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Straw Men Versus Citizen Journalists

Samuel Freedman: On The Difference Between The Amateur And The Pro. Instead of providing the ultimate marketplace of ideas, however, cable TV and the Internet have become the ultimate amen corner, where nobody ever need encounter an opinion, much less a fact, that runs counter to what he or she already believes. To treat an amateur as equally credible as a professional, to congratulate the wannabe with the title “journalist,” is only to further erode the line between raw material and finished product. For those people who believe that editorial gate-keeping is a form of censorship, if not mind control, then I suppose the absence of any mediating intelligence is considered a good thing.

Freedman’s piece, which appears on the CBS News Public Eye site, raises some fair questions but sinks irrevocably into attacks on straw men, several of which you’ll find in just the single paragraph quoted above. And like so many folks who appear to wish ill for citizen journalism out of hand, he turns the situation into an either-or matter, when the reality is that we’re talking about an ecosystem that can and should support a variety of journalistic endeavors. (As Doc Searls has said so memorably, the logic to adopt is AND, not OR.)

The portion of his attack I’ve quoted above has several examples of a technique that seems almost deliberately to mis-state what’s actually happening. For example, the evidence doesn’t support the “amen corner” suggestion (note that it’s less an assertion of what’s going on than a speculation about what might be); early actual data runs counter to the echo-chamber worry Freedman cites.

Another straw man is the notion that editorial support equates to censorship or mind control. Citizens frequently cover subjects the traditional media ignore. Whether the professionals don’t bother with such topics due to nonfeasance, malfeasance or financial limitations is beside the point; I’d argue that some coverage, however amateurish, is better than none at all.

And his nostalgia for “finished product” misses several points, not least that the manufacturing model of journalism was appropriate for a 20th Century system of actual manufacturing on periodic deadlines, but makes less sense now. The publication or broadcast today should be the middle of the process, not the “finished” end of it; the discussion that transpires can teach everyone, including the reporter who did the original, and we then iterate to catch up with the latest information. Little in a Web-enabled world is truly finished, and that’s not a bug but a feature.

In his unhappiness that some amateurs are being given the title “journalist,” Freedman’s real issue is what he states earlier:

To its proponents, citizen journalism represents a democratization of media, a shattering of the power of the unelected elite, a blow against the empire of Big Brother. Citizen journalism does not merely challenge the notion of professionalism in journalism but completely circumvents it. It is journalism according to the ethos of indie rock ‘n’ roll: Do It Yourself.

I’m a fairly prominent proponent of citizen journalism, and I do agree it’s part of a wider democratization. But far from seeing it as a “shattering of the power of the unelected elite” and a total circumvention of the professionals, I’ve repeatedly said this is about expanding the number of voices. I wouldn’t mind shattering the arrogance that Freedman’s essay exemplifies, but one of my goals is to spread and share the power for everyone’s benefit.

One valuable outcome of this process, among many, is to give the professionals new tools to do their jobs better. If Freedman and his professional colleagues at the New York Times did a little more listening and a little less lecturing, they’d do even better journalism than the (mostly) excellent work they already do today. But listening would mean recognizing that some of those indie-label journalists were doing some damn fine work of their own.

No one disputes that a considerable amount of what people call citizen journalism is more data than finished “product.” Why is this a problem, anyway? The citizen observer, or witness, can now get the word out to the world without having to go through the filter of the professional journalist, but it takes a certain amount of skills to thread everything together into a coherent form. Better journalists can do this especially well. It’ s not traditional gate-keeping, though, however much they might wish for that role to be uniquely theirs. It’s a kind of guidance, not just top-down instruction, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Citizen journalism doesn’t replace the professionals; at least I hope not. We need the best of what the pros do. (I’m not addressing the business issues here that are undermining the pros’ business models; that’s a somewhat separate but definitely important topic.)

But we are going to have to all recognize that the old systems are expanding. We are learning new ways to gather, sift and recombine what we know and learn together. We can all win in that game.

Freedman sees only the amen corners and raw data of the Internet, and pines for the old days when the elite told us what they thought mattered. He might look a bit more deeply, because he’d find that he’s been missing quite a lot.

8 Comments on “Straw Men Versus Citizen Journalists”

  1. #1 Undercurrent
    on Apr 3rd, 2006 at 4:11 am

    Professionalize journalism now…

    Another example of a recently noted emerging consensus: Citizen media is about improving journalism. Jon Snow at a Guardian conference: Citizen journalism won’t supplant professional journalism, but it may actually professionalise it. (…) There’s a…

  2. #2 NextNews » Dan Gillmor weighs in on the Freedman-CBS News rant eviscerating Citizen Journalism
    on Apr 3rd, 2006 at 8:32 am

    […] Dan Gillmor was among the very first among professional journalists to recognize the CJ movement – and to recognize it for what it is: not a replacement for, but an addition to traditional journalism.  That is precisely my position about the phenomenon.  Whether you be a supporter or detractor of citizen journalism, Gillmor’s observations demand close analysis.  Straw Men Versus Citizen Journalists | Center for Citizen Media: Blog Excerpt:  Citizen journalism doesn’t replace the professionals; at least I hope not. We need the best of what the pros do. (I’m not addressing the business issues here that are undermining the pros’ business models; that’s a somewhat separate but definitely important topic.) […]

  3. #3 William Luciw
    on Apr 3rd, 2006 at 8:58 am

    The Challenges of Citizen Journalism

    Although this may seem obvious, the proper selection, timing and staging of content is a delicate and complicated task. It is not random. Participatory journalism is still presumably journalism, and requires discipline of vision like any other worthwhile endeavor.

