plumber?
To equate someone who took a cellphone picture of a newsworthy event with someone who knows their provincial and federal access-to-information laws by heart, who has spent years cultivating sources and understanding issues and players in a particular area of coverage, who has a proven track record of digging up that which powerful institutions would prefer to remain in the shadows, doesn’t seem quite right to me.
Once again, there clearly are some people who do want to be citizen journalists. If they can somehow work with professional journalists to create better-informed and more participatory communities and societies, then I say ‘terrific.’
However, I have some sympathy for Freedman’s position that we want to be careful about how we define ’journalist’ and ‘journalism’.
The craft has lots of enemies who are willing to believe the worst about both. If we set the bar so low that anyone is considered a journalist and anything they write or contribute is journalism, we feed the prejudices of those critics.