This essay reflects on my 40 years as a newspaper reporter, and why today's Internet content is troublesome with so many inexperienced citizen journalists.
What is and what should never be:
What’s wrong with Citizen Journalists reporting online today
By Dave Masko
There’s mean creatures writing on the Internet today.
By “mean creatures” I refer to the so-called “Citizen Journalists” who have a knack with computers, but don’t understand or adhere to the standard rules of print journalism that’s been a big part of my writing career since 1968 when I worked as a reporter for my high school newspaper.
In turn, these feral writers are skilled in cut and paste, but not in either creative or standard modes of writing good newspaper copy. In fact, many of these Citizen Journalists have never heard the term “copy” as something written in order for it to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or an advertisement.
Thus, what we now have online are computer users, programmers, web designer, IT people, software engineers, systems analysts, webmasters and all sorts of “techies” and “geeks” writing content using their own rules or lack or rules when producing the stories reported online today.
That’s akin to taking a mail man and asking him to sit in for your local butcher; while butchering copy is what Citizen Journalists seem to be good at. I should know after writing online for the past three years and reading what my Citizen Journalist “colleagues” produce as so-called real journalism.
In fact, what these amateurs often produce a sort of long-form Tweet or text message that is most plagiarized material from other websites.
The idea of a World Wide Web was born back in 1990 when the idea was to provide a service that would be free to use for anyone. Flash forward to 2012, and the goal is not “free,” but to turn a website into an income source for both web developers and website owners. That’s fine, but what about the content? Who is doing the writing for website content?
Also, who is minding the store in terms of “style” on the World Wide Web? For instance, most Citizen Journalists never heard of the AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. In fact, I once asked an online publisher if he would like hard copies of the AP style guide for his Citizen Journalists and he said “why?”
Why indeed, per most Citizen Journalists just sort of wing it when it comes to producing copy for the websites they work for. Thus, the writing online is atrocious with punctuation and grammar errors, over capitalization and a sort of feral form of “make it up as you go” mindset that I think is running rampant today.
Moreover, this idea that as long as it’s pretty looking, people read it and it earns money seems to drive such website awards as the Webby Awards, Favorite Website Awards, Interactive Media Awards and WebAwards as examples of prominent award organizations that say they are recognizing the world’s best websites but, in fact, they are applauding poor journalism standards.
For instance, the Society of Professional Journalists has a “Code of Ethics” that most Citizen Journalists never heard of. The Code covers social media with these guidelines:
“Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.”
“Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”
“Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived: Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
At the same time, SPJ supports “the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant; while also giving voice to the voiceless.”
Also, Citizen Journalists don’t always feel a need to be accountable.
In turn, SPJ advises all reporters to “clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct; encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media; admit mistakes and correct them promptly.”
However, many Citizen Journalists may not view these guidelines as practical; and thus such journalism textbook lessons are either not understood or adhered to by these so-called journalists who seem to follow the lead of their website bosses and produce so-called news that cuddles its demographic.
Website content produced by hacks
In a world where readers around the world can instantly read whatever one publishes online may mean the whole concept of journalism has changed. Thus, it’s not a time for the “hacks” to be in control of the content on your website.
Thus, many savvy Citizen Journalists will point to writeboards – or web based text documents that one can use when collaborating on a story project with other reporters – as a good example of why they are not reporting alone.
However, the writeboard in the hands of amateurs simply means someone still has to review and edit the researched information. Thus, who is doing the edits and review of copy? It’s not the website publisher or owner, but simply the rookie reporter known as the Citizen Journalist in an online realm where the blind are leading the blind.
For instance, in a 2010 white paper for the Columbia Journalism Review, Nicholas Spangler explained how today’s online content is not only produced by hacks, but it’s driven solely by money with little regard to textbook J-School rules. “Most news organizations already use search-engine-optimization strategies to push their content on the web. Within five years, say experts, SEO and advanced metrics will play a prominent role in decisions about what to cover and how heavily to cover it, with reporters and stories graded by the number and value of the consumers they attract.”
