Bloggers vs. Journos — is that debate not dead yet?

A post by Lauren O’Neil on the Toronto Star Interns blog got me thinking.

She writes about the seeing the destruction of the G20 occurring on telelvision and, thinking this was her big break, she went running to Queen St., camera in hand. Only to find throngs of “regular” people doing the same:

Hustling my way over to the Queen and Spadina, I couldn’t help but imagine myself scoring some outstanding protest footage. What a treat, my first summer as a working journalist in the big city and all hell breaks loose! I was psyched thinking that just maybe, if I got there early enough and played my cards right, I’d be able to blend right in with the crowd and get some wild exclusive videos.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with this thought.

I could go on for hours about the throngs of digi-cam wielding soccer dads and iPhone photographer hipsters flooding the city’s core, but I’ll let my video footage speak for itself.

Notice, if you will, that the number of gawkers (myself being one of them) outnumber the actual protesters and rabble-rousing “anarchists” by at least 8 to 1, on average.

Then she gets to the heart of her post: Citizen journo vs. “real” journo. And why the citizen will never truly measure up:

Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that while, yes, anybody can go through the motions of reporting, not everybody can be a reporter.

Your chiropractor’s secretary can tweet photos from the scene of a crime with her Blackberry along with hundreds of other bystanders. She can even take some fabulous high-quality photos with her brand new Canon Digital Rebel T1i. But she doesn’t have the years of experience, training and raw talent that someone who does this for a living does.

Likewise, anybody can express their opinions in a letter to the editor, on a blog, a tweet or a good ol’ fashioned handmade zine. It may be well articulated, but it’s still rare to find a citizen-journo with as much impact behind their words as a an experienced veteran journalist.

No amount of fancy equipment or technical prowess can replace a well trained reporter who understands the importance of truth, fairness, accuracy, balance and all of those other things they teach us to value both in j-school and in the newsroom.

O’Neil has taken a lot of heat for her comments on Twitter (and in the first comment on the blog post), but she’s spot on as far as I am concerned (what’s funny about the negativity surrounding this piece is that O’Neil was a blogger long before she was a journalist at the Star — so then which came first, the chicken or the egg?).

One Twitter user even went as far to say she was just towing the line of Toronto Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke based on his recent comments about bloggers vs. journalists at the latest CJF awards gala (@matttbastard mistakenly ID’ed Star publisher John Cruickshank as the one who made the remarks).

And while I may not totally agree with Cooke, I am sick of this debate of bloggers vs. journalists or citizen journalists vs journalists.

I’d like to know in what other career people would consider themselves “citizen” versions of? Because I can’t think of any. The example I throw back to when it comes to this debate is: Should I call myself a doctor because I know first aid? No.

So why should someone consider themselves a journalist because they blog?

Journalism, like being a doctor or a teacher or a pilot, is a career path. It takes training and experience — it’s not some guy on his computer, or someone taking photos on Queen St. as stores are trashed.

Journalism is about much more than the breaking news that ordinary people can capture nowadays. And not everyone can do it.

As O’Neil says, what really separates journalism from the blogging pack is the analysis, the objectivity and the resources. It’s too soon to tell how powerful citizen journalists may become as everyone becomes an eyewitness to events.

And yes, the gathering and delivery of the news may have to change in order to adapt to this, but there is still a place for “real” journalism — and it is different from the citizen journalism that also exists.

(FYI I am not labelling all blogs/websites as non-journalism — look at Torontoist, blogTO and OpenFile as examples of blogs which are news outlets much as the Toronto Star, National Post or Globe and Mail are).

This whole discussion makes me wonder why everyone thinks they can be a journalist but no one hijacks another profession. Does the public really think that little of us that they think a monkey can do our job?

If only our job was as simple as the outside world thinks it is. There’s much more to putting words on a page than you imagine.

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  • http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/juniorhockey/blog/buzzi Neate Sager

    It’s a self-justifying debate on each side. The journalist is trying to justify “why I get paid and you don’t.” The outsider is trying to say, “I could do your job just as well, it doesn’t look that hard.”

    The citizen doctor argument is a load of dung. Journalism and communications is not medical science.Half the people in Canadian newsrooms, once you tally up all the people working everywhere (dinky radio stations, PAs at cable channels) don’t even have a university degree.

    A doctor goes to school for 10 years to do something often highly specialized. The journalist does something generalized.

    On the other side, people are just showing their ignorance. Journalism, outside of police work and education, is probably one of the most misunderstood professions.

