I am not a Citizen Journalist
Lowell, MA – Saturday, the New England News Forum convened a gathering of professional journalists, journalist educators, bloggers, citizen journalists, and others interested in the future of journalism to discuss ‘Sharing the News’. The most important thing I learned from this gathering is that I am not a Citizen Journalist.
There were many ways in which the phrase or idea of Citizen Journalism was challenged. Some wanted to see it broadened. Why ‘Citizen’? What about people who are not citizens? Do not people visiting from other countries also have a say? Should we instead use the word ‘Resident’, instead? Yet others spoke about journalism as a civic duty, similar to being called to serve on a jury. From their perspective Citizen Journalism has everything to do with citizenship. Everyone is likely at one point or another to report about what they have seen in a journalistic manner, and people need to understand that and how best to do it.
The word journalism received even more challenges. Some people recognized that not everyone who writes something online, even if they are writing in a journalistic style, even if they are writing for an organization that provides news created by professional journalists, such as people that participate in CNN’s iReports project, consider themselves journalists. This is compounded by the issue that many journalism professionals seem to think that if you don’t have a journalism degree, aren’t a member of a professional journalism guild, and aren’t getting paid for what you do, then you aren’t a journalist.
Various other names were presented, such as ‘resident correspondent’, which seems to fit much more nicely, especially for those resident correspondents that are corresponding with a traditional news organization.
Doug McGill led a fascinating discussion about discussion about the ‘Journalism in a Day’ workshops that he has been leading. One of the ideas that he presented is that it is unethical to write “I went to a meeting” type reports, listing out what happened in chronological order and expecting the readers to make sense out of it. I’m not sure that I agree with that. There are times that what is needed is simply for someone to document what happened, without trying to make sense out of it or present it in an easy to read, coherent story.
So, although I’ve started off with a little bit more of a sense-making story, I will now hop into that unethical mode of trying to simply document and recount what happened, in a more or less chronological order. Those tuggings to be journalistic may sneak in here and there, but I will try to avoid it as much as possible.
Before convening, people gathered around a table with coffee, orange juice and bagels. I had a chance to have a good discussion with Wayne Sutton whom I had previously met through Plurk and Twitter. I also had a great discussion with David Mathison, who wrote the book Be The Media, which he is in the process of self-publishing. As we got to know each other we expressed the desire to remain in touch and exchanged Twitter addresses. David twitters as bethemedia.
We all gathered in a circle and the discussion started with each person getting an opportunity to introduce themselves. There were about forty people there. Only around four, however, had laptops that they opened and used. I didn’t bother to record much of this, since the details of the participants can be found on the Sharing the News Participants page.
However, there were a few memorable lines. One person identified themselves as a professional conversationalist and noted that “great conversations start in public spaces”. Others spoke about being drop outs or refugees from the mainstream newsroom.
Be the Media
David Mathison spoke first. He noted that the first half of his book was about personal media and the second half was about community media. With social media making the personal communal, I not sure how useful that dichotomy is, but it is an interesting way of looking at media. David spoke about Kevin Kelly’s idea of 1,000 true fans. David suggested that what mattered wasn’t reaching one thousand as a magic number, but having a large, and growing, fan base.
I’m not sure that my followers on Twitter constitute ‘true fans’ as Kelly would describe it, but I did note to myself that I am currently fifty-one followers short of a thousand fans.
David talked about the phrase ‘Citizen Journalist’ and the phrase ‘Citizen Correspondent’ was tossed out. He had a great observation about some work he had done with a community theatre. Instead of complaining about the kids not coming to you, you should go to where the kids are. He spoke about setting up events for the theatre in Facebook and drawing in some great people as a result.
He spoke about noting a great review of a play by a local paper. Later, someone from the newspaper called thanking him for driving traffic to their site, and he noted how this reversed the standard interaction between many arts organizations and local papers. Normally, it is the local arts organizations that are desperately seeking to get local papers to drive people to them.
Let me briefly editorialize for a moment. I think David’s comment about going to where the kids are is key. It matches my thoughts about political bloggers needing to step out of their blogging ghettos. You need to go to where the voters are, the shopping malls, their homes, and these days, more and more, their personal, non-political blogs.
This may also touch a little on thinking about the demand side for journalism, but I don’t want to foreshadow too much and potentially lose my ability to declaim any role as a citizen journalist.
