Citizen Journalists & Wikileaks Will Change Face of Publishing

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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