Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Citizen Journalism" Reax


Morse Code was big when I was a kid, so I learned it. No, I wasn’t around when Samuel Morse created it. It would have been “new media” at the turn of the 20th Century. By the middle of the century, if not before, kids discovered it to tap out messages during class to other kids who knew the code. It wasn’t “new media” but was it “social media”? Arguably, yes—right up there with the Twitter of today.

If the citizens of Illinois knew it, they might have been tapping S-O-S this past week. (That’s all that I remember in Morse Code now.) But, does that tapping, Twittering, and texting make those who spread the word of the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich journalists, so-called “citizen journalists”? So said several web sites this week again as journalism think-tanks touted the new media and encouraged traditional journalists to try it.

Try it. You’ll like it, they say. The previous post on “citizen journalism” generated immediate response from several news managers in Central Texas.

“There is no such thing as citizen journalism. It’s an oxymoron,” declared Frank Volpicella, KVUE-TV news director. “Maybe ‘citizen eyewitness’ is more like it. Shooting video of a spot news event does not make a citizen a journalist, anymore than me putting a band aid on my cut finger makes me a surgeon.”

Volpicella’s comments were echoed by others.

“I am reluctant to call these contributors, ‘Journalists’.” Says Bruce Whiteaker, former news director of KXAN TV. “I, too am more than a little snobbish about the BIG ‘J’ [Journalism],” Whiteaker continued.” “I enjoyed a 33-year career as a Broadcast Journalist. I EARNED that title, not by snapping pictures of the latest police chase, hotel fire or hail storm, but by devoting years to formal training in school and on the job.”

Suzanne Black, news director at KEYE TV sees potential for citizen participation in the process, but not the final product. “I love the idea of having viewers participate in the news process. In a time when television news numbers are slumping, it gives viewers ownership over the content and therefore a reason to watch,” Black says. “The danger, though, is citizen journalists are not trained in or bound to the code of ethics we follow. And while there is a vetting process in newsrooms to verify whether content is truthful and without bias, certain dangers exist.”

“Truthiness” is the term applied by Whiteaker. “We have to go with what we know to be accurate,” He says. “And that's where the vetting of the daily iPhone contributors is important. Who is to say that some of that footage of the Kevin Brown incident wasn't somehow ‘staged’ for dramatic purposes? I seem to recall video from Austin PD of a ‘re-enactment’ of an officer scuffling with a suspect who was shot during the melee. [The City of Austin settled a civil suit broad by the family of Daniel Rocha this past week.] And the legitimate news organizations labeled it as ‘re-enactment’ or ‘dramatization’. But the daily contribution of the average Joe on the street with a cell phone might not get that important treatment.

“I've concluded a better moniker is ‘citizen media’," says Ray Niekamp, assistant professor in journalism at Texas State University in San Marcos. “They don't do journalism, at least in terms of fact-checking, sourcing, transparency. In this Internet age, people are comfortable with oddball user names online. But when I see video from FunkyVideoMan5, I'm not going to blindly trust the information I'm getting there.”

So, how will the future handle this content contributed by ordinary citizens (or perhaps extraordinary citizens)? “Some commentators say the future of mainstream media will be as ‘organizers,’ taking all the stuff citizen journalists submit and putting it together in such a way that it makes sense,” Niekamp says. “But organizing has always been one function of the media. Now, they just have much more stuff to sort through.”

“Citizen journalism seems to be at its best when tackling a community issue that is missed or ignored by the mainstream media. That's when they gather information, check facts, and cite sources--and contribute something of value,” Niekamp continued. “But in cases of breaking news, citizen journalists are woefully unprepared to provide credible information.”

Morse Code gave way to voice transmissions on radio, but it didn’t die away. Morse Code still has usefulness. Users/consumers of information have always found ways to adapt to new media, while holding on to the good parts of “old media”. The traditional media models may not fit with the tastes of today’s consumers/users. No doubt the traditional media must modify their models or die away. Tuesday, the Detroit Free Press may announce that it is cutting back its daily home distribution, encouraging its readers to go online. I don’t think that is adapting. I think that is throwing in the traditional towel because of the economy.

