J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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

Why Study Participatory Journalism

Posted by chanders on February 9, 2005

What’s the point in devoting six years of ones life to studying participatory journalism at the PhD level? After all, plenty of smart people write about it all the time who don’t have advanced degrees, and other smart people think that the whole thing doesn’t really matter anyway (witness the relative lack of academic writing on blogging as opposed to blog postings on blogging).  So here’s a list of common mistakes that some academics usually make when thinking about so-called "alternative media," along with some mistakes that I think some bloggers make too.

1. Alternative Media is just an extension of activism: This understanding sees the alternative media as little more than an old-time revolutionary press: passionate activists who crank out manifestos justifying their various ideological viewpoints, with any news they report inherently "slanted" in order to justify their revolutionary beliefs. There’s an element of truth to this, especially in a group like Indymedia. But even within Indymedia, things are more complicated than this– the news process is more than just the manufacture of propoganda. In other words, alternative media is journalism, too.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters that a lot of the academic writing on alternative media is really just a cover for actually writing about movements that one academic or another supports. For example: writing about the feminist press when one really wants to talk about the women’s movement, or the new wave of internet activism when one wants to talk about the anti-globalization movement. Alternative media deserves to be treated as media, not just activism by another name.

2. The ‘lonely pamphleteer’ theory: It seems like a lot of academics (and sociologists especially) don’t study alternative media because they think there’s nothing social to study. Again, there’s some truth here. Much of the blogging that goes on on the internet– like what I’m doing right now, for example– is just one man or woman sitting behind a computer screen typing whatever comes into their head.  Of course, some people argue that even that’s a "public sphere." But you don’t have to go that far. There are other organizations– Indymedia, ohmynews, Wiki News that really are both organizations and practice some form of "open source" journalism. And you can study them just like you would any other organization. Even types of alternative journalism we might think of as largely solitary, like blogging, are really intwined within much larger communities that have their own unique norms, understanding, and sanctions.

3. How do we get a handle on this? And what do we really have to say?: This is where it gets tricky, and intimidating. Go onto the web and google "blogging as journalism"– there’s probably never been a form of writing so openly self reflexive. There’s tons of people writing about all these interesting questions already online,  and some of them are fairly brilliant. So what can sociologists and cultural theorists really add to the conversation?

All I can say to answer that question, for now, is this: there’s a lot of hype, and a lot of criticism, but not a lot of systematic study. One of the things that social scientists are supposed to do is do more than just shoot off at the mouth– they have peer review, experimentation, and (*gasp*) a methodology. In some ways, the blogging about blogging cries out for a little systematization. It could use some of its wilder assumptions questioned. It could use a method, and it could certainly use some cross national study brought into the mix.

4. Journalism Gets Absorbed Into "The Media": A lot of the "hot" academic studies of "the media" usually talk about this media like it was all one sort of thing. Studying "journalism" has never been very sexy, mostly because a few snooty academics have seens journalists as ink stained wretches. But ignoring journalism in favor of the media would seem to be unable to explain a large portion of what it is we read and think about every day.

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