April 15, 2008

Citizen Journalists

Swirling behind the debate over Obama's "bitter" comments is an interesting story about the person who publicized the comments. Mayhill Fowler, an Obama supporter, attended the fundraiser where Obama made the contested comments. The event was a "no press" affair but many attendees recorded his remarks on cell phones and other devices. In our high-tech age, that's easy to do--and the event organizers made no attempt to stop the recordings.

Fowler then publicized the remarks through her page on "Off the Bus," a segment of the Huffington Post that combines the work of amateur journalists with those of pros. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/off-the-bus/. From that portal, the story leaped into both the blogosphere and the mainstream press.

The Obama campaign has not attacked Fowler or questioned her right to publicize the remarks she recorded. Obama and his staff surely didn't intend for the remarks to become so public, but they're savvy enough to know that there's no privacy when handheld devices are whirring. And they're honorable enough to refrain from cheap attacks on Fowler.

But Jay Rosen, cofounder of Off the Bus, recently discussed the ethics of Fowler's report. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jay-rosen/the-uncharted-from-off-th_b_96575.html. It's an interesting analysis, touching on differences between "citizen journalists" like Fowler and more traditional journalists. Fowler, for example, contributes financially to Obama's campaign--a no-no among regular journalists. The relationship between Fowler and the Obama campaign, Rosen suggests, falls in "uncharted" territory.

But Fowler's reporting disturbs me, not because of the differences between her and professional journalists, but because of the similarities between her and the mainstream press. Like so much of what we read these days, Fowler's report was "gotcha" journalism.

Other discusisons of the now infamous fundraiser show that Obama said a number of interesting and complex things. Another attendee, for example, published this report in the wake of Fowler's story: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-coleman/i-was-there-what-obama-re_b_96553.html.

Fowler's story didn't attempt to discuss these nuances; she went for the sensationalism. And that's the way the story has played. Clinton and McCain, of course, greatly amplified the effect; gotcha journalism became gotcha stump speeches.

What troubles me is this: If we want to overcome the silliness of current media political coverage, how do we do it? Voters say they're tired of the stuff that the media are handing us. And in a world of gotcha politics and journalism, it's hard for a candidate to offer any serious discusison of issues; there's too much chance of creating a bad sound bite. If we want to change the politics, we have to change the reporting.

One possible answer is citizen journalism. But how do we avoid the citizen journalists falling into the same traps as the professional ones? Can we create a code of ethics, or at least an ethic of reflection, for citizen journalists? All of us who send our thoughts out into the world should realize that the things we say help shape the climate of discussion. On that note, I start my own adventure blogging....

Deborah Debuts

I am honored to join the discussion at Merrittocracy, a blog by the chatty Merritt family. I have been a law professor for almost 25 years, so I have lots of experience talking. And for the last two decades, I have been trying to keep up with the questions, comments, and ideas of my son Daniel--originator of this blog.

I hope to blog about lots of things, but my current obsession is the Democratic primary race. We live on the edge of The Ohio State University campus, where I teach, so I spend my days surrounded by students. I'm intrigued by the shifting face of politics, the attitudes of student voters, and the prospects of this new millenium. Now off to blogging!