Thus, the webmasters and their crew of non-professional Citizen Journalists will create a sort of box that will simply dissolve the standard rules of journalism, says Spangler and other experts.
Also, Spangler warns that “one possible consequence of looking in the box” is that news organizations will increasingly turn to web savvy publishers – who give no quarter to the rules of journalism – for their evergreen content produced by Citizen Journalists.
Thus, for someone such as myself - who has produced news and feature stories this past 40 years - there’s very few websites, it seems, that would want a trained and seasoned photojournalist such as myself because “quality” is not a concern for website publishers.
So what we have now with online content, writes Spangler, is a growing army of “para-professional” writers who compete for reporting jobs that once required some J-School training and experience. Today, it seems, any warm body can produce news and feature stories online.
Moreover, there seems to be a growing army of less-discriminating web producers whose bottom line is page views and profits over quality reporting.
As for myself, I’ve been an unhappy camper from the start of my online writing career that began three years ago. Back then, I was somewhat naïve and simply signed on to produce news and photo feature stories for two online website.
In turn, I simply didn’t think about who or what was behind these Citizen Journalist websites. I went on to produce more than 1,500 stories with hundreds of thousands of page views. I got caught up in the goal to write a story that “may go viral.” I then quit one website after one year, and another after two years. I’m now looking for a freelance photojournalist job, but weary of working for like websites that simply produce eye candy for the so-called online media landscape.
I must also admit that I started to think and write like a Citizen Journalist. For instance, I would search for story subjects that seemed easy with little regard for in-depth research.
However, I was always concerned that simply winging it – as is the “style” for most Citizen Journalists in my view – would not only compromise my own professional photojournalist code of conduct.
I also felt that if I didn’t get off the online gravy train of producing online content for these websites that I might be flagged for plagiarism since most online news and feature stories today are simply rehashed reports from the AP or other corporate news sources.
I missed real print newspaper reporting with the chain of command that includes editors who really care about the story or photo you’re producing. I simply got tired of working in a world of fools who gave no quarter when it came to producing a good, clean news or feature story. I now wonder if there’s anyone out there on the World Wide Web who wants a reporter who thinks like I do about the need for real journalism online.
Sadly, there are others who feel my pain about not seeing any real reporting going on with many of today’s online websites.
In turn, what we have here are market forces and the need for more advertising driving what news or feature stories are produced as so-called “content” for most news and feature websites. I’m afraid that I’m a dinosaur, but at my age the ego drops off and I simply don’t care about being “popular” or doing Facebook or playing the game that Citizen Journalists play when producing very bad quality stories online. As Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to be a part of a club that would have me as a member.”
Remaining relevant in the digital age
One problem for remaining relevant in the digital age for old-school photojournalists such is an online website community that has an impaired capacity or even a lack of capacity for empathy. Thus, the degree and intensity to just produce content no matter who it hurts is simply not on and wrong in my view.
At the same time, the computer experts who detect true professional journalists as a threat, seem to treat both the pros and their heard of Citizen Journalists very poorly since it’s all about profits and not quality reporting.
Thus, it’s most difficult in my view to remain relevant in this digital age without adhering to the rules of journalism.
So what we have today are reward-driven website publishers who’ve lost their way when it comes to quality content. For instance, I’ve found both website publishers and Citizen Journalists who have a unique set of characteristics: they are ruthless, fearless, mentally confused, with a sort of fake charm and persuasiveness.
Overall, they lack a conscience and empathy.
In turn, the mantra for military journalists back in 1977 -- when I trained at the Defense Information School to become an Air Force base reporter and newspaper editor -- was this great honor that we should view empathy on a continuum and we should never forget our mission to serve our internal, public and community audiences with the best reporting possible.
