I Call B.S. – Placing Old Values on Citizen Journalism

It’s rare that I’ll write a post to call bullshit on somebody. It’s not a habit of mine. But every now and then you just gotta speak your mind.

Let’s start with the praise: Jeff Novich wrote a well thought out critique of citizen journalism. It’s more than I can sum up quickly but he hits all the major points.

  • It’s trite: “See, snap, post” – there is no depth.
  • People are stupid. Or as he diplomatically put it “most people don’t understand the tenets of journalism.” But read that section of his post and you’ll see what he really wants to say is “people are stupid.”
  • It’s more about sharing than anything else (see: “see, snap, post”)
  • It doesn’t really accomplish anything – certainly not fact-checking the media (see: “See, snap, post”)
  • It’s not paid – so the quality is crap.
  • Too much bias. It isn’t accountable.

The list goes on. Again, my hat is off to Jeff for writing a well thought out analysis that I believe captures most of the major criticisms of participatory journalism.

I still call bullshit.

Megan Taylor did a good point by point response “Citizen Journalism Is Not Useless.” But a critique like this is not best met trying to go point-by-point. While I can easily name moments when citizen journalism had real tangible value – this is not an anecdotal pissing match. Besides, most of the anecdotes can be interpreted however you want to see them.

Instead I’d like to chime in on what I think was the most important point Megan Taylor made.

Throughout the post, Jeff seems to be confused on what his point is. That citizen journalism is not a proxy for professional journalism? I agree. That citizen journalism is useless? I disagree.

In the end it all comes down to what values you are trying to suggest citizen journalism (I prefer participatory journalism as the term) should uphold or represent. Allow me to once again use my baseball analogy from a post “Can Professional Journalism Ever Replace Citizen Journalism.”

Can citizen journalism ever replace professional journalism? No. But what I want to point out is the silliness of that question and pose its opposite.

The silliness of that question: If Major League Baseball stopped tomorrow would all the little leagues in the country be able to replace it? If industrial sweater factories shut down tomorrow would knitting hobbyists be able to replace them?

Nobody would ever ask these questions because the goal of little leagues and knitting groups isn’t to replace their professional counterparts. Instead, they are to create a sense of community, a positive activity for children, to make personalized gifts, etc. If they were to disappear there is no way their professional counterparts could replace them.

So I ask: If citizen journalism activities were to stop tomorrow could professional journalists replace them? My answer is no – and that will be part of my response to this question from now on.

I have also come to really like Clay Shirky’s discussion on the stupidity of LOL Cats juxtaposed with their general benefit to society over simply watching re-runs of Giligan’s Island.

The argument from Clay goes something like this.

(a. Acts of creation are better than acts of passivity.

(b. LOL Cats are the single dumbest thing a person can do online.

(c. LOL Cats are an act of creation.

The choice is yours: What is better for society – thousands of people participating in LOL Cats or those same people sitting on their hands watching Jersey Shore?

The only argument I can imagine in response is that acts of citizen journalism aren’t just dumb – they actually HURT society. That somehow they have a negative impact and therefore being passive would actually be a net gain.

Otherwise I call bullshit – and that’s without even trying to defend citizen journalism (which can be done) against Jeff’s critiques. Even if I GIVE Jeff all his points above it still doesn’t turn citizen journalism into something “useless.” It all depends on the “use” and who is judging.

Sure – a snobby journalist can hold their nose up and point out shoddy work.

A major league baseball player can laugh at any high school kid’s swing.

A professional basketball player would probably dust me on the court and point out my lack of balance. Should I not play? Am I “useless” when playing a pick-up game with my friends? Sure, I’d be useless in the NBA. But when I play on Sundays with my friends I have a blast and get a good cardiovascular workout. That was the point in the first place.

I understand there is frustration that the economics of content have changed – but it’s important to keep in mind that one man’s exploitation is another man’s civic engagement. The greater irony. If Jeff is correct, his blog post, which was not reported – but mere opining (as was this post) is…. useless.

7 thoughts on “I Call B.S. – Placing Old Values on Citizen Journalism

  1. I agree with most of your points about how citizen journalists will never replace real journalists. It is an issue, however, that must be handled delicately. I can’t help but think of the Steve Jobs has a deadly disease fiasco a while ago that turned out to be false. That story broke on CNN’s iReport, which is meant for citizen journalists. Someone submitted that story, CNN didn’t fact check it and it exploded. Apple’s stock actually dropped as a result of a citizen journalist not getting their facts straight. Granted, Apple is doing fine, but the point is that poor citizen journalism (and some poor professional journalism) can have detrimental results.

    That being said, citizen journalism is happening. The best thing to do is embrace it and make sure that it happens in a responsible way.

  2. @Megan – you spoke first, which makes you much braver. In fact, I found the piece through your blog – so the thanking is all on this side of the comment thread ;)

  3. @Andrew What’s funny about the erroneous Steve Jobs story on iReport is it had a shred of truth to it. The furor over the iReport piece was, in part, responsible for making Jobs and Apple go public with their CEO’s health problems. Your example shows that citizen journalism is valuable when it can shine a light on stories the mainstream journalists are missing.

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