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Citizen Journalism: Can We Trust it?

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"'Citizen Journalist' Broke Obama Story," reads the headline in the Los Angeles Times. The 'citizen' is HuffPo blogger, Mayhill Fowler. The story is the exclusive recording and article about Obama's 'bitter' bite from his speech about small towns - which became as ubiquitous on TV screens as "Law and Order."

Citizen journalism is as old as our democracy. Early American news purveyors were citizens with a printing press in their basements putting out screeds about bad King George. Helped create a nation. Over a couple of centuries, these citizens eventually morphed into a small handful of media companies who currently own over 80% of all news outlets. The explosion of the Internet has re-created citizen journalism and, this time, not everyone is chirping with delight about it - especially journalists.

Basically, today's citizen journalism is an extension of the news business where the audience becomes the reporter, says David Hazinski, former NBC correspondent and professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. The premise is that regular people - that would be us - collect information and pictures with cell phones, video cameras and put it out on a website - that would be the HuffPo and others. The story, that doesn't cost the website anything to get, then gets picked up, re-packaged and shot-gunned all over the mainstream media - that would be the for-profit news organizations. Sweet.

The people who promote this process hail it as the power of citizen involvement. Mainstream media commits censorship by omission, goes the thinking. Voices of the poor, the disenfranchised and minorities often go unheard and citizen participation is an opportunity to get them heard, says Leonard Witt, one of the main architects of citizen journalisms' structure.

Citizen reporters provide independent, accurate, reliable information that the traditional media doesn't provide, goes the argument. Independent? Perhaps. Accurate and reliable? Can't be sure, say concerned professionals. Citizen journalism really isn't journalism, says Prof. Hazinski. It's gossip. Where's the training, experience, standards and skills essential to gather and report news? It opens up the news flow to the strong possibility of fraud and abuse, he says.

This is what makes media mavens very nervous. If a reporter goes off the reservation, like the New York Times' Judith Miller, editors have standards and safeguards to call her to task. However, with a story generated by Everyman, where's the protection, the accountability? Where are the professionals to validate or vet the story? A significant percentage of the public believes Barack Obama is a Muslim and John Mcain sired an African-American baby - both the result of some citizen putting it out on the Internet as a legit story. That's scary.

Readers who shop for books on Amazon understand the pitfalls of citizen participation. When looking at reviews that accompany every title, critical thinkers wonder who's the citizen writing this review? Is this a thoughtful opinion from a reader, or from a friend, or foe, of the author trying to influence sales?

The question around this re-emerging trend might be, who benefits from citizen journalism? For starters, for-profit news organizations potentially do. As they cut costs and chop off hordes of staff, they might increase their information sources - at no cost. The so-called reporter benefits by the simple act of creating a story and seeing it published - somewhere. Ego boost. What about the news consuming public at-large? There are benefits. Government or corporate whistle blowers have unlimited outlets for their horror stories - stories that might not see the light of day without the Internet. More citizens keeping an eye on more things is like open-source news gathering - another possible benefit.

But if citizen journalism is a product of our democracy, the answer may lay there. Democracy, pure democracy, is unworkable and does require parameters - which is why the Founding Fathers created representative democracy. We citizens chose other qualified citizens to examine, set standards, represent and execute our views and interests in the governing process. It's a vetting process - the same vetting process that all reporters have to go through with editors. That means it's necessary to have qualified people representing our interests when it comes to gathering and delivering news - and that would be our current media companies, the ones who own over 80% of all news outlets.