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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Blogging about blogging

Someone got in touch to ask some questions about citizen journalism and the July 2005 London terrorist attacks. My response ended up getting rather lengthy as I went off on one, so I reckoned I may as well post it. Could prove interesting to some, even if it is another of those blogging about blogging things I thought I’d stopped doing.

> On the topic of Citizen Journalism

Tintin - the ultimate journalist!1: What do you define as Citizen journalism?

I see it as largely just a new term for a combination of the old “eyewitness report” and “vox pops“, only with added levels of self-satisfaction from media types (journalists assuming that everyone wants to be a journalist) and with the added benefit (for news organisations) that they don’t have to go to the trouble of sending a reporter to the area to find (and verify the claims of) the eyewitness in question, or stand around on a street corner with a microphone asking the plebs what they think. Now the eyewitnesses and plebs come to them, making the whole thing much cheaper and easier – hence its boom.

Sometimes, however, it seems to be conflated with/used as a rather silly synonym for “blogger” – silly because very few bloggers produce journalism in the sense of reportage, it’s mostly just comment. (I wouldn’t count Polly Toynbee and Richard Littlejohn as journalists for similar reasons – although I’d chuck in their lack of any kind of objectivity, logic or writing ability, naturally…)

There is the rare occasion that a blogger happens to be on the spot during a major story and so can do a bit of primary research for a change, and possibly get quoted in the press (such as many London-based bloggers during July 2005, or Ukranian bloggers during the Orange Revolution of November 2004, my first experience of such a phenomenon), but that hardly makes them a journalist any more than my Mum would count as a journalist because she once had a letter published in the Telegraph.

2: Do you feel citizen journalism is a threat to traditional media outlets such as newspapers or television news?

Yes – because the current trend towards ever more audience interaction means too many news outlets are using such content without fact-checking them first (hence Sky News using “citizen journalist” pictures of the floods in Yorkshire last year that turned out to be agency pictures of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or photoshopped to include things like flying saucers or Madeleine McCann). It’s ruining the reliability of professional news outlets, dumbing them down, leading to all sorts of (usually inadvertent) copyright infringement, giving less space for proper reportage and investigative journalism, and is even – in the case of newspapers/magazines that allow comments on EVERY article – degrading and detracting from genuinely quality journalism by seeming to treat the comments as somehow as worthy of the reader’s consideration as the original piece.

3: How do you feel citizen journalism will effect the future of traditional journalism? Will it overtake it entirely, fade into the background or continue to co exist?

It’ll hopefully fade into the background as more and more high-profile practical jokes are played on news organisations desperate to be hip and with it by including the stuff, and as more and more news organisations realise that by allowing comments on news articles they risk damaging their brands by being associated with the kinds of inane ranting that generally comes to dominate such places, and as their message boards start getting them into trouble with the law (as has happened a few times as comment posters incite racial/religious hatred, break court orders, post confidential information, libel people and the like).

Comment-led blogs will continue pretty much as long as the internet does, though – everyone likes to rant about the news, and they’re just the latest in a long tradition of pamphleteering that dates back to the dawn of the age of the printing press, simply using a new medium.

I also very much hope that the rise of good-quality free comment pieces online via the blogs may finally lead newspapers to abandon their current drive towards comment-led content (the Guardian and Independent are especially guilty of this), and start to return to an emphasis on high-quality original reportage. I doubt it, though, sadly. Original investigative reporting’s simply too expensive, and gives little financial return.

4: What do you feel are the advantages of operating as a citizen journalist? Are there any disadvantages?

Proper citizen journalists – in the sense of non-professionals who actively go out to investigate and cover breaking news – are a pretty much a myth, inasmuch as there are very, very few blogs which run off the back of original, first-hand reporting. There have been a few examples of this – there was one blogger who got his readers to fund his stay in Iraq a couple of years back (though his name escapes me Update:here he is), and there are a few big bloggers in the US who bring in enough advertising revenue to survive on their blogging income alone – but the idea of someone who has the time and resources to hunt down stories all on their own on a regular enough basis to get noted is just silly.

