Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Neil Sanderson: DIY journalists must pass the trust test

Feeling frustrated that the news media don't give enough coverage to topics that interest you? Want to do something about it? Sounds like you could be a citizen journalist in the making.

Citizen journalism ("citJ") is one of the hottest topics among online publishers. Maybe you've noticed how many news websites are asking you to post your pictures, add your comments to stories or even write an article.

Supporters of citJ contend that the mainstream media miss out on stories which could be covered by amateurs. They suggest that cellphones, digital cameras and portable computers now give just about anyone the tools to gather news. And you don't need to work for one of the mainstream media companies to get your work published. Just set up a blog, make a page on MySpace, or add your pictures to the thousands on Flickr.

With so much content being produced by non-journalists, the mainstream media are trying to work out how to incorporate the best of it into their own services.

Steve Outing, a US online pioneer who is developing citJ sites on sport and recreation, says newspapers need to abandon "the walled-garden approach" to the news, and let more outside content on to their websites.

"We're starting to see some newspapers open the door at least a crack," Outing told Publish.com.

"WashingtonPost.com, clearly an industry leader, now puts Technorati links to blogs on its articles, so readers of its website can see what bloggers are writing about Post stories (and some of it will be extremely critical).

"To the internet community, that's no big deal, but for newspapers it's a major change."

At some newspaper sites, content created by citizen journalists is posted alongside the work of professionals or in a designated area. The publisher may even offer basic training in journalism to volunteer contributors.

The clear leader in citJ is South Korea's OhmyNews (english.ohmynews.com), which claims to have more than 40,000 contributors who produce about 70 per cent of its content. The site also employs more than 50 journalists, and contributors' work is checked by professional editors. OhmyNews, which is reported to be making profits from advertising, fills a niche in Korea, where most other media have been reluctant to challenge authority.

In the US, sites such as YourHub, Backfence and Baristanet invite the public to contribute news but, from what I've seen, the citizen-generated content is pretty patchy. Much of it is the sort of announcement you'd expect to see tacked up on your local supermarket notice board, plus raw press releases, and advertising pretending to be news. The few real news stories are typically no more than a sentence or two followed by a link to a professional news website.

The problem seems to be that citizen journalists report on the things that interest them personally, while professional journalists report on the things that interest their readers (or at least what their editors believe will interest readers).

That's probably why so much of citJ sites appears random and incomplete. There may be value there, but who has the time to search for it?

Another problem: the concept of citJ presumes that members of the public want to be unpaid journalists. I doubt it. If journalism is what turns a person on, there are lots of opportunities to make a career in it.

What's more likely, I think, is that some citizens perceive gaps in news coverage and are trying to fill them. But who will be accountable for the accuracy and balance of their reports?

As an alternative, I like the notion of "participatory media", which can include everything from reader feedback to online communities built into news sites, and which seems to describe the vital relationship that ought to exist between journalists and the rest of society.

Here are some ideas on how citizens can participate in media:

* Create and publish expert commentary and analysis (mainstream editors ought to invite the best of these commentators into their publications too).

* Hold mainstream media to account by telling us when we get it wrong.

* Send news tips, pictures or video to favourite publications for follow-up.

* Post community information and announcements.

None of this is intended to suggest that we shouldn't applaud increased interactivity. A small but growing number of web users now routinely go beyond the basic consumption of information. They scan multiple sources using RSS, they rate stories on sites such as Digg, and they publish their thoughts on wikis and blogs.

As news consumers, we assess the value of published information against various criteria. But one of the most important factors must surely be how much we trust the source.

The newspapers we read, the radio and television news we rely on and the websites we return to will be the ones that adhere to professional standards and show themselves to be accountable to their communities. How many citizen journalists will pass that test?

* Neil Sanderson is editor of nzherald.co.nz

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