The first to know

August 10, 2006 • Ethics and Quality • by

Die Welt, August 10, 2006Citizen journalism
Every citizen is a reporter today. While citizen journalism is changing the media, professional practitioners of the trade are playing an ever more crucial role

“Me too, me too!“ – this battle cry can be heard in the streets and in the corridors of many a media house. Why? “Reader’s Edition”, an open online-newspaper that has been on the web since July is promoting itself with the slogan: “20 million editors wanted”. Meanwhile, CNN is looking for eyewitnesses on the battlefields of Lebanon, thus opening its new portal “CNN Exchange” to all ’wanna-be’ journalists. At the same time, German tabloids and broadsheets Bild, Südkurier or Saarbrücker Zeitung – publication after publication – it seems, is discovering potential reporters among their readers.

But where does this all lead to?

Citizen journalism! This phenomenon might not be brand new, but it is more diverse – and more powerful – than ever. Until now, local newspapers, open radio and television channels and other forms of citizen journalism have been restricted to local news and special-interest topics, thus remaining widely ignored by the general public and lacking any real clout. However, this is not the case in countries and states where the freedom of the press and the diversity of opinion have traditionally been minimal. Where the media shies away from criticising the powers that be – a grass-roots scene is thriving more than ever, thanks to modern communication technology and the Internet – the main exchange platform.

Since its inception in 2000, South Korean online paper Ohmy-News has established itself as a counterforce against the conservative mainstream media – none of which opposed the corrupt and authoritarian structures of the country. The paper was one of the main reasons for human rights attorney Roh Mooo-hyun’s victory in the 2002 presidential elections.

During the riots that hit the suburbs of Paris last year, private web-diaries became the key forum for the political debate. Many bloggers sharply criticised France’s Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, who himself used an Internet platform to respond to the public, thus reaching far more people than he could ever have via traditional media.

There are 25 million Internet users in France, most of them young, of which fewer and fewer read the paper, mainly because their concerns are being treated there rather superficially, if at all. In addition, political journalists in France are in general not overly critical of the ruling class, mostly because they view themselves as part of it.

As long as journalists relied completely on conventional technologies for communication, transfer capacities were the limiting factor for the news stream: available number of pages, terrestrial frequencies and broadcasting time all were scarce resources. Making the most of them was the job of editorial staff and TV directors, endowing them with the power to set agendas, select some topics and I ignore others. Media consumers basically were at their mercy and could only hope that their letter to the editor was going to be published, or count on journalists as reliable and trustworthy gatekeepers. In this respect, journalism has changed forever now.

Today, the Internet offers new and constantly improving means for putting ideas and information online in a cheap, fast, flexible and unlimited manner. The most exciting element, however, is the integration and interconnectedness of all that information.

In October 2005, the BBC revved up their online department (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/default.stm) by equipping it with new software that allows users to interact and debate directly and faster . In case of touchy subjects, an editor usually vets the articles before posting them on the web, but normally it is the readers’ job to check for accuracy and reliability. The Internet, it seems, is approaching its own utopian dream of finally becoming a forum for more democracy and social criticism.

On July 25, 2006, Gero von Randow, editor-in-chief of Zeit Online, wrote in “ZEITansage”, the paper’s editor’s blog, that “earlier this week, we had to make a difficult call: as of now, we can no longer comment any article dealing with the current crisis in the Middle East.” According to von Randow, the reason for this lay in the fact that there had been far too many articles maliciously attacking Jews and Moslems alike. While this might look like a cop-out, German left-wing paper taz deliberately zeroed in on that controversy by citing a statement by one of its users (“S. Schanz”, on August 2, 2006) who interpreted the step taken by Zeit Online as active partisanship, (dis)qualifying the paper’s co-publisher Josef Joffe as a “pro-Israel right-wing conservative”.

As media companies are re-discovering their audiences in an era of modern communication technology, citizens-turned-journalists can be found more often outside the confines of the Web. Local newspapers and tabloids alike are equally eager to jump on that bandwagon.