After all, “citizen journalists” have no funding, no resources, no access to the newswires, no way of getting to the story – and are still rarely taken seriously by people they may want to approach for an interview. This is why most examples of citizen journalism that have been high profile have been random, unpredictable incidents like disasters (the 7/7 bombs, the Buncefield explosion and the like) where someone’s happened to be on the scene, and happened to have a blog. In these cases someone briefly becomes a citizen journalist before going back to writing about what they normally write about – they don’t then turn into Tintin and start charging off in pursuit of the next big story.

The vast majority of what gets dubbed “citizen journalism” is merely comment, usually based on what’s in the day’s papers – and that’s no different to someone ranting down the pub or round the watercooler (although in rare cases it can be far more entertaining and informative than some of the rubbish people get paid to churn out in the national press). The few big scoops claimed by blogs – like the Drudge Report’s stories about the Monica Lewinsky affair and Prince Harry in Afghanistan – have generally come off the back of investigative work by professional journalists – Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff in the case of Lewinsky, Australian mag New Idea and German paper Berliner Kurier in the case of Prince Harry.

5: When reporting, do you consider the ethical and legal practices prevalent in Traditional Journalism such as impartiality, objectivity, privacy and defamation? Do you strive for detachment or do you think it adds to the piece in some cases?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I make sure not to libel anyone, try not to break copyright too much (says the person who’s illustrating this post with a copyrighted image of Tintin, the ultimate journalist), and generally try not to swear these days, but the blog’s a bit of fun that I do in my spare time, with most posts rough first drafts, nothing more. If people want me to produce more professional content, they need to start paying me…

(I also very much contest the assertion that objectivity is prevalent in traditional journalism – have you read a newspaper recently? They all have agendas, be it promoting Rupert Murdoch’s business interests, general political stance, or blowing non-stories out of all proportion because the people at the heart of it are pretty middle-class teenagers, as with the recent Ecuador bus crash.)

6: Why did you decide to start your blog? Were there specific issues you felt needed to be taken up?

Back in March 2003 I was bored with all the build-up to the Iraq war that was dominating the news, so looked to European politics for an alternative. I also fancied a bit of a brain challenge, and knew that the EU is so insanely complicated that it would keep me going for years trying to work it out. Plus I thought it would be a good way of keeping my writing up, as I was going through a lean patch work-wise at the time. There was no political agenda – and still isn’t – and I had precisely no expectation that anyone would end up reading what I was writing. If I had had any issues I wanted to take up, I’d have written to my MP – because at the time the web still hadn’t quite been proven as a worthwhile campaigning tool. (And I’m not much of a one for campaigning anyway…)

7:Do you find, not being a certified journalist, that sometimes it is difficult to

I think part of the question’s missing… (And what is a certified journalist anyway? Do we have those in Britain? I’ve been doing this for a living for the best part of a decade, but have never had anything to prove that it’s my job. Do shop assistants or farmers need to be certified as such?)

8: Do you feel it is important for citizen journalists to maintain a high quality of reporting? Do you find it difficult?

It doesn’t seem to matter to the big news organisations that pick them up – especially if you include the texts and emails that get used daily on the news as citizen journalism. It’s mostly illiterate, ill-informed rubbish.

For bloggers, yes and no – most of the biggest political/current affairs bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic are rubbish in terms both of content and writing ability, and it often seems that to become popular you have to pander to the lowest common denominator, meaning standards have to drop.

I try to keep a moderately high standard largely because I make my living through writing and editing – to have a load of crap on my blog may stop people from hiring me, while to have quality content can get me more work. (And has done a lot, actually…) But then again, as I write for a living, every word I type and put out for free on the blog is also a word I’m not being paid for. It’s like a dentist going around doing free root canal work – very nice, and all, but it doesn’t pay the rent, so I’m not going to spend that much time on it if I can help it.

9: how do you choose the news you report? Is it personal interest or something else? How do you go about researching and reporting it?

Personal interest combined with (now) a vague feeling of obligation to the readers – I’ve been doing this five years now and have become one of the leading English language European politics bloggers, so there are some subjects I really have to cover, even if I’m personally bored with it. I’ll still fail to update for several days at a time if I’ve got too much work on, though…

In terms of how I go about researching posts? Google. Pretty much all I do is compile information from other sources into a more or less coherent, alternate take on a story or subject. I’ve done a bit of first-hand investigative stuff in my time, and it’s not really for me. I enjoy digging through books and articles and forming a defensible, interesting opinion based on as many different angles as possible – preferably an opinion that I haven’t seen anywhere else (otherwise, what’s the point?). It all comes through being a trained historian, I guess…

10: How important do you believe accuracy is in blogging? Is it essential or should it be sacrificed to convey a message in some instances?

