Citizen journalism cautioned

Speaking at the Whitney Humanities Center on Monday, journalist Farai Chideya said emerging forms of media such as blogs and Twitter feeds have opened up journalism to ordinary citizens and allowed human rights activists to organize supporters. But she cautioned that online technology is not without negative consequences to journalism as a professional pursuit.

“A lot of people hate the media and complain about the media,” she said. “Well, now’s your chance to grab the bossy stick. If you don’t like what you see, there are more opportunities than ever to produce what you see.”

The talk, “Be the Media You Want to See: How Social Media and Citizen Journalism Are Changing the World,” drew an audience of about 40. In addition to discussing the advantages of “citizen journalism,” Chideya said there is still a need for professional investigative reporting. And, she said, the journalism industry must work on coming up with a new business model to generate revenue in an online world where people increasingly get their information for free.

Experienced in a variety of journalistic media, Chideya has hosted National Public Radio’s “News and Notes,” maintains the blog PopandPolitics.com and provides political commentary for networks such as CNN, Fox News, BET and HBO. But despite her connections to mainstream media outlets, Chideya said everyday people have more opportunities than ever to become an active part of the media.

“Citizen journalism” can serve as a vehicle for human rights activism, Chideya said. She cited the outcry against the imprisonment of the Jena Six, a group of African-American students from Jena, La., accused of attempted murder of a white classmate in 2006. Web sites such as ColorofChange.org helped to digitally organize physical protests, Chideya said, adding that this kind of “net-roots” organizing has the power to produce large physical turnouts.

Still, the growth of online media created by everyday citizens may be at odds with the survival of journalism as a profession, Chideya said. Well-researched investigative reporting holds people accountable for their actions, she said, whether in political elections or in the aftermath of disasters such as Katrina. Chideya said professional journalists, more than online authors, are able to maintain relationships with sources and continue to report on issues that may have fallen out of the public eye.

The “free” nature of online content may also threaten professional journalists’ salaries, Chideya said. As the number of online contributors increases, she said she expects a decline in the number of full-time, paid professional journalists. She added that many of her colleagues have become part-time journalists, paying their bills by taking on other jobs.

“As a journalist who likes to pay her rent, there’s been an undermining of the paying media model,” Chideya said. “What is desperately needed are revenue models for compensating [online] creators.”

The audience was composed of people from both Yale and the greater Connecticut area. Fittingly, Woodbridge, Conn., blogger and computer consultant Alan Hynes, 50, streamed the talk live and Tweeted throughout the presentation.

An unpaid blogger, Hynes said he thinks Chideya touched on important issues.

“I thought she was right on point,” Hynes said. “How people get paid is an issue, and the implications for investigative and beat reporting are really important.”

Chideya’s talk was sponsored by Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, an initiative that also brought Tom Brokaw to campus earlier this fall.

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