Citizen journalism – just be nice

On Friday I caught the tail end of Dan Gillmor’s trip to South Africa at a Huddlemind-hosted lecture on citizen journalism. There has been much frothing at the mouth recently about the role new technologies play in how we communicate, and I was interested to hear what Dan would have to say.

With any Tom, Dick and Harry always armed with a video camera and access to the Internet, in the form of their mobile phones, we’ve recently seen some amazing first-hand footage of global events that would never have been so immediate in the past. However, at the same time the opportunity for mischief and manipulation grows simultaneously.

Dan’s take is that he “would rather have more content to choose from, than less in controlled hands.” But as we all know – too much of a good thing can sometimes be a curse rather than a blessing, and simply to aid the reader/viewer to sift through the masses of information consolidation is inevitable.

The good news, according to Dan, is that “the reader is in charge… and will vote with their brain, eyeballs, ears and mouse pointer.” This for me was the nub: with increased freedom comes increased responsibility and Dan set out some great pointers for both consumers and creators of media.

Newsmakers be warned
Firstly he gives newsmakers a word of warning: it is now, more so than ever before, difficult to keep secrets. This applies equally to governments, companies and individuals, in my opinion. Dan advises, “More transparency solves a lot of these things.”

Just say no to walled gardens
According to Dan, media creators (ie. the publishing houses, broadcasters and so on) need to change their role from all-knowing oracle, to collaborative guide. They shouldn’t pretend to know everything, and shouldn’t be scared to send readers away via useful external links if the information exists elsewhere. Dan maintains that this is the way to earn the reader’s trust and ultimately bring them back to the original content.

Along with disliking the walled garden approach, Dan also feels strongly that citizen journalists deserve credit and compensation for their work.

Basics for journalists
These don’t seem to have changed too much since my days at journalism school: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and independence. Dan adds in transparency – which I agree is hugely important for establishing and maintaining trust. I would hope that the citizen journalists who practise these traits, whether through intuition, integrity or formal training, will rise to the top.

New media literacy
My slightly rosy-tinted spectacled view above does hinge on the media consumer though, and their level of digital media literacy.

Dan highlights four great principles for active consumers:

  1. Be sceptical about EVERYTHING
  2. Use your judgement though – you don’t have to be equally sceptical about everything. You probably need to be more sceptical about a trashy tabloid than Time Magazine.
  3. Research – be an active consumer, ask questions. As consumers we can now engage with newsmakers and content creators in an unprecedented way.
  4. Finally two techniques to help you navigate the deluge of new media information. Move outside of your personal comfort zone and read things that “make you angry”. Also learn about digital media techniques – how information is captured and how it can be used to manipulate and persuade.

It was a fascinating lecture and great summary of where we are. Ultimately my take away though was that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I can imagine very similar conversations taking place when TV was introduced, for instance. Consider the nervous hypodermic models of mass culture, and how long the South African government took to allow TV into the country.

Yes we are living through one of the most radical changes to our channels of communication, but the same principles apply that have probably applied since the first cave drawing was done. What people like Dan Gillmor are doing though, is the all-important job of keeping these principles fresh, up-to-date and relevant.