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