I’m in the middle of listening (time shifted on my iPhone) to part 1 of Ira Basen’s great CBC radio documentary News 2.0: The Future of News in an Age of Social Media.  It’s a great piece of work partly because of all the great interviews Basen scored. This post focuses on his interview with citizen journalism critic Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture.

What I love about Keen is that he’s a smart, dissenting voice in my lefty neck of the woods – and those always get me thinking. No difference here.

Basen’s entire interview with Keen is posted on the CBC Web site. In it, Keen alternates between far too broad generalisations and some really great points.

First the generalisations.

“The truth about these so called amateurs is [that they’re] made up of wealthy technologists who have made a fortune sitting around… in California.. blogging because they’re the only ones who can really afford to invest significant time in working for free – and the other group of people are kids who again have nothing better to do in college or in high school – real…citizens are too busy with their jobs and careers and their families to invest too much time in expressing themselves for nothing.”

Keen misses a key point raised by someone else Basen interviewed: Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody. Shirky argues that the economy has changed so that money is no longer the primary motivator for people to produce things. They do it for recognition, challenge and passion. Keen dismisses the millions of people blogging because they’re passionate about their topic – and they enjoy it – people like me.

“The rebellion against mainstream media is part of a broader, social rebellion against authority and it can be seen most clearly in a generational revolt. You’ll find that most people over 30, 35 or 40 are somewhat sympathetic to mainstream media. The vast majority of people under 30 are deeply hostile to mainstream media…”

Blaming it all on age is way too simple.  (I don’t have studies to back this up. If  Keen does he doesn’t say so in the interview) From what I see, people haven’t abandoned mainstream news at all. They’re just getting some, or much, of what they used to consume from other sources. People still read their paper in the morning or watch TV news and then check their Twitter streams on the bus.

“…many of the kids who are involved in the web 2.0 movement are from broken families.”

This just seems completely unsupportable. What is his evidence for this?

“…the value of a professional journalist is to provide the citizen with…information, to understand the world, to vote, to determine the qualities of ones own government and ones own role in the world…..I don’t have a problem with democratizing the media, provided that there are editors and competent people involved in the process.”

This paragraph lays Keen’s simplistic beliefs bare: “real” journalists and editors are objective and competent, “citizen” journalists are bias and incompetent.  He ignores that fact that mainstream editors choose what to cover and how to cover it based on the values of the news outlet for which they work and, for private media, whether it will affect the organization’s power to make money.  The problem is that many people share his belief in the benevolent objectivity of mainstream media. Citizen journalism doesn’t pretend to be all objective or even all good – and that’s its power. Because much of it is so bad I assume people look at it more critically. (I “assume” because I admit I haven’t found studies to back this up yet.)

Also, a key part of the power of citizen journalism is the absence of editors – especially in places where journalists can’t go. No editors chose what reports people sent via Twitter about the violence during the recent Iranian election or what pictures people sent from Gaza during the recent Israeli occupation.  Journalists were restricted or banned from getting most of these stories but we got them thanks to citizen journalists.

“The other problem, and this is my fundamental critique of the web 2.0 idealogs is the vast majority of new voices on the internet are not earning an income, which means they can only do it part time, which means that the quality of their work, whatever their talent is going to be inferior to the person who is employed full time.”

Again, the issue is that often the “part-timers” are the first ones – or the only ones – on the scene capturing raw, unfiltered data. That being said, the full-timers have the luxury of providing more context making the two roles complementary.

So much for his generalisations. As for the good points I want to mention one in particular:

“Google, which on the one hand, idealizes the free market, is extremely hostile to the State.  They believe that the market resolves everything, that the activities of the crowd result in a kind of justice…”

Keen’s point highlights two key things here for me. The first is that “media” include things like Google and Wikipedia, for example. The second is that these also have biases of which most people aren’t aware and should be critical.  There is nothing objective about Google and search engine optimization (SEO) companies making millions from people paying to get their results to the top of Google’s rearch results. Yet many people think Google results are unfiltered (for more on this see Jay Moonah’s e-book Trusting Google and Yahoo: Search Engines & Information Literacy).

And Wikipedia, that supporters promote as completely objective, also has its biases. Firstly, fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute (Clay Shirky, Here Come Everybody, pg. 125) so that’s the first bias. Then, to get an article to in Wikipedia about a person, that won’t be deleted, you have to show how that person was or is “significant”. Significant to whom? Making that call involves bias. Who are the main Wikipedia editors? Do we know? Are they a diverse group or all the same?

The main point is it’s crucial to be critical of all media we consume and I encourage all the lousy citizen journalists to keep it up because it makes that easier to remember.

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