We the Journalists

”’We the Journalists”’

For the longest time, a degree and a job at a private organization have determined whether or not you are fit to tell others of the events of the world around us. Anderson Cooper certainly is qualified. He’s done amazing stories under CNN, made all the more great once a flashy logo and banner were added. Here’s the thing though, all those news outlets (CNN, New York Times, FOX, MSNBC, ABC, to name a few) are private businesses. This essentially means that they control what gets released. The Fox news network is probably the worst offender of this. Anyone who watches Fox news can clearly see a biased spin to their stories, to the point that the network is constantly ridiculed by its peers and sites such as foxattacks.com (whose tagline is “they distort, we reply”)[http://foxattacks.com/] are spawned to counteract the bias that is portrayed in the news. Foxattacks.com is set up to document all the instances of misrepresentation of facts and slander found on Fox news while also petitioning to get advertisers to pull their commercial support for Fox.
The very realization that such a thing can be set up to hold news organizations accountable of the truth is amazing. With the advent of the printing press, ideas were able to be widely circulated more quickly. This has only increased exponentially through time with the radio, television and even greater, the internet. Now, anyone can go online and start a blog, essentially becoming their own publisher and posting their own view of the world around them without fear of an editor or board of trustees. This is the cultural counteraction to news known as citizen journalism.
Citizen journalism, otherwise known as “participatory journalism” or “people journalism” is, according to Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, authors of We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information, the act of citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information. The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires.”[http://www.hypergene.net/wemedia/download/we_media.pdf]
The content is produced by private citizens who are not professional journalists. This can include participating in comment discussion on news articles, posting of personal blogs, capturing images or video and posting them, starting a podcast…the list goes on.
Blogs are particularly interesting because, as stated before, anyone can start one as it is such an easy thing to do. Many sites provide free blog pages, so rather than buy a domain name any person can register with the site and have their blog posted for the world to see. Our traditional mass media outlets have even realized the growing popularity of independent media outlets like blogs and have begun to fashion their news to be more publicly interactive. For instance, CNN has an i-report section on their website in which citizens can upload their own videos of related interest to current national news stories or significant local stories. By including this raw footage, CNN gets more of a “on the scene” feel as opposed to the previous “our reporter arrived 5 minutes too late and is standing outside a police barricade shooting video of a blank wall”. Take the recent Virginia Tech tragedy: student Jamal Albarghouti was able to capture sound of the shots fired by the gunman with his camera phone. This was uploaded into the i-report and widely played by the news channel. The footage is still available in archive and can be more easily found on youtube.
The i-report feature on CNN is a good example of hyperlocal journalism, which is the coverage of community news often overlooked by mass media as we know it. While the Virginia Tech footage is definitely a poor example of this, being the event of international interest that it was, the initial meaning of the i-report is still there. Still another example of this mass media surge for hyperlocal journalism can be found in a recent article for the Washington Post in which it was announced that the Post would be launching Loudonextra.com, a site “combining traditional reporters and photographers with bloggers, videographers and extensive databases on schools, businesses and churches.”[http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/15/AR2007071500648.html?sub=new]
Though citizen journalism can be used to respond to public neglect from mass media, problems occur for the same reason that makes citizen journalism such a great thing, there’s just too much freedom. While some outlets or bloggers may dedicate themselves to holding onto objectivity (“fair and balanced” in the real sense of the phrase), the general population is very opinion based and therefore biased in what gets posted on the web. This is a good example of what I call Bathroom Stall journalism, which is basically a very strong opinion posted on the internet with little or no research behind it, much like the drivel you would find inked in a public bathroom stall. “John is a faggot”. Sometimes the points made on the internet are no more intelligent than that common deduction so often seen in a typical high school bathroom. Don’t believe me? Check any message board on youtube. Discussions on blogs can be just as notorious: a heated political debate can oftentimes turn into snide comments about the others manhood or calling their sexuality into question.
This, I’m sure, is a big reason for civic journalists distrust in reports made by citizens. Certainly, too much trash news is not good news at all and only creates confusion. There are ways around that though. Following in wikipedia’s example is a good way to start. The whole encyclopedia is edited by the community that contributes to it, so for every one person that tarnishes what the community has built, there are thousands of others to clean it up.
Other ideas for solutions are not as easily seen, unfortunately. One of the biggest things that divide a civic journalist from a citizen journalist is the ruling from the Branzburg v Hayes trial of 1972[http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1971/1971_70_85/], which called into question whether a reporter was protected from appearing and testifying in court, should such an act disclose identities of confidential sources. It was decided that it was not a requirement, and as a result there are shield laws set up in over thirty states to protect reporters.
The problem here arises when you give the power for everyone to be a reporter. As slow moving as our judicial system already is, it would move even slower if every witness refused to give testimony by hiding under a shield law. I’m not sure what the solution to this would be, but for now it is a very definite wedge that separates citizen from civic journalists.
The internet has provided a loud voice for civic journalism despite its small flaws and, seeing the growth and prominence it has attained, may provide a way for mass media to be reformed should it continue to be absorbed by news organizations as it has been. This may in turn provide a way for these organizations to reform the internet, making a sort of symbiotic relationship whose idea would make Licklider proud.