Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Citizen Journalism and Barack's 'Bitter' Aftertaste

What is citizen journalism anyway? Maybe it's something more definable by what it isn't than by what it is. Clearly, my column in The Washington Post isn't citizen journalism. But does this blog--done with no support from or attachment to The Post--qualify as citizen journalism? Or does the fact that I am a journalist make it impossible for me to be a citizen journalist? And when people get upset by "citizen journalism" what exactly are they getting upset at?

A news story from over the weekend prompted these musings. Barack Obama's campaign scrambled to explain comments the presidential candidate made at a fundraiser in California. Obama had said that working-class voters in Pennsylvania felt abandoned by both Republican and Democratic administrations, adding: "And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

The remarks were quickly pounced on by the Clinton and McCain campaigns and they dominated what is called the news cycle (as with a bicycle, once you learn to ride a news cycle you never forget). After having made up some of his Pennsylvania deficit behind Clinton, Obama seemed to sag in the polls.

The interesting thing from a citizen journalism point of view--and a detail that wasn't reported much at first by the mainstream media--was that the story was broken by a Web site called Off the Bus, a citizen journalism offshoot of the mighty Huffington Post. One of Off the Bus's amateur writers, Mayhill Fowler, had attended the fundraiser, as she had many others. She is a self-described Obama supporter, has contributed financially to his campaign and wants him to win.

New York University journalism professor, and Off the Bus co-founder, Jay Rosen has a very good description of what happened. He doesn't shy from asking--if not answering--the many questions the whole episode raises. (The New York Times has a good story, too.) Some of the questions being pondered: Should Fowler have been at the fundraiser? Were Obama's comments off the record? If Fowler is an Obama supporter, should she have reported his comments, comments that damaged his campaign? If she is an Obama supporter, should she be reporting on him at all?

Good questions, but I think they sort of miss the point, or at least confuse it. I'll get to why I believe that down below, but first I want to chew over some of the citizen journalism issues. First, for better or worse we are approaching a time--if we're not already there--when it will be nearly impossible to do anything in private. It is simply too easy to capture an image on a camera or some words on a recorder and then spread them around the globe. I suppose we could have something like the cone of silence from "Get Smart" but that seems impractical. Comments don't lose their sting just because they were said with the expectation that no one else would hear them. (Whether they actually sting is another matter.)

Second, when push came to shove, Mayhill Fowler acted more like a journalist than a supporter. She knew her story might hurt Obama but she went ahead with it. This is a powerful argument against those who see in citizen journalism nothing but rack and ruin. I'm sure that information can be mistreated--fabricated, manipulated, choked off--but so-called citizen journalists don't have a monopoly on that. Sadly, journalists do it too. What I find encouraging about Fowler's actions is that she weighed her options and made the choice that most journalists would make: She decided the ampule of information she could inject into the campaign discourse--Obama said some voters were "bitter"--was interesting.

It's my belief that many of the flaps surrounding citizen journalism--or the uneasy union between professional journalists and amateurs--could have been avoided with transparency. The controversy last year over the Cleveland Plain Dealer's bloggers springs to mind. A left-leaning blogger tapped to contribute to the paper's political blog was found to be a donor to a Democratic candidate. Wrote the Plain Dealer's reader representative: "You can't contribute to a political candidate and then write about his or her campaign, either as an employee or as a paid free-lancer for The Plain Dealer, on paper or online." To which I would say, Uh, yes you can, if you're a freelancer hired for your political opinions and you tell readers about your donations so they can judge for themselves how to weigh your blog postings.

Citizen journalism makes special demands of editors--they must be very clear how one snippet of copy on their Web site might be different from another, from a different source, created by a non-journalist--and it makes special demands of readers. All of us have to be more media savvy as we filter the information that flows into our lives.

Finally, though, I wonder how much any of this stuff really matters. There are, no doubt, bitter people in Pennsylvania, just as there are bitter people everywhere. Are we so sensitive that we flinch when someone says that? Are we so sensitive that just calling someone a "monster," as Samantha Power did, is enough to get you fired? I mean, come on people. Grow a pair. Modern campaigning has become a process of launching an attack whenever your opponent says anything remotely interesting, anything that seems to deviate from the simplistic bromides spouted in stump speeches, anything that suggests a candidate might not be likable, as if that was the most important quality in a leader. All politicians do it, Obama included. And that's a problem that has nothing to do with citizen journalism.


mark from alexandria said...

Lets face it, the cultural elites of the left and the right need to be held accountable and when candidates pander to either of these groups, they need to be held accountable. When the dust settles in November, we need to understand what factors led to the placing the oldest, first biracial, or first female President into office. I think that citizen journalism may help us with that. As the field/vocation matures, I think there will be a natural selection process that leads to generally responsible citizen reporting (as was the case here).

Ken said...

I still think my £40 outlay on McCain looks safe as houses... or rather as safe as houses looked before prices started falling at the fastest rate on record.

Care to push me up to the £50 marker?

Beatrice said...

Not really having to do with this, but:
Do you ever encounter this problem whilst writing?

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

"As with a bicycle, once you learn to ride a news cycle you never forget"- now that was a great line, John. This episode has more to do with campaign politics than journalist/blogger ethics: it's not so much the information but how it was used and twisted for political gain.

An unbiased blogger sounds like an oxymoron, but the honest blogger owns up to his/her political slant.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

No such thing as an unbiased journalist either, though a good one at least tries to be objective. Still, he will see things through his particular perspective of reality; and the reader needs to be aware of that.

Cone of silence...I had forgotten about that...thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Joyce said...

If you're running for president and speaking at a fundraiser, anything you say is fair game, regardless of who the reporter is. If you say something while snogging a panda behind a snack bar, as one Washington Post columnist allegedly once did, it's private and off the record. That's what they taught us in j-school.
In Joyceyland, I made fun of the very touchy-feely coverage of Obama (I can't tell you how many times I've seen that oh-so-cute multi-culti pic with his mom) by doing a parody news article about the Obama teddy bear. And then I found out a company in VT is actually making black Obama teddy bears, as well as feminine Hilary ones and pale-as-death McCain ones.
I hope I don't get in trouble w/ my employers for making fun of the NYT.

John Kelly said...

@Joyce: You see how life imitates art? Why don't you write a spoof about me winning the lottery?

Anonymous said...

I am a lot less concerned with biased "citizen journalists" than I am with ignorant "professional journalists"-the ones who can't get names right, the local reporter who put an accident at an intersection of two streets that don't meet, the one who didn't know the difference between "peddle" and "pedal" (I'm not talking about the occasional typo--the wrong word was used throughout the article), the movie critic who said everyone should see "Glory" because no one knew African Americans fought in the Civil War (except those of us under 60 who took college history classes and stayed awake). In short, I feel there is more threat to information from a reporter who has never taken a course that wasn't required for his journalism degree or has never read a book that wasn't required in school than from anyone with an axe to grind and access to the Internet.

John Whiting said...

I can't avoid the suspicion that Mayhill Fowler's final decision was more than a little influenced by what she thought might be the effect on her reputation. Obama's off the cuff remark did not reveal anything useful about his politics, only the fact that, like everyone, he was capable of making an awkwardly phrased statement. I suspect that Fowler's inner debate was along the lines of, "will this make me look good or bad?"