Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Citizen journalism vs the professionals

It’s been a bad week in the office, one of those weeks where my nice readership turns into a schizophrenic monster and my building feels a bit like a Stalinist state. Anyway, the following was written in response to a particularly knotty story we have had to deal with, which again showed my basic unsuitability for ‘proper’ journalism and made me write ‘Never Trust A Quaker’ in large post-it notes above my desk. My piece won’t go in for a while now what with Yuletide stampeding into view, so I’ve adapted it:-

Citizen journalism has been one of the buzzwords of 2005. The Friend, of course, has been a journal for citizen journalists for the Quaker community since 1843. But where exactly should citizen journalists fit into wider news reporting?

A rising problem is that citizen journalism runs the many risks of cheapness. The rise of such projects as Wikinews, where anyone can write the news, leads many, myself included, into thinking that ‘everybody’ can be a journalist. The immediacy we are becoming used to means we might rush to print something, knowing that other ‘truths’ or sides will come in time. This works better on the internet than it does in print. When it comes to tricky stories the need for training, old fashioned investigation, allowing a story to brew quietly and giving all sides the chance to have their say, no matter how clear it might look to start with, is revealed. Wikinews has an excellent synthesis of news, but it is difficult to say when this large group of dedicated volunteers, with huge trust issues, will be able to do original reporting as well as it does rewrites.

Even in a relatively small community like the Society of Friends, truth is multilayered and complex and Friend readers have greater ownership of their magazine than most. They also expect greater professionalism than is necessarily fair. We are a small team reliant mainly on what comes to us from our readers and, moreover, we operate in the same climate of trust that the Society as a whole expects. As someone who just doesn’t have the cynicism to be a ‘proper’ reporter, I find the multitude of entirely conflicting stories very difficult to deal with.

Citizen journalism does not mean free journalism: it cannot replace all the skills that journalists have to gain over many years and neither should paid journalists be shuffled out by cost-cutting editors. However, it does have the power to shift our society in a vital way. The People are now be empowered to share what is going on around them, ask questions of authority, to draw attention to their concerns and be a greater part of the dialogue of society. It can only be a good thing if opinions can be read from a greater variety of sources than the suited individuals in their London towers.

Tragically in the industry as it is now, you can either be unpaid and write what you want, or you can be well paid and write bile. Hopefully the rise of citizen journalism will lead people to have greater expectations of professional journalists, raising standards across the board. Newspaper readerships will continue to drop until editors realise that their nonsense is very quickly exposed online - perhaps. And at The Friend, the readers who are our eyes and ears will report what is going on around them, leaving the journalists we do have to untangle the more difficult issues the Society faces.

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