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Citizen Journalists and the New 'News'
A response to Samuel Freedman's column on CBS TV's 'Public Eye'
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-03 14:43 (KST)   
"Each week we invite someone from outside... to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large," explains the introduction on the CBS TV Web site feature "Public Eye." The March 29 article featured on Public Eye was on the subject of citizen journalism. It was written by Samuel Freedman, a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and a New York Times columnist. (1) In his article, Freedman presents not only a superficial view of citizen journalism, but also a rosy colored view of the mainstream professional press in the U.S.

The thrust of Freedman's argument is that citizen journalism is "part of a larger attempt to degrade, even to disenfranchise journalism as practiced by trained professionals." Citizen journalism, according to Freedman, is in essence the presentation of "raw material generated by amateurs," unlike the journalism of the "trained, skilled journalist (who) should know how to weigh, analyze, describe and explain."

Considering that Freedman is a professional journalist and also a professor who is responsible for the training of professional journalists, one might expect that he would do some investigation about the origins and thrust of the phenomena of citizen journalism before writing an article which not only mischaracterizes the phenomena, but similarly mischaracterizes the practice of most of the professional journalists in the U.S.

Citizen journalism is a growing phenomenon. For many who care about producing or reading the news, it is a welcome phenomenon. The South Korean newspaper OhmyNews has done much to introduce and pioneer this new phenomena. (2) The impetus for broadening not only the nature of what is considered as news, but also who is encouraged to produce the news, is part of the vision for a 21st century press that guided the creation and development of OhmyNews.

Oh Yeon Ho, the founder and CEO of OhmyNews started the young newspaper officially in February, 2000. Oh was reacting to the "closed and elitist journalistic culture" which marginalized those journalists in South Korea who dared to challenge the imbalance of power in the media environment in South Korea at that time. (3)

Oh's goal was to contribute to a media culture in South Korea in which the "quality" determined what news would merit public attention, not the "power and prestige of the media organization that printed the article."

OhmyNews has worked hard to pioneer the concept that "every citizen in a reporter." Explaining this concept, Oh describes how citizen reporters for OhmyNews "raise high the flag of guerrilla warfare" against "the massive media power" that he saw functioning in South Korea as "the final gutter of Korean capitalist society."

Oh believed that citizen reporters would function to provide a more accurate and all sided journalism as an alternative to the conservative South Korean press that was dominating South Korean media. "Citizen reporters can be called guerrillas," he writes, "because they are not professional and regulars and they post news from perspectives uniquely their own, not those of the conservative establishment." (4)

In the U.S., there is a similar problem with media power which is used to increase the wealth and power of a small sector of the society, while ignoring the needs and desires of the broader strata of the population. Take for example, the mainstream U.S. media coverage of the current conflict between General Motors and its parts operations offshoot Delphi, and the union workforce. The CBS TV program "60 Minutes" carried a segment about the dire economic condition of GM and Delphi on Sunday evening, April 4. (5)

Similar to much of the other mainstream corporate media coverage of the current controversy, the producers of "60 Minutes" presented one side as the whole story. From their presentation a viewer would have no idea that there are workers who are challenging the story that GM/Delphi and the corporate mainstream U.S. media are presenting to the world of GM/Delphi's dire financial condition. The mainstream media is reporting that the source of the problem is the wages and benefits of the union workforce. (6) There is no coverage in the U.S. press of the corporate transfer of funds out of North America or corporate mismanagement or deceptive bookkeeping.

On March 31, the Delphi Corporation asked Judge Robert D. Drain, of the Southern District of New York for permission to void the UAW contracts as part of its bankruptcy process and to sell or close 21 plants in the U.S., including those that have been profitable like the Cooperstown Delphi facility.(7)

Auto workers who are challenging what is happening, refer to Delphi's actions as "union busting and corporate restructuring" not as bankruptcy. The role of the media in helping to promote the corporate claims of economic impoverishment without any independent media investigation or consideration of alternative models of what is happening, shows how there is a serious void in the role played by the mainstream U.S. media in such a situation.

There is an important alternative perspective that auto workers have been presenting as a way to view the GM/Delphi restructuring attack on their right to union membership and activity. Their articles and discussion are available on web sites and mailing maintained by union workers who advocate the need to fight the cutbacks in wages and benefits and union rights that the GM and Delphi actions' represent. (8) These workers warn that as GM and Delphi act to void the UAW union contracts, other major employers are watching and considering what they can learn from the process.

A similar one sided media presentation dominated the public discussion during the New York City Transit Workers Strike in December 2005. (9)

There is a need for citizen journalists who will fill the gap by telling the otherwise untold part of the GM/Delphi saga. The mainstream press in the U.S. will in general tell the "news" from the press releases or interviews with advocates for corporations like GM or Delphi. Whether there are economic or political reasons for this bias, be it the need to maintain advertising contracts, or the need to stay on good terms with the corporate spokespeople, or some other reason, is secondary.

The main issue is that there is a need to present the union workers' side in the public debate over the GM/Delphi restructuring, in order for the public to have a chance to understand what is at stake. Some of the workers advocating waging a struggle against the GM/Delphi restructuring plan, say that they spend considerable time speaking with reporters, only to see little or nothing of what they have said in the article when it appears.

The Korean edition of OhmyNews, with the articles by thousands of citizen journalists has been part of a force to effectively counter the dominance of the conservative press in South Korea. OhmyNews has recently announced that it has entered into an agreement with Softbank and which will make it possible to create a Japanese version of OhmyNews, will provide the funds for efforts to improve the Korean OhmyNews, and will make it possible to support the further development of the International edition of OhmyNews. (10)

Journalism educators like Xiguang Li, the executive dean of the School of Journalism and Communication of Tsinghua University, have expressed interest in the OhmyNews model and in finding a way to work toward having a version in their countries.

In the U.S., there is a need for a diversity of viewpoints and an alternative to the pro-corporate journalism that dominates the media landscape. OhmyNews presents a working model based on citizen journalists as a form of newspaper that can help open up the U.S. media beyond its current one-sidedness. It would be encouraging to see the Columbia Journalism School and its professors welcome such efforts and perhaps even provide support to create a U.S. form of OhmyNews and help train U.S. journalists about the innovations in 21st century journalism that online newspapers like the Korean edition of OhmyNews have pioneered.

The current crisis in the mainstream media in the U.S. demonstrates that there is a need for a serious examination of the deficiencies of the corporate dominated media. By studying models like the Korean OhmyNews and trying to learn from its ability to welcome netizens to be part of a more participatory process for gathering and presenting the "news," a means may be found to create the needed alternative forms of "news" for a 21st century press in the U.S . (11)
1) "Outside Voices: Samuel Freedman on the Difference between the Amateur and the Pro," Public Eye, March 31, 2006.

2) I am writing this article in the international edition of OhmyNews which appears in English at http://english.ohmynews.com/ The Korean edition, however, pioneered the concept of citizen reporter or citizen journalist.

3) "OhmyNews and 21st Century Journalism"

4) The term "guerrillas" refers to "small non-regular armed forces who disrupt the rear positions of the enemy."

5) CBS TV 60 Minutes

6) "Automakers and the Voice of the UAW"

7) "Coopersville Delphi Workers Surprised by Plant Closing"

8) See for example, "The Psychology And Brainwash" by John Goschka, "Miller's Deadline The Same Day As FBI/SEC Deadline" by Gregg Shotwell, "Good Day Honorable Robert D. Drain" by David Huff, and "A Buy-Off That Looks Like Rosemary's Baby" by Gregg Shotwell. http://futureoftheunion.com/?cat=15

9) "First NYC Transit Strike in 25 Years"

10) "OhmyNews Bags Softbank Millions"

11) "The Emergence of the Netizens"
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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