Saturday, September 24, 2005

In Defense of Citizen Journalism

In Defense of Citizen Journalism
By Sean Gallagher
September 23, 2005

Opinion: Citizen journalists keep us so-called professionals on our
toes and get subjects into play that might otherwise never see the
light of day. I have to admit, as a professional journalist who blogs
both professionally and personally, I'm getting really tired of
journalists who spend their column inches, air time or page
impressions bashing "citizen journalism" and weblogs. It reminds me of
the way my teenager tries to rest away the game controller from his
'tweener brother, yelling, "Give me that, you're not doing it right!"
I usually find myself somewhat aligned in opinion with my colleague,
David Coursey. But yesterday, Coursey railed about the excesses of
citizen journalism. "One of the tenets of 'real' journalism is that
you don't distribute information that hasn't been checked," he said.
"Citizen publishers are under no such obligation, so the information
that winds up in blogs and distributed on mailing lists must always be
considered suspect,
even if sent with the best of intentions." I feel compelled to
respond. To say that information from any source on the Internet is to
be treated skeptically is like saying that pit bulls might bite. It's
been pretty well established that anyone with a computer can, and
will, create a Web site, post to Usenet or a discussion board, or
otherwise pollute the Web and other streams of information with
hearsay and libel (that's why my first weblog
was subtitled, "Lowering the average quality of Web content daily").
Whatever happened to Webzines?,1895,1862507,00.asp Information is only as good as its source, and the people using that information have to make a decision for themselves about whether they trust it, and whether to seek corroboration elsewhere before acting on it. Coursey posits that the lack of any sort of editorial controlling entity in
citizen journalism is bad because it allows unconfirmed information to fly into our collective consciousness without any filters or fact-checks or assured means of correction. To support this assertion, he points to a post to David Farber's "Interesting People" (IP) mailing list, suggesting that there may have been censorship of an interview of Katrina survivors by NPR. The list, moderated by Farber
(a distinguished professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University), also published responses by NPR, by the show that the interview was on (Ira Glass' "This American Life"), and readers of the list. As Blogging Grows,
Companies Eye Legal Pitfalls. Click here to read more. Coursey says
that the problem here was that an errant post was made in the first
place; that the responses and corrections made by others will never
carry the weight of the original post, and that the bad information
will spread further. Thing is, this is a problem with all media, be it
print, broadcast or Internet. There have been enough recent examples
of errant reporting in the absence of fact just out of the disaster in
New Orleans to demonstrate that bad news travels faster than good,
even if it isn't true. Where are all the corrections in the press
about the horror stories that proved not to be true?
But it's even worse than it appears. In the example cited by Coursey,
Farber's list did correct the story, and each correction got the same
weight as the original story itself. Contrast that to corrections in
the established media: they get buried at the bottom of an inside page
in small type, or added as a footnote at the end of a broadcast, and
are as a result largely ignored. It's very rare that something on the
scale of what happened
to Dan Rather and his producers over those faked letters about George
Bush's military record happens as the result of misinformed reporting.
Dave Winer, love him or hate him, has often contended that the blog
is, by its nature, self-editing. The feedback loop of the "two-way
web" means that when errors are found, they get called-and the
corrections often end up grabbing more Google PageRank than the
original mistakes. Trackbacks and comments, as much as they've been
abused by spam, help in that purpose. Yahoo Hires Blog Journalist to
Cover War Zones. Click here to read more. (Unfortunately, due to the
volume of spam in trackbacks and comments these days, I've been forced
to turn those features off on this blog for now. Feel
free to e-mail me.) And there are plusses to having that fire hose of
unfiltered content. Let's look at Hurricane Kartrina, where a
LiveJournal blog from a data center staffer in New Orleans provided a
running report, and live video, of the unfolding situation there-when
most of the established media infrastructure couldn't. Or look at
Iraq, where Salam Pax blogged a first-hand, Iraqi's-eye-view account
before, during and immediately after the U.S. invasion. Other bloggers
there, both Iraqi and American, have continued to tell stories you
won't find anywhere else. In each case, the Internet provided
something that traditional media couldn't-a direct, personal view of
events unfolding from people on the scene. And others are covering
topics that just don't get the attention they should because of the
simple bandwidth limitations of traditional media. For example, I've
found out more about local events in my hometown, Baltimore, from the
fleet of newsgathering mosquitoes in the Blogtimore community than
I've ever gotten from the Baltimore Sun. I get more mileage
from the aggregated opinions of Blogcritics than I do from the New
York Times Book Review. And in the tech space, let's face it: Without
someone like Pamela Jones covering the heck out of the legal battles
around open source, folks like my colleague Steven Vaughan-Nichols
would have a lot less to work with. It's not that I don't use those
established sources of media; they have their purpose. But there's
stuff on the fringes that just doesn't get picked up by them because,
well, they just don't have the reporters, the budget, the space or the
advertisers to justify them doing so. So, let a thousand flowers of
thought contend. Citizen journalists keep us so-called professionals
on our toes, and get subjects into play that might otherwise never see
the light of day. Just remember: Pit bulls sometimes bite. Sean
Gallagher is senior editor of Ziff Davis Internet's vertical
enterprise sites. Sean came to Ziff Davis Media from Fawcette
Technical Publications, where he was editorial director of the
company's enterprise software development titles. Prior to that, he
was managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek Labs. A former naval
officer, a one-time systems integrator and a graduate of the
University of Wisconsin, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore. He
can be reached at [Source:,1895,1862903,00.asp Last accessed,
24 September, 2005.] [Paragraph spacing removed - tp.]

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