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220 Comparison of Perceived Journalism and Public Relations Ethics as Seen in Establishing Media Credentials for Bloggers and Citizen Journalists without Gatekeepers
IntroductionJournalists and public relations practitioners hold a somewhat adversarial relationship.
Affectionately known as the “hacks” and “flacks,” the two types of professionals have provided a watchdog role for each other, perhaps creating some of the relational conflict. Public relations practitioners traditionally have relied on journalists and their editors to add credibility to news releases and information through their gate keeping function. On the other hand, journalists have relied on public relations practitioners for access to organizational information and breaking news.
With the onset of significant blogging and citizen journalism, both sets of professionals are somewhat stymied by the lack of refereed information and credentials of new media outlets. As such, we decided to investigate the ethical dilemmas of establishing appropriate media credentials as well as verifying the accuracy of citizen journalists as self-gatekeepers.
By conducting two modified Delphi studies of journalism professors and journalists as well as public relations professors and practitioners, respondents were asked several questions in a panel format regarding journalistic and public relations ethics. The authors selected five educators and five practitioners each to ascertain their opinions regarding media credentials for bloggers and also the use of citizen journalists who don’t have the benefit of gatekeepers/editors to monitor their copy.
The Delphi method as systematic, interactive forecasting relies on a panel of independent experts. The carefully selected experts answer questionnaires in two rounds. After each round, a facilitator provides an anonymous summary of the experts’ forecasts from the previous round as well as the reasons they provided for their judgments. Then, panelists refine their answers and the group converges toward consensus through a second set of ranked responses.
The authors conducted two Delphi studies of two rounds each with 10 journalism professors/practitioners and 10 public relations professors/practitioners from several states throughout the nation. Two questions were asked in each round. The first question concerns how to best establish media credentials for bloggers. Should all bloggers be given “press” or media credentials to any news conference or special event as do their more traditional counterparts?
The second question concerns citizen journalism and “unchecked” or unedited content and its legitimacy. Should citizen journalists be accorded the same respect as their more traditional counterparts?
By asking both journalists and public relations practitioners, we looked at two sides of a transaction/relationship. Most public relations practitioners elect for journalists to receive or not to receive media credentials. On the other hand, public relations practitioners rely on gatekeepers, often editors, to evaluate the worth of a story or issue. Evaluating both sets of professionals yields an interesting set of responses to these ethical dilemmas of who is a journalist and what constitutes legitimate copy.
Citizen Journalists, Bloggers, and Gate Keeping “Citizen journalism” lends itself to disparate interpretations, yet most people seem to understand its basic usage. Goode (2009) says “citizen journalism” refers to a range of web-based practices whereby “ordinary” users engage in journalistic practices. These include current affairsbased blogging, photo and video sharing, and posting eyewitness commentary on current events (p.
1288). Flynn (2006) adds that citizen journalists are people outside the traditional, mainstream news business who use blogs (their own or others’) to share newsworthy stories, provide analysis of news stories and events, and post or send newsworthy photos to mainstream media outlets (p. 216).
One of the simplest descriptions, although open to debate, comes from Gillmor (2006). He says a citizen journalist is a “passionate nonexpert using technology to make a profound contribution, and a real difference” (p. 140). Furthermore, Gillmor calls citizen-generated media “global conversation 222 that is growing in strength, complexity, and power. When people can express themselves, they will.
When they can do so with powerful yet inexpensive tools, they take to the new-media realm quickly.
When they can reach a potentially global audience, they literally can change the world” (p. xv).
The newsletter of the Educause Learning Initiative (2007) says “citizen journalism refers to a wide range of activities in which everyday people contribute information or commentary about news events.” However, says this newsletter, “the notion of citizen journalism implies a difference between simply offering one’s musings on a topic and developing a balanced story that will be genuinely useful to readers.” The controversy of definition may stem from the belief of many professional journalists that only a trained journalist can understand the rigors and ethics involved in reporting the news (Glaser, 2006). As Glaser says, “There are many trained journalists who practice what might be considered citizen journalism by writing their own blogs or commentary online outside of the traditional journalism hierarchy.” People have nearly limitless access to information, allowing them to exercise their own news judgment. They are increasingly serving as reporters and editors for themselves and others. Indeed, the case has been thoughtfully articulated that, “We’re all journalists now” (Fancher, p. 35).
Jeff Jarvis, in his BuzzMachine blog (2006), suggests substituting the term “networked journalism” for citizen journalism. He says, “‘Networked journalism’ takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make news. And it focuses on the process more than the product.” The role of citizen journalists is blurry in the eyes of public officials, even when the citizen journalist is also a member of the so-called “professional media” (Thompson, 2009).
The filtering system for news from source to receiver has become clogged. “Gatekeeping” is the system of screening and selecting what news will be disseminated to the public. In this way, some stories pass through “the gate,” while others do not. Considerations regarding advertisers, news importance, audience interest, space, and time determine selections (DeFleur, 2010). An editor has historically served as the news gatekeeper, the person who decides what shall pass through.
