Journos Express Uneasiness with "Citizen Journalists"
September 23, 2008 | By Gil Klein
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – “Citizen journalists” can be dangerous to the news media, a panel of leading Providence journalists told a National Press Club Centennial Forum at Johnson & Wales University Monday.
Suffering from staff cutbacks, some news organizations are turning to volunteers who attend local meetings and blog what happens to the newspaper or television station. That information can be incorporated into regular stories.
“I think citizen journalism is grossly overrated,” said Robert Whitcomb, vice president and editorial page editor of the Providence Journal. “It’s great for parts of the media to save money. But as rigorous journalism for informing the public, much of it stinks; it’s terrible. Many of the citizen journalists have large axes to grind.”
Whitcomb was speaking at one of the National Press Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” the Club is holding around the country to mark its 100th anniversary. At each forum, the Club gathers a panel of leading local journalists to talk about where the news business is going and how to protect its core values. Former NPC President Gil Klein moderated the panel and is coordinating the nationwide project.
The forum in Providence was co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Rhode Island.
Former Rhode Island Supreme Court Judge Robert Flanders, who now practices First Amendment law, warned that news media that rely on citizen journalists can expose themselves to liable suits.
“One of the flaws of that from a legal standpoint is the media would be held responsible for publishing defamatory material that has a citizen journalist source,” Flanders said.
The news media is not held responsible for what people blog to their Web sites, he said, but as soon as they use those blogs as part of their regular news reports, they are as responsible for that information as if their own reporters had gathered it.
“The more the media is involved in actually sponsoring this,” Flanders said, “the more that their feet will be held to the legal fire.”
Tim White, an investigative reporter at WPRI CBS, Channel 12, said there has been an “erosion of public trust” when television stations promote stories as “investigations” when they are not.
“We keep slapping on the investigative journalism tag to a lot of stories, and that cheapens it,” he said. “I am fortunate enough to have bosses that are more interested in quality than quantity, but their future is uncertain.”
Jim Hummel, who reported for the Providence Journal and WLNE ABC, Channel Six, said the Journal used to take pride in having a staff large enough to cover most every community in Rhode Island. But with staff cutbacks, the paper has pulled back.
He said the Westerly, R.I., town council president asked him, “Why should I bother to read your newspaper any more because you don’t cover our community?”
The NPC Centennial Forums program is sponsored by Aviva USA, one of the nation’s fastest-growing life insurers (www.AvivaUSA.com). In addition, the company is funding the production and distribution of 12,000 DVD copies of “The National Press Club: A Century of Headlines” documentary and supplemental education materials.
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