“Media is a word that has come to mean bad journalism.” –Graham Greene
This weekend I received an email from a local arts organization that began:
We appreciate your work as an active citizen journalist and would like to invite you…
“Hang on,” I thought, “I’m not a citizen journalist”. I am often a curator, sometimes an editorialist and occasionally a critic. I rarely ‘cover’ something, inasmuch as I attend an event and report on it, but I don’t really self-identify that way. That arts group isn’t alone, though–I’ve heard plenty of others equate “blogger” with “citizen journalist”.
For me, it’s about intent. I don’t think “I’d really like to go report on that concert”. My thought process is pretty unexamined, but it’s more like “I like Cat Power, and I like writing about the arts, so I’ll write about my experience of attending her concert. Others might be interested in what I write.”
The Most Documented Games Yet
That email got me thinking about citizen journalism. Thanks to the Olympics, it’s an idea that’s much in the public eye these days. From groups like True North Media House and Vancouver Access 2010 to dozens of individual bloggers, Twitter users and rich media makers, these are surely the most documented Games yet.
There’s no shortage of reportage. We’re going to events and writing about them. We’re photographing the Games and the streets and everything in-between. We’re having fun.
We’re covering stories. But how often are we uncovering them?
Where is the local, investigative citizen journalism? To put it another way, who’s doing the citizen reporting that isn’t fun?
Who’s pounding the pavement, making calls, sifting through government reports, sitting in town hall meetings and doing all of the difficult, time-consuming work that professional journalists have been doing? Because I sure ain’t.
I asked on Twitter, and received a couple suggestions. Sean Holman’s work at The Public Eye is one example, as are
Linda Soloman’s Megan Stewart’s stories on toxic chemicals for the Vancouver Observer. Notably, both Sean and Linda are professional journalists.
Can you think of other examples? Has any citizen journalist broken a story around the Olympics?
Five Percent Off the Top
I’m not trying to discredit or criticize citizen journalism. I just worry that most of it is, by its nature, lightweight and short term. Few of us have the time, resources, expertise, connections and (most importantly, I think) motivation to do the in-depth work of your average investigative journalist. On top of those discouragements, the web doesn’t particularly reward the long-form article or feature-length documentary. It’s a bite-sized medium.
If we assume that the writing is on the wall for much of the mainstream media, where does that leave us? I liked how Clay Shirky put it in a 2009 talk at Harvard:
Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I’ve kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption–that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.
Will citizen journalists step in to fill this void? I hope so, but you’d be hard-pressed to get me to sit through even one town-hall meeting. I’m happy to volunteer my time for good causes, but monitoring city hall isn’t a priority.
I know I’m describing a problem without offering many solutions. Here are a couple of ideas:
- There are examples of an emerging kind of citizen statistician, who uses access to open governmental data to uncover political or corporate malfeasance.
- Another solution is to divide the work of one journalist among 15 citizen journalists, and have each of them attend four town hall meetings a year. Collaborative tools make this approach possible if challenging.
The more I think about it, the investigative citizen journalists of the 21st century are the activists of the 20th. They care enough about a particular topic to dig into it with enough effort and fervor to uncover new truths.
What do you think? Where will we find the investigative journalists of the future?