McGuire on Media

Citizen journalism has value, but ethics will distinguish the pros

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition on Romenesko that allowed me to make the connections, but three articles fit together perfectly for me and maybe not for others. I think they serve as a perfect call to action, unity and reader service.

In rapid order I read about Steve Outing’s lessons learned from a failed citizen journalism venture, a Washington Post piece about the  emergence of citizen journalism and then an Ed Wasserman piece about alleged overly aggressive editors enforcing standards in the newsroom. Mix, stir, and wonder of wonders, we have a blog subject for McGuire.

Outing’s piece required a lot of courage.  He candidly analyzes the failure of his business. He and a partner tried to establish a mountain biking enthusiast site powered only by citizen content.  His discovery–you need professional content to make it work. Well, slap me on the head. After forgetting that for a while, people are apparently rediscovering what my friend and soon-to-be-colleague,  Dan Gillmor  said in May of 2006. He told a conference audience "I hope we don’t lose big journalism, but want to see it as part of an ecosystem where all kinds of things from sole bloggers in deep narrow niches to what we have today…where it’s symbiotic as opposed to entirely competitive."

The Washington Post piece quotes people seemingly obsessed with citizen journalism being a replacement for mainstream journalism. The Post piece quotes one angry citizen journalist as saying "You (mainstream media) are not telling the whole story…You’ve lost your credibility." In the tradition of modern journalism the Post writer offers an alternative point of view from author Andrew Keen who says, "You can’t just be a great journalist, the same way you can’t be a great chef or a great soccer player." Keen adds in the Post piece,  Journalists "follow a set of standards, a code of ethics. Objectivity rules. That’s not the case with citizen journalists.  Anything goes in that world."

Outing’s lesson from his failed enterprise is clearly the symbiosis lesson. He eloquently explains that the citizen content was just not good enough to power a site on its own.  He wishes he would have mixed in a lot more "professional content." Outing’s most important statement, in my view, is this: "I’m not saying that user-submitted content isn’t worthwhile, let me be clear about that. I am saying you can’t rely too much on it. And you need to filter out and highlight the best user content, while downplaying the visibility of the mediocre stuff."

Too often in this debate proponents of citizen journalism have taken a "you are with us or you are agin’ us" tenor.  Symbiosis is the answer for mainstream media and citizen journalists .  If we buy into the Committee for Concerned Journalists contention that our first obligation is to citizens we must enthusiastically welcome citizens into the conversation.  Mainstream media arrogance about our superior knowledge and insight should not overpower the fact that citizens can teach us much about the world and our business.

At the same time, citizen journalism does not, and can not, mean the end of mainstream media.  As Outing observes the pros are required to produce quality, and he says "Quality matters." 

You, and Ed Wasserman, are probably wondering what all this citizen journalism talk has to do with his column complaining about all the journalists who are being fired in the name of ethics.  I think everything. The debate about citizen journalists and professional journalists is all about ethics and standards.  As journalism standards are weakened by blogs and the 24/7 rush of news, mainstream media has to be the standard-bearer for ethics and impeccable behavior.  Certainly, we have a long way to go.

Ed’s piece is must reading. He argues that editors have been too quick on the trigger to fire people for ethical transgressions and he goes into specifics. The piece is a little absolutist for my taste and more than a bit populist. Running a newsroom is tough work and the people he skewers are balancing a lot of considerations. I didn’t find it very understanding of leadership challenges.

I taught with Ed Wasserman at Washington and Lee University for 6 weeks in 2005 when I was the first Reynolds visiting professor at that fine school.  My passionate debates with Ed were a true highlight of my short stay and I’m smart enough to know those debates are best conducted in person and not through the blogosphere. And in this case, I agree with a lot of of Ed’s specific examples, and I agree absolutely with his conclusion that ethical action "demands acting justly with proportionality, fairness and compassion. Forgiveness is a good thing in the news and newsrooms."  That is inarguable. I’d go a step further and say forgiveness is an ethical principle we too often forget.

I agree with Ed, too, that risk is important in these tumultuous times.  I am just as convinced that, rather than being arrogant bullies, many newsroom leaders are trying to sort out the newspaper’s place in the media landscape. Ethical behavior is the place to start. Ed is correct that proportion and compassion are required. Adherence to an ethical code that distinguishes us from bloggers and some cowboy citizen journalists is also essential.

I am glad Ed is calling some firings into question. He always was a great conversation starter. I simply want to assure that the conversation is a complete one.  The effort to establish that mainstream media stands for ethical behavior is a noble goal. How we set those standards and enforce them should always be open to debate. The need for standards to allow us to rise above the crowd should not be. It is how readers are going to distinguish the pros from the amateurs as we move forward.

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