Citizens Breaking News

Citizen journalism is a sticky subject, when you speak to individuals who have studied journalism there is a tendency to have a sense of hostility toward citizen journalists. Citizen journalists are viewed as useful, but also as outsiders because they lack formal training or exposure to the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics. They are private citizens that predominately write online and they tend to get picked on by the mainstream media because they are seen as lesser journalists.

Despite this hostility, citizen journalists are just as capable of breaking big stories as any other journalist. Mayhill Fowler is a citizen journalist that broke two major stories during the 2008 campaign trail for the Huffington Post. She wrote about elitist comments Obama made at a closed event and snagged a fantastic rant from Bill Clinton where Clinton spewed vitriol about a Vanity Fair writer, Todd Purdum. Fowler would not have been able to get either of these stories if she wasn’t a citizen journalist. She was able to get the Obama quote because she was at an event for Obama supporters and was in attendance as a donor to his campaign. She was able to get the Clinton rant on tape because he just assumed she was a Clinton supporter and was being open and conversational with her.

Fowler managed to break these huge stories because she didn’t have major press credentials, because she was seen as a citizen and not as a threatening reporter. She was able to slip in and get the stories because she wasn’t viewed as a professional journalist.

Objectivity Vs. Transparency

Let me begin by making my opinion known – I don’t think a journalist can ever be 100 percent objective when they are reporting on an issue, they can be balanced and they can be transparent, but they cannot be completely objective. (<– Oh look an example of transparency)

As a journalism student I have had it drilled into my head a thousand times over that a good journalist must write objectively. The problem with this is that people have opinions and journalists as people (I know, weird right?) are going to have a certain perspective on whatever they’re reporting on. That’s not to say they can’t craft a balanced story, but presenting all of the arguments in a story is not going to make the article objective. It makes it balanced. I believe that if a story is balanced and the journalist is transparent with their opinions about the issue they are reporting on then their work is acceptable. It’s not realistic to believe in the traditional echo of objectivity in an age where information is so readily accessible.

According to this article, “transparency is the new objectivity” within journalism. This blogger, suggests that with the rise of the Internet and the usage of links to support different claims that the media’s transparency is becoming more important than their objectivity.

David Carr (a fantastic journalist) wrote an article where he argues that the line between a journalist and an activist is blurred. He makes the point that this blurring is acceptable as long as the journalist is transparent, that they make it crystal clear where they stand with the issue they are reporting on.Carr makes the point that as long as the reporting is working to reveal the truth and as long as the truth is brought to light the reporter’s ideology is not as important.

“Journalists are responsible for following the truth wherever it may guide them. Both Ms. Gibson and Mr. Greenwald said that they would quickly follow the Snowden story even if it led to something that questioned his motives or diminished his credibility. But I do think that activism — which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery — can also impair vision. If an agenda is in play and momentum is at work, cracks may go unexplored.” So what really should be asked here is: can the journalistic activists report the truth even if it negatively impacts their cause?

Who defines the media

With the rise of the internet and the blogosphere how can we determine who is and isn’t a journalist? Should every person clickity clacking away on a keyboard be given press credentials?

In 2008 Oregon sought to create parameters for who is considered to be a member of the media after the Lake Oswego City Council refused to admit a local blogger to their executive proceedings. Blogger, Mark Bunster’s story kicked up a controversy on what was considered to be journalism.

According to The Oregonian article, Lake Oswego was looking to define media outlets as “institutionalized,” “well-established” and producing at least 25 percent news content. Well look at that! Who determines what is well-established? Does anybody else have that dark tingling of censorship looming over their shoulder?

This definition of course led to a flurry of concern in the journalistic community seeing as the definition was primarily excluding members of independent media and preventing the presence of new media outlets from attending these sessions. If the outlet is brand new how can it gain any level of “established” when the government is trying to block them from covering the news?

In 2010 iMediaEthic’s updated the story by explaining the formal guidelines put in place by Lake Oswego. The article said official media membership was defined as ”

  • A blogger can be included “As long as he is a part of an institution and committed to compliance with the law.”
  • Media is “any organization that has been previously recognized as eligible to attend executive sessions.”
  • Members of two Oregon media organizations — the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association and the Oregon Association of Broadcasters — and the Associated Press are allowed.
  • “Non-traditional media” must pass a “two-part test” including regular publication and institutionalization (defined as having “multiple personnel” and a methodology for corrections)”

According to these guidelines solo bloggers would not be able to attend these proceedings because they fail to meet the “multiple personnel” criteria. It does prompt the question, what is Lake Oswego afraid the media will uncover if they did allow solo bloggers to attend their meetings? Are they afraid that the next John Marshall (the founder of Talking Points Memo, originally a solo blogger operation) is going to unearth an important story about the city? What is going on in Lake Oswego?

