Addicted to novelty since 2001

Citizen Journalism: Covering and Uncovering the News

“Media is a word that has come to mean bad journalism.” –Graham Greene

This weekend I received an email from a local arts organization that began:

We appreciate your work as an active citizen journalist and would like to invite you…

“Hang on,” I thought, “I’m not a citizen journalist”. I am often a curator, sometimes an editorialist and occasionally a critic. I rarely ‘cover’ something, inasmuch as I attend an event and report on it, but I don’t really self-identify that way. That arts group isn’t alone, though–I’ve heard plenty of others equate “blogger” with “citizen journalist”.

For me, it’s about intent. I don’t think “I’d really like to go report on that concert”. My thought process is pretty unexamined, but it’s more like “I like Cat Power, and I like writing about the arts, so I’ll write about my experience of attending her concert. Others might be interested in what I write.”

The Most Documented Games Yet

That email got me thinking about citizen journalism. Thanks to the Olympics, it’s an idea that’s much in the public eye these days. From groups like True North Media House and Vancouver Access 2010 to dozens of individual bloggers, Twitter users and rich media makers, these are surely the most documented Games yet.

There’s no shortage of reportage. We’re going to events and writing about them. We’re photographing the Games and the streets and everything in-between. We’re having fun.

We’re covering stories. But how often are we uncovering them?

Where is the local, investigative citizen journalism? To put it another way, who’s doing the citizen reporting that isn’t fun?

Who’s pounding the pavement, making calls, sifting through government reports, sitting in town hall meetings and doing all of the difficult, time-consuming work that professional journalists have been doing? Because I sure ain’t.

I asked on Twitter, and received a couple suggestions. Sean Holman’s work at The Public Eye is one example, as are Linda Soloman’s Megan Stewart’s stories on toxic chemicals for the Vancouver Observer. Notably, both Sean and Linda are professional journalists.

Can you think of other examples? Has any citizen journalist broken a story around the Olympics?

Five Percent Off the Top

I’m not trying to discredit or criticize citizen journalism. I just worry that most of it is, by its nature, lightweight and short term. Few of us have the time, resources, expertise, connections and (most importantly, I think) motivation to do the in-depth work of your average investigative journalist. On top of those discouragements, the web doesn’t particularly reward the long-form article or feature-length documentary. It’s a bite-sized medium.

If we assume that the writing is on the wall for much of the mainstream media, where does that leave us? I liked how Clay Shirky put it in a 2009 talk at Harvard:

Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I’ve kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption–that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.

Will citizen journalists step in to fill this void? I hope so, but you’d be hard-pressed to get me to sit through even one town-hall meeting. I’m happy to volunteer my time for good causes, but monitoring city hall isn’t a priority.

I know I’m describing a problem without offering many solutions. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • There are examples of an emerging kind of citizen statistician, who uses access to open governmental data to uncover political or corporate malfeasance.
  • Another solution is to divide the work of one journalist among 15 citizen journalists, and have each of them attend four town hall meetings a year. Collaborative tools make this approach possible if challenging.

The more I think about it, the investigative citizen journalists of the 21st century are the activists of the 20th. They care enough about a particular topic to dig into it with enough effort and fervor to uncover new truths.

What do you think? Where will we find the investigative journalists of the future?

14 Responses to “Citizen Journalism: Covering and Uncovering the News”

  1. Robert

    Journalism doesn’t equate with ‘investigative journalism’.

    Take any mainstream periodical or television network or radio station and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything remotely resembling ‘investigative journalism’.

    It is, and has always been, a pretty rare commodity.

    For one thing, it’s expensive to do . Mostly this is because it takes time. And it often takes really good lawyers – read – the best lawyers – if you want to publish. It takes a lot of fact checking and deep sources and an intimate understanding of the story. It also takes a reporter with a lot of tenacity.

