Proposed: Citizen journalists should fill gaps in ‘information ghettos’

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Miami Herald Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote last month that citizen journalists cannot replace professionals, but a new report issued by Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication suggests doing just that to counter the spread of “information ghettos.”

Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize winner, chided former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and conservative blogger Matt Drudge for suggesting citizen journalists can replace professional reporters in taking on powerful interests. To disprove them, Pitts used, for examples, his colleagues who rushed to New York City to cover the Sept. 11 attacks and professional journalists who defied orders to abandon New Orleans in order to continue reporting on Hurricane Katrina. Pitts’ point: citizen journalists don’t have “the resources, the credibility, the knowledge, the training or even the desire” to report such stories.

But WSU’s Murrow College thinks that it may have a found a way around these deficiencies. The college issued a report last month calling for the creation and training of citizen blogger networks across the state of Washington, allied with daily newspapers and funded by foundations, that can transform areas “stuck with a lack of news coverage exacerbated by poor Internet access, bad cellular coverage and dwindling local journalism,” writes John Cook for GeekWire.

Washington is an “information enigma,” according to the Murrow College report.

“Some of the nation’s leading digital technology companies are headquartered in and around Seattle, yet vast areas of the state are starved of locally relevant public affairs news,” the report states.

“Google and Yahoo are two of the global Internet companies that have opened offices in the state, joining content giants like Amazon and MSNBC.com, yet only 20 towns have a daily newspaper, just 23 have radio a station with some form of local news, and TV is clustered in four cities with tightly defined coverage areas. T-Mobile is headquartered in the state, yet mobile dead zones are common outside the major towns. Facebook recently opened a major office in Seattle, yet Washington’s use of social networking platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is lower than many other states.

“In huge sections of Washington, citizens have little or no access to news about what is taking place in their own communities … The situation is particularly grim in areas populated by minorities and on some of the vast Native American reservations. In short, Washington is a digital state with a rural information ghetto.”

The report recommends Murrow College take the lead in allying varied stakeholders to “bolster rural news reporting” in Washington and “increase awareness of and access to high-speed broadband,” writes Matt Rosenberg for The Social Capital Review.

The proposal comes on the heels of mass layoffs in New Orleans and parts of Alabama and follows a recent survey by Governing Magazine that shows state and local government executives are increasingly worried about journalism and public affairs coverage. Just 13 percent of the respondents said they believe citizen journalism can fill the void left by a shrinking newspaper industry.

The survey, conducted June 14-18, found that more than 50 percent of the respondents believe that “government coverage in newspapers is already inconsistent or weak.” Barely 16 percent of the officials rated government coverage as aggressive.

After the recent announcement from Newhouse’s Gulf Coast Newspapers and Advance Newspapers that it would be reducing its daily print schedules in New Orleans and Alabama, government officials said they were worried about “predictions from news executives that more daily newspapers would print less frequently in the next five years, with some cutting back to just once a week.” Nearly 24 percent of government officials polled in the magazine’s online community, Governing Exchange, also said they expect “little impact with digital coverage, online bloggers and TV news picking up the slack.”

Despite their concerns, more than 37 percent of officials surveyed said government should not take an active role in solving the news industry’s problems, but let the marketplace decide instead.

Correction: Pitts referenced Sept. 11, 2001, not Sept. 1 as this post originally stated.

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  • Tracie Powell

    This part of the piece definitely warrants more discussion. 

    There are policies officials can adopt– the Murrow College’s intent to work with lawmakers in helping to make broadband more accessible is one example of how government can help address the spread of information ghettos. There are other policy positions concerning ownership and licensing of television and radio that could be addressed. The amount in pensions that newspapers have is yet another area that may warrant review. I’m not saying any or all of this will work, I’m only suggesting that these are areas to look at in terms of government policy. 

    I definitely agree with this part of your statement: “The idea of government intervening in journalism (with the possibility of editorial influence) is scary, but so are the prospects for our democracy with the diminishing quality of information enlightening the electorate.”

    Thanks, 
    Tracie Powell

  • Tracie Powell

    Thank you for commenting Dean Pintak. The whole point of writing this piece was to show/share that the Murrow College is trying to find solutions to this problem of filling information gaps. Saying the college’s efforts was a cure-all was not my intention at all. It’s an issue that Poynter says we should examine further. 
    I am monitoring the college’s efforts closely, to see if it works. There is/was a similar effort with Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Perhaps it could be a model for what you’d like to do. In any case, I am in the process of writing about that now. 

