Sunday, July 10, 2016

The rise of the citizen journalist.

Roberto Ferrari | Flickr | CC 2.0
I am never going to turn this into a blog about politics; teh intarwebz are already chock-full of 'em. But one thing I've noticed this week -- amidst all the social media accounts of the horrific events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas -- is how citizen journalism is playing a larger and larger role in informing us.

Most of you know that I used to be a broadcast journalist. I got out of the business in the late 1990s for a number of reasons, but a big chunk of it involved the changes I was seeing in the industry. The line between news and entertainment was blurring, as news organizations began chasing ratings instead of telling viewers/listeners/readers what they needed to know. At the same time, the lines between objective reporting and commentary had also become less clear.

And the industry was consolidating. When I began working in broadcasting in the early '80s, there was a whole host of network-level radio news outlets: CBS, ABC, NBC, Mutual News, NPR, the Associated Press, United Press International, and I'm probably forgetting some. By the time I got out, UPI was toast. Westwood One had bought NBC Radio News and Mutual News, combined them into one shop, then combined that with CBS Radio News (which is how I lost my last radio job -- the Mutual/NBC newsroom in Washington, DC, was shut down when the networks were consolidated at the CBS studios in New York).

Along with the consolidations came new scrutiny of the bottom line. In the name of maximizing shareholder profits, news staffs were trimmed to the bone, and surviving staffers -- just like survivors of downsizings everywhere -- were expected to do more with less.

One way news operations did that was to develop the concept of citizen journalism: this idea that a regular Joe with a phone could call his local newspaper or broadcast station and report on a fire or whatever in his neighborhood. It seemed like a win/win for the corporate bean counters: the paper and/or the station would get the story without having to pay a reporter to go out and get it. So what if Joe wasn't a trained journalist?

Then came YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook -- places where people were encouraged to share photos and videos of things that interested them. At the same time, smartphones began to proliferate, to the point where nearly everyone had a video camera in his or her pocket. And an interesting thing happened: almost by accident, social media stepped into the real-news void the bean counters had created.

When congressional Republicans shut down official broadcasts of the sit-in at the Capitol last month, the protesting Democrats turned to Twitter to get the word out. When Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge last week, it was a group called Stop the Killing that filmed the incident and uploaded it to social media. Then, when Minneapolis police shot and killed Philando Castile, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, uploaded her video of the aftermath to Facebook. And Facebook was the venue again for live videos of the shooting incident in Dallas that left five officers dead.

What I find interesting is that in most of these incidents, it's not bystanders doing the filming; it's the people directly involved. It's the people I, as a reporter, would have interviewed after the fact: "What did you see? How did you feel?" Without the reporter, there's no buffer. What we're getting now is visceral and raw, and in real time. First person, present tense.

This is corporate media's worst nightmare. Not only do many people now view them as untrustworthy -- a direct result, by the way, of recasting news as commentary/infotainment -- but now their customers don't need them at all. The critics will wring their hands over whether social media ought to be entrusted with the sacred task of deciding what's news -- it's already begun -- but it's too late for that. They're not going to be able to stuff this djinni back in the bottle. And they have only themselves to blame.

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These moments of bloggy commentating have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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