Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Citizen journalism vs. professional journalism

Citizen journalism, a concept at which mainstream news organizations used to turn up their nose, has been documented and praised enough that they are now paying attention. But do professional journalists and news organizations really have anything to be worried about?

Professional amateurs

The popular vlog Rocketboom did an interview with XML guru Dave Winer in which he gave his take on journalism: "Amateur is not below professional. It's just another way of doing (media). The root of the word amateur is love, and someone who does something for love is an amateur. Someone who does something to pay the bills is a professional. The amateurs have [more integrity than] the professionals. If you're an amateur you have less conflict of interest and less reason not to tell your truth than if you have to pay the bills and please somebody else."

What Dave has to say may be true in theory, but in reality it doesn’t fly. Amateurs can’t really dedicate themselves to performing thorough journalism because the fact is they have to pay the bills doing their own profession. After that job is done, they can entertain themselves however they would like and many in recent years have taken up reading, writing and commenting in the blogosphere.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it is exactly this practice that is today hailed as “Citizen Journalism” which really has nothing at all to do with journalism.

Think quickly about the top political blogs on the Internet. They have massive followings, enough to allow their authors to support themselves and then some. But do they do any real journalism? No. They are just commentary on what’s in the Mainstream Media. Educated and insightful commentary, no doubt. Often better than MSM editorials. But just commentary.

Amy Gahran at Poynter picked up the Winer interview and had her own take: “I think this basic question -- what constitutes integrity in media? -- cuts straight to the heart of the discomfort that many traditional journalists experience when they consider the booming field of citizen journalism and grassroots media. We journalists generally prize integrity. Certain core values and practices of traditional (professional) journalism -- such as objectivity, accuracy, corroboration, avoiding conflicts of interest, transparency, editorial oversight, etc. -- exist in order to enhance our integrity and thus earn the audience's trust.” She later declares, “amateurs can learn to produce high-quality news content.”

Let’s dissect Gahran:

First of all, the “field of citizen journalism and grassroots media” is not “booming.” Who some would consider to be the father of citizen journalism, Dan Gillmor, is changing course after his first attempt as an independent citizen journalism because he did not receive the rate of participation for which he had hoped and he was not able to make it profitable (see “paying the bills”).

Backfence, the start-up citJ project which is taking over Gillmor’s blog has seen tepid results at best.
Even Wikipedia, which isn’t particularly citizen journalism but runs along the same lines, doesn’t produce the kind of dedication one might expect: the Economist (print edition) is the latest to point out that of Wikipedia's millions of users, there is a core of “a few hundred committed volunteers” editing entries.

Secondly, amateurs could definitely “learn to produce high-quality news content,” as Gahran insists. But what’s the point of investing all of that time and money unless they wanted to become actual journalists from which they could draw the paycheck to pay the bills?

And of course the principles of journalism that she lists have little to nothing to do with amateur citizen journalists (bloggers):

  • Objectivity: blogs are inherently biased
  • Accuracy: bloggers don’t really report so what’s there to be accurate about?
  • Corroboration: blogging and commenting are one-man shows…
  • Avoid conflicts of interest: …one-man shows with a personal motive.
  • Transparency: Bloggers are pretty good at this by linking to background material, but some still post and comment anonymously.
  • Editorial oversight: against the whole concept of a blog


So it looks like not only do amateurs have a long way to go to do real journalism, but that if they are ever to do real journalism, they’ll no longer be amateurs. Professionals have nothing to worry about.

Source: Poynter

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