The true promise of citizen journalism


It was never easy being a journalist, but it’s especially tough these days.

A journalist today not only must get the color of the man’s hat right, then make an editor happy enough to publish a story, and then not get sued once it is.


Opinion: The true promise of citizen journalism

Doug McGill will teach a one-session Largemouth Citizen Journalism Workshop at Washburn High School on Wednesday, February 27. To register, go to the Minneapolis Community Education Web site.

Now a journalist must worry whether she will have a job next week, because the newspaper or magazine that employs her may be sold.

If you are a journalist in television news, chances are your company long ago was sold to a giant corporation that wants you to stop doing immigration pieces and do more instead about Britney’s tragic breakdown, steamy trysts on luxury cruises, and exposes about ballerinas-turned-hookers.

It’s a scary scenario, in journalism I mean.

At newspapers, especially, dramatically declining advertising and circulation revenues have caused the combined market value of U.S. newspapers to drop 42 percent since 2005. To prop up profit margins, newspaper owners across the country have laid off thousands of veteran reporters and editors.

It’s a time to renegotiate the journalist-citizen relationship.

But something interesting and hopeful is happening as mainstream journalists find themselves suddenly outside of newsrooms. Along with millions of other ordinary citizens, they find themselves reading and writing blogs, making podcasts, and experimenting in video and other online media.

These newly-solo journalists, of whom I’m one, are for the first time meeting lots of fellow citizens who are doing journalism on the Internet.

Also for the first time, lots of journalists are relating to people not as sources for their stories, but as fellow citizens with whom they can create journalism together. It’s a time to renegotiate the relationship between journalist and citizen, and for both sides to learn a lot from each other.

Citizen journalism workshops so far have stressed the skills that journalists can teach ordinary citizens, such as reporting and writing techniques.

But citizens have much to teach professional journalists too, especially about ethics. Citizens are surprised at this, in my experience, but they shouldn’t be.

Citizens can teach journalists about ethics.

Journalism in recent decades has suffered a severe crisis of professional ethics, that citizens can help to heal. In the big picture, in fact, the guidance that citizens can offer to journalism in this way far exceeds in importance all the skills and techniques that journalists could offer to citizens.

That’s because journalistic skills amount to methods of verifying facts, plus a certain facility at writing in plain vernacular English. Neither of these skills lies far beyond the reach of anyone with a good high school education.

Whereas ethics is about the moral sense – knowing right from wrong, wholesome from unwholesome, what’s vital from what’s distracting, and the ability to listen and to care about people different from ourselves.

For nearly a century, thanks to the ideal of “objectivity,” journalists have steadfastly refused to talk about ethics – these real ethics – in newsrooms.

Of course, journalism has ethics codes aplenty. But they nearly always cover merely procedural, ethically superficial topics like conflicts of interest, plagiarism, handling complaints, and who picks up the check at lunch.

Ethical schizophrenia gives journalists soul-sickness.

The ban on authentic moral talk in newsrooms has created a difficult, even painfully schizophrenic situation in newsrooms.

Because on the one hand, journalists are among the most civic-minded, and in that sense ethical, people one could imagine. Why else would someone choose a profession with such long hours and poor pay, if not for the chance to improve the world a little bit?

Yet thanks to “objectivity,” those same journalists are unable to openly discuss morals in the workplace. They are forced to conduct themselves at work in a manner similar to, say, environmentalists who work for lumber companies.

I have witnessed the destructive impact of this throughout my working life at The New York Times, Bloomberg News, and in other newsrooms. Over a period of decades, I have personally witnessed young journalists start their careers filled with idealism and within years hurt so badly in their souls that they suffer anxiety, depression, nausea and panic attacks every day at work.

If you don’t think straight about morals, how can you
act in a morally positive and consistent manner?

They usually blame the hours, the pressure, and the competition.

I believe the suffering is caused mainly by the virus of objectivity, which instructs journalists to create positive moral outcomes by acting in a morally neutral manner. It’s crazy, the conscience knows it and rebels.

