Journalists, Citizens, and the Media Conversation

    by Dan Schultz
    April 12, 2008

    In my first post to this blog I said that the professional/citizen journalist debate was a “topic best left for another day.” It seems that the time has finally come for me to put my two cents out there, and I’ll be doing it by exploring what it means to be a journalist and a citizen in this digital world. Ultimately, though, I hope to convince everyone that although it may seem difficult, there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff between quality and democracy: we can have it all.

    Defining the Pieces
    Before diving into roles, I want to draw a line between two different (yet inherently related) components of a media conversation:

    • The agenda – what is being talked about? Individuals have a personal agenda, communities have a collective agenda, and reality imposes an agenda of its own.
    • The information – what is being said? Any story involves facts and data, most topics inspire opinion and commentary, and information gains more meaning with additional perspective and context.

    Obviously these are directly related concepts but they don’t always go hand in hand. For instance, when an article supports comments it allows the public to contribute information, but the author already set the agenda. On the other hand, when someone Diggs an article or blog, they are helping to define an agenda without having produced the information.


    Identifying Constants
    So here we are with our tasks in front of us. Between the journalists and the citizens we need to define an agenda and present information. There are a few things that are true regardless of what we do (preconditions) so let’s use that to figure out what needs to be done by the end of the day.

    • There is a reality – something is actually happening; the information (as defined above) needs to be reported accurately.
    • There is a community agenda – community members collectively care about certain issues and events; those things should all be addressed.
    • There is a “service” agenda – there are some topics that communities should care about even if they don’t actively demand it. This might be for the sake of “betterment of mankind” or maybe the story just fell under the collective radar; either way those issues need to be brought up.

    Those bullets essentially say “we need to account for everything,” but I’d be lying if I suggested otherwise. The good news is that nobody has to do it alone. If we recognize and facilitate the symbiotic (and overlapping) roles of citizens and journalists then we’ll have a good shot.

    Note: personal agenda is out of the scope for this discussion; people will read the things they are interested and ignore the rest. Helping users find personalized information is a topic for another time.


    Classifying the Roles
    It’s finally time to divvy up the roles as I see them. Here goes nothing!

    The Citizen…

    • Identifies issues – each citizen will care about specific issues on their own. These individual contributions may or may not resonate with the community.
    • Provides a community voice – the community is an aggregate of individuals. It only makes sense that these individuals will naturally shift the agenda and provide important information through their collective contributions.
    • Adds personal commentary – each person will have a unique perspective and will be able to add commentary in the form of opinions, experiences, and observations.
    • Is a part time journalist – (see below).

    The Journalist…

    • Is a Watch dog – when important issues go ignored the journalist is there to make some noise about it. This includes issues that fall under the radar, but also includes the “ideal agenda” that I mentioned before.
    • Researches the facts – it takes hard work and time to find out what is going on. There is no room for opinions when facts are involved.
    • Provides contextual commentary – events are rarely isolated and there is often a bigger picture behind the immediate. It takes someone who has made an effort to know the ins and outs of a given topic to be able to insightfully contextualize a story.
    • Is a part time citizen – (see above).

    Final Thoughts
    The last bullets of each section are the most important, but even if you removed them you would see that agenda definition and information provision is divided between the citizen and the journalist. Put the bullets back and the divide between roles stay well defined, but now the individual gets to be fuzzy. In other words, there are some citizens who report and there are some reporters who voice opinions.

    Some might raise their eyebrows at this. In particular, I know that professional journalists are expected to keep their opinions out of things; whenever a person is taking on the role of a journalist they absolutely should not let opinions alter facts and context. As individuals, though, everyone has different hats. So long as the hat being worn matches the actions being taken, there really shouldn’t be a problem.

    Between the two roles everything gets accounted for. The citizen influence pushes towards an accurate agenda, the journalistic influence makes sure no stone goes unturned, and between the two all the information (opinions, facts, and context) gets put onto the table for all to consume. There are other issues to be considered, such as product quality, and ability to differentiate hats, but I’ll postpone that conversation for now.

    After those last issues are addressed, we can apply this understanding into a concrete system so that needs of the journalist citizen, the citizen journalist, and the simple media consumer are met. The result will be glorious, and assuming I’ve managed to explain it correctly, I hope that it is something that everyone can agree upon.

    Tagged: agenda citizen journalist democracy information journalist citizen

    One response to “Journalists, Citizens, and the Media Conversation”

    1. Amy Gahran says:

      Great post, Dan. I’d like to push back at you on a few points.

      You wrote: “There is a reality – something is actually happening; the information (as defined above) needs to be reported accurately.”

      Actually, it might be more precise to say “things happen” — because “reality” is actually an interpretation and weighting of events in someone’s mental model, not the events themselves. What’s “real” largely depends on what we believe is real, individually and collectively.

      In other words, “reality” is a surprisingly loaded word.

      Second, all the points you made about journalists could also apply to activists, advocates, and organizers — people who also are committing a large portion (perhaps most) acts of citizen journalism. And historically, these have been the people most active in alternative press.

      I know that makes it difficult to try to differentiate the role of journalists from other people — and maybe that’s a good thing.

      – Amy Gahran

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