Tag Archives: citizen-journalism

Hudson plane crash proved nothing about Twitter

Mere hours after a U.S. Airways jet crash-landed in the Hudson River next to New York City, stories about the influence of Twitter were being ejaculated left and right. They were all fawning over how news of the crash hit Twitter minutes before the big media outlets, and one person even posted a picture of the downed plane which got heavily circulated. This was described as a “scoop” for “citizen journalism”.

Don’t get me wrong, Twitter is a powerful tool, despite its really stupid self-imposed limitations. They will break these kinds of stories first and traditional news outlets should mine it for information (which they can then use for free!). But all it was were some eye-witness reports, in a city that has no lack for actual journalists. All we learned from Twitter was that a plane had landed on the Hudson River and that people were standing on its wing.

(Mind you, listening to CNN’s mindless filler yesterday afternoon, it was clear they didn’t know much more than that either).

But the rest of the story didn’t break on on Twitter. It broke through CNN or the New York Times or other outlets that could assign a journalist to chase the story.

Phil Carpenter, a Gazette photographer who recently started his own blog, points out that journalists who just repeat something they’ve heard (say, by rewriting a press release) don’t earn bylines because what they’re doing isn’t really journalism.

Perhaps we should consider that when we compare an eyewitness account to the work of a professional journalist.

UPDATE: J.F. Codère and I are happy to have found someone else who feels the same way.

There’s no such thing as a journalist

Radio-Canada’s Philippe Schnobb has a post about citizen journalism, in which he waxes rhetorically about whether “citizen journalists” can be trusted. It’s similar in scope to my recent post about the subject, but I think both are missing an important point that’s always bugged me when talking about journalism theory:

There’s no such thing as a journalist.

Unlike other professions, journalism has no certification board, no test to pass, no government regulation. There’s nothing to separate journalists from regular people in the law.

Certainly there are professional journalists, who make their living (or a large portion thereof) performing journalism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), usually for a big media outlet. But there are also unprofessional journalists, amateur journalists, part-time journalists. Anyone can be a journalist just by telling a story to another person. And professional journalists can easily become non-journalists, by telling lies, introducing bias or keeping the truth from themselves.

There’s no such thing as a journalist, only people who do journalism.

I prefer to think of journalism as a verb rather than a personal attribute. You might not be a gossiper, but you can spread gossip. You might not be a snow-clearer, but you can clear snow.

When it comes down to it, the only differences between the guy on the news and you is psychological conditioning. They have the big media backing, the access to the airwaves, the professional training, the well-coiffed hair. Politicians pick up the phone when they call. Businesses respond to them when they run exposés. But they don’t have to (and, in fact, many times they don’t.)

So if there’s no real difference between professional journalists and regular people, why can’t we trust citizen journalists?

Because trust is earned, not given away. And even professional journalists (for the most part) can be trusted only so much as they’ve earned that trust.

Because trust translates into good PR and ratings (and really that’s the only reason), big media do their best to give the appearance of trustworthiness. They become members of organizations like the Quebec Press Council, they publish codes of ethics, they apologize for mistakes, they fire plagiarizers and liars, and they impose their own rules on their journalists to ensure that what they produce can be trusted.

Not all big media are successful at that. We have tabloid newspapers, the Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh and others who aren’t deserving of our trust. And thanks to media consolidation we have media companies where one outlet produces a one-sided piece glorifying another. There are advertorials, sneaky PR campaigns, rewritten press releases and a bunch of other trust-eroding developments in the media that are rightfully causing us to question them.

This is not to say, of course, that new media outlets are inherently not to be trusted. In fact, many of them are more deserving of our trust than traditional media, especially in niche areas where their journalists are more specialized and know what they’re talking about. I certainly trust Michael Geist to deliver copyright law-related news better than any major newspaper in Canada (even those that run his columns). He’s earned that trust through his reputation.

That reputation takes a long time to build, and it’s at zero when it comes to the anonymous or mostly-anonymous contributions of some forms of citizen journalism.

Elsewhere in the Quebec blogosphere:

We can’t trust citizen journalists

Via J-Source, Paul Berton of the London Free Press asks “Can we trust citizen journalists?

