Citizen Journalism: A Primer

N.B. — This was originally posted to my business site on 21 February.

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s “2009 State of News Media” report contains an interesting section on citizen journalism. The report concedes that there has been a growing number of citizen-media sites, but that “citizen news sites provided much less reporting (57%), as well as opinion and special content like calendar items” on the day Pew conducted a comprehensive study, relative to sites maintained by traditional media outlets.

Indeed, in the Grand Rapids market, the typical options for online media are (a statewide aggregation of print newspapers) or The Rapidian, a citizen-journalism project. Launched to great fanfare in late 2009, the Rapidian site today is infrequently refreshed and features content that seems geared more toward “press release” stories — that is, stories about non-profit events or minor cultural activities, and almost nothing in the way of genuine investigative reporting or traditional hard news.

The Rapidian’s content is not to be disparaged; the group’s stable of writers clearly is filling a need that they believe exists relative to The Grand Rapids Press, and more power to them for their dedication to their task.

Yet the Pew Project’s observations lead to an undoubtedly salient conclusion: As traditional newspapers decline in quality as their financial resources dry up, downstream media will correspondingly suffer. How many TV or radio reporters get their cues from the daily broadsheets? How many citizen journalists get their bearings from the print world? Exactly.

So we seem to be in a curious climate where emasculated daily newspapers compete with bloggers (who are often aspiring members of the commentariat instead of objective reporters), and citizen-media sites spring up with the goal of being an alternative source of hard news but end up being a catalog of periodically refreshed soft news.

One can indict the state of the infrastructure that has led to this outcome, but the challenge may not be with the media outlets as much as with the citizen journalists themselves.

A prominent J-School question: Is journalism a profession? The traditional professions — law, medicine, clergy — are largely self-regulated and adhere to a rigid internal code of ethics and practices. Unlike electricians or plumbers or even accountants, our doctors, lawyers and priests have a mission of substance to the community and it is the practitioners themselves and not government bureaucrats who determine the profession’s character and processes, including its judicial protocols.

Many capital-J journalists want journalism to be an accepted profession. The arguments pro et contra are myriad, but one conclusion seems inescapable. Unlike the traditional professions, with education and licensing barriers, anyone can be a journalist. Journalism isn’t about a mission — although many practitioners have a strong sense of one — but about work product.

I think the is-it-a-profession-or-not tension is what undercuts practical training in citizen media. Instead of providing aspiring public writers with a well-stocked toolkit of ideas and practices, many professional journalist-mentors focus on the softer side, of what it means to be a capital-J journalist with all its romance and mystery. So we train writers to think of themselves as part of a noble tradition of truth-tellers while conspicuously failing to impart the essential skills that make their efforts worth telling.

For that reason, a short primer on citizen journalism may be helpful. I developed a PowerPoint presentation in 2004, during the early days of my tenure as editor-in-chief of the Western Herald, to train off-the-street applicants the basics of being a staff writer. In those days, the Herald was a daily newspaper with an average daily circulation of 12,500, serving the Kalamazoo community. It was affiliated with Western Michigan University and it predominantly employed students, but the paper was published and governed by an independent board of directors that included a few faculty, administrators, students and community journalists. We were a non-lab, entirely self-funded paper,  printed under independent contract with the Battle Creek Enquirer (and not the university), with a mission to publish the news while training the next generation of beat reporters and columnists.

A Pulitzer-winning tenure at the Grey Lady, it was not. But serving as a Herald editor was a full-time job, with full-time responsibilities, and the lessons learned there (including from our competition with the Kalamazoo Gazette) provided a solid boots-on-the-ground instruction on the craft of public writing.

With that experience in mind, and in light of my own eyeballs-only content review of local media, I think there are some thoughts from that old PowerPoint that are worth carrying forward to a larger audience.

