Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer prize winning columnist, stirred an on-line controversy this past week with a commentary in the Miami Herald in which he said: “I do not believe in citizen journalism.”
Pitts acknowledged the Internet has “opened the public square to more voices, and you can't complain about that.”
But he maintained that “journalism -- like any profession worthy of the name -- has standards and ethics, and if you don't sign on to those, I can no more trust you than I can a doctor who refused the Hippocratic oath or a lawyer who failed the bar exam.”
“You cannot be a journalist -- citizen or otherwise -- if credibility matters less to you than ideology,” he added.
Columnist Sharon Grigsby, writing for the Dallas Morning News, followed on Pitts’ comment in a supporting post of her own arguing that it simply isn’t true that anyone can do journalism.
Here is how she put it: “Without real journalists -- whether they be working digitally or in print, in new operations or traditional ones -- our country would marinate in an increasing brine of ignorance.”
I bring these opinions up in part because they dovetail with some personal concerns I have expressed here about the depressing growth in the number of on-line outlets in which individuals simply choose to ignore the facts and disseminate inaccurate information, and then use that erroneous information to make some kind of point.
But the main reason I bring the topic up is this: we here at VOA are deeply appreciative of some of the citizen journalists out there and want to keep working with them. Take for example VOA’s Persian News Network. During last year’s disputed elections in Iran and the ensuing protests, PNN relied on user-supplied content, not just information but video.
Importantly, none of it was simply slapped on the air or on-line. Instead, all of it was verified as best as possible by professional journalists and put into proper context. If there were doubts, the material simply wasn’t used.
Walter Isaacson, the new Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, in a recent speech, described this type of collaboration as “a new form of journalism in which user-generated content and great journalistic insights and credibility are wedded together…”
In his remarks, Isaacson went on to say he believes there may be a future role for VOA and the other U.S. international broadcasters in building on-line communities focused on issues of mutual interest and then not just disseminating news but facilitating conversations and sharing information.
It won’t be an easy task. Like commentators Pitts and Grigsby, the new BBG Chairman is concerned about on-line accuracy and credibility. While those are watchwords here at VOA, they are, as Isaacson says, “not at the moment the strong suit of the Internet.”