Wednesday, September 21, 2005


CITIZEN JOURNALISM: CBS blogger attempts a definition; reply comments

The Rise Of Citizen Journalism

Posted by Brian Montopoli at 9:42 AM : September 21, 2005

"Citizen Journalism" is one of those phrases that sounds pretty straightforward, but when you get right down to it, most people aren't entirely sure exactly what it means. Basically, a citizen journalist is someone from outside the news business who engages in the kind of journalism that is traditionally the purview of the professionals.

A citizen journalist might send pictures of a significant event into a news outlet. They might share stories about newsworthy experiences they've had. Or they might analyze, report and even disseminate the news themselves. Both MSNBC and CNN have been tapping citizen journalists to augment their coverage they've used their websites to solicit and post photos from private homes in New Orleans, audio and videos of how people are responding to Katrina, and stories about how high gas prices are affecting peoples' lives, for example.

Are bloggers citizen journalists? Well, yes and no. Those of us at Public Eye, for example, most certainly are not after
all, we're paid employees of CBS, and that puts us in a different position than someone who starts a blog on their own.
But many independent bloggers can certainly be considered citizen journalists: They report from war zones, do the kind of analysis one might find on opinion pages, and post photos of news events on their sites, despite the fact that they're not affiliated with news organizations.

There are, however, reasons for news organizations to be skittish about relying on citizen journalism. The benefits are clear: There are immeasurable positives in having someone who happens to be on the scene of a developing story take pictures or call in a report. But there is also a chance that those reports won't be reliable. (There's that chance with the professionals, of course, as well Jayson Blair being the most obvious example but at least, with professional
journalists, their jobs depend on their truthfulness.) As David Carr wrote Monday in the New York Times, "I was at the World Trade Center towers site the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. People had seen unimaginable things, but a small percentage, many still covered in ash, told me tales that were worse than what actually happened."

But wait, you might say can't people exaggerate when they're talking to a reporter looking for a quote? And the short answer is that they can, and do. But reporters go to great lengths to authenticate information whenever possible, as the standards and practices of their news organization requires. Citizen journalists don't play by the same rules. Larry Kramer, President of CBS Digital Media, says he's loves the idea of using certain kinds of citizen journalism like a cell phone camera video of a major event no one else has captured but argues that it should always go through a filter.

"If you want us to use it, you have to subject it to our standards," he says. "Let us see it and evaluate it." He adds
that CBS News has to maintain its editorial authority, and that providing an unfiltered forum could compromise that. Citizen journalism, he says, is not necessarily "first-tier journalism."

And while most citizen journalists want to disseminate honest information, some may well have less noble motives. What if a partisan wants to portray a politician in a negative light, for example? He or she could create a photoshopped photograph of that politician in a compromising or embarrassing position. (It's not that hard to do check out this doctored shot of President Bush seemingly fishing while on vacation in flooded New Orleans.) If such a photo appears on a blog, that's one thing, but if CBS publishes it on its website, the organization is putting its editorial authority behind it. And a citizen journalist with strong feelings about the environment or gay marriage, say, could consciously color coverage of the issue while feigning objectivity. (Many media critics, it should be noted, say the mainstream media already does this which means there's no reason to consider citizen journalists any differently.)

Despite the potential pitfalls, there are plenty of reasons to welcome the rise of citizen journalism as long as news
consumers understand what they're dealing with. Current TV, for example, a new cable channel, solicits video submissions from viewers about news in their daily lives that one would rarely see from traditional news outlets. OhmyNews, a collaborative online newspaper with the motto "Every Citizen is a Reporter," has become an influential news resource in Korea and elsewhere. Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere, focused on the Bay Area, is providing a model of citizen journalism on the internet. And blogs, chat rooms and message boards of all stripes provide a range of opinion and reporting far beyond what traditional news outlets can offer.

As those traditional outlets take their baby steps towards integrating citizen journalism, it will be interesting to see
how much ground they are willing to seed to the non-professionals and how much the non-professionals want to have to do with the traditional news outlets in the first place. We'll keep our Eye on it, and we hope you do the same. In the
meantime, if you have an opinion on the role of citizen journalists in traditional media, please let us know in the (new and improved!) comments section.


Brian Montopoli (CBS)

"I came to Public Eye from Columbia Journalism Review, where I wrote about everything from the press coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign to the rise of blogging to the future of network news. Prior to my job at CJR, I was a contributing writer at Washington City Paper. I've also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, Salon, The New York Observer, The Washington Monthly, and a number of other publications. Some of my favorite story topics have been youth soccer, public radio, and local politicians, not to mention the TV show Jeopardy!, which was kind enough to offer me a tryout (and merciful enough not to let me on the air).

