Citizen Journalists at the Gates

For a profession where the practioners’ names are connected to every story, journalism is a bed of insecurity stuffed with pathos, where journalists bemoan their lot in life as if the act was as essential as breathing. Forget that a journalist’s job is so important that it is written into the U.S. Constitution, the question still comes up at every family gathering: “So, it would have killed you to go to medical school?”

The truth is you don’t need any formal training to be a journalist. You don’t need a degree, you don’t need a membership card and you don’t need to learn to play golf. All you need are curiosity, skepticism, and the means to communicate. Not only does it take more training to become of plumber, it pays better, too.

I went to journalism school and I believe that anyone who wants to pursue a career in journalism should have some level of formal training. But that’s not to dismiss the majority of working journalists who do not have journalism degrees or formal training (read Leonard Witt’s post for details), or the hundreds if not thousands of ‘citizen journalists” who are trying to find their way and contribute to the conversation of news.

It is this lack of official sanction that causes some professionals to deride and dismiss citizen journalists as purveyors of rumor – amateur scribes steeped in ignorance who lack the skills or will to play in the big leagues. Every person with a blog is a threat not only to truth and civility, they believe, but to their very livelihoods.

“Less Journalism,” More “Raw Material”
Witt wrote about one such journalist, Columbia University professor and author Samuel Freedman. In a column published on CBS News’ Public Eye blog, Freedman said:

“However wrapped in idealism, citizen journalism forms part of a larger attempt to degrade, even to disenfranchise journalism as practiced by trained professionals.” He added: “I appreciate the access that citizen journalism provides to first-hand accounts of major events. Yet I recognize those accounts are less journalism than the raw material, generated by amateurs, that a trained, skilled journalist should know how to weigh, analyze, describe, and explain.”

This is how much I respect Sam Freedman – he teaches at Columbia University and I went to the University of Missouri, and I still like him. Freedman is well meaning and, like me, believes we need to train journalists in the fundamentals and teach them to use their Constitutional freedom to question, before that freedom atrophies like an unused muscle.

Nevertheless, methinks the professor doth protest too much. News doesn’t belong to the professionals anymore; it belongs to all of us because we all can create, comment and share the news. Smart news organizations like the Washington Post recognize this and include bloggers in the conversation. There is no finished product without the raw material, and if that means sometimes seeing how the sausage is made then so be it. This is something to be embraced, not feared.

Opening the Gates
And, by the way, it also works. MyMissourian, a citizen journalism site run by the University of Missouri journalism school, is testament to the “sharing the news” philosophy.

“What happens is, well, they write,” said Clyde Bentley, Missouri journalism professor and MyMissourian founder, in a speech last year. “And they write about controversial things and they write about very nice things. We have a religion section that has some really great things by our local group of pagans, and we have some really great recipes and stuff. But they write and they write and they write. And that’s fine. That’s what we want. We’ve got all the room in the world.

“We’re getting into this whole idea of participating — the idea of journalism; of sharing. It’s a new concept for us, but we think it’s going to work.”

Witt is correct when he says “…rather than worry that citizen journalists might tarnish the profession, open the gates instead. Search for the very best talent in the blogging, citizen journalism movement and invite them into the party.”

Yes, open the gates. The ones who are unkind or unruly will be asked to leave, and the rest will learn from each other, from pros and from amateurs, until there is no longer a distinction between the two.

There will just be citizens and journalists, one and the same.

3 thoughts on “Citizen Journalists at the Gates

  1. I was just talking to a colleague who is a freelance journalist about this very subject. She’s just been asked to go and teach a non-journalists ‘the basics’ of copywriting, layout, editing etc and was a bit cheesed off at the suggestion that her profession is something that could be taught in an afternoon.
    Having edited a number of publications that rely on the contributions of amateurs as well as professionals I can see where she’s coming from. I’m all for everyone being invited to the party but I think that inevitably the quality writing will stand above the rest and speak for itself. The interesting thing is when the opportunities (via technology, blogging etc) allow right place, right time reporting (the London tube bombings last year or the Tsunami footage for example).
    I think we’ll see a shift towards everyone having the opportunity to contribute (albeit unchecked) but preferred and recognised sources being the ones to flourish.

  2. Sam, thanks for sharing that story and for your unique insight. I agree the best content will rise to the top (and should) — not everyone makes it to the “big leagues,” but modern technology has given us a great “farm system” where anyone who want to can try out for a spot on the team.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: