Citizen Journalism is Dead

Great news, I have restored this post and all the comments from a cache after our server was stolen.

UPDATE

Since posting this entry I have had a lot of response and have been aware that I may need to rethink some of the more superficial observations of this post. I have posted a paper called “Towards a Critical Media Studies Approach to the Blogosphere”, which is representative of my current thoughts on this matter. I am leaving this post on my blog because it made a lot of people, including myself, think quite hard about this issue.

Misnomers and false witness

Citizen Journalism is dead. In fact, citizen journalism never lived; it was the hardening of a momentary ideal, puffed up with self-importance and glazed with a sweet optimism that kept us interested beyond its shelf life. But let me repeat, for the sake of clarity: Citizen Journalism, as a concept is dead, a dry bone to be tossed over the back fence.

Of course there will be some dogs that that find the memory irresistible but be strong, remain resolute and throw it further and further away.

How did I, as a teacher of multimedia journalism, come to this conclusion? And in such a way that it seems I have switched sides between the Journalists and the pundits of New Media, the ten-year-old misnomer for anything related to the Internet?

It’s a simple story actually. I was, at first, enamoured by the veracity of Gillmor and the new configurations necessary to make Old Media work with today’s technology and way of thinking about issues like truth, value and worth. I read more and more about how the Old Media were under threat, the metaphor of the revolution was so compelling that I found myself taking up a place outside the walls of Old Media, baying for blood as if by reflex or born out of some deeply seated desire to make change. Why? Because fixing something is much less sexy than razing it to the ground and putting up something new. Ask any programmer or mercenary.

So, at some point while throwing guillotined heads at the Old Media I stopped to take stock of what was happening on our side of the battle, whether anything better was being done and what I saw was astonishing.

At the front, and shouting very loudly were a few blood-thirsty journalists and academics, like myself. Then there was a small band of bloggers who were opinionated enough to be popular in a commercial kind of way. Not good. And behind the bloggers? Fifteen billion people all documenting their own lives for themselves, their friends and those who cared. Where are all the reporters, the large group hungry to take over from the journalists?

I realised then, that at some point, like 9/11, like the Iraqi bloggers, like 7/7, there were glitches that looked like Signs. Bloggers got there first; citizens got better video than the TV crews, and so on. But does that really mean the people want to be like journalists? That they see recording events as some sort of civic duty or action? Why would they want to?

Three deadly E’s for Citizen Journalism

My colleague, Colin Daniels, and I came up with some points for a presentation we recently did at What the Hack! This is a remix of those points with a little twist. There are some fundamental differences between a blogger blogging and a journalist reporting and I am going to discuss each individually.

Ethics

It is easy to sit in an armchair and snigger about the ethics of Old Media journalists or lack thereof. However, the table below will show up some basic dichotomies between the Old Media and the New Media in relation to the broad question of ethics:

Old Media Citizen Journalists
Institutional code of ethics Uncoordinated individual self-interest and fear of litigation
Formalised training either via tertiary education or internally within the media organisation Self-taught amateurs – though you can do a doctorate in blogging with some less informed university faculties
Formal accountability, there is a boss to answer to Superficial accountability on an individual level
Gate keeping and editing standards Subjective selection
Monitoring, via industry bodies and associations Nothing, except commentary and feedback

Each of these differences point to one thing: citizen journalism is potentially devoid of any form of ethical accountability other than the legislative environment in which the individual operates. So, on the level of routine practice, there is very little control, especially in terms of accuracy.

Let me quote an example to make this clearer. In July I sent an email to Steve Outing at the Poynter Institute about how disappointed I was about citizen coverage of the second set of London bomb attacks. Outing ran an article in E-Media Titbits the following day quoting my email. So far so good.

Then Jane Perrone, deputy news editor at the Guardian Unlimited, carried the same story with commentary and further analysis on the Guardian blog. The gist of Perrone’s commentary was in defence of citizen journalism but she decided to add in a bit about me being a “US academic” which was completely untrue. To her credit, she corrected the post at my request.

The problem didn’t stop there however. Immediately afterwards, several bloggers carried the story on their blogs, now referring to me as “US academic Victor Maher”. So the broken telephone continued, repeatedly reinforcing my initial remark that bloggers have no incentive to check the accuracy of their writing and no standards against which to maintain their own accuracy.

Economics

Bloggers and academic alike enjoy talking about media economics, and who blames them, there have been many instances when money had the final say in the Old Media world.

