5/4/2007

Citizen Journalists

Filed under: — Joe @ 11:55 am

In all the reporting and discussion about the LAPD’s actions at the May Day Immigration Rally in MacArthur Park in LA, I came across a vignette in LA Times reporter Jill Leovy’s first-hand report:

At a press conference with Chief Bratton about 9 Tuesday night at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Park View, tensions between the informal press and the formal press bubbled over.

As the chief spoke, with Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger at his side, at least 40 people surrounded him, with six or seven squatting on the ground in front to hear better. About half of the group appeared not to be official members of the press corps, but rather, protesters and self-appointed journalists affiliated with the protesters. When it came time to call out questions — often a competitive moment among reporters from competing news agencies — the protesters held their own.

As questioners peppered Bratton with demands for answers, some seemed more intent on expressing their own views than hearing Bratton’s and there was confusion about whether those speaking were paid by an established news organization or were self-appointed.

A large man in front of the chief to his right, who had been heckling with words of skepticism throughout the event, repeatedly asked in a loud voice whether the chief planned to appoint a civilian panel to investigate the incident. He interrupted reporters. Tempers flared. Dave Clark, a well-known broadcast journalist with KCAL 9 and CBS 2, admonished him to be quiet. “We are trying to work here!” Clark said.

At one point, Bratton also asked this man to be quiet. The press conference was being held for the benefit of the official media, he said. The man responded by insisting he was a “citizen journalist,” but then backed down, professing his respect for the chief.

Increasingly, it seems, the “citizen journalists”–bloggers, amateurs, “protesters with cameras,” whatever you want to call them–are not just holding their own, but surpassing the “official journalists.” The coverage they provide is wider, more blatantly subjective, polemical, less professional, untrained…it’s a whole different kind of new medium.

I like this–I find it exciting, and I find the potential for a better-informed, more media-savvy public to be quite promising. But there are also drawbacks, of course. We need to learn a new vocabulary, and new critical standards for evaluating this new medium–it’s unfiltered, and while I would never say that it should be filtered, I definitely think that we need to develop and clarify our own filters.

But that’s something we should have been doing all along–the “official” journalism was really never any more trustworthy or objective (not at any time in history–rosy-colored nostalgia aside), and if the new journalism foregrounds that fact, it’s a very good thing.

Josh Wolf (the videographer/blogger who was jailed for six months for refusing to turn over his video of a demonstration) was asked (while he was in jail) “Are Bloggers Journalists?” His answer (in part):

The question has no simple answer, just as there is no easy way to respond to being asked, “Are Christians good people?” Most would respond that some are and some are not; certain zealots would proclaim that all Christians are good people by definition, and still others would argue that all people are good despite whatever bad things they may have done. A fourth group would claim that the very idea of “good” and “evil” is an entirely artificial construct and a completely irrelevant measure, and all of these arguments are a valid response to the question that is before us tonight.

The simplest answer is that some bloggers are journalists whereas others are not. After all, few would contend that the 16 year-old who writes about her daily exploits on her Myspace page is a journalist. But what happens when this very same girl manages to break a story on her principal’s scheme to embezzle from the school? Does she then become a journalist? When she returns to writing about the guy in chemistry, is this now journalism? In a recent essay, Bill Moyers cites Tom Rosentiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism who points out that “the proper question is not whether you call yourself a journalist but whether your work itself constitutes journalism.” Given the paradoxes inherent in tonight’s question, I’m inclined to think that Moyer and Rosentiel are onto something.

Can bloggers be journalists? Absolutely. A blog is nothing more than a medium. Sure, the cost of entry is cheaper than launching your own daily newspaper and the rules of engagement aren’t nearly as formalized, but when you think about it, how different is this than the development of any new medium? I imagine that when radio was invented there were plenty of newspapermen and a few newspaperwomen who were clamoring that radio-news was not real journalism. This same scenario likely played out again with the advent of television. Today it’s the internet, and like the journalists of yester-year many are quick to discount blogs as a viable medium for transmitting news and some probably feel threatened by the development as well.

Are bloggers journalists? Is it good for us to have “citizen journalists”? That’s probably not an important question. We have them. So the better questions might be how should we regard them? How should we use them?

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