Part 2: Journalists aren’t the only ones invested in providing trusted civic information
Museums, universities and ordinary citizens are all potential sources to look to as newsrooms shrink.
This piece was published on March 11, 2017 in the Toronto Star.
“The plain truth is this: without journalists, there is no news.”
True or false?
For generations, “news” has been something delivered by “journalists” — people working for organizations whose role was to decide what should be reported and how. The “audience” received the information.
But the digital news space is a crazy and chaotic place. It’s home not only to professionally produced and edited reporting but also to solid material from non-journalists, well-intended but misleading information, unprocessed data, unsubstantiated opinion, marketing spin and deliberately fake news.
The digital revolution makes us all reporters of a kind, chroniclers of small moments and big events, whether we’re capturing a slice of city life on Instagram or live streaming a protest on our Facebook account.
Does that make us journalists? Are we producing news?
Defining what we mean by these terms is more than a pedantic exercise. As the number of professional journalists declines in Canada, as some news outlets shut their doors and the flow of solid, fact-checked, explanatory information about our society and governments diminishes, we find ourselves relying more on the output of other organizations and individuals for whom reporting is not a main function but a sideline. And that leads to questions like: Who do they represent? What standards do they follow? How much can I trust them? Are they providing the information I need, or the information they want me to have?
The opening quote in this story is from Julia Cagé, a French economist, in her book Saving the Media: Capitalism, Crowdfunding, and Democracy. She believes the primary purpose of news companies is “the free, unbiased, high-quality information that is indispensable to democratic debate,” and like many other people she’s trying to find new models to replace the falling revenues that have affected the news media throughout the world.
Her aim is to protect professional journalism. There is much reporting that can be done only by trained, experienced journalists working for news organizations that give them the security, time and resources to cover a topic day in and day out, or probe deeply into an issue, without fear of the consequences.
But whatever the business models of the future look like, journalists will continue to work within an information ecosystem where non-journalists’ reports and images are prevalent — and needed. Where in the community will we find or create these other sources of reliable civic information?
That isn’t a joke. Consider a display on the anti-gay bullying of a teenager, part of a permanent exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. It outlines a real Supreme Court case, giving different perspectives on the issue and pausing occasionally to ask visitors their take on the questions before the court. At the end, visitors find out how their responses compare to those of others viewing the material — and to the court’s decision in the case.
When Ryerson University journalism professor (and now associate dean of faculty and student affairs) Ivor Shapiro saw the exhibit, he came away thinking it could be seen as a form of alternative journalism.
Shapiro has given a lot of thought to how to define journalism in a way that fits today’s world, where the boundaries between professionals and the audience have blurred. “A clear definition of journalism will help us open up our eyes to journalism that isn’t provided by news organizations,” he said in an interview in November.
“The digital revolution makes us all reporters of a kind, chroniclers of small moments and big events, whether we’re capturing a slice of city life on Instagram or live streaming a protest on our Facebook account.”
His proposal focuses on “what constitutes journalistic activity, rather than who is a journalist,” and he breaks it down into five elements.
Other academics have studied definitions over the years and come up with some common characteristics, he noted in “Why democracies need a functional definition of journalism now more than ever,” published in Journalism Studies in 2014.
Gathering and disseminating news is one, of course, though “news” itself is difficult to define. (“News is something someone somewhere doesn’t want printed. Everything else is advertising,” is the famous quote from British newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe in the early 20th century, still heard today.) Among other characteristics: independence. Accuracy and verification. Objectivity. Public service. Writing in a plain or narrative style.
Shapiro condenses the academic thinking into these elements:
- Subject matter: Journalistic activity focuses on current or recent events, “although exemplary models of journalism include attempts to contextualize, analyze, and interpret events rather than merely conveying the latest emerging facts.” Journalism, he says, “is not history.”
- Audience: It is aimed at a broader public. “The word journalism is not used for insider-to-insider communication within organizations and closed communities; rather, journalism seeks, by definition, to broaden the boundaries within which information is known and understood.”
- Accuracy: “Journalism always involves some attempt at ensuring that factual statements are accurate.” Shapiro does note that the achievement of accuracy is a matter of evaluation.
- Independence: There is no direct benefit to publishing the material — no financial or other gain from a particular piece of reporting. (Earning revenues and an audience from publication is not considered a direct benefit.)
- Original creation: Journalism is “not merely copying, republishing, or referencing existing works.”
“By this definition, journalism is surprising,” Shapiro said — and could include a museum exhibit. “A lot of curation is actually journalism.”
Jodi Giesbrecht, manager of research and curation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, where Shapiro saw the exhibit on bullying, sees the parallels.
“We’re keenly aware that we’re not necessarily a news source,” she said, but the museum includes a number of timely exhibits, and uses digital technology that enables constant updating if necessary. For example, new material was quickly added to an exhibit on Indian residential schools after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report in June 2015.
The museum reviews its research, as a Crown corporation it’s independent, and some of its material is original — including its oral-history collection. And it is aimed at a broad audience it wants to engage in timely issues.
“Our mandate is to inspire reflection and dialogue on human rights,” Giesbrecht said in an interview. “That’s really the purpose of why we address different issues and tell different stories, to prompt that awareness, reflection and dialogue.
