Citizen Journalism and the Future of News
Media Bloggers Association president Robert Cox argues in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed that the line between “citizen” and “journalist” has become so blurred as to have all but disappeared.
This issue has reared its head again because of the so-called “Bittergate” episode.
Mayhill Fowler, a maxed-out Obama contributor, was invited to attend a fundraiser in San Francisco that was off-limits to the press despite her being a blogger for the Huffington Post. Fowler openly recorded the senator’s remarks and accurately reported his words. Afterward, Obama campaign officials acknowledged that the event was on the record and that they assumed everything said would be recorded and published. The issue then is not that Fowler did what she did but that there was a negative reaction to what she said that he said.
Some have taken this opportunity to challenge the notion of citizen journalism altogether, asking whether it is appropriate for a “citizen journalist” to attend a no-press event as a “citizen” and then report on the event as a “journalist.”
I’ve been to many “Chatham House rules” (no attribution or disclosure of who participated) events and a handful of off-the-record (no reporting, period) events and have respected those rules. Fowler, though, was under no obligation to refrain from publishing damaging quotations. Indeed, she meant no harm to her candidate.
The past five years have seen unprecedented changes in the media landscape. Bloggers have been credentialed to major political conventions; played a key role in ending the career of a powerful news broadcaster; derailed a major political campaign, thus shifting power in the U.S. Senate; received media credentials to cover a high-profile federal trial; and, most recently, were embedded in presidential campaigns.
The advent of near-ubiquitous recording devices such as cell phones, iPods and digital cameras, combined with Web-based broadcast platforms such as blogs, video-sharing sites and podcasts, means “news” can be broadcast by anyone to anywhere at a speed of thousands of megabytes per second with an audience reach of infinite size – all at little or no cost. The world is only slowly catching up with implications of this new media landscape where any person is potentially gathering news at any given moment.
The reaction to Fowler’s blog post then is just another bump in the inexorable sorting out of what the First Amendment means in a society where every person with Internet access has his or her own global broadcasting and publishing facility. The issue is less the distinction between “citizen” and “journalist” and more whether the Founding Fathers ever contemplated such a distinction in the first place.
A close reading of the First Amendment and centuries of legal precedent says “no.”
Quite right. There’s a reason that freedom of speech and freedom of press occupy the same space in the Bill of Rights; they’re inextricably linked. Without information to form opinions, the ability to express opinions is meaningless. Conversely, information is useless unless one is free to share one’s opinions.
America’s early journalists were merely citizens interested in the news. There was no such thing as J-School and the concept of credentialing would have seemed absurd. Over time, however, journalism moved from a craft to a profession, with many of the accouterments of the latter. This has been mostly, but not entirely, positive.
Professionalism arose out of a dark period in American media. Yellow Journalism and a tabloid mentality stripped newspapers of any value, since people had no reason to trust what they were reading. A canon of ethics was necessary, including the expectation that reporters attempt to present information objectively and truthfully. Theoretically, at least, opinion was to be clearly labeled and distinguished from factual reportage. In reality, of course, that ideal was never reached. Given that human beings staff newspapers and other media, it was never attainable to begin with.
With Vietnam and Watergate, and later the advent of 24/7 cable news and the Internet, the mentality of the professional media changed. The always present pressure to get “scoops” and “break” stories ratcheted up to new heights and old rules about double checking sources and editorial oversight were loosened in order to accommodate “reporting at the speed of thought.” More importantly, the aspiration shifted from good reporting to doing good. Everyone wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein.
The advent of blogs and other self-published media turned us full circle to the days of the pamphleteers. Most citizen journalists are untrained and, frankly, most are rather poor. But it has created ability for more facts to get out (reporting staffs are limited; they can’t be everywhere), more expertise to be brought to bear (it would be almost inconceivable for someone at CBS to have had expertise on 1970’s typewriter fonts, for example), and for more opinions to compete for readers.
Citizen-journalists won’t replace professional journalists. That’s a good thing. We want well-trained, full-time people out there covering the news. But the Army of Davids that Glenn Reynolds described are a welcome addition to the fold.
UPDATE: In “Where’s the Business Model for News, People?” Jay Rosen gives us a short history lesson:
It’s worth going back to the first business model in reportage: the merchants, traders, and other “men of affairs” in early modern Europe who employed letter-writers in cities where the man of affairs did not happen to be located. These letters—the most famous example is the Fugger Letters from the latter 16th century—conveyed much the same news that a trader would want today: prices, conditions for trade and transport, what the local authorities were up to, rumors of war, court news and gossip, natural disasters, and anything the people were seriously buzzed about.
Quality was important, accuracy essential, an ability to interpret and amuse definitely part of the deal. Everything a pro journalist would want an employer to demand, except for one thing. The letters were not intended for public distribution. There was no public then, and “public opinion” was not a phrase in common political use.
He also points to Jeff Jarvis‘ “The press becomes the press-sphere.”
One problem I’ve had with much discussion about the future of news lately is that it’s too press-centric. It focuses on the press as if it were at the center of the world, as if it owned news, as if news depended on it, as if solving the press’ problems solves news. That’s not the ecosystem of news now.
The press may be involved and may create a news story. But we might have found that via links from our peers who tell us it’s news (“if the news is important, it will find me”). Either of those might have linked to source material from a company or government site — which now plays a press role in adding to the whole of a story. Witnesses can join in the process directly. Background might come via links to archives. Commentary from observers may add perspective. An accumulation of data may alert us to news or augment it. All of these elements add up to news.
That’s a lot more work, though, than watching the evening news, listening to the radio on the way to work, or even reading a daily newspaper. But for information junkies, this is absolutely right: There’s a ton of outstanding content out there and myriad ways to reach it. Indeed, while I subscribe to Jarvis’ blog via RSS, I’d missed this piece but stumbled upon it two weeks later via Rosen.