For academics studying whether “citizen journalism” is going to “replace” traditional journalism, let me save you some time: It won’t. It’s not trying to. It shouldn’t.
Journalism is not, never has been and should not become a zero-sum game.
A study by a team of five university researchers showed a fairly common old-media bias in comparing citizen media sites to traditional media in 46 metro areas. The title of a report on the study by Missouri School of Journalism researchers Margaret Duffy, Esther Thorson and Mi Jahng describes the flawed premise: “Comparing Legacy News Sites with Citizen News and Blog Sites: Where’s the Best Journalism?“
(That report was presented at an academic conference but has not been published and is not available online, so the link above goes to an MU News Bureau story on the study. A report on an earlier phase of the study is embedded below. Thanks to Duffy for sending me copies of both. Her response to my criticism is at the end of this post.) The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism cited the study at length in its State of the News Media report.
It did this time, too. “Citizen sites – even the best – are far from able to replace or significantly supplement legacy news,” the study concluded. “Many offer excellent content and serve their communities in important ways. But without the content of legacy news sites, no city would have comparable coverage.”
I don’t want to pick this study apart point by point, as I did with the Baltimore study. I will, though, point out three significant problems:
- Like any academic study of new media, this one was outdated as soon as it was released. By studying only “citizen” sites, the study does not reflect one of the most important developments in media currently: the launch this year and last of professional news sites such as Bay Citizen, Civil Beat and California Watch (of course, TBD has not launched yet, so we couldn’t be included either). Even if you accept the premise of the study (more later on why that is so flawed), the current question would not be whether citizen journalism would replace legacy media, but whether some combination of citizen journalists and new professional organizations would replace the old media. This is not a failing of the research itself, but the report should have noted this huge development in community media.
- Like the Baltimore study, this one pays no attention to citizens using Twitter, a news source that is too significant to ignore. This study does not mention Twitter in either of two reports sent to me by Duffy. The report faults citizen web sites that failed to post daily, noting that the traditional media are more “timely.” Well, if timeliness is important and you ignore a citizen media source that is consistently more timely than traditional media, you have tipped the scale heavily in favor of the old guys.
- Most important (beyond the bogus premise), the study actually looked at more traditional media outlets in the 46 metro areas studied than it did citizen sites. Compare a professional news staff of several dozen with a guy blogging in his spare time, or even a handful of people blogging in their spare time, and the large staff wins, even if it’s been slashed by multiple rounds of buyouts and layoffs. In the 46 media markets chosen for the study, the researchers examined the performance of 187 legacy media sites and 152 citizen news sites and citizen blogs. The contribution of blogs and citizen journalists to the news ecosystem (a phrase the Baltimore study used that I like, even if they didn’t understand it) cannot be understood by examining three or four blogs. We have 96 blogs and news sites already signed up for the TBD Community Network, and we still have our sights set on dozens more. To measure what citizen journalism is doing in the Washington area, you need to study dozens, if not hundreds, of sites and blogs. Especially if you’re studying whether citizens could “replace” old media, you need to look at the full citizen effort. The cliché of bad comparisons is that you’re comparing apples to oranges. This is more like comparing an apple to a grape. A grape will never replace an apple. But a bunch of grapes might provide similar or more nutrition, even if one makes a better pie and the other better wine. These researchers didn’t study the full bunch of grapes that exists in every metro area.
But let’s return to the flawed premise. Jay Rosen calls people discussing and studying this notion “replaceniks.” This is a backward-looking way of studying a forward-looking change in the media. You can simply never produce meaningful data with such a study.
The replacenik premise (though it’s not stated this explicitly) is that the old way was a paragon of democracy that must be retained or replaced untouched or we will fall into chaos. But the truth is that media have always been evolving and have never been perfect.
The early partisan press had none of the investigative reporting of Ida Tarbell, Woodward and Bernstein or Barlett and Steele. Journalism’s most prestigious prize is named for Joseph Pulitzer, whose name during his life was synonymous with yellow journalism. The other giant of yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst (a major media company still bears his name), helped fuel our nation’s lust for a war with Spain (Duffy noted correctly in her email that recent scholarship debunks a piece of the Hearst legend surrounding the war, but the hysteria of the New York papers leading up to the war is a matter of historical fact.) Speaking of wars, the faulty reporting of virtually all the major national media except the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau helped lead us into a war in Iraq that we still can’t get out of.
