Monday, December 01, 2008

Is Citizen journalism any stronger when it confronts power?

The question that is not answered in Jeff Jarvis's paean to the eyes and ears and writing and photographing skills of the citizen journalist is how can its rapidly increasing members hold power to account in ways that we as consumers of news and information will trust?

The former editor of the New Statesman wrote this on Saturday:
British journalism is dangerously weak. It veers between hysteria (the "I'm so angry because" school of commentary) and stenography. What is the point of the media if it does not see its primary task as gathering information to hold power to account? Investigative journalism takes time and money. One can count on the fingers of perhaps two hands the serious practitioners, many of whom rely on whistleblowers.

And this:
A few years back, when I was a full-time political journalist, I had a chat with a colleague who had just become a government information officer. It was one of those periods when Fleet Street was taking pot shots at Tony Blair, and I asked my friend how it felt to be embattled. He laughed, saying he had been shocked to find out how little reporters - let alone the public - knew what was going on in Whitehall. "I reckon on any given day you'll be lucky to find out 1%."

John Kampfner's piece reminded me of an extract in Lance Price's The Spin Doctor diaries.

In April 2001 making his chauffer-driven way back from election planning at Chequers (the British Prime Minister’s country residence) the BBC journalist turned New Labour press officer Lance Price had an experience he subsequently revealed in 2005. The experience, despite changes in fashion over the past seven years, sums up our contemporary approach to political news rather well. It also helps to define another part of the swampy news landscape that we now journey across.

“On the way back in the car to Downing Street Sally [Morgan], Pat [McFadden] and I have to listen to Five Live on medium wave, because the radio in the fancy Lexus Philip [Gould, Labour’s pollster] had laid on for us would pick up any FM station over 90.0 because apparently they don’t exist in Japan! So the driver said, anyway. They were running a thirty-minute discussion on our choice of ‘Lifted’ by the Lighthouse Family as our campaign song. The guests on Five Live, all music-industry insiders, were dismissive, saying it was safe and bland, etc. They had a Labour MSP [Member of the Scottish Parliament] on, Frank McSomething-or-other who has a collection of CDs running into thousands, who agreed, and said that ‘those people down at Millbank’ [headquarters of the Labour party] probably thought it was good music. We had a laugh about it and agreed that if ‘Lifted’ was a drink it would be Jacob’s Creek; if it was an item of clothing it would be Gap chinos; if it was a car it would be a Ford Mondeo; and if it was a politician it would be Tony Blair. ”

Today Mr. Price would undoubtedly be chauffer-driven from Chequers in a Lexus hybrid car (or be cycling a discrete fifty metres in front of it), and if he wasn’t listening via digital radio to a Radio Four analysis of the curious music Playlists on Gordon Brown’s new IPod, he would be reading something unpleasant on Guido Fawkes’ politics blog via his IPhone (ok, his Blackberry). The surface consumer detail is unimportant (though not to the sea of interpreter journalists, the commentator, columnist and sketch writer): the larger point, that all news, however it is constituted and then distributed (other than the football scores) is now apparently beyond objectivity: everything from a political speech, through the theme song used by a political party in an electoral campaign, to a Hurricane in New Orleans and the state of Al Quada in Afghanistan, is reducible to mass “discussion” and “analysis” thus interpretation - be it by Price’s “music-industry insiders”, or, as happens more frequently, by phone-in pundits, or media-trained polemicists and the guinea-fowl of malleable focus-group organizers.

Of course this process is most marked online, where the news and the comment is fodder for us - the commentators, the “Fisking” bloggers, the simple factual correctors, the Googling Aggregators, and the very, very angry.

In this information sea how does the Twitter news, and citizen journalism (based on empirical eye-witness evidence, or just made up), create some kind of epistemological foundation? Is it, in fact, by being linked to, or published by, other kinds of non-citizen-based journalism? And if so, what kinds of journalism? And can citizen journalism hold power to account any better than Kampfner's view? Will Twitter out-fox the heirs of Lance Price?

No comments: