Winter 2005


By Melissa Ludtke, Editor
With the arrival of the Internet, the ability of nonjournalists to “publish” their words and link them with those of other like-minded scribes has altered forever the balance of power between those who control the means to publish and those who have something they believe is important to say. This shift from journalists as gatekeepers to citizens as reporters has profound implications for news organizations that “might have completely underestimated the influence of this new medium.” Those are the words of Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, authors of “We Media: How Audiences Are Shaping the Future of News and Information” and of the first article in our collection of stories exploring the emergence and practice of citizen journalism. “In the past two years, citizen media has grown from a promise to a legitimate presence in today’s media sphere,” they write, as they describe the new information ecosystems being developed.

Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People,” picks up on the notion of an evolving media ecosystem that he envisions becoming “a multidirectional conversation, enriching civic dialogue at the local, national and international levels.” He believes “the crucial leap” for journalists “will be helping our audience become involved in the process much more directly.” At the BBC, audience members now contribute to news reports with images and words. Richard Sambrook, the director of the BBC’s World Service and Global News division, describes his network’s transformation into the era of digital technology that enables greater interactivity between the BBC and its audience. As a first step “in what appears likely to be a long journey into new territory,” he observes that BBC staff must “help those who receive our news to contribute to our services as we witness fundamental realignment of the relationship between broadcaster and the public.” Sambrook describes some of the network’s projects related to supporting “the public in learning and using digital technology.”

Santiago Lyon and Lou Ferrara, director of photography and online editor at The Associated Press, respectively, explain how citizens caught in the midst of newsmaking moments are making their digital images part of international media coverage of these major events. Yet, they caution, “Most importantly, whatever we do decide to use must meet our editorial standards.” At OhmyNews, a citizen news service in Korea, stories are submitted by citizens, accepted (or rejected), then edited by frontline copyeditors before being posted online. As Jean K. Min, director of OhmyNews International, notes, “The readers, or news audience, are no longer passive consumers of news produced by a few privileged, arrogant reporters. They are active producers of the news they will consume ….”

At Minnesota Public Radio, Michael Skoler, its managing director of news, is working in the third year of an effort to gather information and develop story ideas with the use of an expanded and improved Rolodex of sources. It’s called Public Insight Journalism® and relies on computer technology and the Internet to create new avenues of interaction to tap “the knowledge and insights of the public,” Skoler writes, “to make our reporters and editors and coverage even smarter and stronger.” He offers examples of stories on which this new approach has worked well. Steve Safran, the director of digital media at NECN, doesn’t like the term “citizen journalist,” preferring to call what his cable TV station does “participatory journalism.” Viewers are invited to send in video news clips from their desktop computers, but not everything that is sent is broadcast or used on its Web site. As Safran writes, “It’s the New England town hall meeting format, writ large. Town members give us ideas and suggestions, but at the end of the meeting, the moderator—that’s us—decides how to proceed.”

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, describes the growth in start-up community news ventures that citizens are creating as “counterpoints to their local journalism, which they described as polarizing, shrill, focused on the near term, and certainly not focused on them or their concerns.” At the University of Missouri, journalism students, under the direction of associate professor Clyde H. Bentley, launched a citizen journalism Web publication called MyMissourian where editors “encourage and they actively seek out community members eager to speak their minds. What they say—not what we think—is what counts.” Bentley also describes how online content became a popular weekly printed newspaper and how the new focus will be on “defining the role of the trained journalist in this citizen variant and on training them in the skills that role will require.” From the West Coast, Leslie Dreyfous McCarthy, a former national writer for The Associated Press, explains what isn’t working well with the local newspaper in her small town south of San Francisco and why a citizen journalist Web publication, Coastsider, serves as “a locus for the kind of civic trust and independence on which the idea of journalism, indeed, democracy, is based.” When Barry Parr started Coastsider in May 2004 as “a community Web site,” he wasn’t a journalist, but soon he was employing skills that reporters and editors are trained to use. He writes about what he wished he’d known before the launch of his site. Among his wishes: knowing “how hard it is to do journalism well.”

Anticipating some of the difficulties that might arise in determining who in the evolving media landscape will merit special legal protections offered now to journalists employed by traditional news organizations, William F. Woo, who directs the graduate journalism program at Stanford University, sets forth what he thinks a functional definition for a journalist should be. At its core, his functional definition has as its premise the idea that “I do journalism, therefore I am a journalist.” Examples of what “doing journalism” means would include “there is a story … [it] is aimed at an audience … [and] there is a public benefit to the story or work product.”

Seth Hettena, a military writer and supervisory correspondent for The Associated Press in San Diego, California, explores the role that an American citizen’s personal Web page played in his reporting about the death of an Iraqi terror suspect at Abu Ghraib prison. His use of photographs of Navy Seals and their prisoners in Iraq that he found on this Web site led to a federal court case accusing the A.P. of “invasion of privacy, publication of private facts, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The case was dismissed after the judge concluded that “Plaintiffs voluntarily assumed a position of public notoriety when they photographed themselves engaged in actions that seemed to suggest possible mistreatment of captive Iraqis and then allowed Jane Doe to post the photos on the Internet.”

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