“How much should professional practice as currently known be applied to citizen journalism?”

You’ve read the title, so you’re probably asleep already. However, if you’re still interested, here’s the context: One of my assignments for the subject ‘Newswriting’ last semester was to write an essay on the above question – “How much should professional practice as currently known be applied to citizen journalism?” Apart from being a pretty badly worded question (maybe ditch the “as currently known” bit?), it was pretty fun and best of all, I could use many of the same sources as the last essay I posted. On the cover sheet of my returned folder it says I received a mark of 16 for my answer. But I’ll be eternally pondering what it was out of – 16/20? 16/458.293? 16/10? A life of uncertainty awaits!

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“How much should professional practice as currently known be applied to citizen journalism?”

The internet has created a level playing ground of sorts for professionals and amateurs alike in many occupations, as it allows anyone to create content and contribute to discussions. Increasingly cheap and widespread internet access (Powell, 2001, 309) has facilitated the rise of citizen journalism, where ordinary people untrained in professional journalistic practices produce news content. Some (Stewart and Robertson, 2009) claim that this new media environment will marginalise traditional, professional journalism, and lead to slipping standards of impartiality and truth. Bowman (2009) refers to a “‘marketplace of ideas’ hosted in the blogosphere where competing opinions merge to form a pluralist consensus”. However, this essay will argue that in countries without a free, independent media, citizen journalism must often dispense with conventions of impartiality as a counterweight against messages issued by a repressive government. Furthermore, it will investigate how traditional media does not always stick to the ‘professional practice’ of objectivity, and thus examine how citizen journalism can act as a “Fifth Estate” for journalism (Cooper, 2006, 13), creating a mutually beneficial watchdog system (Lowrey, 2006, 492). Finally, it will suggest that traditional media and citizen journalism will merge, creating a world “where factual journalism enlightens opinion and where opinion spawns the search for ever more diverse, relevant and important facts” (Bowman, 2009). Thus, it is not wholly necessary for citizen journalism to adopt “professional practices” because of the conditions it works under and the different role it plays. The “professional practice” of traditional journalism that we will mostly refer to here will be objectivity and impartiality, described as one of the most important tenets of the occupation (Soffer, 2009, 473). Citizen journalism is defined here as the creation of news content by bloggers and other non-professional, untrained citizens (Goode, 2009, 1291).

In countries with limited free speech and without an independent media, citizen journalism must often take a more unconventional approach. For example, during Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 ‘Tulip Revolution’ “state-controlled media … produced unreliable and erroneous accounts, which forced many people to search for alternative sources of information, often Internet-based” (Perlmutter, 2007, 30).  Citizen journalism in such an environment therefore sacrifices any claim of impartiality, in order to counterbalance the government’s message as faithfully relayed by state media. During the revolution, Akaevu.net, a Kyrgyz anti-government blog, acted as a “samizdat” – anti-government citizen journalism publications distributed throughout Soviet controlled Eastern Europe in the 1980s (Perlmutter, 2007, 46). However, Akaevu.net’s presence on the internet – a “modern day samizdat” (Perlmutter, 2007, 46) – enabled readers to view its content in the privacy of their own home, without the potentially dangerous process of obtaining a copy. Akaevu.net did not make any pretence at impartiality, and its stated aim was indeed the downfall of the government (Perlmutter, 2007, 37). However, it succeeded in both informing the local population on events and bringing international attention to the revolution (Perlmutter, 2007, 46). Furthermore, contrary to traditional news media aims at exclusive readership (Bowman, 2009), Akaevu.net provided links to and content created by other news outlets (Perlmutter, 2007, 37). This brought information from multiple sources together, eliminating the need to visit several websites to gain satisfactory information.

Elsewhere, Lebanese blogger Habib Battah told CNN (2007) that “we never had the chance to really tell our side of the story of what’s going on in the Middle East today, not from the mainstream media point of view, not from the Arab media point of view, which is all full of censorship. This gives us a way to express ourselves freely”. Again, Battah makes no claim of impartiality on the part of bloggers, but notes that he can “go to a blog in Kuwait … and find out what’s really going on there because … Kuwait TV, it’s just these fake images of meeting and greeting and heads of state … I can read a Kuwaiti blog that can tell me [for example] that police raided ‘Merchant Megastore’ today.” Bloggers in countries with these media conditions have to contend with the state media, and journalistic impartiality becomes an afterthought, rather than a priority. The same CNN report (2007) shows Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas simultaneously performing the role of “political activist” and citizen journalist, forgoing the impartiality and purely “factual” emphasis observed by Bowman (2009) in the traditional media. However, with the absence of free speech in Egypt (at the time) and much of the Arab world’s traditional media (Kuttab, 2011), Abbas acts as an informational counterweight against those tightly regulated outlets. Later, during the Egyptian Revolution of February 2011, activist and citizen journalist Gigi Ibrahim described her role as “being part of this wave of change” (New York Times, 2011). However, she also claimed it was “important for me to be a citizen journalist, because with our press here (in Egypt) not everything gets broadcast” (New York Times, 2011).  Her stated aim was the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, but she succeeded in informing people about the protests and giving a perspective beyond that of the western media that was in Egypt at the time (PBS, 2011). Clearly, repressive conditions on the ground in some countries necessitate pure information from citizen journalists over the traditional journalistic convention of objectivity, and indeed the above examples illustrate how such activity can contribute to social change.

