It’s not just where you are, it’s what you know

Andrew Heavens gave an amazing seminar on photoblogging at the Digital Citizen Indaba a few weeks back. One idea that stuck with me from his talk: “The camera doesn’t matter, but being there does.” More important than having the right gear is being in the right place to take an important photo. Andrew’s one of the few photojournalists in Ethiopia, so he’s able to share images that no one else is able to.

Two of the key examples almost everyone – myself included – gives when explaining the idea that people can “commit acts of journalism” without neccesarily being journalists are the photos taken in Thailand of the Southeast Asian tsunami and in the London underground after the tube bombings. Like the citizen video of the Rodney King beating, these documents demonstrated that journalist in the future is going to involve professionals as well as people who happened to be there with the opportunity to record what they saw.

While there’s no doubt that Andrew’s right and that being there is critical to some types of online publishing, I wonder if we don’t sometimes oversell the importance of “being there” as part of citizen media. Much of the rhetoric around the importance of citizen media – including the rhetoric I deliver roughly once a week these days – is about diversifing the media by introducing more local voices – people in their own communities who can report their own news. But I think there’s another place where citizen’s media may be at least as important – introducing citizen expertise on subjects where existing journalists may not be expert.

I found myself exploring this train of thought as I talked with Professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh yesterday. Hibbitts is the founder of Jurist, a remarkable website that covers legal news around the US and, increasingly, the world, primarily through the efforts of University of Pittsburgh law students. Students write original articles on legal issues, often providing legal context for stories reported in other media.

Hibbitts tells me that an inspiration for the site was the realization that newspapers were eliminating their legal reporters, combining legal reporting with crime or political reporting. Reporting on a legal story often requires sophisticated knowledge of the law – many of the best legal reporters are lawyers or have a legal background. By asking law students to work as legal reporters, Jurist gives a lawyer’s perspective on a wide range of news on a daily basis.

(There’s a long history of asking law students to take on professional responsibilities while they’re still in school. Unlike most professional journals, law journals are edited by students, inverting usual power dynamics by giving students the chance to edit and select papers for publication by their professors and their colleagues.)

It’s interesting to think about other subjects where citizen media might be able to bring expertise to the table that professional journalists might lack. When Grigoi Perelman refused the Field Medal for his work proving Poincaire’s conjecture, most newspapers didn’t even attempt to explain the substance of Perelma’s work – it would have been interesting to see how a citizen media site with mathematician reporters would have covered the story. (Alas, Wikinews, which likely had mathematicians reporting the story didn’t do much better. At least they tried.) Mathematician reporters would also have an interesting set of insights on stories involving economic statistics, statistical analysis, climate change extrapolations… it makes you wonder why math departments aren’t encouraging projects like Jurist.

As we talked about the similarities and differences between Jurist and Global Voices, I realized that while some of GV’s strength is about where our contributors are – all around the world, in countries not sufficiently covered by mainstream media – some of our strength comes from what we know, especially what our editors know. Our Africa editor, Ndesanjo Macha, is living in North Carolina, pretty far from his home in Tanzania. But he’s got great knowledge of African politics and issues and is able to use that knowledge to make content decisions despite not being on the ground. Ditto for Neha Viswanathan who covers India from the UK, and several of our other excellent editors.

It’s easier to talk about citizen media in terms of “being there” because it’s less threatening to existing media outlets – everyone understands that no newspaper can have a bureau in every corner of the world, and that the citizen with a camera will sometimes be the best first source of information on a story. But it’s a bit more threatening to talk about citizen media filling holes in journalists’ expertise. Most journalists aren’t physicists, currency traders or airplane pilots – when covering those subjects, maybe it’s helpful for the journalists and the physicists, traders and pilots to work together.

