I have been using Titanic metaphors in some of my writing about journalism in recent weeks, suggesting that today’s declining mainstream media organisations need to be using their cultural capital and still considerable resources to keep the craft of journalism out of the icy water for as long as possible, so as to give it the best chance of a healthy future.

But I also think that when journalists think about saving or preserving journalism, we should not only be on about saving our jobs. We should broaden our view beyond the deck of the sinking ship.

In previous episodes in this series on innovation in journalism, I have talked about straight news reporting as being a utility, like electricity or water, which we cannot do without, but which is not in itself an end product.

Now I am talking about society’s ability to generate that electricity, or harvest that water.

This relies, not only on the talents and efforts of professional journalists, but on the journalistic capacity of society as a whole. So this week I want to talk about what that looks like, and how we might use, increase and improve it.

It is already clear that when it comes to analysis, we don’t need to do much. Citizens are already doing it for themselves. The rise of commentators such as Greg Jericho, alias Grog’s Gamut, shows that commentators don’t necessarily need an established media platform through which to establish their profile.

But what about the hard yakka of nasty, dangerous news reporting? And what about that trade skill of the competent professional reporter, verification of the facts?

Consider two recent big stories, both of them fast moving, difficult and complicated. Both of them are also tragedies. The first is the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. The second is the Brisbane flooding last summer.

I’ll quote here from the work of one of my colleagues, Dr Denis Muller, who published the book Media Ethics and Disasters on the Black Saturday Bushfires earlier this year.

As part of a research project by the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University, Muller and centre director Michael Gawenda interviewed many journalists and harvested compelling material, none more so than the story of a radio producer managing a rolling broadcast on the day of the fires, taking talkback calls and interviewing incident controllers on the ground as the official source of information — the Country Fire Authority website — fell more and more out of date.

How to choose what to put to air, when people’s lives depended on it? Should they rely on the official information, or on what they were hearing from people on the ground? The radio station got 8000 calls that day, instead of the usual 800. “We answered as many as we could: perhaps 800 or 1000,” the producer said.

Imagine how much information, potentially life saving, never made it air.

The radio station took half a dozen calls from people in the township of Kinglake saying there was a fire in the town. “So I rang the CFA media and said ‘What’s going on in Kinglake?’ and they said “there’s nothing listed for Kinglake.”

Kinglake, as we now all know, burnt to the ground, and people died, before the official sources acknowledged the fire was there.

The radio station put people to air if they judged them credible — a terrible call to have to make on the run, when life depends on information. In some cases, the radio presenter was the last person the victim spoke to before they died.

These journalists still live with the impact of the decisions they made that day. They are heroes in my book. I am in awe of their courage, judgment, hard work and, most of all, dedication to the idea of verification.

But could it have been done better?

Consider the Brisbane floods. Not as fast moving, by any means. Yet when they hit, the ABC had another tool available. The national broadcaster had been experimenting for some months with a free Japanese web-based mapping tool called Ushahidi.

At first, it had been used by country radio stations to recruit the audience to the task of mapping feral animal sitings. That exercise was a success, resulting in rich information.

Now, it was used to encourage the audience to record the location of flooding, log requests for help, and report hazards. The ABC’s explanation of its work can be seen here.

And the resulting crowd map, now mothballed but still rich in information, can be seen here.

The Queensland floods crowd map was one of the most up to date, and reliable, sources of information on the tragedy as it progressed. ABC reporters indicated clearly when information had been verified, either by journalists or by official sources, but experience showed that very few, if any, hoaxers posted false information.

As a whole, the map was as reliable, and more up to date, than any other official source of information. The citizens, empowered by journalists, had done it for themselves.

Now the Victorian authorities are examining Ushahidi and its potential for the bushfire season. It is possible that if, God forbid, there is another Black Saturday, this tool will save lives.

If that happens it will be not because of journalists-as-heroes, but because a media organisation has provided the means of harnessing the reporting capacity of citizens.

The people who posted information to the Queensland floods crowd map did not think of themselves as journalists. Nevertheless,  when they published factual information about what they had seen and experienced, they were committing acts of journalism.

And what the ABC did in making the Ushabidi took available was to harness the journalistic capacity of the people caught up in events.

It was a very practical application of a simple principle: that the audience, collectively, is always in more places, knowing more, than any journalist or any media organisation.

This is citizen journalism, not merely in the sense of hobbyism or self aggrandisement. Not as something to be sneered at, but as thje core of society’s ability to inform itself, including in extreme situations.

