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Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Washington Post Caricatures Citizen Journalism, Profiles Your Mom For Iowa Teens

The Washington Post has discovered citizen journalism - members of a community taking to the Internet to report on their community, often without benefit of professional journalism experience and also without the institutional biases of the media - and provides readers of its Sunday edition with a lengthy look at several examples of the accelerating trend.

But it's a bit difficult to see that the Post is actually taking citizen journalism seriously because the bulk of the piece looks at Your Mom, published for local teens by the Quad Cities Times in Davenport, Iowa.

It almost appears citizen journalism is significant for the Post because it may represent a threat to traditional journalism. Consider these graphs from the top of the Post story:

"The explosion of the Internet over the past decade has allowed anyone with an Internet connection to instantaneously publish whatever he or she wants, fueling the growth of "citizen reporters." Over the past year or so, media companies have been backing citizen journalism efforts like Your Mom in various shapes and sizes across the country.
"They are creating what some believe to be a more democratic press, but throwing into question what it means to be a journalist and adding a new dimension to debates over fairness, libel, protection of confidential sources and trust in the media.
"On one end of the spectrum is Falls Church-based Backfence.com, a venture run by local residents with no editorial guidance from the site's owners that is evolving into a sort of virtual town square. Its hyper-local coverage is available so far in McLean and Reston.
"On the other end, there's New West (
http://www.newwest.net/ ), a Web site that specializes in politics and development issues in the Rocky Mountain region. Its goal is to break news in competition with mainstream media, and it contains a mix of content written by experienced journalists and amateurs."

Backfence and New West are serious attempts to bring genuine citizen journalism to bear on wide sprectrums of issues, concerns and activities in a bunch of places. That is a threat to traditional journalism. So why spend so much time on Your Mom,which is focused on topics of interest only to (some) adolescents:

"While Your Mom runs some teen-oriented stories from the local paper and national news services, stories by the teenagers are the heart of the publication. About half come in unsolicited, i.e., "I saw this thing on TV and felt inspired to write about it." The rest are assigned by Hillary Rhodes, the publication's 25-year-old editor, based on biweekly brainstorming sessions she has with the teens.
"They might pop in at a student or city council meeting, but only if they feel like it. Most of the articles are takes on subjects such as Christianity ("undercover" reports about local youth groups from the perspectives of someone who is religious and someone who is not), drugs (how they actually make you feel in addition to how bad they are for you) and body image (an opinion piece by some guys about how fat girls are unattractive)."


Yes, it's great that teens are discovering journalism in some fashion, but why would the Post editors choose to emphasize this small aspect of an emerging trend in the nation's public policy communications system, rather than the far more numerous citizen journalism projects in which professional journalists, technology geeks, ordinary citizens from all walks of life and generally representing all points on the ideological and political spectrums, bloggers, community activists of every hue and others come together in a sort of cypher town hall to discuss the issues of the day and anything else on their mind? Especially when one of those is right in the Post's backyard, the Backfence.com project in Reston and McLean, VA.?

Post reporter Airana Eunjung Cha does note the influence in South Korean politics of the prototypical citizen journalism project, Oh My News, acknowledges that bloggers had an impact on the 2004 national political conventions, gives passing mention of the London tube terror attack photography by non-journalists carrying camera-phones and even manages to quote Jan Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland. There's also a quote from New West's Jonathan Weber.

But Your Mom gets the bulk of the coverage and it concludes with this inspiring illustration of the apparent success metric that obtains among Quad Cities citizen journalism:

"Michael Phelps, the Quad-City Times publisher, said Your Mom's unpredictable nature is what makes it appealing. 'I never know what I'm going to find on the site.' Without the controversy, he said, Your Mom would not be as successful: 'I know if I'm not getting any complaints from parents we're not doing things right.'"

Believe me, there is so much more of substance and value about citizen journalism the Post could and should report than how it is being used by some in the MSM to relive the 1960s. A good place to start would be Dan Gillmor's "We the Media" and Hugh Hewitt's "Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation that is Changing Your World."