Jason’s Journalism Primer

  1. The media industry is generally profit driven. These profits are typically sourced from advertising, and in most commercial outlets, the content and quality of writing is an inducement for readers to buy the paper. The more people read the paper, the greater the circulation and hence the more that can be charged per column inch of advertising. For this reason, the “suits” push for sensational stories or gimmicks that will sell newspapers. It is not bad for profit to be a motive among media companies, and the push for “non-corporate media” is quaint but irrational. Without corporate advertising dollars, the independent media will cease to exist.
  2. Newspapers are hierarchical. Writers report to section editors who report to a series of managing, executive and chief editors. Small newsrooms may be collaborative and horizontal, but most larger, established bureaus are not. The media world has its bureaucracy like any other, and decisions about content are sometimes reflective of management-by-committee approaches that favor safety over innovation. New writers with the stars still in their eyes need to get over the romance and realize that journalism is a job — and even independent citizen-journalists have to deal with the administrative part of being a media figure.
  3. A writer’s best chance at distinguishing himself and making a genuine difference is to become a beat reporter. Beat writers are true content experts: They know the laws, the people, the histories, the processes of the subjects they cover. A crime-beat writer, for example, knows the desk sergeants at the police station, understands the basics of the criminal-prosecution process, grasps the issues around modern forensics, has the local prosecuting attorney on speed-dial, and maintains a solid personal file on high-profile cases and crime statistics. The idea of beat specialization is especially useful for citizen journalists; by becoming an acknowledged public expert on a subject (e.g., the city commission), a writer will gain in credibility and improve her access to the people and processes related to that subject. In media, being a master of one trade is preferable to being a jack of all others.
  4. Journalism is about access — to people, to data, to authority. Journalists should be skilled at cultivating relationships with people who have access, so that they themselves can use that access on behalf of the public good. Don’t be a fire-and-forget writer, who talks to a source once for one story and then erases that source from memory. Journalism is the ultimate industry where interpersonal networking is the chief criterion of success, and no reliance on Web portals or search engines can provide the critical access that is inherent in direct, person-to-person relationships over time with well-placed human sources. Not a social person? Then brush up on the professional networking literature. Journalism is the wrong pursuit for the anti-social.
  5. Track your beat. For this, RSS is your friend. There are enough blogs and news aggregators out there that even esoteric beats like creole cooking admit to dozens of potential daily feeds. Keep abreast of what’s going on. Contribute your own materials, through your own RSS feeds or by active participation in discussion groups or professional organizations.  Never stop gaining expertise.
  6. Archive, archive, archive. Keep everything. File every clipping, every interview note, every email, every audio recording, every image file. If, two years hence, a person mentioned in a story sues for libel, you must have all the materials that went into your work product. And never fork over your materials to police officers, either. Make them get a court order, every time. A source — especially a well-placed one — will have little confidence in a journalist who is seen to collaborate with authorities, and in some (rare) cases, its preferable to sit in jail on a contempt charge than to supply incriminating evidence to law-enforcement officials. And personal archives make research easier over time.
  7. Be completely honest. Attribute everything, be open to conflicting points of view, don’t advocate a “party line,” purge your writing of logical fallacies, and neverlie to an editor. Keep your quotes pure and unaltered, do not accept questionable assertions as fact, and do not provide a false sense of conflict (or lack thereof) by selectively emphasizing or de-emphasizing different perspectives on a story. Follow the basic principles of journalistic integrity advocated by The Associated Press.  If you want to be an advocate, be a community organizer, not a reporter.
  8. Remember the traditional news values:  Timeliness, currency, weirdness, conflict, proximity, personality, and relevance. Use these values to shape how a story is structured.  For example, a story with a high weirdness quotient can have fun and off-beat ledes, whereas a proximity story (e.g., the death of a local soldier overseas) could emphasize his community connections.
