Take Me to Your Editor

Originally posted on Huffington Post on May 4, 2009.

Huffington Post
is a noble and necessary experiment in citizen journalism — and indeed in journalism itself — and I have been pleased to be a contributor, however infrequent. But like all path-breaking experiments, it can be led astray by its very success, and I wonder if it is now in danger of being blinded by the dazzle of one of its own innovations.

Citizen journalists at Huffington Post recently received an email crowing, understandably, that “More than 2,500 of you helped make our tea party coverage the biggest distributive reporting success since the election.” As evidence of that success, the email noted that Huffington Post‘s citizen journalism “caught the eye of the blogosphere, on both conservatives and progressives [sic]. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC was among those watching your reports, broadcasting your photographs live on her show last Friday.”

Attention garnered is certainly one measure of success, but is that the best measure of journalism excellence? Is the volume of the reporting an adequate gauge of good journalism?

To get more specific: Should we not also ask whether the high-wattage attention focused on a series of fringe protests dreamed up by some p.r. wizard with an ideological agenda by itself distorted the importance of those protests?

Too often, in this celebrity-crazed nation, the attention paid to a subject is both self-justifying and self-reinforcing, and many of the errors of the mainstream media — even on issues far more important than a blonde beauty’s latest drunk-driving arrest — follow a similarly dangerous trajectory. That is,

Too often, in this celebrity-crazed nation, the attention paid to a subject is both self-justifying and self-reinforcing …

the unrelenting attention of “pack journalists” gives a credibility and importance to an event that it did not merit. (The reverse is also true: The paucity of attention paid to a topic marginalizes that topic and can help push it down to the bottom of the national agenda.)

The spin may vary from one news organization to another — one cable channel to another — but the attention itself may be what most people remember though it can be every bit as misleading as the crazed rant of a verbal bully posing as a journalist. (“Of course it’s important; it was the top story on the 6 o’clock network news.”) It is a symptom of the perversity of the human mind
that, as social scientists have argued, even the repetition necessary to debunk a myth can give it a measure of credibility, by the sheer act of repetition alone.

Examples are easy to find in the mainstream media, on issues of supreme importance — from Saddam Hussein’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks to the prevalence of the most recent headline-hogging crime. Misleading or not, stories like those have lasting impact in the real world: Hussein’s inflated “guilt” was a key part of the narrative furthering the war in Iraq, and those crime-of-the-moment stories often lead to ad hoc legislation that further distorts our crazy quilt of criminal sanctions.

All too often, such saturation coverage conditions public sentiment for quick and easy solutions. Those solutions may be as specific as “remedial” legislation or as general as the validation of “conventional wisdom” or as stubbornly pernicious as the reinforcement of racial, class and other stereotypes.

All of this may seem like a heavy burden to place on the coverage of an inconsequential fringe event like the “tea party” protests, but the level of coverage was not inconsequential.

Journalism is essentially anecdotal. Such coverage reinforces the reservoirs of anecdotal knowledge from which most of us draw our policy conclusions. In this instance, the public was likely to conclude from the attention paid to these p.r.-driven pseudo-events that the prevailing mood of the country has swung to angry grassroots advocacy of balanced budgets, lowered taxes and a reduced role for the federal government in financing systemic reforms of healthcare, the economy and the environment. There is no evidence that that is true, despite the excessive attention paid to a bunch of people at isolated locales parading around in tea-bag hats.

So what’s the antidote? Citizen journalism certainly has a valuable role to play in leavening news coverage with local perspectives and with the insights of experts outside the “usual suspects” featured on Sunday morning news shows. But massive, unfiltered exercises in citizen journalism can tilt public understanding as surely as the rush of passengers from one side to the other can threaten the stability of a small boat.

I used the word unfiltered intentionally. Despite the scorn heaped on the role of the MSM as filters of the information that reaches the public, we may be losing something important by so completely ditching the old model. The solution for information that has been inappropriately filtered may not be opening the spigot full-force.

Another word for journalism filters is editors. They are critical to the process of shaping the chaos of public events into some coherent form, including a rough hierarchy based on importance. Without them we are left with little more than the accumulation of data measured more by volume than significance.

By all means, let’s keep the citizens in citizen journalism. Let any interested reader find the raw data from hundreds of localities if they wish. But the measure of our success should be the perspective and understanding we provided for our readers, not how much data was accumulated by how many people or how much of it reverberated elsewhere in the national news echo chamber.

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