When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast, traditional news media sources found it difficult to get reporters into the areas most affected by the storm. To cover the storm, news outlets relied heavily on the power of citizen journalism, Instagram photos, and Twitter.
During Hurricane Katrina, citizen journalists were essential to getting news out of New Orleans. Getting a voice on the ground isn't easy, especially when much of that ground is underwater. But, as a matter of journalistic ethics, accurate news is the most important during the worst circumstances. Even when the going is rough, there is no excuse for news agencies to slacken their commitment to basic due diligence. During Hurricane Sandy, citizen journalism provided dangerous misinformation and fueled damaging rumors because it wasn't appropriately checked and researched.
Journalists are entrusted with providing accurate, accountable information to the public. Reporting can make and break reputations, affect global markets, influence public policy, and decide elections. With so much power concentrated in the fourth estate, it's important that journalists follow rigid standards. Yes, the news cycle is short, but it's not hard to find examples of scoops that were botched in the name of getting to the story first: Earlier this summer, CNN and FOX News wrongly reported that the Affordable Care Act had been overturned. As a matter of ethics, accuracy matters more than being the first agency to grab a scoop.
When Twitter Becomes the Wire
Policing shoddy journalism was difficult enough when reporting was concentrated in major newspapers and cable networks, but now any idiot with a Twitter account can spray wild claims all over the world with no accountability. One person's spurious claims were especially damaging when a Twitter user said the New York Stock Exchange was under three feet of water. And just like that, one irresponsible person can cause real damage to the economy on the basis of a complete falsehood. Even Piers Morgan fell for the flooding rumor.
We've been praising the power of social media for so long without being mindful of its limitations and its harm to communication. The hype needs to stop. There are too many unaccountable monkeys with typewriters: the old guard has been saying this for years, and it's time that we as a society treat this as a moment of reckoning.
Spend Some Time in a Newsroom, Please
I love the idea of citizen journalists, I love the idea that anyone can exercise his or her voice, but this ideal works best when people understand journalistic ethics. In the absence of comprehensive civics education (which, frankly, we should have, but since its not on state sanctioned standardized tests who cares? right), newsrooms are essential to socializing journalists into these ethical standards and values. This is a process of being habituated into the virtues. Even though most news stories only have one or two people in a byline, numerous discussions, multiple editors, and other writers help refine stories into quality news. Checks against shoddy reporting are built into this system: occasionally, editors say "no." Citizen journalists lack any comparable checks on their ability to mess with the news cycle. Sure, journalism can be an ivory tower propaganda piece, but on its worst days it's often still better than an unchecked blogosphere filled with people searching for book deals.
We should all be afraid of the undoing of American journalism due to falling circulation because it means worse and less useful information for all of us. The journalists quest for truth and exposure of injustice has long been the bane of unethical businesses and corrupt governments for generations. In the age of Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission, the rise of the Second Gilded Age, and Fox News, citizen journalists have a lot of work ahead of them -- work the public needs to see as credible.
The fourth estate no longer has a barrier to entry. A 140-character statement can go viral, get "retweeted," and be treated seriously, even though ten minutes of research would have proven the claim to be bogus. This is the same sort of intellectual and journalistic laziness that has led to the rise of the pundit class: "journalists" who make fortunes by selling simplistic books about vague issues, writers who refuse to vigorously question the status quo because they are too deeply invested in it. Conversely, work that doesn't "pop" gets panned. I loved reading reviews that called Bob Woodward's latest book, about the deficit standoff of 2011, The Price of Politics, "boring." As long as his arguments are accurate and well-reported, his work shouldn't need to be airbrushed.
Don't Be Nice, and Tell the Truth
Journalists should not be nice; the truth is not served by politeness. Citizen journalists need to get off Twitter for five minutes, make phone calls, and start investigating. As a citizen journalist, you need to keep asking yourself if what you've discovered is really news? Do you have two sources? Are those sources credible? Do you have corroborating evidence? Repeat this process indefinitely. Until you can abide by these simple guidelines, stop hurting our democracy by peddling your garbage.
Perhaps as a stopgap measure, we need a Twitter credibility badge right next to the user's name. Let's start authenticating citizen journalists! Journalism, like modern currency, only holds weight if the people's confidence in it is established and maintained.