'Citizen Journalism' Is Only One Of Many Necessary Tools

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[When terminology gets stretched too far, discussion distorts and tempers snap. A friend in the Poynter Institute’s Online News discussion group industry recently stretch the definition of ‘citizen journalism’ to include Letters-to-the-Editor. That ‘s when my patience snapped and I released criticisms of the ‘citizen journalism’ movement, which I’ve intentionally withheld for years.

Online News is an email-based discussion group, so some other friends have since asked me to post my criticisms here, so that they can hyperlink their own blogs or publications. Here goes:

Letter-to-the-Editor are as much journalism as a man’s video of his kid’s wedding is cinema. Or as much as a woman putting a Band-Aid (or ‘plaster’ the British would say) onto her kid’s bruised knee is practicing medicine. Or as much as a guy appearing in traffic court to dispute a parking ticket is practicing law. It’s too much of a rhetoric stretch.

Does its publication in a newspaper somehow make a person’s opinion be journalism? If so, you might as well shutdown college schools of journalism. No need for those.

Yes, too many newsroom have become remote from, and condescending to, readers. Letting readers comment or converse in newspaper (web)pages is a much needed remedy. Yes, it’s great when citizens who posses a particular expertise help report stories about that topic. Likewise, when citizens who witness a news event contribute their first-hand experiences. And, yes, it’s heartening to believe that citizens themselves might be capable of reporting a significant portion of the news. Don’t get me wrong: The concept behind ‘citizen journalism’ is noble, much like Karl Marx’s vision of pure communism or Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s vision of natural goodness or Ayn Rand’s vision of objective individualism.

However, I live in the world of real people. It’s hard enough to find a professional journalist who can sit through 52 weeks of zoning board hearings and write intelligently about that, nonetheless finding an amateur who doesn’t have a vested interest or axe to grind and who can sit through and objectively write about those hearings.

Too much of what’s being cloaked or prattled about in our industry as ‘citizen journalism’ isn’t journalism at all and a lot of it is simply b*llsh#t. I’m sorry, but I’m tired of all this groupthink. We need objective reporting about this topic, too.

I sincerely compliment my friend Dan Gillmor who, in a neologism that Thomas Paine would have admired, coined the term ‘citizen journalism.’ That coinage helped make the concept palatable to many professional journalists, a group hugely pre-disposed to believing that everyone has a latent desire to do what they do. Others in our industry, such as my friend ‘Robespierre’ Jarvis, have even painted ‘citizen journalism’ as a struggle between the people and ‘big media’ (I remember Andrea Panciera of ‘big media’ Belo’s Projo.com retorting at an ONA meeting, ‘Hey, I’m too a citizen of my community!’) And many of the news industry’s think tanks — whose own thinking about how to reverse the declines in news readership, listernership, and viewership has become bankrupt — have climbed aboard the citizen journalism bandwagon for lack of anything else to play. Propelled by all this groupthink, the concept has gained huge inertial momentum in our industry.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I think that technologies via which readers can comment, help report, eyewitness, tip off, and otherwise supplement, amplify, or redirect newspaper coverage are absolutely needed. These are tools that every news organization should begin using (oops, I should have used the politically correct phrase: ‘begin sharing’) with people. I applaud BlufftonToday.com and other well conceived applications of this. And I support my friends who are helping to teach citizen journalism to the few citizens who do want to report.

But citizen journalism is a supplement, not a panacea. Citizen journalism itself isn’t going to reverse the declines in news readership, listernership, and viewership. Not by a longshot. The real solution requires more than just the tools that folks in our industry are calling ‘citizen journalism’ and that are providing so much distraction.

6 thoughts on “'Citizen Journalism' Is Only One Of Many Necessary Tools

  1. Vin…have you also followed what’s going on with a small tv staion in Santa Rosa, CA, where the citizens have been told to have at it and create their own news?

    Just call me jaded, but I think that it’s all about the “wal-marting” of journalism. Somebody wants a bigger profit somewhere, and if they can do it by making everything “citizen” then so be it—

    Yet I still can’t understand why Big Media can’t get that just because folks link to an article and write about it, or even write about something in their own neighborhood, that they’re doing anything more than trying to have conversations. Why is it that blogs and all other forms of social media, when used by the public, can’t be seen as public spaces like bars, diners, kitchen tables, etc. Why do they have to be seen as mini news outlets, and the seeds of conversations as reports? Oh, but then again, most big media moguls don’t live in here, they only work here…sometime…just long enough to think of new ways to exploit.

  2. Vin –
    Thanks so much for pointing out the citizen emperor is buck nekked. Unless one really loves news of church bake sales and small store openings, much of what is heralded as the new wave in the scribe biz is pretty dreadful. The cit-j process that’s working is in developing new voices as journalists, but that’s always been the case to some extent as people come to the job from other fields. What’s not working are the sites whose creators that thought they could just provide vessels for citizen journalism and it would flow like wikipedia entries, with insightful investigative projects by average schmoes. Well it flows alright, but less toward hard-hitting journalism and more toward stories laden with phrases like, “Also in attendance at the luncheon was …,” “It’s all for a good cause!” and “And a good time was had by all!” ttm

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