Digital Media

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

We the Media
Dan Gillmor
Chapter Six: Professional Journalists Join the Conversation

Professional journalists, and in effect their employers, rely on their credibility to do good work. Because the nature of their work requires them to be fair and even-handed, it is not surprising that some newspapers are hesitant to allow journalists to maintain blogs. If a political reporter writes her opinions on a candidate in a blog it would obviously be inappropriate for her to cover that candidate. However, if a political reporter keeps a blog with the latest developments in a candidate's campaign (assuming she isn't only writing about one candidate) such as campaign contributions of fundraising stops, these are details that might not necessarily make it into the paper, but which some people might be interested in knowing about. When I worked at The Spokesman-Review the newspaper had several blogs from writers who did not even work at the newspaper. The site has since expanded and includes blogs by reporters, editors and anyone else who might have something interesting to say. When one of my fellow copy editors went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to volunteer (she is from Baton Rouge) she kept a blog so those of us in the Northwest could know a little bit about the chaos going on there from someone who we actually knew.

Blogs are an excellent source of news and information. But newspapers have a fear of releasing their editorial control. I think this is one of the reasons why newspapers have been slow to include blogs, discussion boards and other reader-produced content that they don't have the resources to monitor it.

What Dan Gillmor makes clear in his book, however, is that the point of having an interactive media is to allow the readers to contribute, and help monitor, the sites. As we learned with Communities in Cyberspace, users are more than willing to take on responsibilities for user-driven sites. If newspapers included a way to alert editors of inappropriate content with the click of a button, I think users would report the content - probably more efficiently than the newspaper is able to monitor the site. I'm not saying editors can leave interactive features of their Web sites unmaintained. It's important for readers to see that the sites are active with both reader content and editors' oversight.

When bloggers or people on discussion boards get it wrong who is at fault and what should newspapers do about it? This is a real concern for newspapers. Hopefully, the same open process that allowed the content in the first place will allow it to be quickly corrected. However, should newspapers take responsibility for fact-checking assertions made by readers? Even if they are not legally obligated to (which I don't think they are judging from this article I saw today newspapers may fear that incorrect information from readers could hurt their credibility. Hopefully, the more familiar people become with blogs, the more they will understand that information must be questioned. Also, as we saw with Newsvine, even nonjournalists can earn credibility with readers. Regular contributors and readers of blogs will be able to judge for themselves after several posts whether a person is credible or not. Newspapers may also consider a ranking system like Newsvine uses, in which regular contributors gradually earn more control over the site.

This view of citizen journalism could be a very empowering thing for people. If people feel they have some ownership over the news they are consuming, they will probably be more faithful readers as well, which is good for newspapers in the long run. The BBC experiment iCan, in which citizens were given the tools for local activism, was inspiring in the way it helped to focus a small community on a pressing issue for that community. They found they could uncover the problems without the need for a professional to do it for them.


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