Why citizens need journalists and journalists need citizens

One of the more heated debates surrounding citizen journalism is that professional journalists are becoming irrelevant—as necessary as rotary phones and the plastic adapter you put in the middle of a 45-record.

Courtesy: eyeonsheridan.net

When I put that idea to a person whose job centres on working with citizen journalists she had this to to say:

“I laugh at that; I think it’s silly. A journalist’s role is evolving; I think it’s no more being high on the mountain delivering the content as I see it. I think that journalists have to be more collaborative and accept that there are tons of people producing content. We should be curating; there’s a big need for curation”.

I couldn’t agree more. There may be a zillion stories on the Internet, but how many people actually read a fraction of them, and, even if they do, how many have the time to confirm the sources?

A journalist who’s researched the online world extensively told me:

“The vast majority of people work 9 to 5 and take care of the kids afterwards and they don’t have time [to check sources]. There’s more information and misinformation. You can cocoon yourself inside the world of that misinformation, you don’t ever have to step outside of it and that’s a dangerous thing as well”.

While researching a paper on the recent controversy over HPV vaccines in the Halton Catholic School Board, when I searched “HPV deaths” on the Internet I kept coming across articles referencing a Judicial Watch special report.

The report[1] was being used as evidence the vaccine could be deadly.

So I went and found it. What it actually says is:

“…as many as 18 young girls and women have died after receiving the vaccine. While the deaths are quite possibly not linked to the vaccine, there is a report of a perfectly healthy 17-year-old girl dying suddenly and alone, two days after receiving her third dose of the vaccine” (p. 15).

No confirmed links—and what does a girl dying alone have to do with anyone’s safety? I can think of three reasons this inflammatory information was misused again and again:

People are cutting and pasting information without going to the original source; if they are going to the original source they aren’t reading all 24 pages; or, worst of all, they are conveniently omitting the fact there is no proven link to prove an ideological point.

Ideally, none of those things would happen if a professional journalist was covering the story. Another cross-platform contributor told me:

“At CBC we have documents that outline our commitment to Canadians. A blog doesn’t have to do that; a youtube channel doesn’t have to do that. They can do whatever they want. We do have a set of guidelines. And I just have yet to see any site that comes close to that.”

So that’s one reason we need journalists—to cut through the crap. The other is to amplify the independently created, well-researched and factual stories that are on the web:

“Debates can start and stories can start in the blogosphere for example, but they don’t really receive traction until the mainstream media fuels them or picks them up. Having said that, obviously there are way more stories that get broken on non-traditional media that now get picked up by mainstream media and that’s a good thing.”

Yes, that is a good thing—and not the Martha Stewart kind of good thing—but a good thing that leads to shared information, diversity, and transparency. Citizens need journalists, and journalists need citizens. It’s not a matter of choice; it’s a matter of collaboration.


[1] For some reason I can’t link directly to the pdf, so when you get to the special report page of the Judicial Watch site, just choose the Judicial Watch Special Report: Examining the FDA’s HPV Vaccine Records – June 30, 2008

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11 thoughts on “Why citizens need journalists and journalists need citizens

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why citizens need journalists and journalists need citizens « Redefining journalism's Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. I’ve been working in news for over twenty years, and citizens have always been a part of journalism…as bystanders, victims, eyewitnesses; they are the “real” people we have always tried to include in our stories.
    Journalists are not irrelevant, and citizens’ input has never been irrelevant either. The impact of an increase in taxes, or an overcrowded hospitals are news stories, but including a personal perspective from a citizen who is affected, makes them compelling news stories.
    You hit the nail on the head with the word is collaboration. Not everyone is a good storyteller, but everyone has a story to tell; journalists help craft the story.

    • Yes, everyone does have a story tell. That’s why I really like what http://www.cbc.ca/news/yourvoice/
      is doing. In the words of one employee:
      “I think it’s important because people have a lot to say and they don’t always have a voice. And we have the privilege here of having a platform to work with them to tell their stories. We don’t want to edit that and change that because this isn’t about getting citizens to make content because we don’t have content, we have tons of journalists. We’ve doubled our team size, so it’s not about—you know sometimes we get accused of, ‘oh you’re just going out there to get content because the CBC is out of money and resources’, but we’re actually upping our resources and our commitment to this effort of community management and community content”.

