Written by Ryan Thornburg June 21, 2008 9:09 pm EDT
This post is a written version of comments I presented yesterday at the Future of Journalism conference sponsored by The Carnegie-Knight Task Force on the Future of Journalism Education and organized by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Journalism Is Writing That Does Something
I got in to journalism because I believe it has a purpose. One of the first things I talk about with my students on their very first day of their very first introductory news writing classes is that one of the fundamental differences between journalistic writing and the kinds of writing they’ve been doing in most of their other courses is that news writing is supposed to DO something. It is meant to be read, and being read it is meant to be applied – if not immediately, then someday, in perhaps subconscious ways – by the readers.
For me, journalism is supposed to DO a lot of things – hold powerful people accountable, clearly explain an increasingly complex world, give voice to the voiceless, make people safe, keep them healthy, save them money. Through all of these things I see journalism in service of an efficacious democracy and efficient markets.
Unfortunately, too often I think we talk about citizen journalism – and all the changes that are coming about as part of the digital communication revolution – with a very limited scope of concern. We talk a lot about what these changes mean for journalism, without going the rest of the way down the road and talking about what these changes mean for the things that journalism is supposed to DO. What effect do these changes to journalism have on democracy and free markets? What effects COULD they have if we as journalists and educators make different choices?
Competing Interests: More Voices … and Free Content
Citizen journalism is an important topic for us to be discussing for two reasons. If you’ll permit me briefly to stop halfway down the road, there are two reasons journalists are drawn to the discussion about the effect it has on journalism. The first is that citizen journalism has the ability to bring new voices to the discussion – to give voice to the voiceless. This is the great promise of citizen journalism. Whether we believe it can or cannot accomplish this lofty goal, I hope that we can all agree that the goal is important and central to our a common belief that the voices of the weak, the lonely, the common, the inarticulate, the shy, and the outcasts are as critical to an efficacious democracy as the voices of the powerful, the educated, and the loved.
The second reason journalists like to talk about citizen journalism … well, OK, the reason publishers like to talk about citizen journalism … is because it is free content around which they can sell advertising. And more advertising may mean more money to pay professional journalists. And most of us – at least those of us who need to eat and who are not independently wealthy – like to think there is some market value in being a professional journalist. I don’t want to gloss over this point. You would not see news companies embracing – or at least grappling with — citizen journalism so aggressively if it did not have the potential to positively affect the bottom line. Does anyone think that any news company would have comments on its stories if it had to pay readers for each comment? Of course, this isn’t anything new. It’s the same thing in print. Does anyone think community papers or local TV stations would have a “pet of the week” if they had to pay the owner?
Is ‘More’ Inherently ‘Better’?
As we head the rest of the way down the road and wonder what effect amateur journalism will have on democracy. If one of the things that amateur journalism can do is empower new voices, then we should assume that the effect – whatever it is – would be big.
Citizen journalism itself is a political term. I’m going to call it amateur journalism, and I intend “amateur” as a positive, not a normative, term. Advocates of citizen journalism use the word “citizen” because it conjures images of democracy, empowerment and wholesomeness. But we would, of course, not exclude non-citizens from our discussion of whatever it is we’re discussing. Journalism is whatever journalism is, and its definition is not really important for this discussion. We can disagree on that, at least for the time being.
Since the early days of the Internet, the arrival of a new, more democratic, more civil media, has been one of the visions of online political utopians. In his April 1997 article for Wired magazine, Jon Katz led off this way: “On the Net last year, I saw the rebirth of love for liberty in media. I saw a culture crowded with intelligent, educated, politically passionate people who – in jarring contrast to the offline world – line up to express their civic opinions, participate in debates, even fight for their political beliefs.”
But more voices just means more voices. It’s a guarantee of quantity, not quality. In fact, it’s a guarantee that the quality will change. In any system, as capacity increases homogeneity decreases. So we’ll get more minority voices – some of those will gain acceptance by the majority and some will be seen by the majority as malicious and uninformed.
If we look at the history of online campaign communication we see that it is the fringe candidates who tend to be the early adopters – Jesse Ventura, Howard Dean, Ron Paul. Countercultural religious and sexual groups were some of the early adopters of online communication.
The worst of these new voices – the mean and (especially offensive to journalists) the uninformed — send waves of panic through professional journalists who have sacrificed a lot of financial and social benefits to doggedly pursue The Truth. But, even as we’re terrified that the mean and uninformed will dilute our professional reportage those among us who are even slightly optimistic can still see the possibility that citizen journalism will bring new voices to our civic life.