The business media was not a good enough watchdog to prevent or provide much warning of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, the Enron mirage of the 1990s (which collapsed in 2001) or the mortgage mayhem of the past decade.
And at the local level, I am quite sure that as many, if not more, local government meetings and expenditures are not covered by the media as are covered.
With notable and courageous exceptions, the media have been as racist, sexist and materialistic through history as the society they covered.
Why in the world would it be important to replace media that give far more attention to the achievements of high school athletes than to the achievements of students and the academic problems of schools?
Media perform an important role in society but we have always performed it imperfectly. And don’t tell me that the boom in newsroom employment in the 1980s was all dedicated to hiring watchdogs. I worked in newsrooms that whole time. We performed the watchdog role and took it seriously, but we also missed scandals and malfeasance at all levels and covered a lot of trivial and boring news.
I am proud of most of the contributions my news organizations made for their communities and of many times we exposed wrongdoing and stood up to the powerful. But I also know that an archbishop called a publisher and killed a story I had written, with four kinds of verification, about a priest who had sexually abused a girl. I documented offenses by a religious cult including sexual abuse of a child and encouraging members to commit tax fraud. But that story never ran because I took another job shortly after finishing it and an editor lacked the spine to stand behind the story if I wasn’t there to take the heat. Nearly every journalist who has worked as long as I have can tell similar discouraging stories. This is a media we should seek to eclipse, not replace.
I don’t know what citizen journalism or professional new media will become, but I know we are seeing a media renaissance whose value should not be measured against imperfect media who have consistently refused to innovate.
These studies miss the point as badly as if you were to study whether NASCAR will replace horse racing. One kind or racing is declining and another is rising, but no one is replacing anyone here. The media revolution we are experiencing and witnessing isn’t like trying to replace an old quarterback by sending in a younger one (a story most traditional media would give more coverage than your average watchdog story).
I hope someone does some valid studies of new media and the roles they are playing. But don’t measure the future against the past.
Disclosure: I have been accepted to online graduate studies at the University of Missouri, where three of the five researchers on this project are based. I registered for my first course for last spring, but withdrew when I accepted my job at TBD. I am not sure when or whether I will take any graduate classes there.
Admission: On rereading, I notice that I have gone on a metaphor spree here: auto and horse racing, quarterbacks, fruit, watchdogs, a yardstick. Each of them makes the point I wanted to make, though, and I decided to poke fun at this weakness in my writing because I don’t have time to fix it today. I’ll just point you to the news-business metaphor collection Nick Bergus is compiling (at my suggestion, ironically enough). It’s so much easier to recognize my weaknesses in the writing of others.
Thanks to Margaret Duffy, one of the authors of the report, for answering some questions I emailed her, and for this response to a draft I sent with the questions:
I’m on another deadline and Esther’s in London so I can’t respond point by point. I would make a few quick observations and I speak for myself, not my co-authors:
- Of course, all social scientific studies become dated in dynamic fields. Nevertheless, this was an effort to look at the citizen journalism phenomenon in a systematic and scientific way, not on impressionistic feelings or observations. We wanted to know if the enthusiasm and zeal many had for citizen journalism could be supported by evidence.
- We have no agenda to defend “old media.” Nor do we have any illusions that the old model was/is static or perfect. In fact, in our early exploratory studies we were quite surprised that the citizen and blog efforts were not only quite limited in the coverage they provided but exceedingly ephemeral. We certainly wish citizen sites and new professional sites well and are hopeful that in the future they can be significant contributors to the news environment. As you know, however, it’s harder than it looks to cover the news in meaningful ways. On the dimensions we described, we did not find that depth and breadth of coverage was comparable. Future studies may, indeed, find that the situation has changed. I hope so.
Most of us hope for and expect that the news media (whoever they are) will serve as the Fourth Estate. And, by the way, I’m not so dismissive of community reporting on high school sports because it isn’t fearlessly exposing corruption on the city council. Kids, their schools, local organizations, and all those small events help strengthen our communities and create social capital. Citizen sites can serve a role in that as well.
Buttry note: I don’t dismiss the value of high school sports. I’m a former high school athlete and sports writer. And I agree that citizen sites can — and in some cases already are — fill that role well. But high school sports are not as important to communities and society as schools are, and the media coverage is nowhere near comparable.
Thanks to Margaret for this response. She sent me copies of both reports, but did not give me permission to post the scholars’ second report, which has not been published.