Commentary: 'Citizen journalists' and credibility

The Kansas City StarDecember 8, 2012 


Lewis Diuguid is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

MBR — MCT/Kansas City Star

Nearly 36 years ago when I started reporting for this newspaper, police and elected officials would stop speaking candidly to folks as soon as I entered the room.

One deputy police chief pointed to my narrow reporter’s notebook, saying, “Anytime I see one of those things, it’s time for me to stop talking.”

Things said to “concerned residents” might draw a few laughs or ease people’s distress but generally not go beyond that room. A newspaper, TV or radio journalist in the crowd would rightfully do a story on newsworthy statements.

I’ve noticed in the last few years that some police, politicians and other public officials are extremely reticent to speak candidly. No newspaper, magazine, radio or TV journalist has to be present for most elected or public figures to only talk in a guarded fashion now.

That’s how social media have changed the flow of information from knowledgeable sources. Twitter, blogs, Facebook and YouTube have turned everyday people into citizen journalists who are too eager to “expose” public officials.

About a month before the presidential election, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney got zapped. A secretly made videotape at a May fundraiser before wealthy donors was released, showing Romney saying 47 percent of Americans “are dependent upon government,” see themselves as “victims” and would never vote for him. That cast him as more callous and uncaring than most people dared imagine.

The tape may have contributed to Romney losing to President Barack Obama.

Good, ethical journalism is lost on some citizen reporters with smartphones and other devices.

They post their take on things instantly, and if it goes viral it just encourages more people to do it, too.

It makes politicians and authority figures more guarded than when they just had to worry about mere journalists.

Trust, rapport and credibility, which journalists work their lives to maintain, mean less to some citizen reporters. What’s doubly troubling is something juicy captured on a camera phone or other recording device could get broadcast or printed by the mainstream press.

Sometimes it’s misrepresented as was the case with Shirley Sherrod whose comments to an NAACP gathering were taken out of context by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart.

She was forced out of her Department of Agriculture job in 2010.

The rush to pluck the most titillating noise or the grossest, scariest video has changed the media and sources.

We’re paying for the push to pick up what citizens produce.

The social media rush increases the likelihood of inaccuracies and decreases candid conversations with credible sources. Instead of increasing the free flow of information in our democracy, it sometimes hurts it.

The public, once flimflammed, is reluctant to trust again. In the process, more media are tarred with the untruths.

The editing restraints in the mainstream press include professionalism, good taste and sound judgment.

That’s often missing in the social media.

Armed with the truth, people generally make good choices. Wild statements only feed public anger, distrust and resentment.

The no-holds barred social media help feed public and political divisiveness in the United States.

We’ve seen it in the tea party and snarling efforts to oust all incumbents.

The Occupy movement folks clamor for reform, sensing that the 1 percent have no good end in store for the 99 percent.

Trust, faith, hope, togetherness and a sense of community seem to be diminished. Getting those values back must be the goal of our collective efforts to keep the social media in check while pursuing honesty, integrity and truth.

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