News Organizations No Longer Own “the News”

For the past century or so, professional journalists and the companies they work for have pretty much assumed that they owned “the news.” That is, they believed that the very concept of “real news” was defined primarily by the type of organization publishing it. Print and broadcast venues offered by traditional newsgathering organizations and staffed by professional journalists and editors created “real” news that could be trusted – everything else was idle chatter or propaganda of one form or another.

But the media landscape evolves. As the Internet (especially the blogosphere) continues to expand and mutate, it’s bringing the field of participatory journalism to the fore – and about time, too!…

Participatory journalism is both controversial and slippery to define (although Online Journalism Review took a good stab at that in August 2003).

Basically, it comes down to individuals and organizations outside of traditional news organizations engaging in independent news reporting and analysis. Often, this work is self-published online. Participatory journalists may be personally involved in the issues or events covered, or they may simply be interested bystanders – the wall separating journalists from events that exists in traditional journalism is far more permeable here.

I’ve gotta admit, I like participatory journalism – even though it raises thorny and challenging issues. Even though it requires news audiences to exercise far more judgment and active skepticism than they’ve become accustomed to. It shakes things up, especially for the news establishment. It offers fresh approaches, perspectives, and context. It invites lively debate.

I think that’s all very healthy. So I’ll be covering it more here in CONTENTIOUS.

RECOMMENDED READING

To launch this topic, here’s some good fodder.

Yesterday Steve Rubel (author of the MicroPersuasion weblog, which covers how participatory journalism affects public relations) published an excellent article, A PR Guy Becomes a Reporter for a Day. He offers a blow-by-blow account of his experience creating a work of participatory journalism, and describes the ripples it spread across the Web.

Steve directly raises the precise issue about participatory journalism that deeply disturbs many traditional journalists. He discusses the tremendous potential that participatory journalism offers PR practitioners.

Now, that’s the point at which most traditional journalists would stand up and scream “Ethics foul! That’s PR, not journalism!” And they might be right – from their perspective. However, does that ethical gray area necessarily mean that PR people can never meaningfully contribute to the universe of news, that their content is inherently and entirely tainted by their profession? I don’t think so.

DISCLOSURE = CONTEXT

The key, I believe, is full disclosure.

In my experience, many PR people know a heck of a lot about newsgathering and reporting. In fact, about half of the PR people I know were journalists working for traditional news organizations earlier in their career. (Most switched sides because the money, security, and working conditions are generally far better in PR.)

These people understand that deliberate misdirection or misrepresentation in the news almost always backfires big time – and those stains are hard to erase. They don’t want to publish work that will blow up in their faces and ruin their reputations. They want to make meaningful contributions to the public discussion. And sometimes they have unique access or insight that you just don’t see too often in traditional news media.

In my opinion, as long as they fully disclose their profession and involvement or interest in the issue or organization being covered, I don’t have a problem with PR people doing participatory journalism. As long as the audience has enough honest information to put that information in an accurate context, to “consider the source,” I don’t think this harms the public discourse.

FULL DISCLOSURE DOES *NOT* MEAN MASQUERADING AS A TRADITIONAL JOURNALIST

The point of full disclosure in participatory journalism is honesty. It means giving the audience accurate information so that they can put news information into context.

This, I think, is where PR professionals and others who try to pass themselves off as traditional journalists really blow it. As the recent Medicare video news release fiasco (featuring “reporter” Karen Ryan) demonstrated, that sort of deception can and will backfire disastrously. In fact, on April 20, 2004, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) issued a statement firmly denouncing such deceptive conduct. (Jay Rosen of the weblog PressThink made several good points about this flap.)

Again, if PR professionals approach participatory journalism in the spirit of honesty and full disclosure, and if they’re willing to endure the inevitable criticism from traditional news purists, I think they’ll make out all right in this emerging field.

THE PARTICIPATORY ROOTS OF JOURNALISM

Let’s face it: All modern journalism is rooted in participatory journalism.

Remember the American Revolution? News of events in that conflict was disseminated largely by “pamphleteers” – short independent publications printed and circulated by the authors. (Dan Bricklin wrote a thoughtful commentary comparing Web site authors to pamphleteers.)

The rudimentary newspapers that existed in the nascent US of the late 1700s were limited mainly to large cities, and because of limited printing technology they didn’t enjoy a very wide circulation. Pamphlets reaches as large an audience as newspapers, if not larger. Plus, many newspapers of that era didn’t practice anything resembling the ethical journalism that many of us have come to treasure and rely upon today. Anonymous or pseudonymous personal attacks, fictitious accounts, unverified rumors, naked political or economic manipulation, and outright lies routinely filled the columns of America’s first newspapers. We’ve come a long way.

In short, I think traditional journalists should look to their roots and drop the “holier than thou” attitude. Some traditional reporters and news outlets do great work – others don’t. It all depends on the skill, dedication, and integrity of the news outlet, and of individual journalists, editors, and publishers.

Likewise, participatory journalism offers its own unique potential for value and usefulness in the public discourse. It all depends on how people go about it. Participatory journalism does not yet enjoy the same level of respectability as traditional news, and it may never get there. Still, I believe it deserves a chance to blossom and evolve in its own way.

In my humble opinion, of course.

SIDE NOTE: participatory journalism also can occur – and indeed may be valuable – within an organization. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the intriguing practice of corporate journalism. This is one kind of participatory journalism that could work particularly well on an intranet.

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