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Citizen News 2.0: Careful with the Stones!

June 22, 2009

The rapid growth of social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter and online information sources such as Wikipedia are revolutionizing the dissemination and availability of information. The number of Bloggers worldwide is exploding so quickly that estimates are unreliable. At one level some of the criticism aimed at these media, and blogging in particular, is justified: professional journalists who heap scorn on them because now anyone can have their 15 Andy Warhol minutes of fame. Yet the lack of rigour in writing (and fact checking), journalists argue, makes the content of their writings suspect.

One well known and respected journalist who has been vocal about blogging is 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer. In a recent interview, he stated that he trusts citizenship journalism as much as he’d trust citizenship surgery. Cute analogy, Morley, but you flatter yourself. Journalists don’t have anywhere near the same impact as surgeons do on the health of people. Perhaps, he would say the same about citizen pilots, nurses, firefighters, etc.

It is instructive to reflect on the numerous instances in the past where so-called professional journalists with major news organizations were later exposed for creating false news stories. When it comes to a lack of ethics and competence, professional journalists should remember that they, too, live in glass houses. Careful with the stones.

I agree with the importance of content accuracy when writing. But would I prefer to turn back the clock to the good old oligopolistic days when a small group of media organizations controlled the news, and when information was distributed on their schedules, not that of the consumer? Not a chance. We’re in the infancy stage of a new reordering of what, when, how and where people receive information and news. The most powerful and recent example of where blogging and Twitter, for example, have demonstrated their contribution to society is what is taking place in Iran. Yes, these new technologies have a lot of growing up to do, but think back to the late 1800s with the advent of the internal combustion engine.

As an economist I believe in consumer choice. Just as people will support media sources that meet their needs, the same applies to the blogosphere and new social technologies. Already, major news organizations are encouraging citizens to submit their ideas and stories. The CBC calls this “user-generated content,” but you get the drift.

At the core of this trend towards the democratization of information is self-empowerment, in which people take the initiative to express their views, synthesize and share information and, in extreme cases, risk their lives to get information to the outside world. The allegations that social networking technologies are callow and aimless are now being challenged by world events that would be otherwise mostly unreported.

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