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Does Citizen Journalism Need Standards?
An interview with former NBC news correspondent David Hazinski
Michael Werbowski (minou)     Print Article 
Published 2008-01-06 03:28 (KST)   
This interview has been lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
David Hazinski is a former NBC news correspondent turned academic who lectures on telecommunications and broadcast news at the Grady College of Journalism, University of Georgia. This past December he touched off a very lively polemical discussion on various blog venues about the role citizen journalism plays in our society and its emerging yet to him questionable status.

In an op-ed piece that appeared on the Web site of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper[1], Hazinski called for a set of standards or guidelines to be applied to citizen reporting. He has also suggested that a kind of regulatory body be established to keep citizen journalism online in line in order to abide by a certain "code of ethics."

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Furthermore, he has also suggested that accredited schools of journalism devise "mini-courses which would provide certification for aspiring citizen reporters" as part of their curriculum.

Hazinski has graciously and promptly agreed to share his views on citizen reporting with OhmyNews in this exclusive interview.

You say in your op-ed piece that citizen journalism is not real journalism in the traditional sense, but then in this day and age of high tech communication methods isn't citizen journalism the natural evolution of news reporting?

Sort of. But I think lumping everyone under the expression "citizen journalist" confuses rather than clarifies. What we confuse are three kinds of people who communicate: journalists, witnesses and opinion writers.

Journalists, defined very loosely and by accepted practice, attend and report on events or issues, check on background, report both sides fairly, condense and organize information, and present it without their opinion, usually very quickly. They generally originate reports. Professionals are paid. Amateurs are not. Stringers are paid per story.

Witnesses are just that: people who see or experience an event and then tell others about it.

Opinion writers are people who take either or both of the above and give people their perspective on events or issues.

There are many journalists on the Web. There are many more opinion writers. Writing your opinion on a Web page without any standards does not make you a journalist to me. A "citizen soldier" is not some guy in camouflage running around with an automatic weapon. It is a National Guardsman or woman who is trained, equipped and who follows standards. A "volunteer fireman" is about the same. Etc., etc. I'm happy to have them join the ranks, but I'd prefer if they got some training and operated under a standard.

It's not news that mainstream media is in a crisis, losing advertising revenue and readers to online newspapers and news Web sites. Why do you think this is happening?

I'm not sure I'd call it a crisis just yet, but they are definitely losing audience. I think it is happening because of a couple of reasons:

[1] People don't have or want to spend the time needed to read a whole newspaper or watch a local and then network newscast. Television news is also an "appointment" event in the 24/7 world people live in now. The Web isn't.

[2] People have no strong reason to care about "news" per se. We haven't been in a major recession or depression, we haven't been in a war that touches most people's lives, and we haven't been in any really big crisis other then 9/11 for decades. While this is a good thing, it means people have no good reason to pay attention to anything outside their own interests.

[3] Newspapers and newscasts are, by definition, "mass media," which means they are aimed at everyone, which means they miss the particular interests of a lot of people. Before, there was no option. Now there is. The Web can deliver targeted information because it doesn't rely on mass media economics, so people can get the slant or subject area they want often much more opinionated then mainstream media. Many people still rely on electronic versions of main line media for their "reporting," however.

[4] News organizations themselves, especially TV, have been recycling instead of originating more reports to maximize income versus expenses. This has resulted in fewer and fewer original stories while at the same time the number of hours of news and the number of news outlets has increased. The number of foreign and domestically based correspondents is a fraction of what it was when I worked for NBC News. This lack of fresh content makes main line news boring, narrow and redundant. In effect, we've been eating our own young. We should have been expanding coverage to service these folks, and that's very possible with new technology. That's part of what my company helps news organization do. But the US industry did the opposite, creating a star system with less original reporting and more personalities instead of journalists.

You seem concerned that citizen journalism might become a means to falsify facts and that it opens up "information flow" to the strong probability of "fraud and abuse." Can you give us some specific examples?

