April 1, 2006

Do try this at home…

Samuel Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, thinks journalism is a professional practice best left to those with proper training (whatever that is) and institutional sanction (i.e. a job at a commercial enterprise). He says on Public Eye:

However wrapped in idealism, citizen journalism forms part of a larger attempt to degrade, even to disenfranchise journalism as practiced by trained professionals. As I said before, I appreciate the access that citizen journalism provides to first-hand accounts of major events. Yet I recognize those accounts are less journalism than the raw material, generated by amateurs, that a trained, skilled journalist should know how to weigh, analyze, describe, and explain.

As a advocate of citizen journalism (I’m trained to do the job professionally and sanctioned to train others to do the job professionally), I cannot find myself in Freedman’s generalization about the motives of citizen journalists. Perhaps it would be a good idea to take a careful look at these motives. One might find, for example, that making the invisible visible plays a role. In other words, a community that doesn’t see itself in the professionally-produced commercial product might decide it’s time to practice journalism to bring its story to the public. This has nothing to do with degrading or disenfranchising commercial journalism. If anything, it is an important contribution that might get the so-called professionals to open their eyes and see the multiplicity of human experience.

Part of what journalism school does is teach students what to see and how to see it. And this necessarily also teaches them what not to see, unless they have a professor (a rhetoric scholar, for example) willing to disrupt this training with a dose of critical discourse analysis and transgressive thinking about professional practice.

Finally, Freedman brings us to the ugly region of professional journalism–arrogance. He delivers this smackdown:

To treat an amateur as equally credible as a professional, to congratulate the wannabe with the title “journalist,” is only to further erode the line between raw material and finished product. For those people who believe that editorial gate-keeping is a form of censorship, if not mind control, then I suppose the absence of any mediating intelligence is considered a good thing.

Wow. So only the professional is credible. But more, only the professional is capable of applying a euphemistic “mediating intelligence.”

Who is a journalist? Doug McGill and I hope to answer that question. We’ve asserted three criteria that we believe are possible to achieve outside the commercial institutions of journalism.

The professional product is important. And it is threatened right now. But that threat comes from many quarters, including from the professional newsroom itself. Rather than disparage citizen journalism, why not help it along? Why not use it to enhance the professional product? For some excellent ideas, I highly recommend reading Tim Porter’s essay If Newspapers Are to Rise Again.

UPDATE (4:00 p.m.): NextNews responds to Freedman:

The problem is observers who take an either/or approach when measuring the value of citizen journalism against the MSM. In fact, both are valid. Just ask those news editors who jumped at the chance to show images from London’s smoke-filled Tube.

Here’s the Rhetorica canon on journalistic arrogance:

Don’t know; check…
The A-word…
Teaching arrogance…
The A-word and the L-word…
What role for us in fly-over land?…
The (not so) big enchilada…
More about the A-word…
Them no ‘counts…
Yes, it’s flawed…
Re-write documents…

4 Responses

  1. Jayson Vantuyl 

    Communication is instant and efficient in ways that many people cannot accept. People never are good at dealing with this kind of change. I believe you are right that this is a kind of arrogance, perhaps institutionalized, perhaps not so much.

    I offer an analogy to another common confusion that I believe offers insight into exactly why you here this kind of drivel. Some people are wont complain incessantly about the degradation of language we see in e-mail and instant messages. Usually there’s some “villian to blame” and I catch a whiff of disapproval.

    The crux of their misunderstanding is a matter of understanding the economics. When messages were expensive (in both time and resources), the importance of a clear message was paramount. Today, messages are cheap. It makes sense that there is less value in their exacting construction. Nothing is making people lazy or stupid, economics is removing the impetus for such exacting communication.

    If I were publishing a print article, writing a book, or sending a letter, it should be clear and well written. If not, I risk the receiver not understanding my message and potentially requiring a response and additional correspondence. Similarly, a mistake in a print article can’t be readily corrected and can be costly in terms of reputation. Mistakes in books are lasting as well.

    In this scenario, one can see that quality communications is a must. Thus, in the realm of the press journalists have in the past performed an absolutely critical role. When news could not travel as fast as it now does, a journalist collected and distilled the situation and reported it. Without the press, people were not informed and bias flourished in the lack of comprehensive coverage.

    Originally, print was the most effective method available to accomplish this. A time followed when messages got cheaper. Journalists began striving more to aggressively provide “stories”. As the value of a journalist’s work dropped, competition increased.

