Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Thoughts on Citizen Journalism, Blogging, and Traditional Journalism

The lines are blurring in the world of new media. In some cases, established news stations pick up already-"published" tips from bloggers, who pick them up from Twitter. There's some form of cooperation between traditional journalists and citizen journalists (the bloggers, the tweeters, the podcasters who may or may not have a journalism degree or relevant work experience.) This cooperation leads to an interesting question of citizen journalists' work being used by news outlets for free - for exposure - but that's an issue for another day. Today, I just want to muse about the way news can travel through these new channels with surprising speed.

I often find myself in a strange journalistic purgatory. I recently finished my master's degree in science journalism, and I have a variety of published science, food, and arts clips and photographs, so I feel somewhat comfortable calling myself a professional journalist, albeit a relatively new one. But I'm not currently working as a journalist. (Somebody please hire me.) However, I've been blogging a lot about food right here on Fork it over, Boston!, attending expensive events for free as a blogger, feeling a bit like a press impostor and maybe rightfully so. I've been tweeting 140 character bursts of food news that I find on other blogs, aggregating work done by others. A lot of journalism today seems to be about aggregation rather than creation.

Anyway, yesterday I got more exposure than I've ever had before...because of a bad cellphone photo that I posted on Twitter. (I actually had my real camera at the time and would have taken a nicer photo had I known so many people would see it!) Here's the photo, which now, 24 hours later, has over 2000 views on TwitPic and many more on other sites:

Some jerk with the tag 'better prey' graffitied the Make Way ... on

The story: As I was walking through the Public Garden on my way to work, I smiled at the children playing around the duckling statues and then did a double take. Was that black paint on the ducklings? Just tarnish? Nope, definitely paint. The words "better prey" were painted on the sidewalk right in front of the ducklings, "BP" was on mama duck, and the other ducklings seemed to have lines and maybe more "BP"s painted on them. I was on the phone with my mom at the time and angrily exclaimed that some jerk had graffitied the ducks. I told her I wanted to post a photo of it on Twitter, so we said goodbye, I snapped a photo, and I tweeted it. (Ugh, I hate that verb.) Then, I promptly took out my real camera, snapped some shots of the adorable real ducklings that were wandering around nearby, and continued walking to work. When I got to work, I logged on to TwitPic to add some tags to the photo I had uploaded, and I was surprised to find that the view count was already in the hundreds. Soon, I found that Universal Hub had retweeted my original status and posted about it on the website. Some other Twitter users retweeted and responded to it, including a couple who said that posting photos of vandalism online actually exacerbates the problem. I can see where they are coming from, but since I have journalism in my blood, I feel a compulsion and a responsibility to share things that seem news-worthy.

As the day went on, the views went up. I was a bit embarrassed: I've done work as a real photographer, and everyone's looking at my blurry, poorly lit cellphone pic. Then, legit news outlets started following me on Twitter and I got a number of emails and Twitter messages. (Interestingly enough, most people contacted me through both avenues at the same time. It's a bit weird to think how connected everything is - in a matter of seconds, the same message comes to me on the computer screen as an email and a direct message on Twitter, and both also get routed to the BlackBerry. Sometimes I think it'd be nice to unplug and live on a deserted island for awhile!) By the end of the day, I was contacted by WHDH, WBZ, and Fox25, inquiring about whether they could use my photo on the news that evening. WBUR also contacted me on Twitter to confirm that the picture was, in fact, taken yesterday - they sent a staff member down to check out the ducks, and they had already been cleaned up by mid-afternoon. I watched the WHDH video - they went to the park and did some man-on-the-street interviews with people who were "upset by [the] vandalism." Andrew Phelps of WBUR called the sculptor, Nancy Schön, who expressed her anger about the graffiti. It was interesting (heart-warming?) to see other journalists take my tip and run with it, fact-checking and interviewing and shooting video. I particularly like Phelps' story because he actually describes how the information originated on Twitter (and yeah, of course it's cool to see my name in print!) As a journalist, I find that in some cases, the back story is almost as interesting as the actual story. The vandalism of the ducks is definitely a good (well, sad) story, but the fact that a random Twitter post could quickly blossom into a fact-checked multimedia story on several different channels is also intriguing to me.

So I felt like a real citizen journalist yesterday, which is strange, considering I should theoretically be working as a real traditional journalist. There are plenty of people who are one or the other, and then I'm sure there are others like me who blur the lines a bit. I think it's good that there are distinctions, although some bloggers are pushing to be recognized as legitimate members of the press. I'm on the fence on this issue. In my mind, anyone can be a citizen journalist: snap a blurry photo, post something on Twitter, leave a tip on a news site. We're all capable of sharing information. Blogging takes a bit more work, and there is clearly a wide range of abilities. Anyone can start a blog, but it's the hard-working, honest bloggers that tend to build the biggest following. Traditional journalism, I think, should be arrived at through traditional roots: education, work experience, or both. Of course there are bloggers who follow journalistic standards and journalists who do not, but in general, I think it's good that we have different titles for different types of writers. I read blogs for different reasons than I read the newspaper or magazine. I've read blogs that are very well-researched, well-written, and well-photographed, and those are the ones that dance a bit in the gray area, but in general I look for that type of content in more traditional places. Twitter and blogs are good for breaking news without the background research, real-time announcements of events and happenings, and a whole lot of community discussion.

As journalism evolves, I hope that some distinction remains between different types of journalists and different types of media outlets. While we are all capable of sharing news, the most reliable sources should always be the people who have devoted time and effort to studying journalistic standards and ethics, or at least learned these skills on the job or developed them as a professional-minded blogger or freelancer. A non-fiction writer of any kind must take the time to build up a reputation of honesty and hard work. I'm glad that WBUR fact-checked my tweet and didn't just take my photo for granted. While many Twitter users responded to my post with anger about the vandalism - taking my word for it that it actually happened - traditional journalists were doing their time-honored job, seeking the truth, gauging the reliability of the sources, and clearly identifying where their information came from. Sure, I broke the news in the morning in "citizen journalist" mode, but the traditional media took their time and worked diligently to present the story with more facts and more background later in the day. I hope that citizen journalism and traditional journalism can continue to co-exist in this way. Anyone can break news fast, but the professionals can take the time to present more of a complete story.

Edit: Andrew Phelps at WBUR is now referring to the incident as Duckgate - haha - and asking for the tagger to come forward anonymously.

The ducks in happier times:
Someone put Easter bonnets on the Make Way for Ducklings duck... on Twitpic

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