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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dan Gillmor answers your concerns

Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, responds to e-mails from readers about how media organisations are beginning to recognise that their consumers can be major contributors to tomorrow's stories.

Something interesting occurred in the dozens - just over 200 - comments posted after my recent column on citizen journalism.

After initial responses, posters started responding to each other, not to what I'd written. Their comments focused mostly on politics and alleged media bias, and their discussion, dominated by a small group of writers, grew quite heated.

This wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

I've found on the blogs I've written over the years that readers are prone to taking the conversation in the direction they prefer, not necessarily the direction I might expect or desire. That is their right, of course, in an open forum.

Still, I must admit that I was pleased when Ralph, from Augusta, Georgia, wrote near the end of the comments that "between reading all the nastygrams, I have forgotten what we where talking about".

In any event, here are a few of the comments and my responses.

Professional concerns

Reader: As an editor for a leading Israeli news website, I've been asking myself many times how can we, the ''paid journalists'', combine the ongoing involvement of readers and users in our work. The one problem I have with relying on citizen journalism is false reporting. We want to be more attentive to our readers, but how can we make sure they are being accurate without doing the news work ourselves? Sheer Ganor

Dan: There are a number of ways professional journalists can handle this. One is to do some fact-checking or verification of citizens' contributions. OhmyNews.com, the Korean online newspaper that is largely written by its "citizen-reporters" from around the nation, works in this way.

Computer keyboard and mouse
Online news readers need a healthy dose of scepticism
Another approach is to be clear on the website what the news organisation vouches for, and what it does not. This isn't in the DNA of most news organisations.

Finally, it's essential to help our audiences update media literacy in the digital age.

Our readers/viewers/listeners need to bring a healthy dose of scepticism to what they find online, and to learn what they can trust, largely through experience and reputation, and what they cannot.

Media distrust

Reader: I think many traditional media outlets like TV and newspapers need to expand reader/viewer input options. Papers will publish four or five Letters to the Editor and some longer news programmes will read a few e-mails, but that's it. Many people have grown to distrust the media because they don't think it's listening to them or their opinions. They don't feel like what they have to say will make difference and this also translates into low voter turnout. Randal S, Los Angeles

Dan: There's a great opportunity for traditional media companies to take advantage of the essentially limitless nature of the web.

I've urged newspaper companies, for example, to take their editorial pages and make them the daily printed guide and best-of pointers to the conversation their communities are having online. That's an inversion of how they do it now, for the most part, and I think it would be a great way to move more into the conversational mode journalists need to adopt.

Clear perspective

Reader: I think there should be clearer definitions of journalist, reporter and commentator. All of us can be commentators, and many of us maybe first-on-the-scene reporters, but a journalist must be neither of these. A journalist needs to be a professional who looks at the whole scene and provide perspective, not opinion and not knee-jerk reporting. It's tough, which is why there are so very few of them. Mark Newdick, Danbury, CT, United States

Nowadays we all are journalists in our own ways
Subhankar Mondal, Bangalore, India

Dan: The ability to look at the whole scene and provide perspective is a valuable one, but it's hardly the only definition of a journalist.

These roles tend to bleed into each other more than we might appreciate. Reporters are certainly journalists in most cases, from my perspective, and so are many commentators, not just editors and people who sum up the available data.

Professional input

Reader: A person's experience in an event gives very crucial first hand information which can be used by the Pro. But finer aspects as the edit, cut etc should be left to the professionals only. Citizens and professionals can work hand in hand for effective news reporting. Prashansa KS, Chennai

Dan: I would never leave anything solely to the professionals except in certain super-skilled professions such as brain surgery and civil engineering. Journalism is as much a craft as a profession, after all; one does not need a formal degree or training to do it. And not every capable editor cares to make a living at it, as professionals do or try to do.

As media become more democratised, in the sense of wide participation, the opportunities for gifted amateurs - people who simply want to tell each other what's going on and what they know - will increase.

That said, I certainly agree that citizen journalists and professionals can and should work together as much as possible.

Information overload

Reader: The problem is overload. If there are thousands of political blogs, e-mail petitions, citizen investigators, then there's too many clamouring for attention. If everyone talks at once no one gets heard. And how do we know what's genuine? What's rumour? What's spun from a party? What's fraudulent? There'll be blogs investigating blogs! It'll be a problem for the mass media as well as the voters. Tim Dennell, Sheffield, UK

Reader: I think we have entered an interesting time, reminiscent in many ways of the explosion in writing in the 18th century. Newspapers were being founded on a daily basis and pamphlets were on every wall. In France writers like Marat and Desmoulins shaped the revolution with their words and many followed them as amateur writers. So, yes this is a good thing. The corollary is that there is a lot of hateful rubbish on the web, you have to sort the truth from the chaff. phil b, UK

Onlookers take pictures of a demonstration in Thailand
Technology allows participation in the news
Dan: The single most precious resource, and the one that cannot be expanded, is our time as individuals. News addicts like me will spend all day learning about and observing what's going on in the word. Others will not.

We need far better tools to make sense of the flood of data coming our way.

They'll combine traditional media with citizen media, reputation with popularity, machine intelligence with human intelligence, all in service of helping us find reliable information about the topics that matter to us.

This plays to the strength of traditional media, of course.

Bit of both

Reader: There're very few journalists compared to the immensity of the public. Nowadays we all are journalists in our own ways. There're several readers and thinkers who can and do define the news items and are thereby the harbingers of the common goodwill. A particular journalist is able to perceive features in a particular direction and readers are able in their own ways. The mix of the professional and amateur is a refined one in this respect and is a boon to media organisations. Subhankar Mondal, Bangalore, India

Dan: We have some distance to go to make all this work. But I do agree that the mix of professional and amateur will be a good one for all concerned if we handle it well.

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