I think it is already coming from both users and organizations who want to manipulate opinion. I cited a couple in the op-ed piece Barack Obama falsely accused on Web pages of being a Moslem radical and attending a madrassah, and a "citizen" at a Republican presidential debate who was actually on a Democratic candidate's special interest steering committee, but there are others. Video of a Marine Atlantic ferry battling waves in Cabot Sound made its way onto Canadian TV. Except the ferry isn't owned by Marine Atlanta, which thinks the video was shot off New Zealand.

Then there was the FEMA news conference during the California brushfires that wasn't? There has already been great debate about stations using video news releases sent in by companies to push their products but not labeled as such. And there is controversy about whether or not what looks like user-generated video on YouTube of a Tiger Woods Buick commercial shoot is real or a planted ad. Some analysts still aren't convinced Osama bin Laden's last video was real. Fakes are beginning to surface. There is any number of "fake news" sites. I don't think it will be long before some of those folks direct their energy into pulling gags on the rest of us.

Over the years we have heard all kinds of falsehoods from official circles or fabrications on such famous issues as the WMD -- a story that turned out to be concocted to justify the invasion of Iraq. The mainstream media swallowed these inaccuracies or propaganda-lies hook, line and sinker and then went on to repeat them on the air and in print. Has this not damaged the credibility of the so-called traditional journalism?

Absolutely. I think this is the result of the commercialization of news but it's part of the same issue. The news industry has been reluctant to challenge government reports. One reason is because they have not expanded staff while they've expanded news programming (in fact, they've often cut back staff), so there is no one to spend the considerable amount of time it takes to cover these things well and disprove what a government agency might be saying. And bear in mind they have to disprove it or they're reporting rumors and gossip. The main line media has relied on officials reports far too much because it's easy and cheap.

At the same time, particularly TV is driven by ratings the number of people who watch. Few people like to watch stories about how their choice for president and the government they pay for has screwed up. They want to be "patriotic" and supportive of the American way. They want the media to be patriotic and supportive, not unbiased. The few people who questioned the administration right after 9/11 were shouted down as traitors. So I think there is an unconscious effort to avoid issues that might turn off an audience and thus turn off profit.

A word on ratings. While we criticize them all the time and the news organizations that pander to them, the truth is they are an arguably refined form of democracy. They are done with stratified random sampling under accepted survey rules and reflect what the public is really watching -- not what it says it's watching. Much of CNN Headline News, for instance, gets relatively poor ratings. Nancy Grace and Glen Beck, opinion shows although not labeled that way, get much better ratings on the same network. This isn't lost on companies whose incomes depend on collecting eyeballs. So in one sense the news media is giving the public what it wants and what it will watch.

You advocate monitoring or regulating venues of citizen journalism such as blogs, news Web sites, etc. Is this not a threat to the freedom of the press and expression? Already monopolized and corporate controlled media regulates itself using self-censorship as a means to silence dissent within its ranks and ignoring independent voices deemed as inconvenient to the interests of the ruling elite. Would you agree?

No, I do not advocate monitoring or regulating blogs, news Web sites, etc. I have no issue with people writing what they want on the Web as long as they abide by the laws we already follow: slander, libel, copyright, etc. While generally not enforced, I don't think we suspended laws for anything that is written on the Internet. But short of that, I'm fine with anyone writing what they want, expressing any opinion on the Internet or a billboard for that matter. If they can get a lot of other people to read, good for them.

I don't buy the media trying to silence dissent and ignoring independent voices as inconvenient to the interests of the ruling elite. That question gives them way too much credit for motive. That's not it at all it's generating eyeballs for ratings on the TV side and readers for ad dollars on the print side. It's the Watergate quote: "Follow the money." It's not that complicated.

What I'm concerned about is the accuracy of information that migrated into the main line media. That is what I think news organizations need to monitor and set standards for. I probably shouldn't have used the word "regulate" because it implies government control. I actively oppose that. What I would like to see are some visible, voluntary news media standards for what it accepts as user-generated content. Without that, I think credibility will slip further. And while we're at it, we need to make the standards that the news media itself uses a lot more visible.