“Bottom line, our business is changing and the burden is on us to find a way to use the content appropriately, without compromising the ideals of this profession.” concludes Suzanne Black. Black is acutely aware of the economic pressures if for no other reason, KEYE TV is owned by Cerberus, the same Cerberus that owns Chrysler.
So, we’re back to tapping S-O-S on the table top or reading the latest news in Jim’s life from Plaxo: “Jim is working on musical Christmas gifts."

© Jim McNabb, 2008

1 comment:

Larry Brill said...

If the adage a picture is worth a thousand words, then your debate, at least in the examples you cited, about citizen journalists lost sight of the key distinction between people providing the images for a story and journalism. It's the words that matter. Your examples seemed to confuse citizen videography with citizen journalists. If pictures are posted with no factual information, interpretation or analysis and leaving it to the viewer to digest and form his/her own story from them, you can't compare it to "Journalism" with a capital J.
That said, the defenders of capital-J journalism, you self-described "snobs" showed the traditional media's delusion of adequacy. And, as someone who spent 25 years in TV news, I say that with a still warm and fuzzy feeling toward my former colleagues. Examples:
Bruce Whiteaker (my former boss) says he EARNED the title of Broadcast Journalist through years of training and experience on the job. Yes, but a degree and logging hours in a newsroom does not a capital-J journalist make. We all know people who have survived even the cutthroat world TV news with little talent and less devotion to the craft, reporting stories from one pay check to the next. And some who were paid buckets of money because they could communicate what others wrote for them and yet called themselves "Broadcast Journalists".
Suzanne Black points to the code of ethics and the vetting of stories for truthfulness and bias. In 25 years in the business I never saw the code posted anywhere although I think we all believed there was one somewhere. And most of us tried to live by the code, but it's not black and white and the interpretation of "truthfulness" shifts from story to story, impacted by deadlines, unconscious bias, personalities and the need to report a story in a formula sort of way that is, sadly, a given in newsrooms. Anyone who has worked in a newsroom and NOT seen a colleague twist a story or a soundbite to shade or even distort the truth in order to fill a preconceived notion of what "the story is really about", should read Bernard Goldberg's book Bias for examples.
And Ray Niekamp suggests that our capital-J journalists check facts and the accuracy of sources. But in the day-to-day newsroom fact checking is done only on an "as needed" basis. If we don't go into an interview with a source with the agenda of catching them in a lie, capital-J journalists will simply accept the sources' version of the story without question.
So if you are still with me, here's my take on the question of citizen journalism:
First, the mainstream media needs to admit that journalism today (as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow) is entertainment. It is in the business of entertaining readers or viewers because if the audience isn't entertained, it will go elsewhere.
Second, while mainstream journalists are capable of hitting grand slams of noble, life-affecting reporting, that kind of quality journalism is very, very rare. Day to day, locally and nationally, journalism is a series of singles. Pete Rose would have been a good journalist with a lot of hustle, a high batting average and a habit of constantly annoying the opposition.
Finally, the truth is that capital-J journalists ARE citizen journalists with all the character flaws, the bias and blind spots that come with being human. That is the beauty of it, all reporters are human. So rather than dismiss "citizen" journalists or give undue credibility to "professional" journalists--we are all journalists with a little j, and should be judged by the quality of our information.
Niekamp says he wouldn't blindly trust the information he gets from FunkyVideoMan5, but will he blindly trust the information from Keith Olberman or Bill O'Reily, and by extension their organizations NBC and Fox?
I love watching them, I am constantly informed and entertained, but at the end of the broadcast I have to take it all with a grain of salt and decide for myself as best I can what is true and what is less so based on opposing sources of information. I do that because I know that Keith and Bill, Brian and Katie and the armies of journalists behind them charged with making sense of the world are all human. They are all citizen journalists.
Thank you for listening. I don't blog often but what I lack in quantity I make up for in verbosity.