Belfast Telegraph

Citizen journalism will never stop the presses

The parameters between traditional journalism and the blogosphere constantly shift, but vital differences remain and there is room for both, argues Malachi O'Doherty

It used to be that the main worry for a freelancing radio journalist like me was television reporters and some of the more famous big-shots who can squeeze to the front ahead of you.

Now there are other rivals for the attention of a potential interviewee: the bloggers. Practically the entire internet now is composed of blogs and social network sites.

Everywhere there are citizen journalists, from people who send pictures of fires from their mobile phones to television stations, maybe only once, to ardent amateur media specialists who are trying to change the character of journalism with their online creativity and agitation.

Sometimes you are the potential interviewee yourself, at a book launch or arts festival, and you are flattered to be asked for an interview. Then it registers that you are dealing with the editorial outreach arm of a blog with six readers.

Or you might be sitting in a panel on a stage and look up through the audience and see that a little camcorder is pointing at you. And sloppy as the audio might be, it will go online and reach an audience.

And were someone there to get so irate that he lunged forward and shot you, then news outlets around the world would take that footage - no matter how bad it was.

Blogging aspires to being the new journalism and journalism in the traditional media wants to argue that it has professional standards to defend. But there is one big flaw in the perception that bloggers and journalists are at war with each other; they actually feed off each other. They have a symbiotic relationship - and it is changing. It used to be that journalism was a coherent and well-demarcated profession.

The job was defined by the National Union of Journalists, as much as by the employer. So, as a newspaper reporter, when I started, I would have caused a strike if I had carried a camera.

I use a camera for blogging. The bloggers define their own functions and play with whatever technology suits them. And most don't worry about quality. It seems almost in the intrinsic character of blogging that the background noise is too high and that the audio hisses.

As a radio journalist, in the days of tape-recording, I was not allowed to edit my own tapes, but had to work alongside an audio engineer. Now, even in the BBC, I can edit everything. In fact, I edit packages for Sunday Sequence at home. I often record talks for Radio Scotland and email them to the producer.So bloggers are not to blame for the broadening definition of a journalist; it is happening anyway.

But there remain some vital differences between a journalist and a blogger. The journalist has to deliver on time. There are deadlines. The blogger can go to the pub and upload the recordings later, maybe even the next day. The journalist has backing. When harassed by abusive calls and threats of libel, the newspaper or broadcaster should take the heat. The blogger alone will more readily succumb to pressure.

Once I commented on a blog that reviewed a book and the blogger immediately withdrew his piece. I didn't want him to do that. No one else had gone to the trouble to critique the same book, but he hadn't the thick skin of a journalist.

And the problem for a blogger is that the publishing model is vulnerable. An article online can be removed in a way that a broadcast item or a newspaper article cannot. Once they are out, the damage is done. The blogger may have to defend a piece every day, or remove it. And there is unlikely to be support from the host server, which has no editorial principles to defend.

I have myself broken under the pressure of harassment and threats from an interviewee to remove material from a blog, just to get rid of the headache, while knowing that if I had published the material in a newspaper or broadcast it on-air, I would have been completely safe. Blogs are more interactive than traditional journalism and the debate routinely turns cantankerous and nasty.

Some blogs, like sluggerotoole and the blogs attached to the BBC and the Guardian, are strongly moderated to weed out offence and libel; even there, the exchanges are more robust than you would get on Nolan or Talkback.

But there is freedom in the relaxed standards of journalism on blogs. I recently recorded a vox pop on the Shankill Road about health, hoping to include it in an item for Sunday Sequence. Some of it was unusable on the BBC because it affronted their very sensible guidelines. First, there were swear words: no problem on the internet. And two young men spoke under the admitted influence of drugs - a crime therefore, which ruled out broadcasting. The story did go on thestreet.ie.

Ottawa blogger Evan Thornton is developing hyperlocal journalism on the theory that if you blog about your street, you will get more readers than if it's about your city. The parameters between traditional journalism and blogging are fluid and changing.

But if newspapers and broadcast outlets collapse, it is still more likely they ran out of money than because bloggers provided a viable alternative. There should still be room for both.

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