Journalism and professionalism


Critics of new media often say that bloggers, aggregators, and “new media” generally are parasites on the work of newspapers and other “real” or legacy media. They say that newspapers and legacy media pay for the real reporting work, and then bloggers and aggregators just come along and use it.

In all fairness, bloggers are not the only ones who publish less-than-original reporting. As an editor, I see press releases come across my (electronic) desk all day long. Frequently, I see the same press release, with a few words rearranged, appearing as reporting in other local media.

I also see  reports that simply quote other local media: “Around 11 pm, residents were forced from the Grand Avenue apartment building after a second-floor unit caught fire, WCCO-TV said.” No original reporting there – just a straight pick-up from another news medium, without even enough investigation to furnish an address for the fire.

Granted, everybody’s budget has been cut, and there’s not enough money for reporting anywhere – but where is the line between reporting and regurgitating? What is the difference between a blogger quoting from a newspaper and a newspaper quoting a television station? Why is a single-source story based on a press release more “journalistic” than a blog post based on a couple of articles?

Jay Gabler sent me an essay, What citizen journalists can learn from citizen scientists, published by Dan Schultz from the Knight Foundation’s Idea Lab. Schultz reflected on the widely reported story that an amateur astronomer recently found a giant hole on Jupiter, and drew parallels between the categories of professional scientist, amateur scientist and citizen scientist and similar categories of journalists.

Schultz concluded that, “A symbiotic relationship between the professional, the amateur, and the crowd is not just possible, it’s socially optimal.” I agree with that conclusion, though some of his other points are less convincing.

For example, Schultz suggested that “professional” journalists should “take the lead by clearly defining expectations, explaining best practices, and implementing an accessible infrastructure.” I think that’s too optimistic an assignment. For one thing, it’s tough to define who the “professionals” are, since nobody certifies journalists except the outfits that hire them. More important, the job of defining expectations and best practices is too important to leave solely to the professionals. We, the people formerly known as the audience, need to demand high standards of accuracy and integrity, and hold every journalism practitioner – professional or amateur or citizen journalist – to those standards.

As for an “accessible infrastructure,” when news organizations are increasingly owned by a few, large corporations or financial investment groups whose concern is profit centers rather than civic responsibility, it’s unrealistic to expect that they will provide any access that doesn’t earn an immediate return.

Schultz is right on target, however, when he insists that citizen journalists “need to be explicitly empowered through tools and guidance.”

“Tools and guidance” are needed not only for citizen journalists, but also for media consumers, and that includes all of us. We all benefit by reading/listening/viewing news reporting more critically.  We all benefit by a debate over the nature of journalism and what its standards and best practices should be.

That’s a debate and critique that can help us to distinguish between the journalistic practice of Walter Cronkite and that of Lou Dobbs – and to judge which really constitutes “best practices” in journalism, and which road we want to take.