Thursday, 8 March 2007

In defence of the "citizen journalist"

Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust has posted a plea – “please stop calling us ‘citizen journalists’”

Martin’s argument is of the Holy Roman Empire variety – neither citizens (in the overtly active sense of the word) nor journalists.
“How many bloggers / vloggers etc. would even call themselves journalists let alone citizen journalists?”he asks.

“What we're really talking about is a bunch of different phenomenon lumped together as 'citizen journalism'. There's the virtual stringers - people who happen to be somewhere that news is happening and record it (like at the 7/7 bombings). People who just reflect on or react to the news (like this blog). And people who write / photograph / video things which they don't consider 'news' but publish online and then gets picked up by others who consider it newsworthy. Maybe we should call them 'virtual stringers', 'demablogs', and plain old 'bloggers' until we develop a new vocabulary.”

Whether bloggers can ever call themselves journalists – in the sense of going out there and getting stories, standing them up, checking them etc … as opposed to happening to be there when stories happen or having ripe and robust views on something happening somewhere else – is a question Robert Niles takes on over at the Online Journalism Review.

“Are blogs a parasitic medium” bluntly. And Robert Niles goes on:
“I hear the frustration behind the comment. You bust your rear to get stories in the paper, then watch bloggers grab traffic talking about your work. All the while your bosses are laying off other reporters, citing circulation declines, as analysts talk about newspapers losing audience to the Web. It's not hard to understand why many newspaper journalists would come to view blogs as parasites, sucking the life from their newsrooms.
Still, the charge riles me every time I hear it.”


Robert Niles’ posting – written while “riled” – nonetheless seems aimed at whittling out a consensus … though some of the bloggers he consults use words like “baloney” while also pointing out that there are blogs that address topics the mainstream media ignore; that even derivative blogs “animate” the stories they reference; and anyway, there’s nothing new about journalists referencing each others’ work so why shouldn’t bloggers.

Oh and Lisa Stone, co-founder of BlogHer.org makes the obvious observation that:
"An opinion editorialist doesn't have to break news herself to provide amazing, fresh perspective on world events -- whether she's published on the New York Times Op-Ed page or on her own blog.”

Robert Niles’ consensual tendencies can be read here; The silliest, and most destructive, debate in journalism in which he pleads:
“Let's quit arguing the merits of "mainstream" versus "citizen" journalism and instead work together on "better" journalism.”

And there’s something of that in buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis who posted this unremittingly optimistic account – most of which, for what it’s worth, I happen to agree with – of a term teaching journalists (first filed for Guardian Media on Monday.)

On the key question, the BBC has more or less dumped the term “citizen journalism”, preferring however reluctantly “user generated content.”

But the phrase “citizen journalism” seems to contain something really rather subtle that Martin Moore’s – and others’ – rejection of it misses ... though it’s certainly the case that “citizen journalism” means/meant something different depending on where you used it from.

For Big Journalism, it had a patronising tang that almost equated to “less than a … journalist”. For citizen journalists, though, it emphasised the truth of both citizenship and journalism (ok, I know we’re all subjects and not citizens in the UK … but rest-up for a moment); that you needed to be qualified for neither and that journalists were citizens, citizens journalists.

Oh… and that the rights and responsibilities of both were identical. Try the phrase “non-citizen journalist”. Doesn’t quite work, does it?

OK – vloggers/bloggers/networkers/shares are a pretty diverse group; they’re also – the few studies that there are suggest – a pretty parasitic lot. But Lisa Stone is right – so are journalists.

Whatever we call them/us, the people formerly known as citizen journalists have never just dumped a load of raw newsgathering into the news stream. They’ve also established a pretty high level of media critique that means any and every form of journalism is now forced to look over its shoulder at the strident cries of foul from those who formerly fumed (quietly) in the audience.

Which is where Robert Niles’ ‘destructive debate’ posting comes in. Whatever you call them, “citizen journalists” are an essential component of better journalism.

And hurrah for that. I still like the term “citizen journalist” – not that it describes what anyone does. But for the simple existential reason that it describes what they are.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Hell, apparently ...

… hath no fury like a conspiracist scorned.

The series producer of The Conspiracy Files, Mike Rudin acknowledged in his BBC Editors’ blog on 22 February that “it had to happen”. And it has.

Sites hosting 9/11 conspiracy theories – like this one – must by now be threatening pornography’s premier position on the web, if the scale of the blogging around The Conspiracy Files’ 9/11 programme is anything to go by. They’ve even camped on David Cameron’s website.

Blogger Mark Belam – a former BBC IT specialist – neatly brings the story up to date -- in brief, the new twist in the 9/11 conspiracy theory is that the BBC was in on it.

Evidence? A Jane Standley 2-way on BBC World – which didn’t ‘come to light’ until 26 February 2007 – in which, the conspiracists say, she and anchor Phillip Hayton announced that a building on the World Trade Centre site – the Salomon Brothers Building or WTC7 – had collapsed before it actually had.

