Monday, November 9, 2009

Citizen journalism unmasked

The theory behind citizen journalism isn't quite as absurd as, say, suggesting that we should get behind the idea of citizen surgery, but it's not as dissimilar as one might suspect.

Journalists aren't required to spend a decade or more in school or to pass strict tests to become practitioners of the vocation. For one thing, the eventual financial payoff is hardly worth it. But the idea that anyone with a cell phone or notepad can practice journalism is nearly as offensive to the real journalist as the idea that some quack with leeches can practice medicine is to the trained physician.

Yes, newspapers are often messy and chaotic places. Sterile environments they are not. But there is a combination of art and science that is practiced inside a good newspaper that requires training, commitment, experience, leadership and adherence to a code of conduct and ethics that is gospel to the journalist.

There was a time when journalism was practiced by ethically challenged and politically motivated hacks, made famous by this oft-misquoted piece of prose:
"The newspaper does everything for us.
It runs the police force and the banks,
commands the militia, controls the legislature,
baptizes the young, marries the foolish,
comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable,
buries the dead and roasts them afterward."
--Peter Finley Dunne, journalist, 1867-1936
It’s likely the only portion of that poem you’ve ever heard or read is the fifth line, which modern journalists still like to quote in all seriousness to describe part of what we see as our mission. We’d be less willing to quote it if we knew its original context, I suspect.

The irony is that the "journalism" produced by those newsrooms was read by far more people than the "cleaner" version we're trying to produce today. Are we being too timid?

Nowadays some folks fear or despise the “MSM” (mainstream media) as monolithic purveyors of political bias, and this has, at least in part, led to the rise of talk shows, blogs and television commentary posing as news. In truth, journalists have never established and aspired to higher standards. What some see as bias is more often something different but no less concerning: incompetence, laziness, poor training, and a dearth of resources – too few people trying to do too much.

One of the fears among people like me who have been part of the journalism vocation for many years is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the average information consumer to differentiate between journalism and rubbish. Perhaps this fear is overblown. Is it possible that most people, when it comes to identifying organizations that aspire to produce only journalism that meets the highest standards, will “know it when they see it?”

Instead of causing confusion, the proliferation of bogus “news” sites on the Web should help us in distinguishing between journalism and whatever you want to call the ugliness of most the Internet. Nine years ago, Max Frankel, former editor of the New York Times, had it right:

“The Web has so far … not produced very good reporter robots or electronic editors. Nor has it figured out how to pay the costly humans needed to gather, interpret, write and package information in the coming world.”

Nothing about that has changed.

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