Saturday, May 16, 2009

'Is there credibility in citizen journalism?'

At Digital Journal last week, the question was raised, "Is there credibility in citizen journalism?" But from my perspective, that turns the question on its head. Instead I'd ask, "Would citizen journalism exist if the mainstream media had more credibility?"

Don't get me wrong, I think we need the mainstream media, but as one of these so-called citizen journalists (that's just a "blogger" for those of us in the flyover states) I can tell you part of my motivation for doing this is precisely a reaction to my own criticisms of how the MSM cover stories. They should at least acknowledge the beef goes both ways.

Digital Journal quotes a grey-bearded ex-journalist from the Tornonto Globe and Mail, Jack Kapica, who offers this critique of blogging:
"Much of the writing I’ve read, on most citizen journalism sites, shows little understanding of the process of gathering the news and writing it in a conventional form. Conventionality of presentation is important because it can give readers a recognizable framework to assess and understand what’s being written."

Style issues aside, Kapica says citizen journalists need to focus on doing more original reporting rather than working as a rewrite desk in a newsroom. "One of the critical things many citizen journalism writers do not understand is the necessity of interviewing people and quoting them. The value of original quotes cannot be overstated. Too frequently I see citizen journalists quoting the mainstream media stories and I can’t see how this differs from mainstream media."
These comments interest me, particularly the bit about conventional presentation, because of the other main critique of bloggers Kapica offers - "bias." This confluence of opinions tells me Kapica (and, believe me, many other grey-bearded journalists) doesn't understand the biases inherent in traditional news reporting to which the blogosphere is largely a reaction.

When Kapca talks about "conventionality of presentation," he's referring to what in journalism school is called a reverse-pyramid format for news-writing: Where the "most important" news is presented in the "lede" or opening stanza to the story with less important items by rank appearing further down in the copy. The idea was, in the old days, that editors at daily newspapers making snap decisions could reliably just "cut from the bottom" and be confident that they didn't remove the crux of the story.

But that "conventionality" reflects an historical belief by journalists in a faux objectivity that most bloggers believe does not exist. When you think about it, a lot of value judgments must be made to decide what's "important" about a story and different people may think different facts are key.

Indeed, most quality blogging in my experience comes from folks with expertise in a field who see that MSM coverage of their area fails to adequately cover or even identify what's important. In Grits' case, I launched this site in part because I was sick and tired of the MSM's crime coverage dichotomy: Tuff vs. Soft seemed like the the only terms of debate, usually "balanced" with quotes from "both sides." I thought such discussions deserved more nuance.

Which is another reason I think Kapica overstated the value of getting independent quotes. "Getting quotes" is a means of maintaining the appearance of objectivity by attributing views expressed to others. Often the journalist already knows what they want the source to say but comes to them to fill in already-made assumptions about the story. Quoting sources can be useful when journalists earnestly explore different perspectives, but that's a lot rarer than the formulaic use of quotes in most MSM stories, particularly on crime and punishment.

That explains why often bloggers will simply quote and comment on the MSM: Their role isn't to supplant it but to fill in its gaps missed by the he-said/she-said formula, to assert meaning to the news beyond the reporter's faux objectivity and identify biases and agendas that underlie MSM coverage but are too often un-acknowledged by it.

That's also why I'm less concerned than Kapica about journalists or bloggers acknowledging their biases, which he thinks reduces journalism's credibility.
"I see [citizen journalists] freely mixing opinion with factual reporting in obvious ignorance of how this is a conflict of ambition," Kapica says. "In one story I read a while ago, a fairly well-structured news story suddenly included the following sentence opener: 'Now come on, folks...' If the mainstream media tried to pull a stunt like that, it would be flayed for bias. For some lucky reason citizen journalism is being held to a different standard."
I see this completely differently, believing the oberserver's bias is inherently part of any high-quality written piece. If the reporter masks their opinions, their views are still latent in decisions about what is important, who to quote or which quote to use and which ones to discard. I'd rather the writer tell me their opinion, even if I disagree. That way, I can identify the threads of fact they present that I believe independently are probative and which ones merely support the writer's personal views. Indeed without that knowledge, I don't always know whether to trust the conclusions in a piece of reporting sans independent verification.