Indeed, the conspiracists say, the Salomon Brothers building can be seen in the background, still standing as Jane Standley was reporting its collapse … and continued to stand for a further 23 minutes.

This, conspiracy sites like this one, say is a “smoking gun” – proof that 9/11 was a Bush administration inside job, planned and executed meticulously even down to the preparation of press-releases setting out the intended sequence of events. By pre-empting the collapse of WTC7, the conspiracists say, the BBC blew the gaffe, showing at the same time that it was part of the conspiracy.

Adding to the conspiracy theory is the fact that the BBC hasn’t kept time-coded tapes of World output on that day.

News 24 tapes, which do have a time code, have been kept and extracts have now been posted on YouTube. Therse show that the news of the Salomon Brothers building collapse was reported on News 24 at 1655 New York time – a full 12 minutes before BBC World reported the same event and 25 minutes before the actual collapse.

I have a hunch – no more than that – that this might be where BBC World got the story from.

Poor quality grabs and recordings of BBC World output for the period in question – between 1657 and 1720 New York Time – have been posted on YouTube (though in line with all good conspiracy theories, Google have been accused of pulling them … which just isn’t true as you can see here, here, here ... etc; over forty posts in all. Though presumably, today’s announcement of a new partnership between BBC World and YouTube is more grist to the conspiracists’ mill)

By the end of February, the BBC’s inside knowledge was accepted as fact both on conspiracy websites but also in the responses on the BBC Editors’ blog and as random posts on other blogging sites about journalism and the BBC.

Doubtless BBC World Head of News, Richard Porter, knew he was on a hiding for nothing when he set out – about as frankly and openly as it gets – what was really happening in the BBC World newsroom and bureaux on that day; 209 responses and rising.

Unfortunately, saying “we’re not part of a conspiracy” as Richard Porter does, is proof positive of the opposite in the eyes of any conspiracist.

Which puts me well and truly in the frame. I was responsible for special 9/11 programmes on that day (I was Editor of WATO and PM then) and if there was a conspiracy that the BBC was part of, they’d forgotten to tell me.

I was in Canary Wharf when the attacks happened/conspiracy got under way – maybe I had been told but got the wrong high buildings on the wrong continent – and was first alerted by ever more agitated voicemail messages from my deputy.

Bit of a serious oversight, don’t you think? If we were all working to a script, the first thing you’d make sure of was that a) the people who mattered knew what it was and b) they didn’t go off it – and as every broadcast journalist knows from the event coverage that we do rehearse, no amount of preparation prevents the actual day being what is known in the trade as a “kick-bollock scramble”. Technical term.

Things go wrong in newsrooms. Journalists make mistakes. It happens. We’re not proud of it – but journalism, on a day like 9/11 is a rough, blunt, messy trade. Rumour gets hardened into fact before it vanishes without trace. Live and continuous news shares its verification processes with its audience, live and on-screen. Reporting a rumour as fact - often taken from wire services who are 99.99% reliable or from eye-witnesses whose view and understanding of events was, it turns out, less than perfect - isn't ideal ... but it would be a fool who thought it could always be wholly avoided on a day like 9/11.

The alternative explanation Рthat someone told journalists the script in advance Рis utterly risible. Leading a team of BBC journalists, any journalists, is Рto use the clich̩ Рan exercise in herding cats. Their personal and professional pride resides in their wilful, cussed, cantankerous determination to find ways of not doing what their editor wants. Of proving him/her wrong.

As an Editor, I’m always hugely disappointed if at least one person in the team doesn’t tell me to push off with my rubbish ideas. I wouldn’t want it any other way nor to work with any journalist who could be told what to say. I never have. It’s BBC journalism’s greatest strength and protection against the thought control that the conspiracists assume in any organisation they don’t understand.

But here’s another unexplained mystery the conspiracists should be having a go at.

If you look back at the footage of the News 24 live coverage of 9/11, round about 1403 UK time – 0903 New York time – you can see the second plane approaching the towers. It’s a clear steady, shot … though a distant one. And yet, the female studio anchor can be heard saying that the approaching aircraft is a rescue helicopter.

I’d always thought she’d just made a mistake – though mistaking an inbound Boeing 767 for a helicopter isn’t that easy – under the pressure of trying to keep both a live 2-way going and live commentary on the pictures coming in, while reading the wires, sorting scripts and taking studio directions from the gallery.

But now I realise that a shady operative from BBC Conspiracy Central had, in fact, accidentally handed her a script from the pile marked Second Hour instead of the one marked First Hour.

An easy mistake to make and the real smoking gun that has now blown open this conspiracy which, apparently, involved thousands of people worldwide … not one of whom, curiously, has swapped their story for the, doubtless, millions of pounds/dollars that would be on offer for it