A Neo-Jacksonian Era of Political Media
I’m not only slightly optimistic, but I believe that civil society has the power to encourage the best traits of citizen journalism and discourage the worst. Even a cursory study of the history of American civic life shows that its rules and systems are not static – Thomas Jefferson believed constitutions and laws expire with the end of each political generation every 19 years. There have been times in our history when our system has become suddenly more democratic – when new voices – some mean and many uninformed – have rushed in to the system. And while we are not captives to history, we can look to those eras to see some ways that new voices have changed our country.
Michael Schudson in his book, The Good Citizen, which is a history of American civic life, talks about three different phases of citizenship that we’ve experienced. In our current day we value the “informed citizen,” a private, rational actor who is a product of public schooling and student of a transparent government. But, Schudson says, our current era, which started at the end of the 19th century, was preceded by an era that was dominated not by private, rational, informed citizens but instead by a politics of affiliation. This era of Jacksonian democracy first saw a postal system that brought new connection with centers of power through a flat-rate system that didn’t discriminate against Americans living on the frontier. That was followed by a flourishing of newspapers that saw themselves as an association of their readers.
The era also saw the rise of the political party, with an emphasis on party. Schudson described the era this way: “During the campaign you have marched in torchlight processions, perhaps in a military uniform, with a club of like-minded individuals from your party. If you were not active in the campaign, you may be roused on Election Day by a party worker to escort you to the pools on foot or by carriage. On the road you may encounter clubs or groups from rival parties, and it would not be unusual if fisticuffs or even guns were to dissuade you from casting a ballot after all.”
In the days of Jacksonian Democracy, civic life was about engagement not information. Translated in to two staples of today’s online political media, it was about candidate ring tones not issue grids.
If you look at online political communication, I think you see a step-by-step return to some of those ideas. In 2002, the second most popular feature on candidate Web sites was the position paper. Eighty-three percent of candidate sites had them. But by 2004, according to Pew Internet & the American Life Project, nearly as many people sent or received political jokes via email as had researched candidates’ positions online.
I’d argue that we are in an era of emerging neo-Jacksonian media in which information is still critically important, but in which affiliation is the primary method of receiving that information.
Journalists Should Learn From Campaigns
So history is one place we can consult for some options about incorporating a sudden rush of new voices in to our political system. The other place we as journalists can turn is one of our sister institutions in our current political system. Just as political campaigns have studied journalists in their efforts to become better communicators, journalists must now study political campaigns to see how they are incorporating citizen journalists.
That’s right – political campaigns – those paragons of risk aversion have been more innovative and more comfortable at incorporating citizen journalists than news organizations. And that, my dear colleagues, is something of which we should be ashamed.
Campaigns have always grappled with how to incorporate volunteers in to their organization. Professional campaigners often view volunteers with derision, even as they may acknowledge their contribution to the campaign – much in the way that many professional journalists deride their readers even as they acknowledge that they are the essential to media economics.
My impression is that most campaigns would be happiest if they could attract voters without attracting volunteers, because there are two ways that volunteers can actually be bad news for a professional political campaign. Probably the worst way is for a campaign to decline a volunteer’s offer of help. Shunned volunteers become your campaign’s most ardent opponents. But campaigns can also get in to trouble when they ACCEPT the help of a volunteer. Volunteers without clear direction are the devil’s playground. As Schudson says about political parties in the Jacksonian era, political campaigns today “help articulate, channel and organize popular demands.”
Replace “popular demands” with “information,” and that is what professional journalists should be doing with citizen journalists. Professional journalists should help citizen journalists “articulate, channel and organize” information.
And here’s where it becomes apparent that citizen journalist is probably synonymous with citizen. Because this is what professional journalists should already be doing – helping citizens articulate, channel and organize information.
Political campaigns first used the Internet for position papers and to accept donations. In 2004, Howard Dean’s message of empowerment combined with the Internet to give supports a whole new role in the campaign. And this cycle, Barrack Obama, with his background in community organizing, has become the master of online social networking. More and more campaigns are using the Internet to help volunteers play productive roles in accomplishing the campaign’s mission.
Here are some lessons that journalists can learn from political campaigns:
1. Have something for volunteers to do. More and more news organizations are creating “reader councils” of audience members who they can call for a quote. But it’s important to give citizen journalists something specific and measurable to do. And – as all journalists know – every assignment should come with a deadline. CNN’s iReport is a model of why this is so important. They created iReport to intake video from viewers. Most of it was unremarkable until the day of the Virginia Tech shooting. Because CNN had set up the infrastructure to intake amateur journalism, graduate student Jamal Albarghouti knew he had a place to upload his cell phone video of shots being fired.
2. Recognize volunteers. John McCain has a “Spread the Word” section of his Web site, where volunteers can earn “points” each time they comment or post to a political blog. Steve Yelvington does a great job of this at Bluffton Today.