"I'm pretty much a TV newbie, though I did once appear on MSNBC in the pre-Public Eye days . where, oddly enough, I debated our own Vaughn Ververs about the value of anonymous sources. I'm hoping my outsider status here will help me better explain the inner workings of CBS, and better understand the commendations and complaints that come our way.

"I was born in the suburbs of San Francisco, moved to Massachusetts as a young teenager, and have lived for the past couple of years in New York City. I graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University in 1999 with degrees in English and economics. I haven't always been a journalist: Not long after college, I worked as a teacher at an American high school in Rome, Italy. I still miss the food."


Posted by pjsheehan1 at 8:07 PM : September 21, 2005

Citizen journalists are roughly in the class with citizen legislators, or citizen law arbitrators. The majority would
rather not: I don't have time; that's what they pay you guys for; it's hard work; I tried it once and didn't like it.
Explanations like that. Of those who are willing or can be persuaded, few have the requisite skills to do it on a regular
basis. And of those few, not all will be willing or able to maintain a degree of objectivity.
On the other hand, it's obvious that, among current professional legislators and law arbitrators and journalists, a
significant number lack the requisite skills and the longed-for objectivity. Theoretically, they can be held to account.
It's not likely that citizen journalists could be, in any meaningful fashion.
The preceding comments apply to "citizen journalists" as contributors to the traditional media. In that realm, we as
consumers are better served if the media do not rely on amateurs. You (CBS, et al) are our surrogates. We pay you to tell us what is happening, why, where, what it means.
Unfortunately for us and ultimately for you, your skills, your trustworthiness, and your value have dwindled over the past thirty years. News was once a loss-leader; now it's a profit center. No collection of citizen journalists, or any
other reality-chasing gimmick, is going to compensate for the missing talent, hard work, and courage.
It's not hopeless, of course. Merely depressing.
About bloggers, more later.


Posted by jmninpa at 4:51 PM : September 21, 2005

My comment is in two parts: One, in response to TomGrey2's suggestion of a rating system, I think that alone would be ripe for problems. Primarily, I would think that CBS News would be properly screening any citizen journalist submissions in effort to weed out those appearing unlikely or from more than questionable sources. That's the inherent danger and promise of the net. Incredible possibilities for information dissemination, but, from anyone with fingers and a keyboard.

And, unfortunately, probably an agenda too heavy to allow responsible reporting or submissions.
Related to the above, I also believe that having the citizenry involved in reporting or at least, advising "the pros" of
on-the-spot ongoings can greatly assist in rebuilding what has sadly become a beaten-down media, more geared toward preventing the truth than telling it. For that (not to be overly political), the blame needs to be placed squarely on the spin-to-win White House. I'd love to read submissions by someone who is on the spot in Iraq, then compare their words to that of the press releases we're fed every day.
Handled responsibly, I think citizen journalists can be a huge asset to the body public.


Posted by TomGrey2 at 4:33 PM : September 21, 2005

I think it's great. If you have to keep up the standards anyway, why not give every submitted story an explicit rating for:

-- likely accuracy (and another for interest?)
-- Very Likely (corroborated),
-- Likely (fits with other corroborated stories),
-- open (totally alone, no corroboration nor contradiction),
-- UnLikely (conflicts with other stories),
-- Very Unlikely (fraud, joke, photoshop, urban legend, baseless rumor).

Those submitting stories would also see their rating; all non-chosen stories could go into the (trash?) Heap, where CBS does NOT consider them news.


Posted by JennyDe at 3:04 PM : September 21, 2005

EVery news story, like it or not, is like a view through a gunslit. Narrow, incomplete. You can't interview everyone, see everything, know everything. Bias creeps in through every choice you make as a journalist...from where to stand to listen to the speech, to who to ask about it, to what you include in the story. Don't kid yourselves to think it's anything else. That said, it seems that a larger number of views--even if they are through a variety of gunslits--will illuminate the view. That's why I think citizen journalism is a good thing.


Posted by HS_NC at 1:37 PM : September 21, 2005

I think in MOST cases this would be a very good thing. Unfortunately-I don't see much of it and even when interviewing citizens of an area affected by a storm--etc--most comments are edited to "side" with the story or to prove the point of the story. People are chosen based on the fact they are angry--if the story is to show how angry the people are. Regardless of how hard people try to be unbiased--they still sway a story to the way that will be accepted by the people that pay their salary. "Regular" citizens don't have that constraint. Some stations show both sides to every story and ththat should be applauded but not everyone does that. They show one side, the opinion they want to get across. I asked on his board before why we don't see more stories on the progress in Iraq, the progress in NO or other victims in NO--maybe those with the means that did not evacuate or came back and their house was destroyed or more focus on Miss where the storm actually HIT or the Federal response on past disasters so people have the facts to compare. Reporters show you what will get the best ratings--or what will get people in an uproar...NOT what may actually be happening. Citizens living through it or seeing it from the outside with no affiliation will give a more honest outlook.
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