This is very embarrassing. I'm about to write something of a defence of 'citizen journalism'.
It's embarrassing not least because 'citizen journalism' is a stupid coinage for a concept that has been kneaded and pummelled in so many directions that it is approximately meaningless. But it's even more embarrassing because I'm arguing against someone who is trying to champion a lost cause — what Chris Scanlon rails against will happen anyway; the cold water he attempts to pour upon it is like a raindrop falling upon the fourth ring of Hell.
But I'm an obstinate prick, and this is an opportunity to set out some ideas I hold dear. In today's Age, Scanlon has written an article called 'DIY journalism is not a real alternative'.
Like one who has learned his VCE English well, he begins with a dictionary definition:
"Citizen journalism" is a broad, loose term that encompasses everything from sending a photo or video to an established news organisation or posting comments on an online forum, to writing a blog or editing or writing for a collaborative online publishing venture.
This is not a bad definition — for a columnist in a wide-circulation newspaper. It's the very definition being promulgated by the press, because it works in their favour. Fairfax, in particular, has been big on the idea that if you send them your happy phone-snaps of the Burnley tunnel disaster, or the Moomba parade, or snowfalls in June, congratulations, you're a citizen journalist. Fairfax actually thinks its own blogs are citizen journalism too — the syrupy irony of chief Fairfax blogger James Farmer (who writes cute little rants against Connex) calling his blog 'Citizen' appears lost on them.
What this and most definitions of the concept egregiously labelled 'citizen journalism' get wrong is the emphasis: it's on the source. The source is important, and a journalist/columnist will always think it's pre-eminent, but there's actually a higher power when it comes to 21st century media in society: the consumer. Hang on, let's get another Scanlon quote, one that gets to the heart of his argument:
For example, when federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan needed to defend the Government's changes to the cross-media ownership laws, she reached for the hype surrounding citizen journalism. In a speech to the Millennium Forum in Sydney in October last year, Coonan claimed: "While traditional media are constantly on the lookout for new media to invest in — think Rupert Murdoch and MySpace or PBL in Australia with ninemsn and Channel Seven and Yahoo!'s recent partnering, the rise of citizen journalism is challenging even these evolved business models."
This is interesting, because we find ourselves wedged. Coonan is the strategist/figurehead in the war against traditional media diversity in Australia. Scanlon pits this putsch against Coonan's apparent advocation of citizen journalism.
I'm pretty sure that Coonan's understanding of this phenomenon is even more diaphanous than Scanlon's. But the typical argument against the blandification of Australia's mainstream media is that the consumer is left without a smorgasbord of viewpoints — that Rupert Murdoch (who hardly cares) or James Packer (who really doesn't give a shit) and their vassals (who we can assume do) will dictate what the good people of Australia think about taxes or land rights or industrial relations or Glenn McGrath's legacy or turkey slaps on Big Brother.
Assuming nobody but loonies have ever seriously read Green Left Weekly, it's arguable that an overflowing buffet ever existed before in the lucky country. Recently a sizeable chunk of Age journalists defected to the Hun — who noticed? Even Andrew Bolt, that dimply scourge of the hand-wringing left, began his career at The Age.
But if the smorgasbord wasn't being served up before, it is now. If there is an active issue that I care about, I read The Age and I read the Herald-Sun. Then, because I consider myself a humanist and often find myself slightly left-of-centre in political arguments, I read Larvatus Prodeo. I check in on Mr Spleen for a second, if usually somewhat rabid, opinion. Arguably the most reviled journalist [ie, in this sense, not-columnist] in Australia, Christian Kerr, writes deliciously polemical articles at Crikey — I agree with hardly anything he says, but his opinions are an important part of my media consumption. Oz Politics, with its wealth of polls analysis and reasonable balance of commentators, lets me drill down and make comparisons.
And if I need to know more about American politics, I favour Google News and The New York Times as a first port of call, but for deep analysis I move on to Daily Kos to get blue views and Real Clear Politics for red. I also quite enjoy Wonkette for DC news.
As I've said, citizen journalism is a stupid term, and a better one, albeit more pretentious, is 'media triangulation'. By indulging in a variety of sources, we can more easily locate our own opinions. Traditional journalism places a great deal of emphasis on objectivity. This journalistic objectivity is generally interpreted as meaning 'both sides of the story'. In reality though, stories are usually lop-sided. To take a contemporaneous example, the mainstream Australian media has made a great fuss over big business' response to the ALP's proposed industrial relations reforms. But in the sphere of opinionation, most commentators have noted that it is something of a beat-up — business will always co-operate with the government of the day (because there's no margin in protestation), and there are few votes in appeasing BHP anyway — where are they gonna go?
Scanlon thinks that he can debunk these two new 'attacks' upon traditional media in one: by saying that Coonan's reforms are reliant on the rise of citizen journalism. The problem is, they're worlds apart. Yes, the assault on mainstream media diversity needs to be debated. But you can't do it by denying the potency of online media dissemination. If Coonan has genuinely attempted that diversion, Scanlon has totally fallen for it.
By aggregating opinions, by compiling subjective analyses, the opportunity for an enlightened understanding of the zeitgeist is greater now than ever before. That Crikey and Wonkette are privately owned, or that DailyKos and RCP are dripping-sleeve partisans, is beside the point. That a lot of valuable opinion is served up via Blogger, and therefore hosted by Google, is also irrelevant. Do you think any Google employee has ever read Ms Fits? If they had, and if they somehow took umbrage, would it matter? If she were uprooted, there are any number of places she could easily plant herself again. And if she were silenced, there's a hundred others (arguably not as humourous) we could read in her stead.
This is the brave new unstoppable world. If you care about an issue, you can feast on a hundred different views. You can consume as narrowly or as widely as you like. These sources are infiltrating the lives of everyday folk. At the moment you are at the forefront, but it will increasingly and inevitably become the norm. Every single Google/Yahoo/Live search brings it nearer. And it's a good thing. Embrace your agency. Happily ignore — or don't — Mr Scanlon. It's up to you.
Joseph | 7 May 2007