His question is based on the amateur video of Robert Dziekanski being Tasered in the Vancouver airport. He would later die from the hit, raising questions about the safety of Taser use.

The video is certainly a great example of the kinds of things citizen journalism can accomplish, and how the ubiquity of video-capturing devices is changing what it means to be an eyewitness.

But my answer to the question of “can we trust citizen journalists” is still “No.”

My reasoning is simple: The trust you can place in journalism is no more than the trust you can place in the journalist behind it. With big media, journalists stand behind their stories, the media outlets stand behind their journalists, and the big media corporations stand behind their local outlets. It’s not perfect, but there’s a chain of accountability.

With citizen journalists, unless you know them, you have no clue about their motives, their ethics, their biases or anything else. They’re unknowns. The only basis for your trust is on the content itself and the plausibility of it. If it looks like it’s real, then it probably is. And with video, it’s almost always real.

But not always. Take this video of comedian Pauly Shore being punched out by a heckler at a comedy club. A fantastic example of citizen journalism, which got a lot of play online. The only problem is it was faked (see the making of). These “citizen journalists” were in on it, and went along with the gag. They can do that because they have no journalistic reputations to uphold, no employers enforcing ethics codes, and no one to answer to but themselves.

Citizen journalism can be useful if it’s corroborated. In this case, the RCMP confirmed the tape was athentic. Same deal with the SQ and their agents provocateurs.

That doesn’t mean so-called “citizen journalists” can’t build their own media and develop trust over time. Media gain trust through their reputations, and they’re motivated to follow ethical guidelines, be honest and not burn their readers. The trust can never be 100%, but it’s much higher than what some random person uploads to YouTube or writes unsourced on Wikipedia.

Citizen journalists are a wonderful source of original ideas and evidence. But they can’t be inherently trusted. Trust is earned, not given away. Nobody gets a free ride.

“Hyper-local” doesn’t mean anything

I just read another news story that quotes a media company using the term “hyper-local”.

Can someone explain to me what the heck this term is supposed to mean? I’ve looked far and wide over the Internet Googled for an explanation, and many of the “definitions” include words like “paradigm” that sound like they explain things but really don’t. In the end all I could find was that “hyper-local” meant “local news”. So why not just call it that? Why make up a new word for something that already exists and has been done for centuries?

Of course, the answer is it’s mostly marketingese, a way for newspaper companies to sound like they’re doing something new and exciting while they cut staff in their newsrooms.

Newspapers can no longer afford to each have their own foreign bureaus. So they concentrate their reporters locally, covering news that they can’t get from wire services. Maybe they’ll have one writer in the state/province or national capital, one on special assignment and one travelling with the local sports team. The rest comes from services like Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse who provide truckloads of content for a hefty annual fee.

(TV is even worse, with a handful of local and national reporters repackaging what was in the newspaper that morning. Most radio newsrooms, meanwhile, consist of a guy reading articles from the local newspaper on air — and maybe crediting the source)

So what’s new then, if reporters are already focused on local stories?

Well, there’s a trend toward “citizen journalism”, in which newspapers setup community websites and encourage its citizens to provide the site with free content. Then they can fire reporters who have the audacity to expect payment for their work.

From a business perspective, it sounds fantastic. It’s cheap, it’s new, and it’s local, so there’s less likely to be a lot of competition.

But from a journalistic perspective, it’s a nightmare: a race to the bottom to see how much news can be “crowdsourced” freely to the community. Investigative journalism, feature writing, fact-checking and objectivity thrown out the window in favour of political name-calling, thinly-veiled press releases and dozens of uninteresting opinions about the plot developments of prime-time TV shows.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too idealistic, but I’m not that worried. Most media companies don’t have the online expertise to understand how to make these websites work. They underestimate the amount of competition they’ll have for even the smallest markets, and they overestimate the quality of journalism that crowdsourcing can provide. They think they can replicate a for-profit version of Wikipedia (or, more accurately, Wikinews) without any incentives for contribution.