I want to shift the perspective slightly. Think about the average journalist in the newspaper, going about her daily business. She has quite a few levels of management above her, all editorial. Then there are the business managers and ultimately, above them, the owners, often in the form of shareholders (a relatively voiceless group in a a scenario where the media company is publicly traded). How does this top-down influence of money and power actually exert itself on the will and actions of the journalist? This is a complex question that has been answered many ways, from the ideological insinuation of predictable behaviour to the indirect influence of power through hierarchy.

What is important in this scenario, is that the journalist would generally not consider there to be a direct connection between their personal point of view and their pay check. Now consider the lone blogger. The blogger needs money so the blogger gets Google AdSense, becomes an Amazon partner, signs up to a lot of other things and starts counting micro-payments.

No long afterwards, the blogger realises that certain content sells better ads than other and reaches the point where a decision has to be made about what to write about. It’s a bottom-up form of economic influence that exerts much more pressure much more directly on the individual than the top-down model in the Old Media newsroom.

Old Media Citizen Journalists
Sells non – contextual advertising Contextual advertising like Google ad-sense
Established clients with formalised relationships Anonymous clients
Old models like classifieds are struggling New models like Craigslist are winning because they are often free and have bigger user bases
Diluted top-down economic influence Concentrated bottom-up economic influence

Epistemology

David Weinberger said some interesting things in his address to the Library of Congress about the structure of knowledge in the blogosphere as opposed to the sphere of Britannica and newsprint. He draws on two models for knowledge – the positivistic treelike structure of knowledge and Aristotelian demonstrative patterns, on the one hand, and the spaghetti-like networked subjectivity of the blogosphere on the other hand.

Now, with the former structure of knowledge being dominant in the Old Media, the necessary controls are similarly hierarchical. If the journalist says it, it is probably true but if the editor agrees then it is even more likely to be true, etc. The process of publishing a story is a localised and controlled attempt to create a piece of knowledge as a finished and stand-alone object for others to interact with.

The blogosphere, filled with its fictional civic-minded wannabe journalists, is a mess. Weinberger likes the mess, I am not so sure. Think of the previous example of my name and nationality being spread across the Internet inaccurately. The spaghetti model failed in that instance.

Here is another table of some of the dichotomies:

Old Media Citizen Journalists
De jure authority De facto authority
Tool for reflection and crystallisation of truths Tool for activism, contesting truths
Temporary message Persistent message

Which brings me to my conclusion:

1. This mess we call the blogging versus journalism debate is anchored on a twist of the truth wrapped in a false promise: that this blogging army is co-ordinated and uniform in its intentions. Forget it, you’ve been conned by an elite and persuasive group of pissed-off anti-paperians.

2. The traditional media will and should adopt and use the forms of the New Media that work and assimilate them for better use within a structured environment, and bring some of that structure to them. The Guardian blog is an example of this not working properly.

A better debate, if we have to debate, is whether or not the networked subjectivity of the blogosphere is a more fitting model for saving cultural knowledge than the centralised and hierarchical objectivity of the printed media.

posted by Vincent Maher on 08.05.05 @ 2:37 pm |

24 Comments so far
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OK, so it’s irritating that people got some basic facts about you wrong, but that sort of thing happens all the time in the traditional media - and is often left uncorrected. Maybe citizen journalism is dead, but the ability for people to publish stuff without being constrained by economics and by what others believe is worth publishing won’t go away - however much you may miss the good old hierarchical days. If you want to define citizen journalism as an “army” that is “co-ordinated and uniform in its intentions” which involves “saving cultural knowledge”, then I guess it is dead yes. But why would one want such a thing anyway? With regard to ethics, I think you’re completely on the wrong track. Ethical conduct does not come from formal training, institutional codes and being accountable to a boss. If it did lawyers wouldn’t be the bastards many of them are and newspapers would be more interested in presenting contextual information than sensationalism. Ethical conduct comes from people being embedded in networks of practice where they get to be taken seriously and respected to the extent that they take the norms of the network seriously. Ethical conduct grows organically, from below, among people - it doesn’t get handed down from above by some fuhrer. Yes, people can publish any sort of rubbish now, but no they’re not talking into a vacuum where anything they say simply goes unchallenged.

By Martin Terre Blanche on 08.05.05 4:35 pm

If ethical behavior comes from the bottom up, we wouldn’t need a police force would we? Your point about it being already embedded in the occupational network is a good one, will work it in, but it favours the Old Media.

By Vincent Maher on 08.05.05 4:48 pm

In your epistemology section, you portray the messages of old journalism as “temporary” and citizen journalism as “permanent”. Why?

