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Media vigilantes

If I were to guess, I’d say Dr. Alex Bruns has never worked in the field of journalism. If he did, he must have been disgruntled or he’d never have written about the profession in such an uninformed fashion.

“Wikinews: The Next Generation of Alternative Online News?” is just one more shot across the bow of the beleaguered news industry. It’s riddled with false assumptions about the state of journalism, the self-importance of “user-driven online news Websites and blogs,” and faulty ideas about news gathering and editing.

The provision of such alternative, multiple perspectives on news and current events, then, is what the new generation of user-driven online news Websites and blogs excel in. Many of them, indeed, take up a quite deliberately chosen position as a corrective to the mainstream news: rather than focussing (sic) on the production of comprehensive news services in their own right, they fill the gaps left by professional journalism – both in the overall newswhole (sic), where sites such as Indymedia add stories which are routinely overlooked or ignored by mainstream news services, and in individual stories, where news sites and blogs add further perspectives on news and current events which had not been represented in newspapers and news broadcasts.

If “a deliberately chosen position” means they have a point of view, then I’d agree. The more popular blogs are political in nature and opinionated by choice. The Daily Kos and Michelle Malkin do not produce news. They do not, as Bruns puts it, “add further perspectives on news and current events,” they examine a cause from political points of view in the same polarizing manner Cass R. Sunstein describes. There is rarely any objectivity evident in these kinds of blogs because that’s not their goal, as it is with most mainstream media.

I was interested in Bruns repeated mention of Indymedia as being representative of this kind of blogging, so I took a look to what I’d been missing in my daily paper and on the nightly news.

Apparently, there are a lot of illegitimate prosecutions taking place and lots and lots of protests, though they generally seem to be for liberal causes. Conservative causes don’t many mentions here. More polarization.

When I attempted to become a citizen journalist myself and clicked the “Publish” link on the us.indymedia.org site, I got a warning that Firefox couldn’t “confirm that your connection is secure.” The site’s identity couldn’t be verified. I left.

But Indymedia has lots of partners. So, maybe I’d learn something by picking another site. Since there was no site for Columbus, I picked the Cleveland site and took a look.

Apparently, the traditional news media in Cleveland is doing a good job since there hadn’t been a new story posted to this site since Jan. 2. That story, “Friday’s Gaza Protest Rally is Huge Success!” also had multiple links to video from the local TV stations and other media.

So much for “filling the gaps,” as Bruns puts it.

When I hit the “Publish” link on this site, a screen popped up with this message: “publishing disabled by site admins due to abuse.” Apparently, the experiment is over in Cleveland. The editors have decided to “filter” the news there.

Not fair? OK, how about another example. The Pittsburgh link turned up a site called “G(infinity symbol)Media: Covering the G20 From the People’s Perspective.” Apparently, we the people are concerned about the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. So much so that we hung a huge banner from a bridge and some of us were arrested for protests before the event even began.

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You’re invited to submit your own G20 news item (above). Send anything you want. Your name? That’s optional. After all, this is about getting out the news and increasing perspectives, not about accountability.

Moving on to the regular Pittsburgh site, it looks like the media there must be doing a pretty good job as well. There were only two posts from this year featured on the homepage: one was about the “G-Infinity” site I’d just visited and the other was about the site getting a new look. There did seem to be some updated pieces listed off to the side. But again, clicking the “Publish” button on this site got me the same warning page I encountered on the original site.

One more try. On the Baltimore IMC site, I found an interesting piece of news that the mainstream media had missed. It’s headline read: Did the Bush Nazi Swine Flu Fool You?

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Here’s the lead:

Nazi Flu Fools are after You! GHW Bush revealed last night that the Anthrax that is being used to terrorize the populace with the current flu epidemic is being produced at hundreds of bogus government Anthrax production sites nationwide by the Bush Nazi Devil worshippers who believe that Moses was a bioterrorist.

Yep, you guessed it: The “post an article” link works on this site. “Most Indymedia sites support fully open news publishing, where any story submitted is published automatically and immediately,” Bruns says. That seems to have been the case here.

While the story was removed from the site inside of 24 hours, I think it’s fair to say that this is a bad system. If a traditional news Web site printed this article — even for a few hours — its credibility would suffer dramatically. And, of course, can you ever really retract a story like this? Google’s cached copy of the story says no.

Bruns also says:

Much of the work of alternative online news sites can be described as a form of remote commentary or annotation of what is covered in the mainstream news. In doing so, alternative online news frequently practices what can be described as gatewatching (see Bruns 2005a), as opposed to traditional journalistic gatekeeping: where in an age of easy publication and distribution of content over the Net no one news organisation (sic) has the power any more to choose what news is ‘fit to print’ and what news is discarded, and where therefore the ‘gates’ of publication have multiplied beyond all control, such alternative online news publishers watch the gates of as many other news (and newsworthy) organisations, and analyse (sic), evaluate, and discuss the information which passes through them.

Translation: The mainstream media uses its “closed editorial hierarchy,” as Burns refers to the editing process, to filter the news and then the “gatewatchers” take over and “complete” the stories with their “remote commentary,” otherwise know as opinions or bias.

I really enjoyed his idea of bloggers as “gatewatchers,” a term Bruns apparently coined (as noted by his citation of his own work).