My colleagues at The New York Times, Bloomberg and other newsrooms and I were liberals and conservatives, straight and gay, Catholics and Mormons and Buddhists and Unitarians. But the moment we entered the newsrooms, a curtain of neutrality descended around each of us. With the force of a strict gag order, we were never able to speak with each other about the moral and civic passions that truly inspired and guided our lives.

We could never bring moral thinking directly to bear on our stories.

The ethical scandals that have plagued journalism in recent decades is traceable to this schizophrenic situation. How could it be otherwise? If you can’t speak at all about authentic morals — much less speak straight about them — how could you possibly act in a morally consistent manner?

Objectivity has caused even deeper long-term harm to the profession by attracting people motivated not by a civic sense but rather by commercial and personal ambition, mini-Murdochs and mini-Machiavellis of the news.

Citizens can help journalism restore an explicit, realistic, and positive ethic of public service.

Citizens can help journalists reconnect to the idealistic wellsprings of the craft.

Because when we work simply as citizens, doing journalism as we would vote, or serve on a jury, power games diminish and the will to serve others arises.

That’s why I’m excited about citizen journalism. The energy of wholesome moral intention has been lost for years in journalism. Citizens who never bought into “objectivity” in the first place can help us all to restore it.

My enthusiasm for citizen journalism sometimes earns me the contempt of fellow journalists. At one journalism conference recently, for example, I sat on the dais next to the managing editor of a major metropolitan newspaper.

After listening to me describe teaching journalism to ordinary citizens in Minneapolis, she opened her own remarks by icily saying: “I represent the institutions of journalism that Doug McGill is trying to destroy.”

That remark encapsulates the conversation-stopping defensiveness, the out-of-touchness, and the morally superior attitude that infects much of today’s journalism and is in large part responsible for its present woes.

Citizen journalists have ethical pitfalls to avoid, too.

Since when was journalism anything more than an act of citizenship?

Since when did individual journalists exercise skills more advanced than the use of native language, plus a basic moral sense, to share stories of the public world? 

How could ordinary citizens who are trying to learn journalism’s practices and ethics, in order to consume journalism more profitably and to use new communication technologies more responsibly, possibly represent an invading horde of destroyers?

If this is how institutional journalism thinks of its readers and viewers, no wonder it is losing its customers by the millions.

Not that citizen journalism is a panacea, far from it. Already, some worrying trends are obvious. The biggest one perhaps is the tendency to gloss over ethical discussions, just as mainstream journalism traditionally has done.

Seduced by the newest technological sublime, citizen journalists just like professional journalists often forego ethical talk. Classes in blogging, online editing, online marketing, reporting and writing are offered, but no one sets aside time to wrestle with the underlying problems and theory of the craft.

The very understandable urge to quickly prove oneself, plus of course to solve the world’s problems as soon as possible, trumps ethics talk.

Are citizen journalists simply learning how to be better special interest advocates?

There is a very real danger that if citizen journalists start their careers without sorting out the problem of objectivity, citizen journalism will end up precisely where mainstream journalism has done, in a deep ethics hole.

In addition, citizen journalism is showing a tendency to become a journalism of special interests, instead of a journalism of a raucous but peacefully conversing unified society. Most of the students in my student journalism classes in Minneapolis come to learn journalistic skills that will make them more effective advocates of a special interest, not more rounded as citizens.

Their causes are worthy – protecting the rights of children, immigrants, the handicapped, and the elderly; AIDS awareness; global warming; election finance reform; peace and justice; and so on. But if they leave my classes only to write better press releases for their special interests, seeing their new skills as weapons rather than as conversation tools, little progress will be made.

Still, I’m hopeful. When I read web sites like The Twin Cities Daily Planet, the UpTake, Freshare, Global Voices, Ovi Magazine and growing numbers of similar projects every month, I see plenty of citizens who aren’t in the least confused by objectivity’s contradictory dictates and claims.

Citizens can help restore the voice of the conscience in journalism.

These citizen journalists are Somali teenagers describing their journeys to America; and elderly people devoting their retirements to caring for the environment; and Burmese monks resisting violent government oppression.

At their best, these citizens write an ideal journalism, one that is rational yet moral, fair yet crusading.

They revive the public voice of the human conscience, which the gag order of objectivity long ago tried to still.

Marquette University, February 6, 2008 Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report