3. Help volunteers recruit other volunteers. Barack Obama recently created a Web site called fightthesmears.com. On it, he asks supporters to send the campaign claims against Obama that they believe are false. That’s a great example of distributed reporting – a subcategory of citizen journalism. But he also allows visitors to upload their email contact list to the site and share with their friends the Obama campaign’s refutations of the “smears.” Amateur information distribution is probably more important than amateur information collection. People trust information they receive from their friends more than information they receive from institutional sources. We know that people are more likely to vote and give money when asked by someone they know.
4. Have fun. People learn more when they have fun. Even if the content is not information rich, fun makes news accessible.
a. Eric Pusey’s liberal-leaning Minnesota political blog, mnblue, for instance, tracks the moves of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman on a “Weasel Meter.”
b. Fun is how people use news. Within days of the New York Times breaking the story about Eliot Spitzer, Facebook has over 100 groups on the New York governor, ranging from supportive to crass: “Elliot Spitzer is my Pimp”; “Gov. Spitzer, We’re Not Mad, Just Disappointed”; and “Spitzer Swallow Mr. Governor?”
I didn’t just pull these out of thin air. They each correspond to one of the four audience needs that have been consistently found in uses & gratifications research, as Clyde Bentley outlines in the paper he presented for the conference.
1. Creating an infrastructure for volunteer journalists helps your audience give and receive relevant and complete information.
2. Recognizing your volunteers satisfies their need for personal identity.
3. Helping volunteers recruit other volunteers satisfies a need for integration and social interaction.
4. Entertainment is, well, entertainment.
To an audience of journalists – people who have strived to maintain a non-partisan stance in their professional code of ethics – the suggestion that we study campaigns for lessons on how to engage with amateur journalists may be uncomfortable if not appalling. But to think that professional journalists are not already engaged in a political campaign is to have your head buried in the sand.
A Call for Authentic Leadership From Journalists
We believe in competition and consumer choice. We invented the “man on the street” interview to help give voice to the voiceless. But as long as we continue to endorse these values, more voices will mean more competition. And when consumers make their news and information choices, they are voting for us less and less often. Despite everything that we’ve done for democracy, we are campaigning in an anti-incumbent environment.
I’ll continue the analogy of the political campaign by saying that I believe the interaction between professional journalists and citizen journalists is a representative democracy. We aren’t living in a dictatorship in which professional journalists can exercise their craft without the consent of the audience. But neither are we living in a direct democracy in which every individual will do his or her own reporting.
Even as media becomes more democratic and we see a rise in amateur reporting, professional reporting remains important. It is not efficient for every citizen reporter to attend the city council meeting and blog about it. Even if they have the ability to publish, they will cede some of their rights and responsibilities to a representative reporter so they can pursue a more lucrative or gratifying use of their time. But, though they’ve ceded this duty, they expect to be consulted at appropriate intervals. We are entering an era in which an increasing amount of the journalist’s power derives from an active — if sometimes uninformed — audience.
We are campaigning, whether we like it or not. And we’re not just running against ourselves in a vote of no confidence. We’re running against real competition. If we don’t help citizens “articulate, channel and organize” information, political campaigns will.
And what this neo-Jacksonian media market needs is what any representative democracy needs – it needs authentic leadership, and journalists need to provide it. That’s a concept with which many journalists may be uncomfortable and it’s the topic for another conference.
The future of democratic institutions is not inevitable. Whether citizen journalists coalesce around non-partisan journalists or campaigns or (as has been the case more often than not) partisan journalists like Joshua Micha Marshall and his Talking Points Memo, each of these outcomes will give American democracy a different flavor. We can argue about which flavor is better, but we cannot argue that partisanship and non-partisanship are not different flavors.
As we watch what is happening to amateur political journalists in less democratic countries, how can we not embrace the spirit citizen journalism and how can we not resolve to foster the best of its potential?
In Malaysia, a blogger was elected to parliament this year. In South Korea, citizen journalism has changed the course of two presidential careers. In Egypt, a UC Berkeley student studying journalists’ use of new media tools is arrested for photographing a labor rally and reports his arrest via Twitter. In Jordan, Queen Rania is answering questions on YouTube later this summer. And in our own country, ColorOfChange.org brought national media attention to the Jena 6 and is quickly challenging the NAACP in membership.
How can we not embrace these people that share our values – these people who also believe that journalism can DO something — hold powerful people accountable, clearly explain an increasingly complex world, give voice to the voiceless, make people safe, keep them healthy, save them money.
We should neither abhor nor promote amateur journalism for the sake of protecting journalism. We should come to whatever opinion we have about it because we believe it is the best for democracy and capitalism. I, for one, believe we must foster it and LEAD it for the benefit of democracy at home and abroad.
The debate about the definitions of journalism and journalists are a waste of time. We should replace it with an attempt to define what authentic leadership of a democratic press can and should be.
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