Depends what kind of blogging you’re doing – but generally speaking if you’re inaccurate you’ll get called on it, assuming anyone’s bothering to read your stuff. If you get a reputation for inaccuracy online, same as in proper media, no one will bother reading your stuff.

Unless you’re entertaining about it or deliberately pander to the lunatic fringe, of course… In which case inaccuracy’s a positive bonus in the online world, as long as it fits in to your own little fringe group’s particular conspiracy theory.

11: As someone who has had experience with traditional journalism, how do you feel it could benefit from Citizen journalism? Would it do well to take aspects from Citizen journalism?

Citizen journalism in the way I define it? No benefit whatsoever – quite the opposite, in fact, as it mostly just exposes news organisations as gullible cheapskates.

As a synonym for blogging? All it’s really done is show traditional media organisations how effective the new technology is at building an online presence (largely due to the SEO aspects built in to most blogging software combined with quick and easy archiving and categorisation tools – and the fact that it’s very cheap, and negates the need to pay vast amounts for a custom CMS).

It’s no coincidence that so many newspaper sites have moved towards providing all their content for free, started trying to get in with social networking sites, and added blogs and comment boxes during the last few years. Back around the late 90s/early 00s, before blogging had really become noticed, media organisations had no idea how to use the net, and were scared of it – it’s largely bloggers and individual web developers that have shown them how online publishing can be done effectively.

12: Would you agree that Citizen journalism has a role to play as a watchdog for traditional media? Checking for fallacy and bias?

Yes and no. Pointing out conflicts of interest in the press is certainly useful – but more often than not the people pointing out such things are themselves subject to infinitely more bias than the people they claim to be exposing. See, for example http://www.biased-bbc.blogspot.com/ and the like – everything becomes a conspiracy or evidence of some deep institutional problem. People who devote themselves to finding bias and conflicts of interest are rarely impartial, usually have an agenda of their own, and tend to start to find them everywhere before talking of grand conspiracies, and so discredit the genuine findings when they come.

This is why if I want to find out about dodginess in the press, I read Private Eye, not blogs.

13: How often do you yourself partake in traditional media? Do you watch many news reports or read newspapers or online news agency sites?

I generally have News24 on in the background all day while working, and try to catch Channel 4 News, More 4 News, Newsnight and Question Time when they’re on (with The Daily show my preferred method of getting news and comment from the US). I also check a bunch of news sites daily (BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph, International Herald Tribune, Washington Post, New York Times, Le Monde, The Economist, Reuters, the Press Association, Deutsche Welle, Der Spiegel, Radio Free Europe, The Moscow Times, EU Observer, EurActiv and a few others – usually via Google News), have several hundred blogs and other news sites in the RSS reader that I check through at least once a day, plus there’s the email news alerts and roundups, and I subscribe to Private Eye.

I’m a news junkie, in other words. Why go into current affairs if you’re not?

I rarely buy newspapers these days though – I just don’t have the time to sit back and enjoy flicking through (most of my news reading – and blogging, for that matter – is done in five-minute spurts between proper work), so they end up going straight into the recycling unread.

14: Do you believe the democratisation of information has led to a ‘dumbing down’ or has it improved the quality of information available?

It’s definitely dumbed down. But it’s not just thanks to the increasing trend to “involving” the great unwashed through patronisingly reading out their texts and emails on the news (many of which I have no doubt are made up to ensure sufficient balance and grammatical sense, though I have no evidence to back this up bar knowing how these things work when you’re on a deadline), but also because the growth in the web as an alternate publishing medium has helped exacerbate the already existing trend towards a decline in newspaper sales, thus further decreasing newspaper advertising revenue, and so decreasing the amount of money available to spend on decent journalism. It’s all a lot more complicated than that, obviously, but still…

Seriously, think about it – who cares what some random person off the street thinks? If I wanted to know that I’d go down the pub, or pop on some message board somewhere – not head to the venerable Times of London or the British Broadcasting Corporation. When I look to the news media for analysis, I want verifiable expert analysis from sensible sources, not a load of ill-considered rubbish from effectively anonymous armchair pundits – especially when a lot of those pundits are going to be party sockpuppets whenever the news concerned is remotely political. (Cf. any online discussion about the Israel/Palestine conflict, the London mayoral race, etc. etc.

