X-Files and journalism

“I’m not happy with ‘we are all journalists now,'” writes Scott Rosenberg. “Let’s give it an edit. Let’s change it to ‘Now, anyone can do journalism.'”

I like Rosenberg’s change of focus. The important issue for citizen journalism is reporting, not credentialing.

Rosenberg goes on to offer a definition of what it means to “do journalism:”

Here’s my take: You’re doing journalism when you’re delivering an accurate and timely account of some event to some public. …

If you don’t care about accuracy, then you’re doing fiction.

If you don’t care about timeliness, then you’re doing history.

These standards are both specific and useful.

Accuracy is crucial. Plenty of people deliver opinions, plenty of people make arguments. Journalism is about delivering the facts.

Yes, Virginia, there still are facts. Everything is not a matter of opinion, and it is irresponsible to pretend that all opinions are equal. To paraphrase the X-Files, the facts are out there.

Timeliness is tough, and getting tougher in a time when the likes of Twitter and texting make communication instantaneous. Timeliness is a variable standard – 140 characters may give an instant verdict, but there’s more to most stories than can be delivered in sentence or two. Timeliness for the rest of the report may mean the next day, or even later.

Sometimes journalism goes beyond reporting to storytelling. The “accurate and timely account of some event” stretches to put the event in context. Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute says reports are different from stories:

This distinction is clear — at least in my head. We call too many things we produce “stories.” Many of them are reports: information delivered so that others can act on it. The purpose of a story is not to convey information, but to convey experience. A report tells me how many gallons of oil are polluting the Gulf. A story transports me to a boat where old fishermen are working to save the shoreline. Whatever media platform you work from, you are not creating a story unless you are helping the reader or viewer or listener feel what it is like to be “there.”

That feeling of “being there” makes stories live, and live on in readers’ memories. Accuracy and timeliness are bedrock. Storytelling builds on this structure to add the meaning behind the facts.

Whether the reporter is a member of the Fourth Estate – the traditional corps of journalists – or the still-emerging Fifth Estate, which includes citizen journalists, bloggers, freelancers, and a motley crew of “others,” reflecting on the nature of the task can help us all to do it better.

[Thanks to Sheldon Mains for recommending Scott Rosenberg’s blog post. It’s worth reading in full.]

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