By Guy Berger on 08.05.05 5:16 pm

It’s there because a newspaper, which most of this post is about, is discarded or maybe archived in a hard to find place. An old blog post remains as accessible as any other, and is replicated by search engines and aggregators making it much more permanent than a printed page.

By Vincent Maher on 08.05.05 5:22 pm

While I agree with most of what you’re saying, isn’t it possible that “citizen journalists” (an irritating term) could provide the raw materials for mainstream/traditional/real media to report on? In other words, a supplement or replacement to other methods of research?

I mean it seems to me that that’s pretty much the function of blogging right now — and hence the referencing of blogs and the posting of grungy cellphone camera photos by sites like BBC or CNN today. It’s true that it’s being done in a somewhat vainglorious manner, riding on the current supposed-”coolness” of blogging. But inevitably isn’t it likely that with 13 million plus blogs online, they form a perfect place for journalists to find out what’s going on, gather leads and then — as you imply — get about the professional job of reporting.

By Jarred Cinman on 08.05.05 5:35 pm

It’s the exception rather than the rule that citizens provide raw materials for the traditional media. And if its raw material then what makes them a journalist?

Does giving web pages to your sources make them journalists?

By Vincent Maher on 08.05.05 5:42 pm

I’m agreeing that they aren’t journalists. They are the news.

By Jarred Cinman on 08.05.05 5:47 pm

I applaud your introduction and conclusions - both are appealing in many ways - but I question much of your Ethics/Economics/Epistomology argument in the middle. If this were a peer-reviewed paper I’d want you to tighten these areas up and be a bit more honest - I feel you’re stereotyping too much. So let’s pretend. Some comments on the Ethics section only…

Though many of the more traditional old media papers have a code of ethics it’s false to say this is generally the case. There are too many tabloids and mid-market papers (I can only comment on the UK) which really don’t care about, say, telling the truth. I’d say you’re more likely to read the truth from a stranger in the pub then from some tabloids. They even doctor photos.

Similarly for your line on editing standards versus subjective selection - tabloids and the mid-markets will usually/often select subjectively. In fact - that’s probably what you learned in your on-the-job training!

Formal accountability doesn’t count for much when your boss is the one who sets the culture of your working environment.

In the UK, the Press Complaints Commission is a self-regulating body. It’s an important body, but it’s hardly the gold standard you imply. By contrast “commentary and feedback” on blogs is more than most papers have, as they moderate all such content, and print only a tiny fraction.

I like your example of your mistaken nationality going viral! But this is not the fault of citizen journalism - it is the nature of the Internet versus print. Jane was able to correct her piece within minutes of becoming aware of the mistake. A newspaper would have to wait 24 hours (if you were lucky enough to get there before the print deadline). And then Jane was able to update the *original* article, whereas a paper would have published a separate item, entirely divorced from the original.

I’m sorry to take your item apart like this. The reason is, I think you have an absolutely fascinating thesis, and I think it deserves to be proposed in a really robust way.

By Nik on 08.05.05 5:58 pm

I’ve had very little experience with traditional media, but when I’ve been the subject, and not the author, of a news story, I find that simple little facts are mistaken, assumptions are made, and yes, names are misspelled.

Case in point: After the columbine shootings, my friend, Jacob Williamson, a normal, ordinary kid who just looked like kind of a geek, talked to reporters about Vampire: The Masqerade, a roleplaying game found in the posession of the shooters. (Trust me, V:TM is a pretty geeky, not gothy, thing)

The TV identified him in this manner:

“Jacob Williams. Goth.”

No correction has been forthcoming.

The big promise of citizen journalism is not in accuracy, unless you have comments sections. Then ex-post-facto fact checking is a wonderful tool.

What are the promises of citizen journalism is that it allows the media public to set the agenda - and judging by the high political content and low celebrity/crime/sex discussions on the blogs compared to what the media -thinks- people want to see/hear/read - the agenda they are setting is a hell of a better one than the mainstream media has.

Will bloggers make mistakes? Sure. But citizen journalism certainly isn’t less accurate than the slap-dash job most media outlets do.

By Brian Boyko on 08.05.05 10:09 pm

You lost me when the error was made by a mainstreamer, not a blogger. In fact, Outing got it right. You’ve built your case upon sand, IMO. Are you suggesting bloggers have an obligation to check back to the original source from time-to-time to make sure there wasn’t an error? You’re a bright guy, Vincent, but this is a little dull.

I’d also like to know the source of this assumption: “this blogging army is co-ordinated and uniform in its intentions.” Show me the citizens media manual where that’s deliniated.

