Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Will Citizen Journalism Improve, Stretch or Break the News Media?

Can citizen journalists be ethical journalists? The First Amendment guarantees citizens' rights to engage the public. But what happens when citizens decide to practice journalism? What obligations do or should they have to something like the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists?

A panel of citizens, professionals and academics explored the ethical issues of journalism practiced by citizens on Wednesday, Nov. 14 at Missouri State University in Springfield. Thirty-two citizens, journalists and members of the public attended the program.

Panelists included:
• Doug McGill, a former reporter for The New York Times and a former editor for Bloomberg;
• Dr. Mary Jane Pardue, associate professor of journalism at Missouri State;
• Mari Winn, editor of the in Joplin;
• Bob Korpella, editor of headquartered in Springfield; and
• Brian Lewis, columnist for the Springfield News-Leader.

Dr. Andrew R. Cline, assistant professor of journalism at Missouri State moderated the event which was co-hosted by the Southwest Missouri Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.


Everyone is a journalist according to Brian Lewis. “We all gather information and sort through it and make decisions. But journalists are also sales people. We are selling that we can be trusted and that our reporting is accurate. If I can’t get someone to buy the idea that being informed matters then newspapers and journalism doesn’t matter.”

At the same time, journalism is a craft that most people can learn. It is hard work and something that some journalists are able to do better than others.

“Journalism is hard work but if newspapers are going to drop the ball on covering important news stories in the community then it will be up to citizen journalists to pick up the stories and content,” said Lewis.


Doug McGill says that when citizens get involved in reporting, journalism gets better.

“Journalism as a craft and news media as an industry are struggling. It is a bad sign for our democracy. Journalism gets better when more things get covered with more details. There are more experts outside the news room than inside the newsroom. That is why expanding the role of citizen journalists is so important,” said McGill.

But with the growing role of citizen journalism, citizens need to become more knowledgeable about the impact they have on society.

“What we see on the media becomes the substance of what we think. We need to develop an approach to dealing with some of this toxic and disrespectful talk that is going on. The constant celebrity coverage may not be so good for our mental health either. There needs to be some ideas and rules about how to consume responsibility. What are we going to do now that we don’t have the sources of news we always felt like we could trust. We don’t have those anymore and we are not going to have them anymore. It is going to be up to citizens to be better consumers of news and how to be citizen journalists. Responsible media literacy needs to be part of our discussion about what it means to be a citizen,” said McGill.


Six years ago when Mari Winn started the Joplin Independent she was looking for people to share opinions and not just be sheep agreeing with majority opinions.

“The concept of a newspaper is one that should take a stand against corruption and political bias. … But there is more than one way to practice journalism and that is why it doesn’t really matter who is writing the story,” said Winn.


Frank Korpella purchased an existing print publication after working in human resources for many years. At the time, the trend in human resources was toward the idea of self-directed work teams. This concept brought a lot of change into manufacturing. Managers became more like trainers or coaches and team members did more of the managing.

“I think we are in the same situation with journalism. Citizen journalism will enhance professional journalism and expand what the industry is able to do. Journalism is a craft that can be practiced by a lot of people. It is like John Updike and J.K. Rowling. Both are authors of books but they couldn’t be further apart in how they practice the craft. It is the same for professional journalists and citizens journalists. It is a dynamic situation and in the long run it is going to get better. Roles are going to change and what we end up with is going to be a better product. As for ethics, I’m not sure that a code of ethics can be practiced in the same way by a citizen journalist as a professional paid journalist,” said Korpella.

At the same time, Korpella says the role of the professional journalist is changing and what the future looks like is still unknown.


Dr. Mary Jane Pardue has been a journalist for over 25. As a result, she has been witness to a lot of change in the industry. One thing that has not changed, however, is the importance of credibility.

“Credibility is the biggest problem with blogging and people taking it seriously. How do you enforce a code of ethics for bloggers? Ethical practices of fairness, balance should be practices. Just because we could do something doesn’t mean we should do it.”

If a professional journalist does a poor job and loses credibility, they can also get fired. But what happens to a citizen journalist who does poor journalism or purposefully lies in a story?

“We do have to be held accountable for our own actions. No matter who you work for or why you write you need to act responsibly. We are responsible for our own actions,” said Pardue.

But at the same time, Winn thinks stories can be balanced to a ridiculous level.
“The other side of an issue doesn’t always need to be done. The state is being driven by economics and the environment is sometimes overlooked. Citizen Journalists tell it the way they think it is from their point of view,” said Winn.


What makes people want to be citizen journalists? It is a question that professionals have wondered about since no other profession seems to have such a high number of people wanting to try the craft as a side hobby or individual effort.

“Citizenship has responsibility and journalism is getting involved in civic matters and sharing this expertise on a topic. Being a journalist is like running for office or serving on a jury. It is not learning specialized skills in specialized areas. Being a journalist is a citizen’s duty. That is why I think people are getting involved in it,” said McGill.

Ratings and content might be another reason. For example, one audience member asked if the ratings and circulation game force journalists to report what people want to know instead of what people need to know.

“If you report on one thing there is always something else you don’t report on. It is a subjective business and we try to decide what would be of more interest to our readers,” said Lewis.

On a similar note, Winn says, “we make a content decision based on what we think is best for the common good.”


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