Monday, December 1, 2008

Is It the Truth?

Citizen Journalism?

For months, I have been contemplating a post about what people are calling “Citizen Journalism.” I held off, wanting to chew on it a little longer. The criminal carnage in Mumbai, India this past week created a new surge in posts, comments, stories, columns, and opinions about “citizen journalism” facilitated by “social media” such as Twitter.

I cannot deny the role of ordinary citizens who gave the world the first reports of what was happening at the Taj Hotel. There were pictures and video too. While all networks, save CNN and, eventually Fox of all media, seemed to have their heads somewhere else on the United States’ holiday weekend, the murderers were having their way on the other side of the world with possible international consequences. No Thanksgiving there.

So called “citizen journalism” is being hailed as a major component of the future of televised/telecast/broadcast/streamed news. The old media, of course, wants to incorporate the new media. It has always been that way. Further, the citizen users/consumers/viewers are constantly adopting and adapting, seeing usefulness in the new tools at their disposal. Shoot. One of the reasons I acquired the cell phone that I carry is that it has a real camera and it will shoot and send pictures and video. I admit it. Newsrooms always wish for pictures—any pictures, particularly if they are of startling events half of the way around the world or of the mob scene moments before the death of Kevin Brown after his confrontation with Austin Police officers.

In the Internet-enabled age, people have camera phones and digital video cameras everywhere. News media cannot be everywhere. But, are we ready to invite citizens into the newsroom? Are those pictures always worth a thousand words? Are we seeing and hearing what we think we are seeing and hearing? Do these images and sounds represent the “truth”. Sometimes. Maybe often.

The consuming flames at the Texas Governors’ Mansion on You Tube are most likely shots of the actual event. If professional media were not there with cameras, (and some were not when the mansion was ablaze) the media may gladly take the next best thing. Yes, pictures of hail stones sitting next to golf balls may well be hail stones the size of golf balls.

The media, however, must be circumspect and, perhaps, a little cynical. Journalists are taught to “qualify” their sources, making sure they really know what they are talking about. That need to verify also extends to the so-called citizen journalists and the content they may offer.

OK. I’ll say it. I’ll stop beating around the bush: Citizen journalism is not really journalism. Call me a snob, but I think it takes education, experience, and ethics to do this job right. Citizens may make a valuable content contribution. However, it is the legal and ethical use of information, images, and sound that requires seasoned, experienced professionals.

Yes, almost anything goes on the Internet, but it is not necessarily journalism. You Tube has independently-produced and home-produced pictures readily available, but is this journalism? I know people who take what they see on You Tube and call it “gospel”, but is it journalism. No. No, I don’t think so. On You Tube, and you can find a powerful two-part documentary on police violence in Austin. Producers relied on police cruiser video and their own crowd shots. It may be a documentary, but it is not day-to-day journalism.

So, what is a professional journalist to do when someone sends in email with video or pictures? (This has always bothered me.) Should these images be slapped online, on the air, or on a printed page? All commercial media want to be first. All media should stop, take a breath, ask whether we’ve become You Tube, and then qualify the source. Then, maybe, media may decide to use the content. There should be protocol in place for instances such as this applicable even in the cases of “breaking news”. Will some other medium or station be the first with the story? Maybe. Will that story be the truth? Maybe. Maybe not.

© Jim McNabb, 2008


Ray Niekamp said...

After looking at a number of examples of "citizen journalism," I've concluded a better moniker is "citizen media." 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.
Oh, and don't get me started about video. Hundreds of clips of Hurricane Ike were posted on citizen journalism sites, but the vast majority of them were unedited continuous shots that panned and zoomed wildly and actually missed potentially interesting content.
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. 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.
But in cases of breaking news, citizen journalists are woefully unprepared to provide credible information.

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Gray Moore said...

You hit the nail on the head, not only is it NOT journalism, a lot of it isn't even information but MIS-information.

Internet posts as well as call-in radio shows allow a voice for the folks without a platform to voice their opinions. They both definatley have their place and people need such things however the biggest problem I have with them is there is no accountability.

On the internet most hide behind a nickname or number. If you want to be called a journalist you must be able to face the fire not hide behind something and not defend what you publicize.