Megan Taylor

front-end dev, volunteacher, news & data junkie, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

Citizen journalism is NOT useless

This post is a response to a post by Jeff Novich called “Citizen Journalism = ‘see, snap, post’ (ie, not useful journalism).”

FIrst of all, Jeff makes some good points about citizen journalism. CJ will not replace professional journalism. CJ is often missing context. Etc. I contend that none of this makes CJ useless.

Secondly, I’m not sure how deeply Jeff has examined citizen journalism, because the entire post comes off as bashing Rachel Stern’s Ground Report, and extrapolating those criticisms to all CJ. How ironic, that he’s doing exactly what he’s arguing against. Oh wait, but he’s not calling himself a journalist, even though he has a Masters in journalism. How interesting that he’s ignoring the tenets of journalist when it’s convenient, yet another thing he argues against.

So, in response, and in support of citizen journalism:

Jeff lumps the Hudson plane crash, bombings in India, and Iran elections together when pointing out that “for a few minutes, the status updates of random people were valuable and ‘scooped’ mainstream news.” In the case of the Hudson plane crash, fair point. It is kinda cool that normal people were reporting the plane crash before the media did, but ultimately, it was the media that was able to report what had happened, and why. However, in both the India and Iran cases, we are talking about normal people who were able to send information out of a country that does not maintain a “free press.” Especially in the case of the Iran elections, where foreign journalists were kicked out of the country to avoid coverage of the executions happening in the street. Yes, those reports lacked depth and context and analysis, but would we have known what was happening otherwise?

Jeff’s next point is that most people don’t understand the “tenets” of journalism. I have mixed feelings about this one. Anyone capable of critical thinking is capable of doing journalism. It’s really not that hard. But I wonder about how many people in this country are actual able to think critically, what with the birthers and death panels and well, that list could go on for a whole series of blog posts. On the other hand, of the startups focusing on citizen journalism, how many are performing any basic training on how to perform interviews, fact-check or examine documents?

I do agree with: You get what you pay for. The whole “content farm” thing has been discussed to death, but ultimately, I can’t see how anyone can make a living, or even reasonably supplement an income, earning $40 (or less) for a well-gathered, analyzed, fact-checked, and fair report.

Regarding his argument about Wikipedia, Jeff is correct, and yet I think this is a bad illustration. How long did it take Wikipedia to become the repository of facts that it is today? And still, from time to time, a journalist (professional or otherwise) lifts something out of Wikipedia that turns out to be just plain wrong.

On beating the mainstream media: Someone is always going to be there first, and I don’t care who it was. I care who can provide me with the most correct information about what is going on. Unless there’s a crazed gunman running around my neighborhood, it’s a moot point.

Jeff next bashes the “early warning system” concept, “Shit that happens ‘on the ground’ (ie in plain sight) is rarely where the actual shit takes place (behind closed doors, beneath stacks of documents).” In the case of Pakistan’s nuclear potential, he might be right. But I think that what happens on the ground is often a reflection (however indirect) of what happens behind closed doors. Also, plenty of newsworthy shit happens in plain sight. May I bring up the Iran elections again?

At this point, we’re halfway though Jeff’s post. I’m tired of reading and arguing with what is basically a rant against the structure that is currently being built around citizen journalism. Jeff goes on about status updates, trust, SEO, and the future of journalism. There are things I agree with, and things I disagree with. For someone who got a Masters in journalism, Jeff is astonishingly bad at being clear about his argument.

Throughout the post, Jeff seems to be confused on what his point is. That citizen journalism is not a proxy for professional journalism? I agree. That citizen journalism is useless? I disagree. That Ground Report is a load of over-hyped bullshit? I’m not qualified to have an opinion, because I don’t read GR. That the startups built around citizen journalism are doing it wrong? I don’t know that anyone is qualified to have an opinion on that, because nobody has had a long enough run at it.

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