Journalism as a control point

My Guardian colleague Mike Tomasky reveals much in his reaction to Jay Rosen’s post about the Off the Bus blogger who reported Barack Obama’s bitter comments. Tomasky thinks that news happens by journalism’s rules and he’s upset the rules have changed and wants new rules. But who ever gave journalism hegemony over news? News is what happens and what people witness and what they can now share, with or without journalists. That’s the new rule of the press-sphere: nobody rules.

Says Tomasky: “But if the old rules are fading away, there have to be a few new ones to take their place. There can’t just be anarchy.”

Anarchy is defined that as a world without his rules. So he wants to impose some:

So there are still some things to sort out about all this. I’d suggest, for starters, that any citizen-journalist who has made political donations be forced to list them at the bottom of every post . . . . I’d also say that citizen-journalists ought to have the responsibility, when the circumstances merit it, of seeking follow-up comment from the other side (or, in the case above, giving Obama aides the standard chance to clarify). That’s the tough part of journalism. Any idiot can run a tape recorder.

So fine – let’s change the rules. But let’s at least have some.

But what happens when you take away the label journalist and just call the person a witness? Does that person have to live by Tomasky’s rules? Or can that person still tell people what she heard and saw? Isn’t that simply put free speech?

I’m rather appalled that Tomasky also thinks that political candidates of all people ought to be able to benefit from the cloak of secrecy enabled by his rules. He makes it a club and if you violate the club’s rules and report what an elected official said, what happens to you? You get ejected?

So fine, eliminate the label of journalist. Citizens can listen. Citizens can talk. Citizens can share. Citizens can publish. When they hear something newsworthy, citizens don’t need to go running to flacks to make sure it’s OK to repeat what they heard. In that case, I’d prefer to have citizens telling me what happens. They are less beholden than journalists. They don’t care about the rules. They care about the news. That’s what happened in Off the Bus’ story. If it had been a journalist hearing what she heard, would she have run to the flack to get a cleaned-up version, as Tomasky suggests? Would she have kept it secret because that’s what his rules said? Or would she have reported it, as Off the Bus did?

Oh, and on Tomasky’s suggestion that citizens reveal their contributions, how about this: I still want journalists to reveal their sympathies. I’d say that’s every bit as relevant and fare more often hidden.

The best rule from all sides: openness.

  • I think I agree, especially about the part that journalists should reveal their sympathies,, but I have a question: at what point does a citizen cease to be “just” a citizen and become something more? After all, journalists are citizens too, strictly speaking.

    I would think that when I publish something, I have become more than just a citizen. If what I publish is a report of an event than I have taken on the role of reporter/journalist. I have then left a personal/private sphere where my sympathies and alliegances are my own and entered the public sphere. If people read my report of a significant event – expecially if I am the only witness – do they not have the right to know what my bias might be?

    It is different from being interviewed as an eye witness by a professional journalist. In that case, if I am not undertaking the publishing myself, it is incumbent upon the journalist and her editor to verify the truth of my account.

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  • Michael Katcher

    Are people doubting the [i]truth[/i] of what this citizen reported? Now maybe if the citizen made a blog post saying ‘Rumor has it Senator Clinton eats babies’, then maybe it’d be useful to say ‘and by the way I’m pulling for Obama’. But this is a factual account. I think that’s why Jeff uses the term witness.

    The divide shouldn’t be citizen/journalist since the lines are blurry and we’ve obviously seen many high-profile instances of journalists fudging the facts (and being caught by these biased-citizens). The divide should be between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’. A ‘fact’ can certainly be a lie, but it cannot be biased. An ‘opinion’ is of course biased, which begs the question of what purpose disclosing bias would serve. If you cannot tell the bias of an opinion then it’s probably not a very coherent opinion to begin with.

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  • Guy Love

    The myth of the objective journalist seems to be pervasive amongst the traditional media. Most news consumers automatically filter news into idealogical buckets and are only concerned about the information content. The net bloggers understand this and pump content 24/7 with very little concern in shaping a story or sanitizing the facts for objectivity. The net blogger leaves it to the news consumer to determine the merit and value of the information.

    Traditional media providers do not seem capable of adjusting to their loss of control over the shaping of the information that is finally presented to the public. The amount of whining over the ABC debate is fascinating as the old guard in the traditional media castigate ABC for providing the people what they want. News consumers are smart enough to do their own editing and summarizing, they are the new gate keepers of “what is relevant” and that is a good thing.

  • Anatole

    Identity of a witness is not important, while that of a journalist is of primary importance. If we start asking who this person was, what her convictions and political preferences are, it is an indication of a journalistic quality of her post.