I think Kapica's right that the blogosphere could use more original reporting, but it's easy to overstate how much original reporting many MSM reporters historically have done. Many stories begin with a press release or a single insider source with an agenda. That's particularly true in politics and on the crime beat, where the local police department PR office is the source for the vast majority of what's printed about local crime. While not universally the case, it's true often enough that workaday journalists can't be too high and mighty about the amount of shoe-leather spent getting their stories.

I do agree with Kapica that the lack of editors in the blogosphere is a tremendous loss and can sometimes lead to embarrassing slip ups. But these days even MSM journalists produce unedited prose in daily newspaper blogs so that trend goes beyond the amateur/professional gap. For that matter, publishers frequently don't finely edit books anymore; either an agent does it or the job is left to an amateur, family member etc.. In such an unfiltered context, though, isn't knowing the reporter's biases even more key to understanding what you're reading?

I also agree that would-be bloggers would benefit from training, but perhaps we should think about that more broadly than just that wannabe bloggers need to take a few classes before they can play in the big-leagues. Such classes may be needed by some in the current class of bloggers, but going forward maybe we need to rethink how we teach writing in public schools if, in the future, the public will rely more on average citizens' journalistic contributions.

Obviously I believe there can be credibility in citizen journalism or Grits wouldn't have more than 4,000 posts published in the last five years. IMO, perhaps its time to discuss instead how to boost journalism's credibility generally, regardless of medium or employment status.

18 comments:

Jack Kapica, DigitalJournal.com said...

Well, Scott Henson, I must thank you for proving all the points I made.

If you had indeed been a journalist, you should know that you criticize people’s words, not what they are. You broke this rule when you twice told people I have a grey beard, which contextually suggests some sort of failing on my part; perhaps you're dismissing me as too old to think correctly. If so, that is pure age discrimination.

Also, you said that I am an "ex-journalist." If you had read the piece you discuss, you'd know I am still a working journalist. And I am working for the very citizen-journalism website where you read my comments, the very kind of journalism you defend.

My current status was right there for you to read.

You say that I am critical of bloggers. I am emphatically not. I was talking about citizen journalism. Your point is valid only if you equate blogging with journalism. I don't. If you do, then say so. But don't criticize me for saying something I didn't say.

Similarly, I never criticized bloggers for "bias." I was talking about citizen journalists. Please take more care about what you report anyone saying.

You go on to say that "When Kapca [sic] talks about 'conventionality of presentation,' he's referring to what in journalism school is called a reverse-pyramid format for news-writing: Where the 'most important' news is presented in the 'lede' or opening stanza to the story with less important items by rank appearing further down in the copy."

This is simply astonishing. There are more conventions in journalism than just the despicable reverse-pyramid approach. So how could you possibly know which conventions I was thinking of? All you had to do was ask me what they are and I would have told you. That's elementary reporting, and you should have exercised it. Mainstream journalism has many shortcomings that I did not discuss because they were not the purpose nor in the scope of the Digital Journal article.

As a result, your mis-reporting derails the logic of the rest of your blog.

On the subject of bias, you write that getting quotes "is a means of maintaining the appearance of objectivity by attributing views expressed to others." That's your opinion, and you're welcome to it. But I certainly wasn’t thinking such venal thoughts when I insisted that quoting people is an important part of journalism.

More amazing is your defence of having bloggers yanking quotes from the mainstream media when you so cavalierly dismiss the mainstream media's use of quotes. How can a citizen journalist be any more credible using the very same quotes that, when gathered by the mainstream media, are included only for "maintaining the appearance of objectivity"?

You can't have it both ways.

I'd get into this in more detail, but I'm loath to engage someone who indulges in ad-hominem attacks and imputes motive so casually.

Charles said...

Mr. Kapica,
I've never commented here on this site before now and have no particular interest in siding with the author, but a couple of things you wrote really struck me.
I read no malicious intent into the author calling you a "grey beard." Rather, I took it to mean experienced and respected, part of a traditional elite (I know elite to be a good word) commenting on a new arena of journalism. Ex-journalist? Well to me that simply meant probably retired from mainstream media because I don't believe any good journalist ever retires.
As to the rest of the original post and your response I only speak for myself here of course, but I believe that most digital journalism is read more critically by most of us. We recognize that blogs do not operate in a traditional framework with editorial controls. That anyone can have a blog and that what I read online is not automatically to be equated with my mainstream news source.
I read Grits not for the original quotes but for the context and unique perspective.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

There's an implicit assumption at play in this discussion: Citizen journalism must be modeled on daily newspaper journalism.

