Monday, July 27, 2009

Enhancing credibility, citizen journalism's next great challenge

(Strip courtesy of Scott Adams, 7 Nov. 2004)

What follows is a tweaked version of my piece appearing in the Summer 2009 issue of CCJIG's newsletter (pdf, 364 kb).
Would news audiences accept Jane Doe, the citizen journalist, better if she gained in credibility? Or would she become more credible upon being better accepted?

It’s a causality dilemma that weighs rather comfortably on my mind.

As audiences suffer fewer mainstream choices (due to consolidation of electronic media businesses and closures of newspaper), citizen journalists are emerging as primary catalysts of public affairs deliberations. From theater scans to war analyses and from niche reporting to bailout commentary, non-professionals are provoking our latent intellect, stirring our public empathy, and fragmenting our raw emotion, like never before.

Clearly, Ms. Doe, with her digital camera and URL, is transforming from obscure squeaker to keynote speaker. But is the marketplace of ideas better for it? I sure would like to know.

What I do know is that the citizen reporter is no stopgap expediency. She is here to stay.

In figuring out Ms. Doe's long-haul impact on journalism, I am reminded of one of history’s great lessons: If nothing else, every new technology has managed to transform the credibility in communication.

The Chinese invention of paper about 1900 years ago enabled writing for the record.

Five and a half centuries after that, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing transformed European handbills into regime-changing newspapers.

Fast forward another 450 years: Guglielmo Marconi's founding of wireless telegraphy birthed the great medium of radio and then, only some 30 years later, Vladimir Zworykin’s electron scanning tube grew into television.

Eventually in 1970, Robert Maurer et al.’s invention of optic-fiber cable enabled massive telecom networks, and finally RAND Corp.’s Internet spawned a decentralized multitude of blogs.

Generally, it seems that newer the technology the smaller was its gestation period -- and the quicker it gained in credibility.

So what, specifically, is credibility? Perhaps B.J. Fogg of Stanford should answer that one. For citizen journalists, I would suggest credibility is a longitudinal concept -- perceived over time -- which enfolds unfailing attribution to sources, transparency in newsgathering, fair commentary, a 180-degree pan, much narrative detail, and of course logical argument.

The history indicates that we may expect blogs, tweets, iReports and other such technology to get rapidly more credible as it squeezes into the intellectual space historically engaged by legacy professionals.

Amra Tareen of AllVoices is already offering cash incentives for the best Ms. Does because “citizen journalism only works if the content is high quality.” Arianna Huffington of HuffPo is exploring a “distinction between saving journalism and saving newspapers.”

The New York Times and Boston Globe have collaborated with a personalizable content reader intriguingly named Kindle DX (for “deluxe”), and Fox-owned WJBK is hoping to replace the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News as they transition from daily home delivery to thrice a week in order to survive.

Regardless of business model – using donations (, using volunteers (, going nonprofit ( or aggregating ( – there can be no doubt that citizen journalism’s next great challenge is to enhance its own credibility.

I am watching, and I think so is everyone else at the Civic & Citizen Journalism Interest Group.
Also read: iReport vandals spotlight a challenge
And: AllVoices pioneers credibility ratings for citizen reports
And: "I want collective intelligence, but I also want sound journalism"
And: Journalism comes full circle with civic/citizen movement

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