Furthermore, the traditional news media has been known forgo objectivity and impartial reporting as well, although to what extent is disputed. Some claim that bias, an element that today’s traditional news media claim to avoid, still finds its way into professional reporting. According to Laermer (qtd in Grensing-Pophal, 2009, 18), “when you read The Economist it is ‘reporting,’ but the reporter is also telling you how they see it”. Others, like veteran journalist John Pilger, go so far as to say that the news media has in fact failed in its claims of impartiality (Pilger, 2002, 11). Indeed, the western news media’s coverage of the Arab – Israeli conflict, for example, is one issue where the type of language used in many reports creates a bias in favour of one side over another (Pilger, 2002, 11; Ismail, 2010, 102). This is perhaps an example of journalists being “constrained” by “practices and positions greatly influenced by management, business and other interests” (Bowman, 2009). In other words, professional journalists sometimes arguably serve those who write their checks, and not their audience. Citizen journalism and the “modern blogosphere can return the ‘publicness’ to journalism” (Bowman, 2009), as citizen journalists have no obligation to a higher authority but their own. Thus the authoritative, traditional news media can become vulnerable to bias because of influencing factors outside the journalistic process, compromising its professional practice of objectivity and impartiality. Therefore, when talking about the application of traditional journalism’s “professional practices” of impartiality to citizen journalism, we must remember that traditional, conventional journalism does not always perfectly uphold those ideals.

In reaction to this, citizen journalism can act as a “Fifth Estate”, or “watchdog” for professional journalism (Cooper, 2006, 13). Indeed, blogs have “taken down U.S. Senator Trent Lott after bringing to light his pro–segregation comments; they’ve exposed Dan Rather and CBS for airing false memos about President Bush’s military service; they’ve been partially responsible for the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; and, they’ve even led the way in exposing Mel Gibson’s anti–Semitic rant following his DUI arrest” (Usher, 2008, para 2). Saltzman (2005) draws a comparison between citizen journalism today and the early 20th century, as the term “‘professional journalist’, with its own code of ethics and skills taught in schools of journalism, was pretty much non-existent [prior to 1920]”. Saltzman (2005) argues that the right to freedom of the press means anyone can “have their own ‘press,’ enabling each man and woman to voice his or her own view of the world and to report whatever is thought to be important”. He concludes that anyone can be a journalist if they choose, without any formal training, and that the advent of the internet “means that anyone anywhere can become an active participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information” (Saltzman, 2005). Thus, “professional practice as currently known” in journalism is merely part of an ongoing evolution of the field, as is the current wave of ‘unconventional’ citizen journalism that is emerging. As discussed above, citizen journalism often makes no claim or pretence of impartiality. However, as it is unrestrained by obligations of impartiality, it can act as a ‘watchdog’ for professional journalism, along with producing original news content.

However, that does not mean the current practice of professional journalism is becoming redundant. Instead, some predict that a convergence or merging of professional practice and citizen journalism will occur (Bowman, 2009). Saltzman (2005) states that the best asset a news organisation can have is trust from its audience. He asserts that “the great news organizations won trust by providing accurate and fair information on which their audiences could rely,” and predicts blogs will have to do the same in order to gain credibility, and therefore a following (Saltzman, 2005). Furthermore, the return to a “marketplace of ideas” will not be a straightforward reversion to the early 20th century model of journalism, because of the emergence of the “modern global village” (Bowman, 2009). Some context and background information is needed to avoid the misinterpretation caused by cultural differences that can arise when people from different cultures consume the same content (Bowman, 2009). Thus the need for professional journalism, with its practices and ethics based on fact and objectivity, remains. In other words, professional journalists “always will be needed to dig out facts and put a story into perspective, and no one does this better than the professional journalist” (Saltzman, 2005).  Therefore, we can conclude that citizen journalism needn’t adopt “professional practice as currently known” because it ultimately plays a different role to that of professional journalism. This will ultimately lead to “a merging of the two worlds where factual journalism enlightens opinion and where opinion spawns the search for ever more diverse, relevant and important facts,” (Bowman, 2009) which will be provided by citizen journalism. Thus Bowman’s (2009) “merging of the two worlds” refers not to a physical convergence of citizen and professional journalism, but to how the two will complement one another. The audience will learn of an issue via the traditional news media, and if they are interested, will then seek opinion, analyses or further information from bloggers or citizen journalists who they trust. Or vice versa, a consumer will spot their chosen citizen journalist talking about an issue, and then go to the traditional media to obtain contextual background information. Citizen journalism needn’t adopt “professional practices” of impartiality and objectivity because its emerging role is to provide analysis and opinion. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that the nature of journalism as a whole is constantly evolving. Far from threatening fair, professional journalism (Stewart and Robertson, 2009), the existence and popularity of citizen journalism will mean “journalists are more likely to reconstruct and redefine the practice and processes of journalism in order to protect the occupation” (Lowrey, 2006, 492).

