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What happens when journalism is everywhere?

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When the Arab Spring demonstrations were under way in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and reports were streaming out through Twitter and Facebook and text messages and cellphone videos, it was easy to feel superior to the Egyptian government. How could they not realize that information can no longer be contained by blockades or even internet blackouts when everyone has the power to publish? Now the authorities in New York City and elsewhere have been getting a dose of that medicine, with the “Occupy Wall Street” protests being tweeted and live-streamed in real time. As the Associated Press learned this week to its chagrin, we all have newswires at our disposal now.

One of the things the NYC police have been trying to do to keep a lid on the protests is corral and/or exclude journalists from certain areas — and in many cases even arrest them — and then argue that only “registered” journalists are allowed to move freely (in an Orwellian move, the New York police restricted them to what they called “Free Speech Zones”). As Elisabeth Spiers of the New York Observer noted, the rules that govern who can be considered an official journalist for police purposes are convoluted and in some cases even contradictory, since they require that someone report on events before applying for a permit — events that they should not have been reporting on without a permit.

How do you regulate who is a journalist? You can’t

New York’s attempts to regulate the practice of journalism seem as antiquated as attempts in other jurisdictions such as Quebec to create an official licencing system, an idea that in some cases is supported by traditional journalistic organizations out of a fear that their livelihood is being threatened by “citizen” reporters or bloggers. But as journalism professor Jay Rosen has argued many times, the practice of journalism gets better when there are more people doing it, and nowhere has that become more obvious than in places like Tahrir Square — and now in Zucotti Park and other similar locations.

Among those who seem to see this as a threat are traditional news sources like the Associated Press, which chewed out its reporters this week for posting to Twitter about their colleagues being arrested in New York. The AP said later that its response was driven by concern for the safety of its reporters rather than a desire to save the news for its customers — but failed to explain why the memo from a senior editor mentioned only the rule about not scooping the wire, and said nothing about concern for its journalists.

As Jon Mitchell at Read/Write Web described in his post about the use of social media around the Occupy protests, real-time news via Twitter and Flickr and other services, when combined with curation tools like Storify (which was developed by former Associated Press foreign correspondent Burt Herman) can produce a powerful form of journalism that equals — or even exceeds — what traditional sources can provide. Are there errors and omissions and other flaws in this kind of real-time reporting by non-journalists? Of course there are. But they tend to get corrected just as quickly as they would in the mainstream media, if not faster.

One of the real threats to traditional journalism that come out of this phenomenon (if there are any) is that the ability to report and publish and broadcast the news in real time from events such as the Zucotti Park protests can turn anyone into what journalists have traditionally been: namely, a trusted filter for the news. Mitchell describes how one college student created a summary of the event that got tens of thousands of views in a matter of hours and was embedded by the Washington Post. Does that make him a journalist? Of course it does — in exactly the same way that Pakistani programmer Sohaib Athar became a journalist by live-tweeting the raid on Osama bin Laden, something NPR digital editor Andy Carvin described as a “random act of journalism.”

Freedom of the press matters when the internet is the press

As Mitchell points out, Storify is coming close to being a news source that competes with newspapers and other traditional media outlets, by selecting and curating the most interesting reports produced with its aggregation tools. So what are mainstream media entities doing to compete? Are they just telling their journalists not to post to social media networks, as AP and others have done — or are they trying to take advantage of these tools? The BBC has an entire news-desk set up to process and fact-check reports that come in via Twitter and YouTube and other networks, a process that applies traditional journalistic processes to these new information sources. That’s a smart approach, and one that other media outlets could learn from.

The disruption of journalism thanks to the “democracy of distribution” (as Om has called it) is also one of the reasons why laws like the Stop Online Piracy Act are a real danger. What if a site like WikiLeaks or a citizen-journalism service is accused of using copyrighted material in a news report? Their site could be removed from the internet and shut down by payment companies (as WikiLeaks has been) without even a court hearing to prove their guilt. Freedom of the press becomes a lot more important when everyone is the press — or rather, when the internet itself becomes the press.

