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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Citizen Journalism in Alabama and Beyond

David Hazinski, an associate professor of telecommunications at the University of Georgia, recently wrote that the news industry should find some way to monitor and regulate the growing trend of citizen journalism (of which this blog is a prime example).

"While 'citizen journalism' has its place, the reality is it really isn't journalism at all, and it opens up information flow to the strong probability of fraud and abuse."

Hazinski's piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution drew a quick and fiery response from Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media and a longtime supporter of the role regular folks can play in the dissemination of news.

"The regulator of speech should be all of us, collectively voting with our eyes, ears, and dollars in the fabled marketplace of ideas," Gillmor writes. "New tools coming along will give us better ways to do that in a Digital Age than we've had in the analog one . . . "

Gillmor is quick to acknowledge that accuracy and reliability are areas that need improvement in citizen journalism. And he says traditional media outlets should insist that citizen reports that go out under their banner be done in honorable and journalistically sound ways.

But he says Hazinski is wrong to imply that the notion of a citizen journalist is as nutty as the notion of a "citizen surgeon" or a "citizen lawyer." (Although I would argue that some citizen lawyers, if they are at least honest, are better than the real deal.) Journalism, Gillmor says, has never had the kind of rigorous standards for entry that exist in professions such as medicine or law.

We need more education, not more regulation, Gillmor says. "For journalists, citizen or otherwise, it is very much about principles, and ultimately honor. For the audiences, we need to instill deep, critical thinking and a solid grasp of media techniques.

"Let's regulate ourselves to end up with a diverse, vibrant journalism ecosystem that serves and informs us."

I'm definitely with Gillmor on this one. And I would like to see him, Hazinski, and perhaps others address a related question: How important are citizen journalists in reporting stories that traditional media--through fear, laziness, partisan thinking, or all of the above--simply refuse to touch.

We are in the midst of such a story here at Legal Schnauzer. Our tale of judicial corruption among state judges in Alabama--with its close connections to our current Republican governor and the larger story of selective prosecution by the Bush Department of Justice (DOJ)--has been ignored by the mainstream press. So can a blogger, a citizen journalist such as yours truly, contribute? Well, our reporting on justice-related matters in the Deep South has been cited by Scott Horton, of Harper's, at his No Comment blog. And thanks to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), our reporting has been cited in documents filed at the U.S. House Judiciary Committee's hearing last fall on selective prosecution.

So we have shown that citizens certainly can contribute to the understanding of important stories. And we are hardly alone. In fact, corruption in the Bush DOJ might be the single most important domestic issue in our country--and it has its roots in Alabama, thanks to the prosecution of former Governor Don Siegelman. But the state's major newspapers--the Newhouse-owned Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, and Mobile Press-Register--have done their best to pretend it doesn't exist.

Inside the borders of Alabama, the story has been driven by blogs and Web sites such as Locust Fork World News, Left in Alabama, and Novationeering. And while Scott Horton's credentials place him well beyond the realm of a citizen journalist, he has used a nontraditional method--the blog--to lead reporting of the DOJ story at the national level. Glynn Wilson, at Locust Fork News, would fit into the category of a professional who uses nontraditional media to shine light in places the mainstreamers don't want to go.

Two other critical stories are taking place in Alabama right now--both with strong ties to citizen or alternative journalism.

One story involves Governor Bob Riley's apparent violation of state campaign-finance law in both 2002 and 2006. The weekly Montgomery Independent and reporter Bob Gambacurta broke the story. But bloggers have played a key role in providing context and analysis and spreading the story beyond the state capital.

The second story involves the Alabama Supreme Court's decision to throw out most of a $3.6 billion jury verdict in favor of the state and against oil giant ExxonMobil. The mainstream media has taken an "aw, shucks" approach to the story, in essence saying it's too bad the state will lose all that money, but gosh, the Supreme Court must be right about this. Bloggers have said, "Not so fast." They have raised questions about the correctness of the ruling, given the facts and the law in the case. (Kudos to Robby Scott Hill at Novationeering in this area.) And they have noted the huge amount of campaign contributions that went from oil interests to the eight justices who voted to overturn the Exxon verdict.

Let's hope that Dan Gillmor and others who care about citizen journalism will keep an eye on our state. Important things are happening here.

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