Earlier this year, Saarbrücker Zeitung set up a hotline open to everyone witnessing an accident or having a complaint of some sort, offering them the option to send pictures, SMS, faxes or voice messages. The service was inspired by Verdens Gang, Norway’s biggest tabloid, which scored a victory in the global media battle for attention and speed when it published a picture of the tsunami striking Phuket’s Karon Beach in December 2004. The picture, shot by one of its readers, appeared on the paper’s homepage before any news agency report reached the media. And thanks to the multitude of amateur-journalists contacting the paper, Verdens Gang managed to shed light on the whereabouts of more missing Norwegian tourists in the area than Norway’s foreign ministry.

Peter Stefan Herbst, editor-in-chief of Saarbrücker Zeitung, purchased the software the Norwegian tabloid uses to process its readers’ articles and started his own brand of citizen journalism. Around 2,600 pieces of information have reached the paper so far, Herbst reveals that 650 of these turned out to be potentially useful, 275 served as a basis for journalistic articles, and 92 of the photographs sent in were finally published. Except for with the honour of reading their names in the paper, readers don’t generally get paid for their efforts.

Every journalist has direct access to the pool of readers’ inputs and three interns helpsortand catalogue this input However, the readers do not write themselves. “They just send us the leads and clues, as they did in the past. But unlike then, people offering vital information don’t risk being turned away at our reception desk or by one of our call-centre operators”, explains Herbst. Ultimately, this extra input enhances the quality and topicality of the paper.. “We get ideas for new articles and can be on the scene whenever something important happens. Like the neighbour who shoots a picture of a raging fire with his mobile-camera – usually long before the professional photographers arrive on the scene, when there’s not much more than burning embers to be shot.”

Herbst hasn’t had any problems with overambitious readers/reporters obstructing the rescue efforts of orderlies or firemen. This, he says, is a problem created by the tabloids, because of the money they pay for scoops. As a case in point, since July 2006, German tabloid Bild has been offering 500 euros for each sensational(ist) photo sent in by their readers – and many ‘wanna-be’ photographers have heeded the call. Their latest trophies: a burning sports car on Germany’s Federal Road 10, a naked lady in the city centre of Cologne and the famous TV presenter Johannes B. Kerner jogging in Sylt.

Michael Konken, chairman of the German Association of Journalists (DJV), is convinced that this check book journalism only aggravates the problem of “amateur paparazzi”,. He is not amused at all with the increasing number of ‘wanna-be’ journalists. If this goes on, he says, professional local news journalists will soon be reduced to proof-readers and fact-checkers, completely office-bound, while publishing houses will be busy slashing staffs and minimising costs at the expense of the “quality product newspaper”. However, this is putting things too simply. Amateurs hunting for news will never render professional reporters useless.

People turn to news content that appears reliable and trustworthy. And, while it is true that the work of lay people can lead to respectable results, consider the success of online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. The same philosophy is not directly applicable to the field of journalism. News gets stale much faster than the facts and figures contained in an encyclopaedia entry; and the mechanisms for self-control that seem to work at Wikipedia, ensuring the detection of errors or any deliberate attempt at manipulation, are far too slow for professional journalism. The production of news plays a vital role in society and represents one of its key professions. A debate on different topics, on the other hand, covering anything from the situation in Iraq to the love life of homo sapiens (check out, for example, web portals such as “Opinio”, the online-forum of Rheinische Post) ultimately is not much more than an amusing pastime.

Journalism means more than just the publication of some material. This doesn’t mean that people cannot help the media do a better job, act as real checks and balances within the political framework of society – and as seismographs for societal changes. Whether it is blogs and web communities or citizens who turn into part-time reporters, they all provide professional journalists with new views and first-hand information, thus enabling them to spot important events whenever they happen.

While in the old days it was the media’s limited transfer capacities that acted as a bottleneck for the news stream, today it is the lack of time and, perhaps, skills of those involved in making a choice when faced with a veritable deluge of newsworthy information.

Professional journalists might no longer have the monopoly for spreading the news, but they still are the experts when it comes to selecting relevant information, thus acting as gatekeepers who offer orientation in ever more complex and confusing times. At Reader’s Edition (www.readers-edition.de) it is citizens only who write the articles and who keep an eye on the ethical standards of the information published. The facts have to be right and no one should be offended. The advertising slogan for that Internet paper’s online forum reads “Space is infinite”. While this might sound alluring, its entailments are less than revolutionary, especially in an open media society. For when everybody talks, no one will really listen.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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