Daily newspaper reporting has to be done by professionals under editorial direction, but not because the skills are beyond the ken of the average person.

It comes down to time and money. Reporters need to work their beats regularly, as a job, not just as a hobby. There are no shortcuts. It's possible to cover a beat on a blog, but only if you have as much time and energy to devote to it as a regular reporter.

A lone blogger isn't going to spend all day dispassionately writing up an inverted pyramid account of a press conference that looks just like what you'd find on a newspaper site--that is, unless you pay them. It's way too much work for a blog with 300 readers and churning out stuff that looks like the failing daily paper isn't going to build traffic.

Hobbyists are going to gravitate towards glamorous subject matters and ignore the boring stuff. And who can blame them? It's not like they're getting paid to sit through school board meetings or meet tight deadlines.

Unpaid bloggers like Scott make huge contributions as news filters and analysts.

I love Grits for Breakfast because Scott knows how the Texas criminal justice system works, who the players are, what bills are important, and so on. So, when Scott says "Hey, look at this," I'm confident that it's worth looking at. He's also the guy who's paying attention when the legislature decides to classify graffiti as organized crime.

Credibility doesn't come from following a professional formula, it comes from producing an informative, insightful end product.

Anonymous said...

The reader of main stream media, a blog, or a citizen journalist is the one that has to decide on the credibility of what they're reading.

Format and editorial checking aside, there is the potential for good and bad writing in any media.

For myself, I'm grateful for blogs. They allow me to focus on topics I'm interested in and provide more information than newspapers that cater to advertisers and a much wider range of interests.

David C said...

Mr. Kapica, might I suggest you work on taking criticism more objectively? To me, your response read like something Michael Moore would write, and showed a lack of willingness to consider the possibility that the opposing viewpoint might be right. If blogging is not a form of citizen journalism, then what is your definition of citizen journalism? The top two hits on Google for citizen journalism (Wikipedia and Poynter Online) both list blogging as a form of citizen journalism. If you were not referring to the reverse-pyramid approach, then could you please explain which approach or approaches you were referring to?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jack, your comments here are as pedantic and lacking in perspective as those I was responding to.

As another commenter noted, you're taking personally things not meant that way. E.g., by ex-journalist I meant you no longer work for the MSM and are an "advisor to DigitalJournal.com" according to the article. If "advisor" = "journalist," then I stand corrected. I hadn't interpreted it that way.

On the question of the use of quotes in journalism, a) you ignore that I said there is a good and proper use for them and b) you're being hypocritical if you don't think lots of MSM reporting, especially crime coverage, often uses quotes that way. That's simply an observation on my part, hardly a contentious opinion.

The rest of your comments on that score miss my point that when journalists do the "quote both sides" brand of reporting, they often leave out important context that opens up gaps for an independent writer like a blogger to fill in with other analysis and information they failed to provide, which is often, eg., the role of this blog.

Otherwise, arrogance and self righteousness do not an argument makes. Lindsay is right that your critique of blog journalism appears to be that we're not all copying YOU, but your comments here and in the story give us strong reason to think that would be unwise.

Anonymous said...

Lots of times I don't agree with you or the way you portray facts but I will damn sure stand up for you on this point.

You are having an impact on issues, sometimes it goes the way I like and sometimes not. But I will say this; you gotta respect anyone who works as hard as you do...that just commands respect.

Good luck to you, Scott.

Robert said...

Kapica: Thanks for your revealing post.

Josh said...

I get my news and perspective from blogs. I realize I am reading opinion AND news and someones "take" on the facts. I prefer this and am intelligent enough to read it and make up my own mind. Sometimes Scott and others will share a perspective I have not thought about OR they are so off the wall, it grounds me a little more. These are of course MY OPINIONS. Anyway, I like GRITS, DMJ, Backgate and others but I know what they are.

Alan Bean said...

Good Lord, Jack. Just be glad that a well-respected blogger took the time to discuss your article. Your defensive screed does you no credit.

Alan Bean

Anonymous said...

Good God, what a childish response from so high and mighty.

"I said citizen journalist, but you're just a bloigger..."

What does that even mean? I can think of no greater distinction without a difference.
Sorry Scott, you're not a citizen journalist, because some self-absorbed putz says so.