What I am worried about is how much further big media is going to sink in quality before real, quality competition from new media starts to emerge. My blog can’t compete with over a hundred experienced journalists at the local paper. But when the local paper is down to three interns and a web forum, that’s going to change.

Editorialist, criticize thyself

The Gazette has an editorial today about the Beaver survey and it notes that — gasp — online polls shouldn’t be taken too seriously:

Talk-shows hosts, bloggers, columnists, pundits and letter-writers have all had fun with that online poll, organized by the august historical magazine The Beaver, in which respondents named Pierre Trudeau “the worst Canadian.”

It’s all good fun, we suppose, but it should also be a reminder online polls of this sort are not worth the paper they aren’t printed on.

I looked up the story, and most of the bloggers I’ve found saw right through the lame, transparent attempt to get free publicity. The paragraph leaves out the paper itself in those it names as having “had fun”. After all, it put the non-story on its front page Tuesday morning, one day after the Beaver issued a press release about it. (Little tip folks: Get something on Canada Newswire that’s not business-related and some paper somewhere will rewrite it into a story to fill space. Don’t bother trying to support your outrageous claims with facts, nobody cares about those.)

The editorial makes a couple of points: that online reader surveys shouldn’t be taken at face value (duh), and that “participatory journalism” has its problems:

Reader-participation journalism, a clear trend in print as well as online, has many virtues and can be a valuable tool.

But without the constraints of rigorous sample-selection techniques and careful choice of questions, the findings of some such processes are not only laughable, as with the Trudeau choice, but they can also be potentially dangerously misleading.

Just in case it wasn’t clear yet that mainstream media has no clue what participatory journalism is, here we go.

At the risk of repeating myself, the following things are NOT participatory journalism:

  1. Letting readers vote in multiple-choice online polls and writing a story about the results.
  2. Blogs written by columnists and newspaper staffers
  3. Publishing “online extras”
  4. Writing about what you found on Facebook
  5. Writing about what readers posted as comments to your blog
  6. Republishing blog posts as articles
  7. Republishing articles as blog posts
  8. Asking readers for stories and quoting from them
  9. Publishing writers’ email addresses with their stories

Many of these things are good ideas, but they’re not participatory journalism.

Sorry, mainstream media, but you got suckered in by a press release about an outrageous unscientific survey. Don’t blame it on bloggers and new forms of journalism that are entirely irrelevant here.

I don’t want Joe Anybody writing my news

So citizen journalism site NowPublic has received over $10 million in financing. Good for them.

I’ve always been a bit hesitant about these user-generated news sites. On one hand, they represent an unlimited potential for news gathering, where everyone and anyone can be a reporter. On the other hand, everyone and anyone is also an editor, which means news judgment is left potentially to the lowest common denominator.

This leads to things like navel-gazing, navel-gazing analysis, political mudslinging and Fark-like crap masquerading as news. Add in a few rewritten press releases and stories about missing white girls and you have everything that’s wrong with mainstream media in a nutshell (at least according to Drew Curtis).

I admit, part of my hesitation is also self-serving. As a freelance journalist, if Joe Anybodies can put together stories for free, there’s not much incentive for budget-conscious newspaper owners to hire professionals.

And these websites are new. It’s a budding concept which needs time to grow before it can be thoroughly evaluated.

But I just don’t see how they’re going to get over the problem that the crap-loving, special-interest public will tend to dominate over real, fair, honest news.

Journalism: Can any idiot do it?

Patrick points out some thoughts going around about “citizen media”, the concept of “crowdsourcing” news gathering the way Wikipedia crowdsources the writing and editing of an encyclopedia. A Wired piece on Assignment Zero and a reaction to that piece, plus a general assessment of citizen journalism.

The real thinkers are starting to understand how open journalism will and will not work. It will change the way news is gathered in this world, but it won’t replace journalists or big media, nor will it give companies an easy way to save money they would have spent on journalists.

The last link above has an important point: experimenting is cheap, and as more experiments like Assignment Zero succeed and fail, natural selection will eventually give us something that really works. Another Wikipedia or YouTube.

Until then, hopefully I’ll still be able to earn a living.