    Thank you again for your comment and best of luck!

    Sincerely, 
    Tracie Powell

  • jeb buffinton

    “Despite their concerns, more than 37 percent of officials surveyed said
    government should not take an active role in solving the news industry’s
    problems, but let the marketplace decide instead.”
    I wonder what the other 63% think gov’t can do?
    The idea of government intervening in journalism (with the possibility of editorial influence) is scary, but so are the prospects for our democracy with the diminishing quality of information enlightening the electorate. I don’t believe citizen journalism offers a significant solution, so perhaps there could be a role for government to support news platforms without meddling. The thorny question of how to decide who gets supported becomes critical. Discuss?

  • http://twitter.com/lpintak Lawrence Pintak

    As dean of Murrow College, let me wade in. Though catchy, Ms. Powell’s lede makes a deeply flawed leap of logic. We have not drunk the citizen journalism Kool-Aid; our raison d’etre is training professional journalists. We agree with Pitts that citizen journalists can never replace the pros, any more than volunteer firefighters can replace professional smoke eaters. But if there are no pros around and my house is on fire, I damn well want the amateurs to try to put it out. Ditto news in rural America. We can all bemoan the state of “mainstream” journalism or we can accept economic reality and look for solutions, imperfect though they may be. As the Journatic scandal reminds us, things are desperate out there. What’s better? Enthusiastic citizens who have been given basic journalism training, are reporting from their hometown and answering to a professional editor or some guy in the Philippines purporting to know what is going on there? No, Ms. Powell, we do not think we “may have found a way around” the deficiencies of citizen journalism, and we also recoil at the Newhouse and Advance cuts, but we are also not deluded enough to think we can reverse the economic tide. Absent that, we and the news organizations in our region are looking for new ways to plug the holes.

  • Anonymous

    Once again, it is being demonstrated that today’s biggest information ghetto is Washington, D.C. – 
    Meet The Camo-Clad, Gonzo Bloggers Behind The Fast And Furious Story http://www.buzzfeed.com/rebeccaelliott/meet-the-camo-clad-gonzo-bloggers-behind-the-fast

  • Jim Hopkins

    I’ve now read the Murrow College report, but didn’t see anything about how citizen journalists are to be paid for their services.

    Without a guarantee of some sort of income, citizen journos won’t be a reliable enough source of news to fill the gap left by the shrinking number of professional journos.

  • Anonymous

    astronomy and journalism are two different, unrelated, separate activities. a “citizen journalist” who cannot find city hall isn’t going to tell an experienced journalist how to cover the city council.

  • Alfred Ingram

    Amateur astronomers don’t replace professional astronomers, but they definitely compliment them. their discoveries are important to the field and advance science. Astronomy would be poorer if its professionals took the same attitude many journalists do. We are a mere generation from journalist being a working class job and its transition into a profession. Look around. Look at readership and admit that, in many ways, journalism is poorer for its attitudes. Amateurs don’t think covering a story is doing the covered a favor. Its obvious from reading and watching that a lot of professionals do. They aren’t yet a majority, but the trend seems to be in the wrong direction.

  • Larry Higgs

    I’ve watched a lot of police and lawyer shows and medical dramas. Does that qualify me to be a cop, a prosecutor or a surgeon? And given the rate of under employement, with people holding down two jobs to make ends meet, in addition to family obligations, who is going to be a citizen jounalist for no pay? The only people I know doing such are retired reporters. Everyone else is scrambling to make a living.

  • http://twitter.com/mututemple Mu Lin

    I think some university- or J-school-sponsored news sites are doing just that: filling the gap for hyperlocal coverage; for instance, the Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a website sponsored by Temple University and staffed by Temple’s journalism students. 

    Earlier in June, J-Lab organized a conference attended by more than a dozen university news sites where they discussed the experiences and challenges of university news sites and community coverage. I even wrote a post content analyzed the multimedia or digital contents of 12 such university news sites. http://www.mulinblog.com/2012/06/11/analyzing-12-university-sponsored-news-sites-for-multimedia-and-digital-journalism-contents/

  • Anonymous

    well, if citizen journalists can replace experienced reporters, then somebody who likes to read history books can replace a trained historian and someone who knows a little first aid can replace a doctor. sound logical?