Although a gatekeeper’s selections can be biased, at least criteria exist for making decisions. In the blogosphere today, where anyone reports news, specific criteria may not be controlling decisions for selection or omission. Just about anything is fair game for reporting and sharing, possibly with little responsibility for fact checking and presenting balanced news. Whether or not a gatekeeper is active, most major stories of importance do find their way into the press in one medium or another (DeFleur, 2010).
The question arises regarding not only who can monitor the filtering of news once it’s gathered, but who will allow access to those people who will produce the news: who will grant media credentials to reporters, either traditional or nontraditional. A typical example is represented
by the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) (2010) in their granting of credentials:
A “press agency” for purposes of these criteria shall mean a daily or weekly publication, cable system, radio or television station or network requiring immediate news coverage…Except for television camera operators, a credential may be issued only to an authorized full-time, salaried representative of, or a representative who regularly and customarily performs services for, the agency submitting the request.
“When utilizing press passes to cover an event, it’s important to send a copy of all footage or published material to the PR firm or Media Relations staff who handled press access for the event. In cases where a tear sheet or CD of footage/audio is not provided, a journalist risks being blacklisted or sent a bill for the cost of tickets/admission” (Carter, 2009).
While that guideline applies to traditional journalists as well, citizen journalists who follow through and meet the request can begin to build credibility.
Another example from the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) for their 40th Annual Meeting includes credential guidelines for media, freelancers, Internet news outlets, journals, journalism professors and students, and public information officers and writers. Which category would citizen journalists fit? None, by strict adherence to the guidelines; however, if citizen journalists can produce bylined articles that would be acceptable to the SfN, perhaps they would be admitted. The
description under “Internet News Outlets” reads:
“To verify credentials, SfN requires Internet news outlets to provide a printed copy of the online publication, including current publication masthead or editorial page listing your name and editorial title as well as information on audience, circulation, and funding.” In addition, the reporter has to meet one of three other criteria listed.
Under traditional guidelines, getting a press pass may be difficult. A chain of blogs called Journalism that Matters: Citizen Journalists and Government Press Releases (2009) produced a plethora of information. Some traditional journalists who had left their formal jobs and were now blogging were sometimes denied press passes, while others continued with the privilege due to their prior association with media. Police departments, which typically grant press passes in communities, are in a quandary as to who should have access to information and who should not.
Hynes (2009), on the Journalism That Matters blog, says this issue drives us into the “difficult territory of defining who are members of the press. If we suggest that members of the press are only those that have a substantial number of local readers, and we make it more difficult for people who do not have a substantial number of local readers, then we make it more difficult for new members of the press to emerge, and gain the substantial number of readers they need to be considered members of the press. It is a sort of chicken and egg problem.” Williams (2009) replied to the situation saying he didn’t think it was a freedom of press issue as much as freedom of information issue. He writes, “The Internet is challenging the whole idea that there is a distinct, or even semi-distinct, class of citizen called the press who should receive information and another class, the public, whose access to information should be mediated by the first group. There may be situations in which the distinction between traditional online journalists needs to be broken down, but this doesn’t seem to be one of those. This seems to be information that ought to be made available to anyone who requests it. The fact that you have a blog is irrelevant.” Restricting public information and media credentials isn’t exclusive to police departments.
Radio talk show host Bill Press was denied media credentials from the Congressional RadioTelevision Galleries. To gain access, he sought an internship with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. He says he will continue to cover news conferences and hearings for Sanders’ staff, and then he will use the information on his morning radio program. In his words, “There is more than one way to skin a cat” (Stein, 2009).
According to Hynes (2009), the problem of media access denial may get worse before it gets better, “especially as more and more downsized traditional journalists set up their own online news sites and attempt to get access.” Several advocacy groups are examining the issue, including Citizen Media Law Project with its Online Media Legal Network, a project hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which offers legal aid to online journalists.
224 A March 2010 decision by the New York City Law Department to modernize the City’s credentialing system states: “To receive press credentials, an applicant must show that he or she has covered, in person, six news events where the City has restricted access, within the 2-year period preceding the application” (The New York Press Club, 2010). These applicants now include selfemployed newspersons and other individuals who gather and report the news, such as bloggers.
The turnaround came after a 2008 lawsuit challenged the existing system. One of the attorneys in the lawsuit, Norman Siegel, commented, “Online journalists will now be considered as 21st century journalists and be treated equally to print, television and radio journalists” (The New York Press Club, 2010).
Perhaps the frustration is summed up by Doug Thompson (2010), blogging on Journalism that Matters, about the double standard that has existed. “As a reporter for our local paper, I am on the list for press releases. However, I also publish a community blog/news site and I get different treatment when dealing with them as a blogger and not a reporter. The sheriff's department will send a press release to my paper e-mail address but not to the one for my blog … the Virginia State Police earlier this year tried to exclude me from a press conference because a local sheriff's deputy told them “Oh, he's a blogger.” When I flashed my press pass from the paper they changed their tune.”
As described earlier in the introduction, the authors selected both practitioners and educators from a variety of geographic settings, organizations and universities. Some respondents were known by the authors while others were selected randomly through Google and organization websites.
Once selected, the potential respondents received a brief introductory e-mail accompanied by
the following questions: