Where Citizens and Journalists Intersect
‘The crucial leap will be helping our audience become involved in the process
On September 22nd, Dan Gillmor, the founder of Grassroots Media Inc., a project aimed at bringing more voices into journalism, delivered the 2005 Graham Hovey Lecture at the University of Michigan. He titled his talk, “We the Media: Online Journalism and Democracy,” and what follows is an adapted version of the words he spoke that day.
Let’s take a hopeful look ahead, say to April 2007. The Pulitzer Prizes have just been awarded for work done in 2006. Fresh off its almost heroic efforts in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune wins its second consecutive Public Service medal. The 2007 award is for the paper’s powerful exposés of corruption, cronyism and other malfeasance, not to mention sheer ineptitude, in how billions of dollars in federal taxpayers’ money were stolen, wasted or went unaccounted for. The Pulitzer jury takes special note of the paper’s methods. The citation for the medal cites “an innovative collaboration with ‘citizen journalists’ in reporting and telling stories of wrongdoing.”
What has gone into that collaboration? Many things, including the standard tools of investigative journalism reported and edited by professionals. But the essential element was this: involvement of citizens as journalists.
As The Times-Picayune writes in its Pulitzer contest entry:
“Our citizen reporters were as essential to this coverage as our staff and more essential than the standard human sources we have always relied on to tell us what is happening and why. The citizen journalists, responding to our invitations and consistent guidance throughout the process, did enormous amounts of original reporting. They examined local, state and federal records, and documented what they’d found. They conducted interviews. They told us, and the rest of the world via blogs and online forums, their personal stories. We shared preliminary findings with them, and they responded with a flood of corrections, clarifications, data and new topics to pursue.
“We were, of course, responsible for what we printed, so we applied journalistic principles and practices to this project. We explained to our citizen journalists that they were responsible for their words, that the laws of defamation applied to them as they do to us. We verified identities. We did extra fact-checking when potential legal questions might have arisen.
“With few exceptions, we found the citizen journalists’ work to be of exceptionally high quality. They cared, because this story was in the end about their own lives as citizens of this region and this nation. In the end, we could not have done this work without them.”
Here’s one more wishful-thinking report from the future: The voters who read these stories got mad. When the 2008 elections came around, they got revenge. And in a region of the country where good and honest government has frequently been an oxymoron, things began to change.
The Shift Toward the Citizen
I don’t know if something like this will occur as soon as I’d like. But I do know that something like this scenario is coming. It’s coming because of the way media are evolving. If we’re both smart and lucky, future media will be an ecosystem that is vastly richer and more diverse than we have today. It will become a multidirectional conversation, enriching civic dialogue at the local, national and international levels.
Inspiring grass-roots activities are happening not just in journalism, but all across society. In business, for example, the Web and open-source concepts are transforming not just software development but the relationship companies have with their customers and other constituencies. Walter Lippmann, in his 1914 book, “Drift and Mastery,” warned that civilization was becoming so complex that “the purchaser can’t pit himself against the producer, for he lacks knowledge and power to make the bargain a fair one.” Knowledge is shifting back towards the purchaser, and the power is following.
The distributed-media model goes far beyond the business world. In the arts, the democratization of once-unaffordable tools of production and distribution are unleashing creativity on a fantastic scale. In war zones, smart military people are pushing information and much of the decision-making out to the edges and away from central commands. They’re learning, often the hard way, that agility can outfox brute force.
In the citizen-media sphere, remarkable new tools are under development, extending the early efforts such as Technorati, a search engine that indexes blogs. There’s enormous potential for understanding current events in a far better way by aggregating the stand-alone media producers—bloggers, podcasters and the like—into a coherent overall news medium. We’re some time away from this becoming a mainstream technology, but the progress is unmistakable.
I’m not in the camp that wishes for the demise of Big Media. The work they do is too important. But it’s essential for professional journalists to adapt to what’s happening, to use these techniques themselves, of course, but also to become allies of the grass-roots practitioners. Bringing more voices into the conversation is smart from a journalistic point of view. It’s also part of a survival strategy. The long-range financial salvation of what some people sneeringly call the MSM, or mainstream media, may depend—at least in part—on a collaboration with what I like to call the “former audience.”
The pros can bring valuable principles and practices to this table. They also need to listen better and help their citizen-journalist allies understand what is at stake, namely the informed citizenry that is crucial to democracy’s very survival.
The Value of Listening
The collision of journalism and technology enables the conversation we need to foster. If telephone epitomized one-to-one communications, and 20th century mass media epitomized one-to-many, we’re moving into an era of many-to-many. We can thank—or curse, depending on our view of these shifts—the Internet’s increasing reach and the availability of low-cost and easy-to-use communications tools. This evolution is not only about Web-logs, even though blogs are getting most of the attention today, at least in the United States. Think of blogs as a proxy for an explosion of citizen-media tools, including audio podcasts, Wikis, interactive presentations such as user-annotated Web maps, and increasingly sophisticated amateur videos.
Remember, too, that this is more about people than gadgets. Citizen journalism is made possible by what’s new. It will be made excellent because of what people do with it, and the most creative work lies ahead of us, not behind. Experiments in citizen journalism are a global phenomenon, moreover, not just an American one. Some have been done, or at least assisted, by major news organizations. Most have not.
Professional journalists have a lot to learn. If we accept the idea that we are moving toward a more conversational system, then we must remember that the first rule in having a conversation is to listen. We don’t listen very well. When I went to Silicon Valley to write about technology, I learned quickly a fact of life that has been at the heart of my grass-roots journalism notions ever since. It was simple: My readers—many of whom were in the technology business—knew more than I did. They told me things I did not know. They made my work better. I believe this concept is true for all journalists. No matter what the topic you are writing about, your collected readers know more than you about the subject. This is true by definition.
The value in this should be clear to all of us. Our audience can help us understand our subjects better. The readers can give us facts we did not know. They can add nuance. They can ask follow-up questions. And, of course, they can tell us when we are wrong, or at least raise vital questions, as CBS News and its “60 Minutes II” team found out so dramatically in 2004.
The CBS case was an exception, because the major media do in the end work hard to get stories right, and they succeed for the most part. But bloggers have become media watchdogs. This is not the most pleasant notion for journalists whose every public move is now under observation. Too bad, get used to it. We are fond of holding everyone else to account. More scrutiny of our own methods and motives is not a bad idea. News media have been opaque—black boxes producing products. Now they are becoming more transparent. I’m glad to see that CBS News now has a resident blogger whose job is, in part, to explain what’s happening behind the scenes.
But the biggest jump for journalists is not just opening up, or creating blogs, or letting people comment on our sites. The crucial leap will be helping our audience become involved in the process much more directly. We can start with simple moves, such as linking to the best local blogs covering issues we don’t have enough staff to cover. We can give readers their own blogs to cover things we don’t cover ourselves. We don’t have to vouch for everything on our sites, but we do have to distinguish between what we’ve done ourselves and what we haven’t.
Creating a Virtual Town Square
The Web is an increasingly versatile platform. Several Canadian newspapers have set up interactive maps that readers will annotate with all kinds of useful local information. How about a map showing potholes, street by street, annotated with readers’ photos? If news organizations don’t do these things, no big deal. Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft will—as will lots of startups. They’ve already begun.
At the very least, with more reader action, people become engaged with the news, which is an improvement all by itself. When enough of them do it, with our assistance and recognition and with the benefit of the very real resources that a local media organization can bring to bear, they can be part of a virtual town square.
For local newspapers and TV stations, this is an opportunity of some size—and a market just begging to be served, not just for the journalism but the advertisers who can’t afford print editions. Again, the stakes are not merely about news companies’ markets. This is also about something much more important: When you give power to what has been a passive audience, and they start using it, you start people on the road toward being even better citizens.
News organizations should involve the audience deeply in investigative journalism. The Katrina recovery spending story in my fantasy scenario is simply too big for the professional media. It demands citizen involvement.
But we should go further. The BBC has a Web project called Action Network, on which it offers tools that help citizens create campaigns—social, political, whatever. Anyone can use it to research a topic, including stories and video from the BBC archives, find other people who want to be involved, and then create the campaign. BBC reporters and editors watch what the citizens do and cover the most active campaigns. (In the Department of Irony, one of the first citizen campaigns on the site was devoted to withdrawing taxpayer support for the BBC.) Action Network is still a fledgling operation, but it’s a great experiment.
Democracy is not a passive activity, not if you want an outcome that includes justice and honest government and liberty itself. Democracy—of the people, by the people, and for the people—takes work. Instead of lecturing our audiences, let’s ask for their help and offer ours. We can do great things together, and we should.
Dan Gillmor, a newspaper journalist from 1980-2004, including 10 years as business and technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, is the author of “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People.” He is founder of several initiatives to advocate and promote grass-roots media.