Citizen Journalism: What do Journalists Bring, and Will You Read It Anyway?

userpic=lougrantYesterday afternoon, while driving home, I was listening to the NPR Technology podcast. They had an interesting piece on the death of high-school newspapers, including a discussion of the primary suspect: citizen journalism. Basically, the news reporting that high-school newspapers used to do has been replaced by students reporting in real-time via twitter and other social media sites. At least I think that’s what the article says; I didn’t read it all. More on that later.

What caught my ear at the time was the following statement from Scott Simon, who did the piece:

Hearing that school newspapers are in decline because students now “find out what happened” in social media bites is a little discouraging because it confirms that for millions of Americans, journalism is becoming a do-it-yourself enterprise.

When a tornado strikes or a bomb goes off, we look for social media messages as soon as they flash, too. Facebook posts and Tweets have become the means by which politicians, celebrities, citizens — and reporters, for that matter — can confirm, deny, pass on stories and register opinion without the press challenging, probing, pre-supposing, slowing or straining the message. That’s just how we talk to each other in these times.

Matt Drudge, who runs his own controversial website, says, “We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices. Every citizen can be a reporter.”

But truly good journalism is a craft, not just a blog post. It requires not only seeing something close-up, but also reporting it with perspective. It uses an eye for detail to help illuminate a larger view. And even journalism that conveys an opinion strives to be fair. If school newspapers begin to disappear, I hope there are other ways for students to learn that.

This isn’t just high school newspapers. Recently, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off all of their professional photographers, preferring instead to go with freelance citizen photos. Indeed, some papers have had to advertise for citizen photographers because they no longer have the staff. As for the laid-off photographers? That’s a different story.

When I heard this article, it resonated with me. So I decided to take a few minutes over lunch to write up my thoughts. In particular, it resonated with a response I had back in March to an article complaining about amateur vs professional theatre critics. Colin Mitchell of the theatre review aggregation site Bitter Lemons, in turn, wrote a wonderful response to my response. I see the issue as being similar to the issue of citizen journalists vs. real journalists. Both bring something valuable to the picture: citizen journalists (and citizen reviewers) bring timely information and personal reactions. Professional journalists (and professional reviewers) bring a longer-term view. They can put the issue in perspective, provide the needed filtering and context. Regular bloggers fill a middle position — they start as amateurs, but hopefully are learning more and stepping up their game (such as following this advice, if you are a theatre reviewer) as time goes on. (By the way, if you read the commentary on the NPR article, it devolved into exactly the same discussion that was had regarding theatre reviews: are those writing in the blog-o-sphere just hacks, or aspiring independent journalists?)

Of course, the entire issue may be moot. After all, both journalists and bloggers are a dying breed, as we are in the TL;DR generation. Slate magazine provides good proof of that, with an article that examines how people don’t actually read most articles on the Internet to the very end. Given that I’m a long-form writer, I’m sure you haven’t even read this far (or if you have, I doubt that you will comment on this, because nobody comments on what I write anymore — and if you think that is a challenge or is wrong, share your thoughts). Further, those who comment often get shouted out by those louts who take over forums (of course, I didn’t fully read that article). On the other hand, there are those who say long form journalism is coming back. Who is right? Slate and their contention that people don’t read to the end of long articles? USA Today, Politico, and BuzzFeed in their contention on the rebirth of long form journalism?

Personally, I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t think “short form”. I don’t believe one can have a meaningful exploration of a subject in 144 characters or less, or as a Facebook status update.  I think this even applies to the “lists of links” people post. I don’t believe it is sufficient to just post lists of links — there needs to be some unifying theme — there needs to be something the link collector brings to the discussion that ties the links together, or otherwise signifies why this link is worth seeing, why it is time to read that link to the end. That’s why just posting a link to people using cats as afros just isn’t enough.


4 Replies to “Citizen Journalism: What do Journalists Bring, and Will You Read It Anyway?”

  1. I think these are all valid issues and I don’t think there’s just one factor involved. However, I do think this is incomplete, as are most articles and commentaries bemoaning the decline of traditional journalism. Now, I don’t want to see either professional reporters or professional news organizations go extinct — I mean, what blogger is going to maintain a Middle East bureau for instance?

    However, the other part of this is how the professional media organizations themselves have suffered an astounding erosion of standards over the years, including fact checking. Look no further than how most media outlets have handled recent high-profile stories such as the Boston Marathon. There was an awful LOT of breathless reporting of any little rumor that a reporter heard without a lot in the way of verification and/or fact checking. Granted, fast moving stories often include a lot of information that needs to go out right away so it’s possible that errors may slip through. However, there is also a lot of information that DOESN’T have to go out right away, which they could wait to confirm. So it becomes a matter of judgment telling the difference, and their judgment seems to be lacking — even on the calls that seem obvious.

    For instance, the fact that a bomb just went off and people should avoid the intersection of X Avenue and Y Street is important information that needs to go out right way. The “fact” that suspects have been taken into custody (which in the initial aftermath of the Boston bombings turned out to be completely wrong) is not as urgent and can wait until it’s confirmed. Telling the difference between those two particular examples is merely a matter of common sense, but they can’t even get that right, so of course they miss the more complex decisions too.

    There is a tendency to blame the audience for the woes of the mass media. And to some extent this is true. However, it is also true that a segment of the audience is actually very sophisticated and that segment rightly has its doubts over the job that media outlets are doing. You can often see this at work in the comments section of articles. While it’s true that comments often contain a lot of ignorance, bigotry and trolling, it is also true that many comments do a nice job of dissecting articles and pointing out errors. As with any human enterprise, there is good and bad.

    Incidentally, the errors aren’t even confined to late-breaking stories. I read an article about the 150 anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg a few weeks ago that misstated the number of people killed by a factor of 5. What’s the excuse for not getting basic facts about 150-year old historical events correct? I get weary of reading news articles and having no idea how much, if any, of supposedly factual articles can actually be believed.

    As if to illustrate the problem, your own post contains a possible error. If the “144 character” comment was referring to Twitter, the actual length of tweets is 140 characters.

    And yes, I read your post all the way through to the end, because I found it interesting. Which brings up yet another aspect of this issue: if reporters can’t write well enough to hold the attention of readers, maybe blaming the reader shouldn’t be their first reaction. It’s the writer’s responsibility to make their writing compelling enough to make people want to read further.

    1. Sorry on the 144. You can tell I don’t use twitter. As for the fact checking, I wonder how much of that is economy, which has resulted in the layoffs of both fact checkers and editors. The other factor in this rush to publish isn’t new — it is competition, the same thing that resulted in the headline that Dewey beat Truman. If you are first with the news, you are better (nevermind if that news is wrong).

  2. I’m sure you haven’t even read this far (or if you have, I doubt that you will comment on this, because nobody comments on what I write anymore

    I refuse to respond to this sort of baseless accusation by doing something as interactive as commenting. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

    1. No, my mother smelled of elderberries, well, if elderberries smelled like bourbon and smoke. My father was a PA. (Reference the earlier comment about fact checking being on the decline)

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