    A zillion years ago when I was a reporter in Calgary, then CBC investigative journalist (now film maker) Jerry Thompson spent weeks living on the Calgary equivalent of our Downtown East Side to produce one of the first stories I ever saw about ‘homelessness’ in oil rich Alberta. This was in 1985. To hide the wireless mic he was wearing, he had it embedded in a cast on his supposedly ‘broken’ arm. Today, this kind of work is only done by indie doc film makers and dare I say it, activists. And, unfortunately for all of us, it’s done rarely.

    The challenge here is that real investigative journalism isn’t something you can do on a fly-by. People who uncover REAL stories at city hall or the legislature do so because they’ve spent years hanging out at meetings there – most of which are boring as bat doo. It’s bloody hard work, not very rewarding, and usually means everybody’s pissed at you.

    I hope you’re right that we actually will see ‘investigative citizen journalists’. We’re going to need some organizations to support them though. In 1985 in Calgary, no one believed there was a homeless problem – just ‘problem people’. The fact that Jerry’s investigative piece was broadcast on the supper time news show made it difficult to discount as the ramblings of some ‘activist’ just trying to cause trouble.

    =Robert

  2. Robert

    **correction**
    I’m apparently in some kind of age denial.

    Jerry’s stories were in 1975, NOT 1985…
    gawd i’m old…

    r

  3. Andy Race

    Not that I’m actually knowledgeable about this, but it seems that “journalism” (investigative or otherwise) died long before the online social networks took off. Newspapers (and journalism) killed themselves by giving up on expressing a point of view, and simply spewing fast facts first… could be totally wrong. All I now is, I can’t watch TV reporting, nor follow anything published on a daily basis. It’s all too lifeless.

  4. Derek K. Miller

    Clay Shirky made another, more cogent point in his article about the death of newspapers about a year ago:

    “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. […] When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they […] are demanding to be lied to.”

    […]

    “So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs? I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500 [when the printing press was introduced], when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.”

    We may be in for a “giant hole” as he fears, and we may come out the other side with some other mechanism for deep news reporting. But no one knows what it is yet, and we may not know until the old model is well and truly dead for some time.

    Keep in mind that the independent, fourth-estate press is a relatively recent invention anyway. For most of their history, newspapers were highly partisan and far from disinterested entities.

  5. Karen

    One really excellent example of modern-day, Internet-fuelled investigative journalism is Pro Publica (http://www.propublica.org/about/) The site draws heavily on a blogging format, and while its writers are heavily from a journalistic background, I would argue that any dogged, don’t-care-whose-toes-I-step on, smart and honest writer would be able to do that kind of work. They just need the right contacts and enough money to be persistent.

    In that case, that persistence is fuelled by the very deep pockets of the Sandler Foundation. So maybe figuring out the money model of how the Internet/investigative relationship works is the key.

    Also, I love this idea:

    “…divide the work of one journalist among 15 citizen journalists, and have each of them attend four town hall meetings a year. Collaborative tools make this approach possible if challenging.”

    I’d definitely volunteer to pass on my overpriced j-school training and reporting experience if it meant the quality of news (and subsequently democracy) in the country might improve.

  6. gwendolyn

    In response to Andy, I’d like to say that journalism, by its very nature, is supposed to be neutral and without a point of view (barring, of course, the editorial pages and the work of columnists). It should be fact-driven and without opinion so there can be no accusation of bias on the part of the reporters. Journalists strive to be as objective as possible, present only the facts and let the public form their own opinions about the events unfolding in their community or on the worldwide stage.

    As for investigative journalism, I echo Robert’s comments. It is expensive, time-consuming and requires serious dedication, if not good sources that have taken years to cultivate. (Sources, I would argue that would not just strike up a relationship with a citizen journalist.) It requires depth of knowledge that is not always possible in a day and age when resources are stretched to the limit. Years ago, newsrooms often had reporters dedicated to investigative journalism. In the economic downturn, some (including those who have won Pulitzer Prizes in the US) have been laid off.

    I would argue that I don’t know if we’ll see citizen investigative journalists any time soon based simply on the difficulties that reporters associated with legitimate news outlets have. And yes, I recognize I have a strong bias here. Thankfully, though, this isn’t a news article where I have to remain without opinion.

