Citizen journalism and investigative reporting: from journalism schools to retirement communities

The myriad numbers of citizen journalism sites that pop up everyday seem to suggest that the media can fulfill the purposes of democracy by merely offering their audiences a forum to express themselves.

However, to tap into its full potential, participatory journalism should try to do something in addition to what mainstream reporting already does – such as expanding source diversity, shifting focus to neglected sections of the population, or pursuing different angles and perspectives on a story. If not, it is not doing much more than using its readers as a form of cheap labor, and perhaps laying off journalists while it’s at it.

Citizen journalism is hardly beneficial when it merely propagates the flaws of traditional reporting. Huffington Post’s Off the Bus produced many stories on the US Presidential campaign last year – but the one we remember most vividly is Mayhill Fowler’s reporting of Barack Obama’s “bitter” comment – the story that put gotcha journalism from mainstream reporters to shame.

The paucity of good investigative reporting through citizen journalism is not surprising, considering the amount of effort such stories require from news organizations in terms of coordination and oversight. Perhaps, most importantly, they require a huge time investment from the audience. While people might be easily persuaded to relay food-item prices from their grocery bills, they are less likely to pursue public officials or make trips to government offices to retrieve information.

Which is why magazines like The Nation are allowing their audiences simpler methods to contribute to significant news stories. With its “Ask the President” feature, the weekly is encouraging readers to pose questions for the Obama administration’s upcoming press conferences. Queries that receive the most votes will get asked by Nation journalists, pending agreement from the White House. This is perhaps the digital equivalent of newspapers inviting their readers to town hall meetings to question public officials.

News organizations are also trying to encourage investigative journalism “from the desk.” With the amount of interactive tools available online, it is perhaps easiest to get readers to contribute through their computers since they already spend several hours in front of them. National news stories especially lend themselves well to this form of reporting.

The nonprofit investigative journalism site Propublica hopes to analyze Barack Obama’s stimulus package by encouraging audience contributions. Data and documents will be available on the site, and readers will be encouraged to offer ideas for stories and topics of newsworthy content. Details of how distributed reporting will be implemented have not been worked out yet, but as Senior Editor Eric Umansky reasons, the breadth of the stimulus projects and their potential effects are so huge that there simply are not enough traditional journalists to cover the subject. But with the help of citizen reporters all around the country, Propublica can do a better job of reporting on all angles of the story. When you recall that the same idea allowed Talking Points Memo to break the news about the Bush administration’s firing of eight US attorneys in late 2007, it is easy to be optimistic about Propublica’s venture.

Another idea that is gaining popularity is the coupling of journalism school projects to citizen reporting. In this fast-changing media world where every citizen is a reporter, students of journalism should be specifically trained to tap into the vast talent available in the community, writes Elizabeth Zwerling. That is exactly what the Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles is attempting to do with its hyperlocal news site, Intersections.

The project is shining the spotlight on the less privileged classes that mainstream media has long ignored with its profit-centered interest in affluent communities. Online journalism often reproduces this censorship of omission because of the inherent digital divide. Students at the Annenberg School, however, are being trained to report on hyperlocal issues affecting urban LA communities. Local residents, many of whom include working class immigrants, work with students to transmit their photos, videos and stories through cell phones.

Sites such as Texas Watchdog, on the other hand, are implementing programs to train civilians to become watchdogs of the government; the program teaches citizens to access and review public documents, among other things.

Another potential goldmine for citizen journalism at the hyperlocal level appears to be populations of retired individuals, who have both the time and inclination to perform watchdogging functions for their communities, as Jack Driscoll found with Rye Reflections, a user-generated site run by retirees in a small community in New Hampshire. The drastic reduction in local news reporting by newspapers that have cut down their resources and budgets has meant that citizens are willing to take up the slack. This sort of community reporting offers people intellectual and social stimulation while fulfilling civic needs, according to Driscoll.

In addition, retired professionals can often lend their specific expertise to investigative news stories, as former engineers and lawyers in the community of Fort Myers, Florida proved during the News-Press’ investigation of a local utility company. However, Driscoll does not succumb to the rosy-eyed view that this sort of reporting can replace hardcore investigative journalism at the national or international level, or in specialized fields like science and medicine.

It’s little surprise then that the much talked-about Huffington Post Investigative Fund hopes to tap into the expertise of seasoned journalists to kick-start its investigative reporting exercise. Down the road, it will harness the power of its citizen volunteers. As Jay Rosen, who will serve as a senior advisor on the project, writes, “the best approach is to have no orthodoxy and to support very traditional investigative reporting by paid pros who are good at it, as well as teams of pros and amateurs, students working with masters of the craft, crowdsourced investigations, and perhaps other methods.”

A tall order to be sure. But news organizations need to quickly find ways to compensate for the dearth of resources and personnel in order to continue to perform in-depth investigative reporting, lest journalism may become completely irrelevant.

4 thoughts on “Citizen journalism and investigative reporting: from journalism schools to retirement communities

  1. John Mecklin

    Anyone who thinks so-called citizen journalists can supply very much in the way of actual investigative reporting is deluding him- or herself. The digital interface allows more people to be sources of tips in regard to stories. With certain types of stories involving large amounts of basic fact-gathering, some version of distributed reporting can be of use. But true investigative reporters are highly skilled, highly trained treasures. They have a combination of intuition (call it the nose for the hidden story); the talent for managing balky human sources; proficiency in the use of myriad documentary information sources; the ability to analyze dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of information inputs, some of them contradictory, together, to prove or disprove each piece of a complex thesis; and, in the best such reporters, the gift of being able to explain the results of their investigations in compelling stories full of fine writing and literary detail. They are rare, driven birds, and in my long experience of them, they rarely want to work in large teams, or crowds, or whatever the digital buzz-word of the day might be. They just want to do good, by revealing bad.

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  2. karthikaswamy

    John, I totally agree. In fact, I think the key to grassroots journalism is not to outsource hardcore investigative journalism to the crowd – civilians cannot be expected to do what trained reporters have studied and done for years – but to use the crowd in ways that they can contribute best: either as eyes and ears on the street, or for data mining at their computers. And after that the job of organization and consolidation to put together a story is still that of the journalist.
    It’s true that most journalists don’t want to work in teams or with crowds, but in some cases citizen help has proved to be very beneficial – in measured doses, with extensive oversight and coordination.

    Also, with the tools and technologies available it’s a great idea to tap into niche audiences for more specialized content – either through Twitter or blogging. Citizens are probably not going to do investigative reporting better than reporters who do it for a living, but citizens can certainly help in the reporting of complex subjects that journalists usually have little training in, like in the areas of science or medicine. A scientist or health care professional can help tell that story better than a journalist. In either case, however careful coordination is essential.

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  3. Pingback: Citizen Journalism: My thoughts on Indian scenario « Babbles of a deranged mind

  4. Pingback: Hyperlocal News Roundup : HyperlocalBlogger

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