    • http://www.sarahmillar.com Sarah Millar

      I couldn’t think of another profession where someone could possibly argue the same thing, that’s all. There’s no doubt in my mind journalism and medicine are two very different professions.

      And sure, you can argue that the majority of all the journalists working at every possible outlet in the country don’t have a university degree, but I would disagree (I faced a lot of trouble trying to get a job without one, despite having experience in the industry, it was one of the reasons I went back to school).

  • http://www.laurenoutloud.com Lauren

    Fantastic post, Sarah! Thanks for backing me up on this :)

    “I’d like to know in what other career people would consider themselves “citizen” versions of? Because I can’t think of any. The example I throw back to when it comes to this debate is: Should I call myself a doctor because I know first aid? No.

    So why should someone consider themselves a journalist because they blog?

    Journalism, like being a doctor or a teacher or a pilot, is a career path. It takes training and experience — it’s not some guy on his computer, or someone taking photos on Queen St. as stores are trashed.

    Journalism is about much more than the breaking news that ordinary people can capture nowadays. And not everyone can do it.”

    So well put. I love the doctor analogy. Imagine if, for some reason, people were lying all over the streets with abrasions that warranted serious medical attention.

    A lot of us know how to stitch, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone comfortable letting a retail sales associate or welder (or journalist, for that matter) sew them up.

    And if all of these “citizen doctors” are filling the streets, even if only with the best of intentions, it makes it harder for the actual MDs to do their jobs.

    I’m all for people reporting in any way they can – I’m an avid Tweeter myself and actually did most of my live reporting through Twitpics on the Saturday in question.

    But I am well aware that by doing so, I’m being a gawker just as much as the next guy.

    I understand that what I’m doing may be a type of information sharing (an excellent type of reporting that more newsrooms are adopting all the time – and should be!) but it’s not necessarily journalism.

    I feel like an elitist saying this, because it’s true – anybody CAN play journalist – but not everybody has the proper training to do it well.

    Anybody can pick up a needle and stitch up their fallen comrade, but the veteran surgeon is going to leave the cleanest scar.

    In my opinion, there’s room for everybody in the world of news – the more the merrier. What inspired me to write that post was the “omg that’s old news” backlash I got after writing this story -> http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/torontog20summit/article/833495–g20-fence-costs-9-4m-nearly-double-original-estimate

    Yeah, the G20 is old news in terms of spectacle, but there’s often more to a story than what was smashed and who was behaving badly.

    That’s the point that I was trying to make in said blog post.

    Maybe I AM just some fresh-out-of-j-school intern girl with a romanticized notion of what good journalism is and should be – but if us cub reporters aren’t optimistic about the profession, who will be?

    PS – I do still consider myself a blogger more so than a traditional journalist by leaps and bounds. I embrace the online space in a very big way. I just happen to embrace like, journalism too.

  • http://www.zalinaalvi.com Zalina

    I agree for the most part, but I’m not sure the doctor metaphor holds up all that well. To become a doctor, you’re required to attend medical school, but there are lots of great journalists who never went to j-school. That doesn’t demean the profession, but I think it blurs the line between a blogger/citizen/amateur journalist and a real/professional/trained journalist, no? If you learn journalism on the job, at what point are you still an amateur and and at what point do you graduate to a real journalist? I still don’t know if I count as a “real” journalist, and even if I did, I’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint when I stopped being an amateur. What if you went to j-school, but you can’t find a job reporting so you keep a blog and you joined the throngs of people reporting on the G20? Are you a blogger or a journalist? I haven’t debated this issue much, so these questions may seem redundant, btw. :)

    • http://www.sarahmillar.com Sarah Millar

      I realize the doctor metaphor was stretching a bit, but I was trying to make a point that journalism, as a profession, is the only career people seem to hijack and decide they can do it, too.

      No, you don’t have to go to j-school to be a journalist, just like you don’t need a communications degree to have a career in public relations.

      I realize journalism is not like medicine, or at least our western idea of it, but there is still some sort of training involved — even if it is on the job. Would you consider yourself an amateur journalist without the experience you have in the student press? Would you be working in the industry at all? I don’t have a problem with people considering themselves “amateur” journalists as you do, in fact I support that!

  • W3

    Bloggers and journalists are two professions, but they are also both professions that are easily dabbled in. I know a great many accountants who have a freelanced an article here or there, and I know a great many highly-paid bloggers who do nothing else.

    That they are two fields that often intersect is a separate debate. There are shitty, poorly read, and underpaid journalists just as there are bloggers who are read by themselves alone. Neither impacts the other’s work and the debate over “citizen journalists” or “journalist bloggers” is a red herring. There are journalist doctors and blogger accountants, too. But we would never call someone a “citizen financial advisor” because they offer financial advice through a blogspot site.