  9. Know and honor the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.  Period.  End of discussion.  And check out Poynter for some interesting commentary on journalism ethics.
  10. Never accept money, gifts or preferential treatment in a capacity related to your experience as a journalist. Do not solicit benefits in exchange for favorable (or not unfavorable) treatment. If you have an unavoidable conflict of interest, disclose it unambiguously to your editors and reference it in the text of a story.  The perception of impropriety is often more damaging than the impropriety itself.
  11. Understand the state of media law with regard to libel, public access and fair reportage. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Lawis an excellent introductory reference to the subject. No one should presume to be a journalist without having read at least the AP’s treatment on media law and its discussion of the Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act and laws about defamation.
  12. Conduct interviews properly. Be punctual, courteous, appropriately dressed and prepared. Document the conversation effectively and accurately — tape recorders are often helpful, but get the subject’s active consent before audio recording. Consent is required under many state wiretap laws; it is illegal in Michigan to make an audio recording of a phone call without disclosing the recording (which disclosure should, ideally, be recorded on the tape).
  13. Scrupulously honor “off the record” comments, but be wary of going OTR in general. If a source provides solid info OTR, ask if it can be used as unattributed source material, which is eligible for publication without a source identified if it can be independently corroborated. Grants of anonymity should be a last-resort option, undertaken with an editor’s advice and consent.
  14. Never give a source prior review over printed stories – feel free to offer to read back direct quotes, but never give a source the right to review the rest of the story before it goes to print.
  15. A good journalist will go to jail before giving up a source.
  16. Never use deception to get information. Although deceit is a valid method for gaining information, it is a very-last-resort tactic that should be considered with an editor and perhaps even a media lawyer present.
  17. Use good quotes. A good quote is easy to comprehend, provides fresh information, explains something directly that would be difficult to express indirectly, and enhances the news value of a story. Attribute every quote and every fact (except for “common knowledge” types of facts), and don’t get creative with language: the verb said is almost always sufficient and does not need to be replaced with litanies of explained and exclaimed and suggested and any other verbal tag that conveys, however slightly, an editorial slant. In general, more quotes equals better stories, and direct quotes are preferable to indirect quotes.
  18. The cardinal rule of facts: If it’s not documented, then it didn’t happen.
  19. The cardinal rule of fact-checking: If in doubt, leave it out.
  20. Consider the trustworthiness of sources and the origination of facts and statistics. Work done by advocacy groups, for example, may be useful but should never be considered as objectively authoritative. If Planned Parenthood sends a press release attesting that 200 abortions were performed in the city last year, don’t accept Planned Parenthood’s statistics as being true. A good journalist always understands the originalsource of a fact, and not merely who regurgitates (and often, interprets) it. So, demand that PP share its original data source. Was it a survey? Public-health documentation? Someone else’s press release? Much truth has been uncovered by journalists who looked past a fact or statistic to learn its original source. Don’t take the lazy way out by writing, “According to Planned Parenthood, ….”
  21. Triple-check statistics. It pays to have at least a basic understanding of mathematics, finance, statistics and related computational skills. Don’t just look at the source of information, check to see that math performed on those statistics makes sense. Many the journalist has been fooled because he didn’t understand concepts like margin of error or sample size.
  22. Put recalcitrant sources on the spot if they refuse to disclose information. Make them admit, on the record, that they are refusing to provide useful information, and challenge this refusal under relevant open-access laws. Don’t just take “no” as an answer.
  23. Craft solid stories. A news story should be as long as it needs to be, submitted in a timely manner, free of factual and syntactical error. A good story of any type will answer six core questions: Who, what, when, where, why, how, and why should I give a damn?