What I haven't written about before is the reason you don't now see those standards. It is fear of litigation. News organizations are afraid they will be sued for violating their own standards, so they don't tell the public what those standards are. Today's reality is that a lawsuit can cost a news organization millions of dollars even if it wins, so they try to avoid the risk. It's a business decision. They will not admit this publicly, but this is the reason. This is a poor tradeoff to me. Their premise is that the public will continue to trust them believing they follow some vague practical, traditional standard. Much of the public doesn't anymore. To me, the way to increase trust is to increase transparency. If that opens you up for litigation, so be it. But you can't sell trust and hide your standards.

In your piece you argue that citizen journalism has no standards and that this kind of reporting is simply "gossip" as you say. Some mainstream reporters who have gone over to the other side and write for citizen journalism sites might not agree with this assertion. Furthermore, professional journalists have been known to fictionalize their own stories. Why didn't editorial and ethical standards apply in such cases?

Well, they're entitled to their opinion. Yes, professional journalists have been known to fictionalize their stories. But ethical standards did apply. The three examples most often cited are Dateline NBC blowing up a truck gas tank to simulate an explosion on collision, Washington Post correspondent Janet Cook who made up a character she won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on, and New York Times correspondent Jason Blair, who plagiarized stories. They were in 1993, 1980 and 2003 respectively. The point is they got caught and fired in a very public way for violating ethical standards. While not the only examples, their reports are among hundreds of thousands of accurate stories produced by the main line media every year. The fact that they're exceptions (and there are others) does not excuse them. It means in context only a tiny percentage of thousands of stories are bad examples. But they got caught for violating ethical standards. What happens in the land of no standards? Everything goes? I don't think that's a better place.

Do you see citizen journalism's immense popularity worldwide and growing influence as a threat to traditional news gathering organizations such as the one you worked for at NBC?

Not at all. It cannot take the place of traditional journalism. For instance, there were no "citizen journalists" in my classes when an al-Qaida bomb blew the windows out of our training center in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002. There were none standing next to me reporting from El Salvador, Northern Ireland or next to my colleagues in Iraq. There weren't any "citizen journalists" during Katrina, when network correspondents under great physical danger delivered life saving information when the US government couldn't. There is none standing next to the TV reporters covering fires tonight where you live or the newspaper folks filing a story 15 minutes after the city council votes. This original reporting is not what "citizen journalists" do. They most often write about what these journalists cover they don't cover it themselves. I'd be happy to have them cover more issues and events but the vast majority of it isn't original reporting so they're not going to take the place of an NBC correspondent.

I'd frankly like users to generate more content. There are a huge number of stories that go unreported or are not reported adequately that they could bring to the table. I'm fine with their opinions in blogs. But I think we need some kind of yardstick, marker, signpost, standard -- whatever you want to call it, to help us navigate this sea of information. It should be voluntary, like the Better Business Bureau code. If you're a member, you follow the standard. If you're not, you don't. But the "shopper" gets a better idea what they're buying with that sign on the door. It doesn't mean they're forced to do anything. It just means they have more information to make a decision.

You believe citizen journalism should be regulated[2] like other professions such a medicine or law. But that's like arguing that in a "free society" the banking industry should also be regulated or maybe even the advertising or arms industry as well. This could get tricky, don't you think? Your views?

I think there are a great many people who are now arguing that the banking industry and its customers are hurting exactly because there aren't enough regulations, not the opposite. Still, I don't think the same kind of thing is either needed or wanted for journalism. And again I'm not talking about regulating blogs. I'm talking about putting standards on what the main line media itself accepts from users.

Medicine, law, dentistry, the ministry -- all professions are essentially self-regulating. There is no government certificate for doctors. There are degrees and American Board of Medical Specialties certification. This is both a solution and a problem, because all professions demand the right to regulate themselves (because they argue that no one else knows enough about their field) and then they don't do it well because they have a vested interest in making the group look good. But there is something. I doubt if any of the bloggers who read this hire a self-taught lawyer to represent them or go to the neighborhood medicine woman instead of a trained doctor. They can of course, but a standard gives them the ability to know something about whom they choose and increase the likelihood of professional treatment.

