February 1st, 2006

A Challenge to Citizen Journalism

by

The citizen journalism movement is shaking Old Media journalism out of its complacency, but is it realistic to believe that citizen media can and should replace institutional media? I remain deeply skeptical.

Jeff Jarvis is out in force again today, smacking the “dinosaurs” of Old Media for not understanding the power of the people. As usual, I think Jeff gets it half-right — what he misses is illuminated by Robert Feinman’s response to Jeff’s post:

Jeff,
You always concentrate on how news gets distributed, but not on how it gets gathered. All of the secondary distribution channels that you constantly point to as innovative are really parasites off the primary news gathering services.

I would be interested in seeing some examples of actual news gathering done by these new channels. Even the few original releases in the blogosphere can be traced back to some print or broadcast item that was previously overlooked, like the Trent Lott incident.

Perhaps the day will come when government insiders start calling the bloggers instead of Judy Miller, but it hasn’t happened yet. And, even if they do, how will anyone know if the material is valid, there isn’t even the most minimal system of verification in place.

Here are the questions I have for Jeff and other advocates of citizen journalism who like to swing sledgehammers at old media institutions:

How many citizen journalist are reporting from Iraq, Afganistan, and other war zones? How many citizen journalists will step forward to risk their lives to keep us informed? And who will provide them with the funding and the infrastructure to exhibit this kind of principled bravery (which we, the public, often don’t seem worthy of)?

I would not be surprised to learn that there are independent voices already reporting from the front, who have risked their lives for their principles. But can their work continue if we tear down all of the media institutions? As I’ve asked before, who will fund the public good?

This question seems particularly acute to me, not just in light of the high-profile wounding of Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt, but because I know journalist who have risked their lives to keep us informed. I had the priviledge of knowing Michael Kelly (albeit briefly), who was the first American journalist to be killed in Iraq in 2003.

Mike was a truly rare human being — even those who strongly disagreed with his views found him to be one of the warmest, most affable, most genuine, most principled people they had ever met. Mike went to Iraq because of his strong conviction, and because he stood by his principles.

Will citizen journalism produce more Mike Kellys? That is the challenge. I am inclined to assume that there are such people among the ranks of bloggers and other independent voices. My fear is that without funding, without resources, and without an institution to support them, they will be fundamentally hamstrung in their pursuits.

The revolution that is shaking the foundations of media and journalism needs to happen — and I believe a greater good can come of it. But only if we think very carefully about what we intend to build up in place of what we tear down.

UPDATE
Others who are echoing this theme — amen to all:

Dan Gillmor — Why We Still Need Big Media

Tim Porter — Good Work, Great Journalism

Craig of Craigslist — Professional journalism is a big deal

All in response to the San Jose Mercury News series — Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice

Dan points out “The impending sale of Knight Ridder may ensure that such efforts fall victim to investors’ preference for high profits at the cost of genuinely pathbreaking journalism such as this.” Tim points out, “And, we need to create economic models to support it.”

Citizen journalism is here. Let’s stop beating up on Old Media for its complacency and corporate profit motives. Point made.

Let’s focus all of our energy and effort on figuring out a new economics of journalism. Without viable business models to support journalism, democracy and the public good will ultimately suffer.

UPDATE #2:
Dan Gillmor and Ethan Zukerman are reporting from Doha:

I’m at the second Al Jazeera forum in Doha, the base of operations of the Arabic news broadcaster that is about to launch an international network in competition with CNN, BBC and others. Later today, I’m speaking on a panel about blogs and other grassroots media.

My Berkman Center colleague, Ethan Zuckerman, another speaker here, is blogging the conference. He types faster and more accurately than I can manage, so I recommend that you read his blog if you want to get a feel for this gathering. (Like Ethan, I do not agree with some of what I’m hearing from the stage, but the range of views is remarkable and educational nonetheless.)

More power to them.

  • Lives in Focus is another example of 'donation driven blog journalism'. Sandeep raised around $6,000 for him and a photographer to go to India and report on the plight of the HIV+ population affected by changes in Indian patent law. Fascinating multimedia project. Shows what can be done, and done better than old media, on a limited budget. I interviewed him specifically about how this model could be used by other journalists with possible involvement of newspapers etc. if you're interested, the audio's here.

  • I'm late to the party, but readers might enjoy:

    "Citizen Media" Skeptical Questions
    "What's so superultrafantastic about being an unpaid freelancer?"

  • Mathew, first of all, I think the blogosphere should have a moratorium on the use of the term "straw man" as the set up every "here's why I disagree with you" post. It's way overused and misused as a rhetorical device. (But that's a separate issue.)

    I don't attribute the "sledgehammer" approach to even a fraction of the citizen journalism movement. As I said in my update above, most everyone is on the same page.

    With all due respect to Jeff -- I did say I thought he was half right -- he uses the term "dinosaur" to describe old media. Dinosaurs symbolize the path to extinction. If what he has in mind is "reinvigoration" and "extension," that's not something I've picked up in reading what he's written.

    Perhaps I need to read him and others more carefully. And/or they need to choose their language more carefully.

  • Scott:

    With all due respect, I think you're creating a false dichotomy in the setup for your argument -- a "straw man" I believe it's called :-)

    I don't think Jeff Jarvis or anyone else who supports the idea of "citizen journalism" would argue that it should replace traditional journalism, or if they are saying that then I haven't been reading them closely enough. I think they are saying that it can help reinvigorate and extend traditional journalism. And I think they are saying this in particular about local reporting, not so much about reporting on a war, which as you point out takes considerable resources.

    I don't think Jeff is saying that bloggers can replace that sort of thing, and for what it's worth I don't think that you really think he's saying that either. I guess I'm saying that it seemed like a bit of a cheap shot, especially since the rest of your post makes a lot of worthwhile points (many of which I think Jeff would agree with).

  • Anyone reading this who has a blog — PLEASE shine your spotlight on the plight of PhillyFuture.org and show the power of the blogosphere!

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