(This summer I applied for the “Coders Wanted” Knight Foundation Scholarship at the Medill School of Journalism. In case anyone’s interested, I’m uploading the essays I wrote for my application.)
Question: In the new media landscape, it’s possible for anyone to do the things that professional journalists do: for instance, dig up information other people are interested in, shoot photos or video of newsworthy events, and publish their work for others to see. What is the role of the professional journalist in this world where anyone can publish? What should be the relationship between the professionals and “citizen journalists”?
The relationship between citizen and professional journalist was put to the test by media coverage of the protest and disturbances that followed in the wake the recent Iranian election. Most professional journalists and photographers from western media had been ejected from Iran or were in other ways prevented from filing stories from the country. A lot of media coverage ended up being built on information from Iranian bloggers and Twitter-users and from videos posted to YouTube and similar online services.
While Iran is certainly an extreme case, events there underscore the trend that breaking news coverage is increasingly handled by so called “citizen journalists”. There are several reasons for professional journalists being less around when stuff happens. First, repressive governments, aware of the explosive role of media, may simply ban journalists. This was what happened in Iran and also — arguably — in Gaza in 2008-2009. Second, news organizations today do not have the resources to support a large and dispersed network of journalists deployed around the world. Last, the probability that a citizen will be on the spot with an Internet-connected videophone when something newsworthy happens, is just much greater than a news-team being nearby.
Because “breaking news” and setting the agenda with “exclusive” stories has traditionally been a point of competition among professional journalists, this development seems to be causing cases of Twitter-envy at some news-organizations. The result can be thinly sourced news based on random tweets and un-dated YouTube videos. Indeed, the news-hounds on Twitter and other places demand that journalists pick up these stories, as coverage on, say, CNN is considered a validation of the seriousness of what is going on. Journalists and editors at CNN caught an earful from Twitter users and bloggers for a perceived lack of Iran-coverage immediately after the election, in spite of there being preciously little verifiable information to report at the time.
In my opinion, it would behoove journalists and editors to refrain from propagating largely unsubstantiated news found on social media platforms, even when — as is typically done now — they are presented with large disclaimers. The trouble with these stories is that they add value for no one: The news-junkie with an interest in the topic at hand will invariably already be well informed, while the casual observer will only understand that, apparently someone on Twitter is writing about an event alleged to have happened just now. Worse, even with disclaimers (and partly because of them), the credibility of professional news organisations suffer when some stories turn out to be false or outright scams.
This is not to say that professionals cannot draw on citizen journalists when piecing together stories. A foreign correspondent analyzing the situation in Iran could very well discuss third-hand reports from citizens, but in a critical manner and not, on its own, as the primary source. Reports could also be carefully augmented with video and pictures shot by citizens. This critical and cautious approach may sometimes be construed by opinionated citizens as professional journalists’ arrogance and aloofness. To avoid this, professionals should reach out and educate about their need for credibility and their commitment to fair and balanced reporting.
The optimal relationship would have professional journalists that are continually being kept to task by engaged citizens who, on the other hand, are encouraged by the same journalists to file credible and (if possible) verifiable photos, videos and eyewitness accounts. This will give media users access to a range of news-sources, from reasoned analysis by journalists, corroborated and augmented by citizen reports, to drinking straight from the pipe of raw and opinionated coverage flowing out of Twitter, YouTube or whatever other platform that is in vogue. Some professional journalists already embrace this development and I think Rick Sanchez of CNN says it particularly well when defending that channels Iran-coverage in the last 30 seconds of this clip.
An excellent example of citizen and professional journalists working together is found in a recent unravelling of a string of cases of medical malpractice in Denmark. Two journalists were contacted by a couple whose infant child had died some time after swallowing a battery. The parents had pleaded with doctors to examine their child, to no avail. Their complaint about the lack of treatment had also been turned down (Denmark has a single-provider health care system which is sometimes not very receptive to criticism). The journalists saw they had a powerful and emotional story, but wanted to find out if it was part of a trend or just a lone case. To that end, they created a Facebook group where people could volunteer similar stories. This unearthed a string of malpractice cases where complaints had also fallen on deaf ears. These were duly investigated and yielded a series of articles on medical negligence and ignored complaints. The journalists continued to use the Facebook group as a sounding board for new article angles and ideas and for soliciting feedback. Investigating and building this sort of story, while not impossible, would certainly have been very time consuming without the active participation of involved citizens.
While labeling people volunteering stories on a Facebook group “citizen journalists” may be a bit thick, they do form part of a continuum that extends over Twitter-users and YouTubers to bloggers. In the end, the professional journalists could write a string of explosive articles, citizens got their previously ignored stories told and all Danes will hopefully get better health care as a result.
What is the role then of the professional journalist confronted with wired, media-savvy and outspoken citizens? Journalists should insist on their commitment to provide fair and balanced reporting with integrity, even in the face of demands for speedy coverage of events that may or not be breaking right now. They should also reach out and tab into the wealth of information and opinion provided by citizen journalists and use it to augment and improve the stories they create.