Thanks for the read. Keep coming back.

By Terry Heaton on 08.06.05 12:02 am

Finally! Someone asks the question: Why would anyone want to be a citizen journalist? I fear that those of us who read the books and the blogs and who care deeply about journalism often forget that we represent a small percentage of the populace. Most people don’t have our thirst for content. So why would these people — many of whom presumably have busy lives — suddenly take up the Citizen Journalism cause? What’s their motiviation?

I’ve mulled this over for a while and I simply cannot wrap my head around a solid reason. Anyone?

By Mac on 08.06.05 12:15 am

Vincent says: “If ethical behavior comes from the bottom up, we wouldn’t need a police force would we?” My comment: You’re right - ethical behaviour isn’t only a bottom-up thing, but neither is it only top-down.

By Martin Terre Blanche on 08.06.05 2:01 am

I agree with your analysis but not your conclusion. I think this is an argument as to why ‘Old Media’ is generally better than citizen journalism. However it is possible for:
1) A single story by a blogger or group of them (ala wikinews) to be better than the old media.
2) An entire blog to be better than an entire old media publication, although this is less likely.

In the end the the media needs to prove itself. I like the mail and guardian and your blog because of a track record of ’successful’ journalism. But I pay attention to M&G more often and on more stories.

What people need are tools to help them figure out the trackrecord of the media outlet and navigate the mess.

Hello the semantic web. With google pagerank I can see how many people have linked to the story and with del.icio.us get an overview of why they linked to it. Then I can use a tool like technorati or bloglines daily stats to find new quality stories and this is only the beginning.

By Dominic White on 08.06.05 3:44 am

What about Hugh Hewitt’s ’swarming effect’? MSM feels the swarming effect - bloggers and others exposing inaccurancies, filling backstory in, etc., and the users of the Network benefit because its effect shows back up in MSM terms. Isn’t citizens’ journalism (including blogging) like a Commons Based Peer Production, but without the “process to combine the contributions into a unified intellectual work’? The product of the effort is just out there, and those who follow it, read it piecemeal, finally (and quickly) integrate it via their terminals and in their minds, benefit (as does the public if the subject is big enough). But big or small, the effect is there, and it is good, albeit decentralized. I’m not sure that these good effects of fragmented, decentralized contributions, can be ignored, so I’m not sure one can declare the whole business ‘dead’. Maybe your good points mean that to ‘live’ in the centralized, name or moniker-bearing sense, the good effects of bottom-up writing of news and views simply have to become more centralized?

By John Ess on 08.07.05 3:09 pm

I agree with most of what is being said here and am going to start making mods to this piece taking all of this into account. It’s definately getting an intro that explains why my problem stems primarily from a) citJ performance and b) the words “citizen” and journalist. I’d much prefer something called “personal publishing” and I’d have a lot of good things to say about that.

By Vincent Maher on 08.07.05 4:38 pm

Very good Citizen Journalism debate from a lot of intelligent folks but none has hit the target, at least from what I see happening to journalism. This is clearly a paradigm shift of old and new journalism which will form a new world journalist. We’ve had the biggest collision I’ve ever witnessed and the dust is still obscuring our view of the new world. The few things that can be see through the dust is bloggers will be viewed as bloviates unless they can find a way to pay for their existence and old journalist will need to learn about online commerce to stay in the game.

By Tom Quinn on 08.07.05 6:12 pm

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By Hopesome on 08.07.05 6:56 pm

Why generalise about the quality of news? ‘Citizen journalist?’ Come on, labels are dead, labels never lived, can’t pin one on me, man. Etc.

Standard issue journalists are in most cases subjective news filters and besides, there is no guarantee that ‘proper’ journalists do everything by the book, making them no different to a blogger - assuming the blogger takes that path (but assuming is based on an assumption, which doesn’t entirely strengthen this argument).

In the case of many press release-based stories, journalists could be considered less worthy by providing no opinion and only, erm, ‘reportage’. Writing up a press release without adding context and comment is akin to product placement, isn’t it?

I think you might have an over-inflated opinion of the (underpaid) news profession.

Read Andrew Marr’s ‘My Trade’, which provides an engaging look at the lack of fact-checking activities in ‘traditional’ journalism, among other slack and improper inaction. And remember that front page news stories like ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’ were entirely fabricated by ‘journalists’. The lines are blurry, Vince.

It seems that Citizen Journalism is just another term for (right-on) academics to pay too much attention to, whatever the perspective. Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges…

By hecklerspray on 08.07.05 11:48 pm

We have been running the ‘blogazine’ REPRESENT for the last few months with the aim of promoting citizen journalism.

