OPINION1 October 2009

Citizen journalism isn't always A Good Thing

From an excellent story in this month’s Atlantic Monthly magazine: The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition.

From an excellent story in this month’s Atlantic Monthly magazine: “The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition.”

Mark Bowden, the reporter, investigates what happened when Judge Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court. Immediately all the TV networks possessed the same package of video of her seeming to make extremist comments. Bowden tracks down the blogger who unearthed the videos and the advocacy groups that disseminated them. On the face of it, blogger does the legwork that journalists don’t and gets a story is a good-news story about internet culture. Anyone who complains about citizen journalists doing their job must be a bitter old-school journalist, you think.

I say: not so. Bowden makes two points: 1. When journalists do not have the time or the skills, someone else will step in to provide ready-made stories. The lack of resource in journalism means these stories go straight on to the page or the screen, and so are effectively endorsed by the publication. 2. The people who do it have their own agenda: “Work formerly done by reporters and producers is now routinely performed by political operatives and amateur ideologues of one stripe or another, whose goal is not to educate the public but to win. This is a trend not likely to change.”

And that’s the important difference. Most citizen journalists, advocacy groups, public relations companies are not motivated by the desire to get to the truth, but to deliver a point of view. No problem: it’s their job to work backwards from a conclusion (Or, for citizen journalists, it is their vocation). It is the job of the reporter to check whether that conclusion has any value. And so professional journalists must take some responsibility. For years we have been pleased to have stories fed to us like baby food, complete with partial research, friendly quotes and conclusions. We can’t suddenly complain when we realise that it has made us into the advocacy industry’s gimps. Now, thanks to forces beyond our control, many newspapers, news stations and magazines are no longer set up to check the stories they report. Judge Sotomayor was confirmed, but the damaging news clips of her led on every major news station. In his feature Bowden checked the context and discovered that the clips, far from being the secret confession of a deranged idealogue, contained little of interest and nothing new. That is, until they were taken out of context by a politically-motivated blogger and presented to the media, who didn’t bother to check them. If you’re in the business of winning approval for your clients, this is good news. But in the long term this culture of advocacy is dangerous. We no longer have any idea who is shaping the news at any level, and as citizens we can never know enough to separate good research from carefully-disguised bias when we watch or read the news. Bowden concludes about this type of media that: “Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all “news” is unapologetically propaganda.”

When that happens, ultimately we all lose.