Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Case for Citizen Media

Journalism is a porous occupation. There is no licensure, and though there are schools of journalism, they need not be accredited, it is not required that the occupational group sanction them, and it is common for news organizations to hire individuals without journalism degrees. Professional organizations such as the International Federation of Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Radio and Television News Directors Association, among others, have laid down formal principles of ethical conduct, but such groups lack formal power to sanction members who violate their principles
(Professor Wilson Lowrey, University of Alabama)

In her book "Blogging", Jill Walker Rettberg notes that there are different ways in which blogging overlaps with traditional journalist. Bloggers may report and comment on mainstream media, and bloggers may also "give first-hand reports from ongoing events".(1)

It is in the latter sphere that "Citizen Media", as bloggers are popularly called, have locally found potential conflicts over reporting from meetings where they wanted to video events, as with either Scrutiny meetings, or with the Hustings at Elections.

Journalists, as Wilson Lowrey points out in his article "Mapping the Journalism - Blogger relationship" often want jurisdiction over these kind of domains, and a special privileges to report them:

Conflict is likely to continue because bloggers and journalists stake out much of the same turf. Each claims some jurisdiction over the tasks of selecting events and issues for audience attention, commenting on these issues, and, to a lesser degree, gathering information for reports.(2)

He notes that this has led to attempts to differentiate between the "amateur blogger" and the "professional journalist", but apart from the fact that one is doing it for free, and the other is being paid, it is extremely difficult to find any cast-iron criteria:

To map out areas of vulnerability and confrontation, blogging and journalism must be conceptually differentiated. The search for a fundamental difference reveals a number of possibilities, most of which have been discussed by media observers. For various reasons, none quite hit the mark.

There are, he notes, the "traditional" values of journalism are accuracy, fairness, and objectivity (International Federation of Journalists, 1986; Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001; McQuail, 2000; Society of Professional Journalists, 1996). But he points out that, far from being "traditional", these evolved as a defense against the challenge to journalists by politicians, corporations, and others.

It was because they served the news organisation, and protected it from criticism, that these values came to be accepted; any consideration of history shows that quite different standards were acceptable in the past. Locally, in the 1948 elections, the Jersey Evening Post abandoned all pretense at impartiality, and gave its readers the names of people whom they urged them to vote for, and this was not differentiated as editorial comment, but incorporated seamlessly into the same pages reporting on the election hustings. Nowadays, that kind of behaviour only occurs in the partisan "Sark News", because the "traditional values" have in fact changed.

A printed paper is also, by itself, not a guarantee of journalism. As the Guardian reports:

In America major newspapers including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor have gone web-only, while in Britain, Maxim and the Ecologist are among the magazines that have followed the trend. (3)

So what about the distinction between payment and non-payment? Lowry observes that, even here, the boundaries are starting to become more blurred, with blogging becoming a means of raising revenue.

Journalists benefit from their organizations' physical capital in the form of pay and benefits. Most bloggers are not paid for their efforts, and they therefore lack this incentive for the grittier, less glamorous aspects of news work, such as tracking down sources, and attending local government meetings. Lack of pay and benefits also prevents bloggers from attending to these efforts on a full-time basis. Thus bloggers are dependent on mainstream news media for original reporting, a situation that strengthens the position of mainstream journalism. This could be changing, as advertising and corporate money gifts in exchange for mentions in postings are becoming more common. (2)

Of course, it is noteworthy in Jersey that some of the bloggers who attend political meetings are not working, because of retirement or infirmity, and can therefore devote their time to the "less glamorous aspect" of attending meetings and recording them.

This brings me neatly to several advantages that bloggers have over journalists. In their study on "Blogs in Campaign Communication", Gracie Lawson-Borders and Rita Kirk note that:

Freed from the economic pressures, bloggers opened doors and created pockets of public opinion that pressured the mainstream into assessing the validity of stories the dominant parties and candidates might be tempted to suppress. (3)

Journalists, as they point out, have commercial pressures which may lead them to avoid certain stories, or leave aside stories that will sell less newspapers. The bottom line is the advertiser and the newspaper buyer, and this leads to more headline grabbing news, which is soon forgotten once it ceases to be "newsworthy" - in other words, no longer something that would cause people to buy papers, and hence advertisers to want to advertise in them. As Lowrey notes:

Though organizational structure offers benefits, there are drawbacks. Being housed in an organization means journalists must compromise professional values so as to move in directions that enable organizational survival or ensure corporate profit. For journalists this may mean adopting a marketing or entertainment orientation at the expense of serving the public through in-depth and meaningful coverage and opinion (Beam, 1990; McManus, 1994).

This has led, over time, to a much less diverse kind of journalism. One has only to look at the journalism of the Victorian era, for example, or even the time before the Second World War, to see how diverse and iconoclastic the reporting could be in newspapers, periodicals, gazettes.

Some, like Hilaire Belloc, or the Chestertons, would begin writing for publications, and then found their own ("The Eye Witness"); others, like W.T. Stead, would pioneer radical new kinds of journalism - the interview (with his ground-breaking interview of General Gordon). It is interesting that some local blogs have been running quite interesting and wide ranging interviews, such as the recent series on faith and politics, and also noteworthy that they have been scrupulously fair in letting the participants get over their point of view, and not using it as a platform for cheap polemic.

