The Citizen Journalist

471px-Newsboy_iowa_city_1940.jpg Dan Gillmor, ‘new media pioneer’ and director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, gave a talk at the Manship School for Mass Communication – on the beautiful LSU campus – this Wed., Feb. 15th.

Gillmor, a blogger, author, ‘online’ entrepreneur, and citizen-media proponent (as he is described in his ’Today’s Speaker’ introductions), has been a pioneer of getting at the meat of the term citizen journalist.

“There has never been a more limitless and open possibility than there is today [in journalism],” Gillmor told a handful of faculty and students at the Manship School. At this point in his talk, I am already smiling inside… I knew I had a good feeling about breaking into the world of journalism from my research-in-science background, but I didn’t realize just HOW much opportunity there is out there today for innovative scientists-turned-journalists. Innovative of course being the key word…

Journalism has gone from a manufacturing model – a ‘produce and distribute’ model – to a ‘come and get it’ model. “Now we make it [the news] available, and people come and get it,” Gillmor said. Gone is the day of journalists being able to maintain pretenses of knowing all the information – or at least all the information worth printing – although several may still try. Journalism is no longer a monopoly of giants: The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal. News is moving from lecture to conversation, explains Gillmor, and the trained journalist is being bumped from oracle to guide. According to Gillmor, this diversification of our news culture is healthy.

Traditional newspapers and broadcasters: adapt or die. Journalism is now in the hands of any citizen wielding a mobile-phone, or any blogger willing to offer up information to the Internet… with a few caveats and warnings worth heeding, of course.

crazy-dude-cartoon.jpg “Twitter is the first place for people to report [news],” Gillmor said, “… but it’s also the first place for people to report something that is false.” Media consumers beware: all information is not equal. Be skeptical of absolutely everything, but don’t be equally skeptical of everything, Gillmor warns. So much information is garbage… we begin to wonder what and who can we trust. But that doesn’t mean that good and credible information isn’t out there, on social media and blog sites as well as more traditional news sources. A great number of science bloggers and tweeters recognize rigorous scientific methods and peer review as proving grounds for credible scientific information. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop less scientifically-engaged citizens from lacking a healthy amount of skepticism for false scientific claims.

There is also the issue of the instantaneous aspect, and expectation, of today’s news. We need to think about the ‘slow news’ movement like the ‘slow food’ movement, Gillmor cautions. You mean, all that bologna my mother used to feed me about the dangers of eating too quickly (stretching and even exploding stomach, inability to swim, etc.) could apply to our ‘tell me NOW’ approach to news?! Information has to be vetted to some extent, and provided by a source with upstanding journalistic standards, or you might as well be eating trash. This is especially true in the world of science – information ‘hot out of the lab’ could be downright deadly if not processed with care. A preliminary study showing a potential link between autism and childhood vaccines (disclaimer: such as study was indeed published and later proven false) does not mean that every parent should begin prematurely refusing life-saving vaccinations for their children.

So what is the fate of the great field of journalism, and where should both traditional and non-traditional journalists be looking to innovate? According to Gillmor and new Manship School Dean Jerry Ceppos, it’s all about recognizing that in today’s teeming sea of new digital media, the public knows more about what is going on in the world than journalists do. When in doubt, “ask your audience for help,” Gillmor says. From interactive maps to which citizens can contribute images, GPS locations, and other vital information, to crowdsourcing the scientific method in order to help scientists solve protein and RNA structure puzzles, audiences are more powerful than journalists perhaps ever gave them credit for in the past.

Today, anyone and everyone can be a media creator. But with great opportunity comes great responsibility. Dan Gillmor offers important tips for budding media creators: Be fair to everyone, and practice and demand transparency.

Images: Wiki / Creative Commons