The Sniff Test For "Citizen Journalists"

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Some of my favourite online propagandists are ennobling themselves and each other these days with the heroic sobriquet "Citizen Journalists". While it does sound much better than "blogger", "gossip" or "asshole", it's not always accurate. In fact, the term seems to be used most commonly by folks who don't have a clue what "journalism" - or "citizenship", for that matter - actually mean.

There's no universally agreed-upon definition of what a "journalist" is - I'm sure the propagandists who toe the Communist Party line for Xinhua in China or the former staff of Pravda consider themselves to be journalists. But in our culture - call it democratic, Western or European, whatever - the practice of journalism is built on certain principles. They're fuzzy, they're subjective, but they're real.

We expect journalists to try to tell the truth. We expect that they will refrain from publishing what they know to be untrue.

We need to believe that they won't excise or omit information that would significantly change the focus of their story. (An abortion protester hauled away in tears by police from a public meeting is one story; the fact that the abortion protester sent prior notice to meeting organizers of their intent to attend and disrupt is quite another.)

We expect journalists to verify the information they publish through their own research or by confirming through multiple sources. (A blog near and dear to my heart once published a series of stories about Iraqi village weddings destroyed by US missiles. When you followed the links back four or five layers deep, it became clear that despite the appearance of multiple sources, ALL the stories were actually being generated by one dubious source.)

We expect journalists to distinguish clearly in their writing between what they know to be true, what they report from other sources, what they speculate, and what they feel. Good journalism may include all those elements, but you'll should always know what whether you're reading facts or interpretation.

We expect journalists to acknowledge and correct their mistakes.

And finally, we expect journalists to keep their own unavoidable biases and prejudices in sight and in check.

All real journalists, and all mainstream media, fail this test, sometimes repeatedly. The good ones, however, TRY to meet those criteria. They develop, publish, and enforce editorial policies. They fact-check. They seek balance. They review prior to publication. And when those systems fail, they acknowledge and correct their errors.

Those criteria distinguish real news organizations, however fallible, from pure propagandists like the horrific World Net Daily, a septic tank of semi-digested rumour and innuendo (Scenty's favourite source, and Kaithy Shaidle's current paycheque). It also distinguishes real journalists from many of their alleged successors, the "Citizen Journalists".

The ways in which the products of journalism - reportage and analysis - are published are being changed almost beyond recognition, and that won't stop. But the fact that a blogger can now find and repost a badly documented lie to support their own ideological bias, and reach more readers than a small town newspaper, doesn't make us "citizen journalists". When we promulgate lies we become pamphleteers, the digital equivalent of the crazies in greasy trench coats shouting at Speakers Corner or tucking fliers about fluoridation under windshield wipers.

The difference is a commitment to telling the truth, as opposed to selling a position. And it seems fairly easy to me to distinguish between the two.

Here's a little test. I don't know who you consider a credible "Citizen Journalist", but pick your favourite, and take a sampling of their work and read it with these questions in mind.

  • Does the writer provide his/her sources? Are there multiple sources, including official agencies?

  • Does the writer include statements, rebuttal or clarification from "the other side", or at least indication that such statements were sought?

  • Are there significant omissions or deletions from the original sources that would change the focus of the story?

  • Do key points of the narrative rely on un-named sources? Is the writer's own editorial opinion introduced with weasel words like "Some have speculated..."?

  • Does the writer frame the story with heavily loaded vocabulary or set-up paragraphs to tell you how you're supposed to feel about the information they're presenting?

  • When the writer is proven by commenter to be mistaken, do they remove the original, erroneous material, or publish an acknowledgment of error with the same prominence as the original post?

I wouldn't trust my health to a "Citizen Doctor", my financial well-being to a "Citizen Accountant", the direction of Canada's armed forces to a "Citizen General", or the building of a bridge to a "Citizen Architect". The provision of balanced and accurate information and analysis of news and current affairs is no less critical; and until the new wave of self-proclaimed "Citizen Journalists" adopt the highest standards of the profession - the ones that even professionals occasionally fail to meet - they will remain at best an interesting "B" team, and at worst a poisonous distraction from the real thing.

Cross posted from Stageleft.

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This page contains a single entry by Balbulican published on June 6, 2010 8:43 AM.

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