    Instead what we need to realize is that twitter and blogs add value to live-on-the-streets reporting like G20 riots. They do very little, however, to add value to reporting that requires access: celebrities, political interviews, press conferences, archival research, and in-depth analysis. When it comes to highly-secure watergate-style stories (or even an interview with Nicholas Cage about what a disaster The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is), the average tweeter or blogger falls completely flat. They don’t have access. Journalists do.

    Tweeter, bloggers and amateur photographers add value by providing additional context on the street. Just as an accounting student with a personal blog can add value to a citizen setting up their personal budget. It does not make them professional journalists or financial advisors. It makes them useful. But their usefulness is limited. End of story.

  • Nic Wirtz

    I’m not sure this piece adds anything to the blog v journalist debate. In a few years time, when smart phones are more common, the competition will be worse.
    The fact that Lauren missed her chance on the big exposé as an intern (note lacking in experience herself) appears to be the crux of her complaint.

    I disagree entirely with Sarah’s assessment of what sets journalists apart from bloggers because it’s an idealised version of what a journalist should be, not is.
    For one journalists should not be doing analysis, the move to try and instantly analyse every single thing going is grating. Leave that to historians who are better placed to do that.
    Secondly, journalists are not as objective as they should be – we live in a world of MSNBC v Fox, hardly a bastion of objectivity. The lamentable sacking of Octavia Nasr is another example of alleged objectivity (although she shouldn’t have been sacked, that’s another story).

    As for resources – medium, internet connection, laptop, smart phone/camera, that’s all a journalist has ever needed. Blogs have liberated the news cycle. The alternate side to W3’s claim is that any Tweeter/blogger/photographer can now break a story. Before they were relegated to being witnesses.

    Technology has impinged on many other professions, photography being an obvious example. Somebody good at Photoshop can beat a good photographer. So your claim that no other profession is being hijacked appears to be an over-generalisation.

    Bloggers and Journalists are all part of the news cycle. Could bloggers learn things from journalists? Of course, if they want to be respected as a group, perhaps more professionalism, fact checking etc could be incorporated. On the other hand, journalists need to be more tech-minded, engage more online, learn disciplines other than writing.

    Perhaps one day Lauren will be a news editor, desperate for footage of an incident that only a mere amateur has. An Us v Them argument has no place in journalism and informing the public, we get information from wherever we can. I hope said amateur refers you to your blog post when you ask for the footage.

    Journalism has always been competitive, now it’s just more competitive, deal with it.

  • http://www.healthshocks.com Alex Posadzki

    “This whole discussion makes me wonder why everyone thinks they can be a journalist but no one hijacks another profession. Does the public really think that little of us that they think a monkey can do our job?

    If only our job was as simple as the outside world thinks it is. There’s much more to putting words on a page than you imagine.”

    Very nicely put. I actually disagree with a couple of things Lauren noted in her blog, but ever since I’ve gotten serious about journalism, I have been completely shocked (and worried!) about how badly people misunderstand this profession.

    It really pisses me off how people are so concerned with “de-bunking” what they label collectively as “the media,” assuming that everyone who works as a journalist is part of a single entity with a single set of motives, rather than paying more attention to the issues being reported.

    We may not be perfect, but this job is MUCH harder to do than most people can even fathom.

    • http://www.sarahmillar.com Sarah Millar

      Alex, you open a whole different can of worms there.

      “It really pisses me off how people are so concerned with “de-bunking” what they label collectively as “the media,” assuming that everyone who works as a journalist is part of a single entity with a single set of motives, rather than paying more attention to the issues being reported.”

      Do you mean like if you work at the Star, everyone considers you a Liberal? Or if you work for the Post, you must be a card-carrying Conservative? Because that is my biggest pet peeve about the public’s idea of our industry.

      When I was at the Post, and people learned where I worked, I got an eyeroll followed by a nasty comment. The one I’ll never forget is this woman I met, who worked at the Calgary Herald but had been laid off due to centralization. She found out I worked for the Post — AKA (then) Canwest — and her eyes darkened.

      “Oh. It’s because your company I lost my job.”

      Yes, because I own it and make that decision.

      Same came with readers, too. If I worked for the Post, that must mean I’m a Conservative who’s against gay marriage and abortion and all that. A paper’s editorial stance is not necessarily the same as the journalists it hires.

      But that’s another blog post for another day, I guess.