Citizen Journalism:
A Recipe for Disaster
December 2009

by Ron Steinman

There is something wrong in how some in journalism currently view the profession. Thousands of professional journalists are out of work. More join the unemployment lines every day. Yet, I see many in journalism moving steadily toward using citizen journalism as if it is the answer to the future of our profession. For starters, citizen journalists will not save journalism. I can understand startups on the Web wanting to change how journalism works. The desire to succeed in a new world is intense. Because of the economy and the changes in journalism, there is no guarantee anything on the Web will succeed. Threats from outside the profession are expected. However, it is the establishment which has me worried. It is one thing to face intimidation from within. It is another when journalism turns on its own and starts to eat itself.

As professional journalists, we have a growing problem with the recent emphasis on citizen journalism as advocated by a diverse group of organizations. One is The Huffington Post, a danger to the profession in its pursuit to make over journalism to fit its own philosophy of paying its contributors nothing. Free is good except if you have to earn a living. Along with its professional contributors, The Huffington Post has what it calls "Our Citizen Journalism Project." The site thinks that using ordinary citizens to collect news is good for journalism. I do not. For more of what The Huffington Post is trying to do, go to the article in question. Judge for yourself.

Knight Digital Media Center at the University of Southern California takes a view that is unexpected because its stand on the state of journalism is usually high-toned. In some ways, this is more troubling than what The Huffington Post is doing. With its latest set of what it calls "Five Tips for Training Citizen Journalists," Knight has the audacity to present the world with a plan to make citizen journalists into what it assumes will be the real thing. Training amateurs to become professional journalists is not the answer for the future. See it under the heading of "Five Tips for Training Citizen Journalists."

I am not done. Recently it got worse. The New York Times says, "YouTube has signed NPR, Politico, The Huffington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle for YouTube Direct, a new way to manage open submissions from readers." By going with YouTube, a media company, if it wants, can make use of clips from anyone who chooses to post on the massive, unwieldy site. Google, who we should not forget owns YouTube, hopes that this way it can foster the use of citizen "reporters" by making what they write and shoot on video and with stills more widely available. It is obviously Google's way of saying to everyone in media that we are your friend, not your enemy, but you make the final choice of what you use or not. Yes, a publication interested in a story has the right to reject anything that comes its way. I worry about inevitable slippage and the loss of power held by gatekeepers as they rush to judgment in the Wild West of the Internet. Editors are human. They can get sloppy in the pursuit of the now over the thoughtful especially if pushed by their bosses. Shortly, I discuss the danger we face if gatekeepers lose their say in helping organize news. One more note. Just because you invite users to participate, as NPR plans on a science project, it does not mean these folks are automatically journalists. I hope that NPR intends to post what it gets after careful vetting. Unless it and any other participant in this new venture post with the necessary intrusion of editing, this whole thing strikes me as pandering of the worst sort to the populace. We now await the false, the fabricated and the tainted to roil small screens everywhere. Professionals and readers better duck for cover in anticipated doom by this latest attack of the amateur in the guise of saving money at the expense of quality.

I think it was new-media critic Dan Gillmor who coined the phrase "almost journalist." If he did, we should raise a loud cheer. Gillmor clearly defines what others have been designating as journalists who, for me, are citizens first and journalists second. No matter what the amateurs among us contend it does take training, guidance and experience to qualify as a working journalist. That does not happen overnight. Not everyone who tries succeeds. I prefer to call those who think they are citizen journalists "accidental journalists," especially those who are faux photojournalists because they happen to get a useful photo by being in the right place at the right time. Apologists for citizen journalists should think twice before anointing them the rescuers of mainstream media. Most who aspire to be journalists are untrained. They work by the seat of their pants, usually with nary a day in the field, never having covered a breaking story.

The gathering and presentation of news cannot live on desire alone. It cannot go forward without money and lots of it. It takes time and dedication to keep people informed. Journalists need training to succeed. Without training, and the high standards that training brings, something that the supporters of citizen journalism decry as hoary, there would be no journalism at all. In the end, someone has to pay the professionals for the work they do. Covering the garden club for the local weekly newspaper hardly qualifies that person as a journalist. Once we train citizen journalists in the mysteries of the craft, are they members of the club? Do they want to be in the club or do they relish their outsider status?

For all the hype, using citizen journalists is an excuse by the bean counters at publications to lower costs. By putting costs over content, the accountants lower standards. This saves an enormous amount of money it would have to spend on those who normally collect news. In reality, accountants really do not know better. In some ways, they are not to blame. In my experience, accountants and business managers never understood what we went through to get a story on TV. To expect an accountant to know and appreciate what a field producer does, what a one-man band or a two-person crew does, what the editor does, what the host of other people do to get a story on the air is too much to ask.

Photographers are especially hard hit because editors, and I use this word loosely, seem to think that anyone with a camera can give them what the trained professional with years of experience and sacrifice almost guarantees every time he or she covers a story. Given an inch, those who control the money will take a mile. That makes it doubly hard to produce news that is fit to print.

Gatekeepers in journalism are also under attack by those who have nothing to do with journalism. These people believe they are capable of deciding what is news. The gatekeeper's job is to impose standards that make for good journalism. I know that many who attack the mainstream scoff at the gatekeeper concept. They believe that good, accurate and true journalism will find its own level without interference. Those people live in a dream world. Gatekeepers are our many valued editors. They do not always succeed. They do not always satisfy everyone they edit. This does not mean we should eliminate them. They serve an important function of holding up a stop sign when needed. They ask questions. They get answers. They often make the unreadable readable. Newspapers, broadcasting and all mainstream media must reach into the soul of the reader or viewer if they want to be successful. Mainstream media must do this with strong storytelling that is not overly long, that is pithy, but uncompromising in detail and depth. These methods will work equally well with new media. That is a tall order, but it should be one all journalists aspire to. Today the audience is often outraged about the media and what it thinks mainstream stands for. Mainstream media has its faults, especially that it has in the past distanced itself from its readers. If we are not careful, age-old standards that still apply will be lost forever. Citizen journalists, though not my answer to the future, but eager to fill the gap, will jump in. The template for news will change for the worse. The idea that citizen journalists can provide accountability in reporting is farfetched.

The opportunity is now for a period of adjustment, not a fundamental change. It is very easy to tar everything with the same brush and equally easy to whitewash every fault. It is more difficult to make what we have work within an existing framework that has some give.

With this in mind, these newfangled pseudo-journalists with the lofty appellation of "citizen" attached to his or her name will surely start believing, if they do not already, that they are above the time-tested values that govern real journalism. Yes, there are values and there are methods that exist despite what some uneducated and self-centered bloggers may think. Do not be fooled by the occasional success of a citizen journalist. Everyone gets lucky now and then. If there were more successes there would be louder trumpeting by its proponents.

If we turn to the uneducated and the wannabes for the future of journalism, journalism is in even greater a crisis than I now imagine. Before we throw the professionals overboard, let us first find ways to put out-of-work journalists, and those with not enough work, back in the harness. It is important that we defeat what appears to be a land grab by citizen journalists and blind accountants, or what they really are: untutored amateurs, the almost journalists of our modern age. And, by the way, just when we really need the professionals to help us understand the world we inhabit.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks on SCRIBD.

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