Some of the articles that we have published, sent in mainly by young black female readers for your interest, have sparked enormous debate and conversation amongst the youth culture, with one of the authors actually being harrased for her outspokeness.

We also reported our opinion of the Johannesburg Live 8 concert which landed up being sent all around the UK and back to us.

We have ‘citizens’ sending in their ‘words and thoughts’ constantly, with only one of them being a student of journalism and the rest your everyday people that want to get it off their chests.

In our world Citizen Journalism is very much alive and rocking… Watch this space.

By Editor on 08.09.05 6:01 pm

[…] While a lot of negative things have been said recently about the existence, or lack there of, of citizen journalism as a news model (see Vincent Maher’s recent rant entitled “Citizen Journalism is Dead”), I came across an interesting story in the South African press which got me thinking. […]

By youngBLOOD » The True Power of the Citizen Approach on 08.19.05 5:45 pm

[…] Citizen journalism is a bad name for people publishing in their personal capacity for a variety of reasons, as I mentioned in my article Citizen Journalism Is Dead […]

By Menthol » 2.0 on the dead citizen journalist on 08.19.05 5:58 pm

Taking shape

Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere is developing. It’s nice to see their WYSIWYG Editor is making improvements. I think the local aspect of the net savvy Bay Area makes sense, but I am not quite sure how this would pan out in…

By BORDBUCH on 08.19.05 11:55 pm

[…] So that prompted me to post Citizen Journalism is Dead. The purpose of this post was to tease out some of the differences between “citizen journalism” and the kind of journalism done by people who work for newspapers, actual journalists. […]

By Menthol » Blogging is not the same as citizen journalism on 08.23.05 3:11 pm

Hi! I’ve really enjoyed reading this debate - there’ve been some interesting arguements on both sides.
I very much agree that the ‘is blogging journalism’ debate is dead - blogging CAN be journalism SOME of the time; it’s the not the medium but the content that we should be concerning ourselves with.
However, I’m writing a university dissertation on whether blogging is journalism, and I’d be really interested to hear any of your thoughts. I’m trying to establish variables by which to test whether blogging is journalism ie. a definition of what makes journalism journalism - any ideas?

By Rebecca on 01.09.06 6:34 pm

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3 Responses to “Citizen Journalism is Dead”


Excellent debate. I share your skepticism about the “hardening of a temporary ideal, … glazed with optimism” (nice phrase!). The problem with the “blogging industry” is that, rather than valuing and reinforcing “recording events as a civic duty,” it idolizes a kind of star-making machine that promises you that you, too, can be a professional pundit and “alpha-blogger” featured on CNN’s blog report.

First of all, a “blog” is just digital paper on a virtual bulletin board. You can write anything on it. It’s not a literary or journalistic genre. It’s just writing.

On the other hand, I do think there’s a huge amount of “dark blogosphere” out there in which people do practice real reporting on obscure topics–what Jeff Jarvis once likened to the “All New Jersey High School Wrestling All the Time Channel.” The genius of New Media is the ability to serve the underserved–dangerous street people in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, the tiny group of dispersed people from all over the world who share my passion for the philately of Fiji or building flying saucers in my garage.

I suppose in the end I have to cling to the temporary hope. After all, being a journalist is not rocket science requiring an advanced degree. Get at least two sources and identify their potential bias critically before stating something as fact, for example. Seek out alternative views and include them for balance. Write plain English )or Spanish or French or Gujarati). It doesn’t even have to be perfectly correct English, just enough to be legible. Get feedback and work on getting better. Stick to what you know for sure.

Anyone can become a journalist. The article in the recent Harper’s on the Intelligent Design trial in Pennsylvania featured a man who ran a donut shop and reported for the paper on the side, for $50 an article, without special training.

But I agree that the biggest problem is that of “de facto” authority. Technorati identifies “authority,” for example, with number of incoming hits. The leading pundits generally have no special qualifications to speak about the subjects they pontificate about. The “blogging industry” is set up, not to help you find the real experts, the diamonds in the rough out there, but those with the loudest voices and most infotainment value.

I like to think there’s a third way. I’d like to see a blog criticism emerge that values exemplary blogging practice by these unsung heroes. I know I try to do that–model how to read the press critically, praising its successes, revealing its failures, and trying to imitate what it does. At its best, journalistic blogging can be a great resource for learning by doing!

Anyway, thanks again for articulating a stellar debate.


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