    ~gwendolyn

  7. Derek K. Miller

    Again, I’ll point out that purportedly objective, neutral-point-of-view journalism is a relatively recent (and now perhaps short-lived) phenomenon.

    Very useful, true, but as this post and its comments have come to point out, not something that is required to exist by any law of nature.

    Many have also argued that while such journalism attempts to be (or likes to make itself out to be) objective, it never really can be, because at some point someone has to decide what stories are worth covering, at the very least. And many times that is a subjective decision.

  8. Arjun Singh

    I wonder if an easier way in for citizen journalists is to start explaining issues, trends – the how and why rather than the who, what, and when. I also wonder if we overemphasize the value of an expose. Explaining the how and why in layperson’s terms might be a way to gain interest and readership and potentially funds to do some of the more investigative stuff.

  9. tV

    Excellent post. The distinction between covering and uncovering the news is especially prescient.

    I am not sure that journalism has died, print or otherwise; however investigative journalism certainly receded from mainstream distribution (the classic ’70s film NETWORK was amazingly prescient in predicting the rise of reality television and soft news talk shows over hard news), and the perception that journalism died definitively gave rise to the first citizen-driven online journalism platform, Indymedia. And Indymedia, as the hybrid of (traditional) alternative media (radio, zines, underground newspapers etc), investigative journalism, and activism, strove toward “fact” based reporting (by providing on-the-ground reportage of events) yet from the “opinion” of a position that mainstream corporate media rarely bothered with (being on-the-ground, and within the event itself: by embracing its subject position, it questioned the mainstream media’s production of “objectivity” when such a position was deeply compromised by corporate interests).

    Social media, however, enters into a territory far more complex and compromised by way of the corporate product that is the social network itself, constrained by technological limitations, as well as a mindset more open, it appears, to a blurring of the boundaries between journalism and public relations.

    I’ve been thinking about this in light of social media at the Olympicon (see below), and as Darren brought me here by leaving a comment on a post I’ve writ analysing social media at the 2010 games, I will do the same — readers of this post might be interested in it and the discussion there as well:

    http://fugitive.quadrantcrossing.org/?p=340

    Thx for the discussion and great comments above.

  10. Sean Holman

    An interesting post Darren. From my perspective, the future of investigative journalism is very much at risk.

    In my case, digging up stories about the provincial government requires a substantial and ongoing time investment. And, to date, there have been very few citizen journalists who have stepped up to do that kind of grunt work – even at the most basic level.

    Filing freedom of information requests, for example, is really easy. But the only bloggers I can think of who have submitted such requests are the folks over at CityCaucus.com.

    Meanwhile, mainstream media companies seems increasingly unwilling to pay for investigative journalism. And it’s difficult to get readers to fill that pay gap.

    After several months of pitching a contribution plan where readers donate $10 million in return for a monthly newsletter, I’ve only got just over 40 subscribers. I feel grateful to those 40. And it’s better than a kick in the pants. But not enough to live on, certainly.

  11. Sean Holman

    Opps…sorry…I had the provincial budget on my mind. That should read $10 per month. If it were $10 million, I would be rolling in it – obviously.

  12. Tom McNamara

    So, after reading Sean’s comment above, I have to ask, where does that leave us?

    The private sector won’t underwrite investigative journalism. Government won’t subsidize it. And the general public won’t pay for it.

    Well, citizen reporters can’t do it for free indefinitely. Is it inevitable that our institutions be gradually corrupted like rust eating away at an old abandoned car?

    The only realistic solution I read here is the Sandler Foundation-supported ProPublica.org. Underwritten by a generous, arms-length private benefactor. This allows a non-profit investigative news outlet that acts purely in the public interest to grow and prosper.

    And it avoids the self-censuring trap that donation or sponsored journalism breeds. Even the NPR or PBS-type networks could one day become addicted to “corporate sponsorship” and “shy away” from stories that may raise hackles amongst generous benefactors.

    The CBC and BBC government-subsidized model may also play a role. Maybe a hybrid supported model of public/private subsidy at arms length is the right mix.

    Thanks for this post Darren.

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