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Beat Reporting on the Internet


Social Media Outposts

Social Media Outposts (Photo credit: the tartanpodcast)

Ben LaMothe recently wrote an article for Media Bistro focusing on the idea of reporters creating an online community for the specific beat they cover, or something they report on and have great interest and knowledge in.  In LaMothe’s article, “Should Reporters Create Online Communities for Their Beats?” he states:

“When I think about subject-matter expertise in a newsroom, I think of a beat writer/reporter. In the newsroom, they are the subject-matter experts for the beat that they are assigned to cover.  They have a first-hand knowledge of the topic and the issues at hand and they have relationships with the people who are impacted or make decisions about the topic.  In the world of social media and online communities, they would be ideal community managers.”

LaMothe continues on and explains that setting up such a community online can be relatively inexpensive for a reporter who has the desire to do so.

I happen to think this is a very good idea for journalists in general.  Especially freelance journalists looking to gain attention and buzz to boost their careers.  According to the article it can cost as little as $19 for someone to use software to set such a site up.

This could prove to be a valuable tool for journalists and online reporting.  If professional journalists set up such communities online, link them to social media websites and blogs, this could just be the answer some are looking for to combat the problem of reliable, verified information obtained through the web and social media sites.  In previous posts I have discussed some of the issues associated with citizen journalism and how people are inundated with information.  Much of this information is difficult to sift through, and equally difficult to determine whether it is rumor, fact-based or opinion.  The opinion problem isn’t limited to the web, we see major networks all the time passing off pundits or talking heads as hard news people.

Educating news consumers, and helping the consumer find alternative sites online, offering trustworthy news, is something the web sorely needs, specifically social media.

In my previous post I discuss the notion that social media is taking over traditional journalism, something that I don’t think is necessarily the case yet.  Journalists equipped with a tool such as the one Lamothe mentions in his blog post for Media Bistro, could be the catalyst that allows social media to become not just a major player in the news industry, but launch it directly to the top.  Therefore giving social media a real chance as a serious journalistic platform and becoming widely used and accepted within the industry, more so than the role it has now.

This, I believe is something to be watched, and agreeing with LaMothe, something journalists should seriously consider.

So You’re a Journalist. Prove It.


Meranda Watling wrote a post on MediaBistro‘s blog, 10,000 wordswhich addressed an interesting topic.  How do you prove you are a journalist?

Watling writes, “Alan Greenblatt explains in his story today that increasingly, government officials are asking him to prove his official journalist status before granting him interviews. Tides have turned and now it’s not just the reporter doing background research, but the sources are backgrounding the reporters.”

Greenblatt is a correspondent for NPR.org, and wrote about his recent experience of being asked to prove he is a journalist.

In her blog post, Watling brings up some very interesting points, she writes:

  • What type of proof is enough?
  • What if you’re not working for an agency that hands out press badges?
  • What’s stopping you from printing up your own press badge and business cards?
  • It’s not like you apply for a license to be a journalist and can hand out your license number to verify with the state, as electricians or plumbers do. (I hope nobody gets any bright ideas.)
  • And it’s not like medical professions where you need a certain degree and set of training to perform the job; you simply do not need a degree in journalism to prove you know how to ask who, what, when, where, why and how, and then write it up accurately.
  • Plenty of good reporters didn’t learn those skills in the classroom.
  • And plenty of bad reporters have a degree but still didn’t learn to apply those skills well.

I happen to agree with her.  Watling also mentions the recent court case involving a blogger, the judge ruled the blogger was not a journalist.  So how is it determined that someone is a journalist?  According to the judge mentioned in Watling’s article, it would be someone who followed these guidelines:

Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story. Without evidence of this nature, defendant is not “media.””

You can read the opinion of the court here.

Currently, the only things I have to show someone who questions my validity as a journalist is, my diploma, my business card and my Society of Professional Journalists card.    (Needless to say I don’t carry my diploma with me.)   So what if I fall into one or more of the categories she lists above?

I also shiver at the idea that an institution for licensing journalists could be created.  Since when do we need a license to practice our basic freedoms, like speech and the press?

Watling also states, “Fortunately for me, as a working journalist and blogger, I can check off each of these seven in some way and when appropriate (i.e. I’m not going on background on most stories, and sometimes my blog posts are just an aggregation of pieces I think people should read). Whew. But what if you didn’t attend journalism school (No. 1)? What if you’re an opinion columnist/blogger whose job it is to be one-sided (No. 7)? What if your job includes curating a mass of content into a product that helps pull together a story from disparate sources (No. 6)? What if you’ve never been affiliated with a MSM news agency but instead set up your own news outlet (No. 2)?”

I’m not sure there is a simple answer here.  Of course following the ethics of journalism and knowing the laws associated with the press are two very important things among many others, but there are loopholes.  I agree with Watling, that it’s a kind of “New Media vs. News Media“, and all of this New Media is blurring the lines.  There are a lot of great aspects of citizen journalism, but also some negative ones.  Fact-checking and verification of sources etc, are both very important in journalism.  I’m afraid much of that is lost on many “citizen journalists”.  Yet still, there are a lot of “citizen journalists” out there that bring to light information and news that might otherwise be lost on the larger media groups.

This is a fascinating area for discussion.  While many legacy news organizations struggle to find their footing in this digital age, there are other, newer organizations bursting onto the scene.  How this plays out in the future, and what develops as the definition of a journalist or journalism will be something to watch.

This isn’t a winner-takes-all situation.   I think there is plenty of playing room on the field.