Op-Ed: Journalism in the time Joe the Plumber

Web Exclusive
January 2009

By Ted Regencia

CHICAGO — Almost a year ago, I watched in horror, as the nightly news carried a story on Election 2008 everyman, Joe the Plumber, becoming a foreign correspondent in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. I became even more troubled when Joe, whose real name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, stressed that the media should be “abolished” from the war zone. “I liked back in World War I and World War  II, when you’d go to the theater and you’d see your troops on the screen and everyone would be real excited and happy for them,” the Washington Post quoted him as saying. He accused reporters of not being “patriotic” for reporting the war.

The spectacle surrounding the Ohio native’s trip to Israel, highlights the perils of citizen journalism. Instead of covering the news, bloggers and citizen journalists became newsmakers themselves, advocating overtly biased opinions without regard to accuracy and fairness. By confusing their own celebrity status and their message, they undermine the essence of  real journalism: The delivery of objective, thorough and balanced information.

In today’s free-for-all media environment, the role of professional journalists as gatekeepers of information has become even more critical. The dominance of 24-hour cable news and the Internet, allows the news to travel the world in an instant. The widespread use of personalized gadgets, only ensures mass transmission, while spawning self-proclaimed reporters. The responsibility to guarantee that, that information is factual and fair, however, still rests on the professional journalists.

Cut-throat competition and ratings game, however, have forced many in the profession, to put their guards down. The race to make it first, has compromised the need to make it right, and that gives critics ammunition to accuse the media establishment, of being no different from fly-by-night blogs and partisan online muggers.

Take the case of CNN. Last October 2008, it reported that Apple CEO Steve Jobs suffered a heart attack, causing a temporary drop of the company’s stock price. The story was based on a posting on its innovative citizen journalist section, iReport. It turned out to be a hoax and was quickly yanked out, but not before doing some damage to Apple, and more importantly to the CNN brand. It could have been avoided had CNN assigned an experienced and professional journalist to vet the information, before releasing it to the Internet ether.

Notwithstanding the incident, citizen journalists are here to stay. It’s a phenomenon that points to an empowered society, that refuses to take things sitting down. Indeed, it has transformed the meaning of democracy and press freedom.

This new dynamics between professional and citizen journalists is still evolving, and if carried out right, could produce enormous benefits for the public and the media companies. In cases of public corruption, citizen journalists can help expose dishonest politicians and bureaucrats. They can call attention to the government’s inability to deliver basic services. Even prevent or solve crimes. They can also provide fresh and compelling first-person perspective of events, that might have been missed by the media, such as the Asian Tsunami, the Sichuan earthquake in China, and the current unrest in Iran.

Leading up to the 2008 presidential elections, Mayhill Fowler, an Obama supporter and contributor of the Huffington Post broke the controversial “they cling to guns or religion” story, which almost derailed Obama’s candidacy. While, it is true that she is not  a trained reporter, she reported a legitimate news story that affected the news cycle. Indeed, she underscored the contribution of citizen journalists to serious journalism.

Still, as Peter Slevin of Washington Post said, the “heavy-lifting” in journalism are still carried out by professional journalists. Vivian Vahlberg, managing director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center, also stressed that according to their studies, readers still “very much value what journalists did, far more than other sources.”

The future is very bright for serious journalism. I would like to believe that like the iPhone, quality and value sell. The challenge now is for professional journalists to find a balance between advocating active public engagement, preserving the sanctity of objective reporting, and finding an innovative way to present a high-quality story that can attract wide viewership.

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