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Question and answer on journalism and other forms of writing

I was contacted recently by Kristen Curtis, a student of journalism in her final year at Wilfrid Laurier University. She asked me the following excellent questions.

1. How did you become interested in writing about journalism, media and public relations?

I suppose one way I could tell the story is that before I was interested in journalism and public relations, I was interested in marketing and branding. And before that I was interested in advertising and sales. I think you can draw a line that starts in sales and progresses through to journalism. There are many steps and transformations along the way. And, importantly, it’s not the only line to draw that ends in journalism. But it’s a line of thought and inquiry that’s of interest to me.

Also, I enjoy to write about these things. Writing helps me understand where other folks are at on these issues and to develop ways of connecting with people. And, I suppose I feel some amount of duty to participate in public discourse about these important issues.

2. From my understanding, you’re a blogger? Do you feel comfortable with this ‘title’? Would you consider yourself to be a journalist? Why or why not?

I’m comfortable with the language of blogger. I have a blog. I blog. I don’t think I’ve ever really identified as a blogger. I don’t say “I’m a blogger.” I say, I like to blog. Professionally, I’m a graphic designer, brand manager and writer. Academically, I’m an analytic philosopher. No, I don’t see myself as a journalist. I don’t fit the criteria laid out, for example, by the The Canadian Journalism Project. That said, I’m not committed to that particular criteria and I do think it’s more interesting to talk about the ways or dimensions in which a particular article might be more or less journalistic. On this model, even though I don’t identify as a journalist, you could assess the posts I’ve written as having journalistic aspects, being more journalistic or less journalistic in relation to each other and along certain dimensions. On this model, you can also judge articles written by others in the same way.

This is, I think, a much more fruitful approach to “what is journalism?” On this model, something that is written by a person who doesn’t identify as a journalist, could be more journalistic than something written by a self-identifying journalist. These are not my ideas, by the way. I’m pretty sure you can find the origin of these thoughts in Jay Rosen, or who knows, maybe even Herbert McLuhan.

3. With the internet, who will act as gatekeepers (those who regulate the flow and content of information) for bloggers and online journalists?

This is a big question and I don’t really know the answer. I mean, I don’t even really know how to confidently answer that in the present tense, let alone the future tense. But I’m very interested in this, so here’s a few possible places to include in a serious inquiry. We don’t want service providers to be gatekeepers. That’s just an example.

There are different kinds of gatekeeping, I suppose, so you need to get clear about what you mean. So for example, compare the Calgary Herald to the Ottawa Citizen. These are both Postmedia news outlets in cities. I would argue that the Citizen is a much better paper. Why? Well, one smart fellow told me once, and I think it’s plausible, that the audiences are very different. The people who read the Ottawa Citizen would never stand for what gets printed in the Herald. If this is true, and it might be, it’s a way of saying that the readership are gatekeepers. That’s interesting. But it’s a very different kind of gatekeeping, I think, than saying you know, the editors will never print hate literature.

Since I brought them up, I think it’s fair to say that editors are and will be, an important kind of gatekeeping. This is true for bloggers and journalists. Libel is libel, and editors work hard to prevent legal exposure. But, you know, you could also say that it’s not the editors, but the lawyers and vested interests that are the gatekeepers. Many stories don’t make it to print, because the editors know the stories would result in lawsuits. Some editors might reasonably deny that they’re the gatekeepers. They can point to their supervisors, the publishers, the legal reality. It’s a system.

So, so far, I’ve mentioned service providers, editors, lawyers and readers. I think we need to include clients and funders.

If you’re a nonprofit news organization you need funders. Funders usually have interests of their own and this can introduce systemic bias, which is a form of gatekeeping. Same goes for for-profit journalism. Your advertisers pay your bills and this comes with a very powerful kind of influence. It can be very subtle. And it’s usually denied and downplayed for obvious reasons. But it’s a form of gatekeeping.

