The essentiality of citizen journalism

Since the rise and growing acceptance of what we now call "citizen journalism," there's been some level of resentment between traditional journalists and what they see as a faceless technology-armed mob devoid of proper training and ethics. It is somewhat fair; whether right or wrong, journalists see this mob as the primary culprit in gutting the industry of jobs. The responding rally, by most, has been "Don't you understand? You need us."

That was the message put out from Leonard Pitts, nationally-syndicated columnist and winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, following news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune would be conducting massive layoffs and moving to a three-days-a-week format. Before we get any further, I want to state that I do not disagree with the points he makes, but only intend to elaborate on why many look to citizen journalism as an alternative—and it isn't because it's free.

Here's what I see as Pitts' main points, pulled from the end of his column:

By contrast, my Miami Herald colleague, Elinor J. Brecher, was one of the reporters who rushed toward the destruction in New York City on 9/11. Another colleague, Jacqueline Charles, spends weeks at a time on the ground, reporting the devastation in Haiti. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times slips into dangerous places to cover genocide and sex slavery. Carolyn Cole and Brian van der Brug of the Los Angeles Times send back stunning images of the tragedies in Japan. And every day, thousands of their colleagues attend the council meetings, pore over the budgets, decipher the court rulings that help the rest of us understand our cities, nation and world.

Will “citizen reporters” replace that function? Will they have the resources, the credibility, the knowledge, the training or even the desire to do so? No.

And not all the arias sung by Palin (Ed not: she or Drudge said "Anyone can be a journalist.") and like-minded people to new media and the do-it-yourself “journalism” of ideological crank cases will change that. The function served by daily newspaper journalism is critical to the very maintenance of democracy. It’s time we recognized that.

Again, this isn't incorrect, but I think where claims like this fall short is assuming this is a one-on-one battle, if you call it that—where a traditional journalist is compared to his "citizen journalist" counterpart in terms of experience, credibility, resources and writing ability. Really, that's not the case, it's that traditional journalist against everyone—all the bloggers, all the rogue photographers and anyone with a phone. On their own, no, they can't do it all, but combined they present a formidable journalism force. 

For whatever reason, call it lazy writing if you want, I enjoy explaining things in analogies. It took me some time to figure out this one, but bear with me.

Brendan Ryan is the starting shortstop for the Seattle Mariners. Brendan Ryan bats roughly 45 points below his weight. He weighs 195 pounds. And yet, again, he's the starter—and by the most advanced statistical measures, middle-of-the-pack as far as major league shortstops go. Why? Because he's the best defensive shortstop in the game.

Not every play he makes that another guy wouldn't prevents a run from scoring, but sometimes they do. See, if that guy he nailed on an above-average play scores 'x' percent of the time, and he makes that play enough times, he's preventing runs from scoring and improving his teams chances of winning. He's not going to hit a three-run walk-off homerun to win a game, but he'll make big defensive plays and maybe every now and then slice a ball over the second baseman's head for a go-ahead single.

So, how does this apply to citizen journalism?

Well, it isn't about the home runs—running towards the World Trade Center on 9/11, getting on the ground in Haiti or sacrificing everything to tell the stories of those affected by Hurricane Katrina—it's the cumulative value of the coverage presented by many. Though they sometimes can, citizen journalists don't often produce home runs, but their combined efforts often produce journalistic coverage that compares in value. It's a tired cliche as far as "the power of citizen journalism" goes but the kids in Egypt with cellphones, though they don't stack up one-on-one to the reporting ability of traditional journalists, joined forces to produce something powerful.

And now, to stretch this.

The other part of Brendan Ryan's game most-admired by those who follow baseball isn't actually part of his 'game' at all, but his attitude and perceived passion. He's a manger and fan's dream, someone who genuinely "gives a shit," for lack of a better term. Now, when we do stack traditional journalists up against their citizen journalist counterparts one-on-one—particularly in the realm of sports—this is where the former often falls short.

Not every blogger who's a blogger because he's a big fan provides exceptional coverage; most don't. That fandom, most times, produces some level of bias—but that bias isn't always bad. With the most talented and reasonable writers, it's often good. See, that fandom lends itself to coverage almost-intended to steer the team in the right direction (sometimes subconsciously). Poor decisions and tough losses face passionate—and hopefully well-crafted—criticism; joyous moments produce the euphoric reactions you'd expect from many of the fans, as the writers themselves often are just that. It's no wonder then that this writing is widely appealing to those who follow teams most closely.

As a quick example, have a look at the über-talented Royce Young; creator of the excellent Daily Thunder and blogger for CBS, he covers the Oklahoma City Thunder as well as anyone, including the beat-writers. He uses multimedia tools to present information others just don't (like the full audio of the Thunder's exit interviews) and curates the best of the mainstream coverage on a daily basis. Not every "citizen journalist" out there (and it's hard to call Young one at this point) is as talented as Young is, but many are, and it's because they carry a passion for their subject that many beat-writers simply don't have.


So, what now?

For reasons that may not be fair and may even be detrimental society to as a whole, there are less traditional journalists than there were before. As a result, they're going to have to play a little defense. Journalists must learn to work with the material the mass of citizen journalists are putting forth. The line between curation and reporting is getting thinner and thinner; with more to do and less resources with which to do it, mainstream journalists must learn that while these citizen journalists aren't properly trained, the information that they're offering is invaluable and only through a joint effort with this mass will they be able to do their job as we once saw it a decade or two ago.


Photo credit: markn3tel

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