    The fuel which drives any great work is passion for something, someone, some place, etc. Without this vital ingredient, inane and banal ramblings masquerade for the genuine article. It is precisely this form of passionless journalism which drives audiences away from mainstream media, in search of “something real.”

    We all have different skills, and not everyone is equally gifted in the art of expression. The challenge is to enable those who desire a voice but can’t quite sing yet. This requires a drive to achieve and a submission to the discipline required to get there on the part of the would-be Citizen Journalist. In other words, one must become a “humble student” in order to truly learn anything of value, especially how to be a great journalist.

    Everyone has an opinion, sometimes more than one. However, not everyone has the depth of background and experience to offer valuable opinions which can add substance to a topic of discussion. Many popular journalists are cast, for better or worse, into a “pundit” role over the course of their years in covering specific topics with some depth. This doesn’t mean we should ignore fresh new insights, but if those insights waste the audience’s time by not providing value, then the whole effort is on shaky ground.

    Screaming “fire” in a crowded theatre is ok if there really IS a fire. However, anonymous “bomb throwers” who engage in so-called ‘yellow journalism’ destroy the overall integrity of a publication, not to mention open it up for libel and slander. Defamation is not a valid form of promotion, and accountability of reporting and reporters holds this problem in check, although it doesn’t completely eliminate the more subtler forms.

    In most societies, “Time is Money” and Citizen Journalists, even fledgling ones, need to be properly compensated for their efforts if those efforts are to continue. Hobbies are just that: hobbies. In order to break through to a higher level of quality, there needs to be a fair system of compensation or the term “Citizen Journalist” will become synonymous with “Unemployed Journalist.”

    The role of the editor should be emphasized here. Without editorial direction, guidance and oversight, it is hard to deliver a quality publication. Even high school yearbooks have editors, and online publications are no different. There are various editorial styles and orientations, but they all share common journalistic ethics which define and shape the publication. Without this editorial leadership, whether it is in the form of an editor-in-chief or an editorial staff, the publication in question may never see its second issue. Perhaps this is just editorial Darwinism at work.

    Great journalism is hard … sloppy journalism isn’t really journalism at all. And Citizen Journalism is quite challenging!

    … And another thing …
    Mark Twain (a.k.a Samuel Langhorne Clemens) on Journalism — From an address to the Connecticut Evening Dinner Club, 1881:

    “… If you don’t want to work, become a reporter. That awful power, the public opinion of the nation, was created by a horde of self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditch digging and shoemaking and fetched up journalism on their way to the poorhouse. …”

  4. #4 Alan Knight
    on Apr 3rd, 2006 at 6:58 pm

    Nine parts of of what is on the web is, I am afraid, unmitigated bullshit. The same seems to go for much of Citizen journalism. “Professional” journalism mostly scores a little higher , with the notable exception of Fox which is intended to be a marketable mix of selected prejudices, hysterical nationalism and politically advantageous stories. Journalists from the very old media, however do not have leverage on the truth.

    Rupert Murdoch, is right when he says that the game has changed. But the argument that new technology will necessarily result in better communications is neither neither new nor sustainable. Hitler, for example, used radio to polularise anti semetic lunacies. Murrow meanwhile deployed radio to analyse, inform and ultimately gather support for the war against fascism.

    The answer lies in ethics rather than technology. We need recognised, branded information, which is produced by people who belive in the truth. This applies to both professionals as well as amateurs. It was the difference between Murrow and Hitler. It still is.

  5. #5 julien
    on Apr 3rd, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    It also happens to be highly convenient that, without the blogosphere, there would be very few ripostes to his editorial. I prefer current state of things, where hundreds of people can hear and respond. And even Freedman himself would be hard pressed to find all of those responses to be without value (as much as he may resent them).

  6. #6 William Luciw
    on Apr 5th, 2006 at 4:28 am

    “Citizen Journalists Or Inspired Dilettantes?”


    “… Citizen Journalism, i.e. amateur journalism, is by definition not a professional pursuit since most Citizen Journalists do not normally get paid for their efforts. So, there is a bit of a quandary here. It is not unlike many so-called ‘Web 2.0’ business models where the basic idea is to get your audience (i.e. online community) to provide content in exchange for some intangible benefit … but usually not negotiable currency. …”

  7. #7 Missing the Point, Redux | Center for Citizen Media: Blog
    on Apr 16th, 2006 at 11:47 am

    […] So, for the second week out of three, is featuring a piece (here’s the other, and my response) that questions the foundation of the emerging genre we call citizen journalism. In both cases, representatives of the traditional Fourth Estate are doubting the usefulness of the Fifth Estate of bloggers and others who don’t fit into the neat boundaries of the professional class of journalists. In both cases, they raise interesting questions that devolve into straw-men attacks. […]

  8. #8 Blog Jaime Peña Donoso - » Hoy la información siempre está cambiando, de ahí el blogging
    on Oct 25th, 2006 at 9:33 am

    […] ¿Qué va a implicar para el periodismo tradicional, una vez que se instale en nuestro país el periodismo ciudadano? De acuerdo a mi visión, un reacomodo de las líneas editoriales. Y en esto hago referencia no sólo a los diarios en papel, sino que también a la radio y también finalmente va a llegar a la televisión. Me imagino que a muchos lectores les ha irritado en más de una oportunidad, mientras se encuentran observando un debate político en televisión las “sesudas preguntas” que formulan los periodistas tradicionales, interrogantes, las más de las veces alejadas del sentir ciudadano. Por ahí va el tema que deseo introducir, para dar paso a la reflexión de el profesor Samuel Freedman que encontré en el blog de citizen media.     […]