  24. Use the right story template.  There are several ways to structure a story. Hard news often uses an inverted pyramid — the story has a lede (first paragraph) that provides a quick synopsis in 35 words or so, followed by a nut graf that compliments the lede. Facts and information are shared in descending order of importance. A re-tread of a story may use a second-day lede, which fills in the reader on the major content of prior stories before adding new content. Many softer stories like personality profiles and news features follow some sort of logical sequencing of events within the story.  Bill Parks has a nice short summary of basic newswriting style worth looking at.
  25. Get the angle right. Most stories except hard-news briefs have an angle, or a focus point for defining the context of a story. For example, a story about a house fire might have a lede that focuses on the fact that the homeowner lost a collection of her deceased grandmother’s hand-made quilts — this fact humanizes and dramatizes the story, engaging the reader in a different way. There is a world of difference between a story that begins, “The fire department responded to a house fire in the 500 block of Main Street at 3:45 yesterday morning, according to Lt. Smith,” versus, “Although her house was totally destroyed in yesterday’s early-morning fire on the 500 block of Main Street, Susie Jones wept only for the loss of the antique quilt collection she inherited from her late grandmother.” Which lede catches you most strongly and pulls you into to the story? And make sure that the tone persists through the story; avoid leading with an anecdote like the quilt collection and then transitioning into straight news. Make sure the ending paragraph comes full circle: “But for Jones, rebuilding her house is the least of her worries. ‘I lost my last link to my grandmother, after that, everything else is just wood and iron and cloth,’ she said.”
  26. Craft solid ledes. Keep them short, concise, active and engaging. This is the hook to get readers interested — don’t belabor a trivial (and in context, obvious) point like, “Congressman Johnson conducted a town-hall meeting yesterday at the high-school gym.” Instead, write, “Citizens angry over a proposed tax hike grilled Congressman Johnson at a town-hall meeting yesterday.” Don’t lead with things like time or place or inflammatory adjectives or cliches. The passive voice should be avoided like the plague.
  27. Write with competence. Write at a sixth-grade level. Avoid complex sentences, stilted vocabulary, arcane cultural references, redundancies, one-source stories, spelling errors, passive constructions, and overt grammatical error. Short sentences with simple language are preferable to complex sentences with mellifluous phrases, because the goal is to present facts to the reader and not to show off the writer’s penchant for pedantry. Don’t let the medium of writing obscure the message of the story. This goes double-time for sports writers who use cliche like crack addicts use glass pipes.
  28. Opinion belongs in by-lined columns. It does not belong in a news story. News writers should strive to be neutral and fair at all times.
  29. Write solid reviews. When reviewing, don’t tell the staff that you’re a reviewer. Avoid turning a review into a mirror whereby the writer’s personal preferences are reflected upon the review’s subject, so that the review is little more than an exercise in ego. Never accept free admission or free products, and be moderate with both praise and criticism. Most reviews by subject type usually have a fairly well-defined internal structure — follow it. Don’t write a food review with a random sequencing of meal courses, for example, and don’t file a film review without mentioning the cinematography and soundtrack.
  30. News analysis is not opinion, but rather an attempt to explain the history or complexity of a subject to answer the question of “what does this mean” on behalf of the readers. A news analysis has more latitude to project impacts or trends than a straight news story might.
  31. Not everyone can be a good opinion columnist. Columns are about advancing an idea or opinion, not about axe-grinding. A good columnist never uses the word “I.” She finds recourse in logic and fact to advance an opinion into the public space; she does not play fast-and-loose with facts to make a point, or demean or belittle others in print. Respectable opinion writing is very difficult for those writers who strongly associate with the poles of political thought, because they tend to hammer a small subset of subjects with a winner-take-all mentality that does little, in the long run, to advance reasoned public discourse.
  32. Respect human differences. There is generally no reason to refer to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, partisan identification, or other identifiers unless they are germane to the story.
  33. Know thyAP Stylebook and keep it holy. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is a central resource for writers; it contains points of usage and punctuation that a word processor will never flag. A writer lacking a dog-eared copy of the AP Stylebook is, umm ….
  34. Social media is not journalism.

Thirty-four suggestions to help guide aspiring citizen journalists better understand the craft and practices of a the media world. Anyone have any other observations to add?