In Defense of Citizen Journalism

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By: Steve Outing

Earlier this month, the Poynter Institute (where I work as a senior editor for Poynter.org) held its Web+10 Seminar. It was a fascinating exploration of what journalism will look like in the next 10 years. And a big chunk of the discussion was about what we’re calling “citizen journalism.” The journalism leaders (mostly from the Web side of the business) who participated in that seminar seemed pretty certain that community members’ involvement in producing the news was an inevitable and desirable component of the future of journalism.

Also, I’ve been covering the citizen-journalism movement quite a bit recently at my variouswritingvenues. Frankly, I’m bullish on the concept. I believe that journalism can right some of what’s wrong with it by letting the public in and turning the old “lecture” model of journalism into more of a “conversation” model — regaining trust and credibility by losing the arrogance of the old way of doing journalism.

But that’s not a popular view (yet) among news-industry leaders, as evidenced by an article written by one of my Poynter colleagues, Julie Moos. She pitched the idea of news outlets including more voices in their products: “As hard as the media tries to be inclusive, we cannot be all things to all people. So why not invite people to be all things to each other?”

Moos invited 16 top editors and news directors from U.S. daily newspapers and TV news operations to comment on her thesis, that news organizations should invite un- or under-covered communities to cover themselves. I was disturbed by some of the answers she got, which were hostile to the notion. I’ve gotten similar feedback when I’ve written articles, blog items, and columns about inviting the public to participate instead of just read or watch.

If Moos’ sample questionnaire and my article feedback are accurate indicators, too many people at leadership positions of major news organizations are in a defensive posture when it comes to citizen or participatory journalism.

They’re in denial — and that spells trouble for their organizations.

(To be fair, there are plenty of news leaders who do see the potential benefits — to the news industry and to the public — of citizen journalism, and some of those who responded to Moos clearly “get it.” Carole Leigh Hutton, publisher and editor of the Detroit Free Press, responded to Moos’ article: “I’m increasingly comfortable with not being in control of every word publishing on our site.” I hope more top editors will come to embrace that idea.)

Let the persuading begin

Perhaps by responding to some of the skeptical comments that Moos received about her proposal, I can persuade some of those news leaders sitting on the fence that citizen or participatory journalism can be a force of good — that it can enhance a traditional news product, not undermine it. So let’s have a go at that.

Statement No. 1: “Clearly though, weblogs are not grassroots journalism. Journalism has highly regarded ethical standards. It’s the only profession protected by the Constitution. The people who participate in Web discussions have no such responsibility to insure their information is accurate. How do we insure the bloggers are not causing harm?”

That’s a fairly typical concern about Web logs written by the public. Because editors can’t vet them or control them, they fear that citizen blogs will demean the value of the host news organization. It’s the idea that journalism is sacrosanct, and the notion of allowing Joe and Jane Public to add their words under the news organization’s banner will lead to erosion of public respect for the news brand.

I take the opposite view. By adding citizen blogs, to cover areas and topics under-covered or ignored entirely by a news organizations, the scope and public service provided is expanded. Topics not warranting an assigned beat reporter (or even a paid freelancer) suddenly find a home when citizen bloggers decide to fill the void. The news organization becomes the go-to place for more things that the public cares about; there’s less need to look elsewhere for what the news organization fails to recognize as important to segments of the community.

By ignoring community needs and interests — because you don’t have the resources to assign paid staff to them — the organization loses public respect. That’s one strong reason why segments of the community don’t read your newspaper or visit your site.

Will unedited citizen blogs contain inaccuracies and worse? Undoubtably, yes. But there are ways to lessen that:

? There’s no rule that says every citizen blogger who walks through the virtual door has to get the go-ahead to publish on your site. Apply some basic vetting practices to weed out the nutty ones, but don’t turn an invitation for citizen bloggers to be included on your site into a job interview.

? Set some ground rules and guidelines for citizen bloggers and contributors, which will give you grounds for rejecting some people outright (say, someone who wants to write a blog for white supremacists) and removing blogs that violate your policies.

