Jeff Jarvis had an interesting post the other day in which he grappled for an appropriate term for what he alternately calls citizen journalism, citizen media, networked journalism, and distributed journalism (me, I like citizen muckraking and distributed reporting, but what do I know?). Jarvis writes,
In networked journalism, the public can get involved in a story before it is reported, contributing facts, questions, and suggestions. The journalists can rely on the public to help report the story; we’ll see more and more of that, I trust. The journalists can and should link to other work on the same story, to source material, and perhaps blog posts from the sources (see: Mark Cuban). After the story is published — online, in print, wherever — the public can continue to contribute corrections, questions, facts, and perspective … not to mention promotion via links. I hope this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as journalists realize that they are less the manufacturers of news than the moderators of conversations that get to the news.
By and large, I think he’s right, and that this is the direction that general newsgathering will go. In some ways it’s win-win. I may crudely or inaccurately state it here, but I get the feeling that a lot of the “amateurs” (and I don’t mean the term to be derisive at all–amateurs are people who do something out of love or passion rather than for a paycheck) are writing, in part, out of an instinctual sense that reporters aren’t getting the whole story. Reporters, by contrast, devote a considerable amount of their time looking for people who actually know what they’re talkind about. Having those folks bubbling up to the surface–being little more than a Google search away–is a heck of a lot easier than, say, calling people randomly in Kendall County hoping you’ll find someone who knows something about the Prairie Parkway. Having easier access to more people with more insights makes for better stories.
The one concern I have, and the one thing I wish Jeff would address, is exactly how networked investigative journalism would work. I raise this because we do live in a fairly litigious society–even when your facts are all accurate, you can get a fairly nasty letter (or email) from a lawyer.
A lot of times, when I’m at the beginning of what I think might be a story, I have a healthy amount of suspicion occasioned by one or two facts, a document, and a bucketful of questions, and not a whole heck of a lot else. How does one get the public involved in a story before it’s published if, potentially, the information you’re trying to confirm or elaborate on is defamatory if wrong? And, remember that even a question can be defamatory (the old, “Do you deny that you beat your wife?” saw comes to mind). Do you want to try to engage the public’s help to show that XYZ Corp. is another Enron, only to find out two months later–after your suspicions and those of others have been amplified by the blogosphere–that its finances were sound all along?
I don’t mean to sound a pessimistic note–I tend to think that there is a real potential for investigative journalism to benefit the most from networked, distributed or citizen media, whatever you prefer to call it. But I also spent my afternoon trying to nail down some information on some real estate deals that look a little unusual to me, slogging through records stored on a balky computer. At this point I don’t know whether I’ve got something or not, but if it turns out that I’m totally on the wrong track (always a possibility), I’d hate to have a trail of published posts that already aired what might very well prove to be my unfounded suspicions.
(Note: for the sake of clarity, I edited this a bit after it was posted and also fixed one of the links)