J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Backlash Building Against ‘Citizen Journalism’?

Posted by chanders on July 6, 2006

Well, it looks like the Media Giraffe Conference, despite its prohibitive cost, got more than a few blogger neurons firing. How else to explain the fascinating dialog going back and forth across the blogosphere over the last few days? The stakes: citizenship, democracy, justice, and network-actors … not necessarily framed in exactly those terms, but that’s how I read the conversation, anyway.

The key questions: is citizen journalism good for journalism? And is it good for democracy? Participants in the debate: Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gilmor, Vin Crosbie over at Corante, and Tom Stites

Crosbie tackles the is -citizens-journalism-good-for-journalism angle first, with this post that aims to let some of the air put of the citizen’s journalism bubble. After taking big media to task for its belief that all it needs to do to save itself is repackage its old content in a variety of new, digital media, Crosbie expresses a paralell frustration:

Just giving the tool of citizen journalism to the public won’t reverse the declines. More changes to journalism than just citizen journalism are necessary. What’s needed is not just including ‘the people who used to be known as the audience but also changing the core journalism by the people who used to be known as Knight Ridder.

Crosbie’s argument is Putnamian, as he acknowledges. Reporting the news is hard, and most people won’t want to do it. Against Jarvis’ argument that 1% participation in media content creation means that citizen’s journalism is a success, Crosbie contends that 1% participation does not democracy– or "from-the people" journalism– make.

There is a pile of solipcism in the news industry. We like to report the news, so we think that most people would, too. But I fear that some advocates single-minded focus on citizen journalism is distracting the news media from many, many other changes it must make. The advocates are succumbing to Maslow’s Syndrome — when the tool in your hand is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. ‘Citizen journalism is a wonderful tool, but more tools than just that are needed to repair and rebuild the media.

Meanwhile, Stites pokes at the relationship between journalism and democracy from a different, and incredibly productive, angle. In my opinion, this speech is seminal. Stites argues that the decline in newspaper and old-media readership is much more significant than we may imagine, and actually points the the emergence of an class and race-based "information gap" of major proportions. Drawing on unpublished statistics from the Pew annual surveys, Stites makes the point that while upper-class consumption of "actual journalism" has actually increased or held about steady

For people in households earning $30,000 to $50,000, readership is down by 13 points, to 35 per cent from 48; for people in $20,000-to-$30,000 households, it’s down by 9 points, to 34 per cent from 43 per cent, and for people in households with less than $20,000 income, it’s down 11 points, to 27 per cent from 38 per cent. In terms of percentage of decline, the falloff exceeds 20 per cent for all three of these groups – in only six years.

Why the decline? Stites attributes it to a growing elitism of America’s journalistic output, both amongst the journalistic class themselves, but more importantly, due to the fact that newspapers no longer feel the need to garner advertising from "downscale" advertisers, and thus have an incentive to attract "downscale" readers. "Now, instead of having sympathy for the poor our newspapers discard them."

And while he doesn’t come right out and say it, the implication is that the Internet is only making things worse, not better: a vast information glut is slowly congealing amongst those at the top of the income, and disposable time, ladder:

Many of us think about citizen journalism and blogs as the saviors of democracy, and while they certainly have impact and show lots of promise, so far they reach a much smaller and much more rarefied audience than daily newspapers. We talk of readers as the audience, as the users, and as the people formerly known as the audience, believing that they are participants in the news process now. It’s much more accurate to say that some are participants now, and to acknowledge that the majority do not participate, and that no small number never will. Many of us are committing the marketing sin of thinking the customers are like us. Some are like us, but most citizens are less educated than us, and make less money than us, and have far more uncertainty in their lives.

It’s interesting: Stites’ argument reminds me of Subcomandante Marcos’ famous speech to the Freeing the Media Teach-In organized by the Learning Alliance, Paper Tiger TV, and FAIR in Cooperation with the Media & Democracy Congress, January 31 & February 1 1997. "The world of contemporary news is a world that
exists for the VIP’s– the very important people," Marcos said. "Their everyday
lives are what is important: if they get married, if they divorce, if
they eat, what clothes they wear, or what if they clothes they take
off– these major movie stars and big politicians. But common people
only appear for a moment– when they kill someone, or when they die." One of the original hopes of Indymedia was that it would empower the very people who were being increasingly ignored by the corporate press to cover themselves, to "be their own media." And while, as Josh Breitbart notes, the citizen’s media revolution has succeeded, the poor and marginalized are still being left behind.

Gilmor and Jarvis don’t overtly engage with either Crosbie’s or Stites’ postings; nevertheless, their own exchange over the differences between "citizens" versus "networked" journalism indirectly tackle some of the same questions. Jarvis says that maybe its time to  drop the whole "citizen’s journalism" label  in favor of "networked journalism":

“Networked journalism” takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make news. And it focuses on the process more than the product.

Gilmor disagrees. While networks are part of the story, citizen’s journalism, in his opinion, draws attention to the importance of having a better informed citizenry. "While I’m all for “networked journalism,” I’m also going to stick with “citizen journalism” — because in the end journalism is a service, not just a method."

As Terry Heaton points out, this isn’t the first time networked publics have been brought into the discussion about online and citizens media.  Judging from Jeff’s comments, he seems to have put his finger on something. Indeed, the notion of journalistic knowledge as the product of a network has been a constant theme of mine on this very here blog: here and especially here. The idea has received its most theoretically cogent form via the work of Turner.  At the same time, I’d argue that while the notion of "networked journalism" may be a good descriptor of an empirical reality, there’s still a rhetorical argument involved that involves the creation of distinction within networks. Or as I said in my post about Yearly Kos:

There’s still a rhetorical value to fixing your own borders, on the part of the social actors themselves. In other words: the Kossacks, the Democratic Party, the mainstream media– all these groups find it useful to define themselves and others as insider or outsider, as part of "our" group or part of "the other guy’s" group." This is where the  Bourdieuean notion of the field, distinction, and the "real as relational" can still be valuable, perhaps not as a description of actually existing social reality, but at least as the description of a rhetorical and "professional" strategy by which insiders are distinguished from outsiders.  And yet, the very fact that such categorical definitions find such little purchase in "actually existing" social life renders them supremely flexible and, indeed, potentially incoherent.