? Remember that with the Internet, the audience polices content — so harness that. Citizen blogs should have mechanisms to: 1) allow for public comment on items, so that possible errors and mistruths can be flagged to subsequent readers; 2) encourage readers of a citizen blog to report problems to the site editor; and 3) rate or rank citizen contributors, so that readers can loosely determine a citizen blogger or contributor’s credibility and accuracy by seeing how the online community perceives this person.

Statement No. 2: ” I wonder about the time it would take to manage it. We have one guy, part time, overseeing the content of our station’s website and he is swamped.”

This cautionary statement came from a TV news director who supports the notion of citizen contributors. Clearly it’s a concern, whether to a large or small news Web operation.

My advice is not to under-staff a citizen-journalism initiative, because there are ample dangers to this form of publishing and public contributions should be watched by someone with an eye toward your site’s policies and the obvious libel potential. There should be at least one person whose job it is to monitor all the citizen blogs and other contributions from the public; perhaps that’s a full-time job if citizen contributions take off.

It’s not likely to take much more, however, because you’ll have an army of volunteer editors supporting that staff member. Look no further than free-classifieds community site Craigslist for a model. Its members are encouraged to report spam and scams among the listings. Craigslist’s modest staff don’t read every ad or announcement posted, but only review those questionable ones brought to their attention by the site’s users. That’s a smart model to manage the risk with modest resources.

The citizen-journalism movement hasn’t come up with much yet in the way of business models, but the potential clearly is there for advertising to support a c-j initiative and pay for an editor. As citizen bloggers target unreached communities, advertisers wanting to reach those new communities will pay for the privilege.

Statement No. 3: “Let’s not overstate (citizen contributions) as independent ‘journalism.’ Is the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park a journalistic vehicle? People get up on their box at certain times and declare their views. That’s a great exercise in democracy and free speech. Is it journalism? Not really. … Would readers find it interesting? I think so and that’s good enough. Let’s just be clear about what it is and what it’s not.”

When I’m asked the “Is blogging journalism?” question, I always answer that some blogs I consider to be “journalism,” and some not; there’s much variety in the blogging world. The same goes for citizen blogs and citizen contributions published by news sites: Some of it will fit the journalism definition, and some will not. Just because a paid or trained journalist isn’t doing the writing doesn’t mean that the end product isn’t journalism if similar reporting techniques are used by the amateur. As is so often said, there’s no licensing exam to be a journalist.

So I quibble slightly with what this editor is saying. But whether or not a citizen’s contribution is journalism, I do think that it’s important to oh-so-clearly identify the source of any non-staff content on a news site. If a news site becomes a hybrid of professional journalists’ work and that of citizen volunteers — a model that I support — it must be overtly obvious to the reader what is in front of him or her.

I’m not a fan of entirely walling off citizen reporting from the rest of a news site. Rather, I want to see it incorporated into a site in an intelligent and transparent way. That is, if my interest is in news from my kids’ school, I look to a single news site to find that news. And if I find that particular slice of news about the local school and it is written by a contributor — because staff reporters don’t cover down to that micro-local level — I must know up front that this is not the work of a professional, objective journalist. We won’t get in trouble with our readers if we make clear the difference — up front. (A tagline at the end of a citizen-contributed article won’t do.) It’s about transparency.

Statement No. 4: “Haven’t the bloggers done just well, thank you, without our assistance?”

Well, yes, they have done quite well. But with “1 million blogs in the naked city,” it’s tough for most of them to get noticed. There’s value to some bloggers in getting a place under the marquee of a major news organization in order to win new readers. And of course there’s value to the news site in adding new creative voices, content, and coverage on topics it has ignored or not been able to afford to cover using available staff resources. The public is served by the news website publicizing citizen-blog content that’s useful to the community but that people might not learn about otherwise.