    Freedom of speech does not excuse gossip, plagiarism or perjury. And it does not excuse intentional or even unintentional (which I find highly unlikely) misinterpretation or putting out of context. Freedom of speech is about expressing one’s own opinions and not about picking random snippets of somebody else’s conversation.

    Of course, this is about openness. These new grass-root journalists are outside traditional controlling rules, just the way Internet is outside the controlled territory of identities, morals or governments. In this situation of informational existentialism I’d be very careful not to lose my job as a ‘gotcha’ style journalist – there is clearly growing competition out there.

    Time to crank up some quality content!

  • Mike G

    I’ll post what my political contributions were when the power journalist couples in DC start posting who they had dinner with every night, who belongs to the same tennis club, who they’re covering for because they’re a good source, and so on. Journalists worrying about citizens’ ethical conundrums are like mobsters worrying about mortgage lenders.

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  • “The best rule from all sides: openness.”

    Hear hear.

    Transparency is, or should be, the rule, whether one is talking about “professional” journalism or “citizen” journalism.

    In a way, that should be easier for print media, if only because – despite the constant claims of “objectivity” – so many publications make their biases and beliefs quite clear. The New York Times and the Washington Times may represent different ends of the political spectrum, but it is pretty clear to me as a reader which is which, and I tend to read their stories through those presumed prisms.

    The same is often true of blogs. Certainly Jeff has his own perspective on issues regarding communications, and he makes them very clear to the reader. There is a difference between Daily Kos and Hugh Hewitt, and it would take an awfully dim-witted reader to be unable to uncover their points of view.

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  • Colin Kerr

    There’s a good blog from EuroTimes journalist Howard Larkin at which touches on some of these subjects.

  • journalism has a definition, in my opinion.
    Journalism is the telling of truth.
    anything else, AnyThing Else/All things else is/are not journalism. Those other things might just simply be called the sharing of opinion or information, but not necessariliy journalism.
    journalist needs to align with journalism. Same principles apply.
    journalist tells the truth-not doing so, or any sort of distortion and editorialization (as a journalist who loves to editorialize, i relate to this one deeply) should be clear and obvious to the informed receiver.
    education and the receiver are more of an issue than journalism and the producer.
    we should focus more on the education of the receiver than the production of the producer. this shift in paradigm would resolve many of the issues we, as journalists, and therefore as editors, face.
    we also need to look at anyone who produces anything as an editor, not just a citizen or journalist. this is necessary because of cultural lens, which no human is capable (nor should they really be expected or wanted not to have) of not having a cultural lens.
    social media, as i’ve stated, is a bridge between the editorial constraints of revenue and the telling of truth.
    however, as fun and tidy as all this sounds…let’s not forget the philosophical argument.
    what is real? what is reality?
    these are important distinctions because truth is a measured by the impression of reality, and reality, like cultural lens, is wide open, on the interpretation spectrum (at an individual level, particularly).
    This then brings this discussion into the realm of any sort of collectivity among humans.
    as mammals, is it not likely we share a collectivity? don’t many other mammals?
    perhaps Darwin has the answer…or Plato or Kant or Rupert Murdock…Ted Turner, etc…
    do we need collectivity in order to make order of the chaos that is inherent to interpretation of reality on an individual level, and if so, and this is something we attempt to somehow implement, how do we do so without losing individual freedoms and rights, and of course, that which we cannot afford to lose, individuality and creativity.
    …crumbs i’m late.
    to be continued.

  • The outrageous idea that journalists are neutral at all times and therefore have no need to disclose their campaign contributions is really insulting.

    There had been a clear sea-change in the performance of professional journalists and talking heads since the anthrax ‘attack’ and now they are taking orders from somebody without the people’s interest at heart.

    Citizen journalists are the only way remaining for accuracy and genuinely unbiased reporting to occur now. Whomever threatened the professional news agencies cannot do the same to every potential citizen journalist. Given the horrible situation in our government and foreign affairs, the dangerous legislation being passed with almost no objection from anyone, this is the worst of all possible times for journalism to be silenced.

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  • Nankevans

    Despite my professional role in a public relations function, I must come down on the side of the argument that Clinton’s comments were fair game — made as they were in a public environment. But the debate about whether or not there needs to be rules for journalism needs to distinguish between witness journalism – reporting of things seen and heard — and analysis journalism — the overlay of scepticism and expertise to determine the significance of events. The latter is where most citizen journalists lack the training and professionalism of the capital J journalists.

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  • “”jesse Says:
    April 23rd, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    journalism has a definition, in my opinion.
    Journalism is the telling of truth.
    anything else, AnyThing Else/All things else is/are not journalism. Those other things might just simply be called the sharing of opinion or information, but not necessariliy journalism.””

    I agree with this – Journalism by definition must include all sides of any issue to be called journalism. Eveything else is Commentary or editorial.
    Just an opinion thanks

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