Our local newspaper in Moncton, the Times & Transcript, came out swinging today with an article attacking citizen journalism authored by new columnist Steve Malloy. The title sets the tone: "Even amateur news hounds should take responsibility."
The article is of particular interest to me because, as a long-time blogger, newsletter author and sometime amateur journalist his criticisms are aimed squarely in my direction. One can only speculate whether the column is in response to the Moncton Free Press or has some other media in mind, but it still bears refuting.
Malloy takes as his starting point the sad incident where a photographer captured an image of a man just seconds before he was killed by a subway in New York. Journalistic integrity didn't even cross his mind before he snapped the photo, writes Malloy. Maybe not, though the discussion continues.
Although these photos were published in the New York Post, and not on some amateur journalist's website, Malloy writes that it's typical of a "disconcerting trend that has taken hold of our area."
"Folks armed with cell phones, digital cameras and police scanners have dubbed themselves 'citizen journalists,' of a sort, and have made it their mission to share every single bit of 'news' that happens in our area."
This particular description fits Moncton's own NewsChaser, Ray Richard (profiled here), and Fredericton blogger Charles Leblanc. There may be others with news scanners who chase down news, but I am not aware of them. But there are numerous others writing and reporting on local news and any of them might feel they are the subject of Malloy's remarks.
Certainly, some of the Facebook groups covering local issues such as the high school and fracking might see themselves being described here: "if a crime or incident of great public interest occurs, a kangaroo court is instantly established in these groups with waves of information being discussed regardless of their validity."
The people in these groups, or taking pictures at accident scenes, or reporting on "every single bit of 'news'" are not qualified to make these judgments, argues Malloy. "Journalists don't just wake up one morning and decide they're reporters. It takes years of study and honing their craft to earn the right to be called a newsperson."
Moreover, "they are bound to a strict code of ethics and do their jobs with impartiality, accountability, and with strict analysis and consideration of all fact before bringing their story to the public at large."
Malloy likens the scrutiny of citizen journalists as being akin to being watched by Big Brother, but instead of being run by government, "it's 100 per cent powered by the folks you share a community with." Perhaps their time and effort would be better spent elsewhere, writes Malloy.
Malloy admits that he's not a journalist, "just some guy with a lot to say who has been generously given a place to say it." In this he has unwittingly pointed to the major problem with journalism in Moncton.
It would be nice if the journalists in our local newspaper were qualified to make ethical decisions, had benefited from years of training, and were bound by a strict code of ethics. There is no evidence, however, that they are. Indeed, the bulk of what is offered up by the Times & Transcript is the opposite of that.
I've probably had more training in journalism than most of them: five years at a student newsletter, a dozen years running an online news site, and the last year with Moncton Free Press. And certainly Graham Decarie, one of the paper's most vocal critics, who has taught media ethics at university, has more background and experience.
And while we in our efforts do not cover "every single bit of 'news'" that happens in our region, we have become painfully aware of just how much actual real and genuinely important news is simply overlooked by the local newspaper as irrelevant.
Here's what Decarie says of the coverage such as that offered in the Times & Transcript: "The news media, far from having standards of any sort, are awash in
prejudice, lying, manipulation, half-truths, ignorance. They are also
whores for the owners. There is a whole library of books on this. I
would give Mr. Malloy a list of the books - but anyone who can write for
the TandT and not know what it is would not be able to understand a
Through the last year I have been monitoring not just the newspaper and Facebook groups but also the city and region's alternative publications and news sources. There are dozens of them. This not only tells me exactly what the newspaper has been ignoring (which is most of it, especially from non-business groups) but also what press releases the newspaper has been copying word for word, without attribution, and publishing under the byline "Times & Transcript Staff".
But most of all, what I have found is that the Times & Transcript is the least reliable source of media in the city, by a wide margin. Compared to local and regional coverage offered by CTV News, CBC news, News 91.9 and other media, it is generally last and least accurate. And there is the constant bias, not only in story selection, but in presentation and description as well.
Malloy's own column is in fact just the most recent example of that. Is there any evidence that citizen media has been acting as he describes? Have we been covering the news irresponsibly, shocking people with accident photos of their beloved or reportage of bathroom spills? Have we been misrepresenting the truth, distorting facts, and behaving like Big Brother? No - there is no evidence of this. Malloy's characterization is a complete fabrication. It's based - like so much of our local newspaper's coverage - on what he thinks must be the case, instead of actual journalism.
It makes me yearn for a way to be able to present all of that to people in the city, in a professional and convenient format, and that is what the Moncton Free press has been designed to do, and eventually, will do.
Don't take my word for it. Review Decarie's columns, offered daily for the last year, for reams of coverage of the city's most yellow journalism.
Of course, two wrongs don't make a right. The poor coverage offered by the professional media in this city does not excuse excesses by the city's citizen journalists. That's why there is such a need for as expertly developed and deployed citizen publication as possible. We still have a ways to go with the Moncton Free Press - we need more coverage, and better coverage.
And yes, if someone were to ever become trapped in the Subway, we should put down our cameras and help.
But at least we're trying to produce a professional product.
And Malloy is actually right about one thing. We actually do have better things to do with our lives. We may have day jobs, or other interests, and don't have the time to do the work we'd like to do. What would be most ideal would be were it not necessary to develop and run citizen media in this city.
But alternative media springs up, Facebook groups spring up and blogger websites spring up when the people of the community are denied a full and legitimate voice in their own media. When the publications that should serve the public good are co-opted to serve private and corporate interests. When the journalists who should be non-partisan not only take sides, but very transparently and deliberately resort to fabrication and manipulation to promote their (owners') point of view.
We who are engaged in citizen journalism, not just in Moncton but around the world, have concluded that there is no alternative way to support and ensure a free and objective media. We have given up trying to convince these publications to do right, and have instead concluded that they can't.