Learning from the locals

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website, and it was also picked up by Charles Johnson on lgf]

The students in my online journalism class at City University this year must be wondering whether they have made the right choice.

Getting a professional qualification in journalism, with its shorthand classes, endless lectures on ethics and numerous assignments designed to hone students’ reporting skills, may well look like too much effort in the world of citizen journalism.
After all if bloggers like web designer Charles Johnson can expose the faked Bush military memos and show how Reuters was fooled by Adnan Hajj’s photoshopped view of a burning Beirut, what do we need professional reporters for?
The BBC, in common with other mainstream news organisations, is looking for reports from those directly involved in world events, and one of the biggest stories of recent weeks, the circumstances around Saddam Hussein’s execution, relied on a mobile phone video taken by one of those present, not on the reporting of a trained journalist.
An MA is far from cheap when a free Blogger account would seem to be the only qualification needed to change the world.
Unfortunately for those already working as journalists, many readers and viewers seem to feel the same way about the need for professional journalists. The rapid growth of citizen journalism seems less a sign of the emergence of a vibrant new area of online newsgathering and reporting than a symptom of the decline of existing forms of news journalism.
It points to a career-threatening loss of trust in what people see on their TV screens or read in the daily papers as they become what citizen journalist advocate Dan Gillmor calls ‘the former audience’.
This could be seen as a counsel of despair, but I do not think we should give up hope yet. If we are willing look closely at what the internet is doing to the practice of journalism then we could do a lot to regain this trust and re-establish a connection with readers and viewers.
The internet has changed many things about the way journalists work but the most important change has been in the power relation involved in newsgathering and reporting.
When owning a newspaper was the privilege of the rich and powerful and broadcasting required permission from numerous gatekeepers there was a clear difference between a BBC reporter or Guardian columnist and the people whose stories were being told.
Journalists, at least at the national level, were different from the people they wrote about and were rarely directly involved in the stories they wrote or the communities they covered.
This separation leads directly to a sense of privilege on the part of the journalist, an arrogance that often spills over in the way stories are researched or presented. It is an arrogance that has clearly fuelled the disdain for mainstream media expressed so often online.
Yet the distinction between the ‘citizen’ and the ‘journalist’ has always been far less clear away from national papers or TV stations.
Throughout the world thousands of working journalists toil as members of their communities, from regional reporters in the UK covering weddings and country fetes to local TV reporters in Iraq or Venezuela or sub-Saharan Africa.
And the internet, by turning published media into two-way channels for communication, has made us all local journalists.
Anyone involved, affected by or just interested in what the papers say can reach out by email or in a blog posting or comment. They can talk to colleagues and peers, engage in online conversation in public forums and put their own point of view to a worldwide audience.
And instead of reading angry letters from misquoted eyewitnesses in the privacy of the office reporters and commentators now encounter them via Technorati tags or flagged on Del.icio.us.
This new localism is a serious challenge to the current practice of journalism. Cavalier disregard for the feelings of others and studied disavowal of the consequences of what we say or write does not work any more, and inconsistencies, contradictions or plain errors of fact are noticed, tracked and widely publicised.
Some writers find this impossible to cope with, and seek refuge in the old world where their privilege and power remain intact, refusing to engage in conversation with their readers and resenting the intrusion of emails from an informed public.
But instead of resisting we should embrace this opportunity, because it may provide us with a way to regain the respect and even the interest of the former audience.
Local journalists are involved in the conversations around them. They are known and – it is to be hoped – appreciated as members of their communities.
Sometimes, of course, they uncover things that people would rather were kept hidden and sometimes they intrude into private grief, but they do so with an understanding of the real needs of the community as a whole and with an awareness that their errors and misjudgements will not be forgotten and will have a serious impact on their future standing.
A good local reporter gets the balance right and earns respect each time they make a difficult call, while the national press has grown used to practising slash and burn journalism, content to clearcut the forest, take what it wants and then move on. How many of the reporters who spent so much time in Soham have revisited or tried to have a drink in a local pub?
In the connected world we are all local, and anyone who writes and publishes online is a member of many communities. We need to remember who we were, relearn the discipline and skill of being a sensitive local reporter, and apply those skills even when it comes to reporting on Celebrity Big Brother or events in Iraq.
Current experiments in news blogging from the mainstream media are a first step towards finding a way of being a professional journalist in this new, conversational, medium.
They are far from perfect, but those of us working in the media should watch carefully and find our own ways of engaging with the former audience, before they decide that we are best regarded as former journalists

Bill’s Links

City University MA
Charles Johnson’s Little Green Footballs blog
Dan Gillmor on the former audience