So how do we account for Gilmor’s counter argument? At this point, its would be useful to take the academic route and say that, while Jarvis is describing an empirical reality, Gilmor is describing a normative ideal. I don’t think that this is wrong; but I also think its useful to ponder the intersection of the two notions. In other words: how is networked culture affecting democracy? And how is networked journalism impacting journalism’s democratic promise?

Stites has made the stakes clear. The answers to this question are more important than ever.

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2 Responses to “Backlash Building Against ‘Citizen Journalism’?”

  1. On Citizen Journalism

    Chris from NYC Indymedia writes on his blog about citizen journalism a lot. The other day he wrote about the idea that citizen journalism is really still quite a priveleged activity, and that even a lot of people who can do it just are not going to do …

  2. Scribbler said

    http://nyc.indymedia.org/en/2006/06/71212.shtml

    Democratizing the Media: The Indypendent Holds Reporting Workshop for 23 Citizen Journalists

    This is what journalism looks like, from below and to the left.

    By Erin Thompson

    “So, is this about democratizing the media?” Asked one of the 23 participants at The Indypendent’s June 3 community reporting workshop. “Yes,” was the emphatic response from Indypendent reporter and editor John Tarleton, who spent four hours teaching aspiring citizen journalists about the basics of story structure and lede writing.

    “So, is this about democratizing the media?” Asked one of the 23 participants at The Indypendent’s June 3 community reporting workshop. “Yes,” was the emphatic response from Indypendent reporter and editor John Tarleton, who spent four hours teaching aspiring citizen journalists about the basics of story structure and lede writing.

    As part of the New York City Independent Media Center, the Indypendent (indypendent.org) has emerged over the past six years as an award-winning community-based newspaper, staffed with volunteers and citizen journalists, who cover everything from New York City tenant-landlord battles to New Orleans reconstruction to the war in Iraq, and who help fill the ever-widening gap between the people affected by news stories and those who report them.

    On Saturday, workshop participants were asked to analyze story ledes, the first paragraph of any news story, and give comments on how effective those openings were to tell stories. They were also given notes for a pair of practice stories and asked to write their own ledes, which were shared in small discussion groups.

    One of the topics that came up several times during the workshop’s discussion was the idea of “objectivity,” with many participants hesitant to write ledes that gave too much credence to any one perspective. Tarleton emphasized that impartiality on the part of a journalist is less important than accuracy and open-mindedness in reporting.

    “When approaching a story, it’s important to realize how much you don’t know and to expect to be surprised by what you learn along the way,” Tarleton said. “However, we shouldn’t forget that power tends to corrupt, and that those who hold power and wealth will often abuse it while trying to conceal or spin their activities.” He then added, “What we’re striving to do is tell the story of the world around us from the bottom-up instead of with the usual top-down perspective of the giant media corporations.”

    When the discussion veered to the use of adjectives like “raucous” or “rebellious” in example ledes, Tarleton explained that reporters can use evocative adjectives in their writing, but they must “back it up with facts.”

    Some participants came from a background in social justice activism; others were students, artists, teachers or members of the Indymedia collective; while some simply wanted to learn more about the basics of journalism.

    Pat Senior, an African-American woman recently evicted from her apartment of 26 years at University Towers in Brooklyn, approached The Indypendent after reading the paper’s May 10 cover story about a landlord who has moved to evict thousands of low-income tenants. She attended the workshop to learn how to better write about her own eviction experience.

    “I wanted to write my own story,” said Senior, who has been attending The Indypendent’s weekly Tuesday night meetings for the past few weeks and hopes to publish a story in the coming months.

    Madhuri Kumar, a Masters student at the School for International Training in Vermont, came to the workshop to “learn skills on how to ask the right questions and mostly how to bring out the emotions behind the story.” Kumar had recently embarked upon a project in India, reporting on the effects of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and wanted to fill in some of her knowledge gaps on the basics of journalism.

    Others, like Corie Muhammed, a Brooklyn high school teacher who heard about the workshop from WBAI-99.5 FM, saw it as a free opportunity to learn something and possibly get involved in issues of social and economic justice. Muhammed would eventually like to produce music, and sees the mainstream press as perpetuating a “concept of America created for white people, by white people.” He plans on attending the second part of the workshop this Saturday, which will focus on how to interview and research news articles.

    Over the past five years, Tarleton has used the workshop’s hands-on, participatory format to train hundreds of citizen journalists, a number of whom have gone on to write for the Indypendent or other progressive publications or websites. One of the workshop teachers, Chris Anderson, attended the first Indypendent reporting workshop in 2001.

    “They’ve gotten better and better since then, though even that first one was still pretty darn good,” he says. “A lot of people stick around Indymedia because they’ve made friends here,” he adds, “but if you can learn a little basic journalism too, well, that never hurts.”

    Anderson, who has been an integral member of the Indymedia collective since, is now writing his doctoral thesis on Indymedia.

    Erin Thompson is a reporter for The Indypendent. Her most recent article is “Immigrants Rising in Brooklyn”.

    The Indypendent’s next community reporting workshop series will be held on Saturdays August 5 and 12.

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