Today I did a very bad thing. I knew it was bad but I did it anyway. Even as I picked up the scissors, there was a little voice in my head saying, “Don’t do it! You’ll be sorry!” But I did. I cut my own bangs.
I needed to cut them, I really did. They were hanging over the tops of my glasses, askew, a bit like our Christmas lights. Every time I do this, there is a fleeting moment of satisfaction immediately followed by regret. This time was no different. I look like an aging kewpie doll.
As I pondered my reflection in the mirror, my brain jumped to something Sweetie has often said. Sweetie, as you know, is not handy. Fortunately, he usually recognizes that things like plumbing or wiring are not to be played with. (It hasn’t always stopped him. But I divergate. ((that’s my new word for today… it means digress. I don’t know why we need another word for digress. But again, I …. )))
Back to Sweetie. He has often said when a tap is dripping or a toilet running that anytime someone needs a professional union representative, he’s your man. But if someone needs a plumber, call a plumber. We need to respect other people’s work and skills, says Sweetie. Respect their jurisdiction. Which means I should have had more respect for John, the man who cuts my hair.
Incidentally, did you know that only North Americans call bangs, ‘bangs’? They’re called, ‘fringe’ in the rest of the world. Like the fringe of a shawl. And there are a dozen or so different (and documented!) styles of fringe. Who knew? But again, I divergate. Back to John.
John is a professional. He’s an older gentleman with curly grey hair who along with his wife has set up a small salon on the town’s main street. He’s been a stylist for almost 50 years. He used to be a stylist to the stars. From time to time, a star will still make the trip out to our town just to have John take care of the locks. That’s how much of a professional is John.
I know the next time I walk into John’s salon, he will take one look at me, tip his head to look over the tops of his glasses and down his long aristocratic nose and say with quiet disappointment, “Darling, you’ve been cutting your bangs again, haven’t you.” Not a question, a statement. And I will hang my head and confess, then throw myself and my wonky bangs on his professional mercy to correct the wrong I, the amateur, have committed.
This got me to thinking about professionals and amateurs. I’m a journalist. A professional. I learned my craft, abide by a code of ethics and adhere to my employer’s standard of practice. Professionals develop expertise in different subject matter and networks of contacts. They build relationships that give them access to content not normally available to the public.
Technology clearly has changed the way journalism is practiced today. When I began in a radio newsroom, we got our news from teletypes, wrote on typewriters and went to the library for our research where we scoured through newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and various public and scholarly publications. I clearly recall the introduction of computers and the impact of Google on research. That’s how old I am.
With the advent of the internet, many people now have the ability to write for an audience. It’s never been as easy to consume and create content. (Like this blog, for instance.) That’s a wonderful thing. Except when it pretends to be journalism.
A journalist as defined by Random House Dictionary (2010) is:
This dictionary definition highlights the problem. There are professional journalist. And there are amateurs who keep journals, diaries or write about stuff. so what exactly are ‘citizen journalists’?
I found this in Wikipedia (a type of citizen journalism in itself):
Citizen journalism (also known as “public”, “participatory”, “democratic”, “guerrilla” or “street journalism”) is the concept of members of the public “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information,” according to the seminal 2003 report We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information. Authors Bowman and Willis say: “The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires.”
And that would be fine if all the content provided to media organizations, and in particular their news departments, by citizen journalists was indeed reliable, accurate and relevant. But it’s not. So how do news outlets distinguish for their audiences what’s professional and what’s amateur? And what’s the impact of providing amateur journalism through a professional outlet? Will the consumers of amateur journalism make the distinction or will the amateur content be treated in the much the same way as the professional content? If I’ve made a decision to get my news and commentary from an organization that I believe to be fair, accurate, responsible, credible and trustworthy, what am I to make of the amateur content? Surely that trusted organization wouldn’t publish or broadcast anything that didn’t meet the standards that have already been set. Or would they? (I’ll save the impact of Wikileaks for another day.)
This is a hot debate in the world of journalism and evolving daily. Especially when many news organizations are in financial trouble and owners are seeking ways to do more with less. (words I have come to hate.) As an active member of a union which represents journalists, I worry about the loss of professional jobs and the impact on those who remain. And I worry about the impact on the profession itself.
So is there a place for amateur, citizen journalists in the professional world of journalism? You might be expecting me to say no after what I’ve just written but in fact, I say yes. Because there isn’t really a choice. And with conditions.
- that citizen journalism is clearly identified as such
- that the audience be informed of whatever efforts have been made by the professional organization to ensure accuracy
- that the professional organization provide additional information or points of view if such is lacking from the work of the citizen journalist
- and that the professional organization respect and recognize the professional journalist for making the organization what it is
In other words, citizen journalism needs to be clearly framed as such. It isn’t going away. Nor should it. It’s good to have the public engaged in the output of the media. Keeps us on our toes. Challenges us to be the professionals we say we are.
In the meantime, I can’t help but use this quote of H. L. Mencken when I think of the citizen journalist:
I well recall my horror when I heard for the first time, of a journalist who had laid in a pair of what were then called bicycle pants and taken to golf; it was as if I had encountered a stud horse with his hair done up in frizzes, and pink bowknots peeking out of them. It seemed, in some vague way, ignominious, and even a bit indelicate.
For citizen journalists to be truly credible, they need to get their hair out of frizzes and pink bowknots. And stop cutting their own bangs.
Otherwise, we potentially face a frightening world of media as envisioned in this imaginary history of media (retrieved from www.youtube.com, one of the primary vehicles for citizen journalists – you need to watch this):
I’m convinced there is another way. There must be.
- The bittersweet career of Mayhill Fowler (cbc.ca)
- WikiLeaks, Influence, and The Age of Honesty (ogilvypr.com)