Anonymous said...

Reading journalism smack is kinda amusing.


LMB

Anonymous said...

Rev. Charles here:

I'm a Biblical Theologian. Ph. D. in Biblical Studies. I get a little upset when someone with a Sunday School (maybe not even that) education begins sounding forth dogmatically on Biblical/Theological themes, frequently putting down those trained in the field as charlatans, infidels, or worse. So, I have some empathy with trained journalists reactions to "citizen journalists." Having said that, the Biblical Theologian best be in touch with what the "laity" are thinking. Sometimes we so shroud our thinking in professional jargon that the "laity" cannot know what we are thinking, breeding distrust. So I am glad for the Protestant principle of the open Bible, and for the Baptist principle of faith freedom, i. e., we don't have to have someone tell us what to believe.

And I am glad for "citien journalists" even though some, yea many of them are crackpots hiding behind anonymity of blogging. (I'm assuming that those who comment on blogs thereby become bloggers and by extension citizen journalists.) I'm glad for the op. ed. pieces and LTEs in MSM, although crackpots get their shots there too. But not anonymously.

I celebrate Scott's "Grits" and his grit, and the Friends of Justice blogs from Alan Bean. I bemoan the "he said, she said" method too often passing off as investigative reporting in the MSM. I celebrate Bill Moyers Journal and David Broncochio's NOW on PBS. I think they do fair investigative journalism. Presentation of the facts is not always balanced. FOX News is neither fair nor balanced.

citizen said...

I follow your blog because you and your fellow bloggers do indeed bring to light issues about government that are either not represented to the fullest by the mainstream and merit discussion or are in print in some out of the mainstream publication that I will never see, or simply non-existent.

I have never expressed my personal feelings on issues in this forum but have thought about it and truly appreciate the opportunity to do so on a blog that is read and followed by law makers and the public alike.

To believe anything coming from the mainstream to be construed as much more than the view of the author and those of the publication they write for is narrow minded to say the least and while their writing may be superb, it’s still bias in some fashion.

I’m not the brightest flashlight in the box, but I’m certainly capable of distinguishing the difference between a piece written by a professional journalist and the ramblings of Joe the Wordsmith. I can also discern if the Joe in question actually has any real knowledge of the subject at hand.

I am 50 years old and the empowerment of individuals to be able to use a medium that is disseminated to the world to express their ideas and opinions astonishes me and is certainly the poster child of the 1st Amendment.

The idea that a “Professional Journalist” has even taken the time to give editorial on their perspective of “citizen journalism” nauseates me; Mr. Kapica obviously has a lot of time on his hands. Unfortunately he is so “loath” he only has time to unload and hasn’t got enough ammunition to reload.

Perhaps he will reconsider his decision not to engage this morning, since his writing has given new meaning to the funny pages for me and I look forward to it.

Thank you Scott for your dedication to this blog, I feel your take on the criminal justice system depends a lot on statististical information that you draw upon from such places as the Justice Department, which in turn supplies information they have drawn from Governmental Agencies who simply love playing the shell game with their coveted information to enhance their own political agenda.

There are indeed other professions that work within the criminal justice system who have first hand knowledge of the way government manipulates statistical information to enhance their position; as well as practices that are routinely used that undermine the whole concept of jurisprudence. They keep locked lips for fear of political backlash and for the most part do not have a voice in the public arena purposely for their own self preservation. Voices like these not only need to be heard but offer insight on subjects never disclosed to the public, certainly not by the mainstream bias.

I believe you to be a pioneer of free thinking. I truly believe that if you sink your teeth into something some actual unbiased investigative reporting may not only happen for a change but may prove someday to change the perspective of our “Professional Politicians”, if only to save their precious jobs.

And so my morning begins with sarcasm, a little cloak and dagger, and perhaps a little ham with my grits for breakfast.

I have no idea where you get the energy, but keep up the good work it is appreciated more than you will ever know.

Informed Citizen said...