(There’s also surely no such thing as “democratisation of information” in the sense you seem to be using it – information just is, and the majority of information submitted by individual citizen journalists is usually more or less unconfirmed and so more or less worthless. It’s only working en masse that citizen journalists are remotely effective – individual contributions simply can’t be trusted most of the time.

News organisations haven’t really allowed their editorial policies to be shifted by the new drive for greater audience participation – they’ve been shifting towards greater populism in pursuit of sales for years, and have always been looking for ways to cut costs. If you can fill the pages with free content and still sell copies and ad space, why pay for proper journalists?)

On the topic of July 7th

(My July 7th terrorist attack liveblog, for those relative newcomers who haven’t read it)

1: How did you become involved with the events of the day? Were you sent out specifically or did you happen to be there at the time?

I work in London, heard rumours about a bang on the tube shortly after I got in to work, wondered why the office was so empty, and put out a request for information on the blog as there was nothing on any of the news sites or the radio. I wasn’t really expecting it to be anything bar the usual London Underground cock-up, but happened to have got a post up within a few minutes of it happening, which meant I was one of the first places to crop up in any blog searches looking for info. It escalated from there – largely thanks to the boy McKeating leaving a comment asking if I was liveblogging it, and a bunch of people arriving through searches mistakenly thinking that I knew what the hell was going on.

2: What was the general atmosphere at the time?

Confusion and worry for unaccounted-for friends and colleagues, combined with a bit of concern about how we were all going to get home that evening, and anger and defiance that someone would attack our city. That pretty much summed it up. It also got the entire office (at least, those who made it into work) down the pub at lunchtime, which was something of a rarity at the time. Blitz spirit, they call it – though that all went to pot in the coming days and weeks, sadly…

3: Did you encounter any journalists on the day? If so how were you treated by them?

Not really – they all got in touch later, once they got around to their retrospective pieces. The general attitude towards me was exactly as I expected – fairly patronising, as if they assumed that I was about 14 and would be dead chuffed to have a “proper” journalist deign to speak to me as if I was a grown-up, and would start fainting with excitement at seeing my name in print. This even after I had pointed out to them that I was in press week on the magazine I was working on at the time…

4: Did you go out of your way to gather information on the event or did you report as an afterthought?

Initially as an afterthought – but after the major news websites (BBC, Sky, etc.) had crashed under the weight of traffic around about 10am and I started getting emails and comments telling me that I was some people’s only source of information, I did start actively hunting down eyewitnesses (read: mates and fellow bloggers who worked in different parts of London) – plus I started getting loads of emails from other people around town with news and rumours, and started whacking them up. It became a bit of a hub for news and rumours in the end – the 8th most linked blog post of 2005, which is no mean feat. Even if 52 people did have to die to get me there.

5: What was your involvement like on the day? Did you contribute interviews, video footage or own reports to the news media?

A lot of my stuff was widely quoted over the following weeks, as I seemed to catch the general mood of defiance (something that went down particularly well with the Americans, who like to picture us Brits as all wearing bowler hats and drinking tea while bombs fall all around) – the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, New York Times, La Stampa, Time, Newsweek, Observer, CNN and a bunch of others all quoted my stuff, sometimes at length. I later did an interview on BBC London TV news during the piss-up I organised for the St John’s Ambulance volunteers who’d helped out on the day (funds raised via the blog’s readers) after they contacted me, and was apparently given a full-page profile in the Ottawa Citizen, though they never got in touch directly (and I still have no idea what the Ottawa Citizen actually is – it might be as high profile as the West Bromley Advertiser for all I know).

As for contributing footage and reports to the news media – no way. That’s what they pay their journalists for, and I’m buggered if I’m going to work for free for anyone other than myself. If they can con other people into doing their jobs for them by calling it “citizen journalism” then good on them. Me, I call it laziness – with just a touch of cheapness thrown in.