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Pique'n yer interest

The case for traditional media

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Two weeks ago Pique staffers attended a conference put on by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). It was a sparsely-attended event by national standards, owing to the sad financial state that media find themselves in today.

The event was nevertheless an enlightening one for a number of reasons. One of the biggest revelations for me was the degree to which traditional news outlets such as magazines and newspapers are being called "legacy media," as though we're somehow archaic entities.

One of the weekend's panels focused on "citizen journalism" - the almost exclusively online phenomenon that believes "crowd-powered media" is the way to the future. It manifests itself in websites such as NowPublic.com, Spot.Us and other outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

Its underlying philosophy is that you don't need the silly training or editorial controls you find in "legacy media" such as the Globe and Mail , the Toronto Star or the New York Times .

Citizen journalism has certainly had its success stories. Take the London bombing in 2005 as an example. The BBC harnessed the idea in its reporting, using a citizen's cell phone images to document the carnage in the aftermath of the bombing.

A good report ties itself as accurately as possible to the event it's describing - BBC's coverage of the bombing excelled in this regard by providing a close account of the incident through a citizen's contribution.

Another successful application of the doctrine came in 2007, when citizen website Orato.com carried coverage of the Robert Pickton trial written by former sex workers from the Downtown Eastside. Orato's coverage reported the grisly trial with unique insights from people who could have been victims themselves.

But then, conversely, there are failures - bad ones exacerbated by the fact that the nature of citizen outlets prevent them from doing anything to prevent them.

In early 2008 there was a lockdown of the BioSciences building at the University of British Columbia. Students were sequestered in their offices and classrooms for hours as police combed the building in response to a threat. "Legacy media" such as Global, CBC and CTV surrounded the building as they awaited updates.

NowPublic.com had a man on the inside. Reporting under the avatar "ScienceDave," he gave regular updates from his office including the rumour that an armed gunman was circling the halls.

That update, later denounced as a fabrication, added panic to an already-tense situation. Good for the news, perhaps, but not for thousands of UBC students who watched the event unfold in real time.

The advent of citizen journalism suggests an eroding confidence in traditional media. People who follow these sites for the news simply don't trust the "legacy" medium any longer. They feel that "crowd-powered" reporting that allows almost anyone to contribute to a news outlet is the best way to get the story out there.

By terming professional newspapers and other outlets "legacy media," citizen journalists propose to replace them. Having lost confidence with an archaic model that uses asinine and outdated concepts such as accuracy and editing to guide its work, citizen journalism proposes to hand it over to untrained citizens to do all the reporting themselves.

They propose to do it without editing their work or imposing the kinds of controls that the "legacy media" deem essential for doing good journalism. Indeed, at the conference panel on citizen journalism, NowPublic founder Michael Tippett said that the only stories that get edited on his site are the ones that make it on to the front page.

Can you really trust journalism that doesn't mediate itself?

While it works well when integrated into traditional media, citizen journalism is imposing an irresponsible and fiscally unsustainable standard on the industry. Citizen journalists generally make no money for their reporting - and where they do, it's an aberration.

Perhaps the solution is to have major media open "citizen units" that integrate citizen contributions to their stories. Videos, images, documents and other essential sources that wouldn't normally be accessed by a trained journalist could be integrated that way.

Such contributions could make for better reporting - and by extension, better journalism. The forces of citizen journalism won't make better media simply by revolutionizing it.

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