So what does the world look like when journalism is everywhere? We are beginning to find out. And while it may be a frightening prospect if you are a traditional media company, there is a lot to be optimistic about if you are just interested in the news. A world where everyone is a journalist may be a bit more chaotic and a bit more complicated than the one we are used to, but it will also be a bit more free, and that is clearly a good thing.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and Rosaura Ochoa

30 Responses to “What happens when journalism is everywhere?”

  1. Even if everyone becomes a “journalist”, there’ll still be a place for professionals who are capable of sifting through tonnes of tweets, fact-check, ensure counter-viewpoints and comments from relevant authorities are included, and then form it into a coherent story that makes for easier reading. The majority of people are not going to sit by their computer for hours staring at tweets and tracking hashtags.

  2. Paul Quigley

    Matt, would you say it’s less journalism everywhere and really distribution everywhere? Twitter a wire service of video and pictures captured by individuals and used in journalism, but usually they don’t amount to the contextual storytelling I associate with journalism. Storify aside, I think the real revolution is the “democracy of distribution” you mention, and it’s hard to stretch it past that, least for now.

    • Distribution is definitely a big part of it, but the content is definitely journalism, no matter how you define it. Contextual storytelling is part of journalism as well, but it is not the whole of journalism — and I think trying to draw some kind of distinction between reporting and journalism misses the point. If someone reports an event in a war zone, does that mean they aren’t a journalist because they haven’t added any contextual storytelling? Thanks for the comment.

      • “If someone reports an event in a war zone, does that mean they aren’t a journalist because they haven’t added any contextual storytelling?”

        In my opinion, that person is an observer. There’s a qualitative difference between reporting something that happened and trying to figure out why. We’re not simply arguing over semantics, here (“journalism” vs. some other term). If someone reports an explosion, for instance, divorced from any context (Did a gas main blow? Was it a product of attack?…), all we’re left with is observation.

        The world runs on context. Until the crowd is able to fulfill that function repeatably, I don’t think what we’re seeing can fairly be described as journalism.

  3. Kevin Pierce

    As we have come to learn over the time that has passed since the L.B. Johnson administration, if we must respect the civil rights of all, what it really means is we can equally disregard the civil rights of ALL. In the same light, if everyone is a journalist, no journalist protections will remain.

  4. jonathanstray

    “Are there errors and omissions and other flaws in this kind of real-time reporting by non-journalists? Of course there are. But they tend to get corrected just as quickly as they would in the mainstream media, if not faster.”

    This is a very broad and very provocative assertion. But hard numbers about the accuracy and error-correcting properties of various information channels are notoriously hard to come by. So I’d like to know a little more about why you believe this is true.

    • I believe it because I have seen it happen again and again — in the stream of coverage Andy Carvin has been producing, and elsewhere. Corrections appearing faster (and spreading faster) than in traditional media sources. Of course, I have no hard data to confirm this — just my own observations :-) Thanks for the comment, Jonathan.

  5. Ron Blechner

    Disagree strongly. “Citizen journalism” is one of those terms that never should have been invented. Everyone can *report* on things, but journalism has traditionally meant a higher standard to live by – of objectivity and impartiality. The result of “everyone can be a journalist” is Fox News style bias. By my definition, of course, many existing “journalists” are really just reporting news and opinion, based on mass media’s desire to appeal to the masses rather than uphold a strong journalistic integrity.

    • “The result of ‘everyone can be a journalist’ is Fox News style bias.”

      I’ll buy the tradition of standards definition of Journalism (big J), but I haven’t heard this argument before. Fox News is still top-down Big Media. How did “Citizen journalism” “result” in that?

      • Peter Mullen

        Correction: Fox News OR NY Times style bias. Bias comes in many flavors or shades. The Fox News style bias is ‘in your face’ and obvious for all to see. The NY Times style bias is insidious, at times unrecognizable, especially by those who advocate its approach.

    • Doug Tindal

      With respect, Mr. Blechner, your argument holds no water. The propaganda machine that calls itself Fox News is not a product of citizen journalism. It is a product of the same forces that give us CBS and the New York Times. Yes, there should be higher standards than pandering to the masses or distorting facts in order to advance a point of view. At the moment, however, there’s little to suggest that these standards are confined to professional journalists, or missing from citizen journalists.

  6. Bob Denny

    Interesting. Personally, I prefer to hang my decisions on pro reporters who talk to real people and get multiple sources, etc. it’s just too easy for some kook to masquerade as “multiple sources” and feed BS. I’ll look at how the BBC does their sourcing. I’d bet released stories involve person to person.