Statement No. 5: “Our newspaper’s need to launch community blogs is not so pressing that we could justify allocating scarce assets to an initiative to go out and scour the countryside for bloggers.”

This comment came from an editor who otherwise expressed support of the notion of citizen journalism, but I have to disagree with his lack of urgency. By applying the audience-is-editor model to a c-j initiative, this doesn’t have to be a big project; the users of the site are employed to assist the staff editor charged with monitoring all the pubic submissions, by alerting the editor to potential problems or abuses. So why not go for it now?

Citizen journalism does not have to be part of a traditional news organization. Entrepreneurs like the people behind BackFence.com, for example, are setting up community news Web sites supplied with content by the public. Free-classifieds powerhouse Craiglist is contemplating how to add a citizen-journalism component to its sites.

In other words, if news organizations don’t get on this now, others will beat them to it. (Let’s see: We’ve seen the same thing happen with online classifieds, auctions, online personals….) If that happened in your community and a c-j start-up established a strong following, would there be room for another? That’s questionable. News sites should be heavy into executing or at least planning c-j projects now, not waiting for someone else to get the first-mover advantage.

Statement No. 6: “In our newsroom, we try not to say no, rather we say ‘how’. … So, how can we add these very important voices while maintaining our journalistic oversight? One way might be to identify community members who uphold our ethical and journalistic beliefs and invite them to send in opinion and commentary. It would take some time to identify them, but it would be worth it to have intelligent people adding new perspectives to the community conversation.”

The problem with this news director’s statement is obvious: He’s stuck in the old mindset of “only we know what’s best.” His idea of opening up to the community is hand-picking those whose voices will be heard on his site. Sorry, but in an age when technology has made it possible for any and everyone to inexpensively share their thoughts, wisdom, and nonsense with the rest of the world, this old-style gatekeeping increasingly is out of step. Newsrooms that ascribe to this philosophy will find their influence waning as competitors truly open up to their communities — gaining loyalty in the process.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking out the best voices and giving them a home on a news site; that’s laudable. But if that’s all you’re doing, that’s exclusionary in a time when technology makes exclusion undesirable.

Statement No. 7: “Two years ago, we embarked on a program to print and promote more letters from readers. The result: In 2004, we printed 3,750 letters and received more than 8,000. That’s quite a bit of reader involvement for a 40,000 daily newspaper in a market of 250,000 people. As long as we continue to get that kind of reader response through the daily newspaper, we would see no good reason to fragment the audience by offering blogs.”

Here we have an editor who can’t give up the gatekeeping role even with letters to the editor. I’d suggest publishing all 8,000 of those letters on the paper’s site — minus those deemed to violate the newspaper’s standards because of profanity, demonstrated untruths, potential libel, etc. Obviously that’s a big number of letters to contend with, but it’s easily handled by highlighting the best letters that you want your readers to see and posting the rest in a less visible place. There’s value in letting everyone have their say; not publishing (acceptable) letters tells people that you’re not interested in their opinions. That’s a solid technique for losing readers.

Blogs will further fragment the audience so let’s not run them? Sorry, I don’t understand that logic. Letters to the editor are the lowest form of community interaction with a news organization. Stopping at that level in the Internet era doesn’t seem wise, to put it mildly.

Go fast (this time)

In the journalism of tomorrow (and to an extent, it’s already here), everyone will get to have his or her say. While acceptance of that among traditional news editors is gaining to a degree, there’s plenty of skepticism and defensiveness still. It’s still journalists vs. bloggers, they’re different from us and don’t belong on the same stage, etc.

In Moos’ article are the seeds of thinking among top editors that eventually will sprout into real citizen-journalism initiatives among mainstream news organizations. But there’s also plenty of old thinking and let’s-go-slow intent.

The trouble is, as with most new developments on the Internet, others outside the news industry are moving faster. The danger is that news executives will once again go slow while others run with the new opportunity in citizen or participatory journalism. And once again mainstream news companies will be left trailing behind.

Do we really have to repeat this cycle yet again?

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