‘Journalistic Outsourcing:’ Not the journalism I grew up with..

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It’s now almost cliche to talk about the death (or metamorphosis) of newspapers, and the evolution of journalism, but maybe we should talk more about skill outsourcing. 

Ink-stained reporters and editors used to be the true gatekeepers of information, able to amplify or suppress stories, scandals, and secrets simply by printing information or not. 

This is obviously no longer the case, as Twitter, Facebook, CNN iReporters, bloggers, hobbyists–you name it–have all become some form of news agent. I am reluctant to use the term “journalist” to describe some of these actors, or “journalism” to describe what they do, because these terms are something special to me…a journalist. 

I have proudly called myself a journalist after mixing in different media, paying my dues, to learn what responsibility and influence a microphone or notepad can have.  It is true many types of people can report events, but are they all journalists? 

The Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride said news organizations (and their journalists) can provide needed context to information, when the role of gatekeeper has been changed or abolished.  She was specifically commenting on the ‘manifesto’ of a still-at-large LAPD “renegade cop,” but I think the observation of a market-driven change in what journalists do and are is important.

Just as journalism has been facing epic transformations, my views of the industry have soured.  It is not breaking news to say a journalist is disappointed in journalism–it is almost a honed skill to complain about the decline of quality in between the rare journalistic triumphs. 

But I am ever more bruised by the realization that what I learned about journalism, and have come to identify as the ideals supposedly supported by my noble profession, may no longer hold true most of the time. 

And the tasks, duties, and truly ‘noble’ parts of journalism, are often outsourced to other professions or industries, only to be reported on after-the-fact by journalists.

And if journalists are not the ones doing the true journalistic work any more, then is there any reason to defend journalism as a profession?  Or just journalism as a craft practiced by anyone?

Outsourcing labor

Evidence of ‘journalistic outsourcing’ goes beyond the idea that newsrooms rely ever more frequently on “citizen journalists” to feed the insatiable 24-hour news cycle. 

Even though using iReporters is a cheap way to gather anecdotal information without investing true resources to an issue, it is not my main concern.  I feel the outsourcing goes deeper. 

It struck me a few months ago when I realized my Facebook feed was filled with increasingly erroneous nonsense, usually in the form of un- or wrongly-attributed quotes about something timely.  I would hope folks would question whether Morgan Freeman’s alleged political rhetoric after a shooting tragedy was legit before sharing, or check whether George Washington really made a powerful defense of gun rights.

In seeing these items I found myself going to one website more often than others: snopes.com, a well-known myth busting website.  While the site tackles often unimportant myths, it also has information of genuine journalistic interest, like analysis of Swiss gun culture in the wake of gun rights groups citing the country as a model.  Dispelling rumors or affirming truths is a role of news organizations, and I produced my own look into Swiss gun culture

The differences are clear: snopes cites Wikipedia, and I spoke with experts, but snopes probably gets more web traffic, and more people will look there for answers first, compared to ‘traditional’ news sites.

The wave of “fact-checkers” is also an example of outsourcing journalistic endeavors.  Many news organizations are considered to hold an institutional or ideological bias, and thus an “independent” fact-checking unit, or non-profit organization, must now rate the truthfulness of politicians or decision makers.  This used to just be journalism.  Now it is something special…which itself is increasingly under-fire for not being fair enough.

Non-profits or NGOs telling their stories

But perhaps the most interesting example of journalists not doing the journalism can be seen with non-governmental organizations, or intergovernmental bodies (UN agencies.)  NGOs and UN agencies increasingly contract or staff media experts (former journalists) to document humanitarian crises or tragic realities with photographs, podcasts, videos, or text. 

Traditional reporters (say someone sitting in a large newspaper) then gets a press release about the NGO’s work, and s/he writes an article about that work about something else. What has happened here is the “journalist” at the news organization is now just reporting on the reporting of an NGO. 

Which person is producing the most-journalistic work?  Is this outsourcing journalistic duty?

There are different shades to reporting, of course, but this short-cut of relying on NGOs is only the tip of a confusing ethical iceberg for journalists.  The New York Times photography blog looked at the issue of a certain symbiosis between reporters and NGOs in some interesting depth, and the issues extend to other media as well.

NGOs like to help journalists because they can have a hands-on opportunity to shape a story as it’s being written.  Journalists like NGOs because they facilitate access, and the efforts toward a more just and humanitarian reality are often in-sync with a journalist’s inner-voice. 

But NGOs have interests, and journalists are supposed to be independent, so the relationship can only go so far before problems arise.  Independence of news organizations is ever more often sacrificed for access and content, though, especially in conflict zones.

Who do you serve, and why?