Finally, so I don’t ramble on too much, I should mention that an analysis of gatekeeping should avoid being made too simplisticly. What I mean is that traditional conversations about gatekeeping can sometimes devolve into arguments about censorship, or “did they print it or not.” It’s almost never that straight forward. Similarly, traditional counter arguments about systemic bias are often facile.

The phenomenon of gatekeeping has to be understood in terms of numbers. You know, how many people read this article or that article? How many articles did we run about this story or that story? How significant was the tone of the article? Did the author demean the topic or lend it gravitas? Did we run it on Monday or Friday? Front page or comment section? What was the reach and impact of everything we wrote about topic X? We’re almost never talking about an actual closed gate. We’re usually talking about invisible flows of traffic and meaning with slim statistical margins, that, without the numbers are plausibly deniable.

4. Are you concerned about the potential for manipulation by special interest groups in citizen journalism?

Sure. Distortion and bias can come from anywhere, even interest groups. But who is a special interest group? “Special interest group” is a pretty loaded term. So you need to get clear on who you mean. Are straight, white men over 40, who make more than 85 thousand a year a special interest group? How about libertarians? Or Liberal party members? Are Calgarians a special interest? What about people in wheelchairs? Catholics? People who think gay conduct is sinful? Who do we mean?

One interesting result of applying the model of journalistic acts that I mentioned earlier, is that sometimes the writings of special interest groups are more journalistic than that of commonly recognized journalistic institutions. Take for example the climate change oriented part of NASA. NASA has an entire part of their organization studying and writing about climate change.  I would argue that they generally publish stuff that is more journalistic than the stuff published in the National Post about climate change. But, interestingly, if we surveyed Canadian citizens, who would they say is the special interest? I don’t know the answer to this, mind you. But the editorial board at the National Post would probably say that the climate wing of NASA is. So, if the National Post is right about this, then the special interest group has produced better journalism than the National Post.

In this case, NASA has a correcting influence, not a distorting influence, on journalism.

Anyone going into journalism today has to have an analysis of power and privilege and science. Otherwise, what’s the point?

5. In your opinion, do journalists need academic credentials? Why or why not?

No, I don’t think that journalists, or bloggers, or writers, need academic credentials. It doesn’t hurt mind you. But training can happen elsewhere. Quality can be assessed independently of a writer’s credentials. That said, maybe some journalistic organizations have criteria for their employees and I would be sympathetic to that, especially if there are legal reasons for this. Actually, I guess I don’t really know the answer to this. Hmmm, let me try again. I guess I would say that there are some very good journalists that don’t have academic credentials. Also, there are some terrible journalists that have excellent academic credentials. Sorry, that’s not really an answer either. I don’t know.

6. What do you think the role of technology such as cell phone photography and social media platforms are for citizen journalism?

Hmmm. I’m not sure if I like this term “citizen journalist.” It might be unhelpful and distracting. So let’s jettison the term “citizen journalist.” Your question is about the role of new tech in the context of journalism. And by “journalism,” I mean all journalistic communications.

This leads me to kind of a fun thought experiment actually.

Imagine the set of communications acts in a single day, in the entire world. It’s hard to fathom, I know. Now imagine the subset of communications acts that are also journalistic. It’s a much smaller set of communications acts. But definitely new tech like Instagram, Twitter, smart phones, cameras and comms devices are absolutely critical. Take away the tech and you have an even smaller set of journalistic communications acts. But it’s a common mistake to confuse necessary conditions for sufficient conditions. There are many other things that are also absolutely critical to that set of journalistic communications acts, like for example, social and emotional skills, and human integrity, and time and energy. Cory Doctorow, I believe, has even credited the fax machine for some real but important role in fall of the Berlin Wall.

So, I suppose to try to answer your question, I would say that the role of tech is crucial to investigation and story telling. Data matters. Stories matter.

So this leads me to a point that Benedetti and Compton made in early April. Technology is not reporting. And it’s not clear that new tech is saving journalism from the distorting effect of the market place. See, for example, the “recent Margaret Wente plagiarism debacle at the Globe and Mail.”

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