Blogonomics: Citizen Journalists

I’m puzzled by my colleague Jeff Bercovici’s take on the concept of citizen journalism. Yesterday, he pronounced, in a blog entry headlined "‘Citizen Journalists’ Don’t Get a Pass on Ethics", this:

Being a "citizen journalist" doesn’t mean you get to pose as a citizen and then publish as a journalist.

Really? Because I thought that’s exactly what it means. (Let’s ignore, for the time being, the fact that journalists, as a rule, are citizens. You can’t "pose" as a citizen if you are one already.) But Jeff reckons that if the Huffington Post pulls such stunts, it will lose its "credibility as a news organization".

Today he clarifies his position: by "credibility" he means "access".

Much as the site claims to disdain the access-based Beltway news paradigm, it does seek access, whether in the form of an exclusive statement from Barack Obama, an interview with Dan Rather or invitations to cover events. (How many Huffpo reporters did I see at the Time 100, again?) Hell, Huffpo was founded on access — Arianna Huffington’s access to the bold-faced names who blog for her.

As it increasingly adopts the trappings of a conventional news organization, then, Huffpo becomes subject to the same kind of reprisals as a conventional news organization.

This is nothing to do with ethics any more, it’s simple expediency. If Huffpo wants its precious access, then it had better learn to play by the rules, or else face "reprisals" (which would presumably take the form of Dan Rather no longer granting the site interviews).

I, for one, hope it does no such thing. Huffpo is a new form of journalism; that’s the whole reason for its existence. There’s no equity in its transforming slowly into "a conventional news organization". If individuals want to give access to Huffpo and its new journalists, they can; on the other hand, if they don’t want to, no one is forcing them to. So far, the amount of access that Huffpo has been getting has only been going up, which implies that they must be doing something right. And Jeff adduces no evidence that Huffpo has been on the receiving end of any "reprisals" as a result of its citizen journalism. Indeed, there’s a much stronger case to be made that its Huffpo’s citizen journalism which is precisely what got it that access in the first place.

Jeff and I have been here before: he said that Huffpo should, like a conventional news organiztion, pay its bloggers; I disagreed. And this is where I agree with Jay Rosen that Jeff sounds as though he’s channeling "the guild mentality in the press". That doesn’t mean that Jeff went to J-school or doesn’t spend most of his time writing online; it just means that he considers journalists and conventional news organizations to be special things, and he worries when the Great Unwashed dare to crash the party (or break into the guild).

I, on the other hand, am much more upbeat about the transformation of the communication of information. More sources, more voices, more opinion, more debate? Good! Yes, there is very much a role for conventional journalists to play in such a world. But when someone like Mayhill Fowler breaks news despite not being a conventional journalist, I just smile. In the old days, she might have just told a few friends what she’d heard, and no one would have cared. Nowadays, she posts online, and can have an enormous impact: in a sense, we are all Mayhill Fowler’s friends today.

Jeff’s worries about access stem from the way in which newsmakers try to control news coverage of them. It’s an invidious practice, which I hope will slowly fade away. Maybe if conventional journalists didn’t need to worry so much about access, they would do a better job. That’s where citizen journalists come in: without worries about access, they can be as honest as conventional journalists would often like to be.

The most web-savvy politicians understand that it’s silly to try to corral Mayhill Fowler and her ilk like so many sheep. You have to encourage them to post what they like; sometimes that will result in a minor embarrassment like "bittergate", but most of the time they do a much better job of whipping up support and enthusiasm than any centrally-directed campaign ever could.

So, let a thousand Mayhill Fowlers bloom. Will Huffpo lose its precious access? Probably not, but it wouldn’t matter if it did. The downside of lost access is much smaller than the upside of the public being informed of what’s really going on.

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