More than ever before, the tools are available.

Have a look, for example, at US journalist Andy Carvin’s Twitter-based reportage of the changes taking place in the Arab world.

Carvin never wrote an article. Instead, he used his Twitter account not only to report, but also to find eye witnesses and verify what they told him. To quote the Columbia Jouranlism Review:

“Carvin’s followers are the engine that drives his reporting. They help him translate, triangulate, and track down key information. They enable remarkable acts of crowdsourced verification, such as when they helped Carvin debunk reports about Israeli munitions in Libya. But they are by definition a slice of the population, an inexact (though curated) collection. They are people he has come to respect and admire; but he must always tell himself to check and challenge what he is told.”

Carvin himself has some interesting perspectives on what tools such as Twitter are doing to citizens. They are starting to use the language of breaking news — but differently.

To quote CJR again:

“Some of the rumors I see floating around seem to be accompanied by the words ‘breaking’ or ‘confirmed’ or ‘urgent’ all in capital letters,” he said. “I think it’s partially because you’ve got people on the ground in the Middle East hearing information and they’ve very excited about getting it, or feel like it needs to be out there as quickly as possible. They start using phrases that reporters use but they are using them in a very different way.”

When he sees these terms used, Carvin often replies and asks for additional details, for pictures and video. Or he will quote the tweet and add a simple one word question to the front of the message: Source?

“I have a lot of people who say, ‘look, we’re not trained to be journalists, we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re just finding stuff and seeing stuff and we want to get it out there’,” he said. “I’ve had people actually say to me, ‘Can you teach us how to do this’?”

And, I suggest, we could. How telling is that one word Tweeted question, from the professional journalist to the citizen reporter: “Source?”

There are now tools such as Storify, that can turn a Twitter feed into a narrative, complete with pictures and commentary. Have a look at this example.

Or this nice tale of how crowdsourcing detected and tracked down a thief.

And there are some other examples of media organisations experimenting with the journalistic capacity of the audience. Recently, the Atlantic has opened its editing process to its dedicated audience.

The Atlantic realised that most of the pitching and editing process took place in the online intranet, or group chat room, where reporters and editors shared terse messages,  story ideas and updates.

So they opened the chatroom to those readers passionate enough to engage.

The experiment continues, but so far the Atlantic crew have gained additional reader engagement, and some good story ideas.

The technology will change the form of news reporting, just as the telegraph changed that form. US journalism thinker Jeff Jarvis has even questioned whether it is still necessary to write conventional news articles, or whether articles are a luxury or byproduct of breaking news.

Before Mark Day busts an outrage gasket,  I should add that Jarvis concludes that articles are necessary, but suggests that on breaking news, they could be on a standing website, available to all and regularly updated, that also explains all the background and timelines, like the examples I quoted in the last episode of this series about explainer journalism.

On this model, the breaking news is powered by the journalistic capacity of the citzenry, mostly people who would never call themselves journalists, but who are nevertheless engaging in journalistic practice.

This capacity is harnessed, nurtured, and curated by professional journalists. Then the job of explaining it, putting it all in context, is also done by professional journalists. The total result: rich news reporting, and an improved journalistic capacity for society as a whole.

Less I be misunderstood, let me make it clear that I am not saying that citizen journalism is enough, or that it will eliminate professional journalism. People might do commentary for free. That is fun, after all.

People might also report on things in which they have a direct interest — an approaching bushfire, an event in their suburb, or a political demonstration.

But a great deal of journalism is simply hard and dirty work, not glamorous or exciting to perform. Ringing people and asking them questions that make them cross. Reporting courts. Cultivating contacts. Hard, time-absorbing work that for the most part will still have to be done by professional journalists, because nobody would do it if they were not paid.

But this is not the only journalistic capacity in society. Acts of journalism by the citizenry are powerful, important, and will not go away.

The tools for harnessing this, impressive as they are, are still pretty clunky in my view, but there is nothing to stop a mainstream media organisation from picking them up and improving them.

And we can rest assured that if mainstream media fail to do this, then citizens will do it for themselves. Jouranlists’ only choice is whether they want to be part of the process, improving it, or not. It will happen in any case.

Perhaps the water is not so icy, after all.

NOTE: I am indebted to the Melbourne Press Club’s Craig Butt for some of the examples quoted above. You can follow him on Twitter at @CraigDButt.

Peter Fray

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