I, as I hope many other journalists, have held myself to an incredibly high standard for identifying and suppressing bias in my reporting. 

Some journalists like to argue no reporter is objective–because our thoughts and judgement are influenced by our experiences and education–but I believe we can exercise a prudent objectivity in the reporting and information-gathering phase of journalism. 

We can make efforts to fully understand a perspective, and gather as much information as possible, before evaluating the full-picture and distilling the information into an article or feature. 

I don’t expect all of my sources or interview subjects to like my stories when I finish, but I do want to represent their points of view correctly and give their perspective a public hearing. 

This crucial information gathering and distillation are the tasks which I probably consider most important for a journalist, and those who do it can proudly call themselves journalists.

But the outsourcing of information gathering, and the reliance on others to get the bare basics of reporting, means the journalist is cheapened in our society. 

Some work of NGOs, and of the UN agencies, seems on par with work from respected media outlets in terms of comprehensiveness and context.  Other materials from organizations clearly have a motive…but so do articles in certain newspapers. 

So is journalism the holy ground of noble men and women?  I am doubting it more and more each day. 

There are brilliant and inspiring journalists in our world.  But I am realizing those people are not necessarily working for media outlets.  Journalism is not disappearing, but the quality is shifting to other industries or organizations.

Something I, and many journalists, have tossed about is whether one can leave “journalism” on a full-time basis, and yet return with one’s unquestionable ethics still intact.  There is often a belief journalists would return to a newsroom dirtied by whatever industry they explored. (often as a PR flack) 

The Poynter Institute’s Butch Ward made the best case for allowing an exit from journalism I have read.  He worked for a health insurer after a long journalism career, and considered what an organization would have to be or represent for him to go there.  It would need to be engaged in work impacting the community in a meaningful way, and he would need to be comfortable with the company values, he said. 

I feel this consideration means a journalist must stay true to a moral and civic responsibility, and not necessarily to a journalistic “objectivity.” (though I would make an effort at that, too)

Many newspapers offer less and less value as they drop experienced staffers for newbies.  TV networks are increasingly out for entertainment more than context and depth in reporting, and even less are they interested in paying for foreign coverage if not from mostly stringers. 

Radio is still strong at the moment with some successes seen with NPR, for example, though it also appeals to the “hip” masses a little too hard sometimes. 

But the BBC has had its share of budgetary trouble, and is still restructuring to find something sustainable and quality. 

The only place journalism seems to be thriving is in the Middle East, as oil-rich nations jockey for international prestige through news reporting.

While generally I think the quality of news is eroding, and it is harder to get depth and context, the quality coverage has not disappeared all together.  It has instead moved to other actors, be they NGOs, governments, or companies. 

Because traditional media outlets are so polarized and increasingly political, I find it hard to brand media work from those NGOs, etc as more bias or slanted than those from media outlets themselves. 

We as citizens need to ask ourselves if we are comfortable with this shift of quality content to third-parties, removing trained journalists from newsrooms and putting them in NGOs or IGOs.  If we are, then news outlets have more problems than they now realize. 

If we are not comfortable with this shift–this outsourcing–then we need to demand drastically more investment and quality from our news outlets.

There will always be journalism.  It is up to us to decide how good, and how plentiful, we wish it to be.

One Reply to “‘Journalistic Outsourcing:’ Not the journalism I grew up with..”

  1. Tony: I’m coming to this post quite belatedly, via a Facebook conversation you and I are having about a report I’ve done on fact-checking (http://bit.ly/factcheckthis) — a topic you also mention here.

    I use the term “citizen journalist” with some reluctance (in the same way I privately prefer “truth-squadding” or “truth-testing” over “fact-checking”). While generally accepted as a term of art in our business, citizen journalism as used these days combines what I think of as two acts — “citizen reporting” (which some citizens in fact do) and “citizen sourcing” (which is nothing new but increasingly powerful and useful).

    Feidin Santana was very brave to use his phone to make his video recording of the recent police shooting in North Charleston, S.C., and share it publicly. But he shared it via the New York Times. To me, that’s sourcing — not reporting. Even if he had posted his video to YouTube, I’d still have thought of it as sourcing. To me, reporting and “journalism” is the verification, explanation and analysis that follows. The distinction in no way belittles the videos importance, but it better describes its role in our collective information consciousness. And yet I know that language and usage evolves, and so citizen journalism now combines both sourcing and reporting. (Hard for me to think of Daniel Ellsberg as a citizen journalist, but I suspect that’s how he’d be labeled these days.)

    As for fact-checking, the conclusion of my full report talk’s about how fact-checkers need to apply a little citizen journalism to what they do (http://bit.ly/1HlOq7t). But you’ll recognize that what I’m really talking about is citizen sourcing.

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