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Many traditional journalists seem inherently suspicious of “citizen journalism” — that is, the idea that anyone with a cellphone camera and a Twitter account can function as a journalist given the right circumstances. And their suspicion probably isn’t surprising, since this democratization of distribution threatens the information-gatekeeper role that mainstream media has always played. But not everyone sees this as a threat, or something to be discouraged: Nick Kristof, the New York Times foreign correspondent and author, said in an interview this week that he sees the benefits of the phenomenon — and put his finger on one of the main reasons why it is a good thing for journalism and for society as a whole.
In a discussion with Fast Company about his role at the paper, which involves column writing but also foreign reporting and blogging, Kristof was asked whether the rise of citizen journalism diminishes the overall credibility of the media. While the NYT writer admitted that the loss of the traditional gatekeeper role was a disadvantage for newspaper staffers like himself, he said that there had always been a “hierarchy of credibility” with the media at one end, and that this would likely continue. But he also suggested that the rise of citizen journalism — or what Andy Carvin of NPR has called “random acts of journalism” — can be a very positive force.
In particular, Kristof said that having non-traditional journalists with smartphones and Twitter accounts played a critical role in getting word out about the crackdown on both protesters and the media during the Occupy Wall Street protests:
[H]aving people shooting videos everywhere provides a useful level of accountability. A lot of people including me were really taken aback by the videos of police violence during Occupy Wall Street. A decade ago nobody would have known about that because there wouldn’t have been a reporter there and even if someone did write about it, it wouldn’t have been that dramatic.
Journalism gets better the more people there are doing it
In fact, if something like the Occupy Wall Street harassment and arrests had occurred before the rise of social media and smartphones, there’s good reason to believe that there wouldn’t have been any reports about it at all, because in many cases the police tried to restrict the press coverage as much as they could. But that didn’t stop some non-traditional journalists from covering the events closely — including Spencer Mills, who my colleague Janko wrote about recently, or another videographer named Tim Pool, who became a trusted source of news reports about the protests in a relatively short space of time.
As Kristof pointed out in his interview, this same phenomenon has changed the nature of protests and political activity in other countries as well, including many that have been part of the “Arab Spring” revolutions over the past year:
[I]n Syria, widespread video does provide some constraint on a government if it knows that if it massacres people, there will be video of that. They may still decide to massacre people, but it raises the price.
I think the New York Times writer’s view is a variation on a theme that journalism professor Jay Rosen has described, which is that journalism gets better the more people there are doing it. That’s not to say every citizen journalist or person with a smartphone and a Twitter account is going to be right or fair — and a whole sub-industry within mainstream media is emerging that involves fact-checking and curating those kinds of reports — but it means that there are more sources of information, and that is almost always a good thing.
It’s not surprising that Kristof would see the benefits of a more social approach to media, since he was the first New York Times staffer to have a blog, and has been more active on both Twitter and Facebook than just about anyone else at the newspaper — and that includes media writer and Twitter star Brian Stelter. The way he uses these tools is quite frankly a model for other news organizations to follow, and so are his thoughts about the values of citizen journalism and the other topics he discusses in his interview. Take some time and read the whole thing.