COMMENTARY: With scores of important storylines, ‘citizen journalism’ is working
Published: August 14th, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY – In June 2013, the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity launched Watchdog Wire, a forum for citizen journalists. Citizen journalists? Well, that’s the upgraded name for bloggers.
There has been skepticism (including, ahem, formerly in this corner) about whether much good could come from bloggers as reporters.
In January of this year, an article posted at the website Ebyline.com said the Franklin Watchdog program was “betting” on the ability (and drive) of citizens to do more than blog about pets or such topics.
EByline quoted John Triplett, content editor at the Arizona Republic, saying that citizen journalists (whom he called neighborhood contributors) “really do not venture into hard news” and they are “best at posting Facebook-style items about their neighborhoods” such as items on pets, potholes and fundraisers.
Nothing wrong with those sort of posts, but a year later, there is a reason Erik Telford, the Franklin man in charge of the Watchdog program (along with Mary Ellen Beatty), says he is “inspired and amazed at what citizens are capable of uncovering if you give them a chance and a little guidance.”
Beatty added, “The citizens we have trained are not only identifying and investigating stories of waste and abuse in their own communities, they are producing original and local content.”
A few examples follow.
In Florida: Classroom electioneering, campaign shenanigans and low bus use – Richard Swier of Florida broke last year’s story about a professor at Brevard Community College in Cocoa, who had forced students to sign pledges they would vote for Barack Obama. The story seemed too incredible to be true. But the college suspended, and after several months fired, the prof – because Swier’s reports were true.
Also in Florida, Democratic congressional candidate Kevin Fitzgerald used his power to earmark millions of dollars to a liberal arts school where he worked. A blogger found this out, reported on it and wondered if the conflict of interest amounted to an ethics violation.
Months later, Fitzgerald’s communications director posted vulgar and sexual comments in an audio clip about opposing Republicans. She was ultimately fired, but her candidate never recovered – the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled a major TV buy in the race, and Fitzgerald lost.
This spring, Barbara Haselden, another Floridian, documented low ridership in a highly touted new public bus system.
Giving ’em Hell in West Virginia – Watchdog Wire contributor Kate Obenshaine posted a video taken by a young campaign idealist who caught West Virginia Attorney General Darrel McGraw in the act of grabbing his camera (which was being used in a public place). The incident got nationwide attention – and the six-term incumbent lost.
Michigan Matters, too — Gena Rinckey’s open records request documented filthy conditions in a state abortion clinic. Andrea Blachford, also from Michigan, brought wide attention to an important court hearing about property and free speech rights that “mainstream” media had ignored.
I recently wrote about blogger Rob Port of North Dakota, now one of the most respected state-based policy analysts.
You get the idea.
This is journalism — news reporting that presents facts and withstands scrutiny. Of course, there are bloggers/citizen journalists who do things that do not stand up to such tests – but the same can be said every day of the week of mainstream journalists.
These stories and the people behind them give more than circumstantial support to Telford’s contention that these folks are “concerned with what local government is doing with their tax dollars, and suspicious of waste, fraud and abuse.” And, they’re doing something about it.
Their stories developed not from editorial assignments but from self-assignments. The stories were the end results of involvement and experience in the community – attending school boards and other public meetings, writing letters to elected officials, submitting letters to editors, organizing with others to scrutinize local issues or ordinances, learning to use cameras, and writing accurately.
May this tribe increase.