      Although there are times journalists can tell the story best — like the investigation into super-bugs and chicken CBC is working on right now, a story idea that came from a prof who became sick, where I think journalism in general can improve is getting away from the idea that the structure and grammar of what we’re used to seeing in news has to stay the same. Different voices and different formats can enrich content at all levels. It’s not always about us using someone in our story, but using our resources to help someone tell their own story.

  3. Another dimension I have been thinking about related, I hope, to what this post, Nicole. I think some journalists have become too much of the “system” and it sometimes it takes citizens to expand the bounds and bring grassroots points of views back into news production.

    Just a thought, kind of unshaped.

    • I agree completely Arjun. The journalist I quoted above re. non-traditional media breaking stories also had this to say about the sources mainstream media are using for news, especially in relation to leaking/releasing information that comes from the government:

      “To be able to say CTV News has learned is considered to be some big deal. And we do it all the time here too, CBC News has learned, and whenever I hear that I want them to tell me how did you learn that? And if you learned that because you worked your sources or someone put a brown manila envelope under your door fine. If you learned that because some PR flack called you up and said do you want a heads up on this thing, then tell me that. And by the way don’t use it. This has been an enormously destructive thing because we become a repository for other people’s spin and that’s what a story like that represents.”

      Powerful stuff–and true. When dealing with the pressure to spit out information and be first, sometimes journalists become pawns of the system instead of the tools to keep it in check.

  4. Excellent points. Context alone is not journalism. Point of view alone is not journalism. Facts are not journalism. Artful writing alone is not journalism. Balance alone is not journalism. But facts, organized properly, with point of view, in context, balanced and artfully written, that’s journalism. And it takes a lifetime, or at least a long time, to learn how to do.

  5. Great read but are we over thinking? Is this going to be organic? The market will follow the people and the people are demanding participation. Still, all PEW and Knight studies reveal people want good reporting and to be surprised to learn new information about their communities / world.

  6. I think some of this is going to be organic, but I also think a lot of newsrooms are really struggling with how to deal with this new reality. What I’m hoping to discover in my research are best practices that can be used by anyone who’s interested.
    Also, what qualifies as good reporting? An on-air person at CBC told me that his work is considered without editorial heft because he uses too many “real people” instead of experts. The viewers, however, love the variety of voices. I think the more we think and talk about what makes good journalism the faster we’ll get to a place where people are willing to break out of the traditional box.
    Wilf, you touched on this when you spoke to Sheridan students about the cigarette butt litter story recommended by a community member that the editorial team at http://www.openfile.ca wasn’t sure was actually a story….but you went with it. It turned out to be a great story that was picked up by mainstream media. If it weren’t for that willingness to listen to someone who wasn’t a “journalist” that story may have been left untold. An example others could benefit from.

  7. This is a great conversation thread–and it’s left me thinking a lot about journalism and why we need to work towards ensuring mainstream media stays relevant. One of the things I didn’t touch on above, is that although there are multiple sources of alternative information out there, most people still use mainstream media as their source of information whether it be on or offline. Also, as I wrote, and one of my interview subjects highlighted, there is a load of misinformation out there–often packaged in a form that could be seen as a ‘good report’ by someone who didn’t have the time or inclination to check the sources. There is a great need for journalists who are ensuring the spread and amplification of accurate, as unbiased as possible, information to ensure discourse that is not inflammatory, and is centred on facts, not ideals. There also a great need for those journalists to start looking at different ways of reporting, and learning how to collaborate with the audience. In my opinion, the best chance of that happening is at a public broadcaster like CBC that isn’t tied directly to commercial earnings. I’ll be writing more about that in a future post.

  8. Pingback: Jay Oh Day | Forbes #1 worst job of 2013

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