Getting the government involved in setting the standard would be a huge mistake. I can't see a scenario where that would improve information flow or make it any more trustworthy. Quite the opposite. And there is already an existing set of laws that deal with most of the biggest issues: libel, slander and copyright. I don't follow the virtual community enough to know if bloggers are suggesting they should be exempted from following those laws, but that would be problematic for me. It would be wanting the right without the responsibility of being answerable for your actions. But we don't have to invent anything. We've had this body of law for years.

Some people argue that journalism isn't a profession. I guess under the same premise, there is no such thing as a professional soldier, but let's say it isn't a profession but a trade. I know of none without any standard. Electricians, hairdressers, plumbers, chefs and on and on have some kind of certification and standard and, almost always, training and education as well. You can learn any trade "on the job" of course and some of the people who have in journalism do great work, but there is a price to be paid by everyone for that. How many stories do you screw up before you learn practices? How many people or businesses do your stories hurt while you learn? And who do you learn from? In traditional media, you have editors. One of our rules is that nothing goes on the air without at least two sets of eyes on it. Where is that in the world of no standards "citizen journalism"?

As citizen journalism is just a fledgling concept it will evolve with time and perhaps establish its own new rules of the game. Do the mainstream media have the right to impose its questionable standards? What are these so-called "standards" if not pandering to the powerful corporate interests at the expense of the citizenry?

I've heard other people say standards will evolve with time. Well, get started. I think this too can be self-regulating, certainly not coming from a corporation like Microsoft. That self-regulation can occur on several levels.

First, come up with a description and a set of voluntary standards for what a citizen journalist is. Considering the passion and suspicion, I'm sure bloggers and Web page creators will want to do this themselves. Fine with me, if people who subscribe to these standards will be expected to follow them. A good starting point is probably the cyber journalist's code of ethics for bloggers.

Second, The Radio-Television News Directors Association has just come out with ethical guidelines for stations accepting viewer generated content.

This is a great starting point for the media end of this to bring back some trust for what appears on the air from viewers. The Society of Professional Journalists, mostly a print trade organization, also has a similar ethics code.

The next step is for newspapers, stations and networks to publicly, transparently indicate what their standards are. If they subscribe to either of these industry group codes, then tell people that. This will allow the pubic to decide if they are following these standards. If they have no visible standards, that will tell the public something too. Either way, it will restore some trust.

How do you see mainstream journalism adapting to the changes and challenges posed by the arrival on the scene of citizen journalism?

I think that user-generated content or citizen journalism with standards, can marry to main line media for the benefit of both and especially the public. There is already a huge blogosphere out there with enough opinion to go around. I wouldn't fool with it.

What citizen journalism can do is extend the reach for finding and reporting stories the main line media doesn't cover. This could be an independent layer, or a second layer with a bridge of standards between the two. This citizen journalism layer would serve not only to alert the main media engine to other news it might not be covering or angles it's missing, but as a distribution system for some for that content. It would also serve as an omnibus-man, a constant monitor on covering the stories the community says it should cover because lines of communication would be open. It will never have the resources the main line media can bring to the table, but it can be a large influence in broadening and influencing the news agenda.

Picture a part-paid fire department: some professionals and some volunteers. All trained, all equipped, all working in the community interest. I suspect what will happen is the paid and volunteer folks will change sides fairly often. But at the end of the day citizen journalism can fix some of the things wrong with the media: it can greatly expand the coverage, it can cover areas not now covered and help them get wider distribution, it can serve as a guide and influence, it can increase the number of voices in the newsroom, and it can generate its own content and opinion as it does now. I just don't think it can do any of those things unilaterally without any standards.
1. "Unfettered 'Citizen Journalism' Too Risky" by David Hazinksi, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (12/13/07).

2. The response to David Hazinski's article: "Citizen Journalists : They Don't Need to Be Regulated" by Leonard Witt, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (12/14/07).
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Werbowski

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