More Bruns:

Overall, then, it is fair to describe the new alternative online news services, spanning from dedicated news sites like Indymedia to the “random acts of journalism” (Lasica 2003: 73) committed by news bloggers, as a second tier of journalism which acts as a corrective to the first, commercial tier.

Let’s see that again: Alternative news sites and bloggers — neither of which practice journalism by gathering facts and assembling them for presentation to readers — are a “second tier of journalism which acts as a corrective to the first, commercial tier.”

I just puked a little in my mouth when I wrote that.

Does the Bush Nazi swine flu story constitute a “random act of journalism?”

Enter Wikinews:

As its mission statement puts it:
we seek to create a free source of news, where, provided that we can overcome the digital divide, every human being is invited to contribute reports about events large and small, either from direct experience, or summarized from elsewhere. Wikinews is founded on the idea that we want to create something new, rather than destroy something old. It is founded on the belief that we can, together, build a great and unique resource which will enrich the media landscape. (Wikinews 2005: n.pag.)

“A free source of news … either from direct experience or summarized from elsewhere … which will enrich the media landscape.” That may be Wikinews.org’s stated goal, but the site is basically a cataloged blog without a point of view.

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Here are the top four news stories on Wikinews.org Wednesday:

  • Red dust storm engulfs Sydney, Australia: four sources listed for the summary, all from traditional media Web sites.
  • Carter: US ‘likely behind’ Venezuela coup: two sources listed, both of which with ties to the Middle East and both of which cite a third single source as quoting Carter.
  • Pope Benedict XVI announces visit to United Kingdom: four sources listed, all traditional British news organizations quoting a press release from British PM Gordon Brown. No confirmation from the Pope.
  • Chess grandmasters Kasparov and Karpov play match in Spain: three sources listed, all traditional media Web sites, including the New York Times.

It’s an eclectic group of stories. No G20 coverage — liberal or otherwise? No story from the United Nations, despite the heavy coverage of those events in the mainstream media?

And despite the site’s slogan “the free news source you can write!” I didn’t see any individual adding any first-hand information to any of these four stories. No one added a list of moves from the chess match. No one talked to Carter, the Pope or Gordon Brown. And, maybe worst of all, no one in Sydney could be located to add information about the dust storm, which seemed like the low-hanging fruit of this group of stories.

In essence, these kinds of sites — as well as most bloggers — rely on someone else to do the heavy lifting of collecting information, conducting interviews, sifting through documents and confirming facts through multiple sources.

Wikinews appears to be a step above blogs, but only because opinion isn’t injected into the summaries. It also reliably provides links to the source material it cites. And it appears to be attempting to provide accurate information, which I can’t always say of blogs.

At the point where I think the Wikinews system holds a little promise, Bruns suggests that they are hampered by those old-fashioned ideas of journalism:

A truly multiperspectival approach to news, by contrast, acknowledges that virtually all ‘facts’ are subject to interpretation, and unlike Wikinews’ attempt to synthesise (sic) them, simply presents these interpretations and offers a space for a dialogic engagement between them.

All ‘facts’ are subject to interpretation? Like the fact Barack Obama wasn’t really born in the U.S.? Or that the health-care plan includes death panels? How about the facts in the Bush Nazi Swine Flu story?

As my father used to say, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

At its core, journalism is about credibility and truthfully presenting the facts, not the democratic process of everyone getting a chance to build the news product. When journalists are doing their jobs, they gather as many opinions as possible in an attempt to present a balanced, objective report.

Traditional media on the whole may be somewhat adrift these days, searching for a new business model to keep the doors open. But it’s clear that alternative news outlets like Indymedia and Wikinews are not the future of journalism. In general, they don’t produce anything of value.

Category: Weekly Readings

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2 Responses

  1. [...] Chuck did a fabulous job analyzing Bruns’s work on alternative online news.   He accurately points out Bruns’s “false assumptions” about journalism and he shows the inadequacies of sites like indymedia.  While Brun suggests the alternative online news sites “fill the gaps left by professional journalism,” Chuck convincingly shows Bruns has not made his case…at least not with the websites Bruns highlights in our course reading.  No need for me to go over the ground Chuck covered so well. [...]

  2. Alex H. says:

    First, I’ll say that I agree that Indynews and Wikinews have largely failed at this point. I was eager to see each of them succeed, but concerned. (See my interview with Wired News in 2005 and my blog post then: I was cautiously hopeful, but raised some of the issues you have.)

    On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that traditional journalists are turning to places like Twitter and Wikipedia to a great degree, and the reason for this is that they are doing a substantial bit of reporting from their desks. They may not be in PJs, but a desk is a desk.

    One of the reasons I think “traditional” journalism is challenged is precisely because they have been taught that objectivity is attainable, or at the very least that “balance” is an appropriate response. The lack of transparency in traditional news media is precisely why bloggers and others feel the need to fill in the blanks.

    Yes, we can point out the failings of alternatives, and I think it’s fair to say that they have failed. But, of course, it’s easy to find similar examples of failures in the mainstream media. I’m not sure how much help that is. I think the key at this point is to figure out what is being done that works. My suspicion is that large-scale commercial news media, outside of specific niches, is not long for this world, but that the Glen Becks, et al, will continue to draw eyeballs and dollars.