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Home > Publications > Quill > When the audience does the reporting


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Tuesday, March 6, 2007
When the audience does the reporting

With media outlets clamoring for more ‘citizen journalism,’ who will be left as the voice of authority?

Commentary By Fred Brown

Old-line media’s embrace of the Internet may be the logical — and faintly disquieting — extension of the “civic journalism” movement of a decade or two ago.

Civic, or community, journalism is an attempt to engage the public in the affairs of its community.

The great hope of civic journalism is that reader forums and agenda-setting, writing from the point of view of the ordinary citizen, would enhance self-government by an informed electorate and, not coincidentally, restore the high level of influence the media once enjoyed.

The whole idea made some traditionalists uneasy. They detected whiffs of marketing, even pandering. The New York Times was, at the time, one of the most notable skeptics.

Now, though, many of the old media are all but inviting the public to write their newspapers and deliver their newscasts. We have gone from flirting with civic journalism to celebrating “citizen journalism.” It is a challenge to the notion of “professional journalism.”

The fogeyish mainstream media (mocked as the MSM, and perhaps pronounced “miss ’em?”) have decided they have spent too much time “lecturing,” and now it’s time to “have a conversation.” They may be trying too hard to be accommodating.

This can only diminish the traditional media’s voice of authority. It may also allow the media to become less aggressive and more passive. Let the readers and viewers decide. We’ll do what they want.

This is not a good outcome.

William Powers of the National Journal had some wise and worthwhile observations about this trend in his “Off Message” column Jan. 19.

“Online media boosters often speak of establishment authority as a vestige of the media Dark Ages,” Powers wrote. “The people have stormed the castle! They’re speaking out in their own voices rather than through those arrogant go-betweens, the newspapers and TV networks.

“All of those voices are terrific. But if free expression is a natural human craving, so is authority. When the world is as lost as it seems to be right now, you want to know whom you can trust.”

And yet newspapers seem to be redesigning themselves for people who don’t read newspapers. Reporters are encouraged to be avid bloggers (my fairly up-to-date Microsoft Word program, by the way, still puts the squiggly red underline of disapproval under that word). In one of my hometown papers, a columnist who used to answer readers’ questions authoritatively now invites readers to disagree.

It all has an air of desperation about it. The traditional media, scrambling for ways to restore circulation and viewer numbers, seem to be asking, “Please, please tell us what we can do to make you like us again.”

In today’s media supermarket, consumers of what used to be called news (now known as “content”) have many choices. They can, if they choose, rely exclusively on sources that agree with their points of view. The only way the old media can hope to compete is by maintaining credibility and an authoritative voice.

Fortunately, many of the new media, the successful ones, recognize this. They either quote or link to reports in the traditional media for reliable reports.

“For all of their triumphalism,” Powers writes, “the largest new purveyors of news are still utterly dependent on the skills, content and reputations of the old outlets.”

It’s a stubborn trend; increasing numbers of people don’t trust authority, and authoritative reports don’t particularly impress them. But that doesn’t excuse the ethical media from continuing to insist on accurate, fair and reliable reporting.

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