Citizen journalism is developing its own journalistic role simultaneously distinct from and complementary to that of professional journalism. In countries existing under repressive regimes where the traditional news media and its content is controlled by the state, citizen journalism acts as a counterweight, forgoing objectivity and participating in social change. Furthermore, it can act as a “Fifth Estate” (Cooper, 2006, 13) for traditional journalism, ensuring that it performs its job responsibly just as traditional journalism is supposed to monitor centres of power. Lastly, the “merging” of the two into mutually complementary forms of contextual information and opinionated analysis (Bowman, 2009) leads to an arguably more effective process of informing the public. As a result, it isn’t wholly necessary for citizen journalism to apply “professional practice as currently known” to itself, within the role that it currently occupies.

References

Bowman, Leo. 2009. “Is The Fourth Estate Dead?” Accessed May 29, 2011. http://blackboard.qut.edu.au/

CNN. 2007. “CNN Report On Blogger Wael Abbas.” YouTube video, posted November 3, 2007. Accessed May 16, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBdglRJ9aZY

Cooper, Stephen D. 2006. “Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers as the Fifth Estate.” Spokane: Marquette Books.

Goode, Luke. 2009. “Social News, Citizen Journalism and Democracy.” New Media and Society, 11 (8): 1287-1305. Accessed June 1, 2011. doi: 10.1177/1461444809341393

Grensing-Pophal, Lin. 2009. “The Evolution of Old Media.” Information Today, September 2009. Accessed June 1, 2011. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=6e01d512-11fd-485a-b1b0-09d2df9d7314%40sessionmgr11&vid=2&hid=13

Ismail, Amani. 2010. “Making Sense of a Barrier: U.S. News Discourses on Israel’s Dividing Wall.” The Journal of Communication Inquiry, 34 (1): 85-108. Accessed May 30, 2011. doi: 10.1177/0196859909338408

Kuttab, Daoud. 2011. “Still Missing in the Arab World: Assembly, Free Speech.” The Globe and Mail, February 17, 2011. Accessed May 17, 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/still-missing-in-the-arab-world-assembly-free-speech/article1910303/

Lowrey, Wilson. 2006. “Mapping the Journalism – Blogging Relationship.” Journalism 7 (4): 477-500. Accessed May 18, 2011. doi: 10.1177/1464884906068363

New York Times. 2011. “Interview With an Egyptian Blogger.” Interview via Skype, posted January 27, 2011. Accessed June 2, 2011. http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/27/interview-with-an-egyptian-blogger/

PBS. 2011. “Frontline: Young Woman Becomes the Face of a Revolution.” Report, aired February 21, 2011. Accessed June 2, 2011. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/jan-june11/frontline_02-21.html

Perlmutter, David. 2007. “Blogging Down the Dictator? The Kyrgyz Revolution and Samizdat Websites.” The International Communication Gazette, 69 (1): 29-50. Accessed May 29, 2011. doi: 10.1177/1748048507072777

Pilger, John. 2002. “John Pilger.” New Statesman, 15 (713): 11-12

Powell, Adam Clayton. 2001. “Falling for the Gap: Whatever Happened to the Digital Divide?” in The Digital Divide, edited by Benjamin M. Compaine, 309-312. Cambridge: MIT Press

Saltzman, Joe. 2005. “Everyone’s A Journalist.” USA Today Magazine, 134 (2726): 59. Accessed June 1, 2011. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b7ddecb8-02ee-4a25-bcc4-0aba3fa12657%40sessionmgr 14&vid= 3&hid=14

Soffer, Oren. 2009. “The Competing Ideals of Objectivity and Dialogue in American Journalism.” Journalism, 10 (4): 473-491. Accessed June 1, 2011. doi: 10.1177/1464884909104950

Stewart, Sinclair and Grant Robertson. 2009. “Future of Media: Is Democracy Written in Disappearing Ink?” Globe Investor, March 14, 2009. Accessed June 1, 2011. http://tdw.globeinvestor.com/servlet/ArticleNews/print/RTGAM/20090313/wfcover14

Usher, Nikki. “Reviewing Fauxtography: A Blog Driven Challenge To Mass Media Power Without the Promises of Networked Publicity.” First Monday, 13 (12): page number n/a. Accessed May 29, 2011. http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2158/2055

PS: Be sure to take some time to read through some of the articles in the reference list. The PBS story on Gigi Ibrahim in the heady days of Egypt’s revolution just before Mubarak’s ousting makes for interesting viewing. Likewise, Nikki Usher’s article on the relationship between bloggers and traditional journalists is a good read.

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