But, mainly, the Air Force and the Defense Department considered empathy a fundamental moral trait. And this trait is not evident when reading the content of many popular websites today.
I guess I’m saying it’s important for a reporter to be a moral person, and empathy plays a huge role in that.
Another vexing thing about today’s Citizen Journalists - who never seems to leave the comfort of their hunkered down location where they write stuff using their personal computer or laptop – is this idea that all or most reporting can be done inside with a computer alone.
In turn, I told my former online website publishers that the real joy for me as a photojournalist is to leave the house. In other words, I think it’s important to get out among the people and places so you can write about real people; meeting and interviewing them eye-to-eye.
That’s what I’ve done for the past 40 years as both a military photojournalist, and as a civilian reporter for local newspapers.
However, these savvy online website publishers give no quarter to such old-school methods for reporting that I view as all important when trying to remain relevant in this digital age.
Thus, I feel it’s essential for true blue reporters to be driven by interests in their world outside of the World Wide Web.
For instance, I’m a fan of the “New Journalism” of the 1970s. It was Tom Wolfe who pioneered the New Journalism using novelistic techniques in non-fiction; while I tried New Journalism for a series of online reports this year that focused on strange metal boxes spotted by locals along the Oregon coast.
The “metal boxes” series went viral online with more than 200,000 page views for the eight photo feature stories I produced.
However, there was some jealousy exhibited by some in Cyberspace who viewed my reports as a hoax. Those who claimed my “metal boxes” stories were a hoax did not fully read or appreciate the fact that the stories were linked to UFOS and locals who told me they both viewed UFOs and these “strange metal boxes” along the seashore. It was one of those “shoot the messenger” reactions with some readers projecting their own views and fears when it came to them trying to get their heads around these strange metal boxes.
While I like to claim that I have a nose for news, this view of
“strange metal boxes” was not mine, but expressed during
interviews with central Oregon coast locals who claimed
to have heard noses and seen bright light coming from these boxes.
Photo by Dave Masko
In turn, my series of photo feature stories about these “metal boxes” paid much attention to the people who spotted these boxes and the other abstract assessments of local UFO fans. However, many readers seemed to want more details and I was criticized for not offering more who, what, when, where and how of these metal boxes.
At the same time, my Oregon coast reporting has always reflected on the region’s diversity. In Oregon, everyone seems to have an opinion. And, sometimes it’s even about strange metal boxes.
While I may have been born too late to fully embrace the digital revolution, I’m still skilled enough to use social media and the Internet for story research.
In turn, I’ve told my former newspaper editors that I never thought about the ramifications of online reporting for those Citizen Journalists who don’t seem to follow traditional rules of journalism and traditional reporting techniques as I still do.
Still, when one leaves aside the who, what, when, where and how of traditional reporting, what’s left are stories that may not be accurate, satisfying or in the proper context. Thus, my argument is today’s Citizen Journalist may be Internet savvy but not fully in touch with true journalism that’s still badly needed online today.
Overall, my writing tends to explore responses that people have to the human condition; with many people finding bemusement at life today.
As someone who has covered wars and served as an overseas correspondent for both the Defense Department and Air Force News – including Operation Desert Storm and NATO peacekeeping in the Bosnian war and other conflict zones – my goal has always been objectivity.
And, the task of reporting on major crises from many of the world’s hotspots, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and the Balkans, has allowed me to secure exclusive interviews with world leaders from the Middle East to Europe to Africa and beyond. However, it’s the local Oregon coast reporting that I enjoy today; while looking for an online news or feature website that would support such reporting is my goal with this news release.
Dave Masko is an Air Force veteran who's filed stories from Washington, D.C., the Middle East, the Balkans and Europe. These days, he's a freelance writer based in Florence, Oregon. Masko's articles have appeared in European Stars and Stripes, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and other publications. From 1977-1999 he was a reporter for the Defense Department. He's worked with the likes of Walter Cronkite, Colin Powell and Bob Hope. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org