J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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

Response to Freedman’s: “On The Difference Between The Amateur And The Pro.”

Posted by chanders on April 3, 2006

Samuel Freedman, author of Letters to a Young Journalist and respected Prof. at my current school, tackles the perennial question: what is it that pro journalists do that amateurs don’t? That is, are "citizen journalists" "real journalists"? (see: "are bloggers journalists," 2002-2005). There’s something about the way he frames the debate that makes it difficult to not respond, despite the fact that this is an argument which has been raging for years. I’m particularly interested because Freedman  tackles the notion of "journalistic expertise" (a current concern of mine) though he never uses those exact words.

In the next few paragraphs, I’d like to address what I see as the three main prongs of Freedman’s argument: his idea of what citizen’s journalism is, his description of what ails the traditional media, and his solution to the problem.

First: What is citizen’s journalism? Freedman specifically mentions YouTube, the new video uploading site.

"True to its motto, “Broadcast Yourself,” the site allows people to upload their own videos on a nearly infinite array of subjects. I happened to be looking for clips about American soldiers in Iraq, and a quick search summoned up more than a thousand hits. "

This is interesting for at least two reasons: first, I honestly haven’t seen anyone claiming the YouTube is Citizen’s Journalism– either the people at YouTube itself, or anyone of the dozen’s CJ related blogs that I read regularly. A technorati search for "you tube" and "citizen’s journalism" returns 1 hits. YouTube doesn’t say anything about Citizen’s Journalism on its website, as far as I can tell. Maybe YouTube’s debut was a big deal in the CJ community, but if it is, I hadn’t heard about it.  Secondly, its interesting to watch the rephrasing of the Citizen’s Journalism / blog critique from one of "you don’t report anything new, you just analyze and leech off of the mainstream media!" to "you don’t do any commentary, you just post a bunch of clips and don’t bother to ‘weigh, analyze, describe, and explain.’" Which is it? Does it automatically have to be both? … More on this recasting of the journalist as an "analysis provider" in a minute.

Second: Freedman’s diagnosis of the problem. In admitting that its become difficult to defend the mainstream media, Freeman writes:

I am thinking less of the whole-cloth fabrications of fabulists like Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley or Stephen Glass than of the devastating near-misses, the almost-correct articles or broadcasts undermined by a fatal error – “Sixty Minutes’” discredited report on President Bush’s National Guard service, Newsweek’s retraced account of American interrogators at Guanatanmo Bay flushing a Koran down the toilet, The New York Times’ misidentification of a man who indeed has been imprisoned and tortured at Abu Ghraib as the man in the notorious picture of a hooded inmate connected to electrical wires. When we fall short of our own professional standards, we lend support to the cynical or naïve presumption that journalism is something anybody can do.

Maybe that’s part of the problem with traditional journalism today. But I don’t think so, at least, I don’t think its what CJ advocates are really concerned about. Freedman is right: by and large, you’re never going to beat the Times, WaPo, the BBC, NPR, when it comes to the amount and quality of news. But is Jayson Blair or even Judy Miller really the problem? I’d submit that the big problem is more akin to the situation in Philadelphia, insightfully documented by Freedman’s Columbia colleague Michael Shapiro. Despite their widely publicized gaffes, the elite media– the Times et. al.– are doing pretty well. It’s cities like Philadelphia– cities that don’t have the projected population growth numbers allowing them to be considered a worthy investment by McClatchy, cities whose papers have been decimated, for the last two decades, by a bankrupt chain-corporate ownership model, cities that are scaling back on their universal WiFi access plans because of opposition from the telecom industry, cities which don’t even have public access TV– that are the real problem for serious journalism today. Not Stephen Glass, who defrauded an elite beltway journal that no one outside of a few thousand media and political movers and shakers actually read. Its this sort of problem which led to the norgs conference.

Third and finally, I’m especially interested by Freedman’s argument that a "trained, skilled journalist" should:

"should know how to weigh, analyze, describe, and explain.

This takes me back to my earlier discussion of journalism and expertise. I’m intrigued by, and respectful of, the attempt to raise the standards of journalism with regard to journalism’s "scientific," "analytical" capacities. Its a worthy response to the potential "deprofessionalization" of the journalist– an attempt to professionalize further. I discussed this briefly a few months back with McChris, when I agreed with his comment that:

I could certainly see how the rise of blogs, wikis, etc. actually catalyze a renewed professionalization of institutional journalism. Now that people read blogs highly critical of the media and controversies around figures like Dan Rather and Judy Miller raise questions about newsgathering, the profession could react by cranking up the discipline, raising the barriers to participate in news organizations. The institutional players will want to distinguish themselves from folks who don’t write the news for fun.

There’s a lot to say about this, and indeed, this is one of the key questions in my own research. For now, let me simply point to an argument of Michael Schudson, who, in another context, had this to say about Walter Lippman’s understanding of expertise and journalism:

There is a tendency […] to misunderstand Lippmann and Dewey […] Advocates of ‘public journalism’ have suggested that Lippmann urged that "well trained experts" would manage the country’s journalism as well as its public affairs. In fact, Lippmann held out no such hope for journalism; he believed that journalists could never reform themselves. They could only improve if other institutions of intelligence arose outside of journalism to feed better data to the press.

In other words: it is not in professional journalism that we shall find the experts we seek. Maybe. Or maybe not. The new Columbia MA program is betting the house that Lippmann is wrong.

Dan Gilmor has also blogged about this: see his post here.

UPDATE: So has Andrew Cline.


One Response to “Response to Freedman’s: “On The Difference Between The Amateur And The Pro.””

  1. Inre your Glass comments:
    Hey – I read TNR!

    Though, that probably says more about me than about your comment.

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