Journalists and Citizens

First published: June 25, 2006

Within the Journalist’s Creed, written in the early part of the 20th century by Walter William, founder of the first journalism school in North America in 1908, a clear picture of the efforts to professionalize journalism are laid bare: journalism as a public trust; journalism as a public service; accuracy; fairness; clarity; truth; openness; beholden to no one; respectful of the audience; takes no sides; and is a major social force in joining humanity.

The powerful, moving language is inspirational while representing a very clear statement, in a historic context, of the role of a journalist. Much has changed since those words were first crafted, as journalism lost the trust and credibility William described as being fundamental. Eighty-years after the creed first laid down its commitment to public service, journalism scholars sought to win back some of the shine that was tarnished over the years as citizens became disillusioned by the news media and civic institutions. Rosen, Merritt and Batten sought to rediscover the public service roots lost over the years through the formation of civic journalism in the late 1980s and public journalism nearly a decade later. The movement has proceeded in three waves: the first was focused on election coverage in an effort to re-energized voter involvement; the second broadened extended the principles further to include many social ills and include citizens in the process of resolving these problems through journalism and facilitated action by the community; and, finally, the most recent wave, which involves a large focus on technology under the name of citizen journalism, grassroots journalism, participatory journalism, open source journalism, among others. It is this most recent incarnation that will be the subject of this paper and its implications for e-journalism.

The multiplicity of names is a quick indication of the dynamic nature of the third wave, which has been gaining popularity amongst scholars, journalists and newsrooms around the world in the past six years, but has gained massive appeal in North America in the past two years as a solution to the spiraling crisis in journalism as public trust and credibility plummet. If public journalism sought to reignite the relationship between citizens and media, at the same time strengthening democratic life and reinvigorate journalism, citizen journalism is attempting to breach the walls by completely redesigning the role, function and place of journalists.

To understand this evolution (a favourite metaphor used by authors on the subject talk about the news ecosystem), it is necessary to step back and examine the identity of journalists and the ideology that drives them to do journalism some 100 years after William’s journalist creed set the standard. If an effort to provide some insight, Deuze looks at the impact of technology and multiculturalism on journalism as a means of conceptualizing what it is journalists do. Journalism, as a profession, can be viewed as a system of beliefs allowing a group of people to process and produce meaning and ideas. While studies have found there is no universal statement, there is a occupational ideology shared by newsworkers as concepts, values and elements: public service; objectivity, autonomy, immediacy; and ethics. The power in this context is expressed by those who exercise the ability to define what “real” journalism is and this is articulated in the mainstream in debates about journalistic quality. Deuze is critical of public journalism arguing that while it endorses a more responsive attitude toward publics, the ideological values continue to serve the status quo while practitioners adapt to change in the media culture.

Technology, in particular the Internet, represents the greatest challenge to the ideology as it challenges the areas of control and transparency, according to Deuze. It removes the primacy of authority over the news agenda and the storytelling experience from the hands of professionals in favour of more responsible, interactive and inclusive journalistic practices. This reflect the development of collaborative creation of news online as described by Bruns and others, where people both inside and outside journalism monitor, check, criticize and even intervene in process. This reflects the complex and liquid quality of modern society, an age where individualization, audience fragmentation, dwindling attention spans are hallmarks, Deuze says.

In a damning critique of the traditional journalism ideology, Deuze says the notion of working truthfully as a watchdog for the good of society and enabling citizens to be self-governing is naïve. These principles must be replaced by the more holistic view as he presents, where journalism is less objective and more multiperspectival. Journalism is done in a more collaborative manner both inside and outside the newsroom. Immediacy is replaced by depth, inclusiveness and a reduced sense of speed. Ethics is less moralistic and now sensitive to cultural complexities and the medium-term particulars of each scenario.

For proponents of citizen journalism, Deuze paves the way for a new paradigm, creating the new news ecosystem involving collaborative efforts between the public and journalists online and in traditional forms. This shared creation of journalism centres around the metaphor of conversation, as proponents try to bridge the gap between the gatekeeping, agenda-setting model and the every-chef-in-the-kitchen model, which attacks the William’s creed head on. Gilmour’s famous discovery that the people who live in our community know more than journalists is utopian, but at the centre of his conviction to formulate We-media as a journalistic approach. He envisions a world where citizens do research, interviews, verification, production, editing and commentary alongside newsroom professionals. Bowman and Willis, two other grassroots journalism proponents take a more McLuanesque tangent saying anyone can be a publisher online. With easy to use open source software, a greater demand for information and a rising economy online, mainstream media is under siege. The hegemonic relationships between journalists and society are falling and failing as symbiotic relationship between citizen media and the mainstream forms. The audience does reporting, provides eyewitness accounts, annotative reports, commentary, analysis, watchdogging and fact checking.

A new system for media is created, where democratization and collaboration are hallmarks and where there is little standing in the way of a complete revolution. Citizen media will not be the end of journalism, but a shift where value is created through participation and nurturing communities, both online and offline.