Journalism in a Day
The next to speak was Doug McGill. Doug is not shying away from the phrase Citizen Journalism. Instead, he is seeking to strengthen the journalistic and citizenship aspects. He leads one day journalism workshops. You should check out his Largemouth Citizen Journalism Manual. In spite of my quibbles with him about the importance of “I went to a meeting” type reporting, I think Doug had a lot of important things to say and I would love to see his one day workshops spread widely.
I believe it was Doug who spoke a little bit incredulously about how some people asked ‘are you on twitter’ as part of their introductions, and about overhearing someone talking about SuperPoking someone else. Doug suggested that perhaps a good title for his talk might be ‘SuperPoking Power’, the twenty-first century phrasing of speaking truth to power. This is balanced by the importance of ‘talking to strangers’.
Talking to strangers isn’t a new idea. Instead, it is the old Greek concept of Xenia. In Ancient Greek, it was a civic duty, a form of patriotism. It was part of national security. You needed to talk to strangers, in part to find out what others think of your nation and to discover any emerging threats to your nation. Yet our country currently seems to be mired in the opposite of xenia, xenophobia.
Doug took the idea of xenia and applied it to journalists. “Journalists, like ourselves, need to start talking to people who aren’t journalists”, he suggested. “How do we convince people that media is the consumers job as well?” he asked. Journalism is citizenship. It isn’t professional accreditation. It has to be at the level of jury duty.
Doug summed things up nicely with “Something bad has happened in journalism…Journalists seeing themselves as objective observers is part of it…Journalists have stopped thinking of themselves as citizens.” Given all the displacement in the media ecology, it can be hard to think about the citizenship aspects of one’s job, but I think Doug has done something important in reminding journalists of their roles as citizens, and I hope to see many more discussions with Doug.
It also felt like Doug was practicing what he preached by joining in at the discussion at ‘Sharing the News’ and speaking to strangers like myself.
Wayne was up next. Before he spoke, he talked about his nervousness on Plurk. Nonetheless, he did a great job. My sense was that he would talk a lot about things that I already knew about, Plurk and Twitter, Qik, Ustream and Seesmic, YouTube, Blip.TV, and Flickr.
He did a good job explaining the importance of all of these sites. People are creating content and putting it instantly online. They are streaming content online. They are breaking stories in microblogs. Journalists need to know more about these tools.
Yet even for an old hand at new media like myself, Wayne highlighted a bunch of different sites I haven’t checked out yet. When I can find some free time, I need to explore many of them.
Of particular note is Mogulus, which as I understand it, allows livestreaming like Qik or Ustream do, but for multiple views of the same event. Also, tubemogul provides a tool for posting your video to something like fifteen different video sites. The list that it provides is a good starting point to see what else is out there for video besides YouTube.
Wayne was followed by Len Witt. I first met Len at a Journalism That Matters gathering down in Memphis. Len was talking about his ideas for new funding sources for journalism. His focus was on ‘crowdfunding’, similar to what spot.us is doing and to some of the ideas that Krista Bradford and I had kicked around a few years ago in terms of funding investigative reporting.
Len asked, “Will we be able to create news with enough value for people to actually pay for it?” I glanced over at Jon Greenberg who is the executive editor for New Hampshire Public Radio and Helen Barrington, the program director for WFCR, the NPR station from Northampton, MA area, and thought, “Haven’t I heard that asked before, perhaps during a pledge break as I was driving up to Lowell?”
Later, in a side discussion with Jon, he noted that, yes, to a certain extent, that is the NPR model. However, NPR had the great privilege of establishing a history of delivering news with enough value for a long enough period to back up that request.
Len also made comments about the semantic web. I need to point him to Twine. I would love to hear his thoughts about how Twine relates to his ideas.
During a brown bag lunch, Howard Schneider spoke about the journalism school at Stony Brook University. He mentioned speaking with students, a third of whom trusted everything they read in the news, a third of whom didn’t trust any of it, and a third of whom didn’t know what to think. He came to the conclusion that what is most needed in a news literacy course.
Journalism schools have been focusing on the supply side of journalism, on who is producing the news. They also need to address the demand side and teach news literacy. They need to be teaching people how to tell if the information they are receiving is reliable. Howard spent the lunch hour talking about how he was approaching this at Stony Brook.
They set up a news literacy class which starts off by requiring to not view the news for 48 hours. Many students found this hard to do. They became anxious about what they might be missing. They found that the news was all around them and it was hard not to hear the news. Besides teaching the pervasiveness and importance of news, the little exercise also helped cleanse their pallets. They could now start looking for quality journalism.
