Archive for February 2011

The Citizen Journalist, and the role of modern news media

February 5, 2011

There has always been room in the traditional media for the "man or woman in the street." Journalists rely on eye-witness accounts to relay the human aspects of a story. Tip lines and letters-to-the-editor have been an ongoing feature of newspapers for centuries. In the past, this kind of input was filtered through the reporter first, then the editor, and finally the publisher of a newspaper such as ours. In many countries that input then has to get past government censors.

Now there is a large and growing number of quick and easy ways for an individual to disseminate content on the internet. No special skills are required in many cases, beyond computer or telephone access to the web.

There have been quite a few professional journalists who have decided to start their own online new outlets. Their medium may be new(er) but the business model tends to remain the same one followed for centuries. Content is published that is assumed to be of interest to a readership, following traditional rules and guidelines, and advertising is sold to pay expenses and salaries and to create profit. In essence these are traditionally styled enterprises using modern tools, with the same challenges and risks that small start-ups have always faced.

There is an enormous multitude of websites that purport to be unbiased news services, when in fact they were created to promote a point of view or a specific political bias. In many ways this isn’t new either. Newspapers, magazines, and television new outlets all tend to have a built in bias, one that is generally understood to exist by their readership. They are still expected to present the news in a relatively unbiased manner. However, "spin" wasn’t invented by the internet.

There is another kind of citizen journalism that has been having an unusual and intriguing effect on our culture. Wikileaks is an example of this. For the first time ever, no one can assume that anything they do can remain hidden, out of the public eye, forever. Another example is the present situation in China, where citizen journalism thrives. Living under the tight restrictions of a Communist Party run government, the citizens of that country are voracious internet users who use social media, blogs, chat rooms, and the like to combat corruption in their country. In essence they live in a country with no free press and have instead created their own. In the very recent Tunisian revolution citizen journalists provided spark, debate, and information to a population hungry for change and understanding of the events engulfing them. Social media was used to help fan the flames, for good or ill.

Closer to home, Albertan Matt Reeves posted a lengthy complaint about the RCMP, who he claims refused to help him when his car got stuck on the highway during a recent blizzard. Reeves’ story was picked up by local, provincial and national media outlets shortly afterward. While his Facebook entry is a compelling read, it certainly does not present the story in a well-rounded, unbiased manner. Within the context of Facebook, it isn’t intended to, nor should it have to. While it might make for interesting water-cooler talk, it’s not journalism. What a person says on Facebook is still subject to libel and defamation laws in Canada, but there isn’t a presumed responsibility to a greater public when telling a story.

What is a modern journalist to do?

Traditional print media is in a state of rapid decline. Newspapers and magazines have disappeared in huge numbers all over North America, and the ones still operating have generally been forced to cut back on staff and resources. That means there is a big decrease in the number of reporters representing any given community. The warning bells have been mistaken for tolling bells. Journalism is not dead, far from it. Organized news media is still responsible for gathering the news from near and far, presenting it, and interpreting it contextually in ways that an individual or a small group of individuals cannot hope to match. Certainly there’s room for anyone to write about the play they attended or the accident they witnessed, or the hobby they enjoy, but there isn’t enough room in all of Ottawa for all of the armchair pundits that blog about it.

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Citizen Journalists & Wikileaks Will Change Face of Publishing

February 5, 2011

There are two major issues going on in the media these days that could arguably change the face of publishing. One has to do with folks who call themselves “citizen journalists;” and the other with a little media Website you might have heard of called Wikileaks.

Citizen journalism typically involved a collective of everyday Joes reporting on the happenings around them based on what they’ve read from reputable news outlets, or being at the right place at the right time. (For example, a video snapped by any Tom, Dick, and Harry of an arrest and posted online with information might be considered a citizen journalist entry.) Naturally, most in the media frown upon the use of the term “journalist” to describe these folks. They aren’t journalists any more than I’m a doctor because I can put a Band-Aid on a cut. And a recent Canadian judge may have just set a precedent that could see these folks put back to their regular Joe statuses.

Judge Brian Stevenson has banned anyone but “accredited” journalists from a courtroom for an upcoming trial. Given that fact that essentially anyone can call himself a citizen journalist or a blogger, Stevenson’s concerns are that too much information being distributed through so many online channels could impact the accused person’s right to have a fair trial. And he’s right. The public reading a selection of articles from newspapers, TV programs, magazines, or reputable online sources that weigh both sides of the issue, and present a comprehensive, well-researched look at the trial is one thing. Facebook and Twitter users being inundated with 140-character-or-less status updates about how the accused “has a guilty look on his face,” or how the witness on the stand now “keeps twiddling her thumbs so she must be lying,” isn’t really information that should be disseminated to thousands; even millions; of people around the world when you’re talking about such a sensitive matter. Even reputable journalists who are permitted access will not be able to Tweet from the courtroom.

The second case, which has been widely publicized over the past few months, concerns a Website called WikiLeaks, and its Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange. The Website isn’t a publisher in the typical sense: the non-profit organization receives and compiles private documents from various sources and releases them to the public. But because posting an item online through a media-related Website is technically publishing, it means the Website can enjoy the same rights as traditional publishers, including free speech and freedom of the press, and the right not to reveal its confidential sources.

Indeed, freedom of the press is at the heart of both of these debates. What defines the press? Is a site like WikiLeaks “the press?” If you were to ask someone 10 or 15 years ago, or maybe even five years ago, the answer would have been a resounding “no.” But the nature of the media business is changing. The Internet makes it easy for just about anyone to become a “publisher,” requiring simply a computer, Internet connection, and Website hosting costs as the only overheads (and even the latter can be avoided through free blog programs like Google’s Blogspot).

But are these people journalists just because it’s easier today for more people to read their thoughts than it might have been decades ago with a simple pen and paper, or e-mail carbon copy to 10 friends? Or are they just everyday folks with a voice; with freedom of speech? The reality is unavoidable and must be embraced. But this doesn’t mean these folks should enjoy the same privileges and credentials as “real” journalists. I say privileges and credentials and not freedoms because that is really what it boils down to. Being given access to a courtroom during a major trial is a privilege you’re given as a journalist because you have a duty to report the news to your readers. Is a blogger or citizen journalist’s duty to report on the news? Or does he just do this when he feels like it solely for fun, and through a chewed up PC in his dark, dank basement instead of with a reputable company that makes its living by educating readers? Or worse yet, under a pseudonym? If it’s the latter, then enjoy what you do, but don’t feel entitled to the same privileges as others who devote their careers, and reputations, to give people the real story. A true journalist can indeed share thoughts via social networking sites. He can compose opinionated blogs. But doing one or the other alone does not a journalist make.


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