Mayhill Fowler has been called a poster child for citizen journalism….may God help us all. Fowler wrote entries for OffTheBus, a forum on HuffPo for amateur journalists who followed the 2008 presidential campaign. And I mean literally followed – she traveled around the country on buses covering her man Obama during 2007 and 2008.
Fowler heard Obama’s “bitter” Pennsylvania voter comment at a San Francisco campaign event in 2008 - an event to which mainstream media did not have access. Of course, the mainstream outlets were pissed that they didn’t get that info for themselves. To that I say: Suck it up kids. Like it or not, that’s the nature of new media. And to anyone running for any kind of public office I say: Just because an event is closed to the “media”, does not mean that something you say at said event will not go viral...really fast.
Of course, now, two years removed from the fracas, no one wants anything to do with Fowler. And that could be (one of) the ugly flip side(s) to citizen journalism. She had her 15 minutes of fame, and got burned for it – accusations of being in cahoots with Hillary were predictably thrown around after she posted the quote. And that’s fine on a personal level. If you’re going to walk into the fire, you have to be prepared. Honestly, I don’t really care if Fowler ever gets paid to write. I’m more interested in what her story as a citizen journo means for the bigger picture.
A few days ago, the LA Times reported on an interesting caveat to the San Fran story of which I was not aware. Fowler almost didn’t include Obama’s bitter comment in her post about the evening knowing how damaging it could be to the candidate. She only decided to include it after an OffTheBus director encouraged her to disclose all she had heard. What I find so troubling about the heat Fowler caught for including the quote in her post was the fact that as a “journalist”, she absolutely should have included it. In fact, she was - dare I say - ethically obligated to include it. That’s not the kind of comment that a candidate should get away with at a public event.
The fact that the mainstream was pissed to be scooped by Fowler proves that they wished they had gotten the quote themselves. I mean, that’s good stuff, whether or not you’re in the tank for someone. If you are running to be the POTUS and you say something dumb, you should be quoted on it as eagerly as when you say something smart. That’s a journalist’s job.
Now OffTheBus was not a one-time phenomenon. There are citizen journalism sites popping up all the time. Demotix, for example, reviews content and image entries from international Joe Schmos all day. The ones that are up to snuff get pushed to the U.K.-based company’s news feed. The major outlets can then buy them, allowing Schmo to get published in The New York Times if he gets lucky. Demotix gets a 50% cut and the writer or photojournalist gets 50%.
The great thing about Demotix is that it offers hyper local news from around the world, written or filmed by natives from the area – not an old white dude working for the BBC. The down side is that I don’t yet see how this model works to fill the most important role of journalists – investigative reporting. Not that Demotix claims to do this. The site knows its place as an event-based news outlet.
It could be that with the simple passage of time citizen journalism and maybe crowd sourcing will yield powerful insights into the most troubling aspects of society. (Just consider how much a news story written by lawmakers about their initiatives might differ from a collaborative story written by a cross-section of constituents about how the initiative would affect their everyday lives.) Journalists often work with a similar handicap – trying to capture the sentiments of Everyman by speaking with three of them.
But alas, considering how the craft of investigative reporting has been languishing even in traditional media, I have a hard time believing that it will flourish among people who woke up this morning and decided to change the world. Of course I’m wildly oversimplifying the concept, but I feel good about the point I’m trying to make.
The founder of Demotix, Turi Munthe, says that his idea for the site came out of the belief that when a society is open and enjoys free speech, its propensity towards radicalizing decreases. I’m all for that. I’m just leery of a future where the onus for real journalism is placed on a system that is incapable of supplying it.