The showpiece for citizen journalism is OhMyNews, a Korean website created in 2000 by Oh Yeon Ho in an effort to counterbalance the conservative traditional media in his country. Since then more than 40,000 people, from housewives to professional writers have submitted news. The service provides professional assistance to its contributors, who can write about anything and usually get it published (about 30 per cent are not posted). There are a rash of imitators as other news organizations attempt to join the phenomenal success of OhMyNews, but the largest endorsement of this form of journalism is currently being undertaken by BBC World News Online. Since the terrorist bombing in the London subway a year ago, the public broadcaster has made massive overhauls to its online news and information web site. It now accepts contributions from people and uses them in their broadcasts (numerous news organizations are doing the same). But, it goes beyond this through its Digital Storytelling project, where it teaches people to use technical tools, either through training onsite or at the head office. It has created a community television channel where ultralocal content broadcasts this exclusively citizen-created media. It has also created Digital Communities, where bloggers from 17 to 70 write about their lives. Finally, it has extended this initiative directly into the political forum through its Action Network Solutions, where it helps people become more involved in community and assists in developing civic literacy by educating people and posting local information and specific community issues to a web site.

It would appear this tidal wave sweeping the shores of traditional journalism is too large to stop. Surely, these average people cannot be journalists. The Apple case in California, where Apple Computer sued a blogger in 2004 for leaking details about the company’s new products to online sites, set a significant precedent in the courts in defining who is a journalist. The courts recognized the notion of journalist is more complicated by the variety of media. The computer company lost and the blogger were spared. But it meant journalists were no longer protected by their status alone, since anyone could now function as a journalist if they were gathering information and disseminating it widely to the public. The historic definition of a journalist, based on employment or association is not good enough anymore. Also, the consideration of a type of Cartesian definition (I think or say I am a journalists; therefore, I am a journalist, as Woo puts it) is unviable. To qualify for protection, an individual merely needs to demonstrate there is a story or series of stories being pursued and it the work is aimed at an audience and there is some sense of public benefit, according to Woo.

“At its core, the functional definition of journalism is much like the functional definition of a duck. If it looks like journalism, acts like journalism, and produces the work of journalism, then it’s journalism. And the people doing it are journalists. Whoever they are.”

But not everyone is embracing citizen media. Minnesota Public Radio is undertaking a form of journalism closer to public journalism’s aspirations, where the audience works much more closely with journalists and newsrooms. Known as public insight journalism, the station has developed a database of more than 12,000 community-based sources that share their expertise and experience with journalist on a wide array of stories. Here, the audience guides the process through regular contact and journalists dip into the pool of knowledge when seeking information from non-institutional resources. The community responds positively both as contributors and consumers.

Like Safran, who believes the term citizen is a self-congratulatory and smug terminology, the idea that bloggers and citizen will rise up and make mainstream media obsolete is naïve. He supports the idea journalism is about a conversation, but not 1,000 people shouting at once. He also believes journalism must be mediated by editors or else it is useless. Still these and other criticisms are being drowned out by the enthusiastic cheerleaders of citizen journalism (or whatever term is currently vogue).

To borrow Woo’s quote, when a person becomes a duck, they are no longer a frog. You cannot have frog-ducks. The same is true of journalism. Once someone become a practioner of journalism, following tenants and practices of a journalists, they cease to be a citizen. To this extent, there become some serious concerns about why proponents of these new forms wish to create nomenclature that undermines journalism and journalists.

Without trivializing the thought, the post-9/11 consciousness in America is a factor, since a general sense of uneasiness and fear are predominant. Journalism has not escaped this dread and manifest it through an obsession with regaining public trust and credibility. While it may appear to be driven by higher ideals, political-economic reasons are the engine of change. As media owners seek to maintain profits and control, the new media environment is destabilizing the old models. Here, Bowman and Willis are correct, as revenue sources evaporate into the Internet economy. {Bowman, 2005 #6}Classified advertising, once a bedrock of any news organization, is being eaten away by eBay, Craiglist, Monster and other auction-type web sites. Advertiser no longer need large display advertisements to sell to local consumers when a web site will offer products to global markets. How, then, does a publisher continue to provide a sustained return on investment to shareholders. If not through the reduction of operating costs? Journalists and the quality of content are the first to be hammered. Why use journalists, when anyone can create content? Publishing ventures like the Northwest News, in Bakersfield, California, are heralded by both journalists and publishers. Here citizen submit stories and photos to a website. These are edited and posted, with a weekly hard copy printed and distributed with advertising. It is financially successful and celebrated by citizen media advocates.

This kind of criticism cannot be viewed as protecting existing hegemonic relationships; nor, is it entrenched protectionism expressed as nostalgia for a bygone era. Instead, emerging technologies marrying journalism provides incredible opportunities to express the highest aspirations of the profession. A liberal approach, rather than a radical overhaul is necessary to ensure journalists and the audiences they serve retain the integrity and goals that make up journalism.

It may be a worthy exercise to explore this further, using a number of tools in the areas of journalism theory, communication theory and cultural studies. Rather than jump headlong into trying to bury traditional journalism functions and value systems, these should be reinforced and to do this Kovach and Rosenstiel are valuable allies, among others. Their work traces back important historic values and brings them into the modern context without ignoring its significance. Understanding the role of identity also needs further investigation. How do journalists perceive themselves and how does society view them? From here, it is necessary to define e-journalism and how it will work as a third way between traditionalists and radicals seeking to take journalism to its next evolutionary step.

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