“What are those burning issues of the day, what are people talking about and how can we enhance that conversation or provide a bit of education function to the public?”
Aside from its obvious support of human rights, Giesbrecht said, the museum aims to present a range of views. The presentation on bullying was part of an exhibit looking at a series of court cases, from assisted dying to abortion. “And sometimes we’ll get the question of, ‘What is the museum’s position on some of those issues?’ And through the exhibits we don’t take a position or tell visitors what they should think.
“We often see ourselves as a platform for debate, for presenting different perspectives, competing perspectives at times, but we generally try to avoid advocating one way or another.”
So: only museum curation, or also a form of journalism?
Can university profs be journalists?
Research carried out in universities — like museums, a community institution — meet many of the criteria of journalistic activity proposed by Shapiro.
It doesn’t always focus on current or recent events, but it can.
Accuracy and verification are a bedrock of scholarly research, often through the process of “peer review” — scrutiny by others in the same field.
The work produced in universities is often independent. Some research is sponsored by industry or government, but researchers must make conflicts and sources of financing known.
And while research often builds on the work of others, it generally includes original thinking or new proofs.
What universities have not been known for is writing for the public. Their more natural audience is other academics, sometimes in very narrow slices of a specialty, and the resulting jargon and scholarly norms can make research almost indecipherable to a general readership — in fact, to anyone outside that particular field.
But there is an increasing emphasis on reaching a wider audience. Anyone applying for research money now to the body that oversees a large chunk of scholarly grants in Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), must include a plan to share the research beyond academia.
The idea is “to demonstrate the value and contribution of social sciences and humanities research to society,” SSHRC media relations adviser Julia Gualtieri explained in an email.
“This could be the general public, policy makers or practitioners in the field such as teachers or social workers. It depends on the particular focus of the research project. However, the audience is always intended to be a non-academic one.”
SSHRC asks grant recipients to consider different ways of reaching people, including social media, blogs, videos, and op-eds. It provides them with some training — for example, in writing opinion pieces for media outlets — and sponsors a Storytellers competition.
“We believe it is crucial for the next generation of researchers to hone their skills as communicators,” Gualtieri said.
What about your neighbour?
How journalistic are some of the contributions to the news ecosystem from citizens, as individuals or in interest groups?
This can be a real hit-and-miss source of information. One citizen may be a true expert on an issue, who writes clearly and fact-checks everything before posting it. Another may happily pass on information without knowing whether it’s reliable or not. How would we know?
Despite a continuing decline of faith in the media — only 45 per cent of Canadians in late 2016 said they trust the media as an institution, with 58 per cent saying they trust traditional media, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer — and despite the focus south of the border on “fake news,” professional news outlets generally follow standards of accountability. Depending on the organization, readers and viewers can request corrections, they can appeal to a public editor, they can take the organization to a press council, they can even take it to court. The understanding behind these measures is that the news outlets will be accurate and fair, and will be open to challenge if they are not.
Museums and universities aren’t news outlets but they too have regulations to uphold, and reputations and revenues to protect.
No such understanding exists with non-professionals. Many will hold themselves to high standards, but not everyone will; and some deliberately will not.
BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman has written extensively about the fake-news phenomenon and created a checklist to help people judge the reliability of what they’re reading. Among the common-sense tips: Is the author identified by name? Does the online site have an “About” page or say clearly who’s behind it? Is the headline backed up in the story? Have you found any other stories with the same information or claim? When you search for information about the site on Google, what do you find?
Given the ease with which someone can disseminate misinformation or unproven rumour, knowingly or not, can we increase the possibilities of creating reliable sites run by citizens?
To go back to Shapiro’s five elements of journalistic activity, citizens would likely be focused on current or recent events, and their information would be aimed at a public audience, though clear presentation would not be a given.
The larger difficulties may be in:
Conveying accurate and verified information: knowing where to go for information and how to check it.
Ensuring independence: establishing that no business or personal benefit arises from the information that’s reported and shared.
Offering original work: even more of a difficulty now that the Internet makes it so easy to reproduce and share words and images; it’s easy to blur the concept of originality and adaptation.
This checklist shows why, even after we all had the ability to publish our own words online, past efforts in “citizen journalism” usually focused on people in a community providing stories to the local news organization, which would pass the work through its own editors for verification, balance and writing standards.
But newsrooms no longer have the staff to devote to time-consuming edits of outside work.
And training non-journalists and managing partnerships is beyond the resources of many news organizations without outside funding, says Jan Schaffer, who has been involved in discussions of many experimental projects over the years as executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism.
She has found that projects involving citizens often simmer out. One big issue, she said in an email exchange, is that citizens don’t really want to do journalism. “Frankly, it’s too hard.”
The most promising efforts, she has found, are by journalists who have left news organizations and started investigative news sites; or by “civic catalysts” who run hyperlocal sites in their communities. “And increasingly mainstream and public media are partnering with these startups to amplify each other’s journalism,” she said.
What kind of partnerships might give each side something it needs? Interested citizens need some training and ongoing mentorship. Short-staffed newsrooms need to help inform their community without having to be directly responsible for the quality of information produced by others. Universities and other institutions need to reach the world outside their specialties. We all need more and better information about the places where we live and the people we live among.