The Citizen Journalist, and the role of modern news media

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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