Chapter 1 – Role of News

TOPICS: The essential role of news in shaping America’s political, social and cultural ideals. A timely account of interesting and significant events. Why citizen journalism?

Then and Now

The beginnings of American journalism traces its roots to the pre-revolutionary pamphleteers and small presses that quickly sprang up in the early days of the loosely confederated colonies as they struggled for recognition and representation from an unresponsive English parliament.  Richard Pierce’s Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick (considered the first newspaper published in America), James Franklin’s New England Courant and Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette along with a half-dozen or so other newspapers in Boston, New York and Philadelphia informed and engaged the citizens of this developing nation on the vital issues of the day.

The importance of a “free and open press” to the young colonies is illustrated in the seditious libel case of John Peter Zinger, printer of The New York Weekly Journal. Zinger was jailed for printing editorials about the corrupt practice of the city’s local government. His subsequent acquittal by jury based on the defense for seditious libel put forth by Andrew Hamilton claiming that Zenger had a right to “publish the truth” set the stage for the rise of what is called the “Fourth Estate” of the American government (a free and open press) and the inclusion of special protections for the press in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Since that time, the press has played a crucial role in every major political, social and cultural event in this country’s history. News stories and editorials have outlined the pros and cons of every war, the abolition of slavery, the suffragette movement, the civil rights movements, government corruption, social and economic policy, scientific and cultural developments, and more. And as technology has moved the delivery of the news from print to radio, television, cable, satellite, the World Wide Web, and now Web 2.0 platforms, citizens have more opportunities than ever to stay informed about vital issues affecting their lives. Such a diversity of news delivery systems, however, has its drawbacks.

Many people today live under the pressure of what Alvin Tofler described as “information overload,” an excess amount of information that makes processing and absorbing data difficult for individuals because sometimes they cannot always see the validity behind the information. News and information comes at us from all sides, bombarding us with complicated statistics, competing surveys, financial analysis that figures the economic status of our country in multiples of trillions—all delivered by talking heads on the radio and television, blogsites, print news editorials, and short bursts tagged from the twittering masses. Under a barrage of multiple and often conflicting reports, many have simply tuned out.

But in a fast-paced, information-driven age like ours, where government policies and cultural dynamics are shaping and re-shaping the social dynamics of the country at rates never before seen, citizens must, more than ever, become engaged. Ironically, precisely because of the technological advances that have led to the information overload age in which we live, citizens at the grassroots level have never before been more able than they are today to participate at the local, regional and national levels in the debates that will shape and change their lives.

A Timely (True) Account

Citizen journalism is a grassroots movement of professionals and non-professionals who have come to believe that the value and importance of reporting news from a variety of perspectives is critical to the survival of a democracy such as ours. At its best, news reporting promotes an informed body politic and serves as a watchdog to prevent governmental corruption and malfeasance. This watchdog role, however, can only be effective if the people it serves trust the integrity of the news gathering and reporting enterprise. And recently, people have come to trust news reporting agencies less and less.

In a 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, for example, the percentage of Americans saying they could believe most of what they read in their daily newspaper dropped from 84 percent in 1985 to 54 percent in 2004. The results for televised news (including cable) were similar.  One reason for the drop in trust is the result of information overload, as discussed above. But other important factors also contribute to the public’s mistrust, including media consolidation, highly publicized reports of journalists who confessed to plagiarism, and payola scandals.

Of these factors, the most relevant is media consolidation. Over the past ten years, media consolidation has placed more and more news reporting in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. In 2005, 90 percent of the top 50 cable TV stations were owned by the same parent company. The top 20 Internet news sites were owned by the same media conglomerates that control the broadcast and cable networks. In fact, six corporations now control the major U.S. media: General Electric (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo,  Bravo, Universal Pictures, and 28 TV stations), Murdoch’s News Corporation (FOX, HarperCollins, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, TV Guide, DirecTV and 35 TV stations), Time Warner (AOL, CNN, Warner Bros., Time and its 130 plus magazines), Disney (ABC, Disney Channel, ESPN, 10 TV and 72 radio stations), Viacom (CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, Simon & Schuster and 183 U.S. radio stations), and Bertelsman (Random House and its more than 120 imprints worldwide, and Gruner+Jahr and its more than 110 magazines in 10 countries). These trends contribute to the perception that most of the news we read, hear and see is tied to and controlled by corporate interests, and is, therefore, subjective, limited in relevance and relativistic in importance.

Why Citizen Journalism?

Citizen journalism works as a corrective to this trend by empowering the average citizen (equipped with a computer, an internet connection and some solid writing, editing and research skills) to develop and deliver quality and timely news reports. And sometimes, these citizen reporters actually “scoop” the corporate news organizations, or find the errors and mistakes that “mainstream” news organizations sometimes make in their rush to break a big story. After a 2004 report by CBS about President Bush’s Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard, blogger’s immediately questioned the authenticity of the documents used in the exposé. CBS was forced to admit that the documents could not be authenticated, which lead to the ousting of veteran reporter Dan Rather, lead anchor for the story.

Mainstream news outlets where also trumped by citizen reporters living in the Gaza Strip who were able to send out reports through phone video clips and text messages during the January 2008 Israeli incursion, and more recently by young Iranian activists tweeting, emailing and YouTubing news and pictures from and about the  protests after the 2009 Iranian elections. All over the world, people have begun to use the power of technology to test, prod, and tweak the conventional corporate media outlets—much of it to good effect.

When citizens participate in the newsgathering and reporting process, they become increasingly invested in and knowledgeable about the issues that matter the most to them. They also often gain the trust of their audiences fairly quickly and keep that trust if their reports are well-sourced and researched because their readers know the reporters have no corporate “big media” bias influencing their stories (and where there is bias, there is little or no effort to hide it—which most readers appreciate since they are not left to guess where, or if, there is bias and can therefore judge the integrity of the story armed with the “truth” of said bias). And because citizen reporters are often covering the same stories as the mainstream media, corporate news outlets are forced to be more careful, innovative and diversified in their news coverage.

Despite, however, the reader’s willingness to accept some bias in a story, there is still no room in their minds for sloppily sourced and poorly researched reporting. It is therefore essential that the new citizen reporter learn some basic skills of the craft that will enable them to produce interesting, informative and readable news. In the following chapters, we will cover the essential writing tools needed to produce a good story. We will also review style, grammar, usage, and the importance of accuracy; the “how to’s” of features, profiles, reviews and editorials; and the basics of online editing. Finally, we will look at legal considerations and ethical concerns important to the field of journalism.