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David Hazinski feels "unfettered citizen journalism" is too risky, and argues that it "isn't journalism at all." He outlines three steps news media should take to change the information climate.

On Thursday, David Hazinski posted a column on the Web site of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggesting that "unfettered 'citizen journalism' (is) too risky." He points out that the online medium creates an opportunity for anyone to provide informational content, but that this new venue is prone to inaccuracies and hearsay. He argues that so-called citizen journalism "isn't journalism at all, and it opens up information flow to the strong probability of fraud and abuse."

In his article, Hazinski suggests that unless the news industry acts now to regulate amateur-professional journalism, it will be "just a matter of time before something like a faked Rodney King beating video appears on the air somewhere." In his defense, a similar scenario did play out over three years ago when Benjamin Vanderford, a San Francisco resident, produced a fake video depicting his own beheading at the hands of Islamist extremists; then again, it was a publisher from the establishment press, William Randolph Hearst, who is credited with helping catalyze the Spanish American War through manufactured news. Hearst told a reporter, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war," and history indicates that he may have done just that.

Hazinski provides a road map for the reforms he feels will help bolster trust in citizen journalism:
  • Major news organizations must create standards to substantiate citizen-contributed information and video, and ensure its accuracy and authenticity.

  • They should clarify and reinforce their own standards and work through trade organizations to enforce national standards so they have real meaning.

  • Journalism schools such as mine at the University of Georgia should create mini-courses to certify citizen journalists in proper ethics and procedures, much as volunteer teachers, paramedics and sheriff's auxiliaries are trained and certified.
Though I don't agree with the impetus for Hazinski's article: that alternative journalism isn't journalism and that it undermines the credibility of the establishment press, I do feel that the actions he outlines are sensible and would serve to advance the availability of information with a certain degree of accuracy.

His first suggestion, that news organizations create standards to substantiate citizen-contributed information, should be common sense. News organizations employ fact-checkers because their reputation is on the line with every work they publish. The notion that they can shirk this responsibility when working with user-generated content is silly. Some might argue that it is important to give users more latitude, but it really comes down to corporate laziness and a refusal to dedicate their resources toward ensuring that outside content meets their internal standards.

The second point put forward by Hazinski is somewhat more enigmatic. While it might be a positive development to see news-gatherers work together to develop a national standard, there is a diversity of opinion on what these standards should look like, and finding consensus to unify around these differences would not be a trivial matter. Furthermore, while amateur professionals may often lack the formal training, their opinion on these matters is just as vital as those of seasoned professionals. In the current media environment, it seems unlikely that these individuals would be given equal footing in the conversation and removing these voices from the dialogue would likely lead to standards that are outdated and out of touch with new media.

His suggestion that journalism schools should offer mini-courses is a great idea. There are countless individuals that could benefit from a basic education in journalist ethics and procedures, and these workshops would also bring people together to form new collaborations. I'm loath to support any sort of certification process, and Hazinski's comparison to volunteer paramedics and sheriff deputies completely misses the mark, but journalists should be encouraged to highlight any educational programs they have completed.

On the other hand, it does seem reasonable for commercial media outlets to develop their own training programs and even to require all citizen journalism content to come from people who have completed their program or an equivalent. Doing so would not only serve to establish free training opportunities for aspiring journalists but would also help protect the companies' reputations as trusted media outlets.

While these suggestions do have the potential to support and improve the media landscape, they do not support Hazinski's thesis that "unfettered 'citizen journalism' (is) too risky." The commercial media has not taken a responsible approach towards working with user-generated material and this road map would help address some of these issues, but it neglects to address the inequity and exploitation involved in supplementing commercial content with that of unpaid workers. It also only concerns itself with the nexus between the establishment and alternative media, but it can't, and shouldn't, apply to those making media outside of the commercial realm.

As Dan Gilmor explains in his response to Hazinski on the Center for Citizen Media blog, "The regulators of speech should be all of us, collectively voting with our eyes, ears and dollars in the fabled marketplace of ideas." He goes on to suggest that the role of journalism educators and those in the media industry is not to prevent spurious arguments from being heard, but "to teach media literacy for a media-saturated world." As he points out, "we need to instill deep, critical thinking and a solid grasp of media techniques," in order to help audiences parse fact from fiction and identify baseless propaganda.

With news outlets downsizing at a remarkable clip and a population that is seeking out more and more information from alternative sources, it shouldn't come as a surprise that people like David Hazinski are attempting to draw battle lines at every possible opportunity, but it is a schism that can't be won through vitriolic attacks. Until journalists from both camps find solidarity with each other and forge forward with productive solutions that benefit everyone we will all suffer. The journalists from the established press will continue losing work, alternative voices will continue to be marginalized, and the public will continue to be misinformed.

It is only if we can all work together that we will be able to actually develop a media landscape that supports everyone. Anything else will eventually damage the public's ability to stay informed and could potentially eviscerate the media's ability to meet that need.

The answer isn't regulation, as Hazinski suggests; nor is it self-regulation as Gillmor asserts in the conclusion of his post. The media crisis, if one considers it be a crisis, can only be resolved through education, conversation and more information. Anyone that suggests that the solution is to limit the flow of information is either naive or is marching in lock-step with the power structure, a position no credible journalist should ever approach.
About the author

    Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.

     

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