It’s hard to know where to begin in responding to David Hazinski’s “Unfettered ‘citizen journalism’ too risky,” an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he calls for regulation of citizen journalism:
Supporters of “citizen journalism” argue it provides independent, accurate, reliable information that the traditional media don’t provide. While it has its place, the reality is it really isn’t journalism at all, and it opens up information flow to the strong probability of fraud and abuse. The news industry should find some way to monitor and regulate this new trend.
It is false, of course, that anyone who’s serious about this field argues that it’s entirely accurate or reliable (though it is often independent, and often covers what traditional media can’t or won’t spend time on). In fact, as many of us have been noting for years, accuracy and reliability are key areas for improvement.
Then, having kindly allowed that this new media “has its place” — use the servant’s entrance, please — Hazinski removes it entirely from the realm of journalism, which is literally absurd.
And then, with the kind of hubris that sounds like a lampoon of a Big Media Guy turned professor, he demands that the news industry regulate it all. (Could they first turn some of that regulatory sternness on themselves? More on that in a minute.)
Let’s note the one sound point in his generally bizarre piece: To the extent that traditional media organizations are going to bring their audiences into their journalism processes, they should insist doing things in an honorable and journalistically sound way. If he’d left it at that, Hazinski would have had a reasonable argument. But with dismaying lapses in fact and logic, he goes much further.
For example, consider this:
The premise of citizen journalism is that regular people can now collect information and pictures with video cameras and cellphones, and distribute words and images over the Internet. Advocates argue that the acts of collecting and distributing makes these people “journalists.” This is like saying someone who carries a scalpel is a “citizen surgeon” or someone who can read a law book is a “citizen lawyer.” Tools are merely that. Education, skill and standards are really what make people into trusted professionals. Information without journalistic standards is called gossip.
The bogus logic is standard-issue for the naysayers. Unpacking it:
First, no one involved in citizen media is arguing that every posting of a photo, or every blog post, or ever video, is journalism. Nor would we argue that the people doing these things are journalists. But anyone — anyone — can commit an act of journalism using these tools. (And, as Hazinski fails to notice, there’s a heck of a lot of actual, no-kidding journalism going on out there in the blogosphere and other conversational media, some of it by people who have probably never been in a newsroom.)
Hazinski treads on the thinnest ice when he compares journalists with surgeons and lawyers, people who go to school for years and pass extremely difficult tests to earn the right to practice. There has never been such a requirement in journalism — ever. Nor should there be, for several reasons including the fact that a) some of the best journalists have never taken a college course on the subject; b) the skills required are simply not that hard to learn; and c) journalism is not a profession in the sense of being a lawyer or doctor. Journalism is a craft — a valuable and honorable one, but still a craft.
The analogy is absurd even if we pretend that journalism is a profession. We don’t go to the doctor (at least I don’t) to remove a splinter. We take a pin, sterilize it with flame and/or alcohol and remove it ourselves. We have, at some level, done a minor act of surgery.
And we don’t go to a lawyer when we lend money to a relative, or sign some kinds of agreements. We have a contract nonetheless, because some things with legal ramifications are simple enough to do ourselves.
Hazinski proceeds into baffling territory as he continues:
But unlike those other professions, journalism — at least in the United States — has never adopted uniform self-regulating standards. There are commonly accepted ethical principals (sic)— two source confirmation of controversial information or the balanced reporting of both sides of a story, for example, but adhering to the principals (sic) is voluntary. There is no licensing, testing, mandatory education or boards of review. Most other professions do a poor job of self-regulation, but at least they have mechanisms to regulate themselves. Journalists do not.
So without any real standards, anyone has a right to declare himself or herself a journalist. Major media outlets also encourage it. Citizen journalism allows them to involve audiences, and it is a free source of information and video. But it is also ripe for abuse.
The logic of all this (not to mention the spelling; doesn’t the Atlanta newspaper employ copy editors?) is completely escapable.
Having said journalism has standards, all of a sudden journalism really doesn’t have any real standards. Ah, you see, it’s that the standards are not written. Except, of course, that just about every major media organization has an internal code of ethics and behavior (usually in writing), and organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists has elaborately crafted codes, too. Except, as well, that (as Hazinski notes) those other real professions are famous for not enforcing their own rules.
Has Hazinski failed to notice that these abuses are all too common even in traditional media, which (at least most of the Washington variety) have served as stenographers instead of actual journalists? Is he aware that the media have been conned by experts for decades or longer?
Of course citizen media is leading to fakery and cons. The fakers and con artists use whatever works. And, yes, there will be a video that inflames public opinion and turns out to be a fake. There have already been stock swindles based on fake online press releases.
Hazinski’s remedies start off making some sense, at least those applied to the news industry. It’s definitely a good idea for traditional media organizations to verify what goes out under their banners or on their programming. Even better, as he suggests, they should apply those standards to their own work.
It’s also fine to suggest that journalism schools offer courses to citizen journalists. But the granting of certifications is a bit weird. Who’s that for? The media company? People who grant press passes? Beats me.
In the end, taking his logic on yet another S-curve, Hazinski calls for the regulation not just of citizen journalists but all journalists. So who’s going to be responsible for this regulation, anyway? I think he’s asking for self-regulation, which he has acknowleged doesn’t work very well with doctors and lawyers. But he doesn’t really say.
The regulators of speech should be all of us, collectively voting with our eyes, ears and dollars in the fabled marketplace of ideas. New tools coming along will give us better ways to do that in a Digital Age than we’ve had in the analog one, a good thing when the data out there is orders of magnitude greater and, so far, more difficult to sort for the good stuff.
The media industry and journalism educators do have a valuable role to play in all this. It’s to teach media literacy for a media-saturated world. That is not about regulation or do-it-this-way standards. It’s about helping media audiences and creators alike to understand how media and persuasion work.
For journalists, citizen or otherwise, it is very much about principles, and ultimately honor. For the audiences, we need to instill deep, critical thinking and a solid grasp of media techniques.
Let’s regulate ourselves to end up with a diverse, vibrant journalistic ecosystem that serves and informs us.