Funding the News

The independent media often depends upon financial support from their audience, most independent media outlets will request their viewers to donate money to support different news ventures or they will have a prominent “donate” button on their website. Incorporating the viewers into the financial base of the news outlet not only helps to pay the bills but it also generates a sense of community between the viewer and the outlet. It creates a co-dependent relationship where the viewer depends on the outlet for news and the outlet depends on the viewer for support financially as well as in brand recognition.

Brave New Films called upon their fan base to help them fund “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers” in 2006. Before the film had even been made they called upon their viewers telling them what they wanted to do and requested financial support to fund to project. With their viewers donations they were able to fund the film. Brave New Films then featured all of their donors names in the credits of the film. To further incorporate their supporters with the film, Brave New Film creators call upon their loyal viewers to hold mass viewings and encourage their viewers to set up phone conferences with them to discuss the content of the film in order to spread the story to others.

The problem with financially depending on donations is that if a larger group chooses to donate to the news outlet they could try to add strings to their donated funds, particularly if they act as the primary donor. When that happens the independent media can find itself in a situation that the corporate media knows all too well, that sometimes a story has to be sacrificed in the name of maintaining financial stability. As Jack Shafer argues in his Slate article the non-profit business model isn’t necessarily the best business model. “But before we get out the party hats and noise-makers to celebrate the rise of nonprofit journalism, here’s the bad news. In the current arrangement, we’re substituting one flawed business model for another. For-profit newspapers lose money accidentally. Nonprofit news operations lose money deliberately. No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions.”

So what kind of business model should the media be using for funding?

John Marshall and the Importance of Independent Media

With the expansion of the internet its not surprising that the media is increasingly turning to the web to share information with their readers. With a few clicks of a keyboard readers can access not just stories or video clips from their chosen news outlet but they have access to the information that is conveyed through multiple platforms. They can read a story, but they can also watch a clip about it or they can stumble across an interactive graph that visually explains a data driven element of a story.

As John Marshall pointed out in his keynote address, the internet doesn’t just provide the media with alternative story telling methods, but it also gives the readers an opportunity to help create the story and to actively engage in the news. With the rise of blogs, writers are able to ask their readership for their feedback, ask them for tips or to send them information about something they noticed at a local level that plays into a larger issue.

Marshall argues that the rise in blogs provides a space for collaborative journalism to flourish between the reader and the reporter. This relationship is hugely important for independent media because it makes the news less controlled. Marshall said, “the more voices you have, the more takes on the news, you’re just going to have a more vibrant and diverse news ecosystem – as opposed to having two or three gatekeepers that control the news.” By allowing collaborative journalism to flourish it brings more voices into the mix and in doing that it gives corporate media less power over story telling and the sharing of news.

having two or three gatekeepers that control the news.

Blogging and Revolution

This piece focuses on the role the internet and blogging have played in major revolutionary events. In this New York Times article the journalist, Jennifer Preston takes the time to recognize how social media and blogging aided the growth and the public resistance against the Egyptian government.

The Facebook page, We are Khaled Said brought the attention to issues of police brutality. From there people would post photos and videos Said’s brutal end as well as what his life had been like before he died at the hands of two policemen. The images of what had happened to Said, an ordinary man, made him a symbol. People viewed what had happened to Said and were enraged, the brutality couldn’t go on any longer.

“He is a big part of our revolution,” said Hudaifa Nabawi, a 20-year-old student in Tahrir Square on Saturday. ‘Khalid Said was a special case. He didn’t belong to any faction, and he didn’t do anything wrong. He became the way to focus our perceptions around the oppression that all the youth all face. You can consider him a symbol’.”

Without blogging and social media the issue of police brutality in Egypt may not have been as widely promoted. Blogs about police brutality existed prior to Said’s attack and death but it wasn’t until after his attack was blogged about and posted about that it became a widely discussed issue. Without the outrage over Said’s death, his murders may not have been brought to justice. Without the campaign over Said’s death the issue of police brutality may not have received the international attention it gained. The bloggers proactively used their outrage to gain momentum with Egypt’s revolution.

How do we percieve opinions?

I think the first thing to note with this story is that CNN posted this as an opinion piece. Which brings me to my first point, why didn’t CNN examine the role of WikiLeaks in the Tunisian revolution as a news story? When readers come across opinion pieces they tend to be less interested in reading them and more likely to overlook them because an opinion isn’t news.

The writer of this story isn’t some hack spewing crazy theories, he is a well respected member of a think tank. He has the credentials to be a source on this issue for a story that is perceived as news. In fact Maha Azzam has actually been cited in CNN’s news coverage on Egypt. Unfortunately because the story is an opinion piece CNN’s readers are less likely to be inclined to care much about it because an opinion does not have to be rooted in fact.

Does that make this story any less important? Despite being an opinion piece this story has several links to back up Azzam’s argument, but it doesn’t have any links connected to the statistics or quotes he refers to. So as a reader what are we supposed to believe?