Being there

October 30, 2006

This weekend I participated in (another) debate about citizen journalism at the Battle of Ideas in London.With journalism in something of a state of self-doubt (lack of trust from parts of the audience, future of newspapers in doubt, questions over the business model), it seems that a debate about the future interactions of professional journalists with citizen journalists is a feature of conferences everywhere.In some ways, nothing has changed; in some ways, everything has changed.In the early 1990s, when I was Reuters bureau chief in China and there was rioting and unrest in Tibet, I couldnt go. None of the reporters in my bureau could go we simply werent allowed in. So how did we report? We endlessly called the various guest hostels in Lhasa and interviewed travellers about what they had seen and experienced, and that became the basis for our articles.Citizen journalists were on the scene and their reports were vivid and important. So has nothing changed?Today, in a similar situation, those citizen journalists wouldnt have to talk with me to get their stories out. They could post their words on a blog, they could post pictures on flickr or their home video on youtube. So has everything changed?The question for me is what role and what value the mediation I provided played.I was able to triangulate the stories of several travellers. I was able to merge their stories with official pronouncements. I was able to put in context and background.Done right, that adds a lot of value. Done wrong, that can get in the way.Professional journalists have many things:Access to newsmakers and eventsAdherence to the codes, standards and traditions of the profession that help sift truth from fiction and keep facts as the basis of knowledgeThe processes of editing and selection that produce a coherent narrativeExpertiseDistributionCitizen journalists can have many of these qualities as well: what they must build is a track record of consistency. Professional journalists may have these qualities, but we cant be complacent: we have to compete with other professionals as well as with any expert or pontificator in range of a blog aggregator or search engine!The key, I think, is in the value that attaches to brandNews brands, like Reuters, have a value based on a track record of adhering to our principles of accurate and unbiased reporting and of hiring experts in their fields.What is fascinating is to see how individual citizen journalists and new websites start to build up their brands.What will turn out to be the winning formula: Fact, analysis, opinion or emotion?David Schlesinger is Reuters Global Managing Editor


Opinion. Next question.

Seriously: In the era before blogs a former colleague was fond of telling me at every conceivable opportunity that I was not the demographic “they” were interested in. Now that it is possible for anyone with or without an opinion to publish one, does that make my opinion even less valuable or more?

I have to admit that my news reading habits have changed to the point where I usually just absorb the front page of the New York Times but begin actual reading from the op-ed page backwards. Is that only because the newspaper, pretty much by definition, has yesterday’s news, which I got my fill of yesterday, online or onTV?

Partly, but while the trend to push analysis to the top of the news totem isn’t itself new, the pace is accelerating not only because of the commoditization of news but because context, even in well written stories, tends to remain so linear, especially when done in the demanding real time reality of the Internet. The things that David Brooks and Frank Rich and Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have to say a day or so later does add food for thought to the feast, and it does so as only they can.

So I suspect opinion – or analysis if you prefer — is the growth segment within the news business. I also suspect MSM is delighted to have a free, global farm system with plenty of would-be opinion-makers clamoring to be discovered.

But you better be prepared to put on the overalls and heavy boots, because you have a lot of weeding to do.


Newspapers started as highly opinioned, party-oriented machines used to provide a forum for debate. The idea of objective news seems to be slowly slipping away and as the previous commenter suggests, opinion is moving back into the journalism mainstream. The key is that organizations such as Reuters continue to provide objective news to facilitate reasoned opinions. Everyone has an opinion, the critical ingredient is its persuasiveness, based on fact. The era of so-called citizen journalism is upon us, but demand for accuracy and bias-free reporting will steadily increase due to the influx of more opinion based reportage.