For all the history made by newspapers between 1960 and 2000, the profession was also busy contracting, standardizing, and homogenizing. Most cities now have their monopolist daily, their alt weekly or two, their business journal. Journalism is done a certain way, by a certain kind of people. Bloggers are basically oblivious to such traditions, so reading the best of them is like receiving a bracing slap in the face. It's a reminder that America is far more diverse and iconoclastic than its newsrooms. (Welch, 2003)

This too, is the case with Jersey, where local bloggers have appeared with cameras and the politicians are uncertain as to how what is recorded is going to be controlled. There has been a always a criticism that the blogger may "door-stop" a politician, and indeed I remember this happening in the Royal Square, with (if I remember correctly), William Bailhache. And equally, a clip of one of the election candidates who didn't want to be interviewed had a criticism of him that was not there on other candidates.

But that doesn't mean that the accredited media are above "door-stopping". BBC programmes such as "Watchdog" and "Panorama" are plentiful with examples of a far more aggressive interview technique, and no one (apart from the recipient) floods the BBC with complaints. And I also remember Channel Television taking time to door-stop a rather inebriated politician (in fact outside his front door!) on a disappointing Senatorial election night, and broadcasting his words on their website for all and sundry to observe. Objectivity, anyone?

What is clear with the demands to only open up debate to "accredited journalists" (which is in fact a misnomer, as there is no set form of accreditation) is a desire to channel debate and broadcast news into a much more constrained framework. And whereas Channel Television, for example, may only broadcast 2 minutes of a meeting (be it scrutiny or hustings), the blogger has the advantage of widening the amount of material broadcast, and give longer interviews, which can be viewed again - which means politicians, used to the usually ephemeral nature of most reporting, need to be more careful with what they say.

The demands and constraints of routinized production mean journalists must typify some events as news and ignore others. Tuchman (1978) says journalists use a 'news net', which allows small stories through but which catches big ones. (2)

What of the future? Either bloggers need to have a code of conduct to follow to ensure that they indeed follow the values of accuracy and fairness, or they can simply be excluded. But I suspect that if the latter course of action prevails now, there will come a time when change will be forced upon the States, and exclusion is a failure to engage with the emerging culture, and instead is a strategy of taking refuge inside a castle, pulling up the drawbridge, and indulging in a wishful fantasy that matters can remain as they have ever been.

Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea about my blog, I do not regard myself as "citizen media", or any kind of journalist. I am just a commentator, musing on the world.

(1) "Blogging", Jill Walker Rettberg, 2009
(2) "Mapping the Journalism - Blogger relationship", W. Lowrey, Journalism, 2006, Vol 6
(4) "Blogs in Campaign Communication", Gracie Lawson-Borders and Rita KirkAmerican Behavioral Scientist 2005, vol 49


voiceforchildren said...


Once more a very informative and well researched Blog posting. I will comment more tomorrow when I have more time and in particular the subject of "door stepping"

I had to laugh at this from the Blog though.

"Thus bloggers are dependent on mainstream news media for original reporting, a situation that strengthens the position of mainstream journalism"

Only in Jersey it would be the other way round if the "accredited" media dare to try and hold our establishment to account, or challenge them.

I have just published a Blog that touches on this subject.

Case Closed?

Anonymous said...

Journalists and others have to use the available technology but one benefit of printed on paper publications is that they are simple to produce and store.
Archiving is a worrying aspect of electronic systems because we have so little personal control if the machines become obsolete.

For all its faults, the JEP does provide a simple to access archive of our history over the past century. Shall we be able to access this blog in 100 years time?

Where else shall the births, marriages and deaths be recorded in context and all the other title tattle of daily life - not to mention the adverts, house prices, etc etc.

Of course, alternative ways can be created but the fact is that "traditional" words and pictures on paper survive already from many centuries ago and can still be easily accessed.

Google is doing great things putting the archives of the world on the NET - but to access this requires an enormous financial and technological commitment.
We can keep our favourite books on a bookshelf in our own home but we lose any control just as soon as we send the information down the wire or into space.

Somehow traditional newspapers must be encouraged to survive because they are an integral part of our society structure but of course, they have to learn to compete with bloggers et al - not seek to eliminate them through discriminatory legislation like Proposition 100.

There is no such thing as an accredited journalist now.

TonyTheProf said...

A pertinent observation - the early post-war census, when they started using punch cards and a programme to collate the data, will never be available.

There are no ledgers summaries and the raw forms are destroyed, and the punch cards now have no mainframes or software capable of running them.

The Guardian (2002) reports:

It was meant to be a showcase for Britain's electronic prowess - a computer-based, multimedia version of the Domesday Book. But 16 years after it was created, the £2.5 million BBC Domesday Project has achieved an unexpected and unwelcome status: it is now unreadable.
The special computers developed to play the 12in video discs of text, photographs, maps and archive footage of British life are - quite simply - obsolete.

As a result, no one can access the reams of project information - equivalent to several sets of encyclopaedias - that were assembled about the state of the nation in 1986. By contrast, the original Domesday Book - an inventory of eleventh-century England compiled in 1086 by Norman monks - is in fine condition in the Public Record Office, Kew, and can be accessed by anyone who can read and has the right credentials. 'It is ironic, but the 15-year-old version is unreadable, while the ancient one is still perfectly usable,' said computer expert Paul Wheatley. 'We're lucky Shakespeare didn't write on an old PC.'

Nor is the problem a new one. A crisis in digital preservation now afflicts all developed countries. Databases recorded in old computer formats can no longer be accessed on new generation machines, while magnetic storage tapes and discs have physically decayed, ruining precious databases.