    Today, you generally find most people have a distrust of the independence of the media juxtaposed against attacks on “amateurs” from people who are heavily invested in “professional” journalism. Sadly, I fear that many professional journalists have succumbed to the vain but all too common belief that they have much more to offer than most amateur journalists. When messages were expensive, and print was the only effective medium, this was true. Even in broadcast news this was critical.

    In the real world, messages no longer need to be comprehensive. Reports from various sources can be transmitted, linked, and aggregated automatically and with a statistical form of democracy never before achieved. The expense of miscommunication is low and the latency of response is virtually nonexistent.

    With such a system, traditional, professional journalism offers very little. Why send a journalist to a war zone when we get posts from there? Why investigate Chinese censorship when information is leaking out of every seam? What kind of integrity can you offer in the world of commercialized media (where objectivity and a paycheck rarely go together)?

    At one time, journalists used the resources allocated to them to safeguard objectivity, inform the public, and disseminate news quickly. An individual would then evaluate the information given them to make decisions.

    The modern reality is that information is dissiminated more efficiently and understood cooperatively in ways that print journalism can rarely provide. Newswires are more expensive, closed, and troublesome than simple RSS aggregation. Direct access to sources without the limitation of fitting on a page gives freedom. There are no sponsors to offend. There is no incentive to compete but rather to cooperate. With this cooperation comes value that a research team, some reporters, and editors cannot provide on the the same scale.

    Essentially, Professor Freedman is mistaking the methods of journalism–distilling raw material into a cogent, unbiased, and balanced report–with the purpose of journalism–to keep the public informed and ensure balanced coverage.

    In this vein, many journalists have been disturbed by the blogsphere because it tends to communicate news so quickly and also because agreement is often reached so quickly that they mistake it for a bias. Essentially, the blogosphere can reach consensus in a matter of hours with a complete log of source materials, comment logs, and aggregated/syndicated publishing.

    Those with misunderstandings the purpose of journalism and the methods of modern citizen reporters often are dismissive in this way. It’s ironic that the roots of Rhetoric, public communication, and even their profession lie in the very process that they are dismissing.

    There is not much that citizen journalists have left to degrade in professional journalism. There are too many reporters with “institutional sanction” and hidden agendas for the generally uninformed to trust a “finished product” as anything more than a persuasive vehicle at best and propaganda at worst. Citizens no longer have anything to gain from the “mediating intelligence” of good professional journalism. Those with the ability to sift out the news do it on their own. Those without the ability get lost in the rabble of “professionals” with agendas–as indicated by the widespread impression of “the media” as an outlet for control of the populace rather than a source for critical decisionmaking information.

    Rather, a social framework of citizen journalists, new technology, and vigorous publishing of “raw material” is an effective way to provide the same function as now devalued professional journalists used to provide.

    It’s a matter of incentive, professional journalism in our commercialized society puts journalists on the wrong side of the fence. Suggesting that those paid by third parties to report potentially on those third parties in an unbiased manner is naive in the extreme. The citizenry are the only people left with the incentive to be unbiased and independent. Technology has empowered them and given them the means to communicate news (if sometimes ineffectively and boorishly).

    Say what you want about “the mob”, the economics of millions looking out for themselves eliminates more bias and sources more intelligence than most professional institutions can muster anyway. Professional journalism is becoming an unnecessary institution in a connected and globalized world.

    Professor Freedman will have to join the club eventually, I guess.

  2. Anna 

    When it’s de rigeur for a newspaper to publish its code of ethics, and to retain the services of an independent ombudsman to address deviations from it, then I’ll grant Mr. Freedman’s “trained journos way better than bloggers” argument some credibility.

    which is not to say that I agree with Jayson’s “Professional journalism is becoming an unnecessary institution”, by any means.
    (admission: didn’t read the whole thing, it was too long for me)

    > Rather than disparage citizen journalism, why not help it along?

    yes please. Where is the organization that cit-j practitioners can join, for assistance? SPJ is out for obvious reasons, there’s no membership category in IRE, no lexis-nexis access…

    (Please don’t say “the Media Bloggers Association” since – last I checked – they explicitly _refrain_ from placing any ethical strictures on their members, beyond “members should be nice to each other”.)

  3. acline 

    Anna… It ain’t here yet. But I’ll bet it’s coming soon, maybe even through an established j-org such as SPJ. Maybe Poynter.

  4. For Jayson:

    The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers

    From Yesterday’s Prejudices Today review:

    Operators invented shorthand codes, including GA for “go ahead” that are very similar to the abbreviations many of us use today, and anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a flaming “RTFM, stupid!” will sympathize with some of the hazing new operators were subjected to.