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5 Responses to It’s not just where you are, it’s what you know

  1. Alaa says:

    I’m surprised this post got no comments.

    when selling citizen journalism to a local audience, the being there argument isn’t good enough, I’ve always used the argument about “what you know”, and it works like a charm.

    anyone who has dealt with journalists before knows that they’ll make mistakes, even the best of them will make horrible mistakes when covering technical or complex issues, some of that has to do with deadlines, some of it has to do with number of words restrictions, alot of it has to do with assumptions about the readers (which sometimes are true about the majority of the readers but still feel annoying) etc.

    to me human rights activists directly telling the stories instead of publishing dry reports and expecting journalists to tell the story is citizen journalism, doctors reflecting on performance of public hospitals is citizen journalism. in fact the more you talk about topics you actually know the better otherwise a trained, paid and edited journalist is bound to do a better job.

    an example from Egypt, every single blogger talked about the judges, every single journalist too, all the experts where interviewed and all that jazz. but http://baheyya.blogspot.com remained the best resource not because of where she was we where all in the same place afterall, but because she knows all the people involved, she knows the history and has a deep understanding of the technical issues no journalist could match.

    but then the moment journalists learn to use blogs as much as they use sources (gamal eid of http://hrinfo.net gets a daily phone call where he actually has to read excerpts from reports published on the website cause the journalist still thinks talking to a source is better) the knowing more thing is no longer threatening to journalists in fact it’s the best thing that could happen to them makes the whole job much easier.

    also the moment they learn about deep linking (Al Jazeera has a policy against deep linking) then they no longer need to knowingly publish inaccurate stories just because they can’t go into details, they can tell a simplified story and place links for the details.

  2. Ethan says:

    Thanks, Alaa – glad you found the post useful. I think I need to develop the argument a little further – this is one of those ideas that occurred to me in a coffee shop and hasn’t made it far beyond that level of thinking. But your examples are excellent – I hope I can rope Dan Gillmor and others into this conversation and see their take on the “where you are” versus “what you know” approach to citizen media…

  3. Alaa says:

    also from the bridge blogging point of view, there is nothing exciting about being in the middle east as opposed to most of Africa, we have enough foriegn journalists, agency material and locol journos and pundits writing in western languages.

    so far all the bloggers interested in bridge blogging here are saying that blogging might offer more diverse views or more authentic ones.

    another interesting thing to look at is not what you know or where you are but who you are, you got more women and christians talking through Egyptian blogs than through any other Egyptian media outlet, you have “extreme” voices that would never be given space (the 5 christian fundamentalists I told you about, the gays and lesbians, but often it’s much more subtle variations that aren’t exactly opressed but somehow never allowed anyways).

  4. Ethan, you’re absolutely right in an abstract sense that “maybe it’s helpful for the journalists and the physicists, traders and pilots to work together.”. But there’s two issues here:

    1) There’s some very weird taboo in journalistic practice about having technical sources fact-check an article. I don’t understand this, from my perspective. There probably is some reason for it, in an anthropoligical sense. But I don’t understand it, since I’m not a part of that culture. I just know it exists.

    2) There’s no incentive to care. I suspect what you’re going to reply to this is something along the lines of: “But there’s a huge wisdom crowd willing to work for free fact-checking articles. Free work, and better articles, what a deal, who could refuse?”. But that assumes there’s an incentive to care. And the point is: THERE’S NO INCENTIVE TO CARE.
    This is really a profound problem. If nobody but an expert is going to be able to tell the difference between a good article and gibberish, what encourages good articles over gibberish? Free experts don’t address this problem.

  5. tish grier says:

    But it’s a bit more threatening to talk about citizen media filling holes in journalists’ expertise

    ah! the crux of the connundrum!

    I think the journalistic prejudice goes something to the effect that if one is already an expert on something, one cannot necessarily have the right journalistic objectivity….so, then, by that sentiment, citizen journalist experts would be lacking in objectivity….As opposed to a journalist who becomes an expert through years of reporting on a particular subject. It may be then be assumed that he/she started from the point of objective thinking and will remain such after gaining expertise.

    In this country, the lack of professional credentialling makes journalists want to split hairs along the line of who can/can’t perform an objective analysis (or so I’ve been told by some journalists.)

    Yet your post, Ethan, makes me think more about what we consider our community. In the Internet age, our sense of community doesn’t have to be restricted to the Real World. Our sense of community can be the place we came from, or the places we go within the Internet itself. How many feel as sense of “community” from their blogging or through their myspace pages? Eventually, journalism will have to deal with the shifts in the concept of community and make room for reporters who “live” in one place and inhabit another.

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