Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Regulating cit-j

I'm coming a little late to the discussion over last week's article by David Hazinski, the University of Georgia prof who stirred the blogging hornets' nest with his piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Unfettered 'Citizen Journalism' Too Risky."

I've had my differences with Hazinski before. Leonard Witt of Kennesaw State, one of the high promoters of citizen journalism (note to AJC - the term is so widely used now, I doubt the editorial quotes are needed in the headline), had a fairly effective rebuttal to Hazinski the next day.

But let's, for a moment, give Hazinski the benefit of the doubt and look past his terminally stupid (or perhaps deliberately provocative) early line: "The news industry should find some way to monitor and regulate this new trend." Or his inept comparison to lawyers with the question of whether someone who can read a law book should be called a lawyer (why, yes, Mr. Lincoln, you may be able to read the law, but ... It wasn't all that long ago that "reading" the law meant just that -- even into the 1950s in some states legal secretaries, for instance, who had the practical knowledge and a little book learnin' could sit for the Bar exam. You can find plenty of comment with a few search engine clicks from those who think the ABA stranglehold on legal certification is more a way to restrict the supply than raise the standards.)

As I read Hazinski's article in its entirety, I take away a larger point that he's trying to make, and it's not that the mainstream media should somehow have power to regulate and license citizen journalists. It's that if you are going to play "mainstream media," then you have the duty to treat cit-j the same way you treat other sources: Verify the information and get all sides. Consider his three points:

1) Major news organizations must create standards to substantiate citizen-contributed information and video, and ensure its accuracy and authenticity. I don't read here that Hazinski wants MSM to try to impose these standards on citizen journalists, but to impose these standards on itself. But, you say, imposing these kind of gatekeeping standards on itself effectively imposes them on citizen journalists. Fifteen years ago, when MSM controlled the gate, I would have agreed. That's simply not the case anymore -- anyone can pretty easily publish any kind of media output. That is the kernel of the entire "we media" meme. You can't have it both ways.

At the same time, MSM still remain the primary channels by which vast numbers of people get much of their daily news and information diet. If one reads Hazinski as saying it's critical that those channels scrutinize and verify the information coming from cit-j as much as they would the info coming from the local pol at City Hall, I agree entirely.

2) They should clarify and reinforce their own standards and work through trade organizations to enforce national standards so they have real meaning. Unfortunately, Hazinski leaves himself open on this one because to non-insiders this sounds an awful lot like a proposal for national licensing. I don't read him as saying that, but saying that MSM already have in place things like the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics and that vehicles like that should be perhaps broadened and somehow strengthened to provide a framework of standards.

Bad idea. We've been across this bridge before -- several times -- and it's clearly a bridge to nowhere. You simply can't enforce things like this without bringing to bear a whole host of entanglements. Let those organizations that want to follow this sort of "Good Housekeeping" seal display it voluntarily. (TV already does that, for instance, with the AMS seal for weathercasters. But as we know just from turning on the TV, there are a number of marginally competent folks out there who still carry the AMS seal.) Phil Meyer has suggested an intellectually parallel idea with the concept of professional "certification" of journalists in an area of expertise as a way to boost the profession's credibility.

It will always be caveat emptor -- and these days when people can more easily vote with their mouses, I see nothing wrong with that.

3) Journalism schools such as mine at the University of Georgia should create mini-courses to certify citizen journalists in proper ethics and procedures, much as volunteer teachers, paramedics and sheriff's auxiliaries are trained and certified. Sure, why not? It's been done already in a way as part of the Madison Commons project that was funded by J-lab. It holds workshops to train correspondents for its site. The more the merrier.

But that won't stop, nor will it regulate, citizen journalism.

In an oblique way, Hazinski raises central points that we need to continually discuss and debate: How do we take the best of what our former audience members -- and now our collaborators -- are doing and give it the additional distribution and promotion it deserves? And how do we keep this deep well of information, much of which the MSM would never get to otherwise, from being polluted?

(As a sort of Exhibit A is this posting on the chat section of the Web site of KXMB in Bismarck, N.D. -- it's a blogger's response to Hazinski. But it appears to have just been automatically picked up from another blog. The station runs a "Disclaimer" --
This article is a blog post and does not represent the views or opinions of Reiten Television, KXNet.com, its staff and associates and is wholly owned by the user who posted this content -- that is supposed to provide clean hands. There's nothing untoward about this post. But I don't think we can ignore Hazinski's observation that this kind of thing does have a potential for abuse. In a delicious twist, the very act of automated aggregation, while a boon to spreading good posts, can also magnify a posting's presence to the point where the mainstream media sees it "everywhere," and we know how that can be an excuse for mischief.)

It's unfortunate that Hazinski chose to wrap his points in language that tends to provoke more shrill responses than the reasoned research and discussion these complicated issues deserve. Or maybe I'm misreading him and he does want some kind of licensing. File that under terminally dumb.

As Witt wrote:
Models will be formed, just as they were in the open-source software movement, which will filter out the crackpots, vandals and incompetents and it will happen without a certification board. It will not be professional journalism pitted against citizen journalism, it will be a combination of both.

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