RECOMMENDED READING:
- The Media Monoply, by Bondacian (sp?)
- Manufacturing Consent, by Chomsky.
REAL eye-openers to the credibility, or lack thereof, of 'mainstream media'.
--------------------------------
The MYTH of objectivity -
The believe that mainstream media, and the journalist it employes, are objective, is a myth.
----------------------
The myth has been utilized as an excuse for monopolizing the media. Was a time when every city of any size had at least 2 (two) newspapers where one was recognized as 'Republican' and another as 'Democrat. The competitive tension promoted a higher degree of objectivity it each. Now that is gone and the mainstream media criticized by the so-called conservatives as being 'liberal' is recognized by the scholar of history and political scientist as 'conservative' to the point of little different from the highly controlled news / pravda of both extreme right and extreme left regimes, past & present.
--------------
Those who have paid attention to the 'news' are well aware of how bias and subjective mainstream media was under the Bush / Cheney Regime. The so-called 'professional journalist' quickly learns to 'conform' their own bias to 'fit' that of the few who own the media monoply in our US of A. It is the means for career advancement.
----------
The impoverished, and previously obscure 'Citizen Journalist' now has tools to expose the bias and reveal the truth. Professional Journalist such as Jack Kapica are embarrassed by the exposure and so they attack the credibility of those who have exposed their lack of credibility.
---------------------------------
PRAVDA, of the Soviet Union, was ineffective because it was widely known among the people as lacking credibility.
The "Truth" (sic) Manufactured by media in the US is far more effective because of the carefully crafted MYTH that it is independent, and motiviated to be objective by competitive pressure -therefore credible. But this is not true and has not been since at least WW II when government manipulation was considered necessary in a time of war. In addition to government there is the oligarchy of elites with an interest manipulating public perception of reality by controlling and manipulating news and information that would reveal the truth behind the matrix.

Anonymous said...

As one who has had various op-ed pieces run and who has been quoted and referenced numerous times in the MSM, you are correct in that I tend to be quoted when it is in support of the journalist's story slant or offers "color" to the story adding little if anything to the reporting. But at least I'm not used to bring "balance" to a story, God forbid. It seems that those journalistic "balance" quotes are always from the extreme and never reflect the "nuance" (to use your word) of a criminal justice article. This blog, for me, fulfills a need that no MSM journalist does and it is much appreciated. Few are as good (which is why so many others also obviously read it). Regarding Kapica's comment about breaking "the rule" by criticizing what people are, though Charles addresses it much better than I could ever do, may I add that MSM does indeed break the "rule" regularly through the use of photos and video, both in their choice of shots and in their actual usage. Does Kapica think a sidebar photo in the MSM would have been any different in conveying a supposed message? Sorry Kapica, but after reading your post, I suspect you still don't get it.

I Prefer the Term "Ironic" said...

Organizational scholar Karl Weick argued that in organizations, there is “less to rationality than meets the eye.” I would argue that the same is true of objectivity in the MSM. Weick noted that since the 1980s scholars have doubted the importance of formal, logical rationality in the study of organizations and instead argued for a limited notion of rationality. Specifically, he stated that rationality should be viewed “(1) as a set of prescriptions that change as the issue changes, (2) as a façade created to attract resources and legitimacy, and (3) as a postaction process used retrospectively to invent reasons for the action” (Weick, 2001, p. 35). From this definition, we see that rationality is a flexible, communicative act that happens after a decision has been made in order to justify that very decision, as well as to justify the need for additional resources. In other words, what is deemed to be a “rational” act may change as the situation changes.

I believe the same critique of rationality in organizations can be applied to objectivity in the MSM. First, most social constructivists firmly believe the words of Weick: “[P]eople often produce part of the environment they face.” In other words, pure objectivity is virtually impossible because the way we make sense of events influences what information we pay attention to as "important" and which we cast aside. "Objectivity" then becomes a front, as does rationality, that is meant to secure legitimacy and resource -- especially in times when resources for MSM are scarce at best. This may be cause for part of the reason behind Kapica's reaction against citizen journalists. If "objectivity" is no longer important or attainable, there is no reason for resources to be given to MSM rather than new media.

The analogy rounds out with the discussion of quotes in the post and in the comments. MSM reporters may often feel trapped by the notion of, "Well, if I'm going to be objective, I better get a quote from the 'other side,'" regardless of how marginal/influential that side actually is. The desire to quote opposing sides is not because there are two (or more) influential parties in conflict, but rather that's just how it's done. The standard conventions of journalism become a narrative themselves, rather than the story that is being investigated. The end product, however, is something that can be pointed to as "objective," and therefore worthy of dedicated resources.

Now that I have sufficiently geeked out, I shall retire and look forward to reading others' POV.

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