Friday 22 August 2008

Georgia and Citizen War Reporting

I wrote this for my Reuters AlertNet blog on 22 August 2008.


Evgeny Morozov has a great piece over at openDemocracy dealing with citizen journalism in the Georgia-Russia conflict. It confirms my opinion of citizen journalism -- which in short tends to be the same as my opinion of citizen dentistry. Some things should be done by professionals.

A sample from Morozov's article, "Citizen war-reporter? The Caucasus test":
[The conflict] was a perfect opportunity for citizen reporters to fill in the gaps [of official claims and counter-claims by belligerent parties]. The fact that they didn't in the first days of this quick war may reveal that - in war reporting at least - the great promise of citizen journalism is often an empty one.
He goes on to say that there has been plenty of blogging about the war, but it was mostly propaganda shouting and hardly much in the way of fact-based reporting. (journalist Goga Aptsiauri's blog from Gori is an exception)

Then Morozov notes the great problem citizen journalism has achieving credibility and authority. Just who are these people I've never heard of, and how can I trust what they are saying?

I recall the same issues surrounding online journalism years ago and, as the editor of a new online magazine with a serious focus on news and politics, explaining the difficulties of building a trusted media brand from scratch. What I wrote then, I think more or less applies today to serious news, especially war reporting:
...people looking for high-quality information are not seeking "interactivity", such as chat or other forms of escapist entertainment; they are looking for authority. They want someone who knows what she's talking about to explain matters clearly.

Internet journalism, television journalism and traditional print journalism are all exactly the same in this regard: the info-consumer demands credibility, that is authority, when important issues are at stake.

...nothing becomes real, that is, nothing becomes widely accepted as fact by the majority of people, until a trusted media name takes on the story.
(I notice I also wrote in that September 2000 article, "it's been more than a decade: time now to free ourselves of our Cold War thinking", which is sadly ironic given what we're witnessing these days...)

Moving back to Morozov, he really gets to the heart of the current problem: the reason big media companies are turning to "citizen journalism" is not due to some deep belief in democratic information sharing. It's about saving some dosh, because journalists --ie, the talent -- cost money. But cutting foreign news staff means you don't get the story when something big breaks overseas. And trying to replace professional reporters hardened by conflict experience with wannabe heroes with a website will only bring more casualties than scoops.

Finally, Morozov ends with an even greater warning:
The implication is serious for the future of democracy as well as for the future of media. The more citizen journalists are expected to fill the enormous gaps left by the establishment media as the latter struggle to redefine their business models (part of which means closing their foreign bureaus), the more the media play into the hands of leaders like Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev. They and those like them will always - as in South Ossetia - take advantage of media blackouts to create narratives favourable to their own political strategies. Citizen journalists are hardly appropriate sparring-partners for the Kremlin couple. But CNN and the BBC still are.
So, perhaps even worse than citizen dentistry?

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