The problem is that before you can judge the quality of journalism, you need to find some journalism. Too often, people confuse journalism with entertainment, propaganda, promotion, and other forms of communications. Howard noted video news releases, as an example of non-journalistic communications.
Howard proceeded to talk about what he was presenting as criteria for determining the quality of the journalism. Is the information verified or asserted? Who is making the statements, named or unnamed sources? Authoritative figures? Multiple sources or a single source?
I thought he was doing pretty well up until this point, but I started to get a little concerned. He did note that David Halberstam spoke with his class once, talking about the importance of unnamed sources and how he needed to address that with the class. I thought about the ‘authoritative figures’ that I’ve heard who too often do not speak the truth, as part of their efforts to maintain their authority. I thought about the dangers of group think and how multiple sources may not be, in fact, the most reliable.
It was interesting that later on, Howard noted that many students confuse the popularity of a story with its accuracy. He noted that for a while, the top story on Google about Martin Luther King, Jr. was by the KKK. I’m not sure that he put together his own admonitions about not confusing popularity with accuracy with his valuing multiple sources higher than a single source.
He spoke about the early reports coming out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina where it was claimed that there was a freezer in the SuperDome full of bodies that had died as a result of the chaos after the storm. It turned out not to be true. Nonetheless, the reporter who broke the story was a well respected journalist. How had he gotten the story so wrong? Most importantly, he hadn’t opened the freezer, so ‘Open the Freezer’ became a mantra for Howard’s class.
Howard talked about the story of George Turklebaum, who had been reported to have died at his desk and wasn’t found for five days. This too, was a popular story, which keeps re-emerging on the Internet, but is untrue.
He spoke about recognizing biases and differentiating between bias and personal bias. He highlighted the work being done in implicit bias research. Looking forward, Stony Brook is researching how teaching news literacy affects numerous other aspects of the students’ lives, including future news consumption habits, overall GPA and civic engagement.
A lively question and answer period followed. One person asked, why not train students to do journalism, instead of just teaching a literacy course? After all, learning how to do journalism teaches literacy. Howard said that there just wasn’t enough time in the course.
There was a brief discussion of teaching to the test, and questions about whether it would be possible to get media literacy added as part of the pervasive standardized tests.
Howard asserted that fewer students than people imagine are reading blogs and even less are reading citizen journalism. I believe that research by the Pew contradicts this and it may be reflecting Howard’s biases or his lack of understanding about what blogs are and how pervasive they are.
I suspect that this may have impacted his thoughts on this. I suspect many students, when asked if they get their news from blogs would say no, even though they may have heard about a recent storm or earthquake from a friend’s Livejournal.
During the Q&A, his biases came through as he spoke negatively about citizen journalism. Citizen journalists are a single source, not paid, and not members of professional organizations, and therefore cannot be trusted. In other words, if you aren’t a boy on the bus, your reportage doesn’t count. His comments in this area were met with much hostility muttered under people’s breathes.
Next on the agenda was the discussion about Fair Use, particularly as it related to the AP v Drudge Retort case. Bob Cox of the Media Bloggers Association provided a background to the case and Robert Bertsche, a Boston based attorney who deals a lot with these issues and who represents the New England Press Association on these sorts of issues, addressed some of the legal aspects.
This was the topic that I was most interested in and my hope is that it can spawn a larger issue about establishing guidelines about Fair Use for online media, similar to what the Center for Social Media at American University did for documentary film makers and Fair Use.
Likewise, I hope that it can spawn a larger discussion about the need for better sense of ways of resolving conflicts over Fair Use, other than DMCA takedown notices and the need to address the lack of due process with DMCA takedown notices.
Both Bob and Robert spoke at length about the issues. I got a chance to speak about my larger goals briefly at the end of the talk. This is a big topic for me, which I’ve written about in the past and will write more about in the future, so I’ll save the rest of my comments on this for later.
The future of NENF
Many of the discussions went over their allotted time, so by four o’clock, the scheduled end time, the future of NENF hadn’t been discussed. People who didn’t have to rush off stuck around and talked a little bit about where NENF should go in the future.
While I may not or may not be a citizen journalist, and that may or may not be a good thing, I must say that the discussions that took place at NENF’s “Sharing the News” gathering was great. We need more opportunities for these sorts of discussions. They